I had the notion that this year of the 200th birthday of Unitarian saint Ralph Waldo Emerson would be a time, a focused time, for me to get deeply acquainted with him.
I would put aside the time I really needed to really study on him. Find a place, a quiet, natural kind of place to immerse myself in the immense quantity of work he produced, or at least some of the biographies written about him.
Great thick ones like Emerson: The Mind on Fire, called so because of an often quoted piece of advice to greenhorn ministers (or any others of us who might periodically climb the pulpit stairs today) that “the true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, life passed through the fire of thought.”
When a venerable colleague of mine went on sabbatical a few years back, he promised himself, and the large congregation he serves, that he would explore Emerson in the kind of depth he deserved. When he returned from his time away from parish duties a church year later, I was somewhat astonished that this man of multiple degrees and an admirable intellect had apparently just barely completed this 573 page epic.
Now I have more understanding and less judgment about how someone could go on study leave for months on end, and perhaps — though I do not know for sure — struggle to finish one scholarly tome. Because even though he is a self-confessed profound introvert who would be just as happy coming out of isolation only briefly and only on Sundays to deliver his masterpiece sermons, life away from the sanctuary distracted and engaged him otherwise.
He hiked a bit in his favorite corner of the Southwest. He visited his children and old friends. He read other things, newspapers and articles, and some of the latest fiction. He hung out in the salons we now conduct via e-mail, in chat rooms. And the time flew. So he returned to his usual duties with, I am quite certain, much less “accomplished” than he had intended.
With this example in mind, when my good intentions to delve into Emerson did not pan out so far this year, and of course in the week I set aside recently to have a mini study leave of my own, I tried to be gentle with myself. The week came and went with a few hours of skimming Emerson, in between the particular and perhaps peculiar distractions of my post-millennial life. The time I spent reading several newspapers each morning, scissors in hand, cutting away, down to the coupons and obituaries. Sermon fodder or recycling, whichever comes first. The other reading I pick up and put down: literally boxes of books. The sight of a male cardinal. The whine of a dog. The rain, the blossoms, the yellow showers of pollen.
The flag debate. The budget. The war.
Even when I shut off the television, all but the Food Channel and American Idol, the events of the day, the gossip and the banner headlines of the world around me flash on my computer screen. Friends and relations and advertisements for finding high school classmates pop up and overcrowd my e-mail. Open me, open me now.
If this week of studying Emerson, this week of folly, didn’t pan the way I expected, I did not read enough of him and about him to know, to be comforted by, his personality and the pattern of his long life to know that he, too, was easily distracted. A rather negative word for his numerous and shifting interests, his sociability, his refusal to stay with any one vocation, one project, one idea very long.
Including, as much as we claim him as one of our own, Unitarianism, and especially Unitarian ministry.
I found it quite revealing, and a bit shocking, that in the entire biography of Emerson that I dipped into, rather than delved into, the past weeks, the one that is most popular among my Unitarian (Universalist) colleagues, there was in the index only one reference to Unitarianism and his very brief ordained ministry therein. A virtual blip in his life and work, nearly insignificant compared with his prolific writing, his essays, his poetry, his 1,500 lectures. His conversations. His causes.
Emerson’s theology, his understanding of God, was never Calvinist by belief, or more important, by temperament. He did not belong in this strain of religious feeling — confessional, guilt-driven, ego-centric, legislative — were are told, as much as a kind of reform Catholic religious Humanism, with its tolerance, belief in free will, its reformist, rather than revolutionary, attitude, its refusal to put form first, its love of literature, its respect for learning, its pragmatic emphasis on human and humane matters.
Emerson saw and described God in a different way, and did not accept that Jesus was the literal son of God or part of a trinity. But he did see in Jesus an example, a tangible God-ness, and in Christianity as a path of religious and spiritual self discovery. He did not reject Christianity, but it just wasn’t enough. Where he differed was in his conviction that Christianity was founded on human nature, not the Bible. They call it Christianity, he insisted, I call it consciousness. A consciousness that the individual could intuit.
Ultimately, Emerson had as little patience or interest in the hyper-rational, airless, ice house of Orthodox Unitarianism as with his religion of origin. Neither one of them could contain his shape-shifting religious affections and spirituality. And while the story is usually told that he resigned his position as the pastor of Boston’s prestigious Second Unitarian Church because he refused to serve communion, or because he rejected the notion of a personal God, or because he believed the institutional church was dead, or because he came to believe that all religion was destructive and wasteful, it is now apparent that his resignation was more personal.
He questioned his true vocation. He questioned the profession of ministry because his personality, his essence, even, did not suit it or it him.
While, as an excellent article in this month’s UU World magazine notes, in what became his ministerial swan song, his famous Harvard commencement speech, he lashed out at the church — our historical church — for suffocating the soul through what he saw as empty forms and lifeless preaching — he never intended to slam the door shut. Just to be able to sit on his porch, walk in the woods around Walden Pond, travel some, chat some, play with his children and his grandchildren. Putter around in his mind. Change his mind. Be moved. And move others.
Emerson’s restlessness, his curiosity, his swirling mind which made him unhappy, even sickly, in his younger years, were what served him so well and long when he realized who he was (basically) and where his calling was. To write his own thoughts and to give public lectures.
To what end?
“I am to name all the beasts in the field and all the gods in the sky,” he wrote. “I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time and taste their native immortal air. I am to fire with what skill I can the artillery of sympathy and emotion. I can indicate constantly, though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life — the forgotten Good, The Unknown Cause.”
Just to spread out, to breathe, to be the eccentric he was. Eccentric. Unconventional, especially in a whimsical way. Away from the center, or having different centers.
When we think of eccentrics, we often associate this term, these people, with oddity, an oddity Emerson seemed to have projected to the everyday good citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. Especially as he aged and took his strolls as a time to “disappear,” to ignore those around him while he fully experienced his constitutional. Emerson, we are told, was quite aware of how some folks took him. Not very well.
In one of his letters, he sarcastically observed that as he walked around town, some of the ladies out with their children would cross the street to avoid contact with the Mad Dog Emerson. H.L. Mencken dismissed Emerson as a “moonstruck” person, living in some alternative universe, blindly optimistic, indifferent or oblivious to evil. Or even the possibility of evil. A man who with great sincerity announced that if he found himself in hell, he’d turn it into heaven.
He was undeniably an eccentric. Not a disturbed recluse or a sociopath, or even a maverick, a person who deliberately takes on and defies convention. While mocking words like “Mad Dog” were given people like Emerson in the 19th century American culture, or at least “peculiar,” recent psychological studies have come up with more detailed, and certainly more morally neutral, descriptions.
Using words like: creative, strongly motivated by curiosity, idealistic, and happily obsessed with one or more hobby horses or what we call avocations. They seem to be born, not made. Often they are the first child in a family, though Emerson was the fourth child, and single (Emerson married twice). But whatever the case, they are aware from childhood that they are different, intelligent, outspoken, opinionated. Unusual, perhaps, in eating habits, or dress, or living arrangements. Funny. Bad spellers.
Emerson, as he is described in his thirties, seems to fit much of the bill. Tall, with sloping shoulders, dressed in loose clothes like, what more than one observer described as, a prosperous farmer. He carried his money in an old wallet with twine wrapped around it four or five times. While he greatly, even wistfully, admired Michelangelo, who Emerson saw as managing to live one life, pursue one career, our transcendental saint admitted to his always meandering present and unclear future.
He was who he was. They may have been parallel eccentrics, but he was not Thoreau, who was far more isolated, more scholarly, and single-viewed on the divinity of nature alone. Emerson liked his walks, but he also liked his relationships. He was an impatient scholar, a reader who skimmed for gems rather than diligently digesting whole texts.
Unlike most of his family and many of his contemporaries, Emerson lived long and lived well as an adult. He died at home after having a mostly vigorous and sound-minded old age. Which is true of most eccentrics, we now know. Far from being unhealthy or mentally unsound, in need of medication, physical, or emotional, eccentrics live five to ten years longer than the norm. And are also on the average healthier, paying fewer sick visits to the doctor.
A doctor who studied more than a thousand eccentrics identified what he calls an over-riding curiosity that drives them on and makes them oblivious to the irritations and smaller stresses of daily life that plague the rest of us. They tinker a lot. With perpetual motion machines, with the arts and literature, and with religion and spirituality. They have a saving sense of humor and a cheerfulness that keeps moving them against all evidence and obstacles to improve or to save the world.
Emerson may have been called an individualist and remembered that way. Or a nay-saying, self-involved rebel. We Unitarians often use him either to justify our sometimes ill-tempered attachment to personal privilege, or to critique and mourn the loss of our collective, institutional soul — our identity as exclusively a rational, inner-focused, liberal Christian denomination.
Neither, it turns out, is fair to Emerson.
As he evolved, as he became more fully and wholly and joyfully who he was, he actually inched back towards the church tradition of his younger years, hanging around the edges of Unitarian services, enjoying the company and even some of the preaching. The give and take.
As he became interested in, and involved in, social causes: the abolition movement, issues of class, war, and peace, he saw the need for collaboration and community.
This is what excites me, this is what I got out of my tentative and frequently interrupted journey into Emerson’s life and work: the positive, health- and life-preserving notion of eccentricity. The amazing contributions that they make as individuals and, in their own time and their own ways, in community.
In communities like these small mountain UU congregations we have formed. Because we were curious, because we were optimistic, and more than a little brave. How about imagining ourselves as a collection of eccentrics: cheerful, non-competitive, idealistic?
Coming together, not for validation, but for that higher purpose that Emerson never let go of: that heaven made of hell, that over-arching Goodness?
Could it be, may it be, so.