Rainer Maria Rilke's wrote that beautiful line in his Sonnet to Orpheus II, 29 (as translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy).
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Rilke reminds us to speak even when we've lost faith that we'll be heard. He reminds us that we all possess the poet's alchemical power to transform bitterness and suffering into song. That power, however, is hard won, and by its nature entirely personal. It cannot be coerced from without.
Among the many things to be thankful for in this (all-too-brief) hiatus between election seasons, we can count a temporary respite from Republican "rape gaffes." Whatever Todd Akin may continue to believe (and to whisper in Paul Ryan's ear) about the superpowers of the female anatomy, we won't have to hear it repeated for a while.
In a strange way, though, I'm thankful for the gaffes themselves. Not only because they helped turn at least a couple of senatorial races (and quite possibly the presidential race) in the direction I favored but also because they dimly illumined some real, stubborn differences that go beyond the specific issue of abortion to our perceptions of moral agency itself, of what it means to choose.
I confess that I wasn't especially shocked by Richard Mourdock's reflection that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, it is something that God intended to happen."
I deplore the thought, but I'm glad Mourdock spoke it aloud, and I think he spoke in better faith than do some of the people who held him at arm's length until Election Day. For those of any religion who truly believe that "it's all part of God's plan," there are no codicils or exceptions to that belief. It needs must include rape, murder, and torture. (Dostoevsky dissected this spiritual difficulty brilliantly and heartbreakingly through his creation Ivan Karamazov and his story of the Grand Inquisitor.)
We may choose to leave the work of meaning up to God (or His elected representatives), in which case we cannot complain. Even in the absence of belief, we may decide (as Buddhists do) that our core spiritual work is about acceptance, about drinking down what is bitter and turning ourselves to wine. But who should presume to force that draught down our throats and call it anything but violence?
One of my heroes of spiritual alchemy is the Italian-Jewish writer Primo Levi. He was just beginning his (first) career as a chemist when the Nazis invaded Poland, and he later became - very briefly and by his own confession ineptly - a fighter for the Italian resistance before being captured, imprisoned, and eventually deported to Auschwitz. His account of his time there - Se Questo È Un Uomo (If This Is a Man) - remains the most indelible tale of endurance I have ever read, heroic (as many have observed) for its antiheroism. The worst of the crimes that Levi lays at the Nazis' feet is the deliberate, systematic destruction of their captives' dignity and decency; he can only communicate the horror of that crime by describing his own degradation into a creature of mere appetite. The strength he needed to write of such evil in a plain, clear voice is unfathomable to me - and I send up an empty prayer that it will remain so.
But in order to appreciate the magnitude of Levi's alchemical gifts (and in order to understand how difficult it has been for many to admit the possibility that he did not fall but leapt down a stairwell to his death in 1987), you need to read The Periodic Table. What you will find there is radiance. Wit. Love. Celebration. The song of a man who turned darkness to a bell tower and allowed what battered him to become his strength. He took on that great spiritual work, and his possible suicide does not to my mind diminish the humble miracle he performed in realizing it.
Irreverence itself supplies the steadiest source of light and calalytic heat in Levi's writing, as it did in his work as a chemist. Here he comments on the scientifically elegant solution he found to the problem of making lipstick more lasting: "The fact that alloxan, destined to embellish ladies' lips, would come from the excrement of chickens or pythons was a thought which didn't trouble me for a moment. The trade of a chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz) teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever."
God absconded from Levi's world, but he kept his faith in carbon and nitrogen, the stuff of life. For a very long while, it was enough.