Rapt in a Revery

This story is part of a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. The sources for this story are Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding. I wrote this story for use in worship services, but I have also used it in Sunday school classes (slightly modified) to introduce a unit on meditation.

Rapt in a Revery

I thought you might want to know what a spiritual practice is, so maybe you can talk about it after Sunday school with your parents. A spiritual practice is something you do regularly that helps you get in touch with something larger than yourself. For example, some people sit and meditate for a spiritual practice. Some people do yoga for a spiritual practice. Some people pray for their spiritual practice.

Well, I don’t pray, and I don’t do yoga, and I don’t sit and meditate. I do a different kind of spiritual practice, a spiritual practice that many Unitarian Universalists do. But first I have to tell you a little story….

Way back in 1845, a man named Henry David Thoreau was living with his mother and father and his sisters in a big house in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry worked for his father in the family’s pencil-making business. Henry’s family all went to the Unitarian church in town. Henry himself preferred the Universalist minister to the Unitarian church, but Henry basically stopped going to church once he grew up. Then one day Henry decided that he needed some time to himself, to get in touch with something bigger than himself. I would say it this way: Henry wanted some time to do intensive spiritual practice.

He went to his friend Waldo Emerson, and asked Waldo if he could build a little cabin out in the woods, on some land Waldo owned that was right next to a pond named Walden pond. Waldo said, Of course! So Henry spent a few months building a cabin for himself, and then he went off to live in the woods. His cabin was only a mile or so from his family’s house, and he still went home regularly to eat dinner and spend time with his family. But mostly, Henry lived out in the woods alone, and worked on his spiritual practice.

Henry’s spiritual practice was to spend time in Nature. One of his best ways of spending time in Nature was to sit quietly outdoors, doing nothing, just watching the natural world. Here’s how he describes it:

“Sometimes, in a summer morning, … I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant roadway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.”

I can see the whole thing in my imagination: a warm sunny day, Henry sitting on the front step of his cabin, looking out over Walden Pond, “rapt in a revery” — and when Henry says, “rapt in a revery,” he means that he is just sitting quietly, not really thinking of anything in particular — he is simply sitting and watching and listening to the world of nature around him, lost in wonder at the beauty of the natural world.

Sometime you should try doing this yourself. On a nice day, find yourself a comfortable place to sit outdoors — maybe leaning back against a tree. Pick a place where you can see and hear the natural world — it could be in your back yard, if you have a back yard — pick a place with trees and grass and birds and sky and clouds. You just sit there — you don’t have to do anything — you don’t have to think about anything — and see if you can lose yourself in sitting, watching, and listening to the natural world. See if you can lose yourself in something larger than yourself.

Henry Thoreau could sit like that all day, but he had had lots of practice. You try it for ten minutes or so at first. Maybe you’ll find you like it — sitting like Henry Thoreau lost in wonder of the natural world. Maybe that will be your spiritual practice — a real genuine Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice.

3 thoughts on “Rapt in a Revery

  1. Michael

    Great post with a sensible approach to life. Thoreau also said:

    “Our circumstances answer to our expectations and the demand of our natures.”

    It is troubling to witness the unabated influence by religion’s of every flavor to create not only our expectations, but our very nature too.

    Organized religion is being defrocked in a series starting this week called “Save Thee? Or Sell Thee?” at:


  2. Dan

    Michael @ 1 — You write: “Organized religion is being defrocked…” Your use of the passive voice is a little disingenuous here — it is you, the blogger, who aims to “defrock” religion — but what the hell, I’m often tempted by the passive voice myself. (Not that I mean to imply that the only reason you commented here was to promote your own blog, no of course not.) Anyway. A couple of suggestions in your efforts to defrock religion, which I believe relate to Thoreau.

    First, you may wish to consider that by using the word “defrock” you may be revealing some bias, because “defrock” makes it sound as though you’re defining “religion” in purely Western Christian terms. Indeed, it makes it sound as if you’re carrying out an Enlightenment-era quasi-Protestant project, which is a little jarring to ears that have become accustomed to post-modern intellectual approaches. Thoreau provides an interesting contrast to this, because he makes a serious attempt to move beyond a narrow Western definition of religion. In Thoreau’s day, the great scriptures of the world’s religions were being translated into English for the first time, and in (e.g.) Walden, Thoreau shows substantial familiarity with Hindu, Confucian, and other major religious writings. Admittedly, his exposure to non-Western religions was merely through texts (i.e., not through descriptions of or participation in actual religious life or rituals). But my point is that he began to move away from a purely Euro-centric intellectual position.

    Second, you seem to take the position that religion is inherently bad, e.g. when you say, “It is troubling to witness the unabated influence by religion’s of every flavor to create not only our expectations, but our very nature too.” By contrast, Thoreau’s intent was to create a new religious point of view, not to destroy religion per se — you could say that he was doing constructive theology. While the common perception of Thoreau is that he was simply an iconoclast who aimed to critique and ultimately destroy things, a closer reading reveals that he is far more constructive than destructive.

    In the story which makes up the body of this post, I have tried to communicate one aspect of Thoreau’s constructive theological work. It’s easy to think of Thoreau as “that guy who refused to go to church” — but that’s a gross oversimplification of what he’s really trying to do. What’s really interesting about Thoreau is that he is trying to reform Western religion (as he knew it). Thus, the religious practice that I attempt to describe in this story is really the old Western Christian practice of contemplative prayer, modified based on Transcendentalist notions of intuition and self-reliance so that instead of prayer being understood as the repetition of a verbal formula or contemplation of a set religious image or construct, Thoreau reforms it to become a direct and personal intuition of the divine. (We could argue about whether Thoreauvian comtemplation truly offers an unmediated experience of the divine, or if it too is a mediated experience, but I digress.) Similarly, Thoreau modifies the Western Christian notion of the divine from a father God to Nature. All this constitutes a subtle and creative reformation rather than crude iconoclasm.

    In short, Thoreau’s critique of religion is highly nuanced, constructive rather than merely destructive, and it attempts to get beyond a provincial, Eurocentric approach. This post represents my attempt to represent one small part of Thoreau’s overall constructive theology.

    (P.S. When you’re trying to promote a particular blog post or series, you’ll want to give the permalink, not just a general link to your blog — I updated your comment to include the entire permalink.)

  3. Adam Copeland

    Wow, I don’t want to get involved in the above conversation. Just writing to say thanks for the Thoreau reminder. Spending hours in nature just being is certainly a spiritual practice unknown to many. I have to remind myself of such when I spend too much time on this laptop:)

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