Traherne and Spiritual Illumination

By H. Boone Porter

Last week, in considering the First Article of our Christian faith, namely the doctrine of creation, attention was called Thomas Traherne, seventeenth century English poet and devotional writer. More than any other Anglican writer, he based his spirituality on the doctrine of creation, vividly perceiving in everything the visible and tangible evidence of the power and love of God. It is this vision of the entire universe, aflame with the glory of its Creator, which he attempts to explain and communicate to the reader in his Centuries of Meditations, a remarkable book totally unknown to readers until it was rediscovered and published at the beginning of the present century.

Traherne wrote four complete “centuries,” or groups of one hundred meditations. He got only as far as ten meditations in the fifth century. Whether anything further was ever seriously planned, we do not know. Traherne felt that in his own life he had personally and consciously experienced the glory of mankind’s original created state, then the fall, followed by redemption and restoration. In the third century, there is a sort of spiritual biography contained in his meditations. He had had unusual perceptions of the world as a small child, and these were recalled in his later life with particular vividness.

Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.

All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare, and delightful, and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surronded [sic] by innumerable joys … All things were spotless and pure and glorious: yea, and infinitely mine, and joyful and precious. I knew not that there were any sins, or complaints, or laws … Heaven and earth did sing my Creator’s praises and could not make more melody to Adam than to me. All time was eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be heir of the world, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and the stones of the street were as precious as gold. The gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me… (Centuries, III, 1-3)

Later on, he says he “was corrupted; and made to learn the dirty devices of this world” (III, 3). “The first Light … was totally eclipsed: insomuch that I was fain to learn all again. If you ask how it was eclipsed? Truly by the customs and manners of men … the impetuous torrent of wrong desires in all others whom I saw or knew that carried me away, … by the evil influence of a bad education…” (III, 7). “Being swallowed up therefore in the miserable gulf of idle talk and worthless vanities, therefore I lived among shadows, like a prodigal son … As for churches they were things I did not understand. And schools were a burden…” (III, 14).

Gradually he groped his way back towards his earlier vision, desiring enlightenment and happiness or “Felicity”.

Among other things there befel me a most infinite desire for a book from Heaven … This thirst hung upon me a long time; till at last I perceived that the God of angels had taken care of me, and prevented my desires. For he had sent the book I wanted before I was born…

In the matter I found all the glad tidings my soul longed after, in its desire of news: in the manner that the Wisdom of God was infinitely greater than mine and that He had appeared in His wisdom exceeding my desires. (Centuries, III, 27, 29)

There is no clear indication of when all of this happened, but apparently it was prior to his matriculation at Oxford at the age of fifteen. He there found the study of divinity, philosophy, literature, natural science and so forth to be of great interest. Yet there “was never a tutor that did professly teach Felicity” (III, 37). After finishing his formal studies, he went to the country, presumably Hereford, and “seated among silent trees”, decided to disregard the search for economic wellbeing and comfort, and instead pursued the satisfaction of “that burning thirst” for spiritual happiness which he had so long experienced. “And God was so pleased to accept of that desire…” (III, 46). Traherne set out to study the most common things; “air, light, Heaven and earth, water, the sun, trees, men and women, cities, temples, etc.” (III, 53). He also continued to study theology

I was so ignorant that I did not think any man in the world had had such thoughts before … but as I read the Bible I was here and there surprised with such thoughts, and found by degrees that these things had been written of before, not only in the Scriptures but in many of the fathers, and that this was the way of communion with God in all Saints, as I saw clearly in the person of David. Methoughts a new light darted in into all his psalms and finally spread abroad over the whole Bible” (III, 66).

This development in Traherne has been recounted at length, partly because it is unusual, but partly because it is also usual. Others too have lost their first vision of the world, but most have not had the same determination to regain it. Countless other readers of Holy Scripture have had the same experience of finding one particular part of the Bible to be especially congenial, as Traherne found the psalms. You discover that initially strange and puzzling statements of scripture are in fact addressed to you, that certain passages are talking about things of interest in your own life. This “new light darted in” and gradually spreads to some, if not all, other parts of the Bible. This illumination, this understanding, spreads from the Bible to life, and we find that the Bible addresses us, in our world and that conversely, we are living in a world about which the Bible speaks.

Ultimately it was the story of creation which perhaps meant the most to Thomas Traherne.

There I saw Adam in Paradise, surrounded with the beauty of Heaven and earth, void of all earthly comforts to wit such as were devised, gorgeous apparel, palaces, gold and silver, coaches, musical instruments, etc., and entertained only with celestial joys, the sun and moon and stars, beast and fowls and fishes, trees and fruits and flowers, with the other naked and simple delights of nature. By which I evidently saw, that the way to become rich and blessed, was not by heaping accidental and devised riches to make ourselves great in the vulgar manner, but … to have communion with the Deity in the riches of God and nature. (Centuries, III, 67)

The way to attain this, as Traherne explains in the Fourth Century, is through Christ. He is the incarnation of the eternal Wisdom of God, through whom the world was made. He is the image of God which is the pattern of our original creation and of our final perfection. Speaking of himself “because of modesty” in the third person, Traherne says, “He thought that he was to treat every man in the person of Christ. That is both as if himself were Christ in the greatness of his love, and also as if the man were Christ” (IV, 28). Reflecting the teaching of the ancient Greek Church Fathers, he continues, “he that lives in the midst of riches as a poor man himself, enjoying God and paradise, or Christendom which is better, conversing with the poor, and seeing the values of their souls through their bodies, and prizing all things clearly with a due esteem, is arrived here to the estate of immortality” (IV, 29). In the same vein, “He desired no other riches for his friends but those which cannot be abused; to wit the true treasures, God and Heaven and earth and angels and men, etc. with the riches of wisdom and grace to enjoy them”, (IV, 35).

Like many other great spiritual teachers, Traherne finds wealth in dispossession, in the freedom to disregard the temptations to acquisitions, power, and consumption which characterize so much of human life. The whole universe becomes the spiritual property of those who have the eyes to see it in the light of God’s Spirit.

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our January 29, 1978 issue.


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