Tag Archives: Kierkegaard

A child who can learn from the bird.

Mags and I are reading The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air together, and so far it is delightful to be in this mini book club with her. Once her copy of the book arrived she dived in with alacrity and even put the perfect amount of pressure on me, in the form of a meek suggestion, to post our responses as close together as possible.

So here I am, just where I want to be, challenged, but not alone, being in alliance and camaraderie with a friend who welcomes the exercise. I do feel that my engagement is feeble… or perhaps the situation is that Kierkegaard has revealed the feebleness of my soul.

Søren Kierkegaard published the first edition of this work in 1849, but he continued to think about the subject and to write about it in his journals. The translator Bruce H. Krimmse tells us this in the introduction, and quotes from the journals, reflections that I rather wish I hadn’t read, because what’s in the first half of the book itself is quite adequate for stripping away any sentimentality I might have about birds and flowers. As Krimmse says, “[Kierkegaard] never permits the reader to ease up on the oars and drift in an intellectual, ethical, or spiritual sense.” Also, these further explanations were confusing to me, whereas most of the first discourse was more accessible. Maybe this was one of the introductions one should read after.

Kierkegaard begins the first of the three discourses in this little book by telling us what is wrong with “the poet’s” response to Christ’s sermon in Matthew 6. I will put that scripture passage right here so you can review it if you want, or you can skip past easily:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.34 Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The poet, our guide tells us, hears this and despairs of learning anything from the bird, having a sort of romantic notion of the ease of the bird’s life, and “wishing” that he could be bird-like, but having excuses. He sounds humble and childlike, but he “lacks the earnestness of eternity.” However, “The gospel is so earnest that all the poet’s sadness fails to change it….”

We are exhorted to be childlike in a different way altogether, and here I find the image or ideal of the child as Kierkegaard describes him to be a striking contrast to what is expected by most people in the last several decades:

“…the child never says, ‘I cannot.’ The child does not dare to do so… precisely because the child does not dare say, ‘I cannot,’ it is not therefore true that it cannot….” There follows the same thought repeated in various ways, and I am grateful for this repetitive aspect of the author’s style, because I need these things drummed into my noggin.

Okay, so once we have got that essential point, that if God tells us to do something, it follows that we can do it — what is it we shall do? I use the word shall because Kierkegaard very clearly uses it as distinct from will, a distinction that I think has been all but lost since sometime in the last century. Now we might say, “I will learn from the bird, even though I don’t want to.” The child of Kierkegaard’s day would say, “I shall learn from the bird, even though I do not will to do so.” But wait – he wouldn’t dare to say that, or even think it!

Our assignment from Christ: to learn from the lily and the bird, and to seek the Kingdom of God first. I need to work harder to write a proper response to the remainder of this discourse, and publish it later, because that part is the meat of it, and the birdsong.

p.s. I used dived instead of dove above when referring to what Mags did because, although Americans use dove twice as much now, Mags is British, and they still prefer the older form. So do I.  🙂

Gathering of things new and again.

The newly opened plum blossoms are the sweetest thing this week:

In the house, the refurbished little half-bath downstairs and the all-new full bath upstairs saw major progress. The little one was torn apart last July when it was discovered that a drain had been leaking into the wall. The wall was replaced, and eventually everything else, but the painting hadn’t been done until this week, so I only now hung the mirror I’d bought many months ago. It’s such a small space I had a hard time taking a picture of that.

The mirror is a sort of champagne color and I was a little worried about it blending in with all the other tones. But nothing unlovely jumps out at me at this point. I want eventually to have towels in there that are bright and contrasting, maybe in the aqua realm?

I’ve made a couple batches of Sesame Flax Crackers that my former housemate Kit and I discovered a couple of years ago. They are so easy, I don’t understand why I couldn’t manage to make them again before now. But then, the last 15 months of demolition and construction have been pretty consuming of my mind’s juggling skills. I could read philosophical novels and sometimes write about them, but I couldn’t take the few steps to bake crackers.

When Mags and I met via our blogs many years ago (we have still not met otherwise), we were both interested in reading the philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard. I am pretty sure I’ve never read a book by him before, even though I somehow managed to write a term paper in high school comparing him to Sartre. It seems laughable now — or is it? Just now I’m feeling thankful for the confluence of people and events that made it possible for me to even hear about existentialism in my little high school out in the sticks. I wrote much more about this in a previous blog post that was a pre-book review: here.

Anyway, I bring it up again because neither Mags nor I ever got around to reading Kierkegaard — until now! We are reading “together” The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, which is short, and consists of what are essentially sermons, but because Kierkegaard was not an ordained minister he didn’t think it appropriate to call them that.

My friend with whom I co-taught the high school class at church for two years gave me other books by Kierkegaard and much encouragement in my philosophical readings. I read a lot more online about what would be good to start with, and chose this book because I was pretty confident that we could finish 90 pages, no matter how challenging, and maybe get some momentum going for more of Kierkegaard. You know I will update you!

Surprise – the freesias are opening. I never even noticed the buds. Two insects found this first flower before I did. And lastly, below, my dear, dear little azalea plant that was part of a flower gift when my husband died five years ago is blooming right now. It has never been so beautiful!

Cairo Trilogy – Intro

Cairo Trilogy covers

The most fun I had in high school was learning French. But writing a paper on existentialism for my English class, inspired by the books my French teacher had lent me, was the most fascinating work I did. Looking back, I can see that my love for philosophy was born then. Recently an old school friend told me how jealous she was when the teacher raved over my paper. I didn’t save it, but I can’t believe it was very good; Mrs. Sanders probably just wasn’t used to such a heady topic even being introduced in our farm town.

In my paper I compared Kierkegaard and Sartre. I was a Christian believer at the time and relieved to find that there was an existentialist philosopher who named the name of Christ. When I got to college I found that Francis Schaeffer thought Kierkegaard misunderstood The Faith if he believed it required a “leap of faith.” At the time I wasn’t comfortable with the world of philosophy and wouldn’t have said I loved it. I was trying to love Christ in a fairly pietistic way and didn’t have a clue as to how to engage Christianly with the humanities. I did enjoy hearing from and reading various theologians and didn’t realize the divergence among them until after I was married.

When I became a wife and mother I began to focus on reading children’s books, and teaching children practical aspects of the faith. In the 1980’s two girlfriends separately and in different ways made me realize the importance of the historicity of Christianity; soon I was sitting up in bed every night reading Chalcedon magazine and happily listening in on The Great Conversation that humans are always having. The many writers for the publication saw the whole of history and philosophy and were not afraid of it; they had confidence that God in Christ had it all wrapped up, even if they didn’t.

Reading this point of view was amazingly encouraging and relaxing. It seemed to really help me go to sleep at night, to leave all the details of running a household and family outside the door and try to stretch my mind to understand why the French Revolution happened, how Romantics skew the Gospel, or why Chalcedonian Christology is pertinent today. It was comforting to drift off like the child who doesn’t know what his parents are talking about, but who feels safe in her bed. God is omnipotent and omniscient, and I will never be, so I rest in Him.

Somewhere I read that people who enjoy thinking are not always the best thinkers. Maybe that means not the most efficient, or logical. I don’t often have anything to show for all the eavesdropping I’ve done, listening to the Good Thinkers. In the world of philosophy I resemble my own Baby Girl when she was old enough to talk, but not old enough to grasp what the other six of us were discussing at the dinner table. She wanted so much to be in on the lively talk, and would look from one to the other of her family, and when she heard a phrase that she could link to something she knew about, she would quickly interject a comment that was rarely on topic.

Three years ago I became a child in the Orthodox Church, and now I am even more ignorant, as what I know has shrunk in proportion to the vastness and connectedness of God’s World as it is perceived by our theologians and lived by the saints. Categories and schemes I had gradually come up with aren’t as helpful as they promised to be, and in my imagination I am catching a phrase of conversation, or a glimpse of Life, of how everything is summed up in Christ; God in Trinity is simple and whole. I have been learning that God didn’t mean for us to suffer all these separations or distinctions between soul and body, between mind and heart, and between thought and action.

While I was beginning to find Christ in His Church I was also learning that ideas can’t be separated from people. No one can be labeled solely by what philosophy he espouses this week. A philosophy does not have an existence in itself but is humans thinking in a certain way. The Kaiser Permanente billboards that have a cyclist telling us, “I am not my bad knee,” and a chubby woman saying, “I am not my weight problem,” help us understand that people are complicated. Kierkegaard no doubt would like to defend himself on a billboard saying, “I am not existentialist philosophy.”

When I began reading The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz I was immediately captivated by his writing, and I suspected that I was going to find it multi-layered with meaning. I read about Mahfouz a bit online to give myself a head start. He was a philosopher, and some have referred to “existential themes” in his works, so I have been reading with an eye to letting him tell me what existentialism is. All I could remember from my sketchy term paper was the buzz-word “authentic,” and one word doesn’t make for a definition. My paper on the topic couldn’t have been very good because I didn’t have much intellectual preparation for tackling it. Kierkegaard himself wrote volumes of philosophy that pretty much started that branch of The Conversation, and generated many more books by people discussing and debating his ideas.

A definition of philosophy that sticks in my mind is “people seeking to know how to live the good life.” Mahfouz’s writing is full of such common humans, some of whom think harder about it, or have more success. I am reminded of the saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The characters I have met in The Cairo Trilogy are enriching the world of my imagination as I get to know their various personalities and see how they respond to the challenges of their culture and the political situation they have to deal with. None of them would put himself in a neat box with a label on it, and that’s why it takes three novels to tell their story.

mahfouz picAs I write this introduction, I haven’t yet come to the end of the third book. Calling this post an introduction almost commits me to writing more about the novel, but it seems an impossible task for me to even appreciate the scope of what Mahfouz has done, much less give a just report of it. Mahfouz spoke more than once while he was alive about the primacy of politics in his life, and if I knew more Egyptian history and were more politically minded, no doubt I could glean more meaning from the story. That’s just one example of how my review will be skewed and lacking.

But the book is so wonderful that it seems unkind to not tell about it, and it does stretch me to make the effort. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the actual review. You might have time to read the book yourself while you’re waiting.