Many of the Unitarians and Universalists who came after Henry David Thoreau struggled with his model and message. To them it was by no means clear what Walden meant for our spiritual movement, even as Americans all around them got it and declared it a classic of the human spirit. To paraphrase Jesus, the prophet was not honored in his own country.
But since then, we’ve come a long way.
We hear Thoreau say, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” and this civil disobedience insight immediately brings us back to one of the main reasons for our existence: to create people who are leaders in this world, people who care about justice, people with knowledge and passion and skills to bring an effective prophetic witness to the times in which we live.
We hear Thoreau say, “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly”—we hear this, and we remember that our Unitarian Universalism cannot be a one-sided focus on social issues. To do all that needs to be done—to leave undone all that which is truly non-essential—we must heal our hearts and relationships; we must increase our emotional and spiritual IQs; we must awaken and continually reawaken to the endless potentials of the human spirit.
We hear Thoreau say, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” and we are called to one of the central spiritual disciplines of Unitarian Universalism, which is good stewardship of our life resources of time and talent and money. We realize that just as the first chapter in Walden is entitled “Economy,” so must that be the first chapter in our lives.
We hear Thoreau say, “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps”—Thoreau says this, and suddenly our Unitarian Universalist First and Seventh Principles begin to dance together. “We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” “We affirm the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” Nature’s good is our good; our good is in the preservation of the world.
Perhaps there was a time when the prophet was not honored in his own country, but that time is long gone. His own country honors him now and needs his voice to remain relevant to the 21st century. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root,” said Thoreau; and as for which one describes him, now we know.
So now the question becomes, What’s next? Where to go from here?
Mary Oliver wrote this poem, entitled “Going to Walden,” after declining an invitation from friends to visit the pond:
It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by night fall, having seen
The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.
That’s what’s next: finding Walden where we are—a slow and difficult trick of living. You don’t have to travel to Massachusetts. Find Walden here. And the key to this, I believe, is coming to terms with the fact that there are no less than four different Thoreaus in his great work. One is the fierce and unyielding social critic who acts in conformity to what he sees as higher principles and so refuses to pay the taxman, goes to jail. But then the second Thoreau’s attention is more on his soul and personal relationships than on society. He’s the one who listens to rain and writes. The one who hosts annual melon parties with his neighbors and plays Tom Bowling on his flute. The one who spends hours in reverie doing absolutely nothing, or walks, or goes skating with Mr. Emerson and Mr. Hawthorne and skates circles around them. As for the third Thoreau: careful with numbers. Keeps a meticulous ledger. Carefully lists for his readers every item he used to build his house at the side of Walden, and how much it all cost, and how much was left over. Passionate about voluntary simplicity. Finally, the fourth Thoreau: lover of nature, nature mystic. This one says, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Four Thoreaus—but what united all four and made them one person with integrity was Thoreau’s unifying insight that justice-seeking, personal and spiritual growth, concern for the economy, and concern for nature were all interrelated. His nature mysticism made his social critique strong, and social critique strengthened his focus on the economy, and all were strengthened by his personal wellness practices. In other words, for him and for us, the interdependent web of all existence is not something fundamentally out there but in here, in our hearts. Needs to be in here: the sensibility that what we do in one part of our lives matters for every other part. All for one and one for all.
If sustainable living is anything, it’s that. Ensuring that each of the four Thoreaus has a home in us, and that they are talking to each other, strengthening each other. Paths without heart narrow down on only one Thoreau to the detriment of the others. Paths with heart are wide enough for all four; and if we walk down paths like this, paths with heart, that’s how we’ll find Walden where we are. That’s how Unitarian Universalist congregations will become Walden. That’s how America will become Walden. That’s how.