Thursday 12 February 2009

Startled Space

At our recent GIM Retreat I introduced a session by reading the following lines from Rilke's First Duino Elegy:

the daring notes of song pierced through the barren numbness;

and then in startled space which a youth as lovely as a god

had suddenly left forever, the Void felt for the first time

that harmony which now enraptures and comforts and helps us.

That phrase, 'startled space', was what had caught my attention. There were echoes here of the poetry of the first chapter of Genesis, and its references to earth as that creative space within which God's loving purpose births life. This is variously translated as 'vast waste', 'formless void', 'formless and empty', 'soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness', 'barren'. So the extract of Rilke's  poem seems to fit well with this and conveys an extra layer of meaning, in that here is the surprising, unexpected, startling activity of God.

In fact Rilke was alluding to terrible, all-consuming and utterly numbing grief at the death of a young person. The startled space is precisely that which is so empty and devoid. It is into this chaos that, for Rilke, the notes of song could yet break through to startling effect.

My question was how we might think of 'startled space' as a metaphor for that which we need to find within the life and thinking of the church if we are to be present to God birthing newness amongst and through us. The consensus was that although being able to find or create such 'startled space' is not easy, it is vital that we try.

Julie Doddrell, a minister in the Boston Circuit of our District, has written some wonderful poems as her response to the extract from Rilke. She has kindly given her permission for me to share them with you, so here are two. 'Startled Space'  beautifully conveys that which I have struggled to say here. The second poem, 'Shock', also makes reference to the music which I used to introduce the session, Guru Josh's Infinity (Klaas Remix 2008), which in this instrumental remix combines a pounding, driving, insistent dance beat with fantastic saxophone riffs. I used this to represent the irrepressible energy of God's love as evidenced in the gospels and that which it calls into being so creatively from our startled space.

Startled Space

Waiting space

Stunned space

Silent space

…. like the space before creation

before Word and words

the space between breathing in and breathing out

after the gasp…. before the letting go

before dawn

before light

Creative, hopeful, expectant space

A space before


before blossom and bud

The space before resurrection

Dead space

Ending and beginning space

…. ripe, ready, opportune, kairos space

God’s space


How do we create startled space in our sleeping churches?

Churches who have forgotten how to be surprised by God…

who have been deluded into thinking Jesus was a conservative with a small ‘c’

who have been dulled by the familiar,

and remain stoically unshocked by the audacity of this radical Galilean preacher?

How do we hear… not again…. not ‘as if’… but really, truly for the first time

the startling message He brings

like the SHOCK of a heavy beat…

a rhythmic insistent heart-beat of love

jarring in every nerve,

thudding in every bone,

utterly absorbing and encompassing

…. somehow calling into being extempore jazz riffs of joy and hope… new notes to take our breath away…

when all we expected was orderliness and calm…

like the SHOCK of cold, clear water

like the SHOCK of falling down, down

like the SHOCK of seeing….

a man nailed to a wooden cross

O Lord SHOCK us with your




echoing NOW in the depths of my being

Open our eyes to your startling words


and make us NOW people,

shocked into newness,

called by heartbeats of love to dance

eyes wide open,

ready to speak

Word and words into the spaces you are creating.


  1. wow, these poems are amazing

  2. Thanks Dave- I'm putting a link through to this.... it's not 'me' but I like it- it makes me think...