Saturday, October 31, 2009

holier fruit...

The words of Thomas Treadwell Stone have been my companion the past few days and will continue for a few more. Today, the "flip-side" of the last few posts from the"Pleasure" part of his chapter "Pleasure and Pain" in the book ""The Rod and the Staff" T.T. Stone on Pain:

"But that which we chiefly seek now is not so much the method of escaping pain, as the spirit with which we should meet it when it has come and can no longer be avoided. We may not despise the Stoic, but stoutly with him deny that pain is essentially evil, so holding for ever of the soul and of virtue. We may not despise the theologian or the philosopher, but admit with each that pain grows of some known or unknown disobedience to immutable law, so deriving from it lessons of wiser conduct for the future. With neither of them, however, let us stop. Holier fruit than either may grow from the hard experience. We may learn unfaltering trust. We may learn to look from the depth to the height, seeing how the stars shine never more brightly than when we are hemmed in by dark walls which seem to make even the sky black.

The great end of man's existence, if we look only to himself, is virtue; if we look to his higher relations and destiny, it is communion with God. To each, let it be our effort to render all pain subsidiary. Amidst weakness and languor and harsher pain, to summon the soul into noble and generous activity; to rise into peace and bless God for his love; to maintain sweetness of temper and welcome all who visit us with kindlier affections ; to go through the whole with calmness and with care for those about us, — will be found not only virtue, but the parent of virtue. So much strength and beauty of soul have been won: they have formed their home in the heart; they shall produce new and growing fruit, asking only culture to become richer and fairer for ever. Then contemplate the same spirit amidst these same infirmities, as thus finding its rest in the bosom of the Father, — we may close our lips ; we may still our thoughts; we may soothe the beating heart; there is no less than the peace of God."

Friday, October 30, 2009

revelations of new heavens and a new earth...

This morning, the conclusion of a prayer by T. T. Stone found in his book of 1858, "The Rod and the Staff." (find the rest of the text in 2 posts made yesterday)

"When I leave the vision of thy day and thy night, and rest in lonely thought, thou art with me still. Thy sun and moon and stars, thine earth and skies, dwell ever fresh within me. Thou hast planted their image in my mind; thou renewest the creation to me with every sun that riseth, with every evening as it soothes me by its peace. And in them all, and in my soul which loves them, thou hast engraven a holier image, so that neither in nature nor in myself can I for a moment live, but thy benignity surrounds me and fills me. In thee, Father, I live; in thee, Power of powers, I move ; in thee, Lord of existence, I have my being. My heart overflows with joy; thine the joy which makes me glad; from thee, the heart which drinks it in. Let heart and joy, and all I am and all I have, rise, returning to the supreme fountain. Even if changes come, and clouds gather over me, and pleasures wither in my hand, let no thought of repining dwell in me; fill me with that trust which shall give me revelations of new heavens and a new earth. Thy Sabbath fold me to its rest!

Father! save me, that I do not wander or fall. While I feel thee near, all pleasure is pure to me, sweet and heavenly ; so soon as I am away from thee, pleasure is corrupt and becomes bitter, and I am earthly and know nothing but earth and earthly things. Keep me so near to thee; so quicken my sight to see thy presence ; fill me with such fulness of thy spirit, that I shall never lose thee from my soul, that I shall never see the world void of thy life. There is no darkness with thee; there is no light without thee. For ever, thou life and joy of all, let thy child find the path to his home, and come to live and rest and rejoice, as thou givest him now to rejoice, in thee. Amen."


Thursday, October 29, 2009

thine also is the night...

T. T. Stone's prayer from this morning continued. I wish everyone a
a "night of peace:"

"Thine also is the night. I look out in silence on the silence which thou spreadest around me, below and above. My soul riseth, O Lord, to thee! Thy stars! Thy moon! Thy midnight sky! Dearer than the day cometh the rapture to bear me from everything weak and low to the height of thy mysterious presence. Maker of suns and earths, of day and night, of all which grows and all which lives through the world and the seasons, thou, only thou, art my Father. Quicken thy child to love thee. My heart is full of joy; hallow every joy with thy love and peace."


speak the wonders...

Our Unitarian Universalist Principle number seven affirms the "interdependent web of all existence" and we have sought to express this very large notion in thought, sermon, song, poetry and many other ways. Thomas Treadwell Stone put it like this in the introductory chapter of his "The Rod and the Staff" published in 1858. The first excerpt is a statement of his belief in the unity of creation and its ultimate goodness and the second is a prose prayer celebrating that goodness:

" fulfil the grand idea of monotheism, to carry out the principles embosomed in the Church which always repelled as a foreign element and a dogmatic heresy the notion of two independent powers, substantial and creative, we must come sooner or later to the distinct acknowledgment, that existence in all its normal developments is purely, wholly, only good; that, as God and his creations include whatever exists from eternity to eternity, so the whole must represent and correspond to his essential and infinite goodness...

Greatest of beings, source of all joy, blessed be thou! For this world so full of riches and beauty, for this body wrought of such fine elements into so goodly form, for the power within me to rejoice in all these gifts, let me thank thee for ever. Thou leadest me forth under thy sky; my heart exults in the vision. Thy sun shineth evermore with thy light, opening all things to mine eye. Thy clouds gather over me, and encircle me with their mists; thine they are, and with them thou softenest the day and makest the earth rich. Thine the earth and the ocean and air; created of thy power, upheld by thee forever, formed by thy wisdom into order. and harmony, filled and overflowing with thy love. I can never count or speak the wonders which each day reveals from thee."


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

the sky reddens with the spreading dawn...

Given as the Charge at the installation of Rev. E.E. Hale in 1856, this call to ministers (and all church workers) struck me this morning. Thomas Treadwell Stone makes an impassioned plea for all to live by the spirit:

"The first condition of effectual announcement of the vision is this, that we do truly see it...Let us never reject the spirit of God because fanaticism has distorted it; or personal feeling or thought has assumed the name; because zeal has hardened into bigotry; wrath supplanted enthusiasm; or nonsense or worse has obtruded itself as inspiration. Rather let us presume that what has been so corrupted must in its purity be best, and keep our souls always open to the access of angels. The east is not exhausted by the first line of light which runs through the night; the eye waits for awhile and the sky reddens with the spreading dawn. ..

The scriptures and the prophets have not closed the avenues of the soul to God,-they have helped rather to open them; let us enter into them and walk over them and rejoice in the Presence that meets us there and blesses us with truth and peace.

Let me commend to you...the perpetual seeking of this inward and growing insight."


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

the simple energy of unquenched love...

The "Perfection of Love' by T.T. Stone continued. This sounds easy enough...

"Let enemies plot against him; let them assail his person, seize his possessions, belie his character, treat him with bitter sarcasm or proud contempt; let them persecute him as wicked, or spurn him as worthless; let their secret hatred reveal itself in casting him from their society, throwing him out of their bosoms as the sea-waves throw up the loosened sand and drive it, as they dash, against the beaten rock; what then ? It is not well with them; it is well with him. The peace of the universe is in his soul; he cannot go,' living or dying, where a divine aspect is hidden from him. They tell us, in old fable, of the shield bearing the Gorgon head, which turned all who looked upon it to stone ; but toward him through the whole circle of the universe, a face looks for ever which penetrates his whole being with its benignity, and, instead of the petrifactions of selfishness, makes him vital in every part, and draws him into perpetual co-operation with the spirit which it expresses. Nay, hate is of itself that petrifying power, and the unloving heart sees it never but to become hard and adamantine. Bitterness embitters ; scorn begets scorn; contempt invites contempt; pride either reproduces its own assumption or rouses the revenge of envy; enmity is sure to form its offspring in others' breasts to roll back and sting its parent; nothing is strong enough in the midst of these enchantments of selfishness to protect the soul from their deadening influences, save this simple energy of unquenched love. Let this live and grow, freely, fully; then does enmity from men but reverse its own processes, and, driving it to the celestial fountains, minister to its supplies of new wealth and sweetness. Beset by pride, it grows the humbler; by contempt, it returns the deeper reverence of the soul; by scorn, it joys the more to rise into that holier sphere which overlooks it. The God within it can never be embittered, but in the instant turns all elements of bitterness into nourishment of his own eternal life."


Monday, October 26, 2009

holiest influences...

In a comment on an earlier post concerning barriers to UU growth, Kari Kopnick said "To me, we Unitarian Universalists do speak with one voice on one thing, and it's the thing that really matters. We all believe in love. Nothing is more powerful than that." I am not sure I am quite so optimistic but I do agree that nothing is more powerful than love. And so does Thomas Treadwell Stone. Some excerpts from his sermon, "Perfection in Love"

"There is a greater law. The heavens are over all; the earth is underneath all, and yields to all its fruits. It is not night to the atheist, while day shines for the devout. The sea severs not the wicked from the innocent either in its calm or its storm. The air is one whether man walks in it to worship or to revile. The elements and combinations and powers of the universe, flowing from one fontal love, are unchangeably filled with it, and look with the same serene beauty, and give forth the same benignant issues, whether man heeds and blesses them, or hates and curses. The uprooted oak does not fall because a bad man is passing under it, more than it stands for the good man to escape. The universe and its unstinted soul go on their way, leaving every man to create his own good or evil out of the material of his own life and will and action. So does God know nothing of enmity. Nay, through the courses of time, the One Soul is always living. The sacred fountains never roll back, onward they flow for ever. Justice and all things never reverse themselves ; history reveals an unfolding order wherein all crafts and crooked policies and wrong deeds of men are dissolved in the immovable truth of God to the laws of his boundless philanthropy. The seeming of evil passes into the reality of good; and the good, never ebbing, flows continually higher, and covers all the strands of existence. Before the face of the Lord hate vanishes, only love is. Our harmony with the Father and with his universe is only as we enter into the same sphere of infinite goodness. The man who hates another, separates himself from the divine order. His sun is darkened; the stars fall from his heavens ; his moon withholds her light. He kindles a flame to burn and scathe his own earth; he opens his own Hinnom Valley, and throws himself into its continual fires. He nourishes the worm which devours, the fire which burns, amid its outer darkness. Whereas, in the same world, surrounded by the same external conditions, the man whose whole soul is love finds himself in a state precisely opposite. That love is mirror of an infinite sun ; within the expanse which encircles him fixed stars and undimmed moon shine; his earth is always green, and airs of Paradise float over it; the heavens are opened, and he ascends into their calm sphere, and drinks in their holiest influences..."

Many thanks Kari, and to all


Sunday, October 25, 2009

what is pie for?...

When I was very young, in elementary school, I loved football and as we lived in South Dakota, the nearest team, our "home team" was the Minnesota Vikings. I loved their quarterback at the time, Fran Tarkenton and remember reading in an interview that his favorite food was chili. For some time after that, on the rare occasions that we ate out, I ordered only chili.
Some years ago, I read that Ralph Waldo Emerson ate apple pie for breakfast so (in the spirit of youthful imitation) I gave it a try. Well...I really love apple pie for breakfast. The problem is that I don't much love most of the apple pies made in the stores, I am too cheap to buy good bakery pies, and though I make many of our family's meals, for some reason my attempts at apple pie have not been pretty.
Fortunately my wonderful wife (who is a successful college textbook editor) makes a splendid apple pie (not too sweet and with the apple peels left on) so every now and again I am lucky enough to indulge myself with an Emersonian pie...
Here are two stories of Emerson and pie related by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his biography "Ralph Waldo Emerson:"

"At breakfast we had, among other things, pie. This article at breakfast was one of Mr. Emerson's weaknesses. A pie stood before him now. He offered to help somebody from it, who declined; and then one or two others, who also declined; and then Mr_____________. ; he too declined. ' But Mr.____________. ! ' Mr. Emerson remonstrated, with humorous emphasis, thrusting the knife under a piece of the pie, and putting the entire weight of his character into his manner, — ' but Mr____________. , what is pie for ?'"


"A near friend of mine, a lady, was once in the cars with Emerson, and when they stopped for the refreshment of the passengers he was very desirous of procuring something at the station for her solace. Presently he advanced upon her with a cup of tea in one hand and a wedge of pie in the other, — such a wedge ! She could hardly have been more dismayed if one of Caesar's cunei, or wedges of soldiers, had made a charge against her.
Yet let me say here that pie, often foolishly abused, is a good creature, at the right time and in angles of thirty or forty degrees. In semicircles and quadrants it may sometimes prove too much for delicate stomachs. But here was Emerson, a hopelessly confirmed pie-eater, never, so far as I remember, complaining of dyspepsia; and there, on the other side, was Carlyle, feeding largely on wholesome oatmeal, groaning with indigestion all his days, and living with half his self-consciousness habitually centred beneath his diaphragm."


Saturday, October 24, 2009

the oldest religion

Ralph Waldo on mind and the endless river from "Natural History of the Intellect."

"In my thought I seem to stand on the bank of a river and watch the endless flow of the stream, floating objects of all shapes, colors and natures; nor can I much detain them as they pass, except by running beside them a little way along the bank. But whence they come or whither they go is not told me. Only I have a suspicion that, as geologists say every river makes its own valley, so does this mystic stream. It makes its valley, makes its banks and makes perhaps the observer too. Who has found the boundaries of human intelligence? Who has made a chart of its channel or approached the fountain of this wonderful Nile ?

I am of the oldest religion. Leaving aside the question which was prior, egg or bird, I believe the mind is the creator of the world, and is ever creating ; - that at last Matter is dead Mind ; that mind makes the senses it sees with ; that the genius of man is a continuation of the power that made him and that has not done making him."

(Note: Riverbank painting by Maxfield Parrish)

Friday, October 23, 2009

common life teems with wonders...

Regular readers of this space know that James Freeman Clarke comes the closest to being the exemplar of the spirit or atmosphere of the Boston Unitarianism that I hope to promote. Conservatively transcendental, liberally Christian, truly accepting of difference, lover of common life lived well, Clarke was, to put it simply, a good man.
This description of one of his literary heroes, Goethe, could just as well apply to him (it comes from John Wesley Thomas' "James Freeman Clarke: Apostle of German Culture to America.

"He received in his cradle the happy birth-gift of an insatiate curiosity, and a firm belief in the significance of all things...he possesses a faith in the deeply marvelous character of the universe, which fits him for the companionship of Plato. There are no words which occur more frequently in his writings than those which express this feeling of the marvelous; such as 'Wunderlich,' Wunderbar," and so on...The chief advantage of studying his writings is, to see in them what a wealth of thought he could find under the surface of our everyday existence, and how to an earnest mind common life teems with wonders..."
(note: the painting is by Sally Dean. See her wonderful blog at

Thursday, October 22, 2009

sipping only what is sweet...

Many thanks to those who commented on yesterday's post. I don't very often venture into criticism believing that positive expression will always do more good than confrontation.
In that vein, James Freeman Clarke compares Emerson's influence (just after his death) to Theodore Parker in this excerpt from his "19th Century Questions.

"If the movements of thought are now much more independent and spontaneous; if to-day traditions have lost their despotic power; if even those who hold an orthodox creed are able to treat it as a dead letter, respectable for its past uses, but by no means binding on us now, this is largely owing to the manly position taken by Emerson. And yet, let it be observed, this influence was not exercised by attacking old opinions, by argument, by denial, by criticism. Theodore Parker did all this, but his influence on thought has been far less than that of Emerson. Parker was a hero who snuffed the battle afar off, and flung himself, sword in hand, into the thick of the conflict. But, much as we love and reverence his honesty, his immense activity, his devotion to truth and right, we must admit to-day, standing by these two friendly graves, that the power of Emerson to soften the rigidity of time-hardened belief was far the greater. It is the old fable of the storm and sun. The violent attacks of the tempest only made the traveler cling more closely to his cloak ; the genial heat of the sun compelled him to throw it aside. In all Emerson's writings there is scarcely any argument. He attacks no man's belief; he simply states his own. His method is always positive, constructive. He opens the windows- and lets in more light. He is no man's opponent; the enemy of no one. He states what he sees, and that which he does not see he passes by. He was often attacked, but never replied. His answer was to go forward, and say something else. He did not care for what he called the " bugbear consistency." If to-day he said what seemed like Pantheism, and to-morrow he saw some truth which seemed to reveal a divine personality, a supreme will, he uttered the last, as he had declared the first, always faithful to the light within. He left it to the spirit of truth to reconcile such apparent contradictions. He was like his own humble-bee —

" Seeing only what is fair,
Sipping only what is sweet;
Thou dost mock at fate and care,
Leave the chaff and take the wheat."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

an atmosphere of liberality...

I have been thinking the past few weeks about growth, both in our church and in the larger denomination. The reasons why Unitarian Universalism does not grow are legion and fairly well known. To me the most significant is one that is also inherent-our lack of a unified message. Since this really cannot (and should not) be "fixed" it seems fairly clear that significant growth will never happen.
I am often asked by more evangelical or Catholic relatives and friends why we call ourselves a church at all and to a degree it is a valid question. My answer generally is that when I go to my Unitarian church, I see and feel much the same as I did about my small town midwestern Lutheran church. People put the coffee on, meet and greet each other with warmth and affection, join together in thought, word and deed, and together create a place in which the life of the spirit can be nurtured and acted from.

In yesterday's excerpt from the book, "Boston Unitarianism 1820-1850" was this line which, I think, is a good starting point. The founding generation of Unitarian ministers were described thus:

"It was their office to create an atmosphere rather than to advance a cause, to diffuse a spirit of liberality rather than to promote the interests of a system of thought, whether doctrinal or philosophical. "

Maybe. when it gets down to it, a religious denomination's main function is to "create an atmosphere" and if that is true the question becomes, what kind of air are we breathing today?

We pride ourselves on our liberality but that is not the spirit that many encounter when they walk through the doors of our churches. At best (as I myself have felt in more than one Unitarian Universalist Church) we are more like a bundle of conflicting illiberalites all wrapped up by a feeling of intellectual superiority to other less enlightened souls.

I am blessed and honored to serve a congregation that truly has created "an atmosphere of liberality" and, I am sure many others do as well. Perhaps to the degree that we can promote this spirit congregation by congregation, despite (or because of) our many conflicting theologies or philosophies (and as long as people continue to put the coffee on each Sunday) we can hold on to more people that walk through our doors.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

simply scholars and gentlemen...

Regular readers know that I have tended, in this space, to emphasize the "pious Unitarians," (referred to in the following reading as the spiritualists) and the transcendentalists. Today, however, I put forward a word for the "rationalists" who were so important in the Unitarian movement. Often disparaged as cold, and too...well, rational, this generation of Unitarian ministers is now little known.
In part, I named this blog "Boston Unitarian" from a book by Octavius Brooks Frothingham called "Boston Unitarianism 1820-1850," a biography of his father, Nathaniel Frothingham, and a celebration of this class of Unitarian. From the the first chapter...

"It has long seemed to me that justice was not done to the Unitarianism which lay between William Ellery Charming on one side, and Theodore Parker on the other; the simple rationalism as distinguished from the spiritualism of the former, and the naturalism of the latter; literary Unitarianism it might be called; the religion of sentiment, feeling, emotion ; the religion of unadorned good-sense. The fame of these two men so far eclipsed the others, that they sank into general obscurity, and were almost unknown outside of a small circle of admirers, while their influence, if acknowledged at all, was considered insignificant. By many they were regarded as drones, respectable good-for-nothings. Yet, it is my belief, the freedom and ease of movement in the mind of this generation, its elasticity, its gracefulness, its love of musical expression, its demand for finish in thought and phrase, its modest demeanor in presence of deep problems, must be in great measure due to them. Of course, some were more distinguished than others, but chiefly in distinct fields— as James Walker in philosophy, John G. Palfrey in history, Alexander Young in biography,—but as a class of thinkers they held no eminent place. It is "the fashion to depreciate them, to deny them power, to esteem them of small account. That they were destitute of positive, new, creative force, is freely admitted ; but that they were without formative genius or power, is not so easily granted. It was their office to create an atmosphere rather than to advance a cause, to diffuse a spirit of liberality rather than to promote the interests of a system of thought, whether doctrinal or philosophical. They were not organizers ; they were not sectaries; they were not champions of any school; they were not possessed by any dominant idea; they had no passion for social reform. They were simply scholars and gentlemen; dignified, gracious, genuine, sweet; fond of elegant studies, of good English, of courteous ways, of poetic expression, of the amenities of life. They were conservative of existing institutions in so far as they allowed the free movement of cultivated mind, and desired no change except in the direction of mental emancipation. They pushed against no barriers that did not limit the right to walk over all the fields of literature, unimpeded and unchallenged. For the rest, they were contented with things as they were..."

Monday, October 19, 2009

the cello emporium...

In our living room right now are three cellos (I call it the cello emporium.) The first is one on which I have tried to teach myself to play for some years (most often in theory not in practice.) Cello number two is played by my daughter Anna (10) who has been playing for a couple of years-she also plays piano and has an amazing ear and natural talent. My son Henry (8) has just taken up the cello this year with great enthusiasm.

My own desire to learn the cello began in college but until I moved to the Boston area, it remained unfulfilled. Then, I learned that a man in our church made cellos. He loaned me one which has been a mixed blessing (I no longer have an excuse not to try!) I have recently sat down with it again after a very long sabbatical...

One of my favorite musical forms is the string quartet. I love the exposure of each of the instruments. And, of course, some of the greatest quartets were composed by Beethoven. This morning, some words about him by John Sullivan Dwight, a "Boston Unitarian" transcendentalist, Brook Farmer, and music critic who was influential in building the reputation of Beethoven in America. His "Dwight's Journal of Music" (begun in 1852) was widely influential. See his biography here. This from the journal...

"Beethoven is the greatest of musical transcendentalists. No man ever transmuted such a vast amount of intellectual and emotional material into pure music. It were unfair to say that one or two of his successors have not reached as high an intellectual plane as he ; but they have not had his power of thoroughly transmuting thought and emotion into music. What we know best of Beethoven is his nine symphonies ; but if we would find the most transcendent fruits of his genius, we must look for them in his later pianoforte sonatas, variations and string-quartets"


Sunday, October 18, 2009

the stream will be sweet...

I have mentioned before that our church Bible Study group is organized, this year, around themes, the first of which is sin. Today, Genesis 3 (the fall.) I am also teaching our 5th and 6th grade class this morning which happens to be looking at Gen. 4 (Cain and Abel.) Needless to say, my mind has quite been full of sin as I have prepared for today...

This from John Relly Beard from his "Reasons Why I Am A Unitarian in a Series of Letters"
"My Dear Edward,

I am a Unitarian, because Unitarianism is Destructive of Sin.—The common theology removes the punishment of sin, or leaves the sinner to suffer for ever. The last is a wretched issue, especially when the fate awaits the great majority of God's so-called children. The former is a delusion. The penalty of sin is never removed until the sin is renounced, and not renounced only, hut replaced by holiness ; and holiness is not a gift but an acquirement. These are facts in God's government of the world. They are laws of Divine providence. They are declarations of the will of God, and so demand attention from all men, especially those who assume to teach others. Recognising the behests of the supreme will, Unitarianism aims at nothing short of destroying sin. Knowing that sin and well-being are as incompatible as disease and comfort, it makes the removal of sin its great work. Causes rather than consequences it regards, assured that the stream will be sweet if the fountain is pure."


Saturday, October 17, 2009

improve and elevate the children...

Fascinating, influential, yet infuriating, Bronson Alcott has long held an uneasy place in my mind and heart.
This from one of his later works, "Concord Days" on the ideal church. I offer it as we (in what is to me an "ideal church") prepare to Commission our Religious Educators tomorrow...

" Always there had been two divisions in the theological as in the political and social spheres, — the conservative and the radically progressive. This division marks itself at the present, so sweeping is the wave of religious speculation, not only among professed Christians, but among the thoughtful outside of churches. Wherever we look, earnest men are pondering in what manner they can best serve God and man.

Let us discriminate religious truth from mere opinions. The fruit of temperament, culture, individuality, these are wont to be local, narrow, exclusive. The planting of a church to which all men can subscribe, demands a common bond of sympathy, the feeling of brotherhood, mutual respect, peculiarities, culture, respect for old and young. Such is the bond of union for the New Church. The essence of all creeds is God, Personal, Incarnate, without whom a church and divine worship were impossible. Not to enter into the metaphysics of creeds and philosophy of systems, let us sketch an outline of our Ideal Church...

Let the children have a larger share in the religious services than hitherto; one half of the day be appropriated to them. Who can speak to children can address angels ; true worship is childlike. " All nations," said Luther, " ... school their children more faithfully than Christians. And this is one reason why religion is so fallen. For all its hopes of strength and potency are ever committed to the generation that is coming on to the stage. And if this is neglected in its youth, it fares with Christianity as with a garden that is neglected in the spring-time. There is no greater obstacle in the way of piety than neglect in the training of the young. If we would reinstate religion in its former glory, we must improve and elevate the children, as it was done in days of old...


Friday, October 16, 2009

what is life but the angle of vision...

I come from practical stock and grew up in a practical place (and feel myself the better for it) and now live in a region (New England) which, traditionally, has valued the practical arts. Yet my skills are decidedly not practical ones in any traditional sense. I think one of the reasons I have always loved Emerson is that in him I receive absolution for this shortcoming!
This from his "Natural History of the Intellect"

"My belief in the use of a course on philosophy is that the student shall learn to appreciate the miracle of the mind; shall learn its subtle but immense power, or shall begin to learn it; shall come to know that in seeing and in no tradition he must find what truth is; that he shall see in it the source of all traditions, and shall see each one of them as better or worse statement of its revelations; shall come to trust it entirely, as the only true; to cleave to God against the name of God...

But there is still another hindrance, namely, practicality. We must have a special talent, and bring something to pass. Ever since the Norse heaven made the stern terms of admission that a man must do something excellent with his hands or feet, or with his voice, eyes, ears, or with his whole body, the same demand has been made in Norse earth. Yet what we really want is not a haste to act, but a certain piety toward the source of action and knowledge. In fact we have to say that there is a certain beatitude, - I can call it nothing less, - to which all men are entitled, tasted by them in different degrees, which is a perfection of their nature, and to which their entrance must be in every way forwarded. Practical men, though they could lift the globe, cannot arrive at this. Something very different has to be done, - the availing our-selves of every impulse of genius, an emanation of the heaven it tells of, and the resisting this conspiracy of men and material things against the sanitary and legitimate inspirations of the intellectual nature.

What is life but the angle of vision? A man is measured by the angle at which he looks at objects. What is life but what a man is thinking of all day? This is his fate and his employer. Knowing is the measure of the man. By how much we know, so much we are."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

any age a heroic age...

Yesterday, from Alibris, my favorite online used book seller, arrived Christopher Pearse Cranch's translation of Virgil's Aeneid. And today, I see, is the birthday of the great poet of the Roman Augustan age who was born in 70 BCE.
For the past week or so, Virgil's "Georgics" has been my morning devotional reading and I am looking forward to diving into Cranch's translation of the epic Aeneid.
Robert Richardson, in his illuminating biography of Henry David Thoreau, talks of Virgil's influence on the young Henry...

"Thoreau's sense of the nature of the classical achievement had...two main emphasis. The first is the assertion of the importance and permanence of nature. In November, reading Virgil...Thoreau was struck by passages about the buds swelling on the vines and fruit scattered about under the trees. The point, he told himself, was that 'It was the same world.' His second observation followed naturally enough. If Virgil's was the same world as ours, then 'the same men inhabited it.' Neither nature nor human nature has changed, in essence, from Virgil's time to ours...

In enunciating this belief in the permanence of nature and of human nature, and the equivalence of all eras-that any age is a heroic age to the heroic individual-we come to what is perhaps the single most important set of convictions for the young Thoreau. It was not a creed or a theoretical construct, but the core of his practical, daily, actual belief."


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a domestic conqueror...

I have been a stay at home father for our children since the oldest was six months old (12 years now) and while this has been a blessing in many ways, it has been, in others, a struggle. I most certainly am not, in Emerson's words from today's reading, "a domestic conqueror"...but I have tried to create a certain culture. My wife and I are presently working on intentionality in our home and life, something Emerson speaks of in his "Domestic Life" from the volume "Society and Solitude."

"Let us come then out of the public square and enter the domestic precinct. Let us go to the sitting-room, the table-talk and the expenditure of our contemporaries. An increased consciousness of the soul, you say, characterizes the period. Let us see if it has not only arranged the atoms at the circumference, but the atoms at the core. Does the household obey an idea ? Do you see the man, - his form, genius and aspiration, - in his economy ? Is that translucent, thorough-lighted ? There should be nothing confounding and conventional in economy, but the genius and love of the man so conspicuously marked in all his estate that the eye that knew him should read his character in his property, in his grounds, in his ornaments, in every expense. A man's money should not follow the direction of his neighbor's money, but should represent to him the things he would willingliest do with it. I am not one thing and my expenditure another. My expenditure is me. That our expenditure and our character are twain, is the vice of society...

It is a sufficient accusation of our ways of living, and certainly ought to open our ear to every good-minded reformer, that our idea of domestic well-being now needs wealth to execute it...

...the reform that applies itself to the household must not be partial. It must correct the whole system of our social living. It must come with plain living and high thinking ; it must break up caste, and put domestic service on another foundation. It must come in connection with a true acceptance by each man of his vocation, - not chosen by his parents or friends, but by his genius, with earnestness and love...

With a change of aim has followed a change of the whole scale by which men and things were wont to be measured. Wealth and poverty are seen for what they are. It begins to be seen that the poor are only they who feel poor, and poverty consists in feeling poor. The rich, as we reckon them, and among them the very rich, -in a true scale would be found very indigent and ragged. The great make us feel, first of all, the indifference of circumstances. They call into activity the higher perceptions and subdue the low habits of comfort and luxury ; but the higher perceptions find their objects everywhere ; only the low habits need palaces and banquets...

Every individual nature has its own beauty. One is struck in every company, at every fire-side, with the riches of Nature, when he hears so many new tones, all musical, sees in each person original manners, which have a proper and peculiar charm, and reads new expressions of face. He perceives that Nature has laid for each the foundations of a divine building, if the soul will build thereon...

I think that the heroism which at this day would make on us the impression of Epaminondas and Phocion must be that of a domestic conqueror. He who shall bravely and gracefully subdue this Gorgon of Convention and Fashion, and show men how to lead a clean, handsome and heroic life amid the beggarly elements of our cities and villages; whoso shall teach me how to eat my meat and take my repose and deal with men, without any shame following, will restore the life of man to splendor, and make his own name dear to all history."


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

eloquent teachings...

After Church on Sunday, a beautiful, crisp October day, my family and I drove to Cambridge and visited the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House. We have lived here for over six years and it is the first time we have gone; shameful! I have written before of my love for Longfellow and his house demonstrates many of the reasons why. It is old, respects its history, exudes joy but has an underlying sadness, reflects broad loves and deep friendships...

Our long suffering children did very well but enjoyed the Harvard Bookstore, Chinese food, and ice cream more than the Longfellow!

Here is Longfellow on Autumn:

With what a glory comes and goes the year!
The buds of spring, those beautiful harbingers
Of sunny skies and cloudless times, enjoy Life's newness,
and earth's garniture spread out;
And when the silver habit of the clouds
Comes down upon the autumn sun, and with
A sober gladness the old year takes up
His bright inheritance of golden fruits,
A pomp and pageant fill the splendid scene.

There is a beautiful spirit breathing now
Its mellow richness on the clustered trees,
And, from a beaker full of richest dyes,
Pouring new glory on the autumn woods,
And dipping in warm light the pillared clouds.
Morn on the mountain, like a summer bird,
Lifts up her purple wing, and in the vales
The gentle wind, a sweet and passionate wooer,
Kisses the blushing leaf, and stirs up life
Within the solemn woods of ash deep-crimsoned,
And silver beech, and maple yellow-leaved,
Where Autumn, like a faint old man, sits down
By the wayside a-weary. Through the trees
The golden robin moves. The purple finch,
That on wild cherry and red cedar feeds,
A winter bird, comes with its plaintive whistle,
And pecks by the witch-hazel, whilst aloud
From cottage roofs the warbling blue-bird sings,
And merrily, with oft-repeated stroke,
Sounds from the threshing-floor the busy flail.

O what a glory doth this world put on
For him who, with a fervent heart, goes forth
Under the bright and glorious sky, and looks
On duties well performed, and days well spent!
For him the wind, ay, and the yellow leaves,
Shall have a voice, and give him eloquent teachings.
He shall so hear the solemn hymn that
Death Has lifted up for all, that he shall go
To his long resting-place without a tear.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

written in the soul's deep pages...

This from Samuel Longfellow's "Hymns and Verses." May all have a blessed Sabbath.


Light of ages and of nations!
Every race and every time
Has received thine inspirations,
Glimpses of thy truth sublime.
Always spirits in rapt vision
Passed the mystic veil within ;
Always hearts bowed in contrition
Found salvation from their sin.
Reason's noblest aspiration
Truth in growing clearness saw;
Conscience spoke its condemnation,
Or proclaimed the Eternal law.
While thine inward revelations
Told thy saints their prayers were heard,
Prophets to the guilty nations
Spake thine everlasting word.

Lord, that word abideth ever;
Revelation is not sealed ;
Answering now to our endeavor,
Truth and Right are still revealed.
That which came to ancient sages,
Greek, Barbarian, Roman, Jew,
Written in the soul's deep pages
Shines to-day, forever new!


Saturday, October 10, 2009

lifting the curtain from the common...

Last Winter and Spring, I had the honor and opportunity to preach several sermons. It is a cliche' to say that all who preach have just one idea and say it in many ways but it is difficult to deny it's truth. My dominant theme was to redeem each day...not, of course, very original.
Today, Brother Emerson on the importance of humility in doing the work of redeeming the day. This from his essay "Works and Days" found in the volume "Society and Solitude."

"One of the illusions is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. No man has learned anything rightly until he knows that every day is Doomsday. 'T is the old secret of the gods that they come in low disguises. 'T is the vulgar great who come dizened with gold and jewels. Real kings hide away their crowns in their wardrobes, and affect a plain and poor exterior. In the Norse legend of our ancestors, Odin dwells in a fisher's hut and patches a boat. In the Hindoo legends, Hari dwells a peasant among peasants. In the Greek legend, Apollo lodges with the shepherds of Admetus, and Jove liked to rusticate among the poor Ethiopians. So, in our history, Jesus is born in a barn, and his twelve peers are fishermen. 'T is the very principle of science that Nature shows herself best in leasts; it was the maxim of Aristotle and Lucretius; and, in modern times, of Swedenborg and of Hahnemann. The order of changes in the egg determines the age of fossil strata. So it was the rule of our poets, in the legends of fairy lore, that the fairies largest in power were the least in size. In the Christian graces, humility stands highest of all, in the form of the Madonna; and in life, this is the secret of the wise. We owe to genius always the same debt, of lifting the curtain from the common, and showing us that divinities are sitting disguised in the seeming gang of gypsies and pedlers. In daily life, what distinguishes the master is the using those materials he has, instead of looking about for what are more renowned, or what others have used well. " A general," said Bonaparte, " always has troops enough, if he only knows how to employ those he has, and bivouacs with them." Do not refuse the employment which the hour brings you, for one more ambitious. The highest heaven of wisdom is alike near from every point, and thou must find it, if at all, by methods native to thyself alone."


Friday, October 9, 2009

spirits clad in veils...

Christopher Cranch was one of the more fascinating of the transcendentalists. A Unitarian minister (for a time serving as Frederic Henry Hedge's assistant) and friend of Emerson and James Freeman Clarke, Cranch was a poet, musician, artist, writer of children's books and much else. Even Poe, no lover of the Transcendentalists, had some vague praise for Cranch naming him "One of the least intolerable of the school of Boston transcendentalists."

by: Christopher Cranch (1813-1892)

THOUGHT is deeper than all speech,
Feeling deeper than all thought;
Souls to souls can never teach
What unto themselves was taught.

We are spirits clad in veils;
Man by man was never seen;
All our deep communing fails
To remove the shadowy screen.

Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are columns left alone,
Of a temple once complete.

Like the stars that gem the sky,
Far apart, though seeming near,
In our light we scattered lie;
All is thus but starlight here.

What is social company
But a babbling summer stream?
What our wise philosophy
But the glancing of a dream?

Only when the sun of love
Melts the scattered stars of thought;
Only when we live above
What the dim-eyed world hath taught;

Only when our souls are fed
By the Fount which gave them birth,
And by inspiration led,
Which they never drew from earth,

We like parted drops of rain
Swelling till they meet and run,
Shall be all absorbed again,
Melting, flowing into one.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Here we are...

The gap between real and ideal, a source of our "soul's imprisonment" is reconciled, according to Frederic Henry Hedge, by the life of Jesus. Part two of "The Soul's Deliverance:"

"And this to me is the great significance of the life of Jesus. I see it in the reconciliation of the ideal and the actual. This is the true historical atonement in Christ...Jesus expressed, as no other has done, his conception in his life; he realized his idea and turned it into fact, and made it a part of the history of man.

The greatest of Christian painters, the immortal Raphael, has figured this marriage of the real and the ideal in the life of Jesus, in his painting of the Transfiguration...

He knew how to come down from the mountain with undiminished power and glory...He has solved in his life the old contradiction, and done away with the discrepance between here and there, between the spiritual world and the actual...Jesus accepted the conditions of his lot, externally one of the humblest, and exalted himself and it, and made his life divine by perfect obedience to those conditions. He did not aspire to the place of command to which his people gladly would have exalted him, but abode in his native humility and walked with his peasant companions, and found the topics of his duty among the halt and blind and publicans and sinners, and preached his gospel to the poor. He did not seek to transcend his sphere externally by self-aggrandizement, but was satisfied to fill it completely, casting into it all the fullness of his royal nature. Thus he brought his soul out of prison,-the prison of low and bounded reality,-by ignoring its bounds, living wholly in the eternal...

Accept the actual in which you are placed. Put away selfish and sickly ambition, and find yourself in your appointed conditions. Adjust yourself with the terms of your lot. Instead of seeking to lift yourself above it by uneasy efforts, seek rather to fill it out by throwing into it the fullness of your faculty and your life...

Here we are; that is our first concern. Let us see that we be truly and wholly and beneficently here, with all our faculty and heart. It may seem brighter elsewhere, but that is an optical illusion; here, too, it is good to be. God is here, and man is here, and the calls and the topics of daily duty. And duty is everywhere the same thing, everywhere sufficient and divine...

The Kingdom of Heaven is here or nowhere. Duty is the key that unlocks it to all. Only so far as we succeed in making the will of god our meat and our drink, can we ever lay hold on everlasting life."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"The Soul's Deliverance" pt. 1

We live in a society geared toward expectation. Everything will get better if only...if only I had the right job, the right things, the right (fill in the blank.) Frederic Henry Hedge speaks of this imprisonment of our souls in this wonderful sermon. Today, the first part discussing the problem and tomorrow, the solution.

"The Soul's Deliverance"

"Bring my soul out of prison, that i may praise thy name." Psalm cxlil. 7.

...there is one universal experience which claims to be noticed in this connection (the feeling of imprisonment)-one species of confinement common to all who rise above the level of a merely animal life. I mean the conflict we all experience between the ideal and the actual, between desire and fruition, our conceptions and attainments, our designs and our acts. We all have our ideal...could we only realize these aspirations in the life! But who does this? What hero or saint ever makes his actual life correspond with his ideal, his practice equal to his vision?...

This, then, is the prison to which I especially invite your attention. This is a prison in which we all have been confined,-the feeling of incapacity, the insufficiency of life, the conflict between the ideal and the actual, our desire and our destiny, and on the other hand a discrepance between our theory and our practice...

But this I say, that divine Providence working in human history has not left us without guidance and without hope in this radical and universal need. The answer has been suggested at least, if not realized. The way of escape from this prison of our infirmity has been indicated in one recorded life in which the conflict between the ideal and the actual has been done away; the life of 'that man whom he hath ordained,' the divine man, whom with some dim sense of this service his adoring disciples have named their Redeemer and their God. And this to me is the greatest significance of the life of Jesus."