Friday, March 14, 2008

 

Trials and Tribulations

This has been a trying week for yours truly, and I feel fortunate to even be writing this entry. The week really began when I took my youngest daughter to the emergency room with abdominal pain on Sunday night. Thankfully, it was not appendicitis. On the other hand, they have no idea what caused (and continues to cause) the pain, even after an ultrasound. And so we are relying rather heavily on the healing powers of Motrin, and waiting to see if the problem persists.

And then my bank account went into the red through (partially only) my own negligence and bad record keeping (hey, I’ve been rather on edge of late, so a lapse in accounting may perhaps be excused) and I will therefore likely end up with my website suspended, and therefore I am posting everything on Blogger as well.

In the middle of all of this, I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and last night the pain was so severe it brought me to tears.

And so, I have not been keeping up with the Traherne. But then again, don’t my (albeit self-inflicted in some aspects) trials and tribulations prove that I should be meditating? It’s when we are attempting to become spiritually whole that the devil flits about our lives like a biting fly, isn’t it? And yes, I do believe in Satan’s existence.

All of which is a rather long intro to today’s post, but I wanted to get stuff off my chest. The Chapter Two post will be a many-parter, because I found myself pausing frequently to ponder and then ponder yet more (all while crying and basically freaking out in a small, quiet way). I will post my own thoughts over the next few days.

 

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.

 

Traherne--Embarkation

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.

 

Ratty Ponderings

Wow, LONG time since I posted! And a really long time since I moderated pending comments. I’ve got to wonder if I LOOK like a blogger who needs super-hot Asian chicks or and extra-long thingy…And then I have to ask myself–do these idiots actually think they’ll get approved for posting?

Anyway, welcome one and all to the Year of the Rat, which is already forecasted to be a depressing, dismal, and possibly catastrophic year. Yay. Yippee.

And with a New Year come thoughts of a new path for yours truly. I’ve been wandering down many different spiritual paths, and have been having a truly wonderful learning experience whilst so doing. I’ve found the writings of Thomas Traherne, a 17th-century Englishman, and have been giving myself over to the cadence of his voice, to the peace and power of his words. A truly great man, sadly virtually unknown in America.

And so my blog, like me, will be taking a different tack. Heretofore, I’ve been outright political, and I will still focus on political issues, but I also think I need some “me” time, some time to sort out my own noggin and my own inner searcher.

I wonder–do we humans ever reach a limit on learning, on searching? I hope not. In the movie “Hogfather”, the character of Death is stunned that humanity can ever, EVER be bored. After all, we live in a pretty amazing universe…

 

Companions on the Journey

I am sitting here today with an amazing book in my hands. It’s a modern “translation” of a work by the great 17th-century religious mystic Thomas Traherne, entitled Waking Up in Heaven. This posting is an invitation for folks to join me as I read this book, to read it along with me and leave comments, etc. The ISBN of the book is 0-9721602-1-3 and it can be purchased from Amazon by following this link .

I discovered Traherne in a rather unusual manner, via a horror novel. The novel, the first in a series chronicling the adventures of a female vicar-exorcist named Merrily Watkins, is by Phil Rickman, and is entitled The Wine of Angels. (The ISBN for this book is 0-330-34268-1, Amazon information at this link ) In the novel, Ms. Watkins and her daughter move into the vicarage of a little Herefordshire U.K. town called Ledwardine, and as Merrily is the local exorcist (her bosses prefer the term “deliverance” expert) as well as the vicar, strange and disturbing things begin happening literally in her backyard. She delves into the life of a 17th-century vicar of Ledwardine, Will Williams, who had been a good friend of Traherne. The town and the character of Williams are fictional, but Rickman does a splendid job intriguing his readers about Thomas Traherne.

And so, my invitation to come along on my little journey. Comments are welcome, and I would love to hear if others have already found Traherne, etc.

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