I was asked recently, "How's your church life?" I gave an answer that, yes, I was attending church but I was finding it painful - a process, a going through the motions, a chore even - rather than something deeper. This is no disrespect to the people I worship alongside - it is their warmth that ultimately keeps me going - but I am finding the style of worship (the 'hymn' sandwich) to be the painful part which I tend to just endure.
Away from church I have been spending more time in my garden, both on Sundays and other days of rest. I have worked tirelessly on the garden these past few years, learning as I go along. It has become something of a passion. Although I did not start with any vision greater than 'tidying it up', I have focused in particular on a garden for wildlife.
By chance, I have also been given a church pew which I have restored and placed at the head of the rear garden, looking outwards. This has created more opportunities for reading and meditation, for contemplation of the divine - more than I seem to find at my local church.
These past few weeks, as the strange month of September - with its last hurrahs of summer, with its early signs of the coming Autumn, with its hazy morning and evening light - has seen me continue this longing to simply sit in quietude.
I have also been drawn to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, namely his essay 'Nature'. I do not intend to read his works page to page - like many Unitarian preachers of his age, he is wordy to say the least. However, I am struck by little pieces, as much as his works can be dipped into.
In particular, I have loved reading and re-reading this passage:
"To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood. When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet.
The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title. To speak truly, few adult persons 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 the heart of the child.
The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses 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. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.
Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years."