Thoreau’s Pathway in the Mind

“Conscience,” writes Karl Barth, “is the perfect interpreter of life”—which gets right to the point, but only when you consider what conscience ought to be, rather than what it too often seems to be: namely, as H. L. Mencken’s thorny definition has it, the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking. But if what I call my conscience is that within me which aims beyond the anticipation of the opinions of others, beyond every single opinion even of my own as to what good is or what good might be, but aims only at that which in my heart of hearts I truly love and that which I truly love to do, then I have at last what I would call true conscience and have accordingly “the perfect interpreter of life”. Otherwise would not conscience in the end be simply—inner voice though it is— the last authority I must bow myself down to, having refused this same obeisance to so many outer authorities? Do what you love,” writes Henry David Thoreau, whose anniversary of death, May 3rd, is today, whose ethical individualism is so often asserted in unexpected–sometimes even shocking–figures. “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”

“Now here is a sure road to perdition if there ever was one,” warns that inner voice, “let it be ever so much paved with the very best of intentions. What? No acknowledgment of any authority whatsoever? Not even the authority of God?” Well, no, not even the authority of God, for was it not essentially this very authority that Philip was asking for when, on the night of the Last Supper, he said to the Redeemer, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied”?

Satisfied, maybe, but in no way illuminated and free, and therefore not satisfied for long, hence the Redeemer straightaway asking him:

Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 14:9-14)

This seeing of the Father in the Redeemer, this asking the Redeemer for anything in his name, is surely the short way to a long tale of wonders belonging to the eternal freedom of any free spirit. For what does it mean to be a free spirit, if not actually to be the conscience one lives? “I am, I let be” is already an ideal to meditate on, yet the love that I would bear, going out as word into the world to become deed, is a still greater I.   “Ignorance and bungling with love are better than wisdom and skill without,” writes Henry David Thoreau, unlikely transcendentalist voice of the Church of John in nineteenth century  antebellum America. (Yes, I know — Thoreau supposedly rejected Christianity –but really all he did was to reject a perversion of it. For the eye that sees and for the ear that hears, Thoreau, along of course with Ralph Waldo Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller and yet others, were busy helping to clear the way for the Sophianic Christianity still to come.) With the workaday self so pathetically distant from the good that never fails, how can we believe one lifetime would for any soul be enough for the wisdom of love to accomplish its alchemic transmutations? Love knows no shortcuts in the school of joy and suffering. “I have seen how the foundations of the world are laid,” Thoreau assures us, “and I have not the least doubt that it will stand a good while.” A good while indeed, especially since Wisdom delights in humanity, and She is patient, and patience, we can rest assured, is the better part of Wisdom. After all, as Bride of the Lamb, Wisdom’s cosmic aim can be nothing less than universal love of every single being for one another. Without endless patience, what shred of hope for that?

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (14:15-17)

And what are his commandments? “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’” (Matt. 22:37b-40). Yet it is the nature of love that love can never be commanded, and the Pharisee that asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law” to test Christ was really only testing himself. Love is the law of the soul, i.e., love is what really the soul is made of. Without love the soul simply withers and is blown into a dusty corner. Not whether we shall love, but what shall be our first love, is the question of questions. “In the long run,” cautions Thoreau, “men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high.” And what could be higher than God? And if God be not found in my neighbor, there will certainly be no finding of God any higher.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (14:18-21)

There is no duty here to carry out; there are no commandments here to obey. There are only commandments to have and to keep, commandments which are constituent of my deepest being, commandments which are in effect my own which I give to myself. “It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate,” writes Thoreau, the truth of this observation running so deep we can miss it every single day of our life in the narrow cause of every day exingencies. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,”  Thoreau further observes and thereby lays bare the first principle of the soul’s salvation: blessed indeed are the poor in spirit, and anathema—as Thoreau might have it—upon all enterprises requiring new clothes, rather than a new wearer of clothes.

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (14:22-24)

The word I hear, the word of the Father, is the creative word of that self I myself fell away from before time was divided into past and future, before such a threadbare reality as the fleeting moment appeared. But, as Thoreau says, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” And it would be well to remember, as he cautions us, that “alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices.” For we are not meant, as he famously says, to lead lives of quiet desperation, we are not meant to go to the grave with the song still in us. Listen then, and be still, distracted Soul. “Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” Besides, we should venture far beyond merely staking our claims on how we would be done by, otherwise we will be giving sorry excuse for a life we supposedly lived. Why then would I not have Him live in me, as He from time immemorial all along has had me preciously living in Him? “Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” answers Henry David Thoreau, prophet of the morning’s golden light to the sons and daughters of light.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants [Greek, slaves] any longer, because the servant [slave] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:12-17)

If the language of friendship is not words but meanings, as Thoreau proposes, I must take in all the meanings and look to the clear goal of those meanings. “Pursue some path,” as Thoreau says, “however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.”  So be it.  Amen. Accordingly, as the One who is The Way, the Truth and the Life has called me friend, how can there be any other light for me but friendship itself to lighten the path? May every commandment I obey (so help me God!) be a commandment  I make to myself.  How else to live in freedom but to obey myself? As Thoreau says, “The most I can do for my friend is simply to be his friend. I have no wealth to bestow on him. If he knows that I am happy in loving him, he will want no other reward. Is not friendship divine in this?”

Divine because the true friendship that Thoreau points to is a path taken in freedom to an ever deeper freedom.  Thoreau, Yankee saint of Nature’s own moral possibilities, whose future feast is today by the Divine Mother’s own moon-reckoning, gives the how and why of the walking:  “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

To think over and over again the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives: this is assuredly the path of freedom, just as this is the selfsame path to conscience as the perfect interpreter of life, so that I can say,  “Not I, but Conscience–the Spirit of Love whose word in freedom I keep–in me.” So that I can say also, as the Son of Man returns with the clouds to open a gentle path to the lost Walden in all human hearts, “Our Mother, Thou who art in the darkness of the underworld, may the holiness of the Thy name shine anew in our remembering. . . .”

Pax et bonum,
Randall Scott

Note: This post was meant to be sent May 3, but due to computer problems it was actually sent May 27.

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