“I believe in all that has never yet been spoken. I want to free what waits within me so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear without my contriving.” — Rainier Rilke, Book of Hours, 1, 12 (trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy).
There are times in our lives when the moment is so deep, so simple, as to be transparent and effortless. Within that moment we sense that the rush of events has subsided and we, quietly grateful, find ourselves turning in a gentle current to gaze first here and then there, and to feel ourselves lifted and set upon our feet on a new morning at the edge of a far wilderness.
Those are moments that one treasures, storing them up for the times when the days turn to rust and the air sears as we sit in the stink of traffic waiting for the light to change. There are never enough of these moments, and in time they fade, although the mere desire for them can conjure up a train of images—some unrelated to the first experience—which gradually take on an iconic weight and bearing.
I’ve enjoyed enough of these that I can string them like pearls in my consciousness, holding them up to the light and seeing how they’ve changed over the years. There is curiosity in recalling which ones marked stages in my life. They are like ancient buried ships whose mounded boundaries we circumscribe unaware until we gain the heights and look back and down and gradually discern the outlines.
For me, these moments most usually come when I’m alone in the vicinity of strangers or near a lake or river or mountain or beach. I am booked up with a scripture (the Gospels, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada or the Bhagavad Gita), some poetry (Rilke, Blake, Eliot, or Stafford) and some philosophy (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcel or Augustine)—and a fine cup of strong, rich coffee. Setting off for these possible transcendences there is anticipation, but at the very least the satisfaction of a good experience. We cannot plan for these moments but we can be ready for them.
I had one such experience while on holiday recently, visiting family in Banff, Alberta. Early on a Saturday morning, a time of special holiness for me, I moved through the quiet streets alone in the cool dawn. In search of a quiet shop with coffee, I found one—Evelyn’s Coffee Bar—on Banff Avenue. I was past the door when I noticed it, stopped and backed up. The sign said Saturday, 8 am to 9 pm, but it was 7:45 and the door was open, so I went in, the first customer of the day.
The only other person was behind the bar, a polite and cheerful young man from the East End of London by the sound of it. With mug in hand I sat in the window that fronted the street and gazed in wonder at the mountain that rose thousands of feet in the near distance. There was morning light all around—I could see it filling in the space between the peaks—but the town was in that blue shade that only exists in the shadow of a mountain that is blocking the sun. Streams of light shot from its shoulders and I knew that in minutes I’d be in the full glare of the sun as it crested the peak.
I was reading Rilke’s Book of Hours, in a translation I’ve come to revere, in a passage that carried all my longings to create: