Christian Practice, Part 3: Kenosis and Gelassenheit

Most agree that spirituality involves an assault upon the ego. If all sin is generally rooted in selfishness and egotism, then the spiritual disciplines must attempt to curb the demands of the ego, the ever present focus on me, me, me.

In Christianity, this assault upon the ego is called kenosis. Kenosis is taken from the Greek verb which means "emptying." The classic articulation of kenosis in the NT is in Philippians 2:7: "Jesus made himself nothing ..." (NIV) or "...he emptied himself..." (NRSV).

In Christianity, kenosis is captured by themes of service, submission, obedience, humility, and modesty. Generally, the idea of "servanthood" captures the manifestation of kenosis. The image of kenosis, therefore, is the towel:

John 13: 1-5, 12-17
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

If kenosis is the goal, what then is the practice of kenosis? As mentioned above, kenosis manifests itself in humility, obedience, service, and submission. Can we find a single word that captures those ideas, the practice of kenosis?

I think a good candidate word comes from the Amish community. In many ways, the entire Amish lifestyle is aimed at kenosis. This can be seen in their modest dress, their strong emphasis on submission, and their ritual practice of footwashing. Speaking globally about all these practices, the Amish speak of Gelassenheit (pronounced Ge-las-en-hite). Roughly translated, Gelassenheit means submission or yielding. Amish children learn Gelassenheit by reciting this favorite verse:

I must be a Christian child,
gentle, patient, meek, and mild,
must be honest, simple, true,
I must cheerfully obey,
giving up my will and way.

How might Gelassenheit manifest itself outside a strictly ordered Amish community? Well, turning back to the the Rule of St. Benedict from my prior post, we find the following suggestions for the monks. True, I don't live in a monastery where an abbot tells me what to do. But I am embedded in a world where people (ranging from my children, to my wife, to my friends, to my co-workers, to my supervisors) make demands of me. When those demands come, do I display Gelassenheit? Here is what Benedict says:

"The first step of to humility is to obey an order without delaying for a moment..."

"The obedience of such people leads them to leave aside their own concerns and forsake their own will. They abandon what they have in hand and leave it unfinished..."

"With a ready step inspired by obedience they respond by their action to the voice that summons them. It is, in fact, almost in one single moment that when a command is uttered that the task is completed..."

"we carry out the orders given to us in way that is not fearful, not slow, not halfhearted, not marred by murmuring or the sort of compliance that betrays resentment..."

"The third step of humility is to submit oneself out of love of God to whatever obedience under a superior may require of us..."

If you are like me, these suggestions for practice humble me. How often, when my children or wife as me to do something, do I sit there and not respond quickly and energetically? How often at work do I delay in responding to superiors or do so half-heartedly? By resolving to practice Gelassenheit in these daily interactions I slowly converge on kenosis and, in the language of the NT, "take on the form of a servant."

Summary of Our Week's Work
For the week, we have the following Christian Practices:


See you next week!

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7 thoughts on “Christian Practice, Part 3: Kenosis and Gelassenheit”

  1. Richard, I'm a bit troubled by this post. (As so often I am also caused to stop and reflect on some of the many ways I do not act christianly...) But the sort of obedient submission that Benedict and the Amish parents require (which in Benedict's case sounds - suspiciously - like what the Army demands) is not the sort of mutual submission I think I read about in the NT. True Jesus "came as a serbvant" but he also (quite firmly) sometimes told people "what was what". Submission - outside the monastery - is much morfe complex than this...

  2. Tim,
    Perhaps using the Amish and Benedict is ill-judged on my part. I was trying to find examples of Christian "submission" to highlight the point. I'm not suggesting in anyway that we follow the lead of the Amish or the Benedictines (although some Christians clearly make those decisions).

    Perhaps the post was ill-concieved (not the point about "serventhood," clearly a Christian practice, but how I chose to make the point). However, as I reflected on the post and wrote it, I did feel the call for more "emptying" and "submission" in my own life. Perhaps others might also find in the post not a guide but a good conversation/reflection starter.

    As always, I appreciate your conversation.

  3. Richard, I recently discovered your blog and have found it hugely enriching, challenging and stimulating - thank you.

    Like Tim I struggled with this post. I agree wholeheartedly that emptying oneself in the fashion of a servant cf Philippians 2 /John 13 is a Christian practice, but I think that it needs to be broken down into distinct strands to avoid the confusions around humility and submission that Tim raises. I've identified 3 strands that I noticed in Richard's post, but I'm sure there are more/different ways of considering them.

    The first is the practice of 'forgetting one's status'. i.e. breaking through and ignoring the demands and expectations of society like Jesus washing the disciples feet (For a great example of this read this story). So many times I don't follow Jesus as I want to, because I am worried about what others think of me. This is what people generally mean by humility.

    The second is the practice of 'active or challenging submission'. In a church context I submit through grappling, questionning and engaging with the decision made by a church leadership. By doing this I take the decision and the authority from which it comes seriously. To submit without this process is to diminish the authority of the decision, because if I obey unthinkingly I have not 'owned' it and am unlikely to actually live it out.
    The same is true with the Bible. If I read the Bible and acquiese to it without questionning or challenging it I am not taking its words seriously and its wisdom will not seep deep into my thought patterns and lifestyle. Only through actively challenging it can I submit to it in my life.
    For me active submission is a more relvant model/practice of obedience than the benedictine rule cited in the post.

    The third is the practice of 'nurturing our conscience', which your post touched on when you say:
    " How often, when my children or wife as me to do something, do I sit there and not respond quickly and energetically? How often at work do I delay in responding to superiors or do so half-heartedly?"
    So often we only have a fleeting moment to obey our God-giving conscience: Do I stop and chat to the person who I know to be lonely even though I am tired and want to get home? Do I make the effort to bend down and pick up the piece of litter as I walk past it? The decision is almost instinctive and once the moment's gone it's very difficult to back and do what you know you should have. We need to nurture our consciences in order to empty ourselves and practice Gelassenheit.

  4. I think Jonathan has some good stuff above. I think my main point was that (as I currently see it) Christian self-emptying involves mutual submission in community and love. It does not (I think) demand that we compete in being more submissive ;-)

    Your post was not "ill conceived" in that it has caused at least several people to examine their practices, but I suspect that it does need some nuancing, which is one thing blogging is better for (than printing)....

  5. Heidegger is often accredited for inventing Gelassenheit in his "Conversation". The concept of submission of the will is also found in Hinduism (in the search for the release from samsara) and Buddhism (in the search for Enlightenment...Hesse talks about this quite a bit). However, gelassenheit is a veru dangerous principle, especially in the Amish community, where it allows several young girls to be raped (from an early age, as you illustrated with the rhyme, they are taught to give up will, and this is often instilled in them for family matters as well). For a more thorough explanation of that, see the Legal Matters article on the subject.

  6. I think in Heideggerian literature, Gelassenheit is translated as a phrase "let it be..." and has special meaning, connected with agreement that things (Dinge) are grow without our disturbing.

  7. Gelassenheit goes back at least to the medieval mystics, long before the Amish and long before Heidegger. Hans Denck introduced the concept to the early Anabaptists, from which the Amish eventually inherited it. Meister Eckhardt also wrote on Gelassenheit.

    Yieldedness is a good translation in general. And I agree that it's related to Kenosis. In the original sense, it was yieldedness to God. And I agree that's related to submitting to each other. But I don't think we yield to any community in the same way we yield to God, no group of humans can take that place.

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