THOREAU’S REVERIES AS RELIGIOUS VISION
You might wonder what I’m doing up here in a pulpit. I might wonder too. I guess this proves — at least for today – that so far as religion goes, for the surveys, I’m neither a NONE (“None of the above”) nor a DONE (“been there, Done that “). I suppose I’m a seeker. I know I’m suspicious of labels. I’m also very privileged, and happy, to be here. When I was about twelve the minister’s wife told me I should be a minister. I let her down, but I’m making up for it. Here I am on the Sabbath, making her happy.
Just so you know — in my early teens I dutifully followed my parents to Church on Sunday at about this time in the morning. It was simple, New England, free-thinking Unitarian, with white steeple, village and all — in Dedham, on the Charles. Concord – Thoreau’s village — was a bit West.
A stone plaque on the Church green read “Founded in 1638.” Another marked the site of the First Public School in America, 1644. On the way to school I passed the Oldest Frame House in America, 1636. Thoreau and Emerson and Paul Revere were neighbors, so I enjoyed Communion with the Saints and their Shrines. Recruitment pamphlets in the Church vestibule claimed Emerson, Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin — even Thoreau – for the Unitarians. It’s true Thoreau attended a Unitarian church in Concord, but at sixteen he stopped going.
If his name is new to you, he became famous for a night in jail, refusing to pay tax for the Federal invasion of Mexico. He defended the abolitionist and rebel John Brown, and wrote immortal essays in the cause of social justice. And he celebrated the Church of the Great Outdoors.
I used to think religion happens only in houses of worship, but it can happen anywhere, any time. Thoreau’s religion is outside any church. It shines unobtrusively through his writing and through his life and through his outdoors. It is a serene song of religious joy and exuberance.
He discovers gods in the fields and forests; He Steals from the Bagavad Gita, calling these gods “Intelligences” — he hears them singing, laughing, and spinning wool – a joyful family; He sees workers trudging home on the road as if gods in disguise; He hears his body as a musical instrument on which god plays melodies; He preaches what he calls a Newer Testament, the gospel of the present moment; He finds God in the moment, speaking through all things.
If Thoreau has a creed it is this: an experience of full life is a full experience of the divine.
This is not Brand Name religion. It’s not found in Cathedrals, Synagogues, Mosques, Temples or Shrines. He’s one of a kind. Thoreau’s famous book Walden is unorthodox scripture, modeled on the Bagavad Gita in its eighteen books, yoga sessions, and walking excursions. He draws from Christianity without going to church. His pond is a place for Baptism – for cleansing and rebirth. God’s touch is everywhere. Thoreau’s religious practice is reverence and devotion to things of the spirit found everywhere here around us, and his practice is service to others, especially those enslaved and in need. He lives his own Heavens and Hells, his own ways to be still — and his own ways to bury his kin.
People ask if he’s a monotheist or a polytheist but he wouldn’t care. He exulted in the presence of holiness found all around — in the face of a worker, in revolutionaries like John Brown, in the antics of a loon at mid-pond — in the whispering of trees or the haunting barrens atop Mt Ktaadn. He speaks of God in the singular, and gods in the plural and of the Maker of Walden pond. But more important than God or the gods was whether he –and we — could live in a world that was godly, heavenly: “My thanks-giving is perpetual. O how I laugh when I think of my vague and indefinite riches.”
Our place is a marvel that can shift in and out of Heaven or Hell, boredom, or ecstasy, on a moment’s notice. His political reality was shifting into Hell on earth. He escorted slaves fleeing to Canada. The underground railroad passed through Concord, as it passed through Portland. Then Congress made it illegal to help fleeing blacks. Worse, it compelled citizens to assist in their capture. Thoreau’s powerful essay “Slavery in Massachusetts” was born as a protest oration that he delivered town to town.
He says that now he can’t walk in peace. Walking meditations instill quiet, but his quiet is broken by the sound of rifle shots, slave catchers in the woods. Heaven is overrun. But Hell doesn’t have the last word. He’s startled by the sweet scent of a swamp lily. The lily brings hope that life blooms despite the nearly total dominance — at the moment — of evil. Thoreau is reborn, and despite the troubles leading toward war he hopes for communion and community. He shows affection for an unschooled Canadian woodsman. His first published piece was an obituary for a poor widow who otherwise would have died without notice. He preaches the Church of waters and woods, of wonder and awe. Whether a lily or a sunset, something takes over. We pause in deep appreciation – in reverence.
I have two scriptural passages from Walden to read. The first is an epiphany at the edge of a stream. The second is an epiphany at the edge of the pond.
Here’s the first.
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.
I drink at it: but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. I would drink deeper: fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
He fishes – looks for joyful nourishment — in time, and drinks of the stream. His eye soaks up fish — and then stars reflected from above. He could drink deeper. There’s endless more to absorb. “Fish in the sky” — He looks down at the pebbly bottom to see fish and stars mingled, a wedding of earth, and sky, and water. And we’re invited to join a religious adventure. “Come! Let’s fish in the starry skies, cast our lines up toward heaven (as well as into the stream)!
He then adds, mysteriously, I cannot count one.” And “I know not the first letter of the alphabet.” He is so overwhelmed by the stars he doesn’t know where to begin counting — and can’t even count one. Someone basking in Wonder has no need to arrange things in alphabetical or numerical order.
Thoreau adds as a final cadence, I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. Christ asks that we become as little children. Thoreau asks us to accept a day of wonder before counting and letters began.
Thoreau wants to bring religion into the everyday, free from abstractions and debates among those who pretend to have a clear grasp of God and the gods. Heavens and Hells and boredom are tangible and familiar. Scripture should imaginatively and poetically augment our everyday reality – Why shrink wrap it in doctrine and a hundred dreary prohibitions? Thoreau sees Hells when we’d rather turn aside, and Heavens when we’d rather remain cynical. A befitting reverie – a Religious Vision — delivers marvelous worlds in the here-and-now, worlds that we otherwise miss.
Here is a second passage from what he calls his “Newer Testament,” his “gospel of the present moment.” He places himself prayer-like at the edge of the pond:
Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago;
He’s remembering a moment when he was very young – and very wise. That memory expands. It becomes a reverie both religious and poetic:
it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely, . . . He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you?
We’re given a pond that draws joy into itself, a pond that enjoys a “liquid joy” that is also her Maker’s joy. God is a joyful Maker, one who can “excite in us a pure morning joy.”
This Maker shares joy with the pond, the same joy that is also offered to Thoreau, kneeling at her edge. “Liquid joy and happiness” flow through the pond and through its Maker and through the pilgrim at its edge – this is a miraculous trinity, three-become-one.
Joy is the condition of life, even of the life of the Creator. We become who we are through everyday looks, smiles of joyful regard – smiles between friends, between mother and child, between pilgrim, creator, and pond. If in those moments we are ready to love, we enter that Heavenly state of “liquid joy and happiness.”
She rounded this water with her hand, deepened and clarified it in her thought, and in her will bequeathed it to Concord.
The gift draws pilgrim, a pond, and Maker to mutual embrace. In a moment of tender yearning, almost a disbelieving intimacy, Thoreau whispers, “Walden, is it you?” Here he finds “a pure morning joy.” To my ear this epiphany by the pond is one of the most moving religious visions in all his writing. Sometimes I smile at his child-like, romantic innocence. I’m not forced to buy into his reverie of Communion and Baptism. But I find it enchanting and gently staggering.
Here is an apt passage to end with: Isaiah 55:
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst forth into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.