This passage moved me today, as I contemplated those experiences in our lives that result in a shift of faith. From Aaron Sach’s The Humboldt Current, speaking of Emerson’s loss of religious faith:
For much of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson kept a print of Mt. Vesuvius hanging in the front entryway of his house. He had actually climbed the great volcano once and made a point of noting the sensation of warmth in his soles and the experience of peering down at the caldera, “the hollow of salt and sulphur smoking furiously beneath us.”…Perhaps it was meant to inspire him to live with more fire and intensity, to embrace the present–to imagine that at any instant, like the villagers of Pompeii and Herculaneum, he too might be swallowed by ash and frozen in place.
Emerson started living for the moment when he started losing his faith. He started losing his faith when his wife started to die, in the fall of 1830, when he was twenty-seven. Before Ellen, the church had been his world; now his buttresses were fracturing. Deprived of his imagined future, he tried to savor every present moment with her. When she slept, he read, to distract himself…Facing utter aloneness, he turned not to God but to the physical world. Through much of Western society, science was beginning to challenge religion, and, from now on, immersion in nature would anchor Emerson’s philosophy.
Within two months, Ellen was dead. Emerson felt a void that could not be healed by any eventual salvation. He couldn’t live in the future tense. Within two years, he had left his pulpit. A couple of years after that, he would start writing his first book: Nature.
During the months between Ellen’s death and his decision to abandon the church, Emerson reached a watershed in his intellectual an spiritual explorations. In March 1832, on one of his daily visits to Ellen’s tomb, he suddenly ripped the lid off her coffin and stared at her remains. Then, pondering ashes and dust, he urged his congregation, in consecutive sermons, to focus on the “virtues,” even the “pleasures,” that were near at hand…He exclaimed: “Is it not better to intimate our astonishment as we pass through this world if it be only for a moment ere we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss? I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos.”
Pic above is mine of Emerson’s gravesite (flanked by his second wife Lidian and their daughter Ellen) at Sleepy Hollow cemetery