Letter To Axel Kildegaard
By Phil Hefner
Editor’s note: Dr. Phil Hefner, who taught at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, wrote this as the basis for his sermon for Axel Kildegaard’s funeral on April 19, 2003. The sermon itself took its own directions in the oral delivery. The manuscript’s original publication was in the theological journal of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Wartburg Seminary, Currents in Theology and Mission, 31, no. 6, (Dec. 2004). The author gave permission to republish it here.
You will recall that on the twenty-fourth of February last you sent me an e-mail about an exciting article you had just read in the U.S. Catholic by Brian Swimme. You wanted to have some discussion with me, and you cited a page full of ideas and page references to the article. I responded to you only briefly and waited for the article itself, which you were going to send me by e-mail. You tried several times in the following weeks but couldn't get it through to me. I searched the magazine's Web site, but I could never locate the article you read. The upshot is that we never did get to have that discussion, at least not over the Internet. On March 18 I received my last message from you. It went like this:
Dear Phil ... The interview that I have was printed in June of 2002 in the "U.S. Catholic." I'll try once more to get it to you. I've been having some health problems ... don't know yet what is going on-next step an endoscopy ... whatever that may find! yours, Axel
We know now what was going on, and since our discussion never got done before those critters inside you finished their dirty work, I have decided to write you this letter. Of course, from your present perspective, you very likely already know everything that I am about say. I might say that this letter is more for my benefit than for yours, but knowing you, I know that you want me to write it and that you will take some satisfaction in the community between you and me that the letter represents.
You ask if I know Brian Swimme. Yes, I do know him, and as a matter of fact, Neva and I will hear him preach six sermons in July at a conference we attend each summer. He is a fine preacher. You might say that Brian is an astrophysicist who went "spiritual" but took his science with him.
You like Brian's idea that being human has something to do with remaining fascinated, with having a mind attuned to wonder, with being able "to enter into the delight of the Lord," and you infer that he must be a "Grundtvigian without knowing it." That may well be, but it is clear that he is an "Axel Kildegaardian," whether he knows it or not. That's one of your great gifts to me, teaching me about your Grundtvigian Lutheran faith by embodying it in my presence. That you are turned on by Brian Swimme's ideas in your ninth decade of life says all that need be said to demonstrate your capacity for delight.
We have to mention one of the great axioms of the Grundtvigian tradition--"human first, then Christian." The creation God has given us, the bodies and the selves that God has given us, these are our access to Christ and grace, not barriers, because they are God's primal gifts to us.
I've been reading Saint Benedict's interpretation of Jacob's ladder. When I was in young people's camp many summers ago, our camp counselors frowned on the old song "I am climbing Jacob's ladder" because it seemed to be saying that we get to heaven by our own skill at climbing, as if we don't need God's grace since we can get to the top on our own. That's not Benedict's view. He says, to the contrary, that each of us has a ladder given to us by God--our ladder is our own humanity, and the only way any of us can meet God is by means of our own personal ladders. The ladder is our life, given to us by God.
Perhaps we can place Benedict in that Danish tradition, too. Fylla tells us that in your last days here in Circle Pines you said you weren't going away to heaven, because you had already been living in heaven, living your life in the community God gave you, beginning with the family. Human first, in family first, and then God's heaven.
Of course God wants us to be fascinated and curious and playfully excited about these lives we've been given, about the "human first." I remember that famous trip we took together in 1997 to the Grundtvig conference in Koege, Denmark, and then to Paris and Chartres. Fascination--remember how far and long we walked in that unusually scorching Danish summer heat to find Grundtvig's grave outside Koege? But we wouldn't give up--and we were never sure we really found it! Fascination--with Notre Dame, with Chartres, with the Louvre, and with the River Seine, the flower markets, the outdoor bistros. You were fighting the gout then, and when we returned home you lost your eye to cancer. But your childlike delight trumped all that; it took your body, as it was, to places it had never been before. As if you were saying to that bad eye, "You had better take this in while you have the chance."
Talk about childlike delight--the unforgettable homemade marathon Easter Vigil ritual we devised in the 1970s. That would be tonight, Axel. I remember that late at night we struck the light and recited our baptismal vows in our front room on 54th Place, Bill Lesher holding the homemade cross and punching the nails in it, and then we did the Danish greeting of the Christ with the rising sun at the Lake Michigan shore, and then the festive Eucharistic breakfast, in the community of joy, at the Kildegaard mansion on Greenwood Avenue. It is necessary, you wrote me in February, that we be children, with a capacity to play, if we are to enter the kingdom of God. That Easter morning, we were reveling in the kingdom, weren't we? Easter vigil services were rare in Hyde Park in those days, and now there are many--but the children don't play with the abandon we enjoyed thirty years ago with the Kildegaards.
As you note, Brian Swimme takes our vision and our lives to the widest possible dimensions of fascination, delight, and community together, what you call "the cosmological dimension of community and the Body of Christ"--the cosmic view of this human first, then Christian, I would add. This humanity, our ladder, has cosmic dimensions, because it is created in the cosmos. In his little book The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (Orbis, 1999), Brian quotes the South American Indian teaching "that to become human, one must make room in oneself for the immensities of the universe" (p. 108).
Make room in oneself for the immensities of the universe. You tied this in with Brian's comments about the nothingness that is the womb of possibility. He calls this the "all-nourishing abyss." In whatever ways we talk about the universe, it is not dead matter. It has given us life, it is mystery, and it is dynamic; it is a life-giving womb. God created us as individuals and as community in that nourishing mystery. Brian writes that our science, as well as our experience, tells us that we are in contact in our own unique way with the Great Power that gave birth to the universe fifteen billion years ago and that continues to be involved with giving birth in every interaction throughout the universe today. That which gave birth to the universe is giving birth in this moment as well (p. 104). He adds a stunning punch line: "each child is situated in that very place and is rooted in that very power that brought forth all the matter and energy of the universe" (p. 104).
In your letter, you mentioned the loss of your little dog of sixteen years, Uffe. You wrote that Uffe "was also part of the great divine cosmos and continues to be so." Not only each of us, each child, but the whole creation.
In a way that is difficult for us to understand if we cannot break loose from an older, outmoded, view, our science tells us that there is no single center of the universe, but rather every point is the center. Each of us stands, so to speak, at the center of the universe, and from where we stand everything is expanding out from us in every direction. The center of the universe is truly wherever we are standing. Brian writes, "We exist then at the very origin point of the universe, because every place in the universe is that place where the universe flared forth into existence" (p. 89).
The "human first, then Christian" is the human who stands at the origin point of the universe, the human that is situated in the very power that brought it all forth. On the 24th of February you were fascinated by these ideas, and you recognized that they were akin to your own faith. Of course, you knew that you were not only affirming your Grundtvigian Lutheran tradition, you were thrilled that it was being expanded into cosmic dimensions by this Catholic scientist of the Spirit that you had encountered.
In your letter, you correlated this abyss or womb of the universe with Grundtvig's hymn "With the Word all things began, Life in ocean, Life on land." You asked, "Is this abyss compatible with the opening of John's Gospel?"
I think it is, Axel, and if this letter has a text, it is the first verses of that Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people....And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
(John 1:1-4, 14)
This life that came into being from the abyss that is the Word of God is not only some long-ago and far-away life, it is us, each one of us, and it thrilled you to have that said. You made room for the immensities of the universe in your very own self when you made room for the immensities of St. John's Gospel.
You heard Brian's call to play in a cosmic mode, because that is what you always did. He speaks of "Cosmology and Ecstasy." We cannot really know or understand the universe from which we are born unless we can play, ecstatically. Looking at the cosmos as life-giving calls forth "a deep zest for life, for it produces the psychic energy necessary to begin each day with joy. In the process of cosmological initiation ... the pain of loneliness and isolation is replaced by the joy of bonded relationship" (p. 36).
A cosmic zest, a cosmic sense of community. Science and theology will not get us to that point, cerebration is not enough. Playfulness, ecstasy, is required. As you wrote, it is necessary indeed to be children in order to be in the kingdom that God has created.
It would take an Axel Kildegaard to see that there is a direct line from the opening of St. John's Gospel to the science of the cosmos and to the playful fascination of the children who inhabit the kingdom of God. For a century or more, your tradition of Grundtvigians has been known as "the happy Danes." We knew that included singing, folk dancing, the joy of life, also aquavit and Gamle Dansk. You didn't tell us soon enough that it was a cosmic happiness and playfulness. But very late in your life you did write to me about that.
I don't play as well as you do, Axel. That doesn't mean you were a poor teacher, only that it still hasn't taken in me as I wish it would. However, that last letter of yours will not disappear from my consciousness. I still have hopes, in my seventy-first year, that I can learn to be a truly playful child in the kingdom of God.
And I will tell you this, dear Axel--I will get even more out of Brian's sermons this summer because of your letter.
I'm closing this letter, as you closed yours to me, my friend. You put it in capital letters,
Leave a Reply.
Bridget Lois Jensen