THE STORY of the Traherne manuscripts has the whiff of a thriller about it. serendipitous discovery, careful sleuthing, errors that ended up saving the day, a chance discovery in the bowels of an ancient library, the tattered find in a second-hand bookshop.
Such forgotten manuscripts, that bring their author back from the edge of oblivion to a chorus of public acclaim, are the unlikely stuff that scholars’ dreams are made of. Yet this has happened twice in the history of Thomas Traherne, the 17th-century Anglican cleric who, although more than 300 years old, has suddenly sprung up among us as a “new theologian”, and, what is more, a theologian who, despite his antique language, is very much a theologian for our day.
His first two works, although popular enough, did not win him a lasting readership. In fact, by the end of the 19th century he was so little known that when a book collector found two intriguing Traherne manuscripts on book barrows in London, they were misattributed to Henry Vaughan. Only the death of the owner delayed their publication until their true identity was discovered.
The manuscripts were Traherne’s famous Centuries of Meditations, and his Poems. He was hailed as a “new” poet, and lavished with praise for his poetry of nature and innocence that some read as a precursor to Blake, Wordsworth, and Whitman.
THROUGHOUT the 20th century, Traherne manuscripts trickled into the public arena, the most precarious discovery of which was the Commentaries of Heaven, found on a smouldering rubbish heap in Lancashire, the leather binding already alight. It was scooped up by a passer-by, who batted out the flames and stowed the mysterious book in his suburban loft for years, before a graduate student who was laying insulation wondered what it was. It is now in the British Library.
Then, at the turn of the 21st century, 100 years after the first poetic discoveries, a biblical epic poem came to light in the Folger Library in Washington, DC, while at about the same time a large new manuscript was discovered in the Lambeth Palace Library in London.
The Lambeth Manuscript, with its five prose works, one 26 and one 42 chapters long, is primarily not poetic or meditative, but philosophical and disputational theology. Together with the fire-damaged Commentaries of Heaven, it gives us the second “new” Traherne — this time, a serious theologian, concerned to answer the sceptics of his day, to inspire his fellows with the love of God, to convert the atheist, to be as inclusive as possible, and to work out, alongside his fellow theologians, the future shape of the Church in England.
For the first time — together with his beautiful Centuries and the legacy of innocence and nature poetry — we can see his clashes and passions, his liturgical practices, and his understanding of atonement. Although the setting has changed, his basic questions, about where authority lies, and what it means to be Anglican, resonate strongly with our time. His passionate interest in the new scientific discoveries that were altering everyone’s understanding of the universe, his awareness of what would — for some — become a science/religion divide, and his disavowal of such polarisation, speak directly to us now.
Traherne’s love of nature goes beyond the whimsical or romantic to suggest a profound human dependence on the natural world that touches deep modern environmental concerns. Phrases such as: “It was his wisdom made you need the Sun. It was his goodness made you need the Sea” may rise in our hearts with waves of gratitude; but Traherne also intimates the huge responsibility concomitant with being heir of all creation and gifted with the power of choice. Lines such as “all Creatures stand in Expectation what will be the result of your liberty” chill us like the words of a fiery prophet.
ALONGSIDE his deep and at times highly technical theology, there is something ordinary, too, in Traherne that appeals. He is full of useful advice on living. The injunction “we are to grow Rich, not by seeking what we Want, but by Enjoying what we have” is as much an invitation to fullness as it is a rebuke; while “Be not a Bubble; be solid like God, & let all thy Worth be within” reads as if it were written with our current global financial crisis in mind. A therapist minus the couch, he writes: “It is not so much our parents loins as our parents lives that enslave us”, and “You are as prone to love as the sun is to shine.”
Traherne’s theology is world-affirming, joy-seeking, and quintessentially Anglican. Reformed, in as much as it is indebted to Calvin and Luther, and Catholic in its continuity with the Early Church, its reverence for the sacraments, and for church order and liturgy; it is also world-affirming in its emphasis on the giftedness of creation, and the belief that God is constantly revealing himself in a world that is essentially good.
But what strikes me is his particular insight into desire. Where Eastern religions, and some astringent forms of Christianity, require a paring down of appetite, Traherne suggests that desire is a primary route to God: Traherne’s God also desires. “You must want like a God you that may be satisfied like God,” he asserts, “He is from eternity full of want. . . He made us want like Gods.” That the hungry shall be filled is his foundational promise; the scripture — “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good” — is fulfilled in the everyday life of this world.
FOR TRAHERNE, we are all connected: my need is answered in answering yours, and the most prized treasures are not those things that are luxurious and rare, but those that are most common, simple, and useful — water, the sun, the earth, the seed, air, the regularity of the seasons. Where this may once have sounded sentimental, it begins to sound, in our age of impending global climatic change, like a ground-gripping truth.
Be rooted in simplicity and in joy, urges Traherne, be full of passion, know yourself, enjoy the world, sustain its balance, choose happiness.
There is much in Traherne’s writing that encourages us to look outward, to find our joy in the world around us and in our relationships with others. But beneath that outward glance lies a profound challenge to be inwardly secure. Anchored in the love of God, open to grace, determined in faithfulness, be not a bubble, says Traherne, be solid.
Though many of his theological concerns are the fruit of 17th-century debates, this “new theologian” also speaks to the wider needs of the 21st century, in a way that could never have been predicted.
Denise Inge is a Traherne authority whose recent book on Thomas Traherne Happiness and Holiness: Selected writings of Thomas Traherne (Canterbury Press, £19.99; CT Bookshop £18) is listed among The Spectator’s Books of the Year 2008. Her third book on Traherne, Wanting Like a God (SCM), explores the themes of desire and freedom in Traherne, and will be published in Spring 2009.
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Wooed by the Holy Ghost: Denise Inge selects three extracts from Traherne’s work
This extract, taken from Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, shows the lyrical style of his prose writing
YOU NEVER enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so. Because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.
(Centuries I. 29)
Traherne explores the theme of God as a divine; over in his long poem Allurement, from the newly published Commentaries of Heaven
Awake my soul, & soar upon the Wing
Of Sacred Contemplation; for the King
Of Glory wooes; …
No kind & tender Mother doth allure
Her Child so Winningly, No virgin sure
So loves her Lov, nor ever was there seen,
A Proud, but tamd, enflamd, heart- wounded Queen
Subdud by Love, whose Lov did tryannize
So much ore her, as his Above the Skies
Doth him enflame. His Essence is all Love…
The Holy Ghost him self comes down to woo
He speaks for GOD & whispers in the mind,
Kissing the Ear that to his Mouth’s inclind.
The Rhetorick of all the Worlds employd
To Woo for him; & if thou art not cloyd,
My soul, with kindnesses, His Crown & Throne
And Endless Kingdom all conspire in one,
His Soul, thy Soul, and all his Friends say Come:
GOD is alone thy Glory & thy Home.
The following is from The Kingdom of God — Traherne’s most sophisticated work of philosophical theology — in which he explores many of the new scientific discoveries that revolutionised the thinking of his day
What if the Stars should be all Inhabited, what would follow? May we conclude thence, that there is no GOD? no Religion? No Blessedness? Verily it is more Apparent, that there is a God, a Religion, a Blessedness therby. What if beyond the Heavens there were Infinit Numbers of Worlds at vast unspeakable distances. And all Those worlds full of Glorious Kingdoms? And all those Kingdoms full of the most Noble and Glorious Creatures. And all those Creatures walking in the Light of Eternitie, full of Joy, evry Moment celebrating the Praises of their Creator. And as full of Love towards each other. Would this Abolish Heaven? Verily in my Conceit, it Enricheth it. For it is more answerable to Goodness, Widsom, and Felicite: and demonstrates visibly, that … Divines hav not in vain Affirmed GOD to be all Act, since his power is Exerted in filling his Omnipresence with infinit Treasures. I am to delight in all, and all in me. (KOG, ch. 22.)
‘His Soul, thy Soul, & all his Friends say Come’
THOMAS TRAHERNE is one of three figures commemorated in a multi-disciplinary art project, completed last month at Hereford Cathedral.
The artist Tom Denny has produced four stained-glass windows based on Traherne’s work, situated in the cathedral’s Audley Chapel.
“The windows fill the entire opening, which completely affects the character of the space: turning it into a jewel-like chapel,” said Mr Denny.
The project has also seen the completion of a series of icons based on the 8th century life and death of St Ethelbert, and the Cantilupe Shrine Canopy — depicting the story of St Thomas of Hereford who was bishop from 1275-82.
All photos: DOMINIC HARBOUR