Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing by Sören Kierkegaard
Sören Kierkegaard is one of the towering Christian existential thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century. While his literary style was experimental, his writings call for Christian morality; a defense of faith and religion. Among his many books are Training in Christianity, Sickness Unto Death, and Fear and Trembling. This book was first published by Harper in 1938. It was translated from the Danish and contains an introductory essay by Douglas V. Steere. Prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Willie Brock.
Chapter 2: Remorse, Repentance, Confession: Eternityís Emissaries to Man
There is, then, something which should at all times be done. There is something which in no temporal sense shall have its time. Alas, and when this is not done, when it is omitted, or when just the opposite is done, then once again, there is something (Or more correctly it is the same thing, that reappears, changed, but not changed in its essence) which should at all times be done. There is something which in no temporal sense shall have its time. There must be repentance and remorse.
One dare not say of repentance and remorse that it has its time; that there is a time to be carefree and a time to be prostrated in repentance. Such talk would be: to the anxious urgency of repentance -- unpardonably slow; to the grieving after God -- sacrilege; to what should be done this very day, in this instant, in this moment of danger -- senseless delay. For there is indeed danger. There is a danger that is called delusion. It is unable to check itself. It goes on and on: then it is called perdition. But there is a concerned guide, a knowing one, who attracts the attention of the wanderer, who calls out to him that he should take care. That guide is remorse. He is not so quick of foot as the indulgent imagination, which is the servant of desire. He is not so strongly built as the victorious intention. He comes on slowly afterwards. He grieves. But he is a sincere and faithful friend. If that guideís voice is never heard, then it is just because one is wandering along the way of perdition. For when the sick man who is wasting away from consumption believes himself to be in the best of health, his disease is at the most terrible point. If there were some one who early in life steeled his mind against all remorse and who actually carried it out, nevertheless remorse would come again if he were willing to repent even of this decision. So wonderful a power is remorse, so sincere is its friendship that to escape it entirely is the most terrible thing of all. A man can wish to slink away from many things in life, and he may even succeed, so that lifeís favored one can say in the last moment, "I slipped away from all the cares under which other men suffered." But if such a person wishes to bluster out of, to defy, or to slink away from remorse, alas, which is indeed the most terrible to say of him, that he failed, or -- that he succeeded?
A Providence watches over each manís wandering through life. It provides him with two guides. The one calls him forward. The other calls him back. They are, however, not in opposition to each other, these two guides, nor do they leave the wanderer standing there in doubt, confused by the double call. Rather the two are in eternal understanding with each other. For the one beckons forward to the Good, the other calls man back from evil. Nor are they blind guides. Just for that reason there are two of them. For in order to make the journey secure, they must look both forward and backward. Alas, there was perhaps many a one who went astray through not understanding how to continue a good beginning. For his course was along a false way, and he pressed on so continuously that remorse could not call him back onto the old way. There was perhaps someone who went astray because, in the exhaustion of repentance, he could go no further, so that the guide could not help him to find the way forward. When a long procession is about to move, a call is heard first from the one who is furthest forward. But he waits until the last has answered. The two guides call out to a man early and late, and when he listens to their call, then he finds his way, then he can know where he is, on the way. Because these two calls designate the place and show the way. Of these two, the call of remorse is perhaps the best. For the eager traveler who travels lightly along the way does not, in this fashion, learn to know it as well as a wayfarer with a heavy burden. The one who merely strives to get on does not learn to know the way as well as the remorseful man. The eager traveler hurries forward to the new, to the novel, and, indeed, away from experience. But the remorseful one, who comes behind, laboriously gathers up experience.
The two guides call out to a man early and late. And yet, no, for when remorse calls to a man it is always late. The call to find the way again by seeking out God in the confession of sins is always at the eleventh hour. Whether you are young or old, whether you have sinned much or little, whether you have offended much or neglected much, the guilt makes this call come at the eleventh hour. The inner agitation of the heart understands what remorse insists upon, that the eleventh hour has come. For in the sense of time, the old manís age is the eleventh hour; and the instant of death, the final moment in the eleventh hour. The indolent youth speaks of a long life that lies before him. The indolent old man hopes that his death is still a long way off. But repentance and remorse belong to the eternal in a man. And in this way each time that repentance comprehends guilt it understands that the eleventh hour has come: that hour which human indolence knows well enough exists and will come, when it is talked about in generalities, but not when it actually applies to the indolent one himself. For even the old man thinks that there is some time left and the indolent youth deceives himself when he thinks that difference in age is the determining factor in regard to the nearness of the eleventh hour. See, then, how good and how necessary it is that there are two guides. For whether it be the lightly armed desire of youth which it is presumed will press forward to victory, or whether it be the mature man s determination that will fight its way through life, they both count on having a long time at their disposal. They presuppose, in the plans for their efforts, a generation or at least a number of years, and therefore they waste a great deal of time and on that account the whole thing so readily ends in delusion.
But repentance and remorse know how to make use of time in fear and trembling. When remorse awakens concern, whether it be in the youth, or in the old man, it awakens it always at the eleventh hour. It does not have much time at its disposal, for it is at the eleventh hour. It is not deceived by a false notion of a long life, for it is at the eleventh hour. And in the eleventh hour one understands life in a wholly different way than in the days of youth or in the busy time of manhood or in the final moment of old age. He who repents at any other hour of the day repents in the temporal sense. He fortifies himself by a false and hasty conception of the insignificance of his guilt. He braces himself with a false and hasty notion of lifeís length. His remorse is not in true inwardness of spirit. Oh, eleventh hour, wherever thou art present, how all is changed! How still everything is, as if it were the midnight hour; how sober, as if it were the hour of death; how lonely, as if it were among the tombs; how solemn, as if it were within eternity. Oh, heavy hour of labor (although labor is at rest), when the account is rendered, yet there is no accuser there; when all is called by its own name, yet there is nothing said; when each improper word must be repeated, in the light of eternity! Oh, costly bargain, where remorse must pay so dearly for what seemed in the eyes of lightheartedness and busyness and proud struggling and impatient passion and the judgment of the world to be reckoned as nothing! Oh, eleventh hour, how terrible if Thou shouldst remain, how much more terrible than if death should continue through a whole life!
So repentance must have its time if all is not to be confused. For there are two guides. The one beckons forward. The other calls back. But repentance shall not have its time in a temporal sense. It will not belong to a certain section of life as fun and play belong to childhood, or as the excitement of love belongs to youth. It will not come and disappear as a whim or as a surprise. No, remorse should be an action with a collected mind, so that it may be spoken of to the edification of the hearer and so that new life may be born of it, so that it does not become an event whose sorrowful heritage is a feeling of sadness. In a setting of freedom, bearing the impress of eternity, repentance should have its time, yes, even its time of preparation. For in proportion to what should be done there, the time of collection and preparation is not a drawn-out affair. On the contrary there is a sense of reverence, a holy fear, a humility, that that which is to be done in the pure sincerity of this act of repentance may not become vain and overhasty. That a man wishes to prepare himself is no torpid delay. On the contrary, it is an intense agitation of heart that is already in alliance with what is to be done there. From the point of view of the Eternal, repentance must come instantaneously, indeed there is not even time to utter the words. But man is in the temporal dimension and moves along in time. Thus the Eternal and the temporal seek to make themselves intelligible to each other. Just as the temporal does not wish for delay simply in order to withdraw itself, but, conscious of its weakness, asks time to prepare itself; so the Eternal yields not because it gives up its claim, but in order by tender treatment to give frail man a little time.
The Eternal with its "obey at once" must not become a sudden shock which merely confuses the temporal. It should, on the contrary, be of assistance to the temporal throughout life. As the superior in relation to its mental inferior, or as an older person in relation to a child, can press its claim to such an extreme that it ends by actually weakening the mind of the mentally inferior or the child, so also the Eternal can in the imagination of an excitable person make an attempt to push the temporal into madness. Hut the grieving of repentance after God and the heartfelt anxiety must not, above all, be confused with impatience. Experience teaches that the right moment to repent is not always the one that is immediately present. For repentance in this precipitate moment when labored thoughts and various passions are acutely active or at least are strained by this unburdening may so easily be mistaken about that which is really to be repented. It can so easily be confused with its opposite, with the momentary feeling of contrition, that is, with impatience. It can so easily be confused with a painful agonizing sorrow after the world, that is, with impatience; with a desperate feeling of grief in itself, that is, with impatience. But impatience, no matter how long it continues to rage, never becomes repentance. However clouded, then, the mind becomes, the sobs of impatience no matter how violent they are, never become sobs of repentance. The tears of impatience lack the blessed fruitfulness. They are like empty clouds that bear no water, or like convulsive puffs of wind. On the other hand, if a man assumed an even heavier guilt, but at the same time improved and year after year went steadily forward in the good, it is certain that from year to year, as he advanced in the good, he would with greater intensity repent of his guilt, the guilt which year by year in a temporal sense he would be leaving further and further behind. For it is indeed the case that guilt must be alive for a man if he is honestly to repent. But just for that reason, precipitate repentance is false and is never to be sought after. For it may not be the inner anxiety of heart but only the momentary feeling that presents the guilt so actively. This kind of repentance is selfish, a matter of the senses, sensually powerful for the moment, excited in expression, impatient in the most diverse exaggerations -- and, just on this account, is not real repentance. Sudden repentance would drink down all the bitterness of sorrow in a single draught and then hurry on. It wants to get away from guilt. It wants to banish all recollection of it, fortifying itself by imagining that it does this in order not to be held back in the pursuit of the Good. It is its wish that guilt, after a time, might be wholly forgotten. And once again, this is impatience. Perhaps a later sudden repentance may make it apparent that the former sudden repentance lacked true inwardness.
It is told that there was once a man who through his misdeeds deserved the punishment which the law meted out to him. After he had suffered for his wrong acts he went back into ordinary society, improved. Then he went to a strange land, where he was not known, and where he became known for his worthy conduct. All was forgotten. Then one day there appeared a fugitive that recognized the distinguished person as his equal back in those miserable days. This was a terrifying memory to meet. A deathlike fear shook him each time this man passed. Although silent, this memory shouted in a high voice until through the voice of this vile fugitive it took on words. Then suddenly despair seized this man, who seemed to have been saved. And it seized him just because repentance was forgotten, because the improvement toward society was not the resigning of himself to God, so that in the humility of repentance he might remember what he had been. For in the temporal, and sensual, and social sense, repentance is in fact something that comes and goes during the years. But in the eternal sense, it is a silent daily anxiety. It is eternally false, that guilt is changed by the passage of a century. To assert anything of this sort is to confuse the Eternal with what the Eternal is least like -- with human forgetfulness.
If anyone in a brazen and impious mood should pronounce absolution from the Good, on the ground that all is lost, then this is sacrilege and this will only add to the guilt by piling up more and more fresh guilt. Now let us indeed consider this. Guilt is not increased for the reason that it seems more and more tragic to the improved individual. It is not a gain that guilt should be wholly forgotten. On the contrary, it is loss and perdition. But it is a gain to win an inner intensity of heart through a deeper and deeper inner sorrowing over guilt. It is not a gain to notice, because of a manís forgetfulness, that he is growing older. But it is a gain to notice that a man has grown older by the deeper and deeper penetration into his heart of the transformation wrought by remorse. One should be able to tell the age of a tree from its bark; in truth one can also tell a manís age in the Good by the intensity of his repentance. There is a battle of despair that struggles -- with the consequences. The enemy attacks constantly from behind, and yet the fighter shall continue to advance. When this is so, the repentance is still young and weak. There is a suffering of repentance, that is not impatient in bearing the punishment, but yet each moment cringes under it. When this is so, the repentance is still young and weak. There is a silent, sleepless sorrow at the picturing of what has been wasted. It does not despair, but in its daily grieving, it is always restless. When this is so, the repentance is still young and weak. There is a laborious moving forward in the Good that is like the gait of one whose feet are without skin. He is willing enough, he will gladly walk swiftly, but he has suffered a loss of courage. The pains make his going uncertain and agonizing. When this is so, the repentance is still young and weak.
But when, in spite of this, more confident steps are made along the way, when punishment itself becomes a blessing, when consequences even become redemptive, when progress in the Good is apparent; then is there a milder but deep sorrow that remembers the guilt. It has wearied out and overcome what could deceive and confuse the sight. Therefore it does not see falsely, but sees only the one sorrowful thing. This is the older, the strong and the powerful repentance. When it is a matter of the senses, it is true that they deteriorate and decline in the course of the years. Of a dancer one must say that her time is past when her youth is gone. But it is otherwise with a penitent. And it must be said of repentance that, if it is forgotten, then its strength was only an immaturity; but the longer and the more deeply one treasures it, the better it becomes. For guilt looks most terrifying the nearer at hand one sees it. But repentance is most acceptable to God, the further away repentance views the guilt, along the way of the Good.
So, then, repentance should not merely have its time, but even its time of preparation. Although it should be a silent daily concern, it should also be able to collect itself and be well prepared for the solemn occasion. One such an occasion is the office of Confession, the holy act for which preparation should be made in advance. As a man changes his raiment for a feast, so is a man changed in his heart who prepares himself for the holy act of confession. It is indeed like a changing of raiment to lay off manyness, in order rightly to center down upon one thing; to interrupt the busy course of activity, in order to put on the quiet of contemplation and be at one with oneself. And this being at one with oneself is the simple festival garment of the feast that is the condition of admittance. The manyness, one may see with a dispersed mind, see something of it, see it in passing, see it with half-closed eyes, with a divided mind, see it and indeed not see it. In the rush of busyness, one may be anxious over many things, begin many things, do many things at once, and only half do them all. Hut one cannot confess without this at-oneness with oneself. He that is not truly at one with himself during the hour of the office of Confession is merely dispersed. If he remains silent, he is not collected; if he speaks, it is only in a chatty vein, not in confession.
But he that in truth becomes at one with himself, he is in the silence. And this is indeed like a changing of raiment: to strip oneself of all that is as full of noise as it is empty, in order to be hidden in the silence, to become open. This silence is the simple festivity of the holy act of confession. For at dancing and festive occasions worldly judgment holds that the more musicians, the better. But when we are thinking of divine things, the deeper the stillness the better. When the wanderer comes away from the much-traveled noisy highway into places of quiet, then it seems to him (for stillness is impressive) as if he must examine himself, as if he must speak out what lies hidden in the depths of his soul. It seems to him, according to the poetsí explanation, as if something inexpressible thrusts itself forward from his innermost being, the unspeakable, for which indeed language has no vessel of expression. Even the longing is not the unspeakable itself. It is only a hastening after it. But what silence means, what the surroundings will say in this stillness, is just the unspeakable.
Now the surprise expressed by the trees, if it can be said that the trees looked down in surprise upon the wanderer, explains nothing. And the woodís echo makes very clear indeed that it explains nothing. No, as an impregnable fortress throws back the attack of the enemy, so the echo throws back the voice, no matter how loudly the wanderer shouts. And the clouds hang as they please, and dream only of themselves. Whether seeming to be in restful revery, or enjoying voluptuous soft movements; whether in their transparence running swiftly off, driven by the wind, or gathering in a dark mass to battle with the wind, at least they do not trouble themselves over the wanderer.
And the sea, like a wise man, is sufficient unto itself. Whether it lies like a child and amuses itself with its soft ripples as a child that plays with its mouth, or at noon lies like a drowsy thinker in carefree enjoyment and allows its gaze to wander over all, or in the night ponders deeply over its own being; whether in order to see what is going on, it cunningly conceals itself as though it no longer existed, or whether it rages in its own passion the sea has a deep ground, it knows well enough what it knows. That which has that deep ground always knows this; but there is no sharing of this knowledge.
And what a puzzling arrangement the army of stars presents! Yet there seems to be an agreement between them that they shall arrange themselves in this fashion. But the stars are so far away that they cannot see the wanderer. It is only the wanderer who can see the stars, hence there may come no agreement between him and the stars. So this melancholy of poetical longing is grounded in a deep misunderstanding, because the lonely wanderer is everywhere surrounded in nature by that which does not understand him, even though it always seems as if an understanding must be arrived at.
Now the unspeakable is like the murmuring of a brook. If you go buried in your own thoughts, if you are busy, then you do not notice it at all in passing. You are not aware that this murmuring exists. But if you stand still, then you discover it. And if you have discovered it, then you must stand still. And when you stand still, then it persuades you. And when it has persuaded you, then you must stoop and listen attentively to it. And when you have stooped to listen to it, then it captures you. And when it has captured you, then you cannot break away from it, then you are overpowered. Infatuated, you sink down at its side. At each moment it is as if in the next moment it must offer an explanation. But the brook goes on murmuring, and the wanderer at its side grows older.
It is otherwise with one who confesses. The stillness also impresses him, yet not in the melancholy mood of misunderstanding, but rather with the seriousness of eternity. He is not, like the wanderer, uncertain about how he came upon the still places. Nor is he like the poet who wishes to seek out loneliness and its mood. No, to confess is a holy act, for which purpose, the mind is collected in preparation. That which environs you knows well enough what this stillness means and that it calls for earnestness. It knows that it is its wish to be understood. It knows that fresh guilt is incurred if it be misunderstood. And the One that is present at this confession is an omniscient One. He knows and remembers all that this man has ever confided to Him, or that this man has ever withdrawn from His confidence. He is an omniscient One that again at the final moment of this manís life will remember this hour, will remember what this man confided to Him and what this man withdrew from His confidence. He is an omniscient One who knows every thought from a distance, who knows plainly the very path of each thought, even when it eludes a manís own consciousness. He is an omniscient One "who seeth in secret," with whom a man speaks even in silence, so that no one shall venture to deceive Him either by talk, or by silence, as in this world where one man can conceal much from the other now by being silent, and again even more by talking.
The person making the confession is not like a servant that gives account to his lord for the management which is given over to him because the lord could not manage all or be present in all places. The all-knowing One was present at each instant for which reckoning shall be made in the account. The account of what is done is not made for the lordís sake but for the servantís sake, who must even render account of how he used the very moment of rendering the account. Nor is the person confessing like one that confides in a friend to whom sooner or later he reveals things that the friend did not previously know. The all-knowing One does not get to know something about the maker of the confession, rather the maker of confession gets to know about himself. Therefore, do not raise the objection against the confession that there is no point in confiding to the all-knowing One that which He already knows. Reply first to the question whether it is not conferring a benefit when a man gets to know something about himself which he did not know before. A hasty explanation could assert that to pray is a useless act, because a manís prayer does not alter the unalterable. But would this be desirable in the long run? Could not fickle man easily come to regret that he had gotten God changed? The true explanation is therefore at the same time the one most to be desired. The prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it. It is the same with the substance of what is spoken. Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession.
Much that you are able to keep hidden in darkness, you first get to know by your opening it to the knowledge of the all-knowing One. Even the most atrocious misdeeds are committed, even blood is spilt, and many times it must in truth be said of the guilty one: he knew not what he did. Perhaps he died, without ever in repentance really getting to know what it was he had done. For does passion ever properly know what it does? Does not passionís insidious temptation and its apparent excuse center in that deceptive ignorance about itself because, in the instant, it has forgotten the Eternal? For if passion continues in a man, it changes his life into nothing but instants and as passion cunningly serves its deluded master, it gradually gains the ascendancy until the master serves it like a blind serf!
For when hate, and anger, and revenge, and despondency, and melancholy, and despair, and fear of the future, and reliance on the world, and trust in oneself, and pride that infuses itself even into sympathy, and envy that even mingles itself with friendship, and that inclination that may have changed but not for the better: when these dwell m a man -- when was it without the deceptive excuse of ignorance? And when a man remained ignorant of them, was it not precisely because he at the same time remained ignorant of the fact that there is an all-knowing One.
Yes, there is an ignorance which no one needs be troubled over if he was deprived either of the opportunity or the capacity to learn. But there is an ignorance about oneís own life that is equally tragic for the learned and for the simple, for both are bound by the same responsibility. This ignorance is called self-deceit. There is an ignorance that by degrees, as more and more is learned, gradually changes into knowledge. But there is only one thing that can remove that other ignorance which is self-deception. And to be ignorant of the fact that there is one thing and only one thing, and that only one thing is necessary, is still to be in self-deception.
The ignorant one may have been ignorant of much. He can increase his knowledge, and still there is much that he does not know. But if the self-deluded one speaks of quantity, and of variety, then he is still in self-deception, still deeply ensnared by and in the grip of multiplicity. The ignorant man can gradually acquire wisdom and knowledge, but the self-deluded one if he won "the one thing needful" would have won purity of heart.