An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Sometimes a Man Stands Up – Reflections by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

In Education, Food & Cooking on February 24, 2013 at 12:38 am
Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And other man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot

Rainer Maria Rilke

rainer-maria-rilke1This morning (Friday, 22nd February) there was a discussion on the Today Programme on Radio 4 about the fact that far more mothers read to their children than fathers. Although an excuse was made that many men come home too late after work to read to their children, the consensus seemed to be that this is something they should be much more involved in, not merely as a worthy duty, but because it was ‘fun’.

Reading to one’s children may seem rather tame in comparison to the  dramatic import of Rilke’s poem about a man who walks away from his house to find that ‘church’ in the East, but is it?

Of course, one can read Rilke’s poem in the literal sense – a poem about a man doing something ‘manly’  by answering some irresistible transcendent call beyond the confines of domesticity. Note: the poem was written in 1905,so it is not surprising that it refers to a man, and not a woman, but it is well to remember that there were some Victorian women celebrated for their intrepidity. Florence Baker, the wife of Samuel Baker, comes to mind. A woman who spoke English, Turkish and Arabic, rode camels and carried a pistol, she accompanied her husband on his dangerous travels in Africa in the 1860’s to find the source of the Nile.

We might associate this call and the man’s dramatic response to it with a deep spiritual hunger, for he sets off in search of a ‘church’ in the  ‘East’.  So, by ‘manly’, I mean that intrepid nature which flows from connection to ‘spirit’. The man leaves for a ‘church’ in the ‘East’, so in this case he does not take off  to cross Antarctica on foot in winter, or climb Mount Everest, ‘manly’ as such things might be in another, more mundane, sense, and least of all does he slink off wearing a football shirt to hang out with his mates, or, alas, play a computer game in which he can shoot up aliens and conquer a planet without leaving his seat. He has an altogether higher objective.

The ‘East’ is of course deeply symbolic of spiritual direction. The English words origin’ and ‘orient’  both come from the same source: Latin ‘oriri’, rise’. The verb ‘orient’ (and its variant ‘orientate’)  originally meant ‘turn the face to the east’, the direction of the rising sun. Orientation is an essential spiritual concept, whether exoterically in terms of physical direction (as in the qibla, the direction towards Mecca which Muslims face in Islamic ritual prayer, or facing east towards the altar for Christians) or esoterically as the light of God, “neither of the East nor the West” (Qur’an 24:35, ‘Light Surah’) the point of unity within the Heart which the spiritual seeker strives to make his or her permanent focus. Spiritual orientation entails the constant remembrance of our origin, our point of ‘arising’, and our inevitable ‘return’: “Verily, unto God do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return.” (Qur’an 2:156).

I see symbolism too, whether consciously intended by Rilke or not, in the opening line of the poem: ‘Sometimes a man stands up…” What does it mean to ‘stand up’? The connotations of the Arabic root QWM help us here. From this root, we have ‘qama’         (keep vigil, arise, halt, stand up, stand over, uphold, perform a duty); ‘maqam’ (place, station, act of standing); ‘mustaqim’ (straight), from ‘istaqama’ (go straight); ‘qawim’ (standing, upright, erect, straight); ‘qayyim’ (right, true); ‘qayyum’ (Everlasting, Eternal),  ‘qiyamah’ (resurrection); ‘aqama’ (abide, set up, perform, maintain).

To stand up is not merely a physical act, for ‘standing up for something’ is  an act of moral courage and steadfastness. To be ‘upright’ or ‘erect’ applies to character as well as posture. Our vertical posture itself defines our ‘standing’ as human beings. One of the possible derivations of the Greek word ‘anthropos’  (human being) is ‘he or she who looks up at the sky’.

Sure,  there are those who question the over-emphasis on transcendence in ‘male spirituality (too much sky, not enough earth), but that’s perhaps a forum for another discussion. It’s a ‘feminist’ issue, too, I  know, in relation to the way men and their ‘sky gods’ have oppressed women, and, dishonouring divine immanence, have raped the earth.  Let’s stick with the focus  here on the symbolism of this man who stands up and walks away to find that church in the East, and what that might mean for a man in relation to his family.

For me, the poem speaks loud and clear. Men should not dampen down that urge to stand up, explore, range abroad, stride out, look up, reach for the stars, and, ultimately, make that single-most important journey towards spiritual realisation. It is the latter which is the most intrepid journey of all, for it takes place in the infinite expanse of the Heart, an Ocean without a shore.

Yes, they might help with reading to the children  – and if only there were more male teachers in primary schools who were doing just that, as well as counterbalancing, dare I say, a generally female-dominated school environment, especially for young boys who need male role models who can inspire more distinctively ‘male’ ways of thinking – less ‘safe’, more unconventional, adventurous and creative. And yes, they might do other things which, like books,  can open up the creative imagination in other ways and through other faculties: walking in nature with the children,  nurturing their musical talent and artistic appreciation, and (oh, so important in families where technology and new media are increasingly isolating its members!) engaging in conversation which pushes boundaries, asks questions, explores alternative perspectives, and stretches the mind.

All these activities are a preparation for that greater journey of the spirit, for they awaken and nourish the higher faculties of perception and comprehension upon which that journey will depend.

  1. Greetings,

    Thank you very much for this post. I have always liked Rilke, and I love your explanation of his poem here.

    We tell our children to watch who they pick as friends. We know that the choice of friends is exceptionally important. Almost invisibly, their choice of companions influences them.

    I think that so it is also with our children. The degree to which we stand up, stride out, and look for the stars may perhaps be the degree to which our children may also. They may even overpass us in that respect. But…we likely influence them in some invisible way by the very fact that *we* actualize this in life. We grant them this by doing it ourselves.

    All good wishes,


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