Another way

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

We Unitarian Universalists are known for our openness to the beliefs and practices of other religions. But we also have our own native spiritual practices, and today I’d like to tell you about spiritual practices from our own tradition, rooted in the relationships between human and non-human beings. I have to warn you, though, that this native Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice is a challenging spiritual practice to follow; which might explain why we have mostly ignored it, and instead turned to popularized spiritual practices from other traditions that aren’t so demanding.

And this native Unitarian spiritual practice starts with the story of how Henry Thoreau, who was raised a Unitarian, went to live at Walden Pond.

When Henry Thoreau got out of college, he had to decide on a career. First he was by his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, as a school teacher. He lasted two weeks. A member of the school committee dropped in to see how the new teacher was doing, and told Thoreau to improve discipline by using more corporal punishment. Thoreau called on half a dozen students at random, beat them, and handed in his resignation that night. (1)

Next Thoreau went to work for his father in the family business of manufacturing pencils. But this was a job and not a vocation; so he also started writing regularly in a journal; and, along with the rest of his Unitarian family, he became an abolitionist, trying to abolish slavery in the United States.

Henry Thoreau still wanted a job that would be a calling, a vocation. So he and his beloved older brother John started their own school. This school, what we today might call a progressive school, was a great success. Their school only lasted for two years, until John’s tuberculosis worsened to the point where he could no longer teach, and so they closed the school. Over the next year, John started to recover from tuberculosis — but then he accidentally nicked his finger with a razor, contracted tetanus, and died a week later.

His brother’s death deepened Henry’s struggle to find his path in life. Henry drifted along, trying different things, until three years after John died, when he got permission to go live on a woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right next to the railroad tracks on the shores of Walden Pond.

Henry built himself a small cabin there. He cleared some ground and planted a garden. He spent much of his days outdoors. He read deeply in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Bible, and in the holy books of other world religions. In his journal, he wrote about what he had seen in the outdoors. He wrote a memoir about a camping trip he and John had taken, rowing down the Concord River to the Merrimack River, then upstream till they could go no further, then traveling by land to the White Mountains, then into the mountains and all the way up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

Henry Thoreau didn’t got to Walden Pond to pretend to live in the wilderness; he didn’t live there to escape from the world. In fact, the opposite is true: his cabin on Walden Pond was a station on the Underground Railroad. Some people are embarrassed by Thoreau, saying: Oh, but when he was at Walden Pond, he went to his mother’s house to eat dinner and get his laundry done! Yes, and while he was at his mother’s house he plotted with Concord’s radical abolitionists on how to help slaves escape.

So far from trying to escape from the world, Thoreau got himself arrested while living at Walden Pond. He refused to pay the poll tax, which, he said, was an immoral tax because it went to pay for an unjust war against Mexico. He spent just one night in jail because someone — he never learned who it was — paid his poll tax for him, probably out of embarrassment that this Harvard graduate wound up in the town jail with drunks and uneducated bums.

Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, keeping track of when the flowers bloomed, watching the trees come into leaf, and then he went back to live with his parents and sisters. He had finished the business he had to transact at Walden Pond: his spiritual path led him elsewhere.

I think Thoreau is very difficult for many of us Unitarian Universalists today because he is more concerned with transcendent reality than with his career. He made his money manufacturing pencils and working as a surveyor. But his real concern was not his paid jobs, it was his spiritual life.

Our priorities tend to be the other way around: we think our careers deserve more time than our spiritual lives; or maybe we think that our careers are a spiritual matter. Here in Silicon Valley, we worship our jobs, and we like the fact that we can brag about working seventy hours a week — actually, I’m now down to about fifty hours a week, most weeks, except when I work more than that — and we don’t like it when Henry Thoreau tells us, quite convincingly, that we need only work a couple of months a year to provide for the necessities of life. If we did this, says Thoreau, we could spend the bulk of our lives contemplating the divine reality that we mostly ignore. But rather than confront this embarrassing truth, we turn our attention to other, less demanding, spiritual paths. Take, for example, the current Silicon Valley fascination with mindfulness. “Mindfulness” turns out a mis-translation of the ancient Pali word “sati,” a subtle Buddhist concept that means something like “memory of the present.” (2) But we prefer our Westernized and mis-translated version of mindfulness because it demands so little from us. Mindfulness is pursued by executives from Fortune 500 companies, so it must be good. Mindfulness means we do not have to give up our seventy-hour-a-week jobs, because we can be mindful at work, which will make us more productive, and allow us to spend even more time at work.

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence [says Thoreau]. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, there is hardly anyone within hearing, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire.” (3) Today we do not even need to leave to comfort of our cubicle to watch the fire, we just wait for someone to post a video on Facebook. And so we are distracted for a pleasant moment in our seventy hour work week.

Because he will cause you to doubt about the value of your career, I cannot recommend Thoreau as a spiritual guide. But if you are crazy enough to want to follow Thoreau’s spiritual and religious example, I’ll tell you about three life-changing spiritual practices recommended by Thoreau.

The first spiritual practice is to spend a great deal of time outdoors, closely observing the natural world. Thoreau spent hours each day outdoors, checking to see when the various species of flowering plants first bloomed each year, watching how dead animals decay, closely observing all the minutiae of life around him, and then recording his careful observations of human and non-human beings in his journal. I’ve tried this a couple of times recently — spend most of the day outdoors, observing the relation of humans to non-humans, the interdependence of living things, how living things depend on non-living things — and I can report more than just about any other spiritual practice, it has gotten me closer to a transcendent reality. The problem with this spiritual practice, however, is that it makes me a less effective employee of this church, because I begin to believe it as important to watch Black Phoebes build their nest under the eaves outside the door to my office, than answer the email you have sent to me.

The second spiritual practice is to read the holy books of the great world religions. Thoreau lived at a time when the scriptures of non-Christian religions were being translated into European languages for the first time. Of course he already knew the Western Bible, and the spiritual writing of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But he was also able to read deeply in books like the Confucian Analects, and make those stories become a part of him, as when he writes: “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu [Confucius] to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (3) So it was that Thoreau understood the place of humans in the universe: as much as we might like to think we are like gods, we are in fact limited fallible beings. Books like this keep us from thinking we are better than other humans, or thinking that humans are somehow better than non-human beings. Thus we open ourselves to the web of relationships of which we are a part. And the problem with this spiritual practice is that it is a blow to your pride, from which you may never want to recover.

The third spiritual practice is to find your own way to truth. Thoreau did think that everyone should go build a cabin on a woodlot borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did not care whether or not we read the Confucian Analects. He was not trying to recruit us to join the Underground Railroad. He wanted us to come face to face with reality, to see the world as it really is, to ignore illusions of progress represented by commercial success. This has been the task of religion since the dawn of time: to get us to see things as they really are. But this is a dangerous task. Thoreau said: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And this is why you should ignore this part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It is safer to stick to the popularized versions of religion. Go take yoga classes, but do not delve into the depths of Hindu philosophy. Practice mindfulness, but ignore the difficult path of Buddhist enlightenment. Read leadership books that quote ancient Chinese philosophers, but do not attempt to diminish the number of your faults. Come to church here if you like, but do not take seriously the ravings of prophets like Isaiah and Jesus and Jeremiah who say we can make this world a better place.

So I will close by telling you this: Don’t read Thoreau. He will only cause you trouble. If you are young, he will tempt you to drop out of school and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which is our North American version of the pilgrimages to the holy land), and then you will not get into Harvard and your life will be ruined. If you are trying to raise children in Silicon Valley, he will tempt you to tell your children: “Stop doing homework and spend time outdoors!” and then they won’t get in to Stanford and their lives will be ruined. If you are retired, he will tempt to become like the retired admirers of Thoreau I once knew who devoted their time and money to social justice causes and filed their bills as follows: Bills To Be Paid; To Be Paid When There’s Money; Refuse To Pay for Ethical Reasons. Trust me, this is a recipe for trouble.

No, you should stay away from people like Thoreau. He will make you crave only reality. He is like all those religious prophets, telling us that we need not live the way we do now, that we can follow a better way.

(1) The facts of Thoreau’s life are taken from the standard scholarly biography: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, enlarged and corrected edition (Princeton University Press, 1982).
(2) For the origins of the word “mindfulness” in English, see Virginia Heffernan, “Mind the Gap,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015, p. 14.
(3) Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
(4) Analects Book 14.26.1-2. In James Legge’s translation: “Chu Po-yu sent a messenger with friendly inquiries to Confucius. Confucius sat with him, and questioned him. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is your master engaged in?’ The messenger replied, ‘My master is anxious to make his faults few, but he has not yet succeeded.’ He then went out, and the Master said, ‘A messenger indeed! A messenger indeed!’”