Tag Archives: Henry Thoreau

Past Lughnasa

I happened to pick up Henry Thoreau’s journal from 1854, and read this passage from August 7, 1854:

Do you not feel the fruit of your spring and summer beginning to ripen, to harden its seed within you– Do not your thoughts begin to acquire consistency as well as flavor and ripeness– How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not had a seed time of character?

Something to consider for this week just past Lughnasa, when we are poised in expectation, the first fruits of the harvest beginning to pour in, but we don’t yet know how bountiful the harvest will be.


Cambridge, Mass.

A sort of pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts, today. I met my dad (who still lives in Concord) in the late morning to take a walk. It was hot, so we decided to go to Sleepy Hollow, the cemetery where a number of famous Transcendentalists are buried. We just wanted a cool place to walk on a hot day, but I did make a point of visiting Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s grave. She was a contemporary of Emerson’s, a Transcendentalist who ran the West Street bookstore where she sold Transcendentalist books, published “The Dial” for a few issues, and hosted some of Margaret Fuller’s “conversations” for women (sort of early consciousness-raising sessions). Elizabeth Peabody never married, always claimed she was too busy, and had an incredible career as a teacher, reformer, and intellectual. She is perhaps best known today for introducing kindergarten to the United States — in her conception, a way to give children of all scoi-economic groups a head start before they started school. An amazing woman, and my favorite of all the Transcendentalists.

Her grave stone is down the hill from “Author’s Ridge,” where Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Lousia May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (her brother-in-law) are buried. She’s buried in a beautiful little hollow dappled with sun and shade. And her legacy lives on in some interesting ways. Late in her career, Elizabeth Peabody mentored a young educator named Lucy Wheelock, who later went on to found Wheelock College, where my mother got her bachelor’s degree. Lucy Wheelock was still a presence when my mother was studying there, and my mother went on to teach for a dozen years. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my mother chose to pursue her career and not get married as Lucy Wheelock and Elizabeth Peabody did. Mom was an excellent teacher, and who knows where her career would have gone? We’ll never know, but it’s fun to speculate.

After I had lunch with dad and my two sisters, I went for another long walk on the Battle Road Trail in Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord. It’s blackberry season, and I ate some really good blackberries. It must be a good year for blackberries, because they were large and plump and tasty, and worth every scratch I got picking them.

Religion and spirituality, v. 0.1

A perfect summer day. It got down to about sixty degrees last night, cool enough that I had to pull a blanket over me before morning. But the weather forecast says a heat wave is going to set in tomorrow. I believe the forecast. My joints are starting to ache, which means a change in weather is coming within twenty four hours. On perfect summer days like this, my mind seems to work more clearly, so I better write down the long string of thoughts I had this morning before the heat melts it away….

The big argument

You’ve probably heard the argument, too — people who say they prefer spirituality to religion, that they can be spiritual without belonging to a church or a temple or a Zen monastery. Here are some thoughts on this argument….

Spirituality fits the North American mood. Most North Americans have only been on this continent for a few short generations. For the majority of North Americans, we or our not-too-distant ancestors came here to find a better life. Our North American mythology says, we can leave Europe or Asia or South America, and come here, and make a better life. That mythology has even permeated the lives of those North Americans whose ancestors were brought here forcibly, or who lived here as indigenous people before the great flood of immigrants. We believe that North American myth, at least to some extent. We are do-it-yourselfers, we believe it is possible to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.

Spirituality means you can do it yourself. Henry David Thoreau, who resigned membership in the Unitarian church of his birth as soon as he became an adult, seems to be the perfect example of do-it-yourself spirituality that worked. He didn’t need his church. Instead of going to church, he’d go out and take a long walk. These days, not as many people walk, but they might do a weekend yoga retreat when the mood takes them, or read one of those books from the “Inspirational” section of the bookstore, or go to church when they feel like it. They chart their own course without reference to anyone else.

Religion is different. You do religion in a group, with other people. The fashionable way to say it is that you do religion “in community.” That means that in a religion, you are held accountable. You can’t just do anything you want. If you join a Zen monastery, you cannot say to the Zen master, I don’t feel like doing sitting meditation today, I’m going to take a long walk instead. Liberal religious congregations in North America have far lower standards than Zen monastaerys, but we do expect people to participate in the life of the congregation and give money.

Religion is more difficult than spirituality. Others in your religious community can question you about your religious life. They even have the freedom to make judgments about your religious path. And you have to question yourself as well. In do-it-yourself spirituality, if the yoga retreat doesn’t work out, you can always sign up for Zen meditation classes, leaving the yoga behind you. You can believe that no mistakes are possible. In religion, if your religious path doesn’t work out, you have to confront yourself and ask why.

It’s like music

You can make an analogy between religion and spirituality, and playing a musical instrument. Spirituality is like practicing your instrument. You can get really good at playing your musical instrument in the privacy of your own bedroom. But you’re just playing for yourself. It’s kind of solipsistic, with you in your own little musical universe where no one else exists. When you’re playing alone, you can easily ignore some of the wrong notes, and the changes in tempo, and the times when you stop in the middle of a piece and start over again. You can hear the way it’s supposed to sound in your head.

Religion is like practicing your instrument, and then going out and playing a concert or a gig, or at least playing along with some friends in someone’s living room once a month. When you play with other people, you get out of your own head. You know right away when you play a wrong note, and you know if you’ve played well or badly by the reactions of the other musicians, or the reactions of the audience if you’re playing a concert or a gig.

Any musicians will tell you that practicing is essential, taking lessons is good, but if you really want to make progress you have to play with other people, or play for an audience. Religion is something like that. Take those long walks. Go on a yoga retreat. And maintain regular contact with a religious community, who will let you know when you’re going astray (which can be uncomfortable at best), and who will take you much farther along your religious/spiritual path than anything else.

The theory behind it

I’m taking my basic concepts for this little essay from a group of thinkers known as the American pragmatists. The pragmatists don’t have any particular interest in trying to figure out the “ultimate truth.” Maybe there isn’t any ultimate truth, or if there is we sure haven’t found it yet. But if we want to make our ideas clearer, if we want to get a little closer to assuming-it-exists ultimate truth, we can work out a pretty good approach.

You get together with a group of people who are all interested in a similar problem. Call this group the “community of inquirers,” because they’re a community who are inquiring together into the same or related questions. Different people in this community of inquirers put out provisional ideas, hypotheses, and then everyone kind of hashes things out together. Bit by bit, together you will make your ideas clearer. If there is some “ultimate truth,” this is probably the way to get there.

If you have any training in science, you will see that this approach is pretty similar to scientific method. You can’t do science alone. Once you come up with some results, you have to ask others in your community of inquirers to check your insights and findings, and see if they can replicate your results. (Interestingly, many scientists are actually willing to make some kind of claim that there is some “ultimate truth” out there.) However, I’m expanding this method beyond just science. I’ve already made the analogy to musical performance, which uses the same basic method, altered somewhat for the peculiarities of playing music. Musical performance probably provides a better analogy for doing religion.

When it comes to people who are the great innovators, there’s an interesting corollary to all this. Just as a great composer has to learn how to play at least one musical instrument, or just as a scientist doing pure research has to know basic lab skills and lots of mathematics, the innovators in religion and spirituality have to have some basic grounding in doing religion. (Just doing spirituality would not be enough, because it’s too solipsistic.) Yes, Henry Thoreau stopped going to church when he was an adult. But he grew up in a church, his family with whom he lived all his life were deeply involved in that church, and Thoreau had constant and regular contact with other Transcendentalists with whom he constantly checked his new insights. James Luther Adams, the great 20th C. Unitarian Universalist theologian, is a better example. He was active in church and denomination, and his work and presence (by all reports) did much to make Unitarian Universalism a better community.

In fact, what Adams wrote about “voluntary associations,” which are somewhat analogous to what I’m calling a community of inquirers, takes the whole idea a step farther. Adams’s idea was that a community of inquirers, a voluntary association, can in turn go out and transform the world for the better. That provides an interesting twist on the whole idea of some “ultimate truth….”

Questions? Comments? After all, what I’ve just said is entirely provisional, subject to correction and revision!

Going to Saint-Terre

One of the more life-affirming Web sites that I visit these days is:

Andy Skurka is taking a year-long, 7,700 mile walk across the North American continent. Right now, he is somewhere west of Frazee, Minnesota, having walked close to 5,000 miles already. His sister posts trail logs just about every week, giving the latest news from his trek.

What is this but a contemporary pilgrimage — a pilgrimage, not to some dusty bones and pieces of a holy person long dead, but a pilgrimage to find who knows what? It strikes me as a good kind of pilgrimage for my kind of religion. Henry Thoreau offers a theological justification for this kind of pilgrimage in his essay “Walking”:

I have met but one or two persons in the course of my life who understand the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, whihc word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a saunterer, a Holy Lander.

And where is that Holy Land, that Sainte Terre, of which Thoreau speaks? Why, right in front of your feet. Andy Skurka is finding that Holy Land with each step he takes, and he has captured my imagination. I’m already thinking about what pilgrimage, to which holy land, I’m going to make.

Update: Andy Skurka completed his cross-continental hike ahead of schedule.