by Walter Harding
Sermon preached at First Parish Church of Concord, 16 July 1978
Henry Thoreau advises us in his Journal that if you “halve your lecture, and put a psalm at the beginning and a prayer at the end of it and read it from a pulpit, . . . they will pronounce it good without thinking.” And so I shall take his advice and see if I can get away with it.
My first scripture text is from the Gospel according to Saint John, Chapter 3, verse 7: Ye must be born again.
My second is from the Gospel according to Henry Thoreau, better known as Walden, How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
We hear a great deal today about “born again Christians,” but I trust amongst Unitarians I will not be thought blasphemous or heretical if I talk about “born again Thoreauvians.” In my years of wanderings among Thoreauvians, I have been struck again and again how many of them have been “born again” into a new and more rewarding life by their first reading of Thoreau, a life that has become meaningful for them after years of “quiet desperation”. They read in Walden: “No man ever followed his genius till it mislead him…. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success, all nations is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself”. They read these words and have the courage to heed them.
A few years ago I had a young lady as a student in one of my classes. She was a sweet and gentle creature, but so torn by the strife and bustle of our current life that she went through one personality crisis after another and the best of aid seemed to help her little. After the class was over I often wondered what happened to her. Just three days ago I received in the mail from her a book she had written about her life and it tells about a beautiful life. She has found a quiet job to support herself, and a little house to live in and lives there with a life filled with a “broad margin” of joy and beauty that radiate throughout her book. She writes “When I was sixteen and first read Walden. I believed Thoreau that ‘If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets.’ And I know it is now true, for in my house… music and poetry do resound, and life is like a fairy tale, to compare it with such things as I knew before.”
In Sendai, A city at the northern end of the main island of Japan, in 1945, a young Japanese soldier who in civilian life had been a University teacher, returned home from the battlefields of World War 11 to find that not only had his home been destroyed in the fire-bombings of that city, but also his most cherished and precious possession, his large library of books, had been destroyed too—all but one book that had somehow, by chance, been saved. He was in the depths of despair, for we college professors treasure above almost all else our books, and in his despair, he turned to that one remaining book and discovered it to be Walden, one of the few books in his treasured library he had not read. He now read it and on the strength of its philosophy gave up his despair and turned into a life of joy in the things of the mind rather than the material world. I shall never forget meeting him twenty years later when I went to Sendai to lecture of Thoreau and he came beaming into my hotel room, carrying his whole set of Thoreau’s journals, each volume looking like a porcupine with quills of paper marking the passages he wanted to ask me about. Nor do I forget the joy in life he had found.
I think too of a young man I know in Pennsylvania who is going through what is now the fashion to call identity crisis because he wanted to live a quiet simple life while his family and friends were putting their pressures on him to push on to that supposedly great American goal of monetary success. Walden luckily fell into his hands at the right moment and encouraged him to live the life he wanted to live—a path he has continued to pursue with joy to this day. I recall once asking him why to him Thoreau was such a hero, and he replied, “Because he lived an alternative life with such dignity and joy, he gave me the courage to live my own”.
I recall too, a young man who worked in a bookstore in Detroit many years ago. One day a customer came in and purchased a copy of Walden. As the clerk wrapped it up, he thought it looked interesting and so with his next paycheck, he bought his own copy. It excited him so much that the following Saturday he bought a second volume of Thoreau, and on the third Saturday another, and so on until he acquired a full set of Thoreau’s works. Then it was he determined to do what he had always wanted to do, but never had the courage. He resigned his job and went out to become a poet. He went up into the deep Canadian woods north of Lake Superior, and there, building himself a cabin on a remote lake, he sat down and practiced his poetry writing until he had written a volume that satisfied him. That volume was published and won a national prize for new young poets. (I am sorry to add as a footnote—you know, we college professors can never write anything, even a sermon, without footnotes—that on the basis of his success as a poet he took unto himself a wife, but she did not take to life in the wilderness and after three months in that log cabin, she led him back to civilization–and he never wrote another good poem. But then there are backsliders even among born-again Christians too. And besides that, I know my friend never ceased to revel in the memories of those years of joy he had once experienced in the woods.
These are only a few of the many I know of who feel that Thoreau has given them a new life. Their life patterns have been very different from each other because Thoreau has taught them not to follow their parents’ lives nor their neighbors’ lives nor even Thoreau’s but their very own. Some have been led on to great creativity. Some are living very quiet lives. But they all share in common a discovery of the joy and beauty of life. Henry Thoreau has given meaning to their lives. They have been born again. I will close my sermon, not with words from Thoreau, but with the final words from that little book I received the other day from my former student which so caught the spirit of Thoreau. She says: “What I would like to tell my friends and kindred in a distant land is what I have learned by my experience… that life can be very good, very sweet, almost beyond dreams, if we will take up our lives in our own hands and make of them creations of beauty, as poets their poems and singers their songs.
Such people I call again born again Thoreauvians. And for them and for the joy in my own life I am grateful to Henry Thoreau.
A Note on the Text:
Source: Reproduced from a typescript in The Walter Harding Collection in the Thoreau Society Collections