¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Corporate greed, income inequality, institutional racism, gross injustice, unpopular foreign war, corrupt politics—sound familiar? The issues facing people in the 1840s and 50s were not markedly different from those confronting us today. If anything, the situation was worse then than it is now. What is one to do? What can one do?
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Feeling the weight of the world and other people’s expectations of him, Henry Thoreau, then 27 years of age, decided to take a break. His brother, John, had recently died, the school he ran with his brother had closed, and he was feeling at loose ends. He wanted to become a writer, but up to this point had not shown much success.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 He was also deeply disturbed by the world he saw around him. The nation was bent on expansion. U.S. military forces had waged war on Mexico to wrest control of what is now the American southwest. Slave owners were determined to extend slavery into the new territories. Native Americans lost their lands and sovereignty.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Closer to home Thoreau witnessed young men and women of his generation leading lives of quiet desperation, dissatisfied with their lot in life. They felt trapped by convention and the pressures of conformity. He was determined to break out of the constraints imposed by society, to march to the beat of his own drum. And so, in 1845, he decided to try an experiment in mindful living by going out Walden Pond. “I wish to meet the facts of life,” he wrote, “the vital facts, which are the phenomena or actuality the gods meant to show us—face to face, and so I came down here.”
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 It was never his intention to be a recluse or a hermit, and the world was never very far away. As we know, he often went into town to visit friends and family and catch up on the latest news, however disturbing. On one occasion he was arrested and spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax in protest of slavery and the Mexican war.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Walden is an account of his two-year sojourn in the woods, but it wasn’t published until 1854. The book took shape following his return from the pond, as he reflected on the lessons he had learned from his experiment in simple living. His journal, which he faithfully kept for almost twenty-five years, is a rich account of his meditations on nature and life, especially during this period.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 My reading this morning is from an entry in Thoreau’s journal, dated July 22, 1851. In this passage he is struggling with the effort to reconcile the wisdom he had gained from his experience at the pond with the everyday realities of the world he lived in. “I am sane only when I have risen above my common sense, when I do not take the foolish view of things which is commonly taken,” he wrote. “Wisdom is not common. To what purpose have I senses, if I am thus absorbed in affairs?”
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 How do we do this? How do we rise above our foolish view of things? Through sympathy with Nature, Thoreau says. In the quiet of the evening, after a hard day’s work, we may recover our senses and hear the cricket which has been chirping all day. In such hours he was “conscious of the influx of a serene and unquestionable wisdom” which if he yielded to it would totally unfit him for the active business of everyday life.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “What is that other kind of life to which I am thus continually allured?” he wondered. “Is it a life for this world?” Can we live in this world and still keep faith with the wisdom revealed to us in moments of serenity? Are there duties that prevent us from doing so? And, finally, he asked: “Are our serene moments mere foretastes of heaven,—joys gratuitously vouchsafed to us as a consolation,—or simply a transient realization of what might be the whole tenor of our lives?”
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 We live in a world at least as complicated as Thoreau’s. We have problems that he didn’t have, but the question facing us is the same one that he grappled with; namely, how to reconcile the realities of the everyday world with the wisdom revealed to us in moments of serenity. He did not deny these realities, but neither did he let them get the upper hand. Walden shows us how he dealt with this problem and, in doing so, offers us today a guidebook for living a life that is congruent with our moral and spiritual principles.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 At Walden Pond he adopted a discipline that consisted of reading, contemplation, journal writing, simple living and sauntering in the out-of-doors. His spiritual practice was predicated on three essential conditions: leisure, solitude and nature. Without these his program would not have been possible or successful.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Thoreau made a point of saying in Walden that for five years he had managed to meet his needs by working only six weeks per year. Clearly, he enjoyed more leisure than most. As he noted in his journal, A broad margin of leisure is as beautiful in a man’s life as in a book…. What are threescore years and ten hurriedly and coarsely lived to moments of divine leisure in which your life is coincident with the life of the universe? We live too fast and coarsely, just as we eat too fast, and do not know the true savor of our food.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 He didn’t employ leisure for trivial pursuits, nor simply for rest and relaxation. He understood leisure in the classical sense of the term; namely, activities undertaken for the purpose of giving one’s life richness and depth. These included the various activities that made up his spiritual practice at Walden Pond.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Solitude, too, was an essential requirement for the spiritual life as Thoreau understood it. Though he was not by nature a recluse, solitude is what he sought in going to Walden Pond. He needed to put some distance between himself and the demands of society. Here, two miles from town, he had, he said “my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.” In solitude he felt nearest to that which nourished his soul. “What do we most want to dwell near to?” he asked. “Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house…where [people] most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction.”
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Accordingly, nature was the third prerequisite for the spiritual life. By his own account he spent half of every day, summer and winter, sauntering in the woods and fields surrounding his native village. Though he was a keen observer of the local flora and fauna, what he sought in nature was revelation of the divine. “My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature,” he wrote, “to know his lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas in nature.” Like the Greek giant Antaeus who remained invincible so long as he had contact with the earth, Thoreau’s spiritual vitality was dependent upon a continuous immersion in nature.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Admirably, he sought to achieve a balance in his life between leisure and work, solitude and society, nature and civilization, though, admittedly, his thumb was always on the scale. More than most people then or since, Thoreau managed to reconcile the realities of the everyday world with the wisdom revealed to him in moments of serenity. But he understood that each of us would need to find a proper balance for ourselves.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In order to find that balance I suggest we begin where he did, cultivating leisure, solitude and an immersion in nature. Many of his spiritual disciplines are akin to our own—reading, contemplation, journal writing, simple living and walking or hiking in nature. We might be more intentional in our practice of these and other means by which we may add richness and depth to our lives.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 It is hard to find solitude today, not only because of the demands of work and family, but also because we are so easily distracted by social media and the internet. These leave us little time for introspection and imagination, both of which depend on periods of solitude. Living in a cabin in the woods is not an option for most of us, but where and when will we find opportunities to disengage, at least for a little while, from the intrusions of the latest tweet and text message?
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The same might be said of nature. We know that we are invigorated by the wonder and beauty of the natural world. Though surrounded by it here in Concord—as I am back home on Bainbridge Island—how often do we, in the course of such busy lives, immerse ourselves in it as Thoreau did? When was the last time we ourselves attended to “all the oratorios, the operas” in nature?
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In some respects it’s easier to appreciate Thoreau in our day than it was in his own. To a remarkable degree the world has come around to his point of view on many issues that mattered to him, including civil disobedience, simple living and the preservation of nature. Although his religious views are still unconventional by today’s standards, they nevertheless have a wide appeal. His emphasis on nature and spirituality and his appreciation of Asian religions is in keeping with growing trends in American religious life.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 American society is still superficial, consumer-oriented and wasteful. Nature is threatened more than ever with development, pollution and climate change. Hooked on social media and browsing the internet, we find little time for contemplation. Hoping to fill empty lives with luxury goods and pricey amusements, we are so committed to a materialistic mode of living that it is hard to imagine life might be simpler and more rewarding in a spiritual sense.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 For all of these reasons I believe the message of Walden resonates as never before. The book has been described as a fable of the renewal of the spirit. In the last chapter Thoreau relates the story of a bug which came out of a table that had stood in a farmer’s home for sixty years, hatched from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier. From this incident he drew the following conclusion: Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree…may unexpectedly come forth amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The same might be said of Walden—a kernel of wisdom that has been buried for more than 150 years “under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life” of American society. Never entirely forgotten or unappreciated, it has nevertheless been gnawing its way out for years and may yet come forth to enjoy its perfect summer life at last! But it will not have succeeded or served its purpose if it does not inspire each and every one of us to live a more beautiful and winged life as well.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Millions have applied Thoreau’s teachings in “Civil Disobedience” to political change, why not also apply his teachings in Walden to spiritual change?—such that we might have more than “simply a transient realization of what might be the whole tenor of our lives?”