A Kierkegaardian Interlude (Thoughts on Prayer IV )

Kierkegaard well noted that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” I frequently think about this whenever I say or sing the Beatitudes. Though as I am now and for the foreseeable future at an Antiochian parish – – which I love very much, Fr. Andrew – – the opportunity to sing them comes only in my ‘private’ devotions or whenever I visit a Slavic parish, such as that of my confessor, Fr. Thomas. What Kierkegaard noted had to do, obviously, with a Christian’s purpose or resolution in our personal mode of existence. When I use that phrase, personal mode of existence, I am making recourse to the Christological controversies, but it also has bearing on the Trinitarian life of God, and ultimately to our life in that Trinitarian life.

We use the term resolution in two distinct but related ways. First is the notion of having resolved to accomplish something; the second concerns the clarity of vision of a certain object, or the clarity of our TV picture or the clarity of a photograph. Both of these come back to Kierkegaard’s phrase, for the actions of the will cannot be without purpose. Thus, to will properly we need not only a determination appropriate to the execution of our purpose, but with it a clear and precise idea of what it is we intend to accomplish, what our purpose is. I had a high school teacher, John Weathers, who would often say, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll probably hit it.” John had in mind all sorts of things, but for us, the purpose of prayer, its ultimate end, is to attain Life in God. Now certainly prayer may and will have many ancillary ends prior to obtaining the one end, but we should note that even these ancillary items will resolve themselves, find their ultimate resolution, in the one end.

And why is it that prayer’s one goal, one end, should resolve Life in God? Because there we find the mode of existence of the Blessed Trinity. When Christ prayed in the Garden “Nevertheless not my will, but Thine be done,” he was making a statement not only about Himself, that he needed resolve, but about His relationship to the Father. Christ had two wills, divine and human, and two wills could, or so it seemed to many in the Church, only be in opposition, otherwise, being identical, they would be but one. This was hashed out no end in the seventh century, and was a controversy that has defined in many peoples’ minds the role of our father among the saints, Maximus the Confessor, who following his mentor Sophronius, saw this doctrine of one will or wills in opposition, as the teaching of Apollonaris. What Christ was praying, St. Maximus said, was that His human will, which naturally desired life and flinched from death, would have the same goal as that of the divine will, i.e., His divine will that He had with the Father. Thus, will has both a personal mode of existence (which in Christ was double), but should ultimately have one goal, life in God. The manner or mode of willing, and the ends or goals of willing are distinct. This, by the way, is why we believe that Creation is not God, and is not eternal, for the manner of willing and the goals or ends of this willing, are distinct.

And so it is, that our ancillary purposes in prayer will ultimately coalesce into the one goal of our fully realized life in God. We can talk about being at cross-purposes, whether in a family, in a department, in a college, or even in our nations. But as Christians we should not be so divided. Our wills with respect to purpose should be one, and St. Paul says as much that he would have us of the same heart and mind about our lives, and that we are to share the same mind as Christ in our humility (Philippians 2:2, 5; Romans 12:16). And so as Christians we should have identical purposes in our wills, for every human has the same will, in that we all have a common nature. This is hard to see in our present fallen, fractured, state, wherein our personal modes of willing are characterized by what St. Maximus termed the gnomic will, the personal, sinful, mode of willing (sin is not natural, but personal). And so for our wills to be one, we need a common goal in life, and not the scattered and fractured goal of the abyss, or of the atomistic and existentialist mindset of the day which emphasizes différence and ‘the other’. This is another reason why we need first a hermeneutic of sympathy, and not of suspicion. In each of us we possess our human nature, at once fixed but also free and dynamic, enhypostatized in each person individually, which chooses from among many goods from the infinity of goods (logoi) in God. Thus, life in God will not be a fixity of will, since the summum bonum is not one. In the world to come we will have both the myriad words/goods from God in which to live, as well as the distinct hypostases of the saints and of course also of the Tri-hypostatic life of God among which we will move. And thus even in this identity of goals in the life in God, we see that our freedom is preserved, as is both the power and the opportunity of choice.

What are the consequences of a lack of focus and resolution? The momentous event of history found our Lord’s disciples unable to keep even a short vigil. They had spent at least three years with Him, and at the moment of crisis they let sleep get the better of them, not bending their wills to stay awake one hour. Our Lord’s rebuke cannot be called unjust, and came as one of the most repeated phrases in all of history: “The spirit is willing by the flesh is weak.” How often we want to do something, but lack the resolution to attain it: we intend to read certain books, accomplish various goals, reform ourselves and try to be more disciplined about our fasting and the practice of virtue. We fail in all of these matters for many reasons, but lack of resolution stands near the beginning: we both fail to have a vision for why we do them, and as well to have purpose or determination to accomplish them. We fail to see the one goal in which these matters resolve themselves, and we fail in our resolve to carry matters out to their one, ultimate goal. I should read the Philokalia not just to see what St. Niketas Stethatos has to say about prayer, but ultimately to have life in God. The disciples in Gethsemane lacked strength, but they also lacked the resolve to accomplish what was necessary at the moment, and that was the ordering of their souls toward the will of the Father, that very thing which Christ was doing.

My confessor has used the phrase “purpose of amendment.” Having sinned, do I intend to keep on sinning? A wonderful read on this is Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. The main character, Tom More, lacks resolution about his life, his love, his faith, well, he just lacks purpose and resolution. He doesn’t see things clearly, something Percy returns to in his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. But resolution does come at the end of the novel, and More comes to understand that purpose of amendment, even if weak, is still a beginning, and indeed for most of us is how we must begin our own lives, even every day. Prayer is tough work, and lacking a focus on what our lives and prayers should be about will only make it that much harder. We need purpose about the time we allot for prayer, focus so that distractions can be avoided, resolve to carry this out in quiet places far from interruptions, and energy adequately at hand to carry our purposes through.

To will one thing is necessary (the one thing necessary) even if its immediate goals are multiple. And while we need simplicity and purity of heart, this is not something that comes easily, and it certainly does not come without resolve.

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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One Response to A Kierkegaardian Interlude (Thoughts on Prayer IV )

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