Friday, March 14, 2008



Thomas Traherne–Embarkation–Preface and Introduction

I began reading Waking Up in Heaven and was immediately struck by the editor’s voice. I felt like I had picked up the journal of an old friend, filled with chatty news and insights. I was very glad to find that the editor’s voice was so distinct, and very far from the decidedly preachy tone used by many religious/spiritual writers.

As I said, I came to Thomas Traherne via Phil Rickman’s atmospheric mystery Wine of Angels. The novel does not dwell on Traherne, and in fact only mentions him briefly and in passing. But it is a spiritual (not religious–there is a difference) novel nonetheless, and one guaranteed to leave goosebumps. I couldn’t help but wonder about the background of the story, which is set partially in modern-day Herefordshire and partly in the Herefordshire of Traherne’s time, the 17th century. I am myself a writer, and I love doing research. I find it’s one of the purest pleasures of my life. And I tend to almost immediately become swept up in new interests, which always leads, inevitably, to months of glorious research. Traherne caught my interest enough to send me off to Amazon with my debit card.

And so I began reading Waking Up in Heaven with delicious expectations and joy. I felt a new world was about to open up to me, and I have not been disappointed yet. The editor, David Buresh, in his Preface, lays out a series of questions he says Traherne posed, and I think those questions would be a wonderful reminder throughout this Traherne journey:

–How do we change our thinking and understand our desires?

–How can we talk with Jesus?

–How can we enjoy the world and every person in it?

–How can we love people the way Jesus does?

–How can we see all the treasures God has given us in creation?

–How can we overcome our sins and be restored?

–How can we fill our lives with joy and beauty?

That list sounds like a really decent guidepost. We are all very earthbound, very focused on the here-and-now, on the getting-and-spending, on being sure the contract goes through, the Starbucks is consumed, or the P.T.A. thinks we’re the best parent on the planet or a host of other things that keep us all so terribly busy. We are not in charge of our own thinking. Not even remotely. We allow ourselves to be bombarded by car ads, by supermodels and their too-perfect bodies, by the promise Suze Orman gives that we can all be rich just like she is if only we fork over $35 to hear every one of her valuable secrets. (I suspect the secret is simple–write a self-help book and charge $35 for it, and then you too can be as wealthy as she is, and everyone else like her who preys on the gullible and the lonely and the desperate. Dr. Phil didn’t get his mansion without hundreds of desperate people paying his mortgage for him, did he?)

There is too much noise, and we not only let it consume us, we actively encourage it, plugging our ears with iPods and Bluetooths (Blueteeth?) and rushing rushing rushing, always rushing. Heaven forfend that we should hear nothing for five minutes, that we should allow silence to fill even a nanosecond of our lives. I suspect that the truth here is both simple and painful–if we allow the silence, then we allow time for contemplation, time for those thoughts we keep at bay to gather round us like biting insects. Without the constant noise, we would be able to hear our own thoughts, our own fears, and our own darkest secrets. God, however, is in that silence. God is in “the still, small voice” experienced by the prophets. God is not in the noise. Therefore, we surround ourselves with this Not-God, we surround ourselves with our own abdication from all responsibility. Because if we let in the silence, we will hear God’s “still, small voice” and it will tell us something we don’t want to hear.

And so at the beginning of this journey, Buresh makes a point from Traherne, that we must change our thinking. It won’t be easy to do, and it won’t be painless. In fact, I think it will be a trial by fire, so to speak, a process that brings pain and tears but will also lead ultimately to great joy. From the refusal to allow the still, small voice, we cannot see the world as God sees it, we cannot love people the way Jesus does, and we most certainly cannot fill our lives with joy and beauty. There is (seemingly) precious little beauty in the world as it is, and I cannot help but wonder what the world could be like if people would just stop and hear the voice of God. Thomas Traherne did just that, and I am eager to walk awhile in his company.

Buresh uses C.S. Lewis as a bit of a game, he says, ever searching for references to Traherne in Lewis’s works. I think he missed one rather important reference in his own Preface when he says that, in Traherne, “seemingly common peasants turn out to be kings and queens.” I was reminded immediately of Narnia, of the four Pevensie children from Finchley receiving their own immortal crowns of glory. Lucy Pevensie stopped and listened quite carefully to the still, small voice, and it led her (and, eventually, her siblings) straight to the throne room of Heaven. The Pevensie children awoke one day in Narnia and were rewarded for their courage and their strength and their honor. They were rewarded for listening to the voice of God, for cutting through the noise of wartime England and hearing the quiet voice of Aslan. They awoke in Heaven.

I was transfixed at Buresh’s idea that a reader of Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation was in reality being gently guided down a path. The way Buresh describes it, this pathway is overgrown and we have in Traherne a guide through the brambles. The end will be to emerge into the world we already know, with the sublime difference that we will now see that world as Traherne saw it, in a completely new and spiritually enlightened way. And once we arrive at this new understanding, at this new view, Buresh tells us that “there is no return.” Once our eyes have been opened, they will stay that way, and we will forever see creation as Traherne did. This is both a comforting thing to contemplate, and a slightly unsettling one. We like to think we always have a way “out,” an escape route should things become uncomfortable; Buresh tells us that, with Traherne, there is no such thing. Once we arrive, we arrive, period. No going back. Today’s gospel (I am writing this on Sunday 2 March) dealt with the tale of the blind man, of his cure by Jesus Christ, and I found this oddly apropos to my reading of Buresh/Traherne. I wonder, did the blind man ever wish that Jesus had just left him alone? Did he ever wish that he couldn’t suddenly see? Did he ever long for the comfort of the darkness to which he was, after all, accustomed? And how did he put into context any of what he saw, giving the fact that he had never seen anything at all before? I think I may face this myself as I journey down Traherne’s overgrown path.

The review my dear friend sent me contains a wealth of information on Thomas Traherne, and serves as a really good springboard for Waking Up in Heaven. Today, we tend to either discount book reviews entirely, or place far too much store in them. The art of a good book review is, I fear, becoming a lost one. This particular review is impressive in its scope, and I found it to be quite informative. It gives a context for the figure of Dobell, mentioned in a quote from C.S. Lewis in Buresh’s introduction, for instance, wherein Lewis says that his Dobell edition has “lovely paper.”

As I write this, and look back on 3 solid pages of word processor text, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that 3 to 4 days is simply not enough time to devote to a chapter, and so I am probably going to go with a week between chapters.


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