Axis Mundi

By H. Boone Porter

As we enter the holy season of Lent, we may ask ourselves what the message of redemption means to the created world. What does the cross signify for this world of things in which we live?

Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth century poet of creation, is ready for this question in his great book, Centuries of Meditations. For him, the description of the world as given in the opening chapters of Genesis is the basic map of reality, the key to understanding both what life is and what it should be. This did not reflect any narrowness on his part. Quite the contrary, few people have had such an expanded consciousness. He was fascinated by available scientific information, (Centuries, III, 25, 36, 41) and refers with respect to the astronomers Galileo and Hevelius. He had greatly enjoyed reports of explorations of foreign and newly discovered lands (III, 12, 14-36). He often speaks of contemplating the stars and space (III, 18). Yet again and again he finds the words of Genesis provide the clue to reality and enable us to locate ourselves within the universe in a significant and purposeful way. Hence he speaks in such terms as these:

Would men consider what God hath done, they would be ravished in spirit with the glory of His doings. For Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of His glory. And how happy would men be could they see and enjoy it! But above all these our Savior’s Cross is the throne of delights. That center of eternity, that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of God! (Centuries, I, 55)

This vision of the cross, as the Tree of Life in the restored paradise of a redeemed and renewed creation, reflects a long tradition of Christian literature. In Jewish legend, Jerusalem was built on what had been the first created bit of dry ground. Medieval crusaders went further and said that the cross had been erected where Eden was once located, and that the wood of the cross came from an apple tree descended from the tree of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 2:17.

Today, drawing on contemporary knowledge of anthropology, we may see the cross as being, among other things, the providential fulfillment of that hunger for an axis mundi, or center of the world, which is expressed in the religion, literature, and art of so many cultures in so many parts of the world. Traherne, in his say, drew on the new knowledge of physics and other fields for metaphors to express the attraction of the cross.

As on every side of the earth all heavy things tend to the center, so all nations ought on every side to flow unto it [the cross]. It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the soul that we travel thither …

The Cross is the abyss of wonders, the center of desires, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theater of joys and the place of sorrows; it is the root of happiness, and the gate of Heaven. (Centuries, I, 56, 58)

Traherne can speak to us of the cross at the center of things because he perceives that we do not live in a chaos but a universe, an ordered creation. Because there is order and unity, there can be a center, a heart, and its operation can radiate out to the other parts. Yet there is a paradox. Because there is order, we can find a center; yet it is only when we come to the center that we can truly discern the order.

If love be the weight of the soul, and its object the center, all eyes and heart may convert and turn unto this object: cleave unto this center, and by it enter into rest … There we may see God’s goodness, wisdom, and power: yea his mercy and anger display. There we may see man’s sin and infinite value. His hope and fear, his misery and happiness. There we might see the Rock of Ages and the joys of Heaven. (Centuries, I, 59).

Incidentally, so far as is known, this is the first literary use of the phrase “Rock of Ages.” Toplady’s hymn by this name did not appear until 1776, over a century after Traherne’s death. The phrase apparently originated as a marginal reading for Isaiah 26:4. Traherne goes on in the same passage to say of the cross.

It is a well of life beneath in which we may see the face of Heaven above: and the only mirror, wherein all things appear in their proper colors, that is sprinkled in the blood of our Lord and Savior.

What does it mean for “all things” to be so sprinkled? For Traherne, nature is not only an ordered unity, but also a unity having spiritual significance. There is a chain of praise extending from the dust of the earth up to the throne of God, with man as the mouthpiece, the spokesman, the conscious offerer of praise and worship for all inarticulate creation. This being the case, man’s sin as [sic] indeed a blow to the whole universe, and man’s redemption is in this sense a redemption of all. So our author can say, “And now, O Lord, Heaven and earth are infinitely more valuable than they were before, being bought with thy precious blood” (I, 76). In this Traherne is only echoing Colossians 1:20, where it is stated that it pleased God the Father,

Having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, whether things in earth or things in heaven,

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in the February 12, 1978 issue.

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