The Existential Crisis, Margaret Fuller’s Path, & Our Own
James Ishmael Ford
14 October 2012
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face.
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
Ranier Maria Rilke (trs by Stephen Mitchell)
Once upon a time in ancient India a young man named Krishna decided the great quest for meaning was the most important thing for him, and so he determined to renounce the world and become a wandering mendicant. As was expected Krishna went to his father for his blessing. He bowed to the old man and told him of his determination. His father laughed, something that threw the younger man a bit off. Anxious he asked, “Father, does this mean you don’t give me your blessing?”
The old man laughed again, saying, “No, no my child. You have my blessing. And with that blessing a little advice. Whatever else you do, do not get a cat.”
Krishna found this utterly confusing and asked his father, “Why?”
His father then told him how as a young man he too had determined to throw his lot in for the great quest of meaning and truth, to know God intimately. He received his father’s blessing, exchanged his clothing for rags and departed into the jungle. In the depths he wove a small hut out of reeds and dedicated himself to meditation. One day a cat wandered into his hut and wouldn’t leave. He decided he needed to feed the cat so he caught a wandering cow for milk. He then realized he had too much milk just for the cat and himself, so he started taking the excess milk into the nearby village and selling it. There he met a young woman who needed a job and so he hired her as a milkmaid. Before he knew it, they’d fallen in love. And, well, the rest of the story is probably obvious.
So, again, he told his son, “Krishna, you have my blessings. Just don’t get a cat.”
I first read a version of this story in my late adolescence. It perfectly fit my understanding of the spiritual life. You had to cut yourself off from the world if you wanted to find the great jewel.
Well, time has passed. And I’ve come to realize the great matter of our finding meaning and purpose is a lot more complicated than that story would have us believe. Or, rather, what we need to separate ourselves from is not a cat. The way is not about giving up human love for something without shape or body. Rather it is learning how to be within this body in this life that is a fleeting thing. Learning that we begin the path of wisdom and love.
For me a really good example of this would be Margaret Fuller. Today I’d like to talk a little about this remarkable woman and an aspect of her life not really explored very much, and then consider briefly what her life could mean for us here in this old Meeting House, spiritual descendants of hers, in some ways living lives so different, in others not quite as much as one might at first think.
If you’re not familiar, Margaret Fuller was an author, editor, journalist and literary critic, an educator, a first-wave feminist, and, critically for us one of the leading lights of the Transcendentalist movement. Her accomplishments included a litany of firsts, Fuller was the first woman, who while not allowed to pursue a degree, was allowed to research in Harvard’s library. And she put that access to good use, her magisterial Woman in the Nineteenth Century is generally regarded as the first book to call for full equality for women. She was also the first editor of the seminal Transcendentalist journal, the Dial, as well as the first woman hired as a reporter by Horace Greeley for the New York Daily Tribune. Later she was the first woman to serve as a foreign correspondent and as a war correspondent.
Margaret was born in Cambridgeport, now a neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts on the 23rd of May, 1810, the first child of Margaret Crane and Timothy Fuller, an attorney, state senator and later United States senator. For reasons we know longer know, he decided to give her the same education as a boy heading to Harvard and success in the world in which they lived. Her home studies ranged from Greek and Latin and a range of modern languages, to grammar, history, math, and music. She was more than bright. By the time she was six, she was translating Virgil, by ten she was reading widely in French.
The family was, of course, Unitarian. By the age of fifteen the precocious child had made friends with Lydia Maria Child, James Freeman Clarke, Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley and William Ellery Channing. Critically, in 1836 when she was twenty-six Fuller met Ralph Waldo Emerson. They would become passionate friends for the rest of her life, sharing and debating their writings and ideas. And back to another first. She was the first woman admitted to the Transcendentalist Club.
As an adult her financial life was precarious, the life of a single woman in those days was always at the edge. She briefly taught at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School and for a while taught here in Providence. She led “conversations” at Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s bookstore. And picked up writing and editing jobs as she could. For a time she and her widowed mother were virtually homeless. Life was not easy for anyone, for a single woman harder.
A major turning for her was when Horace Greeley hired her as a reporter with a salary equal to what men received. In 1845 Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published and from that point she was a dominant intellectual figure, no longer simply among the Unitarian and Transcendentalists, but throughout the country.She departed for Europe as a working journalist, where she met the likes of George Sand, Harriet Martineau, Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth. Perhaps as naturally as breathing she also was drawn into the Italian revolution, reporting sometimes from the front. This is also where she met one of the revolutionaries, the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. At twenty-six he was a decade her junior. They were fascinated with each other, and before long became lovers. When she discovered she was pregnant they married. Or, at least, many scholars think they did. Their son Angelo was born in September 1848. All during this time she continued her writing. When the revolution collapsed the family decided to return to America.
The ship broke up in a storm within eyesight of Fire Island. She drowned together with her husband and son. Only their baby’s body was ever recovered. A few years ago Jan and I walked the grounds of Mt Auburn cemetery and stood for a while where friends erected a monument for her over an empty grave.
Certainly hers is one of those lives that cause me, and many others to wonder what if, what if she lived another thirty or forty years, continuing to deepen and to write from that depth. But, just as things are, there are aspects of her life that continue to be pointers for us, you and me, those of us who have found ourselves as religious liberals, perhaps a bit cerebral, perhaps pre-occupied with the social and political questions of the day.
Back to that cat. And back to the spiritual quest. In this Margaret Fuller can be very important. In October 1838, when she was twenty-one, Margaret wrote a letter to a friend describing something that had happened to her on a walk outside of town. As Song Mi Kyeong summarizes in an MTS thesis, for Fuller, it was “The heavenliest day of communion [in which I was], free to be alone [in] the meditative woods [when] all the films seemed to drop from my existence.’ (So much in those words. And it continues.) That evening, when she was standing by herself outside a church and looking up at the crescent moon beyond the pointed spire, ‘a vision came upon my soul.’” And she dedicated her life from that moment, declaring, “‘May my life be a church, full of devout thoughts.’” Again, words pregnant with possibilities. What we do know is that for the rest of her life she would refer to these moments on that day as her “conversion experience.”
This was someone fully engaged in life, not someone who could be simply dismissed as a navel gazer. But, what drove her, what called her out into the world was something deeply personal, a sense of intimacy with all that is. And, I suggest, this is our calling, as well.
From her earliest years she was reflective, subject to melancholy, and aware of how difficult life can be. Things boiled in her life, and by that time in 1838, when she was twenty-eight years old she was caught up in a full on existential crisis. According to Wikipedia “An existential crisis is a stage of development at which an individual questions the very foundations of his or her life: whether his or her life has any meaning, purpose or value.” Perhaps you’re familiar with that experience. I suggest whether a full-blown obsession or just a nagging thought, this thought, this sense, is the gateway into a life of wisdom.
The resolution came for her during a walk in the woods, in those “meditative woods.” I’ve noticed how for many of us the moment of realization is found within nature. Although, I’ve also heard of how it is found washing dishes, changing diapers, or, standing on a picket line. And then there’s that image she used of film. That image of film dropping from one’s eyes is a near universal expression of the awakening of our hearts into the larger world, where the constraints of our lives, those many barriers that we erect to protect us from the world, and which in fact cut us off from our home, simply fall away. This is all about the natural. It is all about noticing.
It is a grace, a miracle, but a particular kind of miracle, an ordinary miracle. And those who track these shifts in perspective, these epiphanies of our lives, these things usually cascade, continue for a while, culminating for Margaret that evening, when she looked up at the evening sky, recalling for me that image from two and a half millennia before, when Gautama Siddhartha looked up at the morning sky, for Margaret it was to see a crescent moon framed by a church spire. Just that. And in that simple viewing, from where all clicks into place, from that moment she saw herself as a church, a sacred place, a moment of the holy.
From that point one of her favorite phrases was “I accept the universe.” Now, famously, when Thomas Carlyle heard this, he is said to have commented, “Gad! She’d better!” I think of both Margaret’s assertion of acceptance, and it is not some light or foolish thing, but rather an expression of her own heart’s discovery, and Thomas’s comment, hinting at the necessity of this finding, because, you know, people don’t. And when they don’t, when they struggle against life, rather than learning how to flow with it, much suffering follows.
Edgar Allen Poe once declared there were three kinds of human beings, men, women and Margaret Fuller. I think she is indeed a wonderful exemplar for us. In the face of much struggle, social, financial, health, she was confident, confident some have suggested to the point of arrogance.
I see it somewhat differently. Margaret Fuller wasn’t special because she was of some separate category, rather, because she saw into her own heart, she looked out at the world, and she proclaimed a universal insight, of connection, of intimacy, of human possibility.
So, she was a bit of a scandal.
She welcomed the cat into her hut, she followed the human way, and in doing so fully, in accepting the universe fully, she was able to act with a bit more grace than most of us, she was able to see what was important and what was less so, and then, she acted.
And in doing this, may I suggest she pointed out a way for us, in broad strokes, of course. We each of us must make our own way, like Margaret Fuller did.
We each of us have different struggles, but if we can come to see how our lives just as they are, are sufficient to the task, then things slip into place, then the film over our eyes slips away, and a new world is revealed.
After that, who knows? Margaret died too young. Having that sense of harmony with the world does not excuse us from the great mess. It does not excuse us from feeding the cat. It does not excuse us from death.
But, we do this, and it makes life, a church, or as I often feel it, a sacred dance.
A lovely thing.
A life worth living.