EMERSON'S GRAVE ENCOUNTER

NOVEMBER 16, 1997
R.M. FEWKES

Two years ago Paul Coolidge kindly gave me a copy of a book, EMERSON THE MIND ON FIRE, by author Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I was delighted to have it and said to Paul at the time that I would do a sermon on it in fulfillment of the SERMON OF YOUR CHOICE which he had bid on and won at the First Parish Goods and Services Auction that year. Last fall Richardson's book was the recipient of the UUA's Melcher Book Award. I went into Fanueil Hall in Boston to see the author receive his award and to
hear him speak about his book. His work had clearly been a labor of love. He had set out to write an intellectual biography of the evolution of Emerson's thought, but when he got into the research for his book he found he could not separate Emerson's intellectual biography from his personal biography. He discovered that the two were so closely intertwined that he could not do justice to the one without the other.

And so his book on Emerson is both intellectual and existential. You learn about the development of Emerson's thought in conjunction with the sometimes profound events in his personal life.

For me the book was a treasure and I enjoyed it immensely. But I did not get around to reading it until this past summer in preparation for a UU Ministers Study Retreat the end of November. I had to read it, and now that I've read it it's time to give Paul his long overdue sermon. Rather than a book review I would focus instead on a few of the important personal events in Emerson's life, how they influenced his thought, and what relevance they have for the pulpit and pew in our day.

Let me begin with Emerson's grave encounter. I confess I was astonished to learn that Emerson was so driven by grief over the death of his first wife, Ellen, that he was moved to open the coffin and view her corpse a year and two months after her death. He had been in the habit of walking to her grave every day and carrying on conversations with her spirit in his mind and in his journal writings. Her loss had carved a deep wound in his still young soul and he found it ever so difficult to let her go. She became for him in his later years a kind of Dantean Beatrice of his imagination, an earthly angel who once walked with him for a short time during the days of his youth. Emerson's second wife, Lidian, never quite felt that she could compete with this ghost from Emerson's past. She once had a dream "in which she and Emerson were together in heaven when Ellen came up. Lidian...bowed out leaving Emerson with his first wife." Since Lidian couldn't literally give Emerson his first wife back she did the next best thing. When their first of two daughters was born she magnanimously suggested they name her Ellen.

I was also surprised to learn that 25 years after the death of his first wife Emerson would open the coffin of another loved one, his firstborn son Waldo, who had died from Scarlet Feaver at age five. This time it was 15 years after the death, not one year, so the corpse would be even more disintegrated than that of his wife Ellen had been. It's interesting to note that a few months prior to Waldo's death, Lidian, who was in the last month of her third pregnancy, had a strange dream about a statue that looked "so beautiful that the blooming child who was in the room looked pale and sallow beside it." The statue spoke to the child--a girl--about life and being, "and then, by a few slight movements of the head and body, it gave the most forcible picture of decay and death and corruption, and then became all radiant again with the signs of the resurrection."

Perhaps this was a premonition of Waldo's impending demise and the resurrection and renewal of life that would come with the birth of a new child. But it was a resurrection that would come not without great suffering and pain for both mother and father of little Waldo. A year after Waldo's death Lidian would observe that "flowers grow over the grave, yet it is a grave no less", and she sent a note to Emerson in which she said, "Dear husband, I wish I had never been born. I do not see how God can compensate me for the sorrow of existence." It was that very thing that Emerson was struggling with some 15 years after the death of his son.

In coming face to face with death, not once but twice, Emerson was not only doing difficult grief work, but also working out the terms of his life philosophy. He would write in his essay on tragedy, "He has seen but half the universe who never has been shown the House of Pain. No theory of life can have any solidity which leaves (this) out of account." In his Journal he would reflect: "Work and learn in evil days, in days of depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows." And then he would record this ringing affirmation: "I am defeated all the time; yet to victory I am born." He would come to affirm that the powers of the soul are equal to the challenges of life and death all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

In terms of his philosophy of being Emerson would move from a detached Platonic idealism to a kind of dynamic pantheism which sees God in everything, and all things in perpetual transformation. "Permanence", said Emerson, "is but a word of degrees, everything is medial." Metamorphosis or transformation was nature's method of advance. Or as he wrote in one of his poems:

The rushing metamorphosis, Dissolving all that fixture is, Melts things that be to things that seem, And solid nature to a dream. "Nothing," he wrote "is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit....People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."

Though Emerson loved the pursuit of wisdom, and is readily acknowledged as America's first true philosopher, he summed up the quest of his life in one question--not, "what can I know, but how shall I live?" He was in many respects America's first existentialist. He believed that the universe could best be understood as an "advance out of fate into freedom." He perceived that human beings are both blessed and burdened with what he called, "that terrible freedom" to choose how they are to live their lives. It was a freedom that only made sense in association with others. He put it this way in one of his poems:

Nor knowest thou what argument
Thy life to thy neighbor's creed has lent.
All are needed by each one;
Nothing is fair or good alone
.

The other day I was host to a half dozen UU ministers for a meditation prayer group which we do together every other month. For our spiritual exercise I chose the reading of Emerson's grave encounter from Richardson's biography. I asked each minister to take 25 minutes or so to read the piece and to reflect on the following questions: (1) How do you respond to what Emerson did? (2) Could you imagine yourself doing something similar? (3) Do you identify in any way with Emerson's vocational crisis?

Without violating confidences I can tell you this. There were some profound moments of honest sharing including some tears in remembrance of a former colleague in Cohasset, Ed Atkinson. What Emerson did triggered remembrances in our own lives of responding to deaths of friends and loved ones and coming to terms with change, grief and transition. Though none of us could quite imagine ourselves doing exactly what Emerson did we were very much in simpatico with the sentiment that moved Emerson to open the coffins of his wife and son.

I recalled a dream that I had some eight years ago of walking in the First Parish Cemetery and observing that a bulldozer had exposed a series of graves on a small hillside. A marble slab lies on top of one of the graves. It is the grave of a former minister. The slab is removed revealing two bodies within--the minister and his young wife who is dressed in her bridal gown, and holding a baby in her arms.

The bodies are not decomposed, but still intact. The bride has dark hair and is very beautiful. The sunlight shines on her closed eyelids and she begins to squint. I notice that she is breathing very slowly. Perhaps she thinks it is time for the resurrection. I draw near to her, take her hand in mine, and speak softly in her ear, "Are you awake?" I ask. I lean down and kiss her hand.

Was this sleeping beauty the bride of my soul, my inner Beatrice, my better half, my feminine side, awakening to consciousness? Or perchance my encounter with the angel of death and transformation telling me that though life be short it is nonetheless sweet and the remembrance of beauty eternal? I cannot say, but I've never forgotten that dream, and Emerson's grave encounter brought it to the fore once again. Emerson came to the conclusion after his two grave encounters that everyday is judgment day, every day is time for the resurrection.

It's interesting that all six of us could identify with Emerson's vocational crisis though all of us had up to that point remained in the ministry. Emerson's crisis was partly personal, partly theological. The loss of his wife had unhinged his internal security and the loss of his belief in an earth centered anthropomorphic deity had undermined the old theological certainties. The stated reason for his leaving the ministry was his disagreement about the rite of communion which he felt he could no longer serve or partake, but the reasons ran much deeper. He believed more in the God of Nature than in the God of the Bible and he no longer felt comfortable in a strictly Bible-centered faith and religion, even a liberal Unitarian version. And so Emerson concluded that "In order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the ministry."

In one of his poems Emerson wrote: "I like a church; I like a cowl;/ I love a prophet of the soul;/ Yet not for all his faith can see/ would I that cowled churchman be." Years later he would write, "Much as I hate the church, I have wished for the pulpit that I might have the stimulus of a stated task." But the most difficult task of the ministry for Emerson was the pastoral role. He found pastoral calls a trial. Sometimes he would get lost and end up visiting total strangers with the same name or who lived on the same street as his parishioners and not realize his error until after he had left. He was, you might say, temperamentally ill suited to the pastoral duties of the ministry. He'd much rather stay in his study than engage in social intercourse or pastoral counseling.

Though Emerson left the ministry he helped open the doors for others to find sources of spiritual inspiration beyond the Jewish-Christian Scriptures. Emerson was called a "Hindoo Yankee" by one of his kindlier critics. The truth is he explored and welcomed insights from the Hindu Bhagadvagita, but also from the Sufi mystics, Zoroastrian parables, Buddhist tracts, and Quaker affirmations of the inner light. He declared the need for each of us to create our own Bible and not to confine ourselves to one source of inspiration in the distant past. "Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us", he wrote. "There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own work and laws and worship." Emerson's expansive universalism was more than the Unitarian church of his day could embrace and so he left the ministry to pursue writing and the lecture circuit, what we would call today a community ministry instead of a parish ministry. In the end Emerson's expanding Universalism of the Spirit won the day so that UU ministers and laity can now draw their inspiration from a wide spectrum of sources--western Biblical, eastern oriental, ancient and contemporary, science and nature, and our own reason, conscience and experience.

Emerson's transcendentalist philosophy was considered heretical and dangerous by some, leading those who would follow him into the fires of hell. Edward Taylor, a Methodist clergyman, was nonetheless a sympathetic supporter of Emerson's endeavors, and saw in him no threat whatsoever to anyone's salvation. He wrote, "It may be that Emerson is going to hell, but of one thing I am certain; he will change the climate there and emigration will set that way."

Emerson was also deeply affected by the new cosmology that the science of his day was bringing to the fore. He could no longer believe in the anthropocentric scheme of salvation portrayed in the Bible. The universe was much more vast than the Biblical writers had ever imagined and the forces and powers of nature were no longer earth bound. Emerson's response was to say, "I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos." What would Emerson have thought of our even greater expanded cosmos? His cosmos was still confined to one milky-way galaxy and millions of stars. Our cosmos is now comprised of billions of galaxies and gazillions of stars, and the thought that they all derive from one source and one moment of conception, the Big Bang. I think Emerson would have been ready for it and would have welcomed it into his vision of the universe. "The whole of nature," said Emerson, "was a metaphor of the human mind." The whole is much larger than he thought, but that whole is still present in the human mind.

In closing I would like to relate a telling dream that Emerson recorded in his journal of October 1840. "I dreamed", writes Emerson, "that I floated at will in the great ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, 'this must thou eat.' And I ate the world." (p.342)

Richardson comments that "this is Emerson's global Eucharist; he had come to take Communion at last." Emerson had discovered in the inner reaches of his own soul that we all carry the world and universe within us, but each of us must come to know it for ourselves. What a marvelous metaphor of Emerson's life and the evolution of his thought and consciousness. If eating the apple was Emerson's version of the temptation in the Garden of Eden, this time it was done, not out of ignorance and innocence, but out of knowledge and intuition of our connection to the whole of creation. To know that we are connected to all that is, that the laws of nature and the laws of love and justice are in our own mind and conscience, is to know the basis of all religion and morality, and our relation to the ultimate source of existence. What could be more expressive of this realization than to say, "I ate the world."

I have been attempting with you to ingest and digest Emerson's life and philosophy by passing it through "the fire of our own thought." In so far as we can do this not only with Emerson, but with whomsoever we make encounter in head and in heart, we are making Emerson relevant once again whether we quote him directly or not. When our own mind is on fire we are caught up in a living philosophy that can spark and enflame the hearts and minds of others.

 

MAY THE LIGHT OF TRUTH
ILLUMINE OUR MINDS.
MAY THE SPARK OF LOVE
SET OUR HEARTS ON FIRE.
MAY THE FLAME OF FREEDOM
BURN BRIGHTLY WITHIN US,
NOW AND ALWAYS.