Ralph Waldo and the Word

December 26, 2007

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Ralph Waldo and the Word

One hundred thirty five years ago, on Christmas Day, an aged and ailing Ralph Waldo Emerson disembarked at Alexandria, the cradle of Hellenistic Christendom, whence the Holy Family had fled Herod long centuries before. Emerson was one of the first Americans to be conscious of living in what seemed to be a post-Christian age, though it was more precisely the post-Puritan, or perhaps post-Protestant predicament, and, at least to that extent, post-Modern. Inspired with a remarkable love for the man of the Gospels as the highest expression of our common humanity, the sage of Concord saw the Christ of New England’s churches, not as the revelation of God in man, but rather as the condemnation of our race in general and of each of us (but for a few) individually. If this seems Nietzschian, remember how deeply Emerson influenced Nietzsche, though keeping his own sanity—boy brothels and syphilis were not part of his moral destiny, or America’s—yet. Emerson’s cultural world was more an expression of Boston’s Kulturkampf than Prussia’s, the gutted shell of Christianity without Christmas. To be sure, the Christmas fast was no longer enforced with draconian penalties, but, well into Emerson’s century the feast of the Nativity was still one day of the year in which public school attendance was strictly enforced, if only to prevent those damned Irish Catholics from acquiring diplomas which might qualify them for respectable employment.


  

The owners of Academe are forever pimping their Fritz because he had the “courage” to embrace his despair and erect upon it his transparently silly myth of the Eternal Return. I choose to remember our Waldo because, for all his foibles, he had the greater courage to refuse the cheap indulgence of despair, and to go on insisting that, whatever our own condition in and out of church, God isn’t dead. I find his words worth repeating today:


  

It has been charged that a want of sincerity in the leading men is a vice general throughout American society. But the multitude of the sick shall not make us deny the existence of health… There is a principle which is the basis of things, which all speech aims to say, and all action to evolve, a simple, quiet, undescribed, undescribable presence, dwelling very peacefully in us, our rightful lord: we are not to do, but to let do; not to work, but to be worked upon; and to this homage there is a consent of all thoughtful and just men in all ages and conditions…


  

We say, the old forms of religion decay, and that a skepticism devastates the community. I do not think it can be cured or stayed by any modification of theologic creeds, much less by theologic discipline. The cure for false theology is motherwit… The true meaning of spiritual is real; that law which executes itself, which works without means, and which cannot be conceived as not existing… Let us replace sentimentalism by realism, and dare to uncover those simple and terrible laws which, be they seen or unseen, pervade and govern. The Conduct of Life, “Worship.”


  

To an American of my generation, used to looking to the East for wisdom, Waldo seems to be speaking of the Tao as understood (or not understood) by Lao Tzu and the other sages of old China—remarkably enough, as our man’s Orientalism seems to have been generally limited to what of India and Persia had been translated into German. But I think it is fair to say that what Taoists called the Way, the dark sage Herakleitos called Logos, the sense of things as well as the mind that sees it and the discourse that unveils it: the Logos that Philo of Alexandria read back into what would soon be called the Old Testament; the Logos that the Evangelist John would recognize in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. “In the beginning,” traditional Chinese translations of the Bible read, “was the Tao;” and I suggest that anyone who wishes to gain some appreciation of the universal implications of Orthodox Christianity track down Christ the Eternal Tao by Heiromonk Damascene, published by Valaam Books, an imprint of the Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.


  

Our cosmic Christ is not only to be found in the last of the Gospels. Paul tells the Colossians that it is Jesus Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and in him. And he is before all, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he may hold the primacy: Because in him, it hath well pleased the Father, that all fullness should dwell; And through him to reconcile all things unto himself, making peace through the blood of his cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven. (I:15-20)


  

This passage points to the great Christ images of East and West, the mighty Pantokrator of Dafni on the Sacred Road from Athens to Eleusis, and the terrible crucifixes of the the Spanish counter-reformation. We must not lose sight of either; indeed Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, devoted one of his most eloquent discourses to the the tension between the poles of beauty and degredation in our life in the spirit. But this time of year, as the darkness begins to retreat before the light, we celebrate another and more paradoxical image, the Lord of All as a helpless and homeless Palestinian baby, venerated by wretched shepherds and Zoroastrian fire-priests, hunted down and driven into Egypt, even unto Philo’s Alexandria, by Caesar’s own King of the Jews, a people who could later boast that they had no King but Caesar.


  

This day of Christmas is to remind us that the cosmic Christ, apart from Whom nothing of what has become ever came to be, in his Body the Church, and in the culture of Christendom, of which the Church is heart and mind, is still in His infancy, and we in ours—as Archpriest Alexandr Men so forcefully reminded us the night before he was assassinated. It would be so easy to sit on our hands and wait for Armageddon, or to start wars, even nuclear wars, hoping to provoke Armageddon just to save ourselves the work we are really called to. That work is the building up in science, culture, technology, and society of the body of Christ in the world he created and will not leave to the enemy even when we ourselves would.


  

Christendom is in its infancy; we are in our infancy. For now we must go to sleep and wake up again in Waldo Emerson’s America. We are free to attend services of the denomination of our choice, but we know that the ringing of our feeble bells will be drowned out in the forced merriment of the season’s Saturnalia of Mammon. For all we know the last of the Magi went down with the Pequod, though a small number of Parsees ply the trade of goldsmith in Queens. As for Emerson himself, from Alexandria he proceeded to Cairo, where he met up with Charles Godfrey Leland (alias Hans Breitmann), the Philadelphia humorist, educator, and folklorist who would go on to write Aradia, The Gospel of the Witches, which I happen to regard as fiction, though any number of New Age true believers prefer not to. But as I say, it’s early times yet.


  

Yes, the days grow longer, but for a good while yet the winter will get worse. Indeed, when the victory of light is sealed by a full moon, the Man Whose birth we now celebrate will be executed as a terrorist, with the magisterium of his day standing guard over the sealed tomb. But even that is not the end of the story, not by a long shot, even though our schoolbooks say it is. Let it remain a mystery to the neighbors, while we work in secret to build the world, for them as much as for ourselves, in times which seem to be not of the best. “We must work and affirm,” old Waldo remarks, “but we have no guess of the value of what we say or do…


  

We fancy we have fallen into bad company and squalid condition, low debts, shoe-bills, broken glass to pay for, pots to buy, butcher’s meat, sugar, milk, and coal. `Set me some great task, ye gods! and I will show my spirit.’ `Not so,’ says the good Heaven; `plod and plough, vamp your old coats and hats, weave a shoestring; great affairs and the best wine by and by.’ Well, ‘tis all phantasm; and if we weave a yard of tape in all humility, and as well as we can, long hereafter we shall see it was no cotton tape at all, but some galaxy which we braided, and that the threads were Time and Nature..—The Conduct of Life, “Illusions.”


  

From Concord by way of Alexandria, then, this most Bellocian of Christmas wishes to you, my gentle readers, for the new year: Great affairs and the best of wine—even on a shoestring!

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