Sunday, March 22: Ralph Waldo’s Obsession



Lighting the Chalice

Invocation: “Water,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.

Reading: “Terminus” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is time to be old,
To take in sail:—
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds,
And said: “No more!
No farther shoot
Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root.
Fancy departs: no more invent;
Contract thy firmament
To compass of a tent.
There’s not enough for this and that,
Make thy option which of two;
Economize the failing river,
Not the less revere the Giver,
Leave the many and hold the few.
Timely wise accept the terms,
Soften the fall with wary foot;
A little while
Still plan and smile,
And,—fault of novel germs,—
Mature the unfallen fruit.
Curse, if thou wilt, thy sires,
Bad husbands of their fires,
Who, when they gave thee breath,
Failed to bequeath
The needful sinew stark as once,
The Baresark marrow to thy bones,
But left a legacy of ebbing veins,
Inconstant heat and nerveless reins,—
Amid the Muses, left thee deaf and dumb,
Amid the gladiators, halt and numb.”

As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.”

Homily: Ralph Waldo’s Obsession (March 22, 2020)

Rev. Greg Stewart

I think it was John Bradshaw who once said, “Show me a happy person and I’ll show you someone who is not in a relationship.” He spoke these words in the context of romance, but I believe it could be applied to relationships with friends and family as well. Life certainly gets messy when others enter the mix and learn how to get under our skin.

While some relationships offer love and support, others wound us, confound us, or even torment us. Most often our relationships, if they are at all authentic, treat us to both love and torment, to which we reciprocate in equal measure.That is to say, the same relationships which make life worth living will also make life a living hell from time to time.

Ralph Waldo Emerson would tell us that when things go wrong, the fault is ours. Not my spouse’s fault, not my friend’s, not my boss’s; its mine alone. I’ll explain why in a moment, but in case you were not paying attention in high school, which is when many of us were first introduced to Emerson, let me tell you just a bit about him.

Emerson was born in Boston in the spring of 1803 to a poor family that became more impoverished after the death of his father when Ralph Waldo was eight years old. Emerson’s father left behind a widow, five sons, and daughter Mary Caroline, who died just as Ralph Waldo was entering college. His brother, Robert Bulkeley, was severely mentally challenged, needing institutional care for most of his life. The family lived in a poor Boston neighborhood on Hancock Street, surviving on the charity of the Church as well as friends and neighbors.

Despite poor health and material deprivation, Emerson eagerly pursued his studies and eventually entered Harvard University on a scholarship. He was 14 years old. He had known hardship, poverty, disease, hunger, loss, injustice, and would have had every reason to give up on life or compensate with greed to get what fate had denied him. Folk would have understood. But the young Emerson knew something that eludes most of us. How he knew it I cannot say, though his studies of the sacred texts of Egypt, the Hindu Vedas, and the Upanishads, as well as the Greek Orphic texts, and the works of Pythagoras, Plato, and the Neo-Platonists probably all pointed the way. Perhaps his difficult early years engendered in him not weakness but resolve, and not failure but faith.

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to ride out the crises of life with dignity and determination, while others become so overwhelmed by their circumstances that they are controlled by them? How some of us use calamity to grow stronger as human beings, while others cannot seem to learn from suffering? That some of us are comforted by what we have and others by what we lack? Yes, Ralph Waldo knew something that eludes most of us. So do those who have learned to make a way out of no way when the road of life is fogged in or altogether blocked. What Ralph Waldo knew was this: that everything we need in life we already have. We are born that way, born with every tool to build a life worth living. Moreover, we have direct access to these tools through the life of the Spirit, the Divine Energy that permeates our being and would lead us to contentment. This Energy is not found somewhere “out there,” in the inspiration of arts and letters or the institutions of church and state. It isn’t the byproduct of material wealth. It is not contained in human ingenuity or nature’s glory, though all of these things offer clues to finding what we truly need. But they are not the Source, not the Ground of our Being, not the Spirit of Life.

Instead, Emerson points us in another direction to discover the Source that provides us with everything we need in life. Emerson believed that the wellspring of happiness and success lies within ourselves, and not within the outer world. He said so succinctly in his essay titled “Self-Reliance“: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” He goes on to explain, “He who knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for good out of himself and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles.”

Of course, Emerson is not referring to the external powers of money, position, or physical strength. Instead he speaks of an inner source of empowerment by which we become the heroes of our own lives, rather than victims. It is the truth within ourselves, where divinity commingles freely with fallibility, and not edicts from on high that enables us to live victoriously in a world bound for defeat. Some have called this power “Holy,” while others don’t find labels all that helpful.

The radical revelation that the Holy is still speaking, that we can know ourselves fully, and thereby have direct experiences of the divine and breathe in all that is holy, became Ralph Waldo’s Obsession. No one should live only by the faith of their fathers and mothers, or by the words of prophets past. How could that be genuine? Likewise, you and I must base our Unitarian Universalist faith on our own experiences and convictions, and no one else’s. Even for those fortunate enough to have been born into this liberal religious faith, there has to have been what Maria Harris calls “an A-ha Moment,” or what theologians call a Damascus Road Experience. It’s good to recall your own conversion to Unitarian Universalism, that moment when the light went on and you claimed this faith as your faith. It’s edifying to remember how you were changed by your early encounters with liberal religion, when its story become your story and its principles become your guideposts in life.

Moreover, Emerson believed that revelation is not sealed, and that all can have the same experiences that have led some to greatness. That some do and some don’t depends on the degree to which self-reliance is in play. We’re all born with it, enough to last a lifetime, and life’s journey provides opportunities to recognize and recover what we already have. Emerson’s Obsession has led one scholar to declare Ralph Waldo “the seer of a revolution in human self-recovery.”

Now it was time to spread the word. So upon graduation from Harvard, Emerson embarked on a teaching career, but quickly became frustrated with the pedagogy of his time, one that told students what to think instead of how to think for themselves. Moreover, he abhorred the testing of students, which he said only taught learners how to memorize facts and that encouraged superficial understanding. Rather than go against his own beliefs, Ralph Waldo quit the classroom. In 1829 he was installed as pastor of the Unitarian Second Church in Boston, hoping the ministry would be a more fitting place to expound his views on nature, human nature, and the Divine nature within all of life.

But the Unitarians, not unlike all Deists at the time, worshipped a faraway God, and followed other believers in their mistrust of human insight. Their God was rational and remote, while Emerson’s was intuitive and within. Some say it was the practice of communion that drove Emerson out of the pulpit and onto the lecture circuit, and it is easy to see why. What need did Ralph Waldo have of bread and wine to create communion with the Divine? No external elements could ever develop the kind of consciousness Emerson derived from practicing self-reliance, the result of his knowledge that the realm of the Divine dwells within us.

In any event, Ralph Waldo Emerson left the Church for the same reason he left the Academy: he refused to compromise his faith or work against his own beliefs. He knew that working at cross purposes would create inner conflict and diminish his sense of self. Emerson knew that putting his “accommodating self” before his “authentic self” would eventually make him a stranger to himself. He knew that to compromise his unique personhood was to deny his own divinity.

Do you ever get that feeling of loss through accommodation? I do, when I laugh at a joke that is more cruel than comic. Or when someone speaks aloud racism and I choose to remain silent. Or when I make a purchase because everyone else has one. Or when I hold back an opinion because I want to be liked or fear rejection. If I am not careful, I may create a false persona that believes one way and acts another. Which person is the “real me?” How will others know? Given that relationships form initially from common interests and compatible world views, are people gravitating to the false self, the face many of us show the world? Or are they experiencing the authentic self, the one that arises out of our consciousness and beckons us to awaken and become who we really are?

Author Marianne Parady calls Emerson the champion of the authentic self, promoting Self-Reliance in a world enslaved by the expectations of church and state. Then she explains that the “[Spirit of Life] calls us forth to self-discovery, and asks each of us to look beneath the façade to the divine and magnificent essences of our true beings.” She asks us to “do the work we were meant to do, say the things our hearts want to say, and live the lives our souls long to live.”

That’s why I said at the beginning of this homily that when things go wrong, it’s our fault. Emerson says in his essay called Self-Reliance, “We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, and afraid of each other.” We may prefer or become seduced by the false personas we create, rather than deal with reality. How can we trust our own intuition when we fear knowing ourselves, when we sabotage our own success, and when we worry about what ‘they’ will think?” In the same essay Emerson states emphatically: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think. You will always find those who think they know what is best your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but great is the [one] who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

The truth is, we have been programmed not to be self-reliant from birth, and this is no accident. The social conformity that inhibits many of us from living our own lives rewards us when we adhere to the rules, norms, beliefs, and expectations that “they” have set up for us. It seems ingrained to consider, “What would they think,” or “How would they do it?” No, says Emerson, this is no accident. Society always seeks equilibrium, usually by resisting change and encouraging conformity. Sensing that our accommodations are debilitating to both self and society, he encourages us to become independent thinkers, sharing our truths honestly and openly, though never cruelly or inconsiderately. Emerson expected backlash from the powers that be, for those who think for themselves are difficult to control.

Krishnamurti reminds us that society can only shape and condition us though our minds. Emerson envisioned an end to approval-seeking behavior and the crippling conformity that can keep us from living our best lives now. He believed we could bring about a world where authority and power exist first and foremost within each of us, instead of within society. Emerson knew that when we ignore our own leanings, we have very little to give to anyone, especially society. For what we repress eventually resurfaces with greater power to distort our perspectives and damage our psyches.

Consider how much of our anger is of oppression, repression, and not being true to ourselves. Emerson knew all of this from direct experience, causing Oliver Wendell Holmes to declare about Emerson, “What he taught others to be he was himself.” Oh, that it will one day be said of each of us, as individuals and as Unitarian Universalists, “What they taught others to be they were herself.” Our nation was founded by non-conformists who consistently put principles before practicality. Our religion names martyrs who, when facing the crowd of persecutors, echoed with the prophet, saying, “Here I am, send me!” even to the gallows. What is it like to believe in oneself so much that even death avails no fear?

Of course, there are times when accommodation is the healthy response to a given situation. I can rely on my intuition to know when it is called for, and will feel its gentle judgment when I have crossed the line. I bet you know how it is. When we have authentic conversations we often leave them with renewed energy and determination. But when we’ve compromised our convictions in our dealings with others, we’ll likely feel exhausted and uninspired.

Another sage encouraged us to “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Like Emerson, the prophets believed that the Realm of the Divine is within you and me. When we tap into that Source of Unconditional Love and unleash its power, our renewed minds will move us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” The very walls cry out for self-reliance. Perhaps these great prophets both knew that the relationship we are most likely to neglect is the one we have with ourselves, and especially with the divine nature that is our birthright.

Emerson writes, again in the essay, “Self-Reliance,” “As soon as man is one with God, he will not beg.” Connected to the Source within, we realize we already have everything we need. You do not necessarily need to be a theist to experience Oneness with all that is, but when that serendipity strikes our usual response is gratitude, not desire. Rather than feeling needy, we feel fulfilled.

Emerson writes of divine union, “I might call it completeness, but that is later—perhaps adjourned for the ages. I prefer to call it Greatness. It is the fulfillment of a natural tendency in every [person].” You and I fulfill this natural tendency and thereby become more self-reliant when the spiritual life provides the foundation for everything we are and everything we do.

Emerson says, “I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and the moon whatever inly rejoices me and the heart appoints.” Listening to the still, small, voice within, and then becoming its hands and feet helps us grow in nearly all of life’s dimensions; spiritually, emotionally, psychically, creatively, even materially. While Emerson’s philosophy does not deny us the things of the world, it asks that we put the things of the spirit first. It calls for a reordering of what matters most. Does this mean we have to change in order to experience oneness with the Divine and to become more self-reliant?
The answer, for once, is no. We are already indwelled with the Spirit of Life.

As we read in today’s Lesson, “Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.” The Divine Presence is not “out there,” it is within us. Neither is self-reliance about changing ourselves; instead it is about becoming ourselves, and embodying who we already are. It results from a conscious and intentional nurturing of the life of the Spirit, with the understanding that the Universe wants us to be happy.

Most of all, self-reliance declares we each deserve to be happy, just because of who we are; “just as I am, without one plea.”

Ralph Waldo’s Obsession, a life of self-reliance, can become ours as well.

We close with an excerpt from Emerson’s poem, “Give All to Love,” wherein he tells us how to live both holy and wholly in a fragmented world:

Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good-fame,
Plans, credit, and the Muse,—
Nothing refuse.

To the glory of life!

Extinguishing the Chalice

Benediction: from the introduction to “The Over-Soul,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Space is ample, east and west,
But two cannot go abreast,
Cannot travel in it two:
Yonder masterful cuckoo
Crowds every egg out of the nest,
Quick or dead, except its own;
A spell is laid on sod and stone,
Night and Day ‘ve been tampered with,
Every quality and pith
Surcharged and sultry with a power
That works its will on age and hour.

Further Reading