Thursday, April 03, 2008

 

Traherne--Chapter Three

Traherne--Chapter Three

I began this meditative journey expecting, I think, to find myself agreeing with Traherne on almost every point. I arrive at Chapter Three finding myself disagreeing in some respects with some of his views. This is, of course, only to be expected, and is actually a positive thing. To agree 100 percent with anybody is a dangerous thing, and can lead only to your own heartbreak.

Do I think Traherne was a heretic? No, I don’t. I’m not sure if perhaps the editor occasionally goofed, or if the views are pure Traherne as Traherne meant them. I wrote my final bits for Chapter Two while feeling quite under the weather with fibromyalgia and while dealing with some internal demons of my own regarding several situations about which I am--or at least feel--powerless. Thus, I read with a mind already more than a little distracted with my own problems. This obviously colors how I saw everything, including Traherne. I saw his views as almost heretical, the idea that one human can know God’s thoughts--after all, this is precisely what the serpent offered, that our eyes would be opened and we would know…I am certain that Traherne cannot have meant it this way! It just seemed a bit off to me yesterday, that’s all.

I caught the reference to the stars and thought of astrology, or rather of what astrology was when it began, an attempt to scientifically understand the influences of the heavens upon the human body and mind. Astrology today has become so much dross. When men like John Dee were alive under Elizabeth I, it was a science to be reckoned with. This is the astrology that would have been much closer to Traherne’s stars. Just a passing thought about history on my part here, nothing really to say.

I also liked the reference to the non-importance of tennis balls. A direct reference, if I am not much mistaken, to the speech Henry V gives in Shakespeare’s play regarding the gift sent him by the king of France of tennis balls. They are meant as an insult, and Henry takes them as such. Man cannot be pleased though he possess millions, says Traherne, as those millions “are no more than so many tennis balls in comparison of the greatness and highness of his soul.”

Man strives after the wind, Traherne says. And he will reap only vanity by so doing. This put me in mind of Hosea 8:7--”When they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind.” Hosea in verse 4 of the same chapter says that the men of Israel “with their silver and gold…made idols for themselves, to their own destruction.” Traherne must be referring to this biblical passage for he is speaking again of the utter vanity of striving for material goods to the exclusion of God.

I thought immediately of Blake’s grain of sand when I read “You never see the world aright until you see how a sand exhibits the wisdom and power of God…” Pretty powerful stuff, this. And Traherne is saying that until we recognize God in the very small, we cannot see God’s presence or hand in the very large. This is something today’s physicists have recognized, and they take the search for meaning (whether they use the word ‘God’ or not) to the level of the quantum, to the level of the astronomically small.

We finally see the phrase “waking up in heaven” in this chapter. “Your enjoyment of the world is never right till every morning you awake in heaven, see yourself in your father’s palace, and look upon the skies, the earth and the air as celestial joys…as if you were among the angels. The bride of a monarch in her husband’s chamber has no such causes of delight as you.”

Traherne asks so very much of us, and I am certain he realized this when writing to his friend. It is virtually impossible to maintain this level of adoration and wonder in an everyday context. The world invades, slowly and insidiously, our every waking moment. We cannot escape it. Most mornings now I awaken in pain, and do not think first of God, nor even second or third or tenth. I have children, I have three books I am writing, I have bills to pay, I have breakfast to see to, I have….No, in this modern world it’s almost impossible to awake in heaven. I wish quite frequently for a simpler world, for a simpler existence, but in my personal everyday existence that’s just not going to happen. I long to be able to escape to the mountains, to dress as I wish to dress (this may sound silly to most, but I am deeply disaffected by the jeans and tees and sneakers that I wear, and I really want to dress more as I would have had I been alive in, say, the 1920s, in tweeds and twin-sets and such…I know that it could be done, but finding the time, not to mention the clothes at a reasonable price, leads only to headache), to write my books in peace and quiet without interruption, to be able to read Traherne’s magnificent book as it deserves to be read with full and undivided attention. Not gonna happen, and I am not so naïve as to think that it will. Only if I joined a convent, I think, would such things be allowed me.

Traherne goes on to speak of the “riches of darkness.” Traherne says that we “invent ways” to make ourselves miserable “in the presence of riches,” by which he means God’s riches. He then goes on to say that we follow instead after Satan and his riches, the riches of darkness. And we do so deliberately, willingly, even gladly. We invent ways to follow Satan rather than God. The truth of this can be seen in every war mankind has ever fought, in the face of every human allowed to starve to death, in the silent screams of every human neglected and allowed to die alone and friendless. “The works of darkness are repining, envy, malice, covetousness, fraud, oppression, discontent, and violence,” writes Traherne. He again urges us to look at the glowing stars rather than at the diamonds on our fingers.

Everything Traherne says makes sense, yet he offers no real advice thus far on how, exactly, to achieve this wondrous admiration of God’s works. He says we must do so, we must focus all of our energies on this, but he doesn’t tell us how. Again, we come up against the modern world that did not exist when Traherne was writing, a world he could not have imagined. “We need nothing but open eyes,” he writes, which was an easier thing to possess in the world in which he wrote. Short of entering a cloistered religious order, the noise of today’s world will impede on your life, on your prayers, on your meditations. I found myself wishing for a how-to manual by the middle of Chapter Three, and this alone shows how we think today. We want a DIY fix, and we want it now. We don’t want to have to sit there uncomfortably and think “yeah, Mr. Traherne, great, super, but look, buddy, show me the way already!” We don’t want to be alone with our own thoughts even so far as to work out a feasible way for ourselves.

Which brings me up against something else about Traherne and the world in which he wrote. Because, of course, none of his open-eyed seeing of God’s treasures would have been available to the lower classes. A hardscrabble life does not give itself easily to meditation or to the understanding that there are riches worth far more than money. To watch child after child die, to watch harvest after harvest wither, to watch a young girl become a wizened hag in mere years rather than decades…none of this would have given itself to seeing God in a grain of sand. The sand was just sand. The only hope of “waking up in heaven” that most people had was just that, an afterlife with God rather than an everyday experience while still alive. Traherne’s ease of noticing God’s greatness was an ease that would have been available to a select few. His words were addressed only to those who could read, and thus only to those who were educated. I cannot help but wonder if his flock heard these words at sermons, and what they thought of them if they did. I am not calling Traherne an elitist by any stretch, merely pointing out an historical reality. It would have been extremely difficult for the lowest classes to realize about the world that “all things in it are so perfectly yours that you cannot desire them any other way” while they themselves starved for want of a loaf of bread. Traherne was writing to the friend of a friend, a woman whose soul he wished to help on the way to the perfection of the angels, and so his words to ordinary people may have been very different, but those are not the words we are here studying. The biographical blip on the book’s end fold reminds us that Traherne was educated at Oxford, was a parish priest for a time, and was then the personal chaplain to Charles II’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Hardly a difficult life, or a poor one. The court of Charles II was not known for simplicity or religious thinking. Traherne wrote Centuries of Meditation to be read by one woman, not by a multitude, and that woman must have been wealthy and educated. To assume otherwise is naïve. Again, I am not bashing Traherne, merely saying that everyday people alive in the late 17th century would have had as difficult a time focusing on the glories of God’s riches as we do today.

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