In reading Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies I came across a reference to the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal book of Tobit. While their canonical status has been debated since late antiquity, the Old Testament Apocrypha have left their imprint on western art and literature. The passage from Rilke:
"Jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Und dennoch, weh mir,
ansing ich euch, fast tödliche Vögel der Seele,
wissend um euch. Wohin sind die Tage Tobiae,
da der Strahlendsten einer stand an der einfachen Haustür,
zur Reise ein wenig verkleidet und schon nicht mehr
(Jüngling dem Jüngling, wie er neugierig hinaussah).
Träte der Erzengel jetzt, der gefährliche, hinter den Sternen
eines Schrittes nur nieder und herwärts: hochaufschlagend
erschlüg uns das eigene Herz. Wer seid ihr?" (from the Second Elegy)
"Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas,
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing about you. Where are the days of Tobias,
when one of you, veiling his radiance, stood at the front
slightly disguised for the journey, no longer appalling;
(a young man like the one who curiously peeked through the
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars
took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating
higher and higher, would beat us to death. Who are you?" (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
The reference ("one of you") is to the angel Raphael in the book of Tobit, who disguises himself as a human and serves as a guide for Tobit's son Tobias in his journey. In the end he reveals his true identity to Tobit and Tobias and they fall on their faces in fear (12:6).
For Rilke, angels are creatures that inspire holy terror: "Jeder Engel ist schrecklich." He draws on the ancient theme of a direct, unmediated experience of divine/heavenly beings causing fear and even death and contrasts this with the veiled presence of Raphael in the story of Tobit. Back in those days a human could rub shoulders with a disguised Raphael, but now if he were to emerge from behind the stars and approach humanity our own hearts would "beat us to death."
If you've never read Tobit, check it out!
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