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It has been more than 20 years since, as a college undergraduate, I read Henry David Thoreau's Walden.
BY Benjamin D. Wiker
Two decades plus, and only now have I finally gotten my family out to the country. Out beyond the noise, smell, and smother of town life. Out beyond the worry of news reports on the war, anthrax and the stock market.
We have left Steubenville, Ohio, a steel mill town, full of beautiful old houses stained with years of factory smoke, to settle in the countryside skirting Hopedale. Same state. World of difference. Our Walden? A little acre and a third on a road less traveled, protected on all sides by woods.
“I went to the woods,” Thoreau wrote, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
For some time my wife and I also have been afraid to die and discover that we had not lived. With six children, that feeling of dread only became stronger. Six more lives held to our account, to waste or spend wisely. Especially because of the children, we (with Thoreau) did not wish “to live what was not life,” for “living is so dear.” Children grow quickly. Time pours itself into memory. Memory seeps into forgetfulness. All that could be turns into what could have been, while a thousand details fritter away the days, then weeks, then months and, before you know it, years. Living is so dear.
Given the present circumstances, some might think that it was the war that drove us, in an apocalyptic flight, out of the city. Wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, famines, earthquakes, birth-pangs, tribulation, false prophets, wickedness multiplied, love grown cold, desolating sacrilege — it all fits too well. Flee to the mountains! Quick, before winter!
Are these the end times? I do not know. Only God knows. But I do know that, because of the war, others are now filled with the same urgency that has been our companion for so long. War, the great destroyer, reveals time as a gift given freely but snatched without warning. Who will be snatched next? Suddenly, urgently, we all long to “live deliberately,” afraid to die and discover we had not lived. Every moment, a gift freely given — but will this be the last moment?
Out of the evil of war, this good has come. In the buzzing, glittering distraction of modern life, we have become distanced from our own souls, unable to bear silence or work patiently through long, slow thoughts. We become mere bodies, sodden with triviality, giddy with entertainment, ruled by sensual distractions. War shakes loose this clinging detritus, and throws us back into our souls.
Did we flee because of the war? The war certainly turned up the volume on that persistent inner voice. But we fled because our lives were slipping away as we sorted through bills, juggled errands, listened to the news, read the paper, checked the e-mail, drank coffee — and all the while our children were growing, pushing harder against the tight boundaries of our little yard. Children without wilderness soon grow wild.
Just yesterday my children and I made our first fire at the new property. My son dug the pit in the dark, wet earth. We piled sod in a ring, foraged for sticks, chopped logs, laid the fire and conjured this great elemental spirit into being. And then we just looked and thought and talked, like millions upon millions of other thoughtful souls over thousands upon thousands of years. Behind us was our own little stream — lolling, pensive, wandering water full of minnows and, at various times throughout the day, the searching fingers of our children. The air was a sweet mixture of smoke and piercing freshness.
Earth, fire, water, air. Since antiquity, considered the four great fundamental elements. Some thought the soul was even made of fire. I can see why. Staring into the fire, watching the dance of red, gray and black, the depths of the jittery cold distraction gripping our interiors began to thaw, melting away the distance between body and soul. An hour and a half of contemplating a fire with my children is a far better, far deeper use of time than ricocheting around town in a mini-van desperately seizing shreds of culture — piano lessons, ballet, soccer, the symphony.
Earth, fire, water, air. On Sept. 11 the earth shook, fire sprayed, water tried to quench fire, and the air was filled with screams and choking smoke. War had come to us. Staring at the fire, souls began to thaw, and wonder how so much of life had been spent in distraction.
Are these the end times? For us, they are the beginning. “To live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life” — that is why Thoreau set out for Walden Pond. We, too, found that without shedding all that was not life, our lives lacked the depth that is the natural home of prayer. There is a reason that monasteries tend to be built out and away, the same reason Christ went into the wilderness to fast and pray. The beauty of nature thrills with God's creative goodness, shames all the twittering holiday of mere human artifice, draws us to the glory of Christ, the one “through whom all things were made.”
Precisely here, oddly, Thoreau went wrong. Unlike Thoreau, who fretted that turning our attention to the next world soured our natural, primal enjoyment of nature in this world, we have no wish to make an idol out of nature. We only hope to capture again some hint of that original contentment — that prayerful, holy, calm joy that was partially lost by sin, and has been nearly smothered by distraction.
Pray for peace. The peace that shall deliver us from war and, even more, the peace that prepares us for God.
Ben Wiker teaches philosophy of science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).