Stories of God: A New Translationby Rainer Maria Rilke
Composed in 1899 when Rilke was only twenty-three, the interconnected tales of Stories of God were inspired by a trip to Russia the young poet had made the year previously. It is said that the vastness of the Russian landscape and the profound spirituality he perceived in the simple people he met led him to an experience of finding God in all things, and to the conviction that God seeks to be known by us as passionately as we might seek to know God.
All the great themes of Rilke's later powerful and complex poetry can be found in the Stories of God, yet their charming, folktale-like quality has made them among the most accessible of Rilke's works, beloved by all ages.
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2: The Stranger
stranger wrote me a letter. The stranger wrote me not about Europe, not about
Moses, not about either the major or minor prophets, not about the emperor of
Russia or about Czar Ivan the Terrible, his fearsome forefather. Not about the mayor or the neighborhood shoe repairman, not about the nearby city nor about any distant city; nor were the woods full of deer that I get lost in every morning mentioned in his letter. He also told me nothing about his mother or his sisters, who are certainly long since married. Perhaps his mother is dead too—how can it be otherwise when I don't find her mentioned anywhere in a letter four pages long? He places a far greater trust in me: he treats me like his brother, he tells me his troubles.
In the evening the stranger pays me a visit. I do not light a lamp. I help him off with his coat and ask him to join me for tea, because it is just the time that
I take my tea every day. In the case of such intimate visits, there is no need to place constraints on oneself. As we are about to sit down at the table, I
notice that my guest is restless; his face is full of fear and his hands are shaking.
I say, "here's a letter for you." At that point I am ready to pour the tea. "Do you take sugar? Lemon, maybe? I learned to drink tea with lemon in Russia. Would you like to try it?" Then I light a lamp and place it somewhat high in a distant corner, so that the twilight actually still remains in the room; but now it is a warmer twilight than before, a bit rosy.
And then the face of my guest begins to look a bit more confident, warmer, and much more familiar to me. I greet him once more with the words: "You know,
I've been expecting you for a long time." And before the stranger has time to be surprised, I explain to him. "I know a story that I can tell to no one but you. Don't ask me why. Just tell me if you're comfortable in your chair, if the tea is sweet enough, and if you want to hear the story."
My guest had to smile. Then he answered simply: "Yes."
"Yes to all three?"
"To all three."
We both leaned back in our chairs at the same time, so that our faces fell into shadow. I put down my tea glass, took pleasure in the golden glow of the tea,
slowly forgot this pleasure, and suddenly asked, "Do you still remember
The stranger thought about this. His eyes peered off into the darkness, so that with the small points of light in the pupils they looked like two leaf-sheltered allées in a park, above which shone bright, open summer and sun. These, too, then, beginning thus as dim rounds, extended in ever-narrowing darkness to a single glimmering point—the exit on the far side into perhaps much brighter daylight. As I was watching this, he said hesitantly, as though he were using his voice only reluctantly:
I still remember God."
I thanked him, "because it just so happens that my story is about Him. But first tell me one more thing. Do you ever talk to children?"
"It does happen, in passing at least."
"Perhaps you are already aware of the fact that, as a result of some ugly insubordination on the part of His hands, God doesn't know what the finished human being actually looks like?"
once heard that somewhere, I no longer know from whom," replied my guest.
And I saw vague recollections chasing each other across his brow.
"It doesn't matter," I interrupted him, "just listen."
For a long time, God put up with this uncertainty. For His patience is as great as
His strength. But once, when thick clouds had been hanging between Him and the earth for days at a time, with the result that He no longer knew whether He might have just dreamed everything—the world and people and time—He called for His right hand, which for so long had been banished and hidden away in small, trivial tasks. It hurried eagerly to Him, for it thought that God finally wanted to forgive it. When God saw it before Him in its beauty, youth,
and strength, He was in truth inclined to forgive it. But just in time, He remembered Himself and commanded without looking at it:
"Go down onto the earth. Take the form that you see humans have, and position yourself on top of a mountain, naked, so that I can get a good look at you. As soon as you arrive down there, go to a young woman and tell her, but very softly, 'I want to live.' First you will be surrounded by a small darkness and then by a greater darkness, which is known as childhood, and then you will become a man and climb up the mountain, as I have just commanded you. The whole thing will only last a moment. Fare thee well."
The right hand said goodbye to the left hand, calling it by many nice names, and it has even been said that it suddenly bowed down to it and said, "O, thou holy spirit." But just then Saint Paul came along and lopped off God's right hand, and an archangel caught it and carried it off under his ample robe.
God used His left hand to staunch the wound so that his blood would not stream down over the stars and fall in sad drops onto the earth.
short time later, God, who was attentively following all the activities going on below, noticed that human beings wearing iron clothes were making a much greater fuss around one particular mountain than around any of the other mountains. And he expected to see His hand climbing up on top of it. But all that appeared was a man in what looked like a red cloak lugging something black that swayed from side to side. At the same moment, God's left hand, which lay over His open wound, began to get restless, and all at once, before God could stop it, it quit its place and began flitting about like a mad thing among the stars, crying: "Oh, poor right hand, and I can't do a thing to help it!" At the same time it began tugging on God's left arm, to the lower end of which it was attached, trying to pull itself loose. But the whole of the earth was red with God's blood, and there was no way of seeing what was going on down there. God almost died that time. With His last strength, He called His right hand back. Pale and trembling, it returned and lay down in its place like a sick animal. But even the left hand, which already knew quite a bit, since it had seen the right hand of God back there on the earth as it was scaling the mountain in the red cloak, was unable to find out from it the rest of what had taken place on that mountain. It must have been something very terrible. For
God's right hand has still not recovered from it, and it has suffered from its memories not less than from the wrath of God, who after all had yet to forgive
My voice took a little rest. The stranger had covered his face with his hands.
Things stayed like that for a long time. Then the stranger, in a voice that I
had long since recognized, said,
"And why did you tell
"Who else would have understood me? You come to me without rank, without office,
without honors and distinctions, almost without a name. It was dark when you came in, but all the same I detected a resemblance in your features."
The stranger looked up at me questioningly.
I replied to his silent look, "I often think, maybe God's hand is again off on its mission."
The children ended up hearing this story, and evidently it was told to them in such a way that they could understand it. For they are very fond of this story.
Meet the Author
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His works include Duino Elegies, The Sonnets to Orpheus, and Letters to a Young Poet.
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