The Great American Mystic, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Excerpts from a Sermon by Reverend Fred Campbell, a Unitarian Universalist minister:

"This morning I will be speaking about Mysticism beginning with a responsive reading from Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose perspective I regard as primarily mystical in content. Emerson, who lived from 1803 to 1882, was a watershed figure in the Unitarian faith, even though he only served as a Unitarian minister for three years. Yet, he was the primary figure who broke open Unitarian Christianity so that it began to engage other religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islamic mysticism.

His own religious philosophy is identified by the somewhat forbidding term, "Transcendentalism." He would have preferred, however, the term "Idealism." His perspective, he said, was one of philosophical idealism as opposed to philosophical materialism. What this means is that in your thinking and living you start with "Mind" or "Consciousness" rather than matter ­ what is ultimately real and self-existing is more akin to "Mind" or "Consciousness" than to matter or matter-energy. The most striking and well-known term that Emerson used to speak of this ultimate reality was "Over-Soul." Our responsive reading consists of statements taken from Emerson's famous essay titled, "The Over-Soul." There are, however, other terms that Emerson also used to convey the sense of this ultimate reality: "Unknown Centre," "The Whole," "Being," "Unity," "Order," "Highest Law," "Supreme Cause." Emerson capitalizes each of these words or terms and each is utilized by Emerson to approach the same unapproachable cosmic reality. In addition, Emerson employed the conventional word "God" in his religious philosophy, but he did not employ it in the conventional way. "God," for Emerson, was not a personal being; but rather, as 20th century theologian Paul Tillich would later say, "God" is "Being-itself," the ground, the source, the creative power and possibility of all individual beings, but not one of those beings, not even the highest being.

So, too, for Emerson, "God" is nonpersonal, or, better yet, "God" is transpersonal ­ larger than the personal, containing and including the personal. One might address "God" personally, as Emerson sometimes does, but "God" is not a personal being. Says Emerson, "I deny personality to God because it is too little not too much." One of the aspects of Mysticism I will be briefly addressing today is the Mystic's sense of the inadequacy of words to express the nature of "ultimate reality" and of our experience of "ultimate reality." The problem is, first of all, that a description or an account of an experience is not the same as the experience, which is a problem in trying to describe any experience. But the problem is compounded for the Mystic because the experience the Mystic wants to talk about is an experience of unity. And words have to do with distinctions. They are based on the rational part of the mind whose capacity and role is to make distinctions. Thus, the frustration of the Mystic in the use of literal language, and the felt need to resort to symbol, to metaphor, to story, to parable, to music, and to the other arts in order to try to relate an experience for which literal words are, of their very nature, inadequate....

The Mystical experience, as I understand it, has primarily to do with an experience of unity in which the distinctions between things fall away so that an underlying identity to things is felt and experienced.This experience relates to a different way of knowing than our everyday rational way of knowing. Typically, to know something ­ some thing ­ is to understand how that thing is different than and separate from something else. But in Mysticism we find another way of "knowing," not a negation of the rational part of our mind that separates and distinguishes one thing from another, and not a knowing that adds information to our rational and empirical ways of knowing; but, rather, a more intuitive way of knowing that may have value in its own way and at its own level....



This is the third in a four-part sermon series based on the work of The Reverend Fred Campbell, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who served eleven different Unitarian Universalist congregations ­ eight as an interim minister ­ over a period of thirty-one years. In these congregations he found four differing basic faiths, which he identified as Humanism, Naturalism, Mysticism, and Theism. Two weeks ago I introduced the larger framework in which all four of these faiths are embedded and I also spoke about the Humanist faith or "lifestance." Then last week I spoke on Naturalism. Now this week I speak on Mysticism. Last week I also introduced the mental image of a house on a hill with four large windows facing the four directions. This was a way of showing both the connections among the four faiths ­ they all look out upon the same reality ­ and the distinctions between them ­ the four different frames of reference both focus and limit what is seen and experienced of reality.

Last Sunday the window through which we looked was the window of Naturalism. I leaned heavily on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers as a way of getting at that frame of reference. This week we move to the window that frames the Mystical perspective. And, as I have been saying, it's not as if a given individual is always and only standing before just one window. Even though an individual might prefer or be drawn to one view over the others, still such an individual will be also found in front of one or more other windows as well. This is true even of the poet Robinson Jeffers, who is about as single-minded in his Naturalistic faith as one could imagine. Even with him he would occasionally move to another window, in this case the Mystical one. So this morning I begin again with Robinson Jeffers as a way of delineating some of the differences between the Naturalistic and Mystical perspectives, watching as he moves from one perspective to the other.

Distinguishing Naturalism and Mysticism

Last Sunday I read a poem of Jeffers titled, "Oh, Lovely Rock," in which the poet speaksof seeing through the surface of the solid rock "into the real and bodily and living rock." I called this "ecstatic naturalism" ­ "ecstatic," having to do with ecstasy, boring into and through the surface of the natural into a dimension of depth. And in other poems, particularly some written late in his life, he speaks of everything as having consciousness of one sort or another. "All things are conscious," he says, and the nerves and brain of an animal simply bring that consciousness to focus. ("The Beginning and the End")

Here the poet is starting to move away from the Naturalistic window toward a perspective that involves another level of being or reality, a sense of some underlying unity and consciousness to things that is more than nature in the typical way of speaking about nature. He is moving from this "ecstatic naturalism" to a "naturalistic mysticism" ­ that is, a vision and an experience in which nature becomes the means of the mystical, unitive experience. Nature is still important, but now it is the reality of an underlying, unifying consciousness that becomes even more important. In Mysticism an individual "understands":

1) that all things are of one piece and interconnected;
2) that there is an interior essence or depth dimension that links all things; and

3) that this interior essence is also the root of one's own being so that one can "know"
and experience this interior essence or depth dimension of reality.

Thus, the poet Jeffers, taking his place before the Mystical window, becomes aware of a unity in nature, so that he cries out: Erase the lines: I pray you not to love classifications:
The thing is like a river, from source to sea-mouth One flowing life. We that have the honor and hardship of being human Are one flesh with the beasts, and the beasts with the plants One streaming sap, and certainly the plants and algae and the earth they spring from Are one flesh with the stars. The classifications Are mostly a kind of memoria technica [a contrivance for aiding the memory]. Use it but don't be fooled. It is all truly one life, red blood and tree-sap, Animal, mineral, sidereal [star-stuff], one stream, one organism, one God.... (from "Monument," The Beginning and the End) This recognition of the unity of things ­ in this case, the unity of the natural world ­ is the foreground of the Mystical perspective, but we're not there yet because in the Mystical frame of reference one also becomes aware of an interior essence to things. And, most importantly, one experiences one's identity with that interior essence. Listen to these words of the poet as he enters fully into the Mystical experience.

To-night, lying on the hillside,[...]
I remembered
The knife in the stalk of my humanity;
I drew [the knife] and the stalk broke [the
stalk of his humanity];
[then] I entered the life of the brown forest

And the great life of the ancient peaks, the patience of stone,
I felt the changes in

the veins In the throat of the mountain,[...]I was the stream
Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking; and I was the stars,

Boiling with light, wandering alone, each one the lord of his own summit;
and I
was the darkness Outside the stars,
I included them, they were part of me.
I was mankind also, a
moving lichen
On the cheek of the round stone
[a tiny living form on the face of the
they have not made words for it, to go behind things, beyond hours and ages,

And be all things in all time, in their returns and passages,
in the motionless and
timeless center, In the white of the fire...
how can I express the excellence I have found,
that has
no color but clearness;
No honey but ecstasy; nothing wrought nor remembered;
no undertone nor
silver second murmur
That rings in love' voice,
I and my loved are one; no desire but fulfilled; no

passion but peace,
The pure flame and the white, fierier than any passion;
no time but spheral
eternity." (from The Tower Beyond Tragedy)

This is an expression of the Mystical frame of reference in which a person:
1) starts with the interconnectedness of things;
2) recognizes an interior essence that accounts for that connectedness;

3) experiences one's identity with that essence; and, then,
4) finds language utterly inadequate to get at that experience. All four of these basic aspects of Mystical perspective are present in that reading from Jeffers. And to clarify this Mystical perspective a bit more, in another poem, a book- length narrative poem, the poet puts the following words into the mouth of the hero of the poem, who is an elderly sage. Suddenly he [the elderly sage] knelt, and tears ran down the gullied leather Of his old cheeks. "Dear Love [he said, addressing the vast Universe, addressing God, which are one and the same for Jeffers], You are so beautiful. Even this side the stars and below the moon. How can you be...all this...and me also? Be human also? The yellow puma, the flighty mourning-dove and flecked hawk, yes, and the rattlesnake Are in the nature of things; they are noble and beautiful As the rocks and grass ­ not this grim ape, Although it loves you. ­ Yet two or three times in my life my walls have fallen ­ beyond love ­ no room for love ­ I have been you." (The Double Axe, Robinson Jeffers) "No room for love," the poet writes. Love implies relationship. And relationship implies a distinction and separation between the lover and the beloved; it implies an "I" and a "Thou." But in the Mystical experience all separation is erased and all boundaries dissolved. There is no room for even that highest human experience, the experience of love ... for there is no "I" and there is no "Thou;" there is only the "One." Even to say "One" is inadequate, for it implies that there might be another ... which makes speaking about Mystical experience more than a little difficult since language is rooted in "twoness" not "oneness."

Other types of Mysticism

This is an illustration of the Mystical perspective, in this case a "naturalistic Mysticism" in which nature is the conduit for the Mystical experience of unity and identity. But there are other types of Mysticism. One author I read identified 25 different types of Mysticism. ("Making Sense of Mysticism," Michael Daniels) There are "nature Mysticisms," like that of Jeffers, in which the connection is made with the eyes wide-open, going outward into ultimate reality through the senses. But there also other Mysticisms in which one closes the eyes and goes "inward" into interior depths, perhaps through techniques of meditation, seeking the "Mind" or the "Consciousness" out of which all natural things proceed and back into which they fall.

Earlier in the service I spoke of Ralph Waldo Emerson whose religious philosophy starts with "Mind" or "Consciousness." Whereas the poet Jeffers penetrates into and through nature with the senses, with Emerson it sometimes seems that the senses are almost a distraction from pure Being, or what he calls the "Over-Soul," "...that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere." (from his essay, "The Over-Soul) The influence of the senses has in most people overpowered the mind to that degree that the walls of time and space have come to look real and insurmountable. (from his essay, "The Over-Soul) For Emerson, as with the Mystics in general, all things of one piece:

"The ploughman, the plough, and the furrow are of one stuff."
(Dr. Forrest Church, "Emerson's Shadow," UU World, March/April 2003, p. 31)

"The sailor and the ship and the sea are of one stuff."

(Robert Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, p. 408)

And that "cosmic stuff, " for Emerson, is more akin to "Mind" than to matter.
"Mind" is
prior to matter. "Ideas" are more real than things.
"The soul makes the body."
(from his essay, "The Poet")
"The Universe is the externalization of the soul." (from his essay, "The Poet")

We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. (from "The Over-Soul") For Emerson, we are Soul-Stuff ­ "congealed soul," you might say, very dense soul. This is who we are! Recognize that, glory in it, and live out of it! Author J. D. Salinger writes: I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up.... It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was only a tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean. This, I would say, is the primary feature of mystical experience. From the one side, it is subtraction: the dissolving of the distinctions and the blurring of the boundaries. From the other side, it is addition: the positive recognition of the fundamental identity of things of which you are part and which you can experience.

Thus, the Mystical faith locates the primary meaning, value, and purpose in life as having to do with a sense of union with that essence of Being which underlies and which is more real than nature in the typical use of the word. Modern Mysticism does not by any means deny science, its method or its value; but it operates on the notion that there is more than science is equipped to handle. Reality is not exhausted by matter-energy or by what the five senses can take in.
Mysticism, in contrast to Humanism and Naturalism, does wish to go behind or beyond or beneath or within this concrete cosmos ... not necessarily so much to create another reality apart from it, but in order to say that there is more than to Reality than meets the eye. There is an interior essence to Reality so that it consists of both manifest and unmanifest Being. Says the poet Robert Bly: Behind matter there is some kind of heat, around and behind things, so that what we experience is not the turtle nor the night only, nor the rising whirlwind, nor the certainty, nor the steady gaze, nor the meeting by the altar, nor the rising sun only. (Robert Bly, from "`Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd...'", in Loving A Woman In Two Worlds) Or, leaving the poets aside for a moment, let us try a scientist, one of some note, namely, Albert Einstein:

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms ­ this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of [the] devoutly religious.... The basic theme of all mythology, says scholar Joseph Campbell, is "that there is an invisible plane supporting the visible one." (The Power of Myth, p. 71) This plane transcends ­ goes beyond ­ the "pairs of opposites" that characterize the visible plane and with which the rational aspect of the human mind is occupied. The point of Mysticism is that we humans have the capacity ­ a non-rational capacity ­ to identify with and to experience that invisible plane. And why? Again, because in our deepest being, we belong to that invisible plane. It is at the root of all things, ourselves included. "You are that," say the Hindu Mystics. "Tat tvam asi" ­ "That thou art." In your most essential self, you are one with "It." By stilling your active, ego-oriented, rational mind, you can connect with "Deeper Mind" or recognize the connection that is always there. If there is a God-concept in the Mystical faith, it is likely pan-en-theism ­ not pantheism in which all is God, but pan-en-theism, in which all is in God, and God is in all, the parts contained in the Whole and the Whole at the center of each of the parts. (The little "en" between "pan" and "theism" is a connector word that goes both ways.) A modern analogy for the Mystical perspective can be that of the hologram in which each part of the thing contains the image of the whole thing ... as, for example, in holographic photography. In traditional photography if you split the photographic plate, you get that part of the image. But in holographic photography you can splinter the plate and in each sliver you get the whole image, just in a less dense form. Reality in the Mystical perspective is holographic in nature. Each part contains an image of the whole thing. Each of us is, on the one hand, a tiny particle of the Whole and, on the other hand, each of us contains the image of the Whole. Sometimes, as Mary Oliver says, "the great door opens a crack" ("December," White Pine, Mary Oliver) so that we catch a glimpse of the Wholeness of which we are a small
part. Though, as Emerson says, our vice is habitual and our faith present only in moments, sometimes those moments come, sometimes the door does open, and just for a moment we behold the radiance of things, so bright it is almost a death, a joy we can't bear...
("December," White Pine, Mary Oliver)

There are times in my life [writes author Dewitt Jones] when the world is so achingly beautiful, when everything holds such meaning, that I am incapable of any expression except tears of joy. The boundaries of my being begin to blur, whatever separates one thing from another begins to dissolve, and in that confluence of light and line and law, lies an experience for which I have no words. This experience is the exception not the rule, yet it happens often enough that I no longer believe it to be just coincidence, but rather a level of reality that is always there if I am open enough to see it. This level of being is incredibly positive. It doesn't negate the pain and suffering of the world, but it puts it into a larger context and allows me to experience this context directly, not just with my intellect, but with my entire being. It is: "The merging of the purity in us with the purity of the world and the recognition that there is in us, the same music, the same joy and light, as there is in that to which we are responding.


Our benediction is from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The heart in thee is the heart of all;
not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there
anywhere in nature,
but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, from "The Over-Soul")

Extinguishing of Chalice

We extinguish this chalice
But not the light of truth,
The warmth of community,
Or the fire of commitment.
These we carry in our hearts
Until we are together again."

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