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AN ELYSIAN LIFE

There are moments in mid summer, with senses fully engaged, with nature profligate, that my heart lifts to heaven, being right here and right now.    

Having just trod the trails around Walden Pond with my eldest daughter, I felt a kindred spirit with that guest of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau, who said, “The summer, in some climates, makes possible to man some sort of Elysian Life.”

Elysium or the Elysian Fields was a glorious playing ground in the afterlife.  This special heaven, envisioned by the ancient Greeks, evolved through oral legend and was  mapped out specifically in poems and stories from Pindar to  Homer’s Odyssey

Pindar described it as a place with many shaded parks, where people could enjoy their favorite musical and athletic activities, without striving.  An Endless Summer.

Known to Homer, Elysium was located on the Islands of the Blessed, located at the far west of the end of the earth, those related to the gods or chosen by them, the heroic, and the righteous would live a happy and carefree life surrounded by nature, enjoying many of the things they enjoyed in their past life. No storms, bitter cold, or heavy toil.

Thoreau in Walden, pleads his case for simplicity and less striving for enjoying a bit of Elysium right where you are.  It is no coincidence that in the same passage he speaks of an Elysian life, he also points to the observation that  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them”.  

There are many who have said that he was an eccentric elitist, with a bachelor’s ability to philosophize and experiment.  But that would not be the whole story.  He knows that some that are reading his arguments are factory workers and those barely scraping by, and to these, he offers words of encouragement.

Rather his wrath, as it were, was saved for the middle and upper classes of Boston and Concord societies, who continue to need more and more luxuries and extravagances and in order to get them , have less and less time to enjoy the birds on the water in the early morning or the loveliness of the woods.  Essentially, he was the town prophet living on the outside of town, declaring the delusion of need. 

If possible, for perhaps a half hour or so even, you could step outside and walk or sit or notice.  You can be a master of industry in the morning. 

Quote for today: “I thank you God for this amazing day, the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” – e.e. cummings

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YES VIRGINIA, THE UNITARIANS HAVE MYSTICS-TWO TRANSCENDENTALISTS (PART I)

OK, OK, Unitarians do not have (to my knowledge anyway) ardent pious folk who took the path of asceticism to the degree of wearing a hair shirt or living in a desert cave for decades. For edification’s sake, asceticism is the part of the mystic or saint’s path that includes renouncing worldly pleasures in order to become closer to God.  Those who have taken these extreme measures did seem to have some remarkable “other worldly” spiritual experiences (see Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Rabi’a of Persia, and lots of others in almost every other faith, including Buddhists and Hindus (Gandhi chose a life of asceticism as well).  So, I am not knocking it.  It just that most people do not feel such a calling. 

In fact, most people are adverse to giving up anything they find pleasurable, even when they know it is bad for them (hence the challenges during Lent…) However, no matter how we may kick and scream, there must be some giving up of comfort, security, and ego, in order to attain any real semblance of Communion (with a capital C).      

The first and most famous of the Unitarian “mystics”, who chose a counter cultural lifestyle of purposeful simplicity that reflected and embodied both an ancient and more modern approach for those seeking unity with God, with Nature, and others, was Henry David Thoreau.  Coming from a family of wealth and privilege, with a Harvard education, Thoreau (much maligned in his day for it…he was considered eccentric by the kindest and a nut by the rest) chose to live in a hut in the woods of Concord, MA for two years to isolate himself from society so that he could better understand himself and others.  His classic book, Walden, or, Life in the Woods, now required reading for most High School students, is a compilation of this experiment.  Unlike the Desert Fathers, he was not intending to live as a hermit, and did take visitors, he was instead seeking to understand life more deeply by consciously removing many of its distractions.          

What Thoreau was emphasizing (among other themes) was the necessity of solitude, contemplation, and nature to “transcend” our over hurried existence.  His words and works still call to us today, timeless in their appeal: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will become simpler, solitude will not be solitude…nor weakness weakness.” While many of his oft quoted words ring of the uniquely American self-reliant spirit, they too challenge us to think and be, rather than to be always about the business of doing.  For as Thoreau puts it, “Being is the great explainer.”  

Many of his criticisms of society were harsh and at many times his views are expressed in an overly zealous manner.  Is that not true of the prophets, the social reformers, and those considered holy men and women of every place and time? I am not suggesting by this question that Thoreau was unique or special as a long revered saint, he was a man with his foibles and misinformation.  Yet there is a reason we keep reading him.

Thoreau is not asking us to build ourselves a cabin and live in the forest, he is asking that we shake off our complacency, that we do not live an unquestioned and unreflected life.  If we are happy with our lives, that’s good and yet we should challenge our assumptions and think more broadly.  If we are unhappy, he is pointing to another way.

“If a man (or woman :)) does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

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A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST APOLOGETIC (Part II)

The Unitarian and Universalist movements are quintessentially American in their ideals.  In fact, Thomas Jefferson predicted that “Unitarianism, ere long, will be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt”. (Oops, Thomas.) In addition, during the late 17th and early 18th century, the Universalists were the 6th largest denomination in the U.S.  (Yet, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, neither of these faiths were focused on promoting their religion while many other denominations were primarily intent on building large numbers of  converts.)

Still, a great many important figures in American history were prominent members of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths. Before discussing them however, it is important to say a few words about what was  happening “across the pond” as a necessary preamble to placing the two movements (now one religion) into context.

The antitrinitarian Michael Servetus whose heretical ideas of the Unity of God was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553.  In Transylvania, Francis David (a Catholic bishop) preached “Unitarian” ideals around 1560.  His words, “We need not think alike to love alike” are still spoken by Unitarians today. He was imprisoned for his beliefs and died there in 1579.  His contemporary, Faustus Socinus was an Italian scholar who developed a school of thought known as socinianism while in Poland and Transylvania. These ideas were the forerunners of  Unitarianism. 

 The English theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, known for discovering the gas oxygen and inventing soda water (1733-1804)embraced socinian ideas, and developed a Unitarian congregation in England.  He was so persecuted for his beliefs, he left England for Pennsylvania, where he founded the first Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1793.    

The American Universalists were initially from England, but after settling in Pennsylvania (a mecca of religious liberty), they added to their ranks a combination of immigrant Anabaptists from Germany, Moravians from the area of Czechoslovakia, and the Quakers of England and Holland.  While these variant Protestant denominations differed in certain beliefs, they all agreed on the universal salvation of every person after death…no eternal damnation.  Their first official church was in Philadelphia by Elhanan Winchester, who also printed the first German bible in America.  

So, some were mainline Protestants, others were progressively liberals, and all took an optimists’ view of God.

While I will (in some future post) go into more detail on the deeper history of on Unitarianism and Universalism and their somewhat recent union, here is the promised (not exhaustive) list of UU contributors to our country:

John Adams (2nd president of the US) /  Abigail Adams (“Remember the women”) /  John Quincy Adams (6th president of the US)/    Millard Filmore (13th president of the US)  / Dorothea Dix (a social reformer, activist for the mentally ill, instrumental in creating the first hospitals for the mentally ill, also Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War)/ Susan B. Anthony (suffragette, allowing the women the vote) / Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer, minister, and philosopher)/Louisa May Alcott (writer, famous for Little Women) / Herman Melville (writer, famous for Moby Dick)/ Horace Mann (father of our public school education system) /  Thomas Jefferson (not officially, but in spirit) / William James (Father of American psychology)/  Nathaniel Hawthorne (writer, famous for The Scarlet Letter) / Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (prolific poet and writer) / Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross) /  PT Barnum (Circus Fame and benefactor of Tufts University) / Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone)/Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse Code) / Walt Whitman (writer and poet, famous for Leaves of Grass) /      Fannie Farmer (cook and cookbook writer)/George Pullman (inventor of the railroad sleeping car)/ Paul Revere (patriot and silversmith)/ Linus Pauling (Chemist, Peace activist, winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, considered the Father of Molecular Biology)/  Henry David Thoreau (naturalist, philosopher, writer of Walden Pond)/  William Ellery Channing (foremost early preacher of Unitarianism in the US, his approach was a gentle, loving relationship with God, grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence)

The common thread that ran through the lives of these writers, social reformers, politicians, scientists, ministers, inventors, business tycoons, and patriots, was the call to live out their convictions about justice, freedom, liberty, and love in action.  They did not just think about these lofty ideals, they used their talents and time in ways they made a difference.  Today’s Unitarian Universalists are called to the same task. 

Book of the Day, Lifecraft by Forrest Church

Quote from the Book of the Day: “I do my best to follow Jesus’ teachings, and sometimes (on my good days) I call myself a Christian, but given the manifold possibilities for discovering and creating meaning, I cannot embrace a dogmatic creed, even one established in Jesus’ name.”

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