‘For, what is it to be, and to want to be, a sovereign individual?’ – Søren Kierkegaard
This is not about whether you believe in God, or are a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Christian. It is primarily about thinking outside the box of human time – something we can all do instinctively. We are benders and shapers of time. In his writings, Søren Kierkegaard often described what we call heaven, or paradise, as ‘eternity’ – evighed in the Danish – and in one of his most profound and stirring passages, he painted a vision of that eternity. The place we have always imagined that is beyond time. A place where the sick are healed and all truth is astonishingly revealed as resting in the embrace of pure love. The heartbeat of all infinity. of all matter beyond time.
Say you are in a dentist’s chair and are one of those unfortunates who dreads such a scenario, or it might be that you sit in a plane and have a terrible fear of flying. Each second before the anaesthetic, sleeping pill or other tranquiliser takes effect feels like an eternity. Time stretches and the scientific fact of each exactly spaced second becomes meaningless. A second can become a century in the flux of human emotion.
Or more attractively, consider how bendy human time becomes for lovers approaching their first kiss, The pregnancy of that coming moment and the drag of anticipation makes a mockery of time. It can suddenly seem to run backwards as the moment nears, then get ahead of itself in the throes of ardour and passion. It is time as we dream it, rather than counting it.
In Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard writes brilliantly on the eternal that lies at the heart of that kiss: “eternity’s aura emblazons this moment”. Don’t bother asking the lovers at what point in time this magic occurred for they will not hear your voice … “but ask out in the wide world in what century this happened, what land, what time of day? Nobody will give an answer, because it is an eternal image.” * Time only enslaves humankind if we let it. We are makers of our own miracles if have enough astonishment left to see and feel them.
Our notion of time in other words is elastic and subjective. If this is the case, what then of the moment of human death?
Roadside warning of a wake in progress -a very common sight in Ireland
In the Irish tradition of the wake – still very strong in our country – the dead person undergoes a passage of time and is ‘waked’ or assisted and accompanied to the other side of time. The passage to the realm of beyond time.
In the Irish language (Gaeilge) one word for death often used at wakes, and in the reporting of a death, is Slí na Firinne – the path of truth. We say that the departing soul is embarked upon the path of truth, or we might say the path of revelation, or full understanding. Complete fulfilment. It is this idea of the passage from time to beyond time that Kierkegaard explores in a remarkable, yet little noted section of, as above, Stages on Life’s Way.
The context for Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven, in this instance, is the question he continually asks himself: will he once again see his beloved Regine Olsen – who married another after he jilted her – in that same beyond time? The second part of Stages on Life’s Way – Guilty Not Guilty is an extended meditation on Kierkegaard’s temporal and eternal relations with her.
Regine Olsen – Kierkegaard’s one and only love
Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven:
Where then will we meet again? In eternity. Time enough then for reconciliation …And if eternity heals all sickness, gives the deaf their hearing, the blind their vision and the lamed their bodily beauty, it will also heal me. And what is my sickness? Depression. And from where does this sickness come? My powers of imagination and the impulsion of the possible. My obsession with these also. But the eternal removes the possible. And wasn’t my depression heavy enough in human time; so much that I not only suffered desperately with it but also felt huge guilt? The lamed must only suffer the pain of being disabled; how terrible it would be if being lame also inflicted great twists of guilt upon them!
Therefore Oh God in heaven – when my time is up, let my last breath be for You and my Soul’s utter fulfilment. But the one prior to that be for her. Or let me for the first time in an age be once more united with her, but for all eternity in that final breath.*
Just like a kiss. A final breath can last for all eternity. In this lies the secret of the Resurrection.
Beannachtaí na Cásca/Easter Greetings from Ireland.
Paul Larkin, Carraic, Donegal
*The translations from Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way are my own interpretations and represent, I believe, some modest pointers to a different way of translating and interpreting Kierkegaard in English.