By JoAnn Skousen
After a month of sheltering at home, many Americans are missing their communion with God, faith and congregation, especially in the month where Passover, Easter, and Ramadan are observed. Is there a way to regain that sense of communion without going to church, temple, or mosque? Of course there is.
Emily Dickinson was the queen of sheltering at home. She had a close circle of friends with whom she shared intimate relationships, but she seldom went out in public, and she shunned most social customs and expectations, including the tradition of “being at home” once a week to receive drop-in callers. Instead, she made her own rules and determined her own path. Her poem “The Soul Selects her Own Society” celebrates the sovereignty of the individual, claiming that the soul is a “divine majority” that cannot be ruled by custom, tradition, or social democracy. She writes:
The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
She identifies individual sovereignty as natural, inalienable, sacred and divine. As we adapt to “sheltering in place” and doing without our usual activities, we can learn a great deal from Dickinson’s poetry and her philosophy of being at peace while being alone.
Dickinson was a well-read second-generation transcendentalist who was heavily influenced by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Michael Meyer says in The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, “Like Henry David Thoreau, she simplified her life so that doing without was a means of being within. In a sense she redefined the meaning of deprivation because being denied something—whether it was faith, love, literary recognition, or some other desire—provided a sharper, more intense understanding than she would have experienced had she achieved what she wanted.” For examples of Dickinson’s “deprivation” poetry, you might want to read “Water is Taught by Thirst,” “Success is Counted Sweetest” and “Heaven—Is What I Cannot Reach!”
American Transcendentalism, founded by Emerson and his literary circle in the early 19th century, was influenced by the sacred works of eastern religions that had only recently been translated into German and from German into English. Emerson was particularly taken by the idea of direct revelation, and believed that all ideas were derived as personal inspiration (literally, to breathe in spirit) from God. Thus intuition was divine inspiration. Emerson used to carry a notebook with him and would jot down thoughts that came to him throughout the day. He would later develop many of these personal revelations into formal lectures and essays.
Joel Porte’s excellent Emerson in his Journals provides a chronological collection of Emerson’s random thoughts; one of my favorites is “The whole of Virtue consists in substituting being for seeming, & this God properly saith I AM” (May 30, 1835). You might want to contemplate that thought during your next leisurely walk or meditation session!
The transcendentalists did not reject God per se, but they often rejected organized religion, which they saw as posing a barrier between ourselves and that direct inspiration from God described by the eastern religions and embraced by their Americanized version of it. They also felt a strong affinity toward nature and believed that a person could come closer to God while exploring outside than while sitting inside a building, even one dedicated to worship. Dickinson, already resistant to going out in public, embraced this idea as well and expressed it charmingly in my favorite of her poems:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
and an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling a Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along.
The “tree whisperer,” Peter Wohlleben, says in The Hidden Life of Trees, that trees are biologically drawn to one another so that their branches often intertwine at the top, creating a domelike shape. Dickinson’s speaker recognizes this shape in the vault of the orchard and transforms it into her church. In the second stanza she plays with the homophones “surplice” (a robe worn by a minister) and “surplus” (more than enough) to suggest that we have more than enough ministers to go around. She chooses instead to wear her “wings,” a clear allusion to angels and the divinity bestowed upon her by God himself. She needs no bell clanging in the distance to call her to worship when the sunlight and cheerful sound of birds draws her naturally outside.
In the final stanza she rejects the criticism of those who tell her she must come to church in order to be “saved” by claiming that God is her minister—a “noted clergyman” she says, implying, “perhaps you’ve heard of him?” And then the zinger—while the town folk endure seemingly interminable sermons on earth in order to get “to Heaven at last,” she is in Heaven every time she walks out into her Orchard sanctuary.
I don’t go so far as Emerson or Dickinson in suggesting that I have no need for a minister; I enjoy my church experience, and I’ve missed my church community during this time of sheltering at home. I’ve kept in touch through telephone and social media, but I miss the face-to-face communion with my friends. I’ll be glad when we can return, and I can again sing in the church choir and listen to the words of scripture and exhortation.
Meanwhile, I have enjoyed my own “Orchard sanctuary” these many weeks as I have hiked the canyon near my home, listened to the songs of birds in the trees, contemplated scripture, and enjoyed my inward conversations with God. I encourage you to find a place where you, too, can feel the peace that nature brings, and hear the sermon that God places in your heart.