A peculiar event marks the life of one of America’s greatest philosophers and writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was married only a year and a half when his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis. Thirteen months later, we have a cryptic entry in his journal: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.”
He never tells us what he learned by this, and throughout the journals that he devotedly kept through his life, the incident is not mentioned again. But Emerson did carry one lesson with him that may have been influenced by peering into his wife’s grave. He wrote, “The first and last lesson of religion: the things that are seen are temporal; the things that are unseen are eternal.”
This was the preeminent teaching of Israel to a pagan and materialistic world: You may worship the products of human hands, or the visible forces of nature; you may mummify the dead, as if they live only when you can see them. But behind the tangible lies something infinitely greater. The revolutionary declaration of an ancient people became the accepted wisdom of the world.