Many of my friends are dead. I don’t mean that I lost them over the span of my life—we were never alive at the same time. Many of them lived on different continents before flight technology was available, while others couldn’t speak a lick of English. But none of this matters; we share a deep bond. I’m not sure it’s even accurate to call them dead. Their blood courses in ink throughout pages encased between two covers. Every time the book is opened, a heart begins to beat and a soul is animated back to life.
Of course, this is exactly the kind of thing said by someone who talks a lot about crystals and doesn’t have any real friends. Surprisingly, I do have friends who haven’t been buried in the ground, but sometimes they talk too much. Or they’ll say the wrong things, like “at least you still have a cat.”
The dead are often better listeners.
Finding friends in the recesses of history is not much different from our current instinct to look through computer screens at message boards or 280-character darts. That’s the benefit of social media, of course: your new best friend might be waiting for you on Facebook’s Hermit Crab Community Group. And yet, these digital friendships are often shaped by flattery and echo chambers, which are the enemies of friendship, according to Aristotle. I don’t need an affinity group where someone agrees with all of my preconceived ideas. I need the time-tested wisdom of someone who can see into my soul, the beautiful and the ugly, and help me love God.
I stumbled upon Søren Kierkegaard when I was lost, drowning in a sea of possibilities. Kierkegaard knew a bit about anxiety. Angsty teenagers have long shoved their noses in his books, searching for someone who understands despondency and authenticity. Most of them discover that it’s hard to understand what Kierkegaard understands about despair. And yet his words have captured the universal desire to become an individual, to find the one true thing for which you can live and die.
I started studying Kierkegaard because he was the kind of person a pastor ought to read; it’s a pastoral rite of passage, at the very least to secure a few whimsical sermon illustrations. At the time, I had just entered my first vocational crisis, leaving the pastorate in search of something with more predictable hours where people don’t apologize for cursing. I sought to find a place where I could combine all of my varied interests of art, teaching, and relationship building. I knew that I didn’t easily fit inside the stereotypical pastoral mold, but I needed someone to affirm the truth I felt inside of my heart. Did I just throw away my life?
Kierkegaard wrote about subjectivity as truth, the act of charting an authentic path forward, and the indignant hope that one’s spirit will make it through the labyrinth and end up in the center of God’s heart. To live is to stand before an endless sea of possibilities, and it’s your responsibility to choose a defining commitment and enter the anxiety that lies between who you are and who you might become.
I devoured everything he had written, followed by secondary literature, biographies, podcasts, and YouTube lectures. We shared coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. I could cancel our planned dates; he never got angry. The wisdom I received from my new friend was less important than being able to share the fear and trembling of faith.
“Someone understands,” I told myself.
Suffering, at the most basic level, is the failure to be seen. It’s the alienation (whether from oneself, one’s body, a community, or God) that results from being disconnected. Suffering is relieved, at least marginally, when someone else understands and can give words to what cannot otherwise be expressed. The story of another can reconnect you to a greater vine, root you firmly in the soil, and promise the potential of a future that will fruit.
Kierkegaard is one of many friends who have sojourned alongside me. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Saint Francis of Assisi have joined me recently. At this point in my life, all of these friends feel like family. Or, as Paul writes, we share the same body of which Christ is the head—the body of Christ. In baptism, we have been drowned and raised, while the fire of Christ’s love has welded us together into one body through the Holy Spirit.
I used to assume the body of Christ was a metaphor, but now I’m not so sure. It feels as if we have actually become a part of one another, one body. It’s an ontological statement about the being of those who are baptized. In other words, there is a communion in Christ that transgresses all the linguistic and geographic boundaries that separate us, including the greatest division of all—death.
The beauty of Christianity is that we have language to describe our relationship with the dead—we call it the communion of saints. The word saint, which has received a poor reputation in today’s popular media, actually just means “holy one.” We’re all saints according to scripture, but the church has given a special distinction to those saints who have finished their journey. These are the friends we commune with even though they’ve crossed to the other side. No one is lost or severed from the body. If those of us who breathe are the limbs and organs of the body, then the saints are the bones. They hold up our bodies, give us shape, and make us stand straight.
I used to think it was strange when my Catholic friends asked saints to pray for them. Protestants have an aversion to talking to saints when we can go to Christ alone. But it never hurts to have more friends on your side. According to some in the Christian tradition, when saints die, they continue to exist in Christ, aware of our world and able to interact with it. Consider the transfiguration, which shows the faithful departed appearing and communing with the disciples. We are promised a cloud of witnesses, after all. As Saint Teresa of Lisieux said, “Upon my death, I will let fall a shower of roses; I wish to spend my heaven in doing good upon the earth.” If it feels as if a saint is speaking to you, then perhaps the saint is, in fact, speaking to you.
I’m not sure anyone on this side of earth knows what I’m going through, but that strange man with the curved back who walked through the streets at night mumbling to himself? His name is Kierkegaard, and he understands. Saint Augustine said, “By passing along the narrow road [the saints] widened it, and while they went along, trampling the rough ways, they went ahead of us.” We all need someone to take a machete to the brush before we get to the trail. But thank God that those people never leave the trail.
Søren Kierkegaard, pray for me.
Commune with me.
Cover image by Viktor Talashuk.