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Rapt in a Revery

Sources: Thoreau's Walden, and Walter Harding's Days of Henry Thoreau. Needs more rewriting.


I thought you might want to know what a spiritual practice is, so maybe you can talk about it after Sunday school with your parents. A spiritual practice is something you do regularly that helps you get in touch with something larger than yourself. For example, some people sit and meditate for a spiritual practice. Some people do yoga for a spiritual practice. Some people pray for their spiritual practice.

Well, I don't pray, and I don't do yoga, and I don't sit and meditate. I do a different kind of spiritual practice, a spiritual practice that many Unitarian Universalists do. But first I have to tell you a little story....

Way back in 1845, a man named Henry David Thoreau was living with his mother and father and his sisters in a big house in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry worked for his father in the family's pencil-making business. Henry's family all went to the Unitarian church in town -- Henry himself preferred the Universalist minister to the Unitarian church, but Henry basically stopped going to church once he grew up. Then one day Henry decided that he needed some time to himself, to get in touch with something bigger than himself -- I would say it this way: Henry wanted some time to do intensive spiritual practice.

So he went to his friend Waldo Emerson, and asked Waldo if he could build a little cabin out in the woods, on some land Waldo owned that was right next to a pond named Walden pond. Waldo said, of course, and Henry went out to build himself a cabin and live in the woods. His cabin was only a mile or so from his family's house, so he still went home regularly to eat dinner with them and so on. But mostly, Henry lived out in the woods alone, and worked on his spiritual practice.

Henry's spiritual practice was to spend time in Nature. One of his best ways of spending time in Nature was to sit quietly outdoors, doing nothing, just watching the natural world. Here's how he describes it:

"Sometimes, in a summer morning, ... I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant roadway, I was reminded of the lapse of time."

I can see the whole thing in my imagination: a warm sunny day, Henry sitting on the front step of his cabin, looking out over Walden Pond, "rapt in a revery" -- and when Henry says, "rapt in a revery," he means that he is just sitting quietly, not really thinking of anything in particular -- he is simply sitting and watching and listening to the world of nature around him, lost in wonder at the beauty of the natural world.

Sometime you should try doing this yourself. The next nice day, find yourself a comfortable place to sit outdoors -- maybe leaning back against a tree. Pick a place where you can see and hear the natural world -- it could be in your back yard, if you have a back yard -- pick a place with trees and grass and birds and sky and clouds. You just sit there -- you don't have to do anything -- you don't have to think about anything -- and see if you can lose yourself in sitting, watching, and listening to the natural world. See if you can lose yourself in something larger than yourself.

Henry Thoreau could sit like that all day, but he had had lots of practice. You try it for ten minutes or so at first. Maybe you'll find you like it -- sitting like Henry Thoreau lost in wonder of the natural world. Maybe that will be your spiritual practice -- a real genuine Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice.