Wandering In His Traces

“The god appears, then is gone; and the abandoned soul must spend years wandering in his traces.”

–Stephen Mitchell, Foreword to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies


This is what it is like to be unable to disbelieve, to be unable to hide from God even (especially) in the midst of the suffering fire or the endless depths. No different, really, than being unable to escape the traces of the lover or the eternal friend who has departed but left behind remnants and fragments that never fully disappear, but continue to mark out the contours of your world. We are left to reckon with and breathe in the traces of an absent presence. Lovers, friends, God–they have begun the song or the poem, but we are left to finish it. In the traces we begin to understand how we can come to see the faces of the lover, the friend, the very face of God in the faces of others. But also–only in this sense can howling and mourning become a terrible poetry.


  1. This is how it felt leaving the mission early. This is it exactly.

  2. One day – Friendship with another, someone to rely upon. Next day – Gone. Why?

  3. I believe the word “traces” In this context, means:

    “the two straps, ropes, or chains by which a carriage, wagon, or the like is drawn by a harnessed horse or other draft animal.”

    Not “remnant or fragments.” That changes the meaning of the quote somewhat. Not that it doesn’t also work in the meanings you give it, but I think the original intent of that quote was related to a god who gives you work to do or a task to perform (like hooking a horse to a plow or cart) then disappears, leaving you wandering around pulling a plow or cart that seems to have no purpose or destination.

  4. Yes, that’s true Mark. Rilke had an initial burst of inspiration with the beginning of the Elegies but spent several years in reckoning of it, wondering how to complete it. I was reading somewhat out of context. Remnants and fragments still applies, however, to the idea of that which haunts you with bits and pieces of powerful presence but which no longer (or at least not consistently) graces you with a full presence.

  5. what can i say

  6. Jacob, I have Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Job on my shelf and I hope to read it in one sitting later this year, after I have finished reading the text in my Bible. Thanks for this, and great additional commentary MCQ.

    The notion of the absent-present impact of others on our life is one of the meanings, I take it, of the scarred Christ.

  7. Yes.

  8. These are poignant thoughts, beautifully expressed. Thank you.

  9. Rechabite says:

    Amen and amen.

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