Category Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

60-Second Inspiration: The Value of Praying for Nothing.

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Arron Burden vis unsplash.com

Each morning, I say the prayer of gratitude. Along with my early morning run, it’s one of the most important things I do all day. I give thanks for all the good things in my life—my family, my health, my home, the new day, and whatever new person or event that has come into my life.

But there’s another prayer I’ve recently added to the mix and I think it’s equally important. In the title I’ve referred to it as the Prayer for Nothing but it’s really The Prayer for the Best Possible Outcome. Here’s the thinking behind it:

We do not have crystal balls and cannot see the future. Yet, we often pray for things. We pray that we’ll get that new job or promotion, we pray that we’ll get that new home or maybe that a new relationship will blossom. But what we don’t know is if that thing we pray for will really make our lives better.

Will the new job end up requiring late nights and weekends that costs us precious family time? Will the new home come with issues that we didn’t notice at first glance? Will the new significant other keep us from connecting with the person we really should be with?

What I’m proposing is that we instead pray for the best possible outcome. That means not praying for anything specific to happen, only for what is best for us and our lives. This takes the decision making out of our hands and puts it in the hands of a higher power.

This follows the lead of the great American spiritual philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He believed there was a subtle order of divinity that lay behind our everyday world and that it served us a source of knowledge and power. Through prayer, we tap into this source and can receive the guidance we need in life. According to Emerson:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong.

The early 20th Century “New Thought” philosopher Ralph Waldo Trine, writing about 50 years after Emerson, has similar advice. That if we allow the “Divine Power” to work through us, we will be directed to the best possible outcomes. In his words:

Know that the ever-conscious realization of the essential oneness of each life with the Divine Life is the highest of all knowledge, and that to open ourselves as opportune channels for the Divine Power to work in and through us is the open door to the highest attainment, and to the best there is in life.

For more on prayer, please see my story “Three prayers that can help you daily, starting today.” Or to read about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s take on how we can receive answers to our prayers, see: “You already know how to talk to God. Here’s how to listen.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

“Jesus is just like you and me”: the radical message of R. W. Emerson.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine graduating from one of the top religious schools in the country, entering the ministry, and after a few years deciding the job isn’t right for you. You find yourself troubled by public prayer, the act of communion, and most of all by the formality and stiffness of the church service itself.

Well, if you’re 29-year old Ralph Waldo Emerson, you quit your job as a minister at a Unitarian church and chart a new course. You start writing essays and lecturing, you publish your first book, and little by little, you begin attracting attention—and for good reason. It’s the 183os and your message is unlike anything most Americans have ever heard.

You see, Emerson believes that God does not dwell up in the heavens, but is within each of us:

“The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

On top of that that Emerson also believes that “while Jesus was a great man, he was not God”. In fact, Jesus is just like you and me. He says that:

  • We possess the same divine spark as Jesus.
  • We share the same connection to God as Jesus.
  • We can communicate with God just like Jesus did.

And for good measure, Emerson discounts any biblical miracles involving Jesus as pure fiction.

So given his thinking, which was contrary to the beliefs of every other religious or spiritual leader of his time, it’s surprising that six years after leaving the church, Emerson is invited to deliver a commencement speech to his alma mater. It’s known as the “Harvard Divinity School Address” and in it he talks about faith—and how the church extinguishes it.

The test of the true faith should be its power to charm and command the soul…faith should blend with the light of rising and setting suns, the singing bird and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely, we are glad when it is done…we shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.

Emerson’s solution is not to improve the church service, but to rely on our inner selves and the grandeur of nature as conduits to the divine. He instructs his audience of graduating religious students to establish their own relationship with God.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone…dare to love God without mediator or veil…trust thyself…that which shows God in me, fortifies me. O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn.

As you might expect, the speech was not well received, at least not by those in power. Emerson was denounced as an “atheist” and “a poisoner of young men’s minds”. But what he had done bears some resemblance to Jesus’s act of turning over the moneychangers tables in the temple—Emerson saw what he believed was a spiritually bankrupt status quo, and fearlessly tried to disrupt it.

Closing Note: How Emerson communicated with God.

Emerson believed in something he referred to as “lowly listening”, a way to access God within us and get the guidance and comfort we need, through solitude, stillness and reflection. Emerson’s favorite place to do this was out in nature, but it can really be done anywhere you can reach a quiet and peaceful state. In Emerson’s words:

Belief and love—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.

The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

For some past stories I wrote on the life and philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, see here or here.

Does God have a plan for your life? Ralph Waldo Emerson has a compelling answer.

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

God’s plan for your life isn’t a map you see all at once, but a scroll unrolled a little at a time, requiring faith. ~Rick Warren, pastor and author

In Christian circles, it’s common to believe that God has a plan for your life. It’s an idea called predestination (aka religious determinism) and, as hinted at by the quote above, it basically means that all the events in your life have been predetermined by God. To back up this claim, the following Biblical passage is frequently cited:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Now this may be comforting to some, but for a lot us this idea has a couple of issues. Problem one: What about free will? Don’t I get a say in what happens in my life? Problem two: How do I know what my plan is? Do I need to live my life on autopilot waiting for my plan to reveal itself?

Well, there are answers to these questions and they come from the person who I believe is our all-time greatest American spiritual philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson. It should be noted here that Emerson is a former Unitarian minister who left his post at age 29, as he could no longer live abide by the church’s rigid dogma. So his ideas are not solely Biblically-based. (See more on Emerson’s spiritual philosophy here.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was convinced we all had a preordained path in life, but also thought that you and I play a vital role in calling the shots. According to noted Emerson scholar Richard Gelhard, RWE believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.” This meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible.

Yet Emerson also believed that “an individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.” In other words, by engaging with the flow of life, we can tap into this power source and use it to help guide us down the proper path.

In an essay titled Spiritual Laws, Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word”. He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.

In another passage from the same essay, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a higher power that can comfort and guide us:

A believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.

Like Emerson, another noted American spiritual philosopher, Ram Dass, also has a belief in the power of intuition to guide us. In this passage from his book Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass instructs us to use this inner sense of direction to our advantage:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within”.

My take is that Emerson’s ideas ring true: there is a personal plan for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we can steer ourselves in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and coincidences appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us to a new one.

Of course, there is still free will, so you can always choose to make decisions that are strictly based on your own brain power and whims. But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that assistance is available when and if you want it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, January 14, 2015.