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Locating Truth in a Time of Darkness: Rilke’s “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”

I have a lot of work to do before the start of the fall semester. I teach a new course this year: American art to Penn State juniors and seniors. I am thrilled at the opportunity, but I am also in deep contemplation this week as the nation discusses the relationship between patriotism, free speech, racism, and public images. It is the latter that is most on my mind as I prepare to spend the next four months talking with young adults about the meaning of images in American society. I argue images have incredible impact upon the way we function in our world.

So, my thoughts are on images. Most of us were not in Charlottesville this weekend, but we are affected by what happened there in very deep ways. We see film footage and photographs on social media. We hear the arguments and calls for justice on the news. We make personal cries of despair in our own homes as our heart breaks – a festering national wound has opened once again. The phrase that comes to mind is, “We cannot look away.” It is not “We cannot stop listening.” In fact, it is our eyes that see evidence of the hate and violence we dread.

I am concerned with this semester not because I am afraid to talk to my students. In fact, I have all confidence that they will have profound insights into current events. I feel the weight of this course bearing down on my shoulders because I want it to be what they need it to be: a place to learn the tools necessary to make sense of the world around them.

With this in mind, my heart keeps drifting to a poem that has always lingered with me, though I do not feel like I understood its meaning until now. I want to share it with you.


Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower
by Rainer Maria Rilke
(From Sonnets to Orpheus II, Translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)

 Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself into wine. 

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there. 

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Follow this link to hear audio of this poem at OnBeing.

Who is the speaker?
Who is the friend? Is it you?
The most difficult line for me to work out is: be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, the meaning discovered there. I believe the solution is not something to know/figure out with our minds, but with our spirit. To me, it suggests the meditative mind and finding the place beyond distraction to locate the answer to the problem posed to us. At its essence, the poem implores us to take the burden that weighs so heavily upon our shoulders and turn it into something constructive. We will determine what that is by locating the truth that lies at the core of our being. This truth will propel us to right action and will be the moral compass we need to confront the thing that has caused such pain. We, in fact, are the bell that rings beyond the view of the bell tower.



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