Audacity
Leave a Comment

Becoming Transcendentalist

Ralph Waldo EmersonEarly in his book Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “To speak truly, few adults can see nature.  Most persons do not see the sun.  At least they have a very superficial seeing.  The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.  The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward sense are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.  His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food.  In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.”  Following Emerson, I wrote a short poem which they published in my 1973 High School year book saying: “When all life’s burdens threaten to weigh me down, my lone escape is to nature, and the blessed solitude it brings.”  So to understand the spiritual nature of the man, we might begin as Emerson does with the spiritual nature of the child who will become the man.  I am speaking here of a certain spirit, an audacious way of being in the world.

Everyone has a story which helps define who we become as unique beings.  Mine begins at the age of 5, in June 1961, the summer before I began first grade.  Every June our entire family would go down to the Newport RI Baptist Retirement Home for their annual yard sale of items to help support the retired ministers.  My parents would give us each a quarter to spend wisely, and at the age of five I knew I wanted to get as many books as $.25 could purchase.  They priced used adult hard cover books at $.25 each, children’s hard cover books at $.10 each, and used children’s paperbacks at $.05 each.  So I quickly discerned that I could only get 4 to 5 books unless I found some way to do better.  As I carefully picked up and perused each book I was considering, a couple of the sales ladies at the books tables took an interest in me, asking how old I was and how much I had to spend.  When I told them I was five and had $.25, they looked at each other and introduced a new rule, any five year old could fill a grocery bag for $.25 with as many books as they could read.  In those days most kids learned to read in first grade, which I wouldn’t begin for another several months, so it felt like they had a safe bet.  Little did they know that I had listened to and mimicked carefully my brother David, who had just finished second grade, as he learned to read over the previous two years.  I could already read at a second grade level. I went home that afternoon with two dozen small paperbacks and hard cover books stuffed into a shopping bag, and with the biggest grin on my face.  With God’s help, I knew no matter what, God would provide!  This is the basis of my faith and my audacity.

When I began first grade at Ranger Elementary school I discovered the boys played marbles at recess.  This was a problem.  I didn’t know how to play marbles and marbles cost money.  No one was allowed to play unless you played for keepsies, which is if you lost the game you lost your marble, and the winner would get all the marbles.  This felt like a form of gambling.  And even if you won, if when you returned inside from recess with pockets stuffed with marbles, and as you sat down marbles spilled onto the floor, the teacher would confiscate them and give them to the janitor.  Many of the boys bought bags of 50 shiny marbles for $1.00 each at the local Variety Store.  For those who didn’t have that kind of money, and couldn’t get it from their parents, it was possible to buy three shiny new marbles for a dime.  As a last resort, for the truly destitute six year old, the janitor was willing to resell our used marbles gathered from the classroom floor, for a penny a piece.  So everybody could afford to play, except me.  I had no money, not even a penny, and knew better than to ask my mom or dad for gambling money.  The fact that money was being risked in a game of chance made this gambling.  Yet I had to play, I knew I would be good at it, if only I could find a way to escape my family’s poverty.

At Ranger Elementary everyone looked down on the ten Sherblom kids as poor.  Our house was always dirty, crowded, and in a state of disrepair.  This had an enormous impact on my sense of self-esteem.  As the fifth child in this too large family my clothes were mostly hand-me-downs, many of which were cheap clothes when they were new, and all of which showed signs of wear and tear.  Two of my older brothers, Donald and David, were in higher elementary grades than me, but too focused on other things to play marbles.  Yet I had to play!  It was my destiny!  One day I came out to recess and found a marble lying at the edge of the grass.  Someone had forgotten it, or dropped it running for the bell, so now I too could play.  I chose one of the smaller boys, Paul, and we played, but I lost.  Paul shot his marble and won my marble.  I was doomed to no money and no marbles.  Paul lent me a marble so I could keep playing, and this time I won.  By the end of recess, I had played dozens of games of marbles and had won more than I lost.  I went back to class with two warm marbles nestled in my pocket.  Every recess after that I played and every recess I got better.  My sense of self and self-esteem soared!

By spring, I was the best marble player on the playground.  My marble collection had grown to several hundred marbles.  I began to sell them back to the other boys, two marbles for a penny, undercutting the janitor by half, and virtually eliminating any competition from the Variety store with their new marbles for $.02 to $.03 cents each.  Since my prices were the best in town, everybody bought marbles from me.  Most days after school my pockets bulged with marbles and money.  I began to buy my own used books, at a nickel or dime each, so now I had my own books and some spending money.  I no longer thought of myself as poor.  I had resources.  By the end of third grade it was no longer cool to play marbles at recess, but by then I had spent some of my newfound wealth, at my mother’s urging had opened a bank account and had saved $18 from marble sales, plus I had over 3000 marbles to pass along to my younger brother’s Stevie and Paul.  My sense of the possible skyrocketed!  I was an entrepreneur.  I had a facility for money making, for understanding how money works, for making my way in the world, for success.  Much I would accomplish in my life took root in that first experience of playing marbles.

Baptist youth achieve young adulthood by studying their Bible, faithfully attending worship services, participating in Christian youth activities, and being plunged below moving water in what Baptists call full immersion baptism.  As I approached my thirteenth birthday I was quite ambivalent about being baptized, I didn’t know if God thought I was ready yet, but here was my kid sister Pat, eleven months younger than me, and chomping at the bit to be baptized, which could happen at the same time as me but shouldn’t happen before me, so ready or not I prepared to take the plunge!  I knew what to expect from reading about Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Mark 1:10: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him.”  Now I was pretty sure that the affirmation Jesus received from God: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” were unique to Jesus’ situation, but I was still counting on the heavens opening, descent of the spirit, and some kind of warm feeling of welcome and well done good and faithful servant.  So I was more than a little disappointed when after being prayed over, and plunged into Founder’s Brook, I emerged merely breathless, wet and cold.  The earth did not quake, there was no descending spirit, and I felt no different than I had before.

I experienced my first radically transformative spiritual phenomena the next year.  We were in the woods at a Baptist youth retreat and I had spent most of the morning sitting in a stuffy dark room watching what I can only remember as some form of cheap teenage indoctrination videos.  When we finally took a break late morning I shot out of the room into the bright daylight of the surrounding forest, making my way quickly up the path before anyone engaged me in conversation, just wanting to be alone with my thoughts.  Suddenly I noticed the path was shining before me, the leaves on the trees were emitting light, and the very trunks of the trees were luminous.  The forest had burst into song almost as if I could suddenly hear the music of the spheres.  I saw and felt my hands and arms as waves of pure energy, I was pure energy, I was one with all being, and at peace with all I perceived.  This was my first truly transcendent state!  The experience lasted for only a few minutes but evoked both feelings of joy and fear to find myself suddenly in this inexplicably transformed state.  Gradually the light shining forth from everything began to fade back into normal reality and at the same time my sense of universal oneness faded simply into a feeling of foolishness.  Given that the grown-ups and other youth at this retreat were all Baptists and 1970 era rationalists, I never told them about my experience, but I cherished it in my heart for ever after.

There was perhaps a 1970’s innocence, since lost, which made our world seem a safer and kinder place, in which anything really could happen.  Mr. Bradford Robinson, the High School English Department Chairman, took me under his direction beginning my freshman year.  He introduced me to Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Albert Camus and Frederick Nietzsche.  When he discovered I was interested in the mystics he led me to Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching and the Taoist I Ching.  Then we read and discussed Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity and The Way of Zen.  Many books wrote about transcendence, with or without God, but just the experience, the feel of it was enough.  These reminded me of my own transcendent experiences in the woods which seemed to be what made life interesting.  As I probed ever bigger questions Mr. Robinson took to calling me “The Philosopher.”  He introduced me to the American Transcendentalists, beginning with Henry David Thoreau and Emerson, with their natural reason and nature based transcendentalism, and I knew I had found kindred spirits.  They were reading and commenting upon the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, the Koran, the Dhammapada, and teachings of Confucius.  These were bookish extraverts sucking all the marrow out of every bone in their life’s experiences.  I would have loved to play marbles with Henry David, or take long walks with Waldo, for them living mattered!

As I made my way through high school I still attended my father’s church, memorized Bible passages, and even preached once or twice from his pulpit on Youth Sunday; but my private spirituality was increasingly non-Christian, transcendent, and able to take me places my father could not even dream about.  When my reading list grew beyond the confines of the high school library and our two town libraries, Mr. Robinson took me with two other students to a book depository in Providence, where we had a $500 budget to spend on non-text books for reading pleasure, and the four of us managed to spend that allowance in about an hour and a half, with my choices including the Theosophists, Sufis, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christian contemplatives.  I was in a state of bliss both that afternoon and for weeks to come as I read all of these new books.  Most books on spirituality assumed the introversion of a cloistered monk, but not all, there were plenty of gregarious extraverts just like me on the spiritual path as well.

The ancient Roman motto over the entrance to my Yale residential college said “audaces fortuna iuvat” that is fortune favors audacity.  This became the path I followed.  I was introduced at Yale to Dominican Scholar Matthew Fox and his notion that mystical experiences of divine mystery were ubiquitous across human cultures, with each individual flowering forth being like a sparkling fountain tapping into living water from a great underground stream.  The Bhagavad-Gita, or Hari Krishna path of adoration, and Transcendental Meditation were all the rage my freshman year at Yale, but did not seem to take me where I needed to go.  Chanting in public made me feel silly.  Sitting meditation, even with the Beatles claims for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, was for me an exercise in futility.  I could sit for twenty minutes, or an hour, my heart rate would decrease, and my relaxation response kick in, but it wouldn’t last, and I would end feeling achy, sore and bored.  Buddhist teachings made more sense, as a reformation of ancient Hinduism, especially the path of knowledge, the so called Royal Path, awakening through coming to understand the true nature of reality.  This appealed to me.  I then learned ancient Chinese teachings about the Tao, the Way, which teach that our minds alone are capable of perceiving the divine mystery.

I learned the story of Frederick Henry Hedge, who in 1817 passed his Harvard entrance exam in Greek and Latin, at the age of 12.  His father taught philosophy at Harvard, and thought him too young, so sent him to study in Germany for 5 years, where Hedge learned transcendental idealism, and read early translations of Upanishads.  Upon returning to Harvard, he gathered a small group of Unitarian seminarians around him, including Waldo Emerson, George Putnam and George Ripley, to discuss these radical new ideas, and contemporary English Romance poetry, which group eventually became the Transcendentalist Club.  I was following in their path.  Like Larry Darrow in Somerset Maughn’s The Razor’s Edge I found ancient Upanishads my surest mystical path into transcendent being.  So when I wasn’t in classes I spent much of my time in the stacks of Sterling Library, exploring the spiritual side of my nature.  I practiced sitting meditation but never got beyond trying to keep my mind clear.  But I deeply cherished spiritual conversations with professors and students about what gives life meaning and worth.

Then Loretta came into my life.  You perhaps know how incredible she is.  She was my salvation.  Her love stabilized our lives together with a solid work ethic and her loving kindness opened my heart. I spent a final fifth year at Yale to finish my senior thesis.  So as we returned to campus, Loretta for her junior year, me for revising my senior essay, we fell into an idyllic pattern of life.  When Loretta went to class I would head off to the library.  I started reading widely through the stacks of Sterling library, feeling like I had been given a gift of time, never again would I have ready access to such a world class library and all the time I wanted to read.  There were many ancient manuscripts, books dating from the 18th or 19th century, filed away in the stacks, many of which had not been checked out by anyone in 100 years.  I began checking out some of these old books, to enjoy them sitting in the sun, and noticed that when I returned them the library’s reference staff would often send them off to the Beinecke Rare Book Library rather than return them to the stacks.  The next time anyone wanted to read them they would need to wear gloves and turn them on a book stand.  I felt I was getting a classical education, while providing a service in unearthing Yale’s rare old books.  I would never again feel less well educated then prep school kids or anyone else.  To paraphrase Thoreau, I began to have a scholarly understanding of life, now that I had read widely following serendipity through one of the world’s great libraries.  I focused on self-education and graduated much happier from Yale.

Loretta and I married the following year while I was studying in Boston for my Harvard MBA.  Upon graduating I joined Bain and Company, first in Boston, then London, where our daughter was born, and the opening an office for Bain in Munich, Germany.  Loretta and I learned German in the process, and I began to study German pre-Christian and medieval Christian spirituality.  As I started to understand Germanic spirituality I discovered Christianity came late to Germany, then the battles between Roman Catholics and Reform Protestants came a few hundred years later, so the deep roots of German spirituality predated Mediterranean Christianity.  The ancient Nordic gods still held a firm grip on the local imagination.  The waves of Celtic, Saxon, Aryan, Gothic, and Germanic tribes that had so long populated these deep northern forests left their imprint on the land and its people.  German spirituality was deeply connected to the land and its volk or people.

Even later German Christian mystics like Meister Eckert or Hildegard of Bingen drew as much on nature spirituality as they did the teachings of the desert fathers.  And Eastern Orthodox Christianity offered an entirely different sense of what it meant to worship, or be in the presence of the divine mystery, and how one could invoke oneness with God through praying continuously, a practice I began with the spirit guides I found in German mysticism.  It felt like an important piece falling into place connecting my nature experiences of Godhead as an adolescent, with my Christian upbringing, with my philosophical understanding of Kant and Hegel, and the impact of the first German and then English translations of ancient Chinese and Hindu texts, resulting in an American formulation of transcendental religion in the Concord Transcendentalists.  It was as if this hidden stream of wisdom traditions offered living water for my own spiritual journey.  Even as my career accelerated I began to take more seriously my spiritual life.

Coming of age in the 1960’s Mutually Assured Destruction Cold War era, I never expected to see my 30th birthday, certainly did not intend to become part of the establishment, and knew better than to trust anyone over 30 too much.  Yet I plunged into biotech entrepreneurship and then venture capital with the same audacity with which I had learned to play marbles. During that time Loretta had built her employee benefits practice at a brokerage firm, but now they were in merger discussions, risking her role there if not her job, and she increasingly wanted to work on her own, with more flexibility around our children’s needs. Our kids were little and needed more of my time and attention as well.  Yet Genzyme needed me to work even harder to catch the coming IPO window to take Genzyme public.  We filed for our IPO months after I turned 30.  Loretta and I began looking for a house, preferably a California contemporary, like the one she grew up in, but with a big yard, sliding glass doors bringing in lots of light, and a swimming pool, in a nice neighborhood, in a town with great public schools.  Loretta even went so far as to interview elementary school principals in order to find one with a compatible educational philosophy.  Of all the towns we considered, my heart was set on Transcendentalist Concord, and Loretta loved Alcott school, so we narrowed our search to the Alcott school district.  When we told our realtor what we were looking for, and for not more than $300,000, she just looked at us and laughed.

Several months later we got a phone call.  It was the dead of winter, but a somewhat rundown 1950’s California contemporary with a swimming pool had just become available on Park Lane in the Alcott school district.  The owners were divorced, living in NYC and Paris, and the tenants who had rented the house had burned down the free standing garage.  We immediately went over to look at it.  It was on a quiet street on the back side of Musquetaquid, where the indigenous people’s village was when the 17th century colonial settlers created Concord, and it ended at the Assabet River, along a section of the river which Thoreau in the 1840’s called the prettiest river in America.   We bought it on the spot, even though we needed to borrow the entire purchase price on a bridge loan from the bank, until we could find and close on a buyer for our house in Framingham, and get some liquidity from Genzyme’s IPO.  The largest congregation in town of course was First Parish in Concord, the church that had once counted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott as members, and which being Unitarian Universalist had an inclusive enough religious orientation for Loretta’s secular humanism and my eclectic spiritual seeking.  We moved in Patriot’s Day weekend, and that first morning I was awakened by a re-enactment of the battle at the North Bridge.  We discovered the house’s former owners had been members of this congregation, as were our neighbors, the Andersons, on the left, and our neighbors, the Harrisons, on the right.  So I began to attend First Parish, we enrolled the kids in the religious education program, and Loretta got increasingly involved in social justice work, eventually becoming Chair of the Social Action Council, then church moderator.  This is how we became UU’s and we have never regretted it.

Having bought the house that suited us in Transcendentalist Concord MA, we set about making it our own. The house is built on a cement slab, and much of the first floor was dark and below grade.  Once we had cash liquidity again, after Genyme’s IPO, Loretta had a contractor come with earth moving equipment and scoop us out a backyard with a pastoral vista into the woods beyond.  She added small gardens and tore out sections of walls to bring more light into the kitchen and family rooms.  The swimming pool was warm enough to swim in only about six weeks each summer, so Loretta added a gas heater, and swims most days between Memorial Day and late September.  Loretta turned our large living room in an airy library, with fireplace, by building enormous hardwood fronted shelves along the free walls, enough to shelf over a thousand of my books, and made me promise to give away any books that will not fit on these shelves.  I still buy and read about 100 books each year, which over 60 years now includes well over 5000 books, but I can only keep my favorite 1000 or so, annotated to refer back to or if I want to read them again, but have otherwise become for decades a major annual contributor to the Concord Library book sale.  This is exactly the kind of existence that most appeals to a bibliophile like me.

Given how hard I was working I was having fantasies during this time of leaving behind the intense pressure of Genzyme’s financing needs, to perhaps spend 2 or 3 years in a Buddhist monastery in India, to deepen my spirituality and make sense of my life.  Loretta found a way to cure me of these.  She booked us on a weekend meditation retreat at a Zen monastery in upstate New York.  I was exhausted as we arrived on Friday, but they quickly settled us into meditation, followed by a vegan dinner eaten in silence, and more meditation afterwards.  A bell awoke us at 4 am to begin meditation again, interrupted only by simple meals and walking meditation in the afternoons.  The second day Loretta toppled over late morning, and they helped her from the room, I was worried for her, but the meditation master threatened to beat me with a stick if I tried to go and help her.  Later I would discover they had fed her orange juice and sweet dates, suggesting she relax a while, while I struggled in torment with my inner peace.  Early afternoon on the third day, shortly before we would head home, the guru, who had an aura of enlightenment about him, offered to answer our questions.  When it was my turn, I asked if I wanted to have his aura, how long would I need to expect to meditate as we had that weekend.  He took a long deep breath.  He said most novices begin around 8 or 10 years old, and must practice their meditation for 20 years or more, in order to arrive at such a state of spiritual equanimity and peace.  But he said he had been carefully observing me all weekend, and he was convinced that for me it would take considerably longer.  So ended my flirtation with sitting meditation, as an extrovert I find greater joy walking in nature.

We rebuilt the garage, but this time connected it to the house, and built an office suite for Loretta over the garage.  Loretta founded Loretta Ho Sherblom Benefits as a small insurance brokerage firm and did financially better that first year than she ever had done as an employee. We hired a contractor to update the tired rundown feeling of the upper story bedrooms and opened up the entire center of the house to let in more natural light.  I purchased a canoe, and later a kayak, to spend long quiet afternoons paddling alone on the Assabet, Sudbury, and Concord rivers.  I also developed the habit of taking long stomps through the Walden Woods, or around the town forest, known locally as Fairy Land, and often over route 2 and around Walden Pond.  I pulled out my books by Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, for the first time in years plunging back into nature transcendentalism and its power to bring a soul fully awake.  Our daughter attended first grade at the Alcott school, much to everyone’s satisfaction, but before first grade the School Committee redistricted our neighborhood, sending both our children by bus across Route 2 to Willard Elementary.  Being a small town Loretta protested at town meeting, resulting in her soon being elected to the School Committee, and being its Chair when the town next needed to redistrict to balance students between the various public schools.  Karma is a bitch.  Our move to Concord helped trigger my emergence as a transcendentalist.  As my collection of religious artifacts grew, as I practiced paths I was discovering from multiple world religions, Loretta extended the deal we had, now my growing collection of religious works of any kind, whether books, symbols, or aids to meditation and prayer, would be confined to my home office or our increasingly esoteric home library.

 

One of the men at this church, who had been a pillar of the church, was experiencing a massive midlife crisis, sleeping in a tent in his back yard, as he tried to make sense of his life.  Success had come at too high a cost for him.  A small group of us started a Men’s Group helping to provide emotional support and spiritual direction.  This group met at church most Saturday mornings, when our families would least miss us, and explored how our childhoods and educations had set us on this path for success at all costs, and in the process risking our health, our relationship with our families, and our sense of wellbeing.  Gradually the group grew, eventually including some Saturdays as many as 25 men, and provided us all with spiritual sustenance and a means to make meaning of our lives.  Because I had been journeying so long, and had experience leading groups, I gradually put together a series of men’s spirituality retreats, including ones with names like Your Spiritual Autobiography, Getting in Touch with Your Feelings!, Finding Who You Are, and Learning Meditation Through Gregorian Chants at a Benedictine Monastery.  My own spiritual quest was blossoming in a way it never had before.  I was praying and talking to God, even if I wasn’t sure just what I knew about the nature of God, and I was finding inspiration and deep sustenance from it, with growing transcendental experiences, so I could richly explore and suck the marrow from life.

 

A small group of us from our men’s group, mostly professionals and business executives in our 40’s and 50’s, mostly with wives and kids at home, decided to take our spiritual search more seriously.  We committed to meeting every Sunday night for two hours to discuss the spiritual issues in our lives.  Which we did faithfully, except Super Bowl Sunday, when we deemed watching the Patriots play the highest of spiritual experiences.  We discovered that we all had much richer interior lives than we ever showed the outside world, some of it was magical, some painful, much was fantastical, and all of it meaningful.  This was the period of my life when I was most deeply into Jungian symbols and trying to understand the collective unconscious.  We shared our stories with each other.  We examined the actual details of our lives, without shame or embarrassment, passed through the fires of thoughtful contemplation.  My mind exploded!  I began to record more transcendent moments in my spiritual journal striving for joy and searching for meaning.  This men’s spirituality group brought salvation to each other, in the form of helping to heal deep wounds in our religious and spiritual lives, both scars that were visible and invisible, to count the number of our days and consider the meaning of them, so that we were liberated to live lives of deeper meaning and joy.

On May 16, 2004 I was ordained jointly by the congregations of First Parish in Concord and First Parish in Watertown into the Unitarian Universalist ministry.  The service included the participation of 13 clergy members, including representatives of the Mass Council of Churches, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and our local Mass Bay District of UU churches, as well as a laying on of hands by all present, but the heart of the service was my ordination vows.  My charge from the combined congregations included: “To speak the truth with love and with a courageous heart.  We wish you to bring your integrity into all the spheres of your life, whether you are ministering from the church pulpit, through pastoral care, through your teaching, or in the Board rooms and meetings of corporations public and private.  We encourage you to bring your whole self to your work of ministry by living a balanced life, remembering always your commitments to our faith community, the wider world, and especially to your family.  It is our hope you will lead in the ways of love, hope and justice; ministering alike to human joy and sorrow; celebrating and sharing our Unitarian Universalist faith; taking time for study and prayer; and living with an open heart.”  It is to these vows to which I said “I do.”  Pledging “with deep gratitude and great joy to bring my whole self to my ministry, as best I am able, to continue the spirit of radical inclusiveness, love and compassion of our Unitarian Universalist tradition to all those to whom I minister, both among us and in the wider world.”  Now different religious traditions ask their ordained clergy to take different vows, it is these liberal religious vows, which recognize my multi-faceted ministry in the world, that have shaped my calling and my own spiritual journey.

Yet as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the English Romance poets would say, our joys and sorrows are woven fine together.  Emerson was ordained to the Unitarian ministry in 1829, marrying Ellen Tucker, the love of his life, that same year while serving at Boston’s 2nd Unitarian church.  Two years later she would die, leaving him a small fortune, and while grieving her he would resign from his ministry, in order to pursue his own thoughts without the constraints of serving a congregation.  Many years later a young Thoreau, unemployed and grieving the death of his brother John, followed so quickly by the death of Emerson’s five year old son Waldo, would spend two years in contemplation at Walden Pond.  For the next seven years I was in a co-ministry with Martha Niebanck, and we were called to Hedge’s former pulpit at First Parish in Brookline, a more Christian transcendentalist congregation than this.

I greatly enjoyed and cherish all we accomplished in the 11 years I served as senior minister at First Parish in Brookline.  We doubled attendance, tripled membership, and quadrupled annual giving.  A once thriving UU congregation is now thriving once again.  They gave me sabbatical and study leaves to study with Christian contemplatives, dance with Sufi’s in the mountains of Turkey, meditate with Taoists in rural China, and explore the ways of indigenous shaman in Ecuador and Peru.  Yet I had to tell them, even Hedge finally retired from parish ministry when it got in the way of his spiritual journey, spending his later years teaching ecclesiastical history at Harvard.  So my letter to the congregation last September read: “Dear Ones, Anyone who has been listening to my sermons realizes I am a transcendentalist mystic, experiencing great joy in walking in nature with Transcendentalists, meditating with Taoists, contemplating with Christians, dancing with Sufis, and exploring new worlds of experience with indigenous shaman.  I turn 60 in October, which Hindu friends tell me is an age to take seriously the callings of the spirit… so the Parish Committee graciously agreed for me to lead my last service in December, after which I traveled with Harvard Professor of Comparative Religion Diana Eck up the Ganges on pilgrimage to where the Buddha awoke to the fullness of his humanity. I loved the Brookline UU congregation.  I think I always will.”  Even so my transcendental spiritual journey leads on.  The congregation agreed to pay me for five additional months of sabbatical so I could begin to write my spiritual memoir, and this talk is drawn mostly from the first draft of that memoir.

For my 60th birthday they gave me a big blowout dance party at church, with everyone welcome, with a cocktail called the Transcendentalist.  I took small groups from that congregation on Transcendentalist walks, beginning here at First Parish in Concord, going past Emerson’s house, through the colonial era terra forming that transformed swampy woods to fields and pastures, down through the magical town forest known to the Alcott girls as fairyland, up Brister’s Hill into Walden Woods, across Route 2 to Walden Pond.  Around Walden Pond, near the site of Henry David’s cabin, we ate lunch and looked out over the azure water as I read aloud my favorite passages from Walden.  For the winter solstice, which would be my last sermon, I preached from the lessons I had learned along my journey, a sermon entitled Living Joyfully, about the five spiritual practices that can bring more joy into your living.   Anna Huckabee Tull sang for me her song The Days of Your Opening, as well as Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic.  The cover of the order of service showed me, with backpack, in blue jeans, and outback hat, walking away into Walden Woods.  The congregation turned out that afternoon for a wonderful farewell party in which we held up and celebrated the various joys and memories of our ministry together then I metaphorically walked into the mystic, to become transcendentalist.

 

As Mary Oliver, perhaps our greatest living transcendentalist poet writes in Long Afternoon at Little Sister Pond: “There is hardly time to think about stopping, and lying down at last to the long afterlife, to the tenderness yet to come, when time will brim the singular pond and become forever, and will pretend to melt away into the leaves.  As for death, I can’t wait to be the hummingbird, can you?”  So as Henry David declares in the opening paragraph of Walden: “I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”  As a private person and author who is gregarious, extraverted, and a mystic, I thrive in community.  I wish to walk around Walden Pond 100 times or more this year, perhaps with some of you.  I will tell you my transcendental experiences if you tell me yours.  I am here.  Reach out to me.  I wish to share experiences in community.  Thank you for inviting me to tell this story and blessed be.    

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s