Admired in the United States and around the world for his resolute individualism, his insight into and celebration of nature, and his piercing social criticism, Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) is also usually remembered as being fervently anti-Christian, at least in his criticism of the established churches of New England. But Thoreau’s repugnance for the church never affected his devotion to Christ. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers he had said “Christ was a sublime actor on the stage of the world. He knew what he was thinking when he said, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’ I draw close to him at such a time,” and “It is necessary not to be a Christian, to appreciate the beauty and significance of the life of Christ.”
Thoreau identified with Christ the fellow heretic not only as a historical figure, but as a living presence whom he had experienced intensely in the dark of winter in his Walden cabin. In Walden—a sacred book whose every word was scrutinized seven times over, and which has not a single sentence out of painstakingly chosen place–in a chapter called “Winter Visitors,” Thoreau vividly describes a pair of visitors, one a “poet” and the other “one of the last of the philosophers.” Critics assume Ellery Channing to be the unnamed poet, and Bronson Alcott the philosopher, and indeed, if one compares Thoreau’s journal notes about Alcott to the passage in Walden, they are nearly identical in some places. This philosopher was given to the world by Connecticut and “peddled her wares”—Alcott was from Connecticut, where he had worked as a peddler. The entry—“When Alcott’s day comes Laws unsuspected by most will take effect”—becomes in Walden “But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect, and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice.” Walden is a book where almost nothing is as quite meets the eye; in this book, as in all his writing, Thoreau loved to hide his deepest spiritual convictions in plain sight. This unnamed philosopher is “a true friend of man,” “an Old Mortality, say rather an Immortality,” “the sanest man, . . . the same yesterday and tomorrow.” This last phrase—taken from the New Testament (Hebrews 13: 8) — gives away the philosopher’s identity as Christ. “I do not see how he can ever die; Nature cannot spare him,” Thoreau declares.1
But there is a place in Thoreau’s life where Christ’s presence was hidden even from him. Ironically, the man who perhaps was America’s most profound student of rhythms in nature, could not see the most important rhythm in his own nature, a rhythm that broke into his life on November 16, 1850. Anyone wishing to chronicle Thoreau’s thoughts and actions on a daily basis before November 16, 1850 cannot rely on his journal, for missing pages and dates outnumber the remaining dated journal leaves. Prior to this date, Thoreau rarely gave date headings to his entries; in 1850, only seven journal entries are headed by dates before November 16. For those eleven months of the year, just another dozen or so dates occur at all in the body of the journal entries. After November 16, Thoreau almost never missed a daily entry, and assumed the habitual practice of heading each day’s journal entry with the date.
Beginning with this November 16 entry, Thoreau’s journalling practice transforms entirely, becoming a laboratory for phenomenological perception and description. Whereas previously he had on dated days typically taken up individual questions, told single discrete stories, or noted particular places or people, and in undated entries separated subjects from one another slightly, now a single day’s reflections would come cascading one upon another, alternating between diurnal or seasonal arcana and perennial philosophical discussions. November 16 opens with Thoreau’s report that he has found three arrowheads while out walking, then declares that he regards the tiniest tributary brook with the same awe he would feel for the Orinoco or Mississippi; his next paragraph claims that it is always the wild element in literature that is most compelling; he discovers that cranberries are fine fare as one crosses meadows; wonders what alarm a blue jay is sounding in some birch grove; muses on how he chooses his bearing when setting out on a walk; wrestles with his antipathy and sympathy toward friends; confesses that the scream of a cat whose tail was caught by a closing door drove off celestial thoughts; asks why shrub oaks keep their leaves all winter; observes black walnut trees heavy with nuts, and birches bare but for their catkins; notes the late autumn burst of blossoming by spring herbs; hears cows running scared in the woods; asks what salvation there might be for men who are afraid of the dark, since “God is silent and mysterious”; discovers that some of our brightest days are ones when the sun is not shining; comments that land where trees have been cut off and are rejuvenating is called “sprout land”; questions whether the partridge-berry should not be called “checker-berry”; laments the loss of wild apple trees; and closes with this extraordinary—though for Thoreau altogether ordinary—declaration:
My Journal should be a record of my love. I would write in it only the things I love, my affection for any aspect of the world, what I love to think of. I have no more distinctness or pointedness in my yearnings than an expanding bud, which does indeed point to flower and fruit, to summer and autumn, but is aware of the warm sun and spring influences only. I feel ripe for something, yet do nothing, can’t discover what that things is. I feel fertile merely. It is seedtime with me. I have lain fallow long enough.
Notwithstanding a sense of unworthiness which possesses me, not without reason, notwithstanding that I regard myself as a good deal of a scamp, yet for the most part the spirit of the universe is unaccountably kind to me, and I enjoy perhaps an unusual share of happiness. Yet I question sometimes if there is not some settlement to come.
With this entry, he had already begun practicing his intended goal for his journal: the string of reflections is punctuated with “I love to pause in mid-passage” (crossing fences); “I love my friends”; “I love nature, I love the landscape.” “I love” hereafter becomes one of the journal’s most characteristic expressions.2
Thoreau had always had a keen sense of seasonality, of turning points in time marking transformation and change, but after November 16, 1850, it becomes the main leitmotif of his journal. The following day, November 17, he finds in a field of winter rye what he at first takes to be a smooth white pebble, but as he picks it up it breaks and he finds it is a snapping turtle egg. “The little turtle was perfectly formed, even to the dorsal ridge, which was distinctly visible.” Seeing into biological form as it unfolds in time becomes the central quest of Thoreau’s life after this November, and the daily logging of observations in his journal is his main method for accomplishing that quest. Two days later, he breaks off a shrub oak leaf, and finds the cambium layer still green, inspiring a diligent search for life in warm, south-facing places. This marks the beginning of his search for precise moments in the stages of plant growth, when time stands still for an instant as what for weeks or months had been stem and leaf suddenly erupts into flower, or for days had been flower metamorphoses into seed. A parallel mystery struck him as he watched wheeling flocks of migrant birds: “Now. . . you will see flocks of small birds forming compact and distinct masses, as if they were not only animated by one spirit but actually held together by some invisible fluid or film, and will hear the sound of their wings rippling or fanning the air as they flow through it, flying, the whole mass, ricochet like a single bird,–or as they flow over the fence.” What was the “invisible fluid” that allowed the flock to act as one body? What invisible agent guided so precisely the embryonic form of the snapping turtle or signaled plants when to leaf out, flower, and fruit?3
Though he criticized himself for lying fallow, his life was actually unfolding in complete harmony with the etheric forces, which were—in their holding of memory—the carriers of destiny as well as of life. Up until November 16, 1850, Thoreau’s destiny had been to craft an authentic life in the face of a society growing less and less authentic, and he did this principally by attending to the divinity within and around human nature. Now, almost at a single stroke, he would become America’s premier chronicler of Nature. On this day, Thoreau’s true destiny was born.
November 16, 1850 was three years, four months and four days after Henry Thoreau’s thirtieth birthday, almost to the day the exact length of the Christ rhythm of 33 1/3 years, which was the length of life from the birth of Jesus on December 6, 2 BC to the resurrection on April 5, AD 33.4 Unlike the planetary and solar rhythms pulsing eternally through time, this rhythm was “won” for humanity by a god becoming a human being, and was forever after inscribed into the cosmos only after Christ’s death and resurrection. While the planetary rhythms manifest in space as the orbital periods moving against the background of the zodiac, the Christ rhythm has no spatial signifier, being a purely temporal rhythm, measured out by the duration of the life of Jesus Christ. Since 33 A.D., three times a century that pulse has echoed through human history, rippling into the nineteenth century.
The reflection of the thirty-three-year Christ rhythm in individual human biography is a fascinating study.5 According to Robert Powell’s research into this rhythm, 56 cycles of 33 1/3 years were completed in 1899, the date – according to Rudolf Steiner – of the end of the Dark Age (Kali Yuga) and the start of the New Age (Satya Yuga). Steiner’s indications point to the New Age as the age of Christ’s second coming.6
In the nineteenth century, beginning in 1799, as Christ’s etheric body entered the Moon sphere7—the realm of the Angels—the Christ rhythm of 33 1/3 years was particularly manifested in individuals who had destinies closely allied with the spiritual beings doing battle under the Archangel Michael. Henry Thoreau left his home in the stars with a sure eye for his place and time on Earth, having chosen to ally himself with a cohort of Grail knights—Emerson, Alcott, Fuller, Brownson and their fellow Transcendentalists—who could only dimly recall the pact they made before birth. Having crossed the Lethean river of forgetfulness, there was no guarantee that they would carry out their missions. Each individual, between the ages of thirty and thirty-three, chose to follow or forget their spiritual patrimony. At the culmination of his Christ period, Thoreau still considered himself blessed, his only reservation being that he had not accomplished some as yet undefined task. Even as he expressed this thought into his journal – which as of this moment became his true life’s work – he was embarking upon that task, which would see him indefatigably, over the next twelve years, chronicle the life history of the plants of Concord.
A couple of weeks before this November 16th turning point, Thoreau had had a long discussion with Ralph Waldo Emerson during which Emerson maintained that America, unlike England, was not yet prepared to realize its destiny, as it “want[ed] a fortnight’s more sun.” Thoreau disagreed, saying that the English were “mere soldiers . . . in the world,” whose role in world history was “winding up.” America, Thoreau believed, to be a “pioneer. . . unwinding his lines.” Within the body of that pioneering republic, Thoreau was a pioneer unwinding the lines of his destiny in a rhythm that could only be seen long after his last waves had beat upon the shore.8
Postscript: the 33 1/3 year rhythm in American history
Knowing from Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual scientific research that a century is three times the Christ rhythm of 33 1/3 years – a threefold rhythm which brings historical impulses to a certain culmination and fulfillment – and from the spiritual research of Robert Powell that 1775 was the year in which Sophia, in her journey towards the Earth from the Galactic Center, entered our local arm of the galaxy,9 what manifestation of the Christ rhythm can one find in American history, since the nation’s founding?
As the modern nation which in both its exoteric history and in its esoteric, etheric characteristics is distinguished by its Promethean power of the will, America has struggled throughout its history with the most varied spiritual impulses. In 1809, 33 1/3 years on from the start of the American Revolution, the newly created Illinois Territory was ”the West,” soon to change when Lewis & Clark returned from their great adventure. In just three years, America would fight a second war against Great Britain, while the whole of Europe was wracked by the Napoleonic Wars. Robert Fulton’s patenting of the steamboat in 1809 heralded the liberation of machine power from the fetters of waterpower and draft animals. The immense telluric forces of magnetism that Rudolf Steiner would a century later point to as so determinative of American destiny were already working upon the first two generations of Americans.
Transcendentalism clearly represents a Michaelic stream, and one finds in the years around 1842 — the second pulse of the 33 1/3-year rhythm – the apex of Transcendentalist activity and influence. The 19th century’s most well-known spiritual stream, the Theosophical Society, was founded in New York City in September 1875, at the culmination of three 33 1/3-year periods from 1775. The year 1909 – marking the fourth rhythm of 33 1/3 years since America’s birth in 1776 – was truly an annus mirabilis for Sophia’s growing presence in the world, particularly as it was heralded by Rudolf Steiner’s Christological revelations. 1909/1910 was also the time in which Theosophical Society President Annie Besant was publicly proclaiming young Jiddu Krishnamurti as the reincarnated Christ and new World Teacher; indeed, one can expect that at the time of each of these expressions of the Christ rhythm in American history, there will also be manifestations of anti-Christian activity, often in the form of new religious movements.
The year 2009 marked the completion of seven 33 1/3 – year rhythms from 1775/1776, and along with the survival and continued spread of a variety of occult schools, American popular culture now throws up new occult schools seemingly every season. From the “Oneness Movement,” at the center of which is the deeksha blessing ritual; to dozens of schools based in the teachings of Agni Yoga, eastern “mahatmas,” and channeled “masters”; to the explosion of “remote viewing” institutes and instructional sites, America is awash in occult schools, none of them any longer “occult,” in the sense of being hidden from public view. Indeed, the very public nature of so many of these magical schools suggests that in a way, America has already seen the realization of Rudolf Steiner’s 1919 prophecy: “When Ahriman incarnates in the West at the appointed time, he will establish a great occult school for the practice of magic arts of the greatest grandeur, and what otherwise can be acquired only by strenuous effort will be poured over humankind.”10
(published in the Journal for Star Wisdom 2011)
1 Walden, 268; P Jl 2: 225; Walden, 268, 269; 270
2 Journal 2: 96-101
3 Journal 2: 102; 103-104
4 Powell, Chronicle of the Living Christ
5 William A. Bryant, A Journey Through Time: Biographical Rhythms (Fair Oaks, California: Rudolf Steiner College Press, 2006), pp. 47-54. See also, Robert Powell, Chronicle of the Living Christ (Great Barrington, Massachusetts: SteinerBooks, 1996), pp. 415-423
6 Robert Powell, The Christ Mystery: Reflections on the Second Coming,(Fair Oaks, California: Rudolf Steiner College Press, 1999)
7 The Inner Life of the Earth: Exploring the Mysteries of Nature, Subnature, and Supranature, (Editor and contributor, Paul V. O’Leary, Christopher Bamford, Dennis Klocek, David Mitchell, Marko Pogacnik, Robert Powell, Rachel C. Ross) SteinerBooks, 2008, see the Postscript to Robert Powell’s article “Subnature and the Second Coming.”
8 Emerson Journal 8: 135-6, Riverside 1905 ed., October 26, 1850
9 See sophiafoundation.org/articles – “Sophia and the Rose of the World,” p. 8
10 Rudolf Steiner, The Incarnation of Ahriman: The Embodiment of Evil on Earth, (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2006), lecture of November 15, 1919