Go to the Limits of Your Longing

by Hannah the Zebra

Last weekend we performed one of Gwyneth Walker’s marvelous songs, God Speaks to Us. The text is one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems from his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, and is, perhaps, my favorite of Gwyneth Walker’s compositions. Unfortunately I have been unable to find a YouTube performance of it, but the translation that Gwyneth Walker uses is the one by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

The line that has always stopped me, because it doesn’t seem to fit, is “You will know it by it’s seriousness,” so I have looked up some other translations from the German. While the other translations that I have found do not flow as well, they have helped me get a better sense of what this line might mean. The two I have found that are the most helpful are

You will know it when you arrive/by how real it is 

You will know it when you arrive/by it’s absence of illusion (this translation is by Paul Weinfiled)

Life is real. Those of us with a PID, or any other chronic health condition for that matter, know this unequivocally. In many ways life for us is harsh and unforgiving. And we certainly have few illusions left about the reality of our lives. Yet I still believe that we are called to “Go to the limits of our longing.”

But what does that mean, when our bodies will no longer do what they once did; when our lives are circumscribed by limitations of exhaustion, hours of infusions, side effects from medications, and concerns about how to pay for our medical care? Have the limits of our longing changed, or do they still flare up like a flame within us in the same form that they once did?