Henry David Thorough was a pioneer in our UU faith, despite not officially belonging to a Unitarian congregation. Join us as we step back in time to Thoreau's retreat at Walden Pond to appreciate how this naturalist, poet, activist, and spiritual seeker helped to shape our faith.
Rev. Lori Kyle joined the UUCD family as our congregation's spiritual leader in October 2014. Lori is a native of Kansas City, Missouri and moved to Canada in 2009 with her family. She resides in eastern Toronto with her partner Margaret, her children Maddie and Nathan, and their yellow lab Sally.
The complete sermon can be read below:
We continue in our exploration this month of prophetic men. A couple of weeks ago we set our sights on finding St. Francis, and today we venture into the life of Henry David Thoreau. Although not by design, Francis and Thoreau have a fair bit in common. Both loved simplicity and solitude, and their souls were fed by being in communion with nature.
So let us turn our clock back to 1817 and our gaze toward Concord, Massachusetts, a rural town 20 miles outside of Boston. Born David Henry Thoreau, Thoreau decided to change his name from David Henry to Henry David when he was a fledgling writer trying to establish his identity in the literary world. He might have thought Henry David sounded more sophisticated.
Perhaps he thought he needed to hone his name to compensate for his appearance. One description of our dear David Henry turned Henry David was as follows:
“In appearance he was homely, with a nose he called ‘my most prominent feature.’ Thoreau also wore a neck beard for many years, which he insisted many women found attractive.
However, Louisa May Alcott mentioned to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau’s facial hair 'would most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.' Another well-known author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was not much kinder: “Thoreau is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.”
I’m not sure if the neck beard had anything to do with it, but Thoreau was briefly engaged to Ellen Sewall, the daughter a Unitarian minister. After she broke off her association with him, Thoreau never returned to the dating world again and would remain a bachelor for life.
Perhaps his chances for romantic love were not abundant. Perhaps his physical presentation had something to do with this. But what did it matter? Thoreau was given beauty of a higher order. And this beauty was reflected in another part of his name, his last name.
Interestingly, Thoreau and other family members maintained that the last name was pronounced as we say the word ‘thorough’. Surprisingly, the media since the time of Thoreau never led the public to the correct pronunciation of the name, so now we all perpetuate an incorrectly pronounced name.
It’s fitting that his name be Thoreau (thorough). He was indeed thorough, and consequently beautiful, in his pursuit of truth. He was known to say, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
This pursuit, which lasted until the end of his 44 years of life, began early. In his Harvard commencement essay, he announced the order in which he resolved to live his life:
“The order of things should be somewhat reversed,—the seventh should be man’s day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul, in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature.”
Clearly this man was not afraid to veer from the tenets of convention. Quotation after quotation reflects this. We could have an entire presentation only on his insightful quips.
“Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory. Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.”
I’m sure this resonates with many of us UUs, because, like Thoreau, our tradition calls us, requires us, to look deeper, look beyond the status quo, to engage our intellect, and to, in many cases, forget what we’ve been taught. Thoreau actually was not a Unitarian in any formal sense of the term. Though he was raised in the Unitarian church and his family remained members of First Parish in Concord, he made a point of signing off from the rolls there when, as an adult, he was presented with a tax bill for the support of a minister he did not like.
However, even his touch-and-go relationship with the Unitarian church exemplified this faith. As UUs we are encouraged to think, to explore, to define for ourselves what is truth. I can’t help but think of him as one of the foundational members of our faith, not because his fame brings us clout, but because his life, his spirit, beautifully exemplifies one of the best parts of Unitarian Universalism – the call to live deliberately.
Thoreau is famous because of his many writings – essays, books, poems. But he is most famous because of a two-year period of serious deliberate living. For 2 years, 2 months and 2 days Thoreau lived in solitude in the woods, communing with nature, in a hut he built for himself that rested on the shores of Walden Pond.
His memoir from this experience emerged to become a literary classic entitled “Walden” (otherwise known as “Life in the Woods”).
About this retreat, Thoreau said the following:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
It might sound like Thoreau was attempting to subdue life, like a bully who forces the passive into a corner in an overpowering manner that diminishes the other. Nothing could be further from the truth (that for which Thoreau thirsted above all else). He longed for simplicity, loved solitude, and wanted to appreciate the simplest forms of life, void of the distractions of details and busy-ness. For him life reduced to its lowest terms was life in its most perfect and pure state.
Thoreau was an internally functioning individual, and thus was continually pulled between internal freedom of solitude and communion with nature, and external freedom that so many in his world were denied.
The things that were happening in the external world – such as slavery in his own country – required that he take a stand. He couldn’t tolerate being a bystander to injustice. In fact, he is known to have said, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”
Transgressing the transgressor could be the subtext for his famous book “Civil Disobedience” - a product of a night in jail earned by a refusal to pay his tax for several years as a silent protest against slavery and the U.S. invasion of Mexico. His civil disobedience was abundantly clear when he said, “Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”
If we truly adhere to this, and if the election tomorrow does not bear new fruit, perhaps I’ll be doing some of my pastoral visits in correctional settings.
Like many prophets, Thoreau was a person whose life may seem to many to be out there on the edge, larger than life, inspiring but maybe not entirely realistic to emulate. I invite us to look again, to look deeper at his words and deeper into our lives.
May we not only savour the rich example of this life deliberately and fully lived, but may we heed its example and bear fruit of our own making from the seeds of his inspiration, by creating our own Walden experience from which we too suck out all the marrow that life has to offer.
So may it be. Amen.
Read sermons by: