Rosicrucian Writings Online

The Sanctity of Work

By Raymund Andrea, F.R.C.
Grand Master of AMORC of Great Britain
[From The Rosicrucian Digest August 1947]
THE poet Rilke, writing of Rodin the sculptor, said: "Only his work spoke to him. It spoke to him in the morning when he awakened, and in the evening it sounded in his hands like an instrument that had been laid away." Could any creative artist wish for a higher tribute to be written of him at the close of his life's full day?
Rilke was a poet of considerable excellence, and when he wrote prose he was a poet still, as those who have read his Letters will know; for they have all the color, music, and pathos that come to the inward eye and ear of the sensitive soul which ponders upon life and the meaning of life, upon nature, and the mystery of human experience. The poet who would write truly and intimately of life, nature and human experience, must leave the surface and plunge into the depths and unfold hidden meanings of things and reveal traits of character which elude the unquestioning mind and the untrained eye. Rilke was such a poet, and Rodin was for many years his subject. He lived with the master as his secretary, observed his creations rise day by day from the unformed stone to masterpieces of living art; and if that close association afforded the poet the unique experience of seeing ideas wrought before his eyes into solid and durable material, the master was no doubt equally inspired by the deep insight and appreciative interpretation which the poet brought to the work of his strong and skillful hands.
The work of the many is found outside themselves. They take it up and lay it down as a necessary thing; and the more they can forget it when it is laid aside, the happier they are. That is work, and it brings a necessary remuneration, but it is not the work of a poet, an artist, or a mystic. All these, in their best type, are creative workers; but they are never outside their work, nor can they ever forget it. They find no real happiness away from it. Work is not an adjunct of their life. It is not merely an occupation. In these creative workers work is the expression of the essential life of the soul, a perfecting in and through the personality of the fine art of creative living.
It was this marked characteristic in Rodin which so forcibly impressed Rilke; and living so long with and thoughtfully observing him, the idea of the dignity and sanctity of work thoroughly gripped the poet and inspired him to write his essay on the sculptor. The essay has much of the classic form of Rodin's own masterpieces. Indeed, in exalting Rodin in language at once sculptural in form and mystical in quality, Rilke is an instance of a poet who, through superior insight and interpretative power, almost forgets his own art in his adoration of the mind and art of another and his desire to reveal the inmost workings of these to the reader. This will be realized by the few quotations I shall give from him.
The quotation at the beginning of this article is a significant and beautiful one. It is a poetical concept of the continuous activity of the mind in creative work. The many do their work; to a chosen few it speaks, as an inspired word; and when a man awakens with the voice of it sounding in his soul and at evening must perforce rest from it, yet carries the vibration of the increasing glory and achievement of it in his hands in repose, how like that experience is to the creative activity of the Master Artist of the universe whose one aim through all the days is the unresting unfoldment of the purpose of evolution. This is supreme concentration, untiring, unrelenting, absorbing all the thought and energy of the man. "Rodin once said that he would have to speak for one year in order to recreate one of his works in words." That is the criterion of great work which Rodin made peculiarly his own: that of profound thinking, a thinking as strong and vital as his own life blood, which penetrated the inert material under his hand and wrought from it masterpieces of immortal thought.
"But this young man," writes Rilke,* "who worked in the factory at Sèvres was a dreamer whose dream rose in his hands and he began immediately its realization. He sensed where he had to begin. A quietude which was in him showed him the wise road. Here already Rodin's deep harmony with Nature revealed itself; that harmony which the poet Georges Rodenbach calls an elemental power. And, indeed, it is an underlying patience in Rodin which renders him so great, a silent, superior forbearance resembling the wonderful patience and kindness of Nature that begins creation with a trifle in order to proceed silently and steadily toward abundant consummation. Rodin did not presume to create the tree in its full growth. He began with the seed beneath the earth, as it were. And this seed grew downward, sunk deep its roots and anchored them before it began to shoot upward in the form of a young sprout. This required time, time that lengthened into years. 'One must not hurry,' said Rodin in answer to the urgence of the few friends who gathered about him.
"At that time the war came and Rodin went to Brussels. He modelled some figures for private houses and several of the groups on the top of the Bourse, and also the four large corner figures on the monument erected to Loos, mayor, in the Parc d'Anvers. These were orders which he carried out conscientiously, without allowing his growing personality to speak. His real development took place outside of all this; it was compressed into the free hours of the evening and unfolded itself in the solitary stillness of the nights; and he had to bear this division of his energy for years. He possessed the quiet perseverance of men who are necessary, the strength of those for whom a great work is waiting."
Speed and Superficiality
It will be understood that I have chosen this subject of Rodin as presented by Rilke in his essay because of the immense inspiration in it and the lessons to be drawn from it. We live in a time when speed is one of the chief gods of men, and we suffer from the curse which too often accompanies it, superficiality. The factor of speed hypnotizes men, and it infects even our students on the path. The short cut to the heights in every sphere is in vogue today. This has one merit: it sharpens the intellect and makes the man feel that he is taking unusual strides in achievement. Its demerit is far greater and more serious: it confuses and warps the soul and gives the man a false perspective in relation to spiritual advancement. If the soul is timeless, above and beyond the fret and anxiety of time, it will not readily conform to the categories of time we wilfully thrust upon it. These do but blur the prospect of reality, instead of clarifying the vision.
"One must not hurry," says Rodin. Strange words these, at first sight, from a man of superb and restless spirit whose very hands even in repose were molding thought into articulate figures of beauty and power and adding meaning to Nature's own creations of men and women. But every word of a master mind is precious, a thousand times more precious today, when every lofty soul has its peace and integrity assailed by the voices and purposes of mundane expediency, and the hour of silence has lost its significance. "He began with the seed beneath the earth, as it were. And this seed grew downward." It is the sin of forgetting the necessity of the silent growth downward of the seed of our ideal that so easily besets us. We think and strive in terms of the fugitive days instead of cultivating an extension of thought over the stern and cumulative experience of the testing years. That is why our time, for all its boasted achievements, gives us few men of full and completed character whose work shines with the supernatural radiance of enlightenment which will uplift and bless after they are gone. We look in vain for them. It is as if humanity had taken a decisive retrograde step in evolution and the younger generation has for its guides but men of worldly prestige and upon a definitely lower spiral. The creative artist, the poet of vision, the fervent mystic, has no prestige, is submerged, and has scarcely a name. It is small wonder that we constantly look back to those who have gone and find present consolation in what they were and did. We may incur the censure of living in the past if we do so; but it is far better that we find our inspiration there than follow the blind guides that hold the stage today and who seek to regiment us, one and all, into a soulless army of politicians and economists to build a grand new world for their benefit. The truth must be said, whether we like it or not: the voice of the world today is blatantly common and unspiritual, and woe to the young aspirant who is seduced by it, conforms to it, and forgets those who have spent their lives, and those who are spending them, for the greater things. It is not for nothing that our literature points again and again to the great philosophers and mystics who have trodden the way before us. Those characters are a shining life line for us in the present maelstrom of materialism; without them, the idea of evolution and any faith in it, would perish, and we should drift without aim or purpose for anything worthy of even the sleeping Christ in man.
A Student of Men
But to return to our theme, this great and silent worker, Rodin. There is so much of inspiration for us in his attitude toward his work and in his strength and patience in pursuing his chosen ideal. "There was no haughtiness in him. He pledged himself to a humble and difficult beauty that he could oversee, summon, and direct. The other beauty, the great beauty, had to come when everything was prepared, as animals come to a drinking place in the forest in the late night when nothing foreign is there. . . . For years Rodin walked the roads of life searchingly and humbly as one who felt himself a beginner. No one knew of his struggles; he had no confidants and few friends. Behind the work that provided him with necessities his growing work hid itself awaiting its time. He read a great deal. At this time he might have been seen in the streets of Brussels always with a book in his hand, but perhaps this book was but a pretext for the absorption in himself, in the gigantic task that lay before him. As with all creative people the feeling of having a great work before him was an incitement, something that augmented and concentrated his forces. And if doubts and uncertainties assailed him, or he was possessed of the great impatience of those who rise, or the fear of an early death, or the threat of daily want, all these influences found in him a quiet, erect resistance, a defiance, a strength, and confidence--all the not-yet-unfurled flags of a great victory.
"Perhaps it was the past that in such moments came to his side, speaking in the voice of the cathedrals that he went to hear again and again. In books, too, he found many thoughts that gave him encouragement. He read for the first time Dante's Divina Commedia. It was a revelation. The suffering bodies of another generation passed before him. He gazed into a century the garments of which had been torn off; he saw the great and never-to-be-forgotten judgment of a poet on his age. There were pictures that justified him in his ideas; when he read about the weeping feet of Nicholas the Third, he realized that there were such feet, that there was a weeping which was everywhere, over the whole of mankind, and there were tears that came from all pores."
I confess that when I read this searching analysis of the mind of Rodin by Rilke, I feel as deep an intellectual and esthetic satisfaction in the poet's understanding of it as in the unswerving vision of the master of his life purpose. How much we need this kind of insight into the true greatness of man when it comes, at such far intervals of time! How often in the past has this greatness of man dwelt silently among us and none has acclaimed it. That is sufficient reason, if for no other and personal benefit, why we should if only for brief but constant periods renounce the world atmosphere in which we live and worship in our hearts these supermen of creative genius. If we do not know how, Rilke can point the way. We should cultivate this habit of entering, by sensitive and appreciative interpretation, into the souls of these men. There is nothing that I know of which will pay richer inner rewards to the aspirant in the years to come as will this living in mind and heart with men of genius through reverent study of their lives and works. And if he is making the kind of progress he should in his studies of the path, the awakening and stimulating influence of those studies should lead him instinctively to a companionship in mind with great souls. A love for what I have termed the technique of the Masters should lead him to observe in all master minds of creative work the principles and rules, often peculiar to themselves and far from the stereotyped formulae of any school, the pattern, the form and method by which they rose to eminence, and so enrich his own thought and extend his own experience in his particular sphere.
We see in Rodin this steady accumulation of material from many sources, the gathering into himself of an almost unlimited range of inspirational suggestions from the faces and forms of men and women, which he studied with inexhaustible patience. The reading of Dante, for the first time, for instance, opened up to him a vision of the shadowy forms of another generation suffering under the hand of Karma the sins of former days; and immediately these forms became translated into the living men and women around him. He saw that the heavy hand of Karma was upon them, too, and the stone he wrought to give them shape became as quivering flesh and blood in his hands expressing all the powers and passions of the hidden soul.
Thirteen Years of Patience
"At last, after years of solitary labour he made the attempt at a step forward with one of his creations. It was a question put before the public. The public answered negatively. And Rodin retired once more for thirteen years. These were the years during which he, still unknown, matured to a master and became the absolute ruler of his own medium, ever working, ever thinking, ever experimenting, uninfluenced by the age that did not participate in him. Perhaps the fact that his entire development had taken place in this undisturbed tranquility gave him later, when men disputed over the value of his work, that powerful certainty. At the moment when they began to doubt him, he doubted himself no longer, all uncertainty lay behind him. His fate depended no more upon the acclamation or the criticism of the people; it was decided at the time they thought to crush it with mockery and hostility. During the period of his growth no strange voice sounded, no praise bewildered, no blame disturbed him.
"As Parsifal grew so his art grew in purity alone with itself and with a great eternal Nature. Only his work spoke to him. It spoke to him in the morning when he awakened, and in the evening it sounded in his hands like an instrument that had been laid away. Hence his work was so invincible. For it came to the world ripe, it did not appear as something unfinished that begged for justification. It came as a reality that had wrought itself into existence, a reality which is, which one must acknowledge."
The lesson portrayed so vividly in this passage is that of concentration and patience. For thirteen years the master retires into the solitude of his own mind, with imperturbable faith in his ideal. You may say that one cannot wait in these days of speed and demand: the thing must be done now and receive its recognition. It is never so with the things that are great. Genius is great; its works are great; and it knows how to wait. Whatever the temptation for achievement and notoriety, we must learn to stand back and nourish the fire of the soul. Rodin did this so perfectly that his work "sounded in his hands," and so became invincible. If we want these prime lessons of genius focused in one masterpiece of supreme perfection, we may observe Rodin's undraped figure of Hugo in exile. It speaks volumes. The massive and rugged body of the poet seems to partake of the very nature of the granite block upon which it inclines, with which it is incorporated and partly hidden. The fine head rests, heavy with thought, upon one hand, in profound meditation, and in such an attitude that the whole history of the tragedy of genius speaks from it. No artist can do more than this: to penetrate into and reveal in his art the soul of man and its secret life; for thereby is taught the way of the immortal spirit in the flesh, its struggles in the toils of matter, and the imposition of its will upon the aspiring mind, that it may mirror forth at length in its work the last word of its experience of life conflict. Moreover, this is exactly applicable to the awakened aspirant on the path; he too must grapple with this same problem of the high ideal of mastering the resources of mind and soul, that he may look with clear and compassionate eye into the soul of men and reveal it to itself. We call this seership, and of the highest grade. It does not come of crystal gazing or pranayama. Rodin attained to his seership through the blood of the heart; and that is the only way for us. It is a renouncing of the passing and transitory for the enduring values of the informing life.
There are optimists who would have us believe that war stiffens the sinews, enlarges the mind, brings the best out of the youth of the time and plants it on the road to high achievement. I do not agree with them. There is abundant evidence that precisely the opposite is the case. War degrades and demoralizes and brings the worst in humanity to the surface. I doubt whether any war has produced such an ebullition of superficiality and slackness of mental and moral fiber, paltry ambitions or none, and a genius for not taking pains, as the war we have just seen. Authorities in church and state in Britain have publicly testified to it. The idea of the sanctity of work is a theme for derision. But we on the path of a higher culture think and teach otherwise. We hold up these characters possessed with an idea and giving a life's full devotion for it as the only worth-while example in a world which has lost its bearings. If such characters had not existed in abundance in the past, and many are with us today, I should lose my faith in humanity: for the ideals of men are low. It is for us to counter to the best of our ability this curse which war has opened upon us. Unless we do so there is no peace for us; life will have lost its beauty, dignity and culture, and we shall have taken that retrograde step in evolution which will brand us for an incarnation with the mark of the many who have gone weakly down with the tide and renounced the hard won and immortal values which every son of genius has striven to fix and establish as a beacon for our guidance to a higher destiny.
The human face, in which is written the story of the beauty of worship, of loving devotion, of fierce ambition, of the mind in adversity, of the spirit rising to supremacy! Rodin has taken all these, and more, for his province. Every line of this human manuscript he scanned inexorably through the years, until he became clairvoyant of types of all conditions and knew just what the hand of destiny had wrought in them.
The Last Cycle
Rilke has developed this thought with real artistic beauty. I quote him at length here, because it reveals his profound comprehension of the master, and we shall be the better for reading it.
"But he returned to the faces of men with an ever-growing, richer and greater knowledge. He could not look upon their features without thinking of the days that had left their impress upon them, without dwelling upon the army of thoughts that worked incessantly upon a face, as though it could never be finished. From a silent and conscientious observation of life, the mature man, at first groping and experimenting, became more and more sure and audacious in his understanding and interpretation of the script with which the faces were covered. He did not give rein to his imagination, he did not invent, he did not neglect for a moment the hard struggle with his tools. It would have been easy to surmount, as if with wings, these difficulties. He walked side by side with his work over the far and distant stretches that had to be covered. Like the ploughman behind his plough. While he traced his furrows, he meditated over his land, the depth of it, the sky above it, the flights of the winds and the fall of the rains; considered all that existed and passed by and returned and ceased not to be. He recognized in all this the eternal, and becoming less and less perplexed by the many things, he perceived the one great thing for which grief was good, and heaviness promised maternity, and pain became beautiful.
"The interpretation of this perception began with the portraits, and from that time penetrated ever deeper into his work. It is the last step, the last cycle in his development. Rodin began slowly and with infinite precaution entered upon this new road. He advanced from surface to surface following Nature's laws. Nature herself pointed out to him, as it were, the places in which he saw more than was visible. He evolved one great simplification out of many confusions as Christ brought unity into the confusion of a guilty people by the revelation of a sublime parable. He fulfilled an intention of nature, completed something that was helpless in its growth. He disclosed the coherences as a clear evening following a misty day unveils the mountains which rise in great waves out of the far distance.
"Full of the vital abundance of his knowledge, he penetrated into the faces of those that lived about him, like a prophet of the future. This intuitive quality gives to his portraits the clear accuracy and at the same time the prophetic greatness which rises to such indescribable perfection in the figures of Victor Hugo and Balzac. To create an image meant to Rodin to seek eternity in a countenance, that part of eternity with which the face was allied in the great course of things eternal. Each face that he has modelled he has lifted out of the bondage of the present into the freedom of the future, as one holds a thing up toward the light of the sky in order to understand its purer and simpler forms. Rodin's conception of art was not to beautify or to give a characteristic expression, but to separate the lasting from the transitory, to sit in judgment, to be just. . . .
"His later sculptures of women have a different beauty, more deeply founded and less traditional. Rodin has, for the most part, executed portraits of foreign women, especially American women. There are among these busts some of wonderful craftsmanship, marbles that are like pure and perfect unique cameos, faces whose smiles play softly over the features like veils that seem to rise and fall with every breath; strangely half-closed lips and eyes which seem to look dreamily into the bright effulgence of an everlasting moonlit night. To Rodin the face of a woman seems to be a part of her beautiful body. He conceives the eyes of the face to be eyes of the body, and the mouth the mouth of the body. When he creates both face and body as a whole, the face radiates so vital an expression of life that these portraits of women seem prophetic.
"The portraits of men are different. The essence of a man can be more easily imagined to be concentrated within the limits of his face; there are moments of calm and of inward excitement in which all life seems to have entered into his face. Rodin chooses or rather creates these moments when he models a man's portrait. He searches far back for individuality or character, does not yield to the first impression, nor to the second, nor to any of those following. He observes and makes notes; he records almost unnoticeable moments, turnings and semi-turnings of many profiles from many perspectives. He surprises his model in relaxation and in effort, in his habitual as well as in his impulsive expressions; he catches expressions which are but suggested. He comprehends transitions in all their phases, knows whence the smile comes and why it fades. The face of man is to him like a scene in a drama in which he himself takes part. Nothing that occurs is indifferent to him or escapes him. He does not urge the model to tell him anything, he does not wish to know aught save that which he sees. He sees everything."
There is a note of triumphant finality in this last sentence of Rilke. I do not doubt the assertion as applied to Rodin within the whole sphere of his art. His characters in stone are as perfect as man can hope to make them. These creatures impress one with the amazing fullness of experience of the master and his manual dexterity in expressing the most elusive and the most dominating tones of thought and emotion of his subject. They do not awaken the emotion of beauty so much as the sense of power resulting from deep meditation and willed effort. They are creations of incarnate thought. And the secret of this great art was the one idea which dominated Rodin throughout his life: the sanctity of work. His spirit never slept.
"He was a worker whose only desire was to penetrate with all his forces into the humble and difficult significance of his tools. Therein lay a certain renunciation of Life, but in just this renunciation lay his triumph, for Life entered into his work."
* RODIN by R. M. Rilke, Grey Walls Press, London.
Webmaster's Note:  A 1919 edition of the book "Auguste Rodin" by Rilke is available online here (external link; click on "HTTP" in the left column of the web page to access the PDF file).

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