“She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth– ”
The woman of Rainer Maria Rilke’s love poem embodies the virtue dearest to my heart: the decision to view the circumstances of one’s life with gratitude, to hold the disparate threads with both hands (accepting each one, no matter how hard or disappointing), and bravely weaving those unchosen threads into a good life. Thomas Aquinas said that a good life consists in good deeds. The “good” he spoke of is not the quality or beauty of the threads we’re handed — this is mere fortune: fickle, changeable, uncontrollable. We cannot take credit for good fortune, nor does it reflect the state of our hearts. The “good” Aquinas spoke of isn’t passive receipt — it is action. The good is in the weaving itself. The quality of our lives, the beauty of the “single cloth”, is in the moral skill of our weaving hands. It is in our choices, how we reconcile the threads we’re given and turn them into a meaningful whole.
In the brilliant book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Victor Frankl argues that happiness cannot be pursued outright; it can only ensue from having pursued that which is truly good. Happiness (a good life) is an after-effect of virtue (good deeds). Striving to acquire the loveliest looking threads for your cloth (to whatever degree it’s even possible to influence your circumstances) doesn’t have much bearing on the final quality of the cloth. Many a successful person, by the standards of the American Dream, has taken the shiny threads of wealth, health, luck, opportunity, privilege, fame, attractiveness, and talent, and woven a pitiful, frail cloth marred by addictions, broken relationships, selfishness, waste, and secret misery.
There are some, like Victor Frankl himself, a holocaust survivor, who take threads of loss, horror, anxiety, and pain — threads that look like barbed wire — and weave them into a cloth that is robust, faithful, brave, ingenious, and hopeful: as beautiful as a song in the night, and just as surprising. A good life doesn’t come from having “good threads” to begin with, or managing to acquire some along the way. A good life comes from being a good weaver, in knowing how to reconcile yourself to your circumstances, and how to reconcile the ill-matched parts of your life to each other. In Frankl’s words, it is “to turns one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
This weaving takes practice. We must train ourselves in the art of reconciling. And it is here that the fortunate are actually at a disadvantage — the prettier your threads, the less effort it appears to take to weave something lovely, the less you feel compelled to work at it, and the more you can deceive yourself. You may end up with gossamer: lovely, yet sheer, flimsy, lightweight, insufficient. It’s too delicate and frays easily. The less fortunate know that their lives will only become beautiful and meaningful if they are skilled at incorporating whatever comes their way; they’re aware of how little they’re actually in control. Privilege and ease can work against you when it comes to moral growth. They provide fewer recognizable chances to practice.
How do we go about training these metaphorical hands of ours in the art of life-weaving, beauty-making, acceptance, and bravery? We cannot begin very well at the moment of crisis. We ought not to expect that we will rise to the occasion; rather, we will sink to the level of our training (so says the philosopher Archilochus). A good life doesn’t consist in one great magnanimous deed. It is woven of many tiny threads, a myriad of choices. It’s in the small, daily disappointments that we can learn to pause, take a step back, and freely choose how to respond instead of instinctively reacting with anger, bitterness, complaining, or hardening of heart.
Victor Frankl describes this better than anyone else:
When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden…
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Most of us will not endure the kind of hell Frankl faced; our hurts tend to be more mundane rather than catastrophic, though none of us knows what’s ahead. Every time I am woken in the night by a needy child, I am in training. Every time my plans for the day are interrupted or derailed by an argument, a little person’s tantrum, an illness, lost keys, terrible weather, an unexpected disappointment, I am in training. Every chore I do that I’d rather leave undone, every critical word I hold in rather than let out, I am in training. The small, daily actions of love, the seemingly insignificant choices to set aside rotten feelings and do good anyway, are repetitions necessary for the formation of habit. I am being trained to love, trained to endure, trained to weave discord into harmony. And I cannot hope to bear up under a true crisis if I cannot bear these small things with patience.
Aquinas said, “If a man’s will is confronted with a good that exceeds its capacity… at that point the will needs virtue.” Virtue is the perfection of a power, it is the habit by which we work well and choose that which is best. Some day, perhaps very soon, I will be confronted with a good that exceeds my capacity: I will face some loss or suffering or shock that is past my ability to cope with. All I will have left at that point is my habitual response, my training. If I have made a daily habit of good deeds, of love, sacrifice, and endurance in the small things, then when I fall to the level of my training, by the grace of God that training will be sufficient. My habits of weaving the pain can carry the day.
A practiced, grateful weaver who has habituated herself to working with ugly threads can say to the deepest of personal pains:
“You, yes, even you, I will weave into my life, though you are sharp as a razor and my fingers bleed. I would be false to try and weave this cloth without you, to ignore you. Though I hate you and despise you and wish you never were, since you are and I cannot be rid of you, I will weave you in. With my whole being I repudiate and protest you, yet I will reconcile you. You will not tear apart the fabric I have made of my life.”
True grieving is weaving, and it hurts. You cannot leave that cursed thread out and still honestly call the cloth “my life.” Someday, God knows when, each of us (the fortunate and unfortunate alike) will face the ultimate personal catastrophe: our own death. Watching a beloved friend of mine suffer and die earlier this year was the most excruciating pain of my life. In the darkness of night, when I lie in bed and can’t sleep as I think of her, the only thing that keeps me from dissolving in terror in the face of the abyss of death is the hope that I am not the only one holding onto the threads of my life. That when my hands drop the threads and my body is cold and my heart stops, another pair of hands— eternal and gentle— will keep weaving me. My friend has not disappeared into nothingness, and neither will I disappear.
This intermingling of bravery, love, vulnerability, and sorrow is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is in the Psalmist’s declaration,
“Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies…”(Psalm 23:4-5).
It is in Mary’s humble acceptance of her role as God-bearer: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), even though this meant that a sword would pierce through her own soul (Luke 2:35). It is in the heart of John the Baptist, who though he lived a life of isolation and deprivation as a prophet, and was imprisoned and eventually beheaded for his faithfulness, still managed to speak of joy in the midst of it: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29-30). It is immortalized in Christ’s Gethsemane prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). In reconciling Himself to the suffering before Him in a posture of humble love and trust, Christ wove the cross into the fabric of His life, and into the life of the world. He is the master weaver, the One “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
I return now to Rilke’s poem, in full, to see it as the spiritual practice that it is, and to call us to engage in it. This is a love poem to God, who appears here familiarly and simply as “you.”
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth–
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it’s you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.
~Rainer Maria Rilke
Each of us has a room inside, with a loom, waiting for us. There is work to be done. Let us drive away the loud distractions with which we busy ourselves to better avoid the pain (you probably already know what those compulsions are for you; I know mine). Let us invite God as a guest into the space left behind when those diversions are dropped and we face our emptiness honestly. Let us disclose our pains to the Partner of our loneliness, thread by thread. Let us weave together with the One who encompasses all things, both beauty and ashes. If He can weave even the cross, can He not help us weave our most cursed threads? Let us learn to hold onto Him, and learn what it means to be held.