Being that both of us think highly of the Existentialist critique of Western Civilization and in particular the Rationalism which knows only Radical Empiricism and forms the basis of Modernity, my friend and I are fans of Søren Kierkegaard. He shared with me a favorite book of his that I had not yet read, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. Here is a selection taken from the preface of that work:

When a woman makes an altar cloth, so far as she is able, she makes every flower as lovely as the graceful flowers of the field, as far as she is able, every star as sparkling as the glistening stars of the night. She withholds nothing, but uses the most precious things she possesses. She sells off every other claim upon her life that she may purchase the most uninterrupted and favorable time of the day and night for her one and only, for her beloved work. But when the cloth is finished and put to its sacred use: then she is deeply distressed if someone should make the mistake of looking at her art, instead of at the meaning of the cloth; or make the mistake of looking at a defect, instead of at the meaning of the cloth. For she could not work the sacred meaning into the cloth itself, nor could she sew it on the cloth as though it were one more ornament. This meaning really lies in the beholder and in the beholder’s understanding, if he, in the endless distance of the separation, above himself and above his own self, has completely forgotten the needlewoman and what was hers to do. It was allowable, it was proper, it was duty, it was a precious duty, it was the highest happiness of all for the needlewoman to do everything in order to accomplish what was hers to do; but it was a trespass against God, an insulting misunderstanding of the poor needle-woman, when someone looked wrongly and saw what was only there, not to attract attention to itself, but rather so that its omission would not distract by drawing attention to itself.

One of my readers pointed out the connection between a poem Those Wayfarers and a passage of scripture 1 Peter 1:1-2:6. This is to be expected. Part of my project in writing poetry daily is to accompany that with prayer and the reading of scriptures.

Something occurred to me after this observation was made: That a great many of my poems draw deeply on that daily reading and on a number of other habits and manners of mine. I had not considered certain particularities of mine would form threads that could be then removed from the cloth and examined by others. All things might be obvious with sufficient retrospection.

Would it be equally obvious to point out that I use a thesaurus when I’m vexed by my struggles with meter?

The second surprise came to me that I was bothered by this revelation. At first I was troubled simply at the exposure itself. While posting poetry on the internet might seem a bit exhibitionist; in my case, I do not think of writing about myself. To borrow Kierkegaard’s point, I am not the subject of my poetry. However, there is no denying that I am a part of it. After that initial reaction I realized that I had taken pride in the mystery of writing. When reading great works, the reader experiences each word as a mysterious encounter. There is a relationship created between writer and reader in this, a bond of trust.

It is good to be self-aware that as a writer you can secretly misuse that bond to enjoy creating that mystery–though in truth both writer and reader create it together. Forgive me dear reader, though I’m sure you never knew I had sinned against that mystery. I will be more attentive to guarding my heart in the future.

While I must be aware of this tempation, I believe it better to not think too much about threads in sewing or words in poetry. Poems are about meaning, not wordsmithing; as with the woman and her altar cloth.

4 thoughts on “Kierkegaard

  1. David, I think and definitely feel a deep commonality with Kierkegaard. His gentle keeping just outside the unnecessary faux walls draws attention to what is there only by our agreeing to not see the error.

  2. The thing I find so compelling about Kierkegaard is that after reading him, you can really get a sense of what he would say even about things he has not said. It is not to say he is predictable, but he makes himself known in his work without the sort of egoism that usually goes along with philosophers. He can speak with complete conviction without needing that conviction to bring glory to himself. In this sense he reads more like a prophet than a philosopher.

  3. Are you still reading this book, or have you moved on to perhaps read other works by Kierkegaard? Goads to reading him have come at me from many directions in the last year or two, but I still haven’t made the plunge. I wonder if I should just go to the used bookstore and buy whatever is there…or perhaps Purity of Heart is available online….

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