SERMON: Pray Without Ceasing, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is the duty of men to judge men only by their actions.  Our faculties furnish us with no means of arriving at the motive, the character, the secret self.  We call the tree good from its fruits, and the man, from his works.  Since we have no power, we have no right, to assign for the actions of our neighbor any other than those motives which ought in similar circumstances to guide our own.  But because we are not able to discern the processes of thought, to see the soul – it were very ridiculous to doubt or deny that any beings can.  It is not incredible, that, the thoughts of the mind are the subjects of perception to some beings, as properly, as the sounds of the voice, or the motions of the hand are to us.  Indeed, every man’s feeling may be appealed to on this question, whether the idea, that other beings can read his thoughts, has not appeared so natural and probable, that he has checked sometimes a train of thoughts that seemed too daring or indecent, for any unknown beholders to be trusted with.

It ought to be distinctly felt by us that we stand in the midst of two worlds, the world of matter and the world of spirit.  Our bodies belong to one; our thoughts to the other.  It has been one of the best uses of the Christian religion to teach that the world of spirits is more certain and stable than the material universe.  Every thoughtful man has felt that there was a more awful reality to thought and feeling, than to the infinite panorama of nature around him.  The world he has found indeed consistent and uniform enough throughout the mixed sensations of thirty or forty years, but it seems to him at times, when the intellect is invigorated, to ebb from him, like a sea, and to leave nothing permanent but thought.  Nevertheless it is a truth not easily nor early acquired, and the prejudice that assigns greater fixture and certainty to the material world is a source of great practical error.  I need hardly remind you of the great points of this error.  I need not ask you if the objects that every day are the cause of the greatest number of steps taken, or the greatest industry of the hands and the feet, the heart and the head, are the perishable things of sense, or the imperishable things of the soul; whether all this stir from day to day, from hour to hour of all this mighty multitude, is to ascertain some question dear to the understanding concerning the nature of God, the true constitution and destination of the human soul, the proper balance of the faculties and the proper office of each; or (what of immortal thought comes nearer to practical value) whether all men are eagerly intent to study the best systems of education for themselves and their children?  Is it not rather the great wonder of all who think enough to wonder that almost all that sits near the heart, all that colors the countenance, and engrosses conversation at the family board are these humble things of mortal date, and in the history of the universe absolutely insignificant?  Is it not outside shows, the pleasures of appetite, or at best of pride; is it not bread and wine and dress, and our houses, and our furniture, that give the law to the great mass of actions and words?  This is the great error which the strong feeling of the reality of things unseen must correct.  It is time greater force should be given to the statement of this doctrine; it is time men should be instructed that their inward is more valuable than their outward estate; that thoughts and passions, even those to which no language is ever given, are not fugitive undefined shadows, born in a moment, and in a moment blotted from the soul, but are so many parts of the imperishable universe of morals; they should be taught that they do not think alone; that when they retreat from the public eye, and hide themselves to conceal in solitude guilty recollections or guilty wishes, the great congregation of moral natures, the spirits of just men made perfect; angels and archangels; the Son of God, and the Father everlasting, open their eyes upon them and speculate on these clandestine meditations.

I. The necessary inference from these reflections, is the fact which gives them all their importance, and is the doctrine I am chiefly anxious to inculcate.  It is not only when we audibly and in form, address our petitions to the Deity that we pray.  We pray without ceasing.  Every secret wish is a prayer.  Every house is a church; the corner of every street is a closet of devotion.  There is no rhetoric, let none deceive himself; there is no rhetoric in this.  There is delusion of the most miserable kind, in that fiction on which the understanding pleads to itself its own excuse, when it knows not God and is thoughtless of him.  I mean that outward respect that is paid to the name and worship of God, whilst the thoughts and the actions are enlisted in the service of sin.  “I will not swear by God’s name,” says the wary delinquent; “I will not ask him to lend his aid to my fraud, to my lewdness, to my revenge; nor will I even give discountenance to the laws I do not myself observe.  I will not unmask my villainy to the world, that I should stand in the way of others, more scrupulous, nay, better than I.”

And it is by this paltry counterfeit of ignorance that you would disguise from yourselves the truth?  And will you really endeavor to persuade yourself that God is such a one as you yourself, and will be amused by professions, and may, by fraudulent language, be kept out of the truth?  Is it possible, that men of discretion in common affairs can think so grossly?  Do you not know that the knowledge of God is perfect and immense; that it breaks down the fences of presumption and the arts of hypocrisy; that night, and artifice, and time, and the grave, are naked before it; that the deep gives up its dead, that the guts of Chaos are disemboweled before him; that the minds of men are not so much independent existences, as they are ideas present to the mind of God; that he is not so much the observer of your actions as he is the potent principle by which they are bound together; not so much the reader of your thoughts as the active Creator by whom they are aided into being; and casting away the deceptive subterfuges of language, and speaking with strict philosophical truth, that every faculty is but a mode of his action; that your reason is God, your virtue is God, and nothing but your liberty, can you call securely and absolutely your own?

Since, then, we are thus, by the inevitable law of our being, surrendered unreservedly to the unsleeping observation of the Divinity, we cannot shut our eyes to the conclusion, that, every desire of the human mind, is a prayer uttered to God and registered in Heaven.

5 Comments on SERMON: Pray Without Ceasing, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

  1. Ralph Linhardt // May 31, 2016 at 3:07 am // Reply

    Hey! where is the rest of the sermon ! You cut off the ending! It get’s even better!


    • Apparently, Ralph, there are different versions of the sermon published. After you wrote me, I was concerned, but found that I had typed up all of the version of the sermon that I had. When I looked into the matter, I found a number of different versions.

      I am sorry that the editor of the book I found it in chose to shorten it. Or perhaps Emerson published it in different ways himself.

      Thank you for the heads-up.


  2. May I have permission to copy this sermon for a book I am writing on Sermons. Will give credit as you direct me. The book is published by Xlibris.
    -Geoff Proud


  3. Awaiting reply ” May I have permission to copy this sermon for a book I am writing on Sermons. Will give credit as you direct me. The book is published by Xlibris.”
    -Geoff Proud


    • Dear, that sermon was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson who died in 1882. There’s no copyright on it, and I don’t need any credit. I imagine it can be found on the internet in various places. I am honored that you found it here. I apologize for taking so long to answer you.


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