by C. H. MacLachlan

IN THE SUMMER of 1837, after his graduation from Harvard, Henry D. Thoreau, like many another bright young college graduate, was thinking about what he should do for a living. There were no corporation recruiters in those days, and no seductive baits offered by business and the professions. Thoreau would certainly have rejected them in any case, for he had already decided that he was going to live his life in his own way. But how? “How,” he asked himself, “shall I get my living and still have time to live?”

His answer to this question must have seemed daring and unique at that time and would seem even more so to this prudent generation. For he had decided upon a reversal of tradition. “The seventh day,” he said, “should be man’s day of toil, and the other six his Sabbath of the affections of the soul.” This was only seeming exaggeration. During the greater part of his life, he managed to live on only six weeks of gainful work a year. In New England such a thing was heresy. What good was a college education if one intended to do odd jobs for a living and spend most of his life in the woods? His fellow townsmen of Concord were nearly unani­ mous in their feeling about Henry Thoreau: he was lazy.

Henry was either too proud, too independent, or too much of a realist to offer any explanation. He revealed his aims mainly in his life and, when they were eventually published, in his books. “What I am, I am and say not. Being is the great explainer,” he wrote. And in a letter to a friend, he offered this bit more along the same line: “If you want to convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see.”

Emerson, his neighbor and good friend, understood. It was his touch that awakened Thoreau’s genius, and the friendship begun in Thoreau’s youth ended only with his death. Thoreau felt no shame in not studying for a profession, and Emerson approved. “My brave Henry,” he commented in his journal, “does not postpone his life, but lives already.”

For Henry, the ideal was all important and therefore not severe. He was a nonconformist by nature. He stern­ ly disapproved of all frailty, especially his own. He was determined to live in as complete accord with his ideal as he could, and this was the central urge of his whole life. The intuitive awareness of an underlying reality often found in poets and men of genius was always strong in him. “Our whole life is startlingly moral,” he wrote in Walden. “There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails. Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”

EMERSON greatly loved and admired his young friend and neighbor. “He was,” he said, “a person of rare, tender, and absolute religion, a person incapable of any profanation, by act or thought.” And in his funeral oration he submitted this explanation to the man who refused to explain himself: 

I must add the cardinal fact that there was an excellent wisdom in him, proper to a rare class of men, which showed him the material world as a symbol. This discovery, which sometimes yields to poets a certain casual and interrupted light, serving for the ornament of their writing, was in him an unsleeping insight; and whatever faults or obstructions of temperament might cloud it, he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. In his youth he said one day: “The other world is all my art: my pencils will draw no other; my jack-knife will cut nothing else; I do not use it as a means.”

At what point in his life Thoreau became aware of “the material world as a symbol” is not precisely known. It has been suggested by more than one writer that he experienced some kind of spiritual rebirth, and that it took place soon after he joined the Emerson circle in 1841. As usual, Thoreau has given us no clue. Henry Seidel Canby, his biographer, indicates that Emerson discerned in Thoreau a genius that was not awake until he touched it, “that he felt an instant response of like-mindedness, and in his Olympian way overlooked the differences; that his magnanimity set about to create a poet and found unexpectedly an interpreter as Transcendental as himself and far more sensitive to the realities of the American fields and woods, which were the visible’ face of that nature which he worshipped in spiritual form.”

Two verses from Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which date from this time, reflect some extraordinary experiences. They are animated by the thought which Emerson says “makes all his poetry a hymn to the Cause of causes, the Spirit which vivifies and controls his own.”

I hearing get, who had but ears, and sight, who had but eyes before;

I moments live, who lived but years,

And truth discern who knew but learning’s lore. And again, in these lines:

Now chiefly is my natal hour. And only now my prime of life; I will not doubt the love untold,

Which not my worth or want has brought, Which wooed me young, and wooes me old, And to this evening hath me brought.

WHATEVER happened, Thoreau seems always to have been single-minded about purity. There was no apparent deviation throughout his life, no change off course; only an intensified experience. Emerson remarked while Henry was still young: “I can see, with his practical faculty, he has declined all the kingdoms of this world. Satan has no bribe for him.”

It was at this time that Henry discovered The Laws of Manu in Emerson’s well-stocked library. He reported the find in his journal with the excitement of one who has unexpectedly encountered a seminal mind:

I cannot read a sentence in the book of the Hindoos without being elevated upon the table­ land of the Ghauts … The page nods toward the fact and is silent … The impression which those sublime sentences made on me last night has awakened me before any cockcrowing … The simple life herein described confers on us a degree of freedom even in perusal …  Wants so easily and gracefully satisfied that they seem like a more refined repleteness.

When Thoreau read the Bhagavad-Gita some four years later, the effect was even more significant. He read it in the first English edition, the Charles Wilkins translation of I 785, with a preface by Warren Hastings. He quotes without comment in his Journal the paragraph about action versus inaction. Arjuna is irresolute about engaging in a battle in which he must meet and slay his kinsmen and best friends. Is not understanding better than action, he asks, which here leads to slaughter? Krishna resolves these doubts, and Thoreau made careful note of the answer:

A man’s calling, with all its faults, ought not to be forsaken … wherefore, 0 Arjoon, resolve to  fight … Children only, and not the learned, speak of the speculative and the practical doctrines as two. They are but one. For both obtain the self-same end, and the place which is gained by the followers of the other … No one ever resteth a moment inactive. Every man is involuntarily urged to act by those principles which are inherent in his nature … So, the man is praised who, having subdued all his passions,    performeth  with   his active faculties all the functions of life, unconcerned about the event . . . He who may behold as it were inaction in action, and action in inaction, is wise amongst mankind. He is the perfect performer of all duty.

Action and inaction, says Krishna, obtain the selfsame goal, since God is both and the issue is always in Him. A man must seek out “those principles which are inherent in his nature,” and act accordingly. And this was the principal idea which Thoreau took from the Gita, that “the wise man … seeketh that which is homogeneous to his own nature.” This struck a responsive chord in Thoreau, for years before he had expressed the same thought in different words in his journal, where he wrote: “We are constantly invited to be what we are.”

THOREAU accepted the great religions, often with some expression of scorn for the narrow-minded. “I have no sympathy with the bigotry and ignorance which make transient and partial and puerile distinctions between one man’s faith or form of faith and another’s- as Christian and heathen,” he wrote in his journal. “I pray to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration, bigotry. I like Brahma, Harl, the Great Spirit as well as God.”

Thoreau had read extensively in the Vedas and he had been profoundly influenced by what he had read. He believed in the practice of religion and not in religious attitudes. He excluded no religion and had even urged publishing together the collected scriptures of mankind: Hindu, Persian, Hebrew and many others. Many thought him arrogant, but he had depths of humility unsuspected by all but his close friends. He held the ordinary values of society in contempt.

Thoreau’s interest in the Gita is reflected in the space he devoted to it in the Week, where among other comments he made this one:

What after all does the practicalness of life amount to? The things immediate to be done are trivial. I could postpone them all to hear this locust sing. The most glorious fact of my experience is not anything I have done or may hope to do, but a transient thought, or vision, or dream, which I have had. I would give all the wealth of the world, and all the deeds of the heroes, for one true vision. But how can I communicate with the gods, who am a pencil­ maker on the earth, and not be insane?

It would be interesting to know precisely when Thoreau read the Gita. His biographer says he probably read it in June 1845, after he had made his decision to go to Walden Pond. But this is only a guess, based on the probability that he had discovered the Gita through Emerson, who had just read it for the first time and was discussing it with enthusiasm in his correspondence. But it is challenging to speculate on the possibility that Thoreau had not decided to go to Walden prior to reading the Gita. There are no journal entries between April 1842 and July 5, 1845, the day after he went to live at the pond. Thoreau seldom acknowledged his indebted­ ness to persons or institutions, and he well understood the value of an epochal book.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!” he exclaims in Walden. What if the book behind Walden was that book of which Thoreau wrote in Walden: 

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison, with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.

It may well have been the Gita that sent Thoreau on the great adventure in simple living and high thinking, and one of the notable gestures of the human spirit.

Two days after he went to live at the pond, Thoreau gave his own reasons for the move: “I wish to meet the facts of life- the vital facts, which are the phenomena or actuality the gods meant to show us, face to face, and so I came down here. Life! who knows what it is, what it does? If I am not quite right here, I am less wrong than before and now let us see what they will have … Even time has a depth, and below its surface the waves do not lapse and roar.”

The reason given in Walden when it was published nine years later differed only in its phrasing: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

For Thoreau, living was the greatest art of all, the art for which he labored so hard on nature and his own thinking and for which he so eloquently opposed dishonesty, injustice, bigotry, and every device by which the spirit of man is enslaved. It was the art for which he cultivated so many arts, and in Walden he reveals how incessantly he worked at it. “Do not be among those who have eyes and see not and ears and hear not,” he advised.

Was there folly in demanding too much of life? Not for Henry Thoreau. He was not afraid of exaggerating the value or significance of life, but only that he might not be up to its demands. In a letter to a friend, he revealed his eagerness to live. “I shall be sorry to remember,” he said, “that I was there, but noticed nothing remarkable; not so much as a prince in disguise: lived in the golden age a hired man; visited Olympus even, but fell asleep after dinner and did not hear the conversation of the gods . . . lived in Judea eighteen hundred years ago, but never knew there was such a one as Christ among my contemporaries.”

Lines from the journal of 1841 are a further avowal of his feeling. “My life has been the poem I would have writ, but I could not both live and live to utter it.”

Like all great books, Walden is one that lingers in the mind and in the heart. It is a book for those who love all nature and wildness, and it is also a book for those who want to explore life, who want to live daringly and meaningfully. It is a book for those who have the courage to create for themselves the values they shall live by, and who reject all meanness and conformity. It is a book that is “solidly done,” not “cursed with a style.” It is a book to be read as it was written, in sentences and paragraphs, as a manual of devotion is read.

Thoreau had an original mind. He did not get his ideas at second hand, not even from Emerson. He “filtered” them from himself. Walden is against the values which make “lives of quiet desperation” for the majority of men. Thoreau urged a life of principle dictated by conscience rather than a life of expediency dictated by society. He obeyed laws which he felt were more fundamental than those in force in the State. In Wa/den, he challenged the values of a society which refused to make an adequate return for a man’s labor. And he offered a solution in simplified living and self-reliance, the deliberate reduction of one’s wants to a level that could be easily satisfied, and still leave time to cultivate the garden of the soul.

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” Thoreau declared in Walden, and he noted in another place that “My greatest skill has been to want but little.” But even Thoreau made allowance for exceptions to his rules. “I do not,” he explained, “mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures, who will mind their own affairs whether in heaven or hell, and perchance build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest … “

“I do not speak to those who are well-employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well-employed or not … ” He spoke, he said, “mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining about the hardness of their lot, of the times, when they might improve them.”

He was ashamed of time wasted in reading a novel or a newspaper. But he never felt ashamed of his rambles in the woods and along the streams of Concord, although his neighbors thought him lazy and a wastrel of time. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” he said, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Living was the great art he wished to learn, and he felt that his neighbors who exchanged so much of life for property and respectability were the real wastrels. He was not thinking only of his neighbors in Concord or even in New England when he asked why men gave so poor an account of their time as if they had not been asleep. “The millions,” he wrote, “are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, and only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.” He had never, he said, met a man who was quite awake. “How could I have looked him in the face?”

PONDERING Thoreau’s life after it was over, Emerson so much regretted the loss of his rare powers of action that he said he could not help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition, that “instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckle-berry party.” Few lives, he noted, contained so many renunciations. “Thoreau was trained for no profession. He never married. He never went to church. He never voted. He refused to pay his tax to the State. He never smoked tobacco, and although a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He had no talent for wealth, and he knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance.” Emerson said he had “no temptations to fight against – no appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles.”


Many of Thoreau’s friends and acquaintances found him prickly, often blunt and even harsh.

His frankness could be painful to all he met. In his youth he was not fond of visiting, but could not bring himself to give the conventional reasons for declining invitations, such as that it was not convenient or that he was unable to go. Instead, he spoke the truth: “I do not want to go.”

There were thorny aspects of Thoreau that Emerson did not understand or that at least he found painful and limiting. “I think,” he wrote after Thoreau’s death, “the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.” Emerson found “something in his nature not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise.

“It cost him nothing to say No,” Emerson wrote in a biographical sketch.

Indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes. It seemed as though his first instinct in hearing a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he with the limitations of our daily thought. This habit, of course, is chilling to the social affections; and though the companion would in the end acquit him of malice or untruth, yet it mars conversation. Hence no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless.

Fine manners were an offense to him as was any affectation. “The finest manners in the world are awkwardness and fatuity when contrasted with a finer intelligence,” he wrote.

They appear but as the fashions of past days,     mere     courtliness,            small-clothes              and kneebuckles …                 an attitude merely. The vice of manners is that they are continually deserted by the character; they are cast-off clothes or shells, claiming the respect of the living creature … The man who thrusts his manners upon me does so as if he were to insist on introducing me to his cabinet of curiosities, when I wish to see himself. ‘Manners are conscious; character is unconscious.’

Emerson had noted that the isolation which belonged to Thoreau’s original thinking had detached him from the social religious forms. This, he said, was neither to be censured nor regretted. Aristotle had explained it long before when he said, “One who surpasses his fellow-citizens in virtue is no longer a part of the city. Their law is not for him, since he is a law to himself.”

No college ever offered him a diploma or a professor’s chair, Emerson observed, commenting that perhaps the learned bodies feared the satire of his presence. “Yet so much knowledge of Nature’s secret and genius few others possessed, none in a more large and religious synthesis. For not a particle of respect had he to any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself … “

WAS it strange that the man who had set for himself so high a standard should find himself so constantly disappointed in his relations with his friends? Thoreau’s journal reveals an ambivalence about friendship that has baffled even his admirers. He had a passionate nature that longed for love and friendship, but if the journal is to be believed, he seldom, if ever, found a truly satisfying relationship.

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,” he wrote in Walden. “To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part lonelier when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”

But in the journal, he reveals a longing for friendship that he did not admit in Walden. “How happens it,” he asks, “that I find myself making such an enormous demand on men and so constantly disappointed? Are my friends aware how disappointed I am? Is it all my fault? Am I incapable of expansion and generosity? I shall accuse myself of anything else sooner.”

It was his greatest wretchedness to be loneliest when he was in the company of his closest friends, and Emerson was no exception. He is invited to see them, and “they do not show themselves.” He feels “a thousand miles off.” “I leave my friends early. I go away to cherish my ideas of friendship.” “No fields are so barren to me as the men of whom I expect everything, and get nothing. In their neighborhood I experience a painful yearning for society.”

Friendship for Thoreau was an ideal state, and he demanded much of it. There must be a sacramental quality about a meeting with a friend. “Unless we meet religiously we profane one another.” “Our friend’s is as holy a shrine as any God’s, to be approached with sacred love and awe.” And again: “Some men may be my acquaintances merely, but one whom I have been accustomed to regard, and mix up intimately with myself, can never degenerate into an acquaintance. I must know him on that higher ground or not know him at all.” Friends need not confess and explain, but must be so intimately related as to understand each other without speech.

Sensibilities as fine as Thoreau’s could seldom have found matching sensibilities in others. His noblest and truest thoughts on friends and friendship were communicated to the journal. There is much evidence there that he loved his friends, but with his New England reticence he never told them so. “Praise,” he once wrote, “should be spoken as simply and naturally as a flower emits its fragrance.”

THOREAU attracted admirers to whom he was, as Emerson said, “confessor and prophet.” It was the praise of one of these followers that he disowned in this note of disparagement: “Do not waste your reverence on my attitude. I merely manage to sit where I have dropped. I am sure that my acquaintances mistake me. They ask for my advice on high matters, but they do not know how poorly I am now for hats and shoes. Just as shabby as I am in my outward apparel, aye, and more lamentably shabby, am I in my inward substance. If I should turn myself inside out, my rags and meanness would indeed appear. I am something to Him that made me, undoubtedly, but not to any other that He has made.”

He lived steadfastly by truth. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, and nothing is more certain than the fact that he practiced it throughout his life. When he was a boy he was accused of taking a knife belonging to another boy.

“I did not take it,” Henry said, and he was believed. Later the real culprit was found, and Henry then acknowledged that he had known at the time who had taken the knife. But when asked why he had not said so at the time, his reply was still the same: “I did not take it.” His character seems to have been formed from the beginning and was undeviating throughout his life. In 1851 he noted his resolve “to read no book, take no walk, undertake no enterprise, but such as he could endure to give an account of to himself and to live thus deliberately for the most part.”

He was impressed by virtue rather than by mere professions of virtue. Actions not words. Thoreau found men talking a great deal about doing good, and he said he had tried it fairly and found that it didn’t agree with his constitution. “If I were to preach at all in this strain,” he said, “I should say, rather, set about being good.”

“Do what you ought to do,” he wrote in his journal in 1854. “Why should we ever go abroad, even across the way, to ask a neighbor’s advice? There is a nearer neighbor within us incessantly telling us how we should behave. But we wait for the neighbor without to tell us of some false, easier way.”

He did not believe in the ordinary values of society. One of his most quoted comments from Walden concerned this. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote. And again: “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day … He has no time to be anything but a machine.”

In earlier days when Thoreau was deciding what he should do for a living, he had considered trade, but soon decided against it, because he found that it would take ten years to get under way, and he was afraid by then that he might be doing “what is called a good business.” For he was genuinely shocked to find men spending so much of their lives getting a living and so little in fulfill­ ing the higher purpose for which he believed man was created. He believed that “trade cursed everything it handles.”

That was why in 1854 he prepared another lecture which has come to us as the essay “Life without Principle.” He felt that if he were to sell his forenoons and afternoons to society, as most other men did, there would be nothing left worth living for. A man might be very industrious and yet not spend his time well. “It is remarkable,” he noted, “that there is little or nothing to be remembered on the subject of getting a living not merely honest and honorable but altogether inviting and glorious; for if getting a living is not so, then living is not.”

This essay is not the work of a professional agitator or reformer, but of an upright man, a man who throughout his life was moved solely by principle. “The community,” he said, “has no bribe that will tempt a wise man … An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not.” He found it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which were significant to him that he hesitated to burden his attention with those that were insignificant. It was important to him to preserve the mind’s chastity and notake a very bar-room of the mind’s inmost apart­ ment, as if for so long the dust of the street occupied us.” “We quarter our gross bodies on our poor souls, till the former eat up all the latter’s substance.”

Thoreau also believed every man should perform his own duty. “Be resolutely and faithfully what you are,” he wrote in his journal; “be humbly what you aspire to be. Be sure you give men the best of your wares, though they be poor enough, and the gods will help you lay up a better store for the future. Man’s noblest gift to man is his sincerity, for it embraces his integrity also … ” And on another day he wrote: “We are constantly invited to be what we are, as to something worthy and noble. I never waited but for myself to come round; none ever detained me, but I lagged and tagged after myself.”

Thoreau was plain in feature and dress, and only five feet seven inches tall. William Dean Howells described him as a “quaint stump figure of a man,” who habitually dressed more like a laboring man than a scholar. It was the eyes that enlivened the face. They were blue, deep-set and probing. We have Emerson’s word for it that he was a penetrating judge of men. “At one glance,” he wrote, “he measured his companion . . . and saw the limitation and poverty of those he talked with, so that nothing seemed concealed from such terrible eyes.” He could detect hypocrisy in dignified and prosperous persons as readily as in beggars, and with equal scorn. In his youth and young manhood, he must often have been an uncomfortable companion, but in his later years he mellowed so that Emerson found that “his foibles, real or apparent, were fast vanishing in the incessant growth of a spirit so robust and wise, and which effaced its defects with new triumphs.”

Henry Thoreau called himself “a mystic, a transcendentalist and a natural philosopher to boot.” Nature was a great passion with him, but his greatest skill was not as a naturalist. John Burroughs, the famous American naturalist, discovered an idiosyncrasy in Thoreau. “He was too intent upon the bird behind the bird always to take careful note of the bird itself,” he said. But he added that, “All other nature writers seem tame and insipid beside Thoreau.” And it is fundamental to Thoreau to be deeply concerned with the spirit manifest in form – the bird behind the bird. There was some strange, mystic, deeper meaning always struggling to the light. “At one leap,” he said, “I can go from the buttercup to the life everlasting.”

“Man,” he explained, “cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa.” What Thoreau was finally after in nature was something ulterior to poetry or science or philosophy. “It was,” Burroughs said, that vague something which he calls the higher law and which eludes all direct statement. He went to nature as to an oracle; and though he sometimes, indeed very often, questioned her as a naturalist and a poet, yet there was always another question in his mind. He brought home many a fresh bit of natural history; but he was always searching for something he did not find . . . for the transcendental, the  unfindable, the wild that will not be caught.

He saw architecture in the trees of the forest, the plumage of birds in the ripples of the Merrimack River, and man himself as only a part of nature’s scheme, although sometimes a superior part. (“Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”) He describes the formation of a small island at the confluence of two rivers as one who has been present at the creation of the world. He seems to see the earth in all of its ages. No beauty escapes his eye, and he has a name for everything. But he sees with the eyes of the soul. The society he loved best he found in the woods and along the streams or on the banks of ponds. There, in solitude, he felt his kinship with “the Spirit which vivified and controlled his own.” And there in the cool of a summer morning, with the wind in the trees and the sound of crickets in the air, the man who had been called too cold for friendship could give expression to psalm-like utterances like this:

My heart leaps out of my mouth at the sound of the wind in the woods. I, whose life was but yesterday so desultory and shallow, suddenly recover my spirits, my spirituality, through my hearing … Ah! if I could so live that there would be no desultory moments … I would walk, I would sit and sleep, with natural piety. What if I could pray aloud, or to myself, as I went along by the brookside, a cheerful prayer, like the birds! And then, to think of those I love among men, who will know that I love them, though I tell them not . . . I thank you, God. I do not deserve anything; I am unworthy of the least regard; and yet the world is gilded for my delight, and holidays are prepared for me, and my path is strewn with flowers. . . 0 keep my senses pure!

Towards the end of Wa/den Thoreau summed up what he had gained from his sojourn at Walden Pond:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he had imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

ILL health clouded the last days of his comparatively short life. But as he grew older, he mellowed. His earlier strictures on friend and friendship no longer occupied a place in the journal. Emerson reported that “he grew to be revered and admired by his townsmen, who had at first known him only as an oddity.” Over

the years, he had attracted as admirers a number of men of like mind with whom he carried on a considerable correspondence, and who became very much like disciples. In 1850, he had written in a journal entry that “we inspire friendship in men when we have contracted friendship with the gods,” but on the same day he had characteristically warned of the weakness of needing others: “Woe to him who wants a companion, for he is unfit to be a companion even of himself.”

The last months of his life were peaceful. “There can have been few deaths more enviable,” Mr. Canby writes, comparing Thoreau’s passing with accounts of Northumbrian saints and holy men in Bede’s Ecclesiastcal History. He had begun to enjoy an entirely unsuspected popularity. Strangers sent grateful messages; children called on him; and boys of the neighborhood brought him game to eat.

Thoreau had confined his expressions of disappointment with his friends to the journal, and of these his friends were unaware. Emerson referred to him as “a friend, knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who resorted to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart.” And Bronson Alcott paid him a similar tribute in an article in the Atlantic Monthly a month before his death:

I know of nothing more creditable to his greatness than the thoughtful regard, approaching to reverence, by which he has held for many years some of the best persons of his time, living at a distance, and wont to make their annual pilgrimage, usually on foot, to the master- a devotion very rare in these times of confessed un-belief in persons and ideas.

A neighbor reported that Henry was deeply touched by the solicitude of his friends and neighbors and said that if he had known how people felt about him he would not have been so “offish.” A friend, knowing that death was near, wondered “how the opposite shore may appear to you,” but Thoreau replied, “One world at a time.” And when his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God, he said, “I did not know we had ever quarrelled.”

Thoreau died quietly on the morning of May 6, 1862. Funeral services were conducted in the parish church where Emerson, “with broken, tender voice,” read a eulogy of his departed friend, in which were included these words:

The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish … But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

Swami Prabhavananda

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SARADA DEVI was born in the small village of Jayrambati in Bengal, India in December, 1853. She was the oldest of seven children in a large family. She said of her own parents, “My father was very orthodox and would not accept gifts from other people.

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It is both inspiring and refreshing to confront in religious writings a simple, unaffected faith in God. All too often our tendency is to weigh down religion with a cloak of learning,forgetting that saints are rarely doctors of theology. If, indeed, the ultimate nature of Truth is unity, then complexity and diversity are of the nature of the world, not spirit.

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EVEN A CURSORY study of the religions of the world will reveal that among them there exist certain differences in dogma, ritual, and creed. But looking further, we discover a connecting unity, a common thread of truth, running through all faiths.

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A STRANGELY NEGLECTED FIGURE of the 18th century is William Law (1686-1761), Anglican divine, writer, and mystic. Strange that he should be neglected, because he is not only a master of English prose, but a deep and original thinker- insofar as the discovery of truth can be called original- and a great saint.

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A NUMBER OF MYSTERIES and surprises surround the figure of Meister Eckhart, thirteenth-century monk and mystic. One of these is the fact that although so many of his teachings have come down to us, we know very little about his life. He seems to have lived between the years 1260 and 1328.

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EVERY SPIRITUAL ASPIRANT comes to know the saints as his best friends. In his pain, their words bring him loving comfort. In his joy, they carry him upward on the wings of their ecstatic songs. He grows avid for saints. And when he has exhausted the words of all the saints of the West, he is drawn inevitably to that inexhaustible mine of saints, India.

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THOMAS HAMMERKEN, born in 1380 at Kempen, Germany, lived his long life, from age twelve to age ninety-one, in a monastery. It was there, isolated from the business of the world, that Thomas grew in wisdom and spirit – exploding once and for all the notion that man must perform actions in the world in order to live a full and successful life.

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YOSHIDA KENKO  The Harvest of Solitude

The Harvest of Solitude

THE QUEST FOR solitude, whether it be for the space of an hour or a lifetime, has been a part of nearly every­ one’s experience. And although few are drawn to it as a permanent way of life, there has been a sufficient number to attract the interest of the historian as well as the serious student of religion.

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BROTHER LAWRENCE LIVES for us in one slim little volume of fifty pages called The Practice of the Presence of God. Opening this book is like opening the window to a fresh spring morning. His simple prose reflects the purity and directness of his approach to God. “You need not cry very loud,” he says in words of unadorned beauty.

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A TRULY ALL-AMERICAN Sannyasini. That is the best way to describe this remarkable woman called Peace Pilgrim. In the traditional sense a sannyasini is a wandering nun, consumed with an eagerness to merge herself with the divine force, travelling the length and breadth of India, begging her food, sleeping where chance may bring her, sharing her spiritual thoughts with others, and just accepting what the Lord may dole out to her.

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