Letters on God and Letters to a Young Woman


Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was an avid letter writer, and more than seven thousand of his letters have survived. The best-known collection today is Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, first published in 1929. Two other letter collections appeared around the same time and gained high acclaim among readers yet are virtually unknown today. They are Letters to a Young Woman (1930) and Letters on God (1933).

With this volume, Annemarie S. Kidder makes available to an ...

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Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) was an avid letter writer, and more than seven thousand of his letters have survived. The best-known collection today is Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, first published in 1929. Two other letter collections appeared around the same time and gained high acclaim among readers yet are virtually unknown today. They are Letters to a Young Woman (1930) and Letters on God (1933).

With this volume, Annemarie S. Kidder makes available to an English-speaking audience two of the earliest collections of Rilke letters published after his death. The thematic collection On God— here published in English for the first time—contains two letters by Rilke, the first an actual letter written during World War I, in 1915 in Munich, the second a fictional one composed after the war, in 1922 at Muzot, in Switzerland. In these letters, Rilke builds on the mystical view of God conceived of in The Book of Hours, but he moves beyond it, demonstrating a unique vision of God and Christ, the church and religious experience, friendship and death. The collection Letters to a Young Woman comprises nine of Rilke’s letters, written to a young admirer, Lisa Heise, over the course of five years, from 1919 to 1924. Though Rilke and Heise never met, Rilke emerges in these letters as the compassionate listener and patient teacher who with level-headed sensitivity affirms and guides the movements of another person’s soul.

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“If you wish, may these lines then from now on serve as a connection and rendezvous between us. I will be absent for a long time, but, if you like, always be present again, knowing, understanding the way I was allowed to be today for the first time.” —Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Woman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810127401
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 5/31/2012
  • Pages: 88
  • Sales rank: 959,862
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) is considered one of the German language’s greatest twentieth-century poets. Among other works, he wrote Duino Elegies, The Sonnets to Orpheus, and the novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Bilingual editions of Rilke’s The Book of Hours: Prayers to a Lowly God, Duino Elegies, and New Poems are published by Northwestern University Press.

Annemarie S. Kidder is a professor at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. The author and editor of numerous books, she is also the translator of The Mystical Way in Everyday Life (2010), a collection of spiritual writings by Karl Rahner; Pictures of God (2005), an anthology of Rilke’s religious poetry; and Rilke’s The Book of Hours: Prayers to a Lowly God (Northwestern, 2002).

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Letters on God and Letters to a Young Woman

By Rainer Maria Rilke

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 1933 Insel-Verlag, Leipzig
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2740-1

Chapter One


Munich Nov. 8, 1915

In so many ways, L.H., one could respond to your letter. Nearly each sentence of yours demands ten letters in reply. Not that one would have the answer to everything that is a question in it (and what in it is not a question?). But what you write are questions that have been repeatedly covered up by other questions or by what appeared to be more transparent under the influence of clearer questions, like a whole question dynasty. And who has ever answered them?

What is addressed in Malte Laurids Brigge, and what is endured there (and please forgive me for bringing up this book again given that it brought us together), is actually the very thing that is the subject here, considered from every angle, again and again, and in every respect: How is it possible to live life when its elements are totally incomprehensible to us? We are always insufficient in giving love, uncertain in making decisions, and powerless regarding death. How then can one truly live? I wrote the book with the deepest internal obligation to address these questions and wanted to write about my amazement over the fact that for millennia now people have been dealing with life and death, even with God, hence with these first, most immediate, and—strictly speaking—only tasks: for what else is there for us to do and who knows for how long we will have to be facing them in our helplessness, like beginners, standing between terror and excuse like the poor. Is this not incomprehensible? Whenever I allow myself to become aware of my surprise over this fact, I am forced into the greatest despair and later on into a sense of dread. But even beyond such dread lies something and then something beyond that, which has such great intensity that my intuition is unable to determine whether it is burning hot or ice-cold.

Years ago I tried to answer someone who had been frightened by the Malte book by saying that I, too, considered it at times like a hollow mold, like a photographic negative, whose furrows and indentations are pain, sadness, and painful acknowledgment; but that the cast of the mold, provided one could produce it (as with a bronze, the positive figure one makes from the cast), might perhaps be happiness, affirmation, the most concrete and secure blessedness. Who knows, I wonder, if we are not always entering life as if from behind the gods' backs, separated from their radiant faces by nothing else than their own bodies, from their expressions that we so long for, to which we are so close and yet behind which we are standing. But that can only mean that our faces and the face of God are looking in the same direction, are in agreement with each other. And so, how should we ourselves then face the space that lies before God?

Am I confusing you by using the word "God" and "gods" (just as with the word "spirit" or "spirits") for the sake of inclusiveness and under the assumption that you, too, might be able to make immediate associations? Please try to accept the supernatural. Let us agree that since their earliest beginnings people have formed gods who here and there contained only what was dead and threatening, what was destructive and terrorizing, what was violence, anger, supernatural stupor, as if all equally strung together into a dense and evil knot. In short, one acknowledged the strange, if you will, saying one was aware of it, endured it, and even recognized a certain mysterious kinship and association with it: one was part of it, but did not know how to deal with these experiential facets of life. They were too big, too dangerous, too complex, and they grew far beyond oneself and assumed immense importance. Apart from the many challenges of an existence geared toward utility and performance, it was impossible to carry steadily along these other circumstances too, cumbersome and incomprehensible as they were. Hence, it was agreed to occasionally bracket them out. After all, they were an extra, the most powerful, the too powerful, the enormous, the forceful, the incomprehensible, the often ominous. And when thus gathered into one place, why would and should they not make themselves felt in their influence, effect, power, superiority? But now as if from outside ourselves. Could one not see the history of God like that: as if it were that side of the human condition that was never visited, always put off, saved up for later, and eventually missed out on altogether, a side that had demanded its own time, its own decision and determination; but now that it had been exiled to another place, it produced such tension that the individual heart, continually distracted and stingily applied, could hardly withstand it?

You see, that is how it was with death also. Death is experienced and yet we are not experiencing it in its true nature, ever growing taller than we are and yet never quite acknowledged by us, injuring the meaning of life and yet surpassing it from the start. Therefore, death too was exiled, pushed outside, so it would not constantly interrupt us as we were looking for life's meaning, this death that is most likely so close to us that we are incapable of measuring its distance from our very own soul. Death became something external that was to be kept at bay daily; it lurked somewhere out there in empty space so as to attack one or the other person in a malicious, haphazard way. Suspicion mounted against death for being the adversary of all adversaries, the invisible opposite out there in space, the one who brings our joys to an end, the dangerous glass of our happiness out of which we could be spilled at any moment.

Both God and death were now outside, were the other, while inside was our life, which at the cost of such an exclusion began to look human, familiar, possible, manageable, completely our own. But since this newly established and so-called beginner's version of life, this preliminary course, did not integrate and teach a great many things and did not allow one to strictly distinguish between the problems solved and those temporarily skipped, one made even in this shortened version no straightforward and reliable progress; instead, one ended up living from sum totals of which some were true, others false. Based on the end result, one had to recognize that the main mistake had been the presupposition that served as the foundation for this tentative construct of existence. By subtracting God and death from any applied interpretation of life's meaning, by regarding them as being not of this world, coming later, residing elsewhere, being different, one had accelerated the smaller cycle of the here and now. What is called progress became the happening of a self-enclosed world which had forgotten that, already from the start, it stood surpassed by death and by God, no matter how hard it tried.

If one had been able to relegate God and death to the province of mere ideas and mind constructs, a type of meditation could have been the result. But nature knew nothing of the repression we had somehow managed to achieve. When a tree begins to bud, both death and life spring up in it. The field is full of death, pushing away the rich expression of life by its fallow face, and the animals walk patiently from one to the other. All around us, death is still at home, and from between the cracks of things it observes us, and a rusty nail, somewhere protruding from a board, does nothing but look forward to death day and night.

Even love, which mixes up the numbers among people so as to introduce a game of proximities and distances where we always act as if the universe were full and no other room left but in us, even love does not respect our divisions, but pulls us, trembling ones, into a never-ending awareness of the whole. For lovers do not subsist on the segregated this-worldly life. Rather, they appropriate the entire immense wealth of their hearts as if no separation had ever been made. One can say about them that God becomes food for them and that death does not harm them: for they are full of death by being full of life.

But we must not talk about experience here, for that is a mystery, neither one closed off against the world nor one that demands to be hidden away. Rather, it is a mystery that is secure in itself, is wide open like a temple, whose doors take pride in being an entrance and whose columns are singing about being a portal.

In returning to your letter, one will have to ask how to do it, preparing ourselves for the experience that one day will meet us in human relationships, at work, through suffering, an experience for which we cannot be only vaguely prepared because the experience itself is very precise, so much so that it may meet us head-on, never as an accident. You yourself have discovered several paths of learning, and one can see that you have walked them attentively and thoughtfully. Consequently the shake-ups you mention did solidify you, rather than burying you. As far as I can, I should like to support your thinking about death, both its biological side (by referring you to Wilhelm Fliess and his rather remarkable research: I will be glad to send you a little Fliess book in the next few days) and by referring you to some remarkable people who have thought about death in a rather pure, quiet, and exceptional way. To begin with there is Tolstoy.

There is a story by him called "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." On the evening that I received your letter, I felt the strong urge to reread these extraordinary pages. And so I did and, while thinking of you, I almost read to you these lines out loud. This story is contained in the seventh volume of Tolstoy's collected works, published by Eugen Diederichs, along with "Walk While It Is Light" and "Lord and Servant." Do you have access to this book? I hope you have access to much of his work, such as the two volumes on "Stages of Life," "Cossacks," "Polikuschka," "Linen Measurer," and "Three Deaths." His enormous ability to experience nature (I hardly know another person who was so passionately connected with nature) enabled him to an amazing degree to think and write from the perspective of the whole, from an experience of life that was so permeated by a most evenly distributed death that it appeared to be contained in everything, as a unique spice added to the strong taste of life. And precisely because of it, this man could become so deeply and utterly frightened upon realizing that somewhere there was this pure death, the bottle containing death or this ugly cup with its broken handle and meaningless inscription "Faith, hope, love," from which someone was forced to drink the bitterness of undiluted death. Since being an observer of his own fear was natural to him, he observed in himself and others many forms of deathly fear. Hence, his relationship with death must have been a magnificently matured fear all the way to the end, a connecting link, an immense construct, a tower of fear with hallways and stairways and ledges without railing and with precipices on all sides. Only that possibly at the last minute, this strength by which he experienced and admitted to the effort such fear took, transformed into distant reality and suddenly became this tower's safe flooring to him, a landscape and heaven, and the wind and flying birds.


If I were a young worker, I would have written you perhaps the following:

At a gathering last Thursday, someone read to us from your poetry, Mr. V., and it affected me, so that I know no other way than to write to you about what I am thinking, as much as I am able to do so.

The day after said reading I accidentally attended a Christian gathering, and perhaps this was the true reason for the emotional spark, so that I am now headed in its direction with all my might. It takes enormous force to start something. I cannot start. I always skip over what should be the start. Nothing is as strong as silence. If we had not been born into the midst of speech, the silence would never have been broken.

Mr. V., I am not talking about the evening that your verses were read. I am talking about the other one. I feel compelled to say: who, well, I cannot express it any differently, who is this Christ that is meddling in everything? He did not know anything about us, about our work, about our misery, about our joy and the ways in which we work, suffer, and summon joy, yet who seemingly and persistently demands of us to make him first in our life. Or is this only being put in his mouth? What does he want from us? He wants to help us, one says. Yes, but he certainly acts rather helpless when around us. The conditions of his time were so very different from ours. Or is it not really a matter of historical conditions, so that if he entered my room here or the factory there, would then everything be alright? Would my heart make a leap and continue beating in a different shift, so to speak, always headed toward him? My feeling tells me that he cannot come, that it would make no sense. Not only are the externals of this world different, but the world has no door that would allow him access. He could not shine through a store-bought jacket; certainly, he would not shine through it. It is no accident that he walked about in a robe that had no seams, and I believe that the core of light in him, that which made him look so strong day and night, has long dissolved and been differently allocated. But I think given how great he was, one could have expected of him no less; namely, that he would somehow dissolve without any residue, without any kind of trace, undetectable.

I cannot believe that the cross was meant to remain; rather, it was to mark the crossroads. It certainly was not meant to be something to brand us everywhere. It should have dissolved in him. Is it not something like this: he wanted to simply create a taller tree on which we could more easily mature. He on the cross is this new tree in God, and we were to be warm, happy fruit at its top.

One should not always talk about the previous but should start with what comes afterward. It seems to me that this tree should become one with us or we with it and through it, so we need no longer concern ourselves with it but solely with God by remaining in him more purely and doing what Christ's ultimate intent was.

When I say the word "God," I do so with great conviction and not by rote. It seems to me that people use this word without thought, even if doing so from deep pensiveness. It may be well and good if this Christ should have helped us say the word in a firmer, fuller, more convinced tone of voice; but let us put a stop to involving him all the time. Let us not always feel forced to return to the hardship and sorrow he had to endure to "save" us, as you would call it. Let us finally start living this salvation. Otherwise the Old Testament would be at an advantage since, no matter where one reads in it, it is full of index fingers pointing to God, and one always finds someone who, upon growing heavy, falls straight into God. And once when I tried reading the Koran, I understood, in spite of my not getting very far into it, that there again is a powerful index finger and God stands where it is pointing to, ever in the process of his eternal rising in the east, which is never depleted. Surely Christ wanted the same. But people here were like dogs that do not comprehend the meaning of an index finger and think they have to snap at the hand. Instead of walking out into the night of sacrifice on the crossroads where now the signpost of the cross had been erected, instead of continuing to walk along this pathway of the cross, Christians have settled beneath it and have insisted that they are living there in Christ, even though in him there was no room, not even for his mother and not for Mary Magdalene, just as there is no room in anybody else who is merely pointing, who is gesture and not a place in which to settle.

For this reason, they do not really live in Christ, these people whose hearts are so stubborn and who are always reproducing him and are drawing their existence from erecting these crooked or completely windblown crosses. They will have to answer for the crowdedness there, this waiting around in a crowded place; they bear the guilt for the fact that the journey has not proceeded in the direction to which the crossbars are pointing. They have turned the Christian faith into a trade, a middle-class occupation, sur place, into a pond that alternates between being drained and being filled up again. Everything they themselves do according to their irrepressible nature, provided there is still some life left in them, stands in contrast to this construct of theirs, so that they continually muddy their own waters and then repeatedly have to renew them. Out of zeal, they never stop denigrating and devaluing what is of this world and which, after all, should fill us with joy and confidence. As a result, they increasingly hand over the earth to those who are ready to take from the one considered defective and suspect and seemingly unfit for anything else, what gives them at least a temporal, quick advantage. Does this increasing exploitation of nature not result from the fact that over the course of centuries the things of this world have been repeatedly devalued? What insanity to seek diversion with what is otherworldly when in this world we are surrounded by tasks and expectations and responsibilities for the future! What deceit to steal the delightful images of this world in order to sell them covertly as those of heavenly bliss!


Excerpted from Letters on God and Letters to a Young Woman by Rainer Maria Rilke Copyright © 1933 by Insel-Verlag, Leipzig. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction to Letters on God....................3
Letters on God....................13
Introduction to Letters to a Young Woman....................35
Letters to a Young Woman....................39
Further Reading....................73
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