When I first read those words by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on Self-Reliance, I was a junior in West Morris Central High School and — coming of age in upper-middle class New Jersey — had never met a poor person and didn’t really know anything about poverty. What I did know a lot about was being an awkward teenager who cared way too much about what others thought of him and spending a lot of time by myself. So when I read further in Emerson’s essay on the importance of being an individual, a chord was struck. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius.” From that moment on, more and more of my “psychic eggs” were placed into the basket labeled “individuality.”
Don’t ask me what a psychic egg is…I’m just trying to make a point.
I carried a book of Emerson’s essays when I went off to college in Baltimore. That same book followed me to Arizona after college, then to El Paso, then back to Baltimore, and eventually to Washington DC when I started seminary. In the beginning, the book would regularly find itself of my nightstand, having a couple of its pages flipped through before going to sleep.
But as the years went by, I slowly began to see the limits of a philosophy governed so strongly by the importance of the individual, the value in sometimes “going along to get along,” and that sometimes it can be more important to trade in a personal value if it makes the life of the whole a little better. I also encountered people over those years who could be classified as poor…and while I don’t know if I would use the words “my poor,” I would say that I gained a deeper appreciation for the fact that we are all the same people, and as such, I find it a little harder to be dismissive of the needs of others.
Still, when I first encountered the Paulist Fathers when I was discerning life in the priesthood, one of the main attractions was the fact that the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, was once an acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was especially appealing to me that the Emersonian value of individuality rubbed off on Hecker when he founded the Paulists, making it the first men’s religious order founded in America. And when I first entered the community, it provided no small comfort to know that I would not have to leave one of my heroes at the door if I was to become an even more official representative of the Catholic Church.
This summer, I have been working on a documentary on Isaac Hecker and his time with Emerson and other major figures of American life. Consequently, I have had to open up the pages of that book that sat on my nightstand at one point in my life but had remained buried at the bottom of a box for a long time since. Reading Emerson again has made me aware of how much I have moved on from him, especially as I realize that it will often not be appropriate for me as a priest to say what I myself am thinking when I will be asked to discuss a complicated aspect of church teaching. Still, a small part of me wonders at those moments if I am betraying a piece of myself or if I am advancing God’s kingdom. Emerson himself was notoriously anti-Catholic so he is not much help to me in those situations.
Twenty years after graduating high school, Emerson has now been joined by many other people in my psyche. People who remind me of the importance of community. People who have given me insights into the life of Jesus. And people who remind me of the importance of remembering that I belong to those who are less fortunate than I just as much as I belong to those of an equal status, whatever that might be. We all belong to each other.
But when I find myself questioning a particular position of the Church, I am comforted when I see “the prophet of the American Religion” in the corner of my soul, nodding approvingly. And when I read in The New York Times that certain bishops in Ireland continue to cover up sexual abuse by some priests, I ask Emerson to stand a little closer to me lest I forget that loyalty to an institution does not obviate criticism, it often requires it. Except at this stage of my life, the voice that Emerson provides to me is less of a soloist but part of a larger chorus of voices that sometimes contradict each other but more fully represent the tapestry of my life experiences. But with all of the challenges facing the church today, I hope that I do not allow Emerson to wander too far away in the coming years.