By Bryan Sickbert
As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
Rainer Maria Rilke
This first stanza of Rilke’s poem “Once the Winged Energy of Delight,” is my favorite piece of verse. Last week, the first retreat of the CHHSM Nollau Institute class of 2014 concluded. The closing ritual was designed around a familiar quote from spiritualist Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
Williamson’s words immediately brought Rilke to mind and I began to muse about the ways in which we fear our own possibility.
We are created as beings who know instinctively how to move, how to adapt to our environments and how to collaborate with one another so that we may survive and even thrive in the midst of the great fears which life involves. We all did this as children when perhaps our fears were most acute, and less easily rationalized away or suppressed. As adults in this modern world, we have worked hard to subjugate our instinct for the saving grace of the “winged energy of delight” and now we often find that we must work to learn that which was once instinctive for ourselves and even for whole cultures. I suspect the hope of recovering our “winged energy” is precisely why we come together in learning communities such as the Nollau Institute. We are looking to reappropriate our individual and community instincts – or, if you prefer, souls – in ways that liberate us from the fear of fully exercising our human vocation.
The Irish theologian and poet John O’Donahue asserts that a real leader is someone who awakens individuals to possibilities that they don’t see. The later stanzas of Rilke’s poem name and interpret this paradox:
Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.
We are not in control of anything. In those times when we are able to confess that we are not in control, fear often takes over – we often feel that we are facing a dark abyss. The natural spiritual energy which is God’s birthright to all creatures feels as if it has been drained from us. We are tempted to despair that achievement is beyond us. And that is precisely Rilke’s point, that truly wondrous achievement is beyond our individual control. We all know that just about any great achievement has as much to do with timing as anything else. But Rilke is saying that timing is not luck, but grace. It is the sign of the hand of God in our strivings.
To work with things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.
To understand that we are not in control, that achievement is as much a function of grace as human effort, does not mean we are without capability. We possess a marvelous capacity to work with complex things or issues, which are intertwined in relationships, which are even more complex. We have the gift to work to sort out that which is needed to move forward. But engaging this gift can be an even more frightening prospect than the knowledge that we are not ultimately in charge. The light of our possibility and the possibility of others barely flickers in the shadows in our fearful knowledge that ultimately we are working within a creation mystery that is properly the object of worship, not management science.
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions, for the god
wants to know herself in you.
It may seem as paradox to us that our considerable gifted abilities, our powers, are essentially insufficient. But this is only because our fears have prevented us stretching our powers far enough. Our fears are triggered when it appears that things are getting out of control. Our achievements are not for nothing, but too often we hold on to them so tightly that they become sources of separation and further complexity. We do not see that what we achieve as individuals and/or as organizations contributes to a universe of achievements in the human community which have been granted by God, often in spite of our arrogant efforts to claim them for ourselves. Instead, we want our accomplishments to set us apart in the hope that through separation more control might accrue to us. And so that which should bring us together in thanksgiving serves to polarize. So the true paradox, the contradiction that Rilke names, is not that God has teased us with too little power. The contradiction is of our own making. We have created the illusion that through separation and control we can hold together the tension between security and risk. But in these attempts to make life secure and predictable, we have created more polarities – polarities between races, men and women, rich and poor, management and workers. As polarities increase and the fear grows, we are prompted to ever more delusional attempts at control. And so this futile obsession with individual and organizational self-reliance tears constantly at the soul of human community, until our winged energy is hardly recoverable.
But these contradictions, these delusional polarities, dissolve in God. God may dwell in us when we exercise the power we have instinctually to embrace mystery rather than rail against contradiction. When we understand our own significance lies in doing the work of life, not in the effort to attribute the results of that work to ourselves or our organizations, then we can align the work we do with the work of life – work which unifies rather than separates, work which serves as contribution to community rather than gratification for the individual. This work can only happen in organizations, in human communities. It is work that, in Williamson’s words: “makes manifest the glory of God that is within us.”