With All Earnestness
I’m convinced being a Unitarian Universalist requires us to reconcile ourselves, as much as possible, to mortality – to the inevitability of death. For so many of our stories as a tradition begin with death or lead to it – they visit upon us in quiet reflective moments, come rushing to us in the martyr’s flames, or steer us to claiming fully our lives while we still have them.
It is true, death is a constant companion for most of the world’s religions – perhaps the companion that originated the impulse to be religious, but so much so for us – a religion whose focus is squarely on the here and now – anything beyond we leave to you to discern.
It is a challenge, in the modern world but especially as Americans, to even talk about so universal a condition – that of living and dying. But, still, we will venture there.
Our story begins, however, with life – stories tend to require the living to bring the alive. And we find ourselves in what should be a familiar place for Unitarian Universalists – New England – Boston – the mothership of our tradition.
A young minister, fresh out of seminary and beginning to think about how he would live out his call, found himself celebrating Christmas with the Concord, New Hampshire congregation in 1827. Some things never change – one of my very first services was leading Christmas with a tiny congregation without a minister. I digress.
This young minister was presiding at the Christmas service, which included quite a good deal of preaching – at least over an hour – and afterwards he met a young woman. It was love at first sight for the both of them. It was on that Christmas night that the 24 year old Ralph Waldo Emerson met 16 year old Ellen Louisa Tucker.
They both shared a love for nature, animals, and philosophy. And from that instant love, their courtship would last two years until they married in the fall of 1829. It was a marriage of great affection and hope.
Emerson would write in his journal just after they were engaged, “Oh, Ellen, I do dearly love you, I have now been four days engaged to Ellen Louisa Tucker. Will my Father in Heaven regard us with kindness, and as he hath, as we trust, made us for each other, will he be pleased to strengthen and purify and prosper and eternize our affection.”
With this great love in their lives, they began to look to the future as a couple. Emerson accepted the position of senior minister at the historic Second Church of Boston, earning 1800 dollars a year. As he eased in to his new call and the couple further settled into the life of Boston, Ellen became sick.
Tuberculosis was a reality of living in the 19th century, even as a younger person such as Ellen. The Tuberculosis would move swiftly, weakening her greatly and putting great strain on Ralph in his role as husband and minister of a congregation. In the winter if 1830 to early 1831, Ellen weakened more and more, and on February 8th 1831, Ellen Tucker Emerson uttered her last words and died.
As she gave up her last breath she said, “I have not forgot the peace and the joy.” Ralph and Ellen had not yet been married for two full years. Emerson was destroyed. The well of grief that he found himself in had no way out in sight, he questioned his beliefs, his work, his family, his friends, everything.
He found his work as a minister suddenly hollow and stale. And for over a year after the death of Ellen, he would see no way through his grief. When fourteen months had passed, Emerson found himself at the cemetery where his wife was, entered the crypt, and opened the coffin.
I need not describe what Emerson saw in the coffin, but something dramatic happened after that moment, that realization, that confrontation Emerson had with death. Not long after opening the coffin of his true love, Emerson left the ministry.
He told his congregation it was because he could no longer administer communion – yes, Unitarians took communion then – but his congregation said it did not matter, they wanted him to stay anyway. He still left. And he never served another church in his life. He would go on to search is soul in the mountains of New Hampshire, solidifying his resolve to never return to ministry, he would travel to Europe for ten months – leaving Boston, leaving Ellen behind.
And upon returning, he moved to Concord, Massachusetts, a proud town where his family was from, and the famous words, “the shot heard round the world” were penned by his grandfather, the Rev. William Emerson.
Ralph would go on to attend the First Parish there on and off through the rest of his life, and, thanks to a hefty inheritance from his beloved Ellen, he would begin funding publications such as The Dial, the Atlantic Monthly, and lectures/essays/books by himself and his friends.
The death of Ellen Tucker, the one true love of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in many ways led to the creation of Transcendentalism – a homegrown American system of thought, one of the first, which we draw from this very day. Emerson would eventually remarry, finding love again with Lydiam Jackson, but Emerson would go on to call the marriage, “a sober joy.”
His heart remained with Ellen for the rest of his life – so much so, that his new wife, Lydiam, would insist that their daughter be named Ellen, in the hopes that would soothe his still very real wounds of grief. It may have, it may not have, but Ellen’s rocking chair remained in his Concord home for the rest of his life. To this day it sits there, an emblem of a love lost.
When has love changed you in ways you cannot fully explain? When has what you’ve lost done that, too? It need not be great wells of grief or the brightness of true love – though many are – but amongst these shifts in how and who we are, there are many a small revelation that comes upon us. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was earth shattering – that of leaving the ministry, and he came from a long line of ministers, and spending out his days lecturing, writing, and creating the Transcendentalist movement.
I am convinced the death of Emerson’s first wife is greatly responsible, among other things, for the birth to Transcendentalism. It shocked Emerson’s ways of thinking, being, and believing to its very core.
It pushed him out of what he came to see as a stale and ritualized – believe it or not – Unitarianism, and drew him to the ecstatic poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the scriptures of the Hindus and Buddhists, and drove him to create a system of thought that at once was radically individualistic but also highly valuing interconnectedness. Some scholars would go on to blame Emerson for the radical individualization of America, calling it the Emerson Effect.
I believe there is some truth to this charge. But that confrontation with mortality, that awakening to the fleetingness of life, and surely when he opened that coffin, the fragileness of nature – it pushed Emerson to dwell on the yearnings of his heart and mind and direct his energy only to that which mattered to him – and in that innermost dwelling, he found a connection to all that is, all that was, all that will be.
But underneath this transcendence – hence the name the movement would be known by – he carried with him a great dissatisfaction with established religion. Religion where revelation was sealed. Religion where tradition usurped real human connection with each other and the ineffable. Religion where prophets were glorified beyond their humanity and anything original was deemed dangerous.
He would go on to write in one of his more famous books, Nature, in the openings words, words that I know I will never forget: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”
I always recall these words and wonder, is our age still retrospective? Are we still building tombs to that which has no relevance for us today? Are we not allowing ourselves the means to have an original relation to the universe? My answers disappoint me each time. How about yours? I mean really dwell on those words. Are we busying ourselves building tombs and seeing the universe through the eyes of others?
We’ve been exploring some of the many faces of the Reformation this month. It is, after all, you may have noticed my enthusiasm, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But amidst this, this exploring of reformation in its many manifestations, we find here in the story of Emerson a reformation stirred by the loss of his true love.
Emerson’s loss was a call to all who heard his words and surely to those of us today, do not let your relation to the Universe become stale! Do not let it rely solely on what has come before, what is your heart telling you right now? Emerson would take this new passion of his, seven years after he left the ministry, back to his alma mater, Harvard University.
Speaking before a crowd of newly minted ministers in chairs he undoubtedly once sat in, with old professors also sitting in the crowd – the academic guardians of the Unitarian faith – let’s remember that Harvard was essentially our Vatican in the 19th century – and when he opened his mouth, Emerson unleashed those challenges to those new ministers.
Find that relation to the universe that is yours and yours alone. Do not waste your life protecting the traditions of the fathers just because. Discover a religion where your heart sings, be it in church, in the woods, writing poetry or a book for the world, or spending time with your loved ones. He would also go right for the jugular of the Unitarian establishment, and historical Christianity in general. He wrote:
…we become very sensible of the first defect of historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.
For Emerson, not just in Christianity but in any religion dwelling in the minutia of prophets and doctrines, he saw lifelessness. He saw a waste of time. And I imagine he would be horrified at the manner in which some Unitarian Universalists speak of him today – for he has become, for lack of a better word, one of the prophets of this tradition.
And some religious scholars would even go so far to say that Unitarian Universalism is Transcendentalism with a church. I’ll leave those ponderings to the scholars, but what remains for us, in this room, is the reality that this liberal religion, this tradition that asks of you to discern, to explore, to have a free and responsible search for the truth – owes a great deal to a man that walked away from the ministry and sought out his own path.
Yes, he had his circle of friends. Yes, he still went to church – often to annoy ministers he did not like – but also because he was still a Unitarian. He did pursue these ideals in community. But somehow, he still underscored that at the end of the day, life is fragile and fleeting and we should not waste it on the truths of the past unless they are, for us, life-giving.
Sometimes reformations don’t require burning at the stake, nailing demands to a church door, or the uprising of the people. Sometimes they begin with a broken heart and the realization that life, in this moment, is fleeting. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived out his ideals and embodied the words he wrote to us all.
He was a deeply imperfect man. But he left the world with an account of what he found when he reconnected with the sublime – the ebb and flow of nature. He spoke of this journey, be it personal, religious, or otherwise,
All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.
May we never be so afraid of a tumble, for through our own journeys, we will discover that truth that is ours. The task before us is not an easy one. As a people we are charged with taking our joyful, broken, healed, healing, complicated selves and, while thanking those who’ve come before and learning from them, forge a new way. Again and again. Where will your love, the love you have and the love you’ve lost, take you? Where will you, with all earnestness, find your original relation to the universe?