I would like to read more of Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. My intent is on display in the form of four titles by him that I have had sitting on the mobile bookshelf here in my kitchen/family room, for a year at least. I guess if I could decide which to read that would be a good start. A biography of him I am not likely to get to, but who knows…? In the meantime, I am reading this homage by Dana Gioia in the form of a poem. Seems like after this I owe it to Kierkegaard to read at least one more of his own works, though not in hopes of explaining any “riddles.” Only God can do that, and we know that He will — all of them, all of us.
HOMAGE TO SOREN KIERKEGAARD
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. —St. Paul
I was already an old man when I was born. Small with a curved back, he dragged his leg when walking the streets of Copenhagen. “Little Kierkegaard,” they called him. Some meant it kindly. The more one suffers the more one acquires a sense of the comic. His hair rose in waves six inches above his head. Save me, O God, from ever becoming sure. What good is faith if it is not irrational?
Christianity requires a conviction of sin. As a boy tending sheep on the frozen heath, his starving father cursed God for his cruelty. His fortunes changed. He grew rich and married well. His father knew these blessings were God’s punishment. All would be stripped away. His beautiful wife died, then five of his children. Crippled Soren survived. The self-consuming sickness unto death is despair.
What the age needs is not a genius but a martyr. Soren fell in love, proposed, then broke the engagement. No one, he thought, could bear his presence daily. My sorrow is my castle. His books were read but ridiculed. Cartoons mocked his deformities. His private journals fill seven thousand pages. You could read them all, he claimed, and still not know him. He who explains this riddle explains my life.
When everyone is Christian, Christianity does not exist. The crowd is untruth. Remember we stand alone before God in fear and trembling. At forty-two he collapsed on his daily walk. Dying he seemed radiant. His skin had become almost transparent. He refused communion from the established church. His grave has no headstone. Now with God’s help I shall at last become myself.
Mr. Kierkegaard was very hard to take in the last two discourses of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. I was happy for the non-hearers of his non-sermons — you may remember, he was not ordained so he didn’t consider it appropriate to call them sermons — that they did not have to listen to him audibly, on and on repeating himself, and stretching the bird and lily metaphor into nonsense.
Or so it seemed to my small brain. I finished the book last evening, when my patience was already tried by my eyes that had been burning for two days, and for what reason? No one knows. By the late afternoon on Sunday I’d followed a doctor’s advice and used some very expensive eye drops that changed the burning to a sticky-scratchy feeling. The burning had made me want to keep my eyes shut, but with the latter condition open or shut didn’t matter, so I was able to distract myself with reading. (Today they are fine!)
I sat in the garden, because it is so delicious, I want to be there as much as possible, with the bees humming and sparrows singing and flying back and forth, eating the sunflower seeds I give them. It is true, what Kierkegaard says, echoing our Savior, that we must learn from nature. And in some way we need to be like the birds and the lilies if we are going to fulfill our humanity. But we can’t learn about thinking from them. Thinking is something we humans specialize in, to such a degree that our minds dominate our fragmented selves. And that mind tells us, among other irrational things, to worry.
Our mind is what we use to accomplish our daily lives, to plan and execute our work. But it’s also where swirl the same unproductive thoughts over and over again, thoughts of regret over the past, or anxiety over the future. Complaining and blaming and angry thoughts. How can we plan without worrying at the same time? How can we bring every thought captive to Christ? Lord, have mercy!
Kierkegaard says in the second discourse that the bird and the lily are unconditionally compliant with God’s will: “In nature everything is obedience, unconditional obedience.” Maybe he is trying to get at what I have heard from fathers of the Church, about how creatures other than humans act according to their God-given natures. Humans were made in the image of God, which means that our nature is to be of love, and unity. But we are typically at odds with ourselves, and with our Creator.
I haven’t been too successful myself of late, in thanking God for everything. For ten years now, I’ve found it helpful to use my writing to steer my mind in the right direction, but lately the load is too heavy to steer. Writing does not accomplish the task of “bringing the mind into the heart,” which is what Saint Theophan tells us we need to do. When my mind is burdened I can’t make sentences that would substitute for prayer, or other more receptive activities, say, watching a bee.
C.S. Lewis’s feeling, “Actually it seems to me that one can hardly say anything either bad enough or good enough about life,” comes to mind, but only weakly applies to my difficulty conveying a simple experience like picking peas this evening.
That Big Friendly Giant pea patch I’ve got is a wonder of my garden world. It just keeps growing and being green and lush, producing new baby pea pods every day. I wander around the edges of its kingdom and peer into the jungle of vines, trying not to miss any of the ripe ones, wondering if I should let this or that one grow one more day. I’m pretty sure that one day this week there are going to be about a hundred of the sugar snap peas all ready at once. Each pea pod is lovely and tender-crisp, and begs to be eaten the moment after being picked.
The day is filled with this kind of incomprehensibly good thing, which I would like to share. I think those are joys flowing out of my heart, so they are easier to express than sad things, though of course I can’t say anything “good enough.” I’ve tried taking pictures of the pea mass, but this is a case where you have to have your nose following your arm into the dim and cool interior, all the while the sun warms your hair. Pictures are worthless.
As to the other side of Lewis’s quote, saying anything “bad enough” about life — that’s not my calling. I think that line might have been from a personal letter that he wrote, expressing empathy with someone who was suffering. I know I have had experiences that seemed very bad. And my cry amounted to, “This is not what I want!” But at this time in my life, if I ever manage to “take them captive,” I try to put those thoughts in quarantine.
Kierkegaard finally admits that we do have difficulties that the bird and the lily escape, when he writes of an “…enormous danger — a danger in which a human being is indeed situated by virtue of being a human being, a danger that the lily and the bird are spared in their unconditional obedience, which is happy innocence, for neither God and the world nor good and evil are fighting over them…”
That makes me think that if the author were writing blog posts today, he might remind us that we do not war against flesh and blood, viruses, stupid humans, wicked empires, etc, but against “principalities and powers” in the spiritual realm. Every time I get distracted it’s a waste of time and a missed opportunity to use my mind to better purposes. The pandemic is showing me how prone I am to this.
I did have three more friends in my garden last week after my godmother’s visit. Everyone wore masks. They were on two different errands. My goddaughter Sophia had found some plum wood for my wood stove, which she and her new husband delivered. And my goddaughter Mary’s father and brother came to finish my garden icon project that I began five years ago. But you know what? — it’s past my bedtime, and this post is too long already. I’ll explain tomorrow about the elegant completion of my garden. ❤
Today is the beginning of our salvation; the revelation of the eternal Mystery! The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace. Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: “Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!”
I had wanted to continue my ruminations on The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air by further considering The Moment that Søren Kierkegaard refers to when, after waiting in silence, “…the silent lily understands that now is the moment, and makes use of it.”
I don’t know what that moment consists of for you, for me, for us as a world community, or in our cities or church communities or families. No doubt there are overlapping times and seasons containing infinite instants, and only by quiet listening can we make any sense of them. But this passage in particular I wanted to pass on, in which the writer discusses what is missed when we fail to make the proper, standing-before-God kind of preparation:
“Even though it is pregnant with rich significance, the moment does not send forth any herald in advance to announce its arrival; it comes too swiftly for that; indeed, there is not a moment’s time beforehand…. But of course everything depends upon “the moment.” And this is surely the misfortune in the lives of many, of far the greater part of humanity: that they never perceived ‘the moment,’ that in their lives the eternal and the temporal were exclusively separated.”
So many thoughts swirl in my own noisy mind and heart that I could not imagine how I might find a way to share even these few gleanings with you. Then, in God’s providence and the church calendar, appeared someone who is the supreme example for us of being ready for the moment, that time in history and that time in her life, in a particular moment of a day, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. Today we remember that event, when Mary listened, and responded, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
The Word became flesh and came to live with us, taking on all our human experience, its weakness and suffering and death. He defeated death, and opened the gates of Paradise. The Incarnation, the beginning of our salvation, is The Moment of history; our own “Yes” to God, echoing Mary’s willingness, can be the essence of our every prayer as well, as we wait on Him.
Kierkegaard exhorts us, in words that seem especially fitting for this time of uncertainty and change: “Would that in the silence you might forget yourself, forget what you yourself are called, your own name, the famous name, the lowly name, the insignificant name, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Hallowed be your name!’ Would that in silence you might forget yourself, your plans, the great, all-encompassing plans, or the limited plans concerning your life and its future, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Your kingdom come!’ Would that you might in silence forget your will, your willfulness, in order in silence to pray to God, ‘Your will be done.'”
We know that God’s will for us is good, now as ever. Our inability to see or understand that is due to our weakness or sin, or His hiding of His works. May He give us grace to wait and to pray, and eventually we will see the full salvation of the LORD.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
“Let us now look more closely at the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully andfirmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore the bird waits, but it knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour or the day; therefore it keeps silent. ‘It will surely take place at the appointed time,’ the bird says. Oh no, the bird does not say this, but keeps silent. But its silence speaks, and its silence says that it believes it, and because it believes it, it keeps silent and waits.” -Søren Kierkegaard
I worked very hard last week to compose a second post on Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, which I am reading along with Mags. No good fruit seemed to come from my effort, though I wrote many words in a draft and searched for appropriately themed photos. When earlier this week I heard from Simone Weil through her anthologist Laurie Gagne, who was interviewed on Mars Hill Audio, that a writer must often wait patiently for the right word, it made me think more hopefully about the outcome.
I had begun at least two weeks ago, writing about the new bird community just on the other side of my fence, a few feet away from me when I garden. They are tropical birds in several large cages, temporary residents while their owners are between houses, and they are noisily chirping and even screeching from dawn to dusk. That long time ago, as it seems now, I was focused on their being jungle birds, surely not the sort that inspired Kierkegaard’s contemplations. I cleverly speculated that if Kierkegaard had lived in the jungle he wouldn’t have been likely to write the book he did.
But more pertinent to my present situation, only days later, is the fact that they are caged birds. And right now, many of us the world over feel like caged birds, in our efforts to slow the spread of a quickly spreading virus. Some are less restricted than others because they are in a type of helping role, but they also are at more risk. I, who am healthy and feeling in some ways younger than ever, have been grouped with The Elderly; I am trying to submit meekly, in my mind as well as my body, to my classification and assigned task: to stay home. In this regard, what Kierkegaard writes about seeking God’s kingdom first is something to take to heart:
“But then, in a certain sense is there in fact nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense there is nothing. You shall in the deepest sense make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is first to seek God’s kingdom.”
He does talk about how humans often enter into this silence when they are praying: “…as he became more and more fervent in prayer, he had less and less to say, and finally he became entirely silent…. indeed, he became what is, if possible, even more the opposite of talking than silence: he became a listener.”
Currently, the whole world is waiting. The necessity of waiting is a gift given to us, an opportunity, but if I only wait on the decisions of authorities and on the latest statistics, my waiting is of little value.
“This is also how it is with the lily, it keeps silence and waits. It does not ask impatiently, ‘When is the spring coming?’ [see Pippin’s daffodils at right] because it knows that it will come at the appointed time; it knows that it would not benefit in any way whatever if it were permitted to determine the seasons of the year. It does not say, ‘When will we get rain?’ or ‘When will we havesunshine?’ or ‘Now we have had too much rain,’ or ‘Now it is too hot.’ …. Then the moment comes, and when the moment comes, the silent lily understands that now is the moment, and makes use of it.”
Obviously I myself know little of this subject experientially, but Søren Kierkegaard and the birds and flowers and all of nature have a lot to share, which I love to pass on! Glory to God, that He somehow arranged for me to find this particular book, chosen for its brevity. Ha! Every paragraph seems to have a world of meaning that one could meditate on for a year. The author must have known how to wait for the right word, as Simone Weil talks about.
Suffering. Are we not all suffering right now? Suffering at the most superficial level by our own movements being curtailed, or because we can’t find our favorite food in the stores, all the way to those who are suffering in a holy and productive way, deeply in their souls, expressing coinherence with the healthcare workers of Italy or with the helplessly panic-stricken of any place. When I think of all the monastics and even my priest, who are accustomed to self-containment and waiting on God, who are praying for all the rest of us who pray little, I feel both grateful and ashamed. When I pray with them at all, via their live-streamed services, it strengthens my ability to wait.
Charles Williams coined that word coinherence that I used above, but I don’t think he invented the truth that each of us is mysteriously and mystically united to the other. Simone Weil knew about this, too, and not in a theoretical way, but in the compassion and solidarity that emanated from her heart. When she was only five, she heard that soldiers (in the first World War) had no ration of sugar, so she refused to eat sugar. And much later, when she was at the Sorbonne, we learn more from fellow student Simone de Beauvoir’s writings. When Weil heard about a famine in China, she burst into tears; de Beauvoir envied her for having a “heart that could beat across the world.”
Christ suffered on the Cross in taking on Himself all the death and suffering of mankind, and He calls us to do it for each other, to be little Christs, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mystery to me, for sure, but I hope that praying with my fellow creatures everywhere will help me to acquire more of this grace.
Regarding our own personal pain and death, Kierkegaard says that when we are silent, it makes our suffering less. This runs counter to modern culture in which we all want to talk in an effort to relieve suffering.
“The bird keeps silent and suffers. However much heartache it has, it keeps silent. Even the melancholic mourning dove of the desert or of solitude keeps silent. It sighs three times and then keeps silent, sighs again three times, but is essentially silent. For what it is it does not say; it does not complain; it accuses no one; it sighs only to fall silent again.Indeed, it is as if the silence would cause it to burst; therefore it must sigh in order to keep silent.”
And by that silence under suffering, Kierkegaard lists several ways suffering is eased; the bird – and potentially us humans! – are freed (I put these points into list form):
“1) From what makes the suffering more burdensome: from the misunderstood sympathy of others; 2) From what makes the suffering last longer: from all the talk of suffering; 3) From what makes the suffering into something worse than suffering: from the sin of impatience and sadness.”
Oh my, I’m afraid I have tempted you to the sin of impatience by my long post, so I am going to stop for now, though I still haven’t come to the end of my meditations on Kierkegaard’s First Discourse. Let me say, in closing, that I am praying with and for people everywhere who are distressed, joining my sighings with yours. I pray that our afflictions may be turned into the sighings of the mourning dove, who after all may be understandably melancholic about the true and sorry state of mankind. Her heartache and sighings become silence, and that is her prayer.