Thoreau and mysticism – Nature as a highway to the Divine

I’ve just started reading a thick volume on contemplative prayer (Fire Within by Thomas Dubay, SM), based upon the writings of two giants in this area, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Both were Carmelites,  and both hailed from Spain.

Many Spanish scholars believe that St. John is the greatest poet and writer of prose in the Spanish language (Fire Within, Thomas Dubay, SM, pg. 34). When I started reading about this saint and his intense interest in nature, I immediately thought about Henry David Thoreau.

I had mentioned in a previous post that Thoreau seemed like a contemplative. In reading about St. John of the Cross, I saw a lot of similarities, at least on the surface, between Thoreau and St. John:

St. John:

“He loved going outdoors and praying immediately from the book of creation lying before his eyes. It is said of him that he would be found in his cell with elbows on the windowsill, gazing, in absorbed prayer, upon the flowers during the day or the stars at night. ” (Fire Within, page. 33)

” ‘Oh woods and thickets,
Planted by the hand of my Beloved!
O green meadow
Coated, bright, with flowers,
Tell me, has He pass by you?’
[poetry by St. John]
Because creation shouts the Creator to the attentive heart, the man of woman who sets out on a serious pursuit of God uses the finite order as a stepping-stone to the infinite.” (Ibid, pg. 50)

Thoreau (from “Walking”):

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absoutely free from all wordly engagements. ”

“We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world . . .”

“For I believe that climate does thus react on man — as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences? Or is it unimportant how many foggy days there are in his life? I trust that we shall be more imaginative; that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher and more ethereal, as our sky — our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains — our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests, — and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.”

I wonder, did Thoreau ever read anything by St. John of the Cross? Is there any record of him reading such things? And if anyone can recommend an essay or portion of a book where Thoreau talks about the interior revelations he received from spending time in Nature, I’d love to know.

2 Replies to “Thoreau and mysticism – Nature as a highway to the Divine”

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