In the third of our series in which writers recommend a book that refreshed their faith, our contributor chooses Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Prayers
Directly after a journey to Russia in 1899, Rainer Maria Rilke, then 24, wrote what he called simply die Gebete, “the prayers”. They recorded that, deep in the Russian landscape and among the peasants there, he had felt the presence of God with an unexpected directness, simplicity and power.
Rilke was not conventionally religious. He had rejected the fervent Catholicism in which his mother brought him up and could not accept the mediating figure of Christ; he needed to find God by himself. Slightly self-consciously, he hid “the prayers” behind the persona of a Russian monk walking, at morning or evening, in the forest. There the monk heard, as Rilke had heard, “inner dictations”.
The setting of darkness and entanglement was important, for Rilke’s God reposes there: “It seems my God is dark/and like a web: a hundred roots/silently drinking.” Out of this web he has been born and grows. Others like to paint God in gold, endow Him with sceptres and crowns, surround Him with flame and rays of light; but instead He is cloaked and hidden.