The startling prayer life of Søren Kierkegaard

Unfinished sketch of Søren Kierkegaard, by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

Where am I? Who am I?
How did I come to be here?
What is this thing called the world?
How did I come into the world?
Why was I not consulted?
And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director?
I want to see him.

–Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55)

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As a role model for future generations of angsty, overwrought people, Søren Kierkegaard does not disappoint. The “father of existentialism” puzzles us with philosophical texts, disorients us with his interrogations of fear and trembling, overwhelms us with 800 pages of either and or and dazzles us with quotes like “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” But some of his most important lessons came when he knelt to pray.

I recently picked up a battered 1956 copy of The Prayers of Kierkegaard in a dusty bookshop. Standing in the aisle, I was startled to read words both direct and intimate: “Teach me, O God, not to make a martyr of myself through stifling reflection. Teach me to breathe deeply in faith.” Lately, I have felt that tug in my chest, a twist of uneasiness below the surface of things. Reading Søren’s prayer now, I take one full breath. In and out.

Søren did not make his name on the merits of a dynamic public prayer life. In his own time, the existentialist philosopher rambled for hours through the charming streets and hidden passages of Copenhagen, stopping to talk with random folks along the way. Everyone in town recognized the spindly, comical figure whose tousled hair stuck up nearly six inches from his forehead.

Søren held a great deal inside, determined to understand himself before he could know anything else—including God.

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Søren’s brilliant, caustic wit was admired all over. You would not have guessed that behind the roving, familiar figure with top hat and walking cane there was a melancholy fellow trying to know and solve the deep riddles of life. He held a great deal inside, determined to understand himself before he could know anything else—including God. Even as an outwardly vivacious youngster, Søren always kept his true feelings concealed. When he wrote of his childhood later, he described himself as an intense boy in the power of a “monstrously brooding temperament,” a child who played a pitiful game: to keep everyone from guessing how secretly unhappy he really was.

It was no picnic to be the youngest of Michael Kierkegaard’s seven children. Søren’s haunted, pietistic father was convinced that their family was cursed. Michael gloomily predicted that all of his children would die tragically by 33, Jesus’ age at his crucifixion. Old man Kierkegaard took his kids on treks to the cemetery, where he exhorted them to dwell on the agonies of Christ and meditate on their own horrific sins. No wonder little Søren was filled with dread.

The Search for Self

As he grew older, the teenage Søren was both repelled by and attracted to his father’s fierce Lutheran faith. He wrestled with faith as a theology student at the University of Copenhagen. As Søren began thinking for himself, the weighty old orthodox Christian dogma cracked and shifted. What options were left to him then? A punishing, wrathful avenger or a respectable, distant deity—could either God be true? And what did any divine being have to do with him and his small life? Søren looked to philosophy as a way to slip the snares of religion.

Søren looked to philosophy as a way to slip the snares of religion.

I have always liked philosophy: ancient Greeks pondering the nature of reality; German idealists and French postmodernists; logic, with its axioms and arguments; thought experiments to sharpen my mind. In fact, words attributed to Aristotle are posted over my desk—for example, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I do not stay up at night worrying over concepts, but I do enjoy philosophy for the healthy intellectual workout.

Søren took philosophizing far more to heart; his was a high-stakes search. Stalking the alleys of Copenhagen, occupied by interior puzzling, he was plagued by the personal problem of purpose. In the pages of his journal, 17-year-old Søren wrote, “What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know.” He was after an intellectual understanding that would enliven his existence in the world—one grand passion to comprehend his essential self, to know truth that was true for him, to find the idea for which he could live and die.

Found by God

Søren’s melancholy deepened as philosophy failed to bear the weight of his all-encompassing quest for meaning. Still, he struggled on, hoping it would not prove to be a dead end. As for theology, Søren could not shake his suspicion that beyond abstract religious dogma there actually was a divine reality: the person of Jesus, who would demand a startling commitment. But at the unwelcome prospect of a full spiritual conversion that would surely offend his reason and clash with his emotions, Søren determined to try everything else before he became “seriously a Christian.” If Jesus held a radical cure, it was not a medicine he was prepared to take—not yet.

One Sunday, Søren read the Gospel story of the disciples who, frightened at their teacher’s crucifixion, took refuge in an upper room. Søren felt much like them, conflicted and scared, at once relentlessly seeking the divine, studying theology and even reading Scripture and yet hiding out from the living God. The disciples were taken completely by surprise when Jesus showed up saying, “Peace be with you.” If Jesus was going to get to him, too, Søren realized, it would only be through firmly locked doors. And yet, unexpectedly, that is just what the risen Jesus did. On May 19, 1838, Søren had a decisive spiritual experience, a feeling of “indescribable joy” that was inexplicable to his rational mind. In that mysterious moment, the young man arrived at his life’s central truth at last—the realization that, at his core, he was a person found by God.

Søren was convinced that his individual relationship with God was a radical choice. As he put it, faith is an either-or. It is either God or—well, the rest does not matter.

The young man who had long examined belief from an intellectual distance, standing outside it, now threw himself into an inward, ardent Christianity. Søren was convinced that his individual relationship with God was a radical choice. As he put it, faith is an either-or. It is either God or—well, the rest does not matter. Choose what you will, but if you choose anything other than God, you lose out; both you and your choices are lost. Søren embraced faith as a passion, a leap to live life in its fullest sense.

A Radical Leap

The newly committed Søren wanted to bear witness to Jesus Christ but not, he said, in the way of the “parsons’ trash” peddled by his own self-satisfied state church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark, an institution that counted all Danish citizens as automatic Christians from birth. Thoughtless piety made him want to scream. Søren disdained the complacent neighbors who were no better than baptized pagans, oblivious to sincere, transformative spirituality.

And so, out to provoke the bored religious folks around him, Søren became a kind of literary prankster. He wrote aesthetic, philosophical and polemical volumes, journal essays and popular newspaper articles. Leafing through his collected works, the philosopher in me wanders along, playing the philosophy game. It does not take long to get lost in Søren’s complex writings on subjective truth, objective truth, dread, existence, irony. My attention fails me.

“The function of prayer is not to influence God,” Søren said, “but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Then Søren surprises with a jab. Don’t just be a Christian, he says, as if “Christian” is some assigned label that you are simply stuck with forever, an identity that means nothing to you. No, take all of your life to become a Christian: Choose, again and again with each new day, to be a real self, an authentic person in relation to God. Abandon your calculated safety for a reckless, wholehearted life of faith in Christ. Continue to become. Grow. Risk. Take that radical leap of faith right now.

Sometimes I presume my faith, as if I were a smug Christian, detached and drifting in and out of convinced belief in God. My spirit floats somewhere beyond the embodied decisions I make in everyday life. The vital energy that wakes me up in the morning is spent on temporary tasks and immediate concerns, heedless of the demanding Jesus who waits at the locked door of my heart. My deeper impulses doze, sometimes undetectable.

Person of Prayer

How will my soul wake up to the risky joy of authentic faith? It is the anguished, struggling Søren who shows me the path into unreserved living—mind, body and soul, fully aware. I learn that once Søren experienced the faith that reached beyond abstract knowledge, it was the practice of prayer that kindled his inner transformation. “The function of prayer is not to influence God,” he said, “but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Growing into a fervent person of prayer with living faith as his aim, Søren’s daily encounters with the eternal became as essential to him as breathing.

Kierkegaard urges us to take the risk and go deeper, to fling ourselves into God’s presence—and know the one good, unshakeable thing in life.

It is no surprise that we do not all know the devotional side of Søren. Renowned as a celebrity poet, critic, agitator and philosopher, he was reserved about his own private devotional life. Even as he was perfectly comfortable ranting against the national church or dashing off clever magazine editorials, he confessed that baring the intimacies of his life with God was “so difficult, so difficult.”

I wonder if Søren felt the way I sometimes do—that while my public Christian self can lead Bible studies and discuss theology, I am at the same time oddly hesitant to speak about my raw, honest connection with God. That might seem strange to the many forthright people who open their faithful hearts to anyone who will listen. I resonate with Søren as he reflects on his personal spiritual life: “My inwardness is too true for me to be able to talk about it.”

Prayer, Søren’s ongoing conversation with God, became the source of his greatest earthly happiness. Søren likens prayer to a gyroscope, a practice that balances him come what may. Happily for you and me, he recorded his prayers in a journal. On those pages, Søren speaks frankly to God of his questions, confidence, doubts, joys, pains, consolation, suffering, love, longing, depression. It is all there. And finally he arrives at gratitude. “It is wonderful how God’s love overwhelms me,” he writes. There is no truer prayer than the one Søren utters over and over: the prayer of thanks to God for doing so indescribably much more than he had ever expected.

The morning I discovered his prayers, I was swept up into the urgent. (This surge of anxiety: Is it a sign of freedom? I doubt it.) Big thoughts of purpose were pushed aside. Quiet, leisurely devotion would be a luxury. Just as restless Søren always kept moving, I, too, dash through many miles each day. But before I do, Søren’s wise words come to me: “The best help in all action is to pray; that is true genius. Then one never goes wrong.” Leave it to an existentialist philosopher to pull me back into the present moment.

No longer a caricature of the brooding, angst-ridden intellectual, Søren prompts us to take down the coffee-stained volume of 100 prayers and approach God in his company. “Father in Heaven!” we begin. “Help us never forget that You are love. This conviction will triumph in our hearts, even if the coming day brings inquietude, anxiety, fright or distress.”

Soul brother Søren, so traumatized by his father’s fearful fundamentalist religion, was once found by a great divine love. Now he urges us to take the risk and go deeper, to fling ourselves into God’s presence—and know the one good, unshakeable thing in life.

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