We call it ‘the Boston trip.’ It’s a rite of passage for our eighth-grade Coming of Age class, a kind Hajj, the pilgrimage a Muslim is required to take to Mecca at least once. Nineteen pilgrims took a bus to Boston two weeks ago, on Friday morning, arriving at the Boston Public Garden – the oldest public garden in the country – to have a picnic lunch and watch the Swan Boats, feed squirrels and see the tulips blossoming at their peek.
The roots tour begins at the statue of William Ellery Channing which stands just outside the Public Garden, directly across from Arlington Street Church (formerly the Federal Street Church) which Channing served for 39 years, from 1803 – 1842. Indeed, Channing faces the front doors, which, when opened, allows him to stare directly into the pulpit, keeping a watchful eye on its occupant.
At the statue I always read a few passages from his famous sermon, Unitarian Christianity, which he delivered in 1819 as the spokesperson for a growing group of Congregational clergy who could no longer, in good conscience, profess to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Channing said, “We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God…it makes God into three persons… God is One.”
Since I re-visit Channing’s famous sermon every year I always discover something new, a passage that has taken on a new meaning or a new twist. This year a particular passage struck me: “We are particularly accused of making an unwarrantable use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture. We are said to exalt reason above revelation, to prefer our own wisdom to God’s.”
I smiled, to myself, wondering what he would say today, in light of the latest insights into the human mind – the brain. We have to be careful not to allow the use of reason alone to dominate our lives, leaving no room for the spiritual dimension – the humility that acknowledges that we don’t know everything, and the comfort that comes from that acknowledgment.
Once inside Arlington Street Church the Coming of Age participants climb the high pulpit and read a passage from Channing, and they climb to the organ loft where they are introduced to it by the music director, then they climb to the bell tower where they get a chance to ring the bells. When not climbing they get to look at the world’s largest collection of beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows.
The tour continues by foot across the Public Gardens, through Boston Common, up Beacon Hill to our Unitarian Universalist headquarters. We cross Beacon Hill to view the monument to Unitarian Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts all-black Civil War regiment. Shaw was killed in a failed attempt to capture Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina.
We go to King’s Chapel, the first church in America to declare itself Unitarian, and a living reminder of our Christian roots. We walk from there to the Holocaust Memorial, then to Faneuil Hall, built in 1742 where Sam Adams and other protested ‘taxation without representation.’
Since 1742 the area around Faneuil Hall has been used as an open-air market which still operates today. The pilgrims have a couple of hours on their own to do some exploring at Quincy Market and to have supper together in small groups.
We meet the bus and drive to the Espousal Retreat Center in Waltham where we review the day, talk about our Unitarian heritage and do some psychodrama, using the Parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, which they have a rowdy time acting the various parts and then discuss what it felt like to be those characters. The fatted calf gets to complain out loud – real loud!
On Saturday we drive to Follen Church in Lexington where I began my ministry on April 1, 1970, serving as assistant to Herb Adams during my last two and a half years of seminary at Boston University. It’s always filled with nostalgia, but this year, so soon after Herb’s passing, it was especially poignant.
We introduce Charles Follen who designed the unusual, octagon-shaped sanctuary where the pews are turned ‘so congregants can see one another,’ as Follen put it. As it turned out Follen served as an interim minister at a New York City church while the building was being constructed. On his way to the dedication of the new church, scheduled for January 15, 1840, while crossing Long Island Sound in the steamer Lexington, with 159 aboard, the ship caught fire and Follen was one of the 155 to lose his life; only four survived.
Ralph Waldo Emerson stepped in and preached the dedication sermon, saying, “Know then that your church is not built when the last stone, the last rafter and clapboard is laid, not when we have assembled, not when we have adhered to the customary rite, but then first is it a church when the consciousness of his union with the Supreme Soul dawns on the lowly heart of the worshipper – when the church becomes nothing and the clergyman nothing, for all places are sacred and all persons; when he sees that virtue goes out from him and hallows the ground whereon he stands – then instantly the humble church is made alive…it is a point of civilization, of culture, of poetry, of knowledge by which the whole community is educated.”
My favorite time comes at Follen Church when I introduce the group to Emerson, using his famous address to the Harvard Divinity School class of 1838. I locate the essence of that sermon in this passage: “Religion is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking it is not instruction, but provocation that I can receive from another soul l What he announces I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. On the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation.”
“This sentiment lies at the foundation of society, and successively creates all forms of worship. This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men (sic) in the devout and contemplative East,” he said, referring to his appreciation of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Follen Church is on Mass Ave., Paul Revere’s famous route, which we then take to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord where we visit the graves of Thoreau and Emerson, with each participant reading a quote from one of them. We drive past Emerson’s house on the way to Thoreau’s famous cabin at Walden Pond. Standing in the replica of the cabin he built and lived in alone for 2 years I read from his famous book, Walden: “I went to the woods because I wish 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.”Our pilgrimage is then complete.