By H. Boone Porter
During the past two weeks we have been considering Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) as a guide to a fuller Christian understanding of the mystery of creation. He consistently taught that God’s hand could be discerned in the beauty of his works, and that this beauty can and should be enjoyed with gratitude.
In expressing this, Traherne, like other Christian writers, faced a certain problem. The real value of the world is difficult to discuss. We say the world has been made by God, yet at baptism we are asked to renounce its evil powers. We say the world (in one sense) is good, yet worldliness (in the usual sense) is bad. We may say that matter is good, or perhaps morally neutral, but materialism is generally reckoned to be bad. Humans are made in the image of God, but a secular humanism is generally seen in opposition to Christian doctrine. There is both a positive and a negative orientation to our vocabulary for these topics.
Christianity has on the whole, in its theoretical principles, strongly affirmed the positive value and goddess of God’s creation, following the affirmation of the account of creation in Genesis: “And God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Yet Christianity has also taken very seriously the fall of man. Even though the things of the earth were originally good and still may remain good in themselves, they have been sources of temptation, objects of idolatry, and instruments of sin for human beings. A great deal of Christian preaching has emphasized the danger of liking the things of this earth, rather than the danger of not liking them.
Traherne, no less than others, is concerned about the corruption effect of sin, and sees human life as gravely tainted by it. He sees civilization as distorted by falsehood— “ambitions, trades, luxuries, inordinate affections, casual and accidental riches invented since the fall” (Centuries, III, 5). Human life itself is constantly transmitting evil. “And that our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward bondage of opinion and custom, than from any inward corruption or deprivation of nature: and that it is not our parents’ loins, so much as our parents’ lives, that enthralls and blinds us” (III, 8).
Like other writers in the Catholic tradition, he would see things as capable of a right use and a wrong use. Wrong use, or abuse, does not destroy the capability of a right use. Many a preacher, however, has suggested that right use is minimal use, or the use of natural objects simply to meet unavoidable human needs for food, warmth, safety, health, and so forth, whereas the positive enjoyment and relishing of the same objects is either sinful or at least verging on sin. Traherne did not totally disagree, in the sense that he despised the contemporary preoccupation with clothes, jewelry, and money, and all the ostentatious ornaments of rank and privilege which, then as now, received so much attention from so many people.
Speaking of himself he said, “He cares little for the delicacies either of food or raiment himself: and delighted in others. God, angels, and men are his treasures” (IV, 29). For Traherne, an abstemious life was possible because one was always sustained by greater joys. Page after page speaks of these joys, varying from seeing “how a sand exhibited the wisdom and power of God” (I, 27) on to enjoying the contemplation of the most Holy Trinity (III, 100). Yet such enjoyment is not a simple animal perception of the eye, but, for the adult, involves the understanding of God’s loving purpose towards all things. “I remember the time, when the dust of the streets were as precious as gold to my infant eyes, and now they are more precious to the eye of reason” (I, 25). This perception requires knowledge, understanding, experience, and art on the part of the beholder. Few attain it. “One great discouragement to Felicity, or rather to great souls in the pursuit of Felicity, is the solitariness of the way that leadeth to her temple” (IV, 13).
Yet when all these qualifications have been made, Traherne continues to insist that the abuse, the misuse, of our created natures and of the things in the created universe around us, is not that we prize them too much, but that we prize them too little. To illustrate this point, he boldly chooses as his example the feelings of a man for a beautiful woman. What he has to say is a striking expression of classic Christian humanism.
Suppose a curious and fair woman. Some had seen the beauty of Heaven, in such a person. It is a vain thing to say they loved too much. I daresay there are 10,000 beauties in that creature which they have not seen. They loved it, not too much but upon false causes. Not so much upon false ones, as only upon some little ones. They love a creature for sparkling eyes and curled hair, lily breasts and ruddy cheeks; which they should love moreover for being God’s image, queen of the universe, beloved by angels, redeemed by Jesus Christ, an heiress of Heaven, and temple of the Holy Ghost: a mine and fountain of all virtues, a treasury of graces, and a child of God.
Adding another thought, Traherne points out that the purely profane love of a man for a woman may appear to be great love, because it occurs without the contents of the love for God and our neighbors which we should all have. In fact, this profane love is not a great love. Christians can love more and better.
They love her perhaps, but do not love God more: nor men as much: nor Heaven and earth at all. And so being defective to other things, perish be the seeming excess to that … So that no man can be in danger by loving others too much, that loveth God as he ought. (Centuries, II, 68).
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our February 5, 1978 issue.