Saturday, October 10, 2015



In the storm that rages round the strong cathedral
like a denier thinking on and on,
your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you.

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:
do you not mark how from your always-full
sundial our hours slide off one by one —

that so impartial sundial, upon which
the day’s whole sum is balanced equally
as though all our hours were rich and ripe?

What do you know, stone-born, of our plight?
And does your face become more blissful still
as you hold the sundial out into the night?

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, tr, J. B. Leishman
  (slightly modified by Oriana; the poem is also known as “Angel of the Meridian”)


I fell in love with this poem at first reading, when I first discovered Rilke in my late twenties — so many years ago that it seems like another lifetime. Unpredictable, the words that may connect one stage of our life with another; timeless ripples in time.

There are so many great lines here, and the poem works so well in English (including the rhymes, often a translator’s downfall — but here we see Leishman at his best) that I am surprised that this exquisite piece from The Book of Images is little known. You’d think that many Rilke lovers could recite the second stanza by heart:

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:
do you not mark how from your always-full
sundial our hours slide off one by one —


The poem flows by itself, each word inevitable, even in translation. But this sublime angel remains largely undiscovered, obscured by its larger, lethal kin perched in the Duino Elegies.

Let’s “take it from the top,” as a quirky (but aren’t they all?) professor of mine used to say. The first stanza is interesting in itself. What is this “storm that rages round the cathedral”? I no longer remember my source for this information, but one explanation may be biographical. When Rilke and Rodin visited Chartres together, Rilke, for whom it was his first visit, was surprised by the wind around the cathedral — “the wind in which we stood like the damned.” Rodin replied that there is always a wind around the great cathedrals.

Before we go into the metaphorical meaning of the “storm around the strong cathedral,” let me dispose of a more literal interpretation. The stone walls of medieval cathedrals (which used to double as fortresses in wartime) are massive not only in height, but in thickness. That’s why it’s always cold inside, even on a hot summer day. But I never noticed much of a draft of coldness seeping out from the inside. The turbulence noted by Rilke may have been due to the complicated air currents as the wind pushes against and flows around the giant walls.

Also, Rilke might have known the legend of the wind around the Strasbourg cathedral: the wind there waits for the devil (trapped inside god’s fortress) to ride it again. Hence the “denier” might refer to the “spirit that always denies [or “always says No”), a line from Goethe’s Faust.

But let’s assume that the denier refers to an atheist who feels enraged against religion, but rather than express his hatred in a purely emotional outpouring, tries for rational arguments. Though Rilke was influenced by Lou Andreas-Salomé’s belief that all religions were human invention, like Lou he shared a longing for a “real god,” one who does not divide humanity into the saved and the damned. This “real god” understands our wounds (rather than condemn our  “sins”) and accepts everyone. Nothing could separate us from that loving essence of the universe (now if we could only find even the slightest evidence that the “real god” exists . . . )

Rilke felt that it was possible to experience this kind of divine presence, with no need for either rationalized doctrine or blind belief in what we suspect (or even know) isn’t there. Though outwardly hostile toward Catholicism (he forbade the presence of a priest at his funeral), he was drawn to the poetics of Catholicism, the tenderness embodied in Mary and, now and then, other figures — in this case an angel. In spite of the literal as well as emotional and intellectual storm around the cathedral, the angel greets us as a beautiful, loving, and all-accepting being:

your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you


I especially love the lines that open the second stanza:

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:

The sculptor made the angel in man’s image. It’s a collective image: “your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths.” An angel is a human self-portrait. But it’s a wishful self-portrait, with wings. That’s how beautiful and serene we’d look if we’d known nothing but affection instead of being screamed at and punished. This is how we’d smile if we knew nothing about abandonment or betrayal. This is how smooth and soft our faces would be if we never experienced stress and suffering (mentally handicapped people sometimes have that soft and smooth look long past childhood — they generally encounter nothing but kindness, since no one judges them; they are granted innocence, so their faces stay unmarked by stress).

The angel, a stone man-bird, cannot know that all our hours are not “rich and ripe.” It can know nothing of the human life, and yet

your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you

That happens thanks to the power of art and the power of a smile, whether on someone’s face or in a painting or on a statue. A smile expresses affection and trust. When we see a smile, we tend to relax and smile back, which automatically makes us feel better.

And then the final irony:

What do you know, stone-born, of our plight?
And does your face become more blissful still
as you hold the sundial out into the night?

The angel is blissful because he is blind and innocent — innocent in the sense of “ignorant.” He doesn’t even know night from day. Alas, we can’t recommend ignorance as a prescription for happiness, though “ignorance is bliss” holds in enough cases to remind me of Esther Perel’s admonition: “Not all truth needs to be told.” 

The angel doesn’t know our sorrows (or any sorrow), and that's why it is blissful. I’ve come to see that Nietzsche was wrong when he wrote “What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.” This is so often quoted and assumed to be true. But most suffering damages us, physically and mentally. What makes us stronger is happiness: both the happiness of being loved and the happiness of work, of accomplishing something and loving the work we do.

What we can recommend, looking at the angel — and also at the joyful of most dogs, for that matter — is that children can be raised without constant judgment and condemnation. I HAVE seen much progress in this area, and a decline in toxic, punitive religion that encourages child abuse. Minimal punishment combined with a lot of affection seems to produce happy, friendly children to whom self-control comes more easily because they aren’t filled with hate and anger.


In “The Believing Brain”, Michael Shirmer states that “we can’t help believing” for two main reasons: what he calls “patternicity” (seeking patterns) and “agenticity” (an agent must have caused this for a purpose). The human brain is wired to seek meaning, so anything perceived as meaningful, as conveying a relevant message, can serve as an angel/messenger. For instance, in Milosz’s poem “On Angels,” an angel (or a message) resides  in birdsong as well as in the smell of apples.

It could be argued that anything that makes life seem worth living falls into the angelic category. It was the literal belief in angels in America that astonished me completely. In Europe, with churches and castles crowded with angels and plump-buttocked cherubs, it’s difficult to see angels as anything but art. And art means both the aesthetic distance and a human perspective. Those who carve an angel’s smile  are undeniably human. 

It was cunning to forbid “graven images.” It is a danger to religion to allow humans to be such  obvious creators. As soon as it allowed images, dissident Christianity was already on its way to “secular humanism.” Images makes religion less abstract and more human, but eventually they also reveal religion’s mythological, man-made nature, full of human fears and longings. “Fear makes the gods.” And also the human craving to be loved and protected.
But wishful thinking will never disappear. We want the universe to love us. Or, if not the whole universe, then some element of it, kind and supportive. Guardian angels, beings of light. With luck, kindness and protectiveness is what we get from other human beings. What the universe gives us instead is beauty.

Yet even those of us who don’t believe in angels smile back at at the statue of a smiling angel. After reading Jesse Bering’s Th
e Belief Instinct, a book I cannot praise enough, I came to see how any theist religion is a matter of universal cognitive illusions that stem from teleological (purpose-oriented) bias (again, Michael Shirmer’s “patternicity” and “agenticity”).

And still, when I think that the great cathedrals were built in honor of a cognitive illusion, I’m stunned. And I’m willing to honor the deep delight that can be provided by “human, all too human” religious art.

(Shameless digression: I just remembered how teenage St. Thérèse of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”) allegedly looked at a dazzling meadow of wildflowers (before she entered Carmel, of course; no more meadows after the doors of the convent closed), and said, “So much beauty wasted on mere earth.” This, to me, is one of the horrors of old-time religion: the rejection of this world in expectation of the future one, the only one that mattered. “Mere earth”! How far we have traveled, in the space of one century, from that dismissal to Mary Oliver’s famous question: “What is it that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”)

My own encounter with a “smiling angel, sympathetic stone” took place in the vestibule of an ugly church in San Francisco. I forget the name of the church, but I distinctly remember that it was ugly, a stain on the beautiful city. The one beautiful object in the church was the holy-water angel near the entrance.

                                                                for Sutton Breiding

In San Francisco an angel
bears a fluted holy water conch —
a marble smile, celestial.
The Golden Gate opens into fog
on the bones of builders and suicides.

Cloud-eaten hills, views of Alcatraz;
drunks grinning to themselves
in Victorian doorways . . .
Angel, you smile as if you knew
beauty is the sole excuse.

The city like a dream rises out of fog,
falls again into fog here at the slippery
ledge of the continent.
Seagulls blur with white sails.
In the Palace of Fine Arts,

a bronze Perseus lifts
the head of the Medusa,
though he himself is headless.
But you, mild angel, bless
all who enter the dim vestibule.

At the tomb of the dead god,
you change stone into hope.

~ Oriana (c) 2012


Stone into hope? Me, a committed atheist, saying that?

Yes, because I need a word that’s more emotionally powerful than “uplift.” Religion can produce that uplift with its promise of heaven, but once we know it’s a lie, then religion becomes psychologically dubious at best, a form of denial. But there is an automatic response to a smile. It would be a better world if more people smiled.

And we do want a “better place” — right here, while we are alive. Nietzsche said, “Truth is ugly. We have art so we don’t perish of the truth.” Great art takes us to another plane: away from the ugly pedestrian cares, away from whatever chronic diseases are gnawing at us, the inflammation slowly eating us alive. Real art is about affirmation and uplift — not in the sense of the Pollyanna sentiments we find in greeting cards, but even simply in producing wonderment at the artist’s ability to create such visionary magic. 

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