Friday, March 14, 2008


Traherne--Chapter One

Thomas Traherne–Chapter One–Consider Secret Influences on Your Soul

Traherne begins his Centuries by thanking someone for the gift of a blank journal. This sounds so very familiar to modern readers, for we tend to think that we invented “journaling.” There is a huge demand for blank journals–go inside any Barnes and Noble and there is generally an entire section of blank books, with prices and quality ranging from the relatively inexpensive Moleskins so beloved of Ernest Hemingway to tooled leather-bound volumes from Italy. Blank journals, awaiting an author’s pen or pastel chalks or glued-in travel tickets and mementoes. I found myself wondering precisely what sort of journal Traherne was given, bearing in mind that books in the 17th century were very valuable things indeed, and not the $6 Harlequin romances we buy to read on the airplane and then bin the moment we reach our destination. Books were treasured things, and did not come cheaply, though they were far more readily available to Traherne’s generation than they were to Marlowe’s and Sidney’s.

And so this anonymous friend gave Thomas Traherne a blank journal, and he wrote a dedication to the friend (Mrs. Hopgood, his dear friend?) promising to fill it with things that the friend already loved without knowing it yet. And this caught my full attention, because we are today so obsessed with physical proofs, with having to hold things in our hands before we will accept their existence, and here is Traherne promising to fill the journal “with those truths you love without knowing them.” We are served notice immediately that we are reading the words of a true mystic. We are in the presence of a man who is confidently asserting his ability to reveal inner truths that we ourselves cannot yet see.

And along with this goes the statement that the friend (and by extension, ourselves as readers of these intimate words) already loves the truths that are hidden within. This is a beautiful way of putting into words the inner human drive for truth. The inner need for truth. We don’t know quite what the truth may be, but be most assuredly know that it’s there and that we already love it, we already yearn for it. Most importantly, though, we already possess it. In today’s world, this goes hand in hand with trying to find the still, small voice of God. We clutter our lives and our thoughts with so much noise, noise that just doesn’t matter when all is said and done, and somewhere along the way we lost the voice, we lost the knowledge that we already hold beloved truths within ourselves. But a part of us longs for those truths, a part of us is aware that they are there somewhere, if only we could access them. And so we turn to fortune tellers and horoscopes and we arrange our furniture the feng shui way and we work out at the gym until we drop, all in the hope of making our lives richer and better, when we might be better served by going into a church (or the woods, or our own back garden) and simply being quiet for a few minutes a day. Simply stopping to listen for the quiet voice of God, and for the quiet voice of truths we love without knowing quite what they are.

Traherne states this beautifully: “…I have found that things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the center of the earth unseen violently attract it. We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us.” We are drawn away by every whim, every fancy, in search of these secret influences. It’s why we bought Dan Brown’s wildly inaccurate novel and made him a millionaire a dozen times over. It’s why Sylvia Brown is so successful. It’s why Dr. Phil is so successful. It’s why internet chat rooms and “social networking” pages draw in our children by the thousands. The violent urge to find what we love, to find answers. We are all looking for “the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” According to the late and much-missed Douglas Adams, that question is so vast, so all-encompassing, that it can have only one possible answer–42. The ultimate answer to the ultimate question, Adams tells us, is quite simply 42. No, it doesn’t make sense, and isn’t meant to. It’s an enigmatic answer for a question that has no logical answer. “The X-Files” paid quiet tribute to this by making Fox Mulder’s apartment number 42–there has rarely been a fictional character so bent on finding answers as Fox Mulder, whose stated motto was “I want to believe.”

We are all looking for 42, Traherne is saying. It pulls us, it exerts a gravitational force that is “violent” and that cannot be ignored. “Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some great thing?” he asks. Once we see the truths we love but are unaware of, we will each become, Traherne says, “possessor of the whole world.” We will become aware of those truths we have always loved, we will see the sublime in the ordinary, we will see “things strange, yet common; incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; infinitely profitable, but not esteemed.” We will see the diamond in the rough, as it were–the intensely beautiful, sparkling light hidden beneath the dusty and ordinary grey exterior.

Jesus once said that he came not to bring peace, but the sword. By this, I do not think somehow (insert “duh” here) that he meant that violence and warfare was the answer. I think he meant that his mission, his words, would divide and sunder people, both from one another as they clashed over ideals and beliefs, and from ourselves, internally, the division wrought by this inner battle to find the truths we love. Divisions that can either make us grow, or destroy us. Traherne says that he himself, in his Centuries, “will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings” show his reader the way, but rather “by the gentle ways of peace and love.” Love must be a healing balm, he says, a tender thing that seeks only to help the object of affection. Saint Paul’s letters to the Corinthians express this beautifully, of course, but Paul’s words regarding the kindness and patience of Love have become so known to us that they are almost a cliché, something trite and very Sunday School-ish, Those words of Paul, and here of Traherne, are nonetheless so desperately important to the entire gospel (which let us not forget means merely “good news”) of Christ, that we forget them or wave them aside at our own peril. Again, we become lost in the noise, and forget that “love is patient, love is kind” is in fact not a cliché but rather an eternal and immutable Truth. A healing Truth. The sort of Truth that heals the divisions brought about by the sword of Christ, the sword wielded solely in order that we might see where and how we have wounded ourselves, see where and how we are ourselves divided, and thereby to make all things right.

Traherne’s goal is to show his reader the clear pathway to the throne of God. In a sentence very reminiscent of Henry V’s speech at the battle of Agincourt wherein he says that men abed in England would count their lives meaningless for not having been on that battlefield in France, Traherne says that the end of this journey will “be so glorious that angels dare not hope for so great a one till they had seen it.” Angels, in other words, can only hope to see God and creation in such a glorious light as the one Traherne is giving to his reader. We are in the presence, with the Centuries of Meditation, of a great man, of a man who aches only to show others the glories he himself has seen.


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