This week, on Fathers Day, Pastor Terry talked about the importance of finding spiritual fathers and I found myself thinking about Henry David Thoreau and his relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family.
Ever since the high school contest where we tried to memorize the most epigrams from Walden (I didn’t win), I’ve been a bit cranky about Thoreau, the philosopher of the woods just west of Boston. He had some great things to say. I’ve held onto many as part of my own “Life Creed”:
Beware of all enterprises that require a new set of clothes.
As if you could kill time without injuring eternity
At the same time, Thoreau appeared to me to be the ultimate slacker. He lived in a woods cabin, allotted time only for writing and walking, and took his meals at the Emerson family’s nearby home. He once found three rocks he liked but soon realized that if he kept them in the house he would need to dust them, so he pitched them out the window. Thoreau wasn’t willing to waste a minute on what he considered trivial details:
“Our life is frittered away by detail,” he wrote. “Simplify, simplify.”
Spiritual Mothers Often Cook!
It’s a good thing that Mrs. Emerson considered meal preparation important, particularly since it required a great deal of attention to detail in a time and place where much food was grown or raised in the family’s own gardens and pastures.
In the last few years, I’ve taken a somewhat different view on Thoreau. Walden and his other intentional writings have become far less important to people than the journals of his walks through the woods of Concord. It turns out that he accurately recorded the date of first bloom of hundreds of plants. He is our best 19th century source for climate data in that part of New England.
Spiritual Parents Welcome the Isolated
The Emersons? Whether they thought they were supporting an important writer in his work or just doing a favor for a friend, they were doing exactly what God commands. God says that he sets “the solitary in families” (Psalms 68:4). He doesn’t turn the solitary into pretend families like singles groups or even church small groups. He lets those who are alone be “adopted” into households, so they enjoy the communion of the saints — even if they are insistent, like Thoreau, that they really like to be alone:
I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.
Welcoming Homes May Be Outside the Faith
I also found myself remembering the household I lived in during my late 20s. We were several families and several singles, and I could count on the 4-year-old in his Spiderman pajamas to urge me, every morning as I opened the newspaper, to “Read Spidey to me!” Each evening when I came home from work, the three children would rush to the door to greet me.
The evening dinner table was as big as Thanksgiving in most extended families and we had a regular guest: a retirement age lady from the apartment across the street. She didn’t like to eat alone, and we liked her.
I wish I could say that we were a Christian community demonstrating God’s love. Unfortunately, the counterculture is usually more countercultural than most Christians now. So while I went to my church’s small groups and Bible studies, my “family” was a bunch of food coop staff, musicians, writers, a publisher, a jeweler, some geeks, and some others who thought living together across generations was an important part of the shared way of life they imagined was best.
Christians can only find the way of life we look for. God’s mind is bigger than ours; still, it’s our job to be open to as much of God’s imagination for this life as possible.
Only that day dawns to which we are awake … The sun is but a morning star.
Have you found a spiritual parent or spiritual family where you can just be part of the everyday? What did you learn from the experience?
- Walden Woods video game will recreate the world of Thoreau (guardian.co.uk)
- 150 Years After Thoreau: How the Cabin at Walden Gave a 21st Century Father Cabin Fever – Beacon Broadside (beaconbroadside.com)
- 150 Years After Thoreau: Christine Byl and Brad Tyer – Beacon Broadside (beaconbroadside.com)
- Concord: Emerson, Alcott and Thoreau (silverseason.wordpress.com)