Living in the Layers
The Confessions of a Transcendentalist Church Lover

May 7, 2006
Stuart Twite

Occasionally, in conversations with people I don' t know, I am asked what I do for a living and when say that I work at a church, the person I am talking with invariably gives a nervous smile or laugh and their eyes start wandering around the room. More often then not, they then say something like, "I don' t go to church very much-I think I am spiritual, but I' m not very religious." Their obvious implication is that religion is synonymous with Church and doctrine etc.. And it is clear that this is a long-standing yet ever growing phenomenon in American Religious life. Amazon.com lists almost 7,000 books related to self-help and almost 5000 under the blanket term spirituality both with a staggering range of sources for spiritual well being including diet, health, sex, and self-acceptance. It truly is an age of the Oprahization of the spirit.

The sources of this condition are many but at least to a certain degree our own 19th Century New England Transcendentalists, most especially Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau deserve a fair part of the credit or the blame (depending on your angle of vision). Their vision of the self- reliant individual becoming "part and parcel of God" without the medium of the Church has done much to elevate the spiritual and devalue the "religious". But is this a fair reading of the Transcendentalists? Was their vision of a good life, well-lived, opposed to organized "religious" Church life?

It' s my intention in the next few minuets to reclaim the term "religious"-put it in the context of the Transcendentalists, and then argue that Church life is best suited to fostering their vision of the religious life.
I first came across Transcendentalism as a gawky, pimply, nervous 17 year-old college freshman. I have vivid memories of reading the rocket launcher essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and almost shaking as I underlined phrases like, "Trust thyself, Every heart vibrates to that iron string" and "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." Though I found most of Emerson well-nigh incomprehensible, he moved my soul. I had to learn more and have been reading and studying the movement ever since

I learned that Transcendentalism was the "third wave" in the extraordinary development of 18th and 19th century New England Religion. The orthodox Calvinist world-view that we are all totally depraved sinners whose salvation was fully in the hands of an angry God (in Jonathan Edwards famous sermon) had given way to Unitarian views of the dignity of humanity and the idea of salvation by character. William Ellery Channing delivered his famous Baltimore Sermon, which became the manifesto of the liberal or Unitarian party in 1819. Less than 20 years later, transcendentalism as both outgrowth from, and reaction to, Unitarianism emerged. Though profoundly different in many ways, each of these manifestations of the New England Religion had in common an intense desire to live an "examined life"-a life of higher purpose.

I learned that though such dates are arbitrary, Transcendentalism as a movement began in 1836 with the publication of Emerson' s first book "Nature" and the first meeting of what became know as the Transcendental Club. Made up largely of Unitarian Ministers including George Ripley, Frederick Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, Caleb Stetson (then in Medford and later a minister of this church) and others, the club met to discuss new views and ideas they felt weren' t being addressed elsewhere. Non- ministerial members included people like Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller. Though the group was hardly monolithic in their thinking, some broad outlines of Transcendental thought were shared, among them a belief, as Emerson put it, "in the infinitude of the private man" and the importance of intuitional thought.

I learned that transcendentalism was very much a religious movement, arguing that all individuals are born with a religious sentiment and by self-examination and self development could unite with God or, as Emerson put it, the Oversoul. This uniting of the individual with God did not require an ascent to scripture, doctrine, church membership or any other external force.

This last was always a little disturbing to me as, I have always been a church lover and a practicing Christian, and the Transcendentalists, to say the least, challenged me deeply. I long sought to reconcile these apparently contradictory world- views in the effort to find and live a meaningful religious life. To do so, I looked back to the Unitarian ideals of self-culture and east to various Buddhist doctrines, both great influences on the transcendentalists themselves.

So what does it mean to be religious in a transcendental way? And why is church life uniquely situated to promote and nourish this particular path?

In our reading this morning, the 19th century transcendentalist Unitarian Minister, Theodore Parker, defines religion as Love to God and Love to Man. The first he calls Piety and the second, goodness.

I love the word Piety though I realize it may conjure up in many minds ideas of unthinking, self-flagellating, world-denying ascetics. Piety, however, as expressed by the 19th century Unitarians and Transcendentalists meant something very different. It meant paying a deep and profound attention to living every present moment of our lives. Henry David Thoreau put it bluntly when he wrote that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" (That really made me look forward to adulthood when I first read it). His famous solution was to go to Walden Pond because, as he said, "I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Living a deliberate life is living a religious life. In Buddhist thought, it is often called mindfulness. The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and modern apostle of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh relates that when he was a novice monk, he and his brothers were trained in mindfulness by carrying a sutra or prayer book with them that contained a prayer for every conceivable act or activity of the day.

When I think of this practice of mindfulness, I inevitably think of peaches and my grandmother. Orma Ulmer was a Midwestern German woman who lived a life of hard work, had a mind like a steel trap, and was a fiercely protective matriarch. Once a few years ago, I was visiting my grandparents and playing pool in the basement with my grandfather. At one point Grandma came down the stairs, stopped at the bottom, obviously having forgotten what she came down for, turned around and went back up. A few minuets later, down she came again. Well again, she forgot what she had come for, and went back up. Soon enough, we heard her coming down the stairs again, this time chanting like a mantra on each step, "peaches, peaches, peaches, peaches". To this day, when I sit in meditation or prayer and need to bring my-self back to attention, the first thing that comes to mind is "Peaches".

The piety of which I speak also includes the idea of self-culture-the conscious effort to make ones life an art. Because the Unitarians and Transcendentalists believed we were "part and parcel of God", we had a duty to make the most of our lives. This has, as you know, been the theme of our church school year.
After Piety, the second part of Theodore Parkers definition of a religious life is love to man, or goodness. It is here, in community, that the practical expression of a pious life is lived out. For the transcendentalists, the individual, the specific fact, was almost always symbolic and given meaning by its relation to what Emerson called the Universal mind. If understood rightly, the particular would reveal the ultimate unity and perfection of the world. Every person contains all that has been thought and done-as Walt Whitman sang, "I contain multitudes!"

Love to man as a religious idea requires community and connection. This community includes all that have come before, all present now, and all who will come through these doors in the future. Often during the week I will come into this sanctuary and sit in the silence. During those moments I can feel the presence of thousands of people who have come into this place during the past 175 years, seeking to think the highest thoughts, live the highest kind of life. I see all the people who now share in this community of joy and purpose, and I see, in the faces of our children, the thousands who will, in response to something deep and universal in their souls, come through these doors in future times.

So I desire this morning to reclaim the word "religious" and argue for the living of religious lives with all the joy and deep effort that such lives entail. I argue also for church, the beloved community, where such religious lives are sparked, nourished, supported, and cradled.

I close with the poem The Layers, by one of our greatest poets Stanley Kunitz. Now 100 years old Kunitz won the National book Award at the age of 90. He, more than many, suffered profound tragedy, joy, and constant change and amidst it all embraced a life of deep and deliberate attention. A religious life. May it be so for all of us. He wrote:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Living religiously helps me live in the layers and church life tells me I am not doing it alone. No small thing. Amen