What Will You Do, God, When I Die?

What Will You Do, God, When I Die?

June 09, 2014

When I visited Mont St. Michel in France for the first time, it was raining. It was a tough, humid walk up the steep ascent to the monastery and abbey crowning the top of the mount – we passed restaurants and shops loud with tourists on the way to the medieval cloister. At the top, my hair was soaking wet, water dripping down my face. Before I entered the abbey gates, I looked up through ancient trees to a sky where St. Michael the Archangel had, as the legend goes, cast the devil thrashing down into the sea. Yet, now, it was so quiet, the noise from the tourists below receded. It was just I entering this sacred space. I felt naked – I’m not one who often feels God. This distance from God feels like an absence of stars.

I was reminded of Rainer Maria Rilke, who had visited Russia, and then on his return (in the persona of a Russian cloistered monk who wrote what was most real to him after being summoned by a bell) wrote 67 poems over 25 days that would make up the first part of The Book of Hours. He called them prayers – they were Rilke’s reciprocal conversations with God, where God needed Rilke to behold him, to make him (the divine) real. One of the most moving lines for me among these poems is, “What will you do, God, when I die?” It’s both humbling and empowering to think that as God consoles us, he needs us to console him as well.

At Mont St. Michel, I had a tangible experience (God, is that you moving like thunder across the field of my heart?) of feeling closer to God than I ever had before, and then it faded – it’s a struggle that I have, and that I think many of us have. How do we feel God moving in our heart? How do we behold Him? And, if we’ve connected with the divine, how do we hold on to that transformed landscape of our lives, as we return to the quotidian? Rilke wrote in his journal as he was writing the poems in The Book of Hours: “I have begun my life.” And yet, he still struggled to feel or recapture that relationship with an invisible God throughout his life.

As writers, we’re often asked how we write. What is your process? How did you write this poem? I’m often not sure what to say. Does it sound silly to say, “The poem moved through me, like a wind”? Or how about, “I felt like I was channeling an experience. I was pulling from the undifferentiated chaos around me and channeling it into a poem, into a space that you, the reader, also could enter”? Obviously, poets can deconstruct the poems that they write, to give others a sense of how they created the piece, and the various rewrites and choices that they made. We can all do that with our work. But in general, does it make me a lesser poet that I cannot entirely articulate how it is that I write? The same way that it’s hard for me to tell you how I have experienced God bodily and distinctly, only a few, real times?

Poet Patty Dickson Pieczka, author of the collections Painting the Egret’s Echo and Lacing Through Time, says that she came to writing later in life, and notes in an essay that, as a more mature writer, she has been able to watch her craft evolve like a child learning to walk – “My first efforts were more long-winded, conversational, and sometimes more metered than they are now. They soon began to feel clumsy and oversized, and I tripped over the legs of them.”

Can she describe how it is that she writes? Can she show us her mind? Pieczka describes the way she writes – finding a starting image or color or sound, and letting the poem unfurl from that locus - but that process she describes feels to me more mystical, than a specific, ordered process you could imitate, like a recipe to make killer ribs:

“There’s a certain feeling of letting go, a kind of channeling that occurs when you’re really getting to the root of a poem. It’s often a surprise to see what appears on the page. The mystery of what one’s own mind creates is one of the most exciting aspects of writing. I told my dad about this channeling once, and he knew exactly what I meant. He said he and his friends called it ‘The Big Hand in the Sky.’ He said, ‘If I come up with a clunker it’s not my fault. The Big Hand wrote it!’”

After returning home from France, I wrote the following poem, and it did feel like “The Big Hand in the Sky” was directing the flow. Is it the best poem I’ve ever written? No. But like Rilke’s less ornate poem-prayers in The Book of Hours, it feels to me authentic to the experience that I had on the mount.

Mont. St. Michel

Close to the top of the mountain, away from the bars and pastries:

calvados, angel wings and seven-layer cakes, crowded stores

jangling with rosaries and metal jewelry, an ancient carved lamb

on a hotel’s lintel, you can’t feel the humid rain through trees, then in your hair,

down your neck and into dust-covered hands, without thinking of Michael

who plunged the devil into the thrashing sea here. The prayers we carry, our wants,

shimmer like moths in evening light. That devil who still says, I’ll give

you all this. Only, give me your heart. Climbing the wetted stone steps to the cathedral,

I consider Rilke who once abandoned himself – the monastery within him –

writing incantations: What will you do, God, when I die? Where will you exist?

As if this ageless God needed our love, needs me to behold him

to become beloved, real. Will you surround me, God? Encircle me? Herons’ cries,

and then you move between words, O Lord, like breath, like thought, like ghost. I’m a

pilgrim in my own life, searching for explanation to grief, what it’ll

yield – like these fat red buds, blooming out on a dry stick. Is this God, whose wind

swings a gate into this ancient fountain, its water speaking from centuries ago?

In this cloister, such a strange old paradise of mossy stone and gargoyles,

monks still turning over earth, I smell trees heavy with fruit, and sweet basil and oregano

in the herb garden. The face of this medieval angel is so human, eyes down, his curved

smile a little hopeful, wanting to trust. Into evening, I consider what lives I’ve wasted,

how I’ve insisted others love me too much, the crunch of fish bone between teeth.

Higher even, on this mount, a nun in her chamber bows her head to the floor

and gives thanks for her solitude, naming it. Still, the sound of distant bees, the heron’s

neck folded into sleep, mustard leaf, all parts of a new, living chant.

In 1922, poet Florence Ripley Mastin published a short, evocative poem, “From the Telephone”:

Out of the dark cup
Your voice broke like a flower.
It trembled, swaying on its taut stem.
The caress in its touch
Made my eyes close.

This poem is very similar to what Pieczka’s writing process (and mine and perhaps Rilke’s) feels like. There’s a voice entering our ears, our skin, permeating our hearts. If we listen to it, if we feel God stirring like dust moving under a bed, we can attempt to translate it into earthly language. I believe, like Rilke did, that if I write down what it is when I feel love or God, I can enter more fully into what he offers. Like Rilke, writes “But now I see you:/ wind, woods, and water,/ roaring at the rim of Christendom.” Writing is prayer. Prayer is reaching into the divine.

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