PILGRIMAGE TO HOLY PLACES

APRIL 2, 2000
R.M. FEWKES


Tomorrow ten of us will be leaving for the first leg of our journey to Transylvania. It will be a pilgrimage to the origins of Unitarianism in Eastern Europe. You will hear more about our pilgrimage after we return on the 14th of April. As we prepare for our journey I would remind you that there are some interesting sites of origin here in New England just up the road in Concord, Mass. I would like to share with you a pilgrimage I made to that area earlier in my ministry. If you can’t afford to come to Transylvania you can afford a drive up to Concord. It is worth the trek.

Back in the early 1980s I had the pleasure of attending a conference on church and ministry in Concord, Mass. The conference was good and useful as conferences go, but the high point of the gathering for me was an afternoon "magical mystery tour" of the historic sties of Lexington and Concord. Our tour guide was none other than Dr. Dana MacLean Greeley, minister of the First Parish in Concord and past president of the AUA and the UUA. Dana at the time was in his 75th year and was as spry and energetic as a 39 year-old, full of enthusiasm and steeped in the lore of that historic region. We all piled into a waiting bus. Dana Greeley stood at the front megaphone in hand ready to tell us everything we ever wanted to know about the saints and sages of Concord and Lexington and even a few things we never wanted to know. It was, I can tell you, a memorable occasion, and one I will long remember.

Not only was this a guided tour of the origins of the nation, but a pilgrimage into the transcendentalist depths of our UU heritage. Everywhere we went there were houses, inns, markers, gravestones, denoting those who had left their imprint upon our thought and history—the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a replica of the church where he once worshipped; the houses and buildings where Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott once resided and wrote some of their great pieces of literature. There was the birthplace of Theodore Parker in Lexington, the great 19th Century Unitarian minister, social activist and reformer whose writings influenced phrases in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Then there was the Charles Follen Memorial Unitarian Church in Lexington. Follen was a German immigrant and minister who embraced the antislavery cause, a close and dear friend of William Ellery Channing in Boston. When Follen died, Channing wanted to hold a Memorial Service in the Federal Street Church where he was minister. The church board refused. Channing was so outraged that he held a service elsewhere and then ended his formal association as minister of the church. Dana Greeley had hundred and one anecdotes and stories all along the route.

Theodore Parker, who was born in Lexington, and served churches in West Roxbury and Boston, would probably have been buried in his hometown but for the fact that he died while on a trip to Florence, Italy. Parker knew he was about to die and said on his death bed, "There are two Theodore Parkers, one to be buried here in Florence, the other still alive and active in America and who will yet complete his work." Parker’s natural religion and social conscience eventually permeated the Unitarian movement that had once branded him a heretic and a renegade. He did indeed complete his work.

There were, of course, a number of markers and statues along the way signifying the birth of the nation in the Revolutionary War. One poignant stone marker indicated the spot where a single British soldier came face to face with a single American revolutionary patriot. One said to the other, "You are a dead man." The other replied, "So are you." They both fired. One died instantly. The other lived only long enough to tell the tale. Dana reflected, "Let the Soviet Union and the United States take lesson as they face one another, nuclear weapons in hand." With the collapse of the Soviet Union we’ve forgotten that the nuclear weapons are still there or worse may be sold on the black market to renegade regimes.

There was another stone marker where Paul Revere was ambushed by the British. Contrary to the famous poem about the midnight ride of Paul Revere he did not complete his intended mission. William Dawes did. But Dawes’ name had too many flaws for the poet to ring and rhyme. It was "Revere" that rhymed with "hear" and so it was that he received the glory for many a year. Fortunately, Paul Revere was not killed by the British in that ambush, else we would have been deprived of all that silver and bells crafted by his hand. Unfortunately, our historical ancestors in Norwell gave away Paul Revere’s church silver and recast his bell, so that we now have nothing left of our famous patriot’s hand except a fading memory.

The bus stopped in front of the Concord cemetery. We got out and walked along the path leading to Author’s Ridge where the literary greats are buried. Dana Greeley was at his shining best as he filled us with anecdotes about some of the lesser-known names along with the more famous. Two in particular had difficult names to live with, but they distinguished themselves nonetheless. Ephraim Bull (not to be confused with a papal bull or with what bellicose preachers sometimes throw in their sermons) became a highly respected and renowned judge. The Hoar family, spelled H-O-A-R, was as fecund and productive as the Kennedy family in our day. They had numerous children and set high standards of public service and performance for them. Three or four became congressional representatives, one a senator, and one an attorney general. The father was president of a college, the only one not to have a house or building named after him on campus. It does not take much imagination to figure why.

The lesson, I suppose, is that we are all born with handicaps of one kind or another—name or appearance or physical or mental incapacity of some kind, even genius that borders on madness—but whatever the circumstances we face that discourage us we can rise above it by taking example from the perseverance and endurance those who have gone before. Take heart, even in the face of heartache, you are a human being, you posses an inherent dignity and worth that no one can take away from you. There is that of God in every human person your self included. That’s no bull, no hoary tale, but the God’s honest truth.

Suddenly there in front of us to our left was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave and those of his family. Here a visiting Hindu dignitary once knelt as if in prayer. He was introduced to Hawthorne’s works in his youth, came to love and reverence Hawthorne’s literary genius, and for him there was something worthy of worship or nearly so in a creative spirit that measured the human condition and portrayed it with artistry, honesty, sensitivity and grace.

It is interesting to note that Hawthorne, who knew and respected Emerson, at times, found the great sage of Concord incomprehensible. He once referred to Emerson as a "mystic stretching his hand out of the cloud-land in vain search for something real." He characterized his philosophy as "like a heap of fog and darkness." Hawthorne dealt with the reality of the human condition as felt and experienced, Emerson with the higher aspirations of the soul before God and nature. Both, however, reverenced the power and grace of the written word. In all fairness to Emerson he could be very practical and down to earth:

Ministers and clergy, by the way, are sometimes compared to manure. If they’re spread about they can do an awful lot of good. But if you put them all together in one place they can raise a big stink. There were about 30 of us in Concord that day, and although we weren’t raising a big stink about anything, or doing an awful lot of good for anybody, we were, I think, receiving a lot of good as we made pilgrimage to holy places.

Across from Hawthorne’s grave on the right is the Thoreau family lot. Pilgrims from many lands come to this site expecting to find a large stone monument in honor of Concord’s favorite son, Henry David Thoreau. What a surprise when all they find is a plain stone marker no more than a foot tall and wide with a simple inscription "Henry". Thoreau had gained world wide fame for two things—living for a year by Walden Pond on the edge of Emerson’s property, and spending a night in jail for refusal to pay his poll tax as a protest against the war with Mexico. His achievement was more literary than heroic in any physical sense. It is reported that the jail house keeper, who knew Thoreau, offered to pay his tax, but Henry refused the offer. The next day he was let out because some anonymous donor paid it anyway, probably Emerson. The story goes that Emerson came to visit Thoreau in jail and asked him, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" To which Thoreau replied, "Waldo, what are you doing out there?"

It was only some time later, at the suggestion of a friend that Thoreau wrote about his night in jail and the reasons for it in his now famous "Essay on Civil Disobedience." It was first published in the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial. After that it lay fallow and forgotten for 30 years, was then republished and discovered by Tolstoy who introduced it to Russia and Europe. Gandhi then discovered it when he read about it in Tolstoy and used it as a rationale for his nonviolent struggle against the British in India. Eventually it made its way back to historic significance on these shores when Martin Luther King, Jr. took from Tolstoy, Gandhi and Thoreau in fashioning his nonviolent civil disobedience movement for the cause of civil rights. Thoreau never dreamed his night in jail and his little essay about it would have such far-reaching influence.

Farther down the path in the cemetery on the right Louisa May Alcott lies in a simple grave marked by a flat stone marker. Author of Little Women she was herself big in heart, large in talent, and wise and sensitive in countenance. Though she did not have the brilliance of a Margaret Fuller (few do, women or men) she paved the way towards respect and regard for female writers and authors. I was pleased to pause briefly by her grave remembering that her uncle, Samuel J. May, once preached from the pulpit of our church and that she herself no doubt graced these pews with her presence during Uncle Sam’s ministry in South Scituate. Greetings, dear Louisa, from the preacher and church in Norwell, a hundred and sixty or so years down the road. Rest in peace. You have done well.

At last we came to the Emerson family grave site—wife, children, aunts, cousins, and namesakes from that day to this. The Emerson stone was a beautiful large chunk of natural marble. Dana Greeley, who confessed he was not a geologist, was asked of what the Emerson Stone was made. Dana said, "I guess it’s granite." A friend corrected him, "No, Dana, it’s marble. It all goes to show you can’t take everything for granite." Dana smiled and we went on our way.

For many years after his death Emerson was classed with Lincoln as the greatest man of thought next to the greatest man of action in America. There were, of course, those that criticized Emerson for being a naïve optimist. They called him "the Orpheus of Optimism" and a "militant Pollyanna." It wasn’t that Emerson was unaware of what he called "the ghastly reality of things," or that he was unacquainted with tragedy and grief. He experienced the death of his father and poverty as a boy, he lost the bride of his youth to consumption within the first year of marriage, and after his second marriage he lost his first born four-year-old son, Waldo to the flu. He had been hurt by life, but he made his peace with what he could not change. He was also, I think, constitutionally incapable of dwelling on the moribund side of life. He much preferred to offer a goodly hope than a dismal philosophy. "Look within, with pure eyes and simple trust, and you shall find the Deity mirrored in your own soul. Trust thyself! Every heart vibrates to that iron string."

The magical mystery tour concluded with a ride to Walden Pond and a half-mile trek to the site of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. The cabin, of course, is no more, but the foundation is denoted with stone markers. If you have not made this pilgrimage I urge you to do it, especially in the fall. The pond is absolutely lovely, the water still crystal clear, the ambiance of the foliage surrounds and reflects on the surface of the water.

Some detractors have said that because Thoreau was on the edge of Emerson’s land he could cut through to the house, grab a hot meal, and return to the hut. His mother, so it is claimed, even sent cookies for him to enjoy. None of that bothers me in the least. I hope he enjoyed Mrs. Emerson’s cooking and his mother’s cookies thoroughly. I salute him nonetheless for h is effort to live close to the land and water for a full round of seasons, and in so doing to discover the seasons of his own soul. Thoreau’s task is ours to do as well in whatever place we choose to live and work. We need to find and come to terms with "the hard bottom rocks" of our reality, to mark "a point d’appui" in the center of our being, an inner "Realometer" to judge the false and the true in nature and ourselves.

There was a large pile of stones marking the site of Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond and a sign inviting others to add to the pile as a token of respect and regard. I searched along the path and found a small pebble, and tossed it on the mound of stones. As I did so I thought of Argow’s words, "Ever the vision leads on, with a holy-land washed by waters or a holy-land within the heart."

I invite you to make your own pilgrimage to holy places, to find your own "holy land within the heart"—perhaps here at First Parish in Norwell, in the faces of young and old engaged like yourself upon a pilgrimage. Or perhaps in sunlight shining on waters and trees through the autumn haze or spring blossoms in your own backyard, or perchance in stone markers for great souls who remind you of your own inner greatness and divine potential. I urge you to add the pebble of your growing consciousness to the aspiration of the human spirit for what is good and true and beautiful. So may it be. Amen.