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Classics Review: The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air by Søren Kierkegaard

Lily and Birds

Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse, Princeton University Press, 2016

My Summer of Philosophy continues with The Lily Of The Field And The Bird Of The Air, by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Bird and Lily is a slim volume of 90 pages. It consists of three discourses, all reflections on Matthew 6:24-34, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount:




In my copy the titles of the discourses are capitalized and include italics so I have tried to reproduce them here as printed. They are also, of course, quotations taken from the scripture. This is a brand new translation by Bruce H. Kirmmse, just published in 2016.

Kierkegaard was specific in calling these writings discourses, and distinguished them from his more scholarly philosophical writings. So it might not hurt to get a little more clear on what, in the literary world, a discourse is. A later philosopher, Michel Foucault, defines discourse as: “Systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, and courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.” Well that is pretty technical, but it comes close to capturing the kind of writing we find in Bird and Lily. However I think Kierkegaard would take issue with the idea that he is constructing either the subject or the world he is writing about. He would probably say he is employing the imperfect tool of language to get at something that not only pre-exists language but will exist long after human language has passed from use.

In fact the first discourse has a lot to say about how human language is an obstacle to experiencing the unvarnished truth, the kind of truth the lily and the bird are in touch with every moment of their short lives. This discourse reflects on the value of silence before God, one of the lessons we learn from the lily and the bird. “Let us now look more closely a the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully and firmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore, the bird waits, but knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour and the day; therefore it keeps silent.”

It is amazing how much Kierkegaard can write on the subject of silence. And yet the book somehow doesn’t seem boring or even annoyingly repetitive; rather it is lulling, peaceful, and meditative. As I read the words I received their messages not once and for all, but once and then gradually on a successively deeper level. I wish I had an audio version because I think this book would work well as a guided meditation. I’d love to hear someone with a rich sonorous voice read it to me as I lay with my eyes closed in a dim room. Candles would work too.

In the second discourse, we get into some deep water indeed: the issue of choosing to be with God or without God. Here, the lesson of the lily and the bird is that in reality there is no in–between state: either God or no God. It is easy for humans with our rationalizations, distractions, busyness, and most of all speech, to believe we can sort of have God but also go about our lives as though God did not exist. “Thus: either/or. Either God, and as the Gospel explains it, either love God or hate him…..But indeed, as a body falls with infinite speed when placed in a vacuum, so also does the silence out there with the lily and bird, the solemn silence before God, cause these two opposites to touch and repel one another at exactly the same instant––either to love or to hate.”

The second discourse also includes an interesting analysis of the Lord’s prayer, in which Kierkegaard shows that the prayer is entirely consistent with the message about learning the unconditional obedience of lily and bird. In part Kierkegaard writes that from the lily and bird “…you have learned to serve only one master, to love him alone, and to hold fast to him unconditionally in everything. Then, the prayer (which, it is true, will be fulfilled in any case) would be fulfilled by you when you pray to God: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is heaven,’ for in unconditional obedience, his will is done through you on earth as it is in Heaven.”

The third discourse is the shortest and the one I enjoyed the most. It is about learning to be fully present in the joy of moment, not worrying about what will happen tomorrow. Kierkegaard writes that the joy of the lily and the bird is not because they are free of suffering. They do suffer. All of nature withers and perishes. They simply live in the eternal moment fully experiencing the gift of existence, casting their sorrow upon God.

“Marvelous dexterity! To be able to take hold of all one’s sorrow at once, and then to be able to cast it away from oneself so dexterous lay and hit the mark with such certainly! Yet this is what the lily and the bird do, and therefore they are unconditionally joyful at that very instant. And of course this entirely in order, for God the Almighty bears the whole world all the world’s sorrow––including the lily and the bird’s––with infinite lightness.”


Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard (1806-1882).

I am only starting my study of Kierkegaard, so I am no expert. With The Lily of the Field and the Bird Of The Air, I know I have only dipped my index finger into the vast and deep sea of Kierkegaard. I see that he writes about the things that most interest me in the universe, so I am very excited about continuing my study. What I understand, from this book and my background research, is that Kierkegaard explores the nature of human existence––what human beings really are in body, mind, and soul in the larger scheme of the universe. Considered the first existentialist philosopher, he wrote in first half to middle years of the great 19th century and was influenced by the Romantic movement. I get the impression he was one of those lone meteoric philosophers who do not fit neatly into the going school or cultural movement.

Kierkegaard wrote both “aesthetic” or scholarly philosophy, often using pseudonyms, as well as more overtly religious “discourses” such as Bird and Lily. He liked to write both types of books as companion pieces, looking at the same subject from different perspectives. In the introduction of this book Bruce H. Kirmmse explains that Kierkegaard liked to say he offered his aesthetic writing with his left hand and his religious discourses with his right. The aesthetic companion to Bird and Lily is the second edition of Either/Or. So Either/Or is the next Kierkegaard on my list.

* * * * * * * *

*Matthew 6:24-35 (NKJV):

24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry 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, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

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