A pilgrimage to Walden Pond

“What are we looking for?” is one of the biggest questions along our religious journeys. There are many place to find answers: in conversation with each other; during Sunday worship; when we engage in lifelong religious education. One traditional way of seeking is through pilgrimage.

In a few weeks I will be leading some of our youth on a pilgrimage to the Boston area, the birthplace and center of Unitarian Universalism. All excursions will be related to affirming our Unitarian Universalist identities. One day will be spent visiting 25 Beacon (“UUHQ”) and the historic churches around Boston Commons. On other days we will visit Cambridge (and the site where Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address was delivered) and Concord (from where the transcendentalist movement was sprung).

One feature of a pilgrimage is being surprised by the unexpected. I will never forget my arrival at Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Instead of being greeted by the Wonder of Nature at the holiest of Transcendentalist ground, I was greeted by hundreds of BBQ’ers and swimmers running around Walden Beach. A Walden Pond police boat (labeled as such on its stern) floated nearby, keeping the masses under control. To even get to Henry David Thoreau’s cabin site you have to walk through a couple hundred yards of screaming masses. Along the way you can visit the Walden Pond Gift Shop.

That was certainly unexpected, and my walk around the pond and through the woods was filled with real agitation over the contrast between expectation and reality.

Then, another surprise. Just as I had written the day off as a disappointment, we came upon Thoreau’s cabin site. An archeology team had marked the corners of the cabin and placement of the woodshed, but the real epiphany lay nearby in a large rockpile where countless stones (thousands?.. tens of thousands?… ) had been left by previous pilgrims. It is a tradition, we learned, to bring a stone to Walden Pond when you visit, and many people write messages on them to honor a loved one or to express a hope or dream.  How many decades had people been bringing these stones?  What contrasts my pilgrimage held.

My hope for the youth we take to Boston next month will be that they have their unexpected moments of grace and awakening. Small or large, life affirming or life changing, it will be what it is supposed to be. That is the nature of a pilgrimage, so help me wish our young pilgrims Godspeed on theirs.

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