Last week, I was invited to give a talk at the Ethical Society of St Louis on the topic of desire.
Desire? I thought. When the world is falling apart, they want me to talk about desire?
And then I found this. . .
So, whenever I'm ontologically stumped, I have a few go-to friends. Rilke is one of them -- since I was about twenty.
When I read this quote, I made it into this pretty picture, and then looked at it every day. Because I was pretty sure it would tell me everything I needed to know about why I had been asked to speak about desire at this exact moment in time.
But it's not just Rilke's poetry that has soothed me over the years. It's also Rilke's patience. Sometimes Rilke would sit for years on end waiting for "the muse" to come and download his poems.
Years! Like many many many years. . .
Now Rilke didn't start out as some stoical saint. He was an impatient and impetuous and ambitious young man. But something happened: He found he couldn't force the words to come. He had to learn patience.
For most of us, learning patience does not come easily. But as we gradually begin to make the intimate acquaintance of deep and abiding patience, her friendship always proves life-changing.
I have learned many things over these past two-plus years of intentional homelessness. Patience has certainly been one of the most rewarding. It is my newfound experience of patience that allows me, in some small measure, to glean what Rilke is on about when he exhorts his own heart to put aside every desire.
Because let's face it, can any of us read this quote and not immediately try to Clarence Darrow in a few asterisks and exceptions to the rule? Put aside EVERYTHING? Like Zappos and dark chocolate? Idris Elba and Cate Blanchett?
Fortunately, just as I was trying to wheedle Rilke into accepting a few small changes on my behalf, I happened to be attending a small seminar with Father Richard Rohr where he said this to us: Scientists tell us that we live in an ever-expanding infinite universe. Scientists also tell us that our human brains cannot even begin to comprehend the idea of infinity.
The moment he said that, I broke into a huge grin. Of course we can't, I thought. And isn't that the whole problem right there?! Our human minds cannot comprehend the basic fact of our existence: We are infinite beings living in an infinitely expanding infinite universe. . .of LOVE!
That grin sent me right back to Rilke -- and suddenly it all made sense.
Let my heart put aside its every desire, he says, so that it can grow used to its farthest spaces. Those farthest spaces that are constantly expanding outward in this infinitely expanding infinite universe of infinite Love.
And why should we do this?
Better that it live fully aware in the terror of its stars than AS IF protected, SOOTHED by what is near.
Well, isn't that desire in a nutshell?
Desire begins from a belief in lack. We feel a void and desire seeks to fill it with someone, something, some outcome that will make us feel soothed by what is near. As if protected.
BUT if we can have the courage to put aside those desires and let our hearts experience themselves not as separate from one another, isolated and alone, needing to be soothed and protected, then we can feel the tiniest inkling of what it means to live in an infinitely-expanding infinite universe of Infinite Love.
And why does that matter?
This is why:
Every day we read about something horrible, horrifying, horrendous happening on our planet. And we know that young people are growing up in a world that seems to be falling apart all around them. The one thing, the only thing, that can change that world is if we show up in the infinite love that is inside us all in this infinitely-expanding infinite universe of Infinite Love -- and begin to love ourselves, one another, and this planet back whole.
After I finished my talk last Sunday, there were two kinds of responses. A wash of love and gratitude for these hopeful words.
AND straight-up cynicism.
One woman came over to me and asked, "What do you read?"
"Well," I began, "I read a lot of different kinds of things."
"Philosophy?" she said.
"Sure," I said.
"Because do you read about what's going on the world? How is love going to help that?"
"Um," I said, "I really think that love is the ONLY thing that can help what's going on in the world."
She gave me the kind of look that you might give to a teenage girl fantasizing about marrying Justin Bieber. Clearly she thought I was delusional -- or at the very least throwing a lot of pink paint on top of the world's problems in the hopes that I could pretty them away with a few heart emojis.
But that's not the kind of love either Rilke or I are talking about. This is the kind of unselfed love that puts others first, that cares about the world more than our next pair of shoes, that shows up in love when someone yells at you at a traffic light or tries to find a way to help when something feel really really wrong in the world.
This is the kind of love that takes us out of the tiny cosmos of our own desires and shows up in belief that the infinite power of Infinite Love is the only REAL power there is.
I LOVE this quote by Michael Gerson, so I made it into another pretty picture that I carry around with me too.
Gerson NAILS it.
When we are willing to put aside every desire and let our hearts grow used to our farthest spaces, we automatically extend the grace we have been shown in love, by love, through love over and over again throughout our lives. We begin to live as though we inhabit an infinitely-expanding infinite universe of Infinite Love -- and so ACT ON A VISION OF HUMANITY IN WHICH WE ARE ALL EQUALLY LOVED BY, AS, THROUGH, IN DIVINE LOVE.
That's no pink paint people. Truly.
Because, as Rilke pointed out, none of us are going to do this without feeling the terror of our stars. But it's The Way. Love is the Way. Love is the only Way.
Live as if we are loved.
As if we are Love.
And so love this world, one another, and ourselves back whole.