The Theosophical Forum – May 1945

THOMAS TRAHERNE: A PRACTICAL MYSTIC — Helen Savage

Like a rich vein of gold that remains long untouched within the rock and then one day is laid bare and mined, so is the personality and work of the seventeenth century mystic, Thomas Traherne. Though of some distinction in his own day, for two and a quarter centuries after his death the world forgot him, was, in fact, completely unaware how rich a treasure lay in obscurity and threatened with utter obliteration. Today, of course, anyone at all interested in Christian mysticism or acquainted with the masters of English prose, knows of Traherne, and has heard the story of his re-discovery: how the chance finding of two manuscript volumes in a secondhand book-barrow in London in 1895 was the beginning of a long and exciting course of literary detection which resulted in the resuscitation of the work of this vivid and radiant human being.

Not a small part of this work of reconstruction has been done by Gladys I. Wade, editor of The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne (Dobell, London, 1932). Miss Wade is an Australian scholar who had the good fortune to go to England on a research studentship to make a thorough study of all available Traherne material. The result of this labor is her recent work, a critical biography of Traherne (1) which is an invaluable contribution to the subject. With all her scholarship, there is nothing dry about the book; always is the picture of the man himself kept in clear focus, and she uses her wealth of fact but as means to give substance to the whole.

The outer events of Traherne's life are brief and soon told. (He died at the age of thirty-seven.) Miss Wade has followed every possible clue in telling the story. But what is important in this life is the record of an inner activity, the pushing forward and upward of a soul that had not drunk too heavily of the waters of Lethe before incarnation, and so had gone about life's business with a steady purpose, piercing through the veil of illusion which the world of sentient beings weaves about us, and reaching to the wonder of the Reality within.

His own writings — those that have been preserved for us — give this record of a soul unfolding, a recording that would be natural to one who was at once a mystic, a metaphysical poet, and a philosopher. It is a proof of his degree of advancement that he could speak of this inner activity quite impersonally and objectively. Yet there is no suggestion in his works that he merely repeats from other men's experience. He is the traveler telling his own story.

Traherne came into this world with a sort of celestial memory. He was born with the Divine Light about him, through which he saw the world transfigured. He writes:

How like an Angel came I down!
     How bright are all Things here!
When first among his Works I did appear
     0 how their Glory me did Crown!
The World resembled his Eternitie
     In which my Soul did Walk;
And every Thing that I did see,
     Did with me talk.

Inevitably this radiance was to fade; but not the memory of it. So that he was able almost consciously to watch the material life close about him. He went through the necessary "descent into matter," and in adolescence experienced that struggle that must come when the arc of descent is nearing its lowest point and the curve toward the luminous arc must be successfully turned. This was a time of confusion, skepticism, boredom, even of desolation at times — phases which if we only knew it are pointers to a soul-dissatisfaction at loitering in the dark valleys. Traherne recognised the signs and did not succumb.

When opportunity came for him to study at Oxford his natural intellectual eagerness came to the fore, and while his spiritual awakening was not until a later period, he revelled in the fields of knowledge that opened before him. "I saw there were things in this world of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination." He took delight in every subject that opened before him: logic, ethics, physics, metaphysics, geometry, astronomy, poesie, medicine, grammar, music and rhetoric, as he enumerates them. Everything became golden by the touch of his joyous imagination.

The renascence of learning in Europe was now in full swing, but Traherne discerned — though perhaps not fully in his undergraduate days — the one fault brought about by this inrush of immense ranges of scientific information. This fault was the tendency to put all branches of learning in separate compartments, all unrelated to the great whole. The relation of things to one another, and all as parts of a whole, a theme so earnestly discussed by the deepest thinkers of today, was something Traherne wrote passionately about over two and a half centuries ago. Except for the quaintness of language, how familiar sounding is the following from his Christian Ethicks:

He knoweth nothing he ought to know, who thinks he knoweth anything without seeing its Place, and the Manner how it relateth to God, Angels and Men, and to all the Creatures in Earth, Heaven, and Hell, Time and Eternity.

Skepticism of a kind was inevitable all during the University period. The character of each age is made by the type of egos that incarnate in it, and Traherne had, like so many of his contemporaries, the exploring mind of those who are scientifically alert. For him and others faith was not enough. What claimed to be truth must be capable of subjection to the searchlight of reason. The rites of Christian worship were meaningless to him. He was not willing to accept the Bible merely as traditional authority. Yet he saw revealed through the wealth of scientific fact of his day a Divine Power at work, a Designer. "The truth," says Miss Wade, "of revealed religion for Traherne is discovered by the beauty and glory of the greater pattern into which it and all truth fit."

It was a proof of the soundness and strength of his nature that he overthrew neither science nor religion, but sought by a union of reason and faith to recognise the One Truth which to our complex consciousness shows many aspects. Nor was Traherne content merely to reason God into existence. His experience in infancy excluded that possibility; but what he had yet to achieve was awareness of Divinity as an active power in his adult life. Miss Wade, by an examination of the Centuries of Meditation and other writings of Traherne, follows sympathetically and with discernment his growth towards the illumination he sought. She shows that it did not come in a sudden burst, nor did he "drift into holiness." Each step on the way was taken with a resolute will.

After leaving Oxford he gave up the opportunity of a lucrative career, possibly that of law, to follow the path of mysticism. He considered this a crucial decision in his life. Worldly, and worthy, ambition made the former path very alluring; but a deeper truer self within him knew that honors, wealth and fame were not what he wanted. There was a struggle, but the outcome was successful. He was true to his inner calling.

At the same time he was seeking inner purity, recognising that all evil action is first existent in thought and feeling. He therefore attacked seriously but not morbidly the problem of "mending himself." Miss Wade gives his own enumeration of his faults which he worked at assiduously: "a hot tongue, impatience with stupidity, resentfulness of contradiction, covetousness of money, a tendency to compromise in order to win popularity, vacillations of moods, waverings on this hard path of self-imposed discipline."

As rector of the small parish of Credenhill he practised to curb his too proud spirit. While uncompromising with his own faults, he sought to look upon his parishioners who "sinned," as spiritually sick and himself as their healer. His ideal was to "treat every man in the person of Christ. That is both as if himself were Christ in the greatness of his Love, and also as if the man were Christ." And with all the practical work of his parish he did not neglect his devotions, the description of which remind one of the "mortifications" spoken of in The Bhagavad-Gita — not the torture of the flesh, as the word often implies, but those "austerities" which teach our elemental nature its true position as servant not master.

In quite a different atmosphere from the narrow quiet world of Credenhill, he spent his last years in London as private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Seal. Here he did the best of his writing; and here it is more than likely he met some of those Platonic philosophers who were important figures in the Platonist movement of the day: Henry More, Cudworth, Whichcote and others. Traherne had been a student of Plato and the Neo-Platonists since his days at Oxford. He also studied the writings of Hermes Trismegistus. The theory that these are not of earlier composition than the third or fourth century was already forming in Traherne's day. But he held to the opinion of the early Church Fathers and others who said that they were of hoary antiquity.

That these Hermetic writings so nearly paralleled the teachings of St. John and St. Paul delighted him, for he saw in this but another corroboration of the oneness of all truth. To him there was nothing odd or heretical in the idea that God might have given man a revelation of truth before the time of Moses. And that Plato's teaching also coincided with this Hermetic philosophy, in his eyes enhanced the value of Plato.

Perhaps the kernel of wisdom that Traherne chiefly gleaned from these ancient writings was the conception of man, not as a miserable sinner, but as of divine ancestry. In his Christian Ethicks he quotes long passages from The Divine Pymander of Hermes, which contain sentences such as: "Wherefore we must be bold to say, that an Earthly Man is a Mortal God, and a Heavenly God is an Immortal Man." This of course but corroborated what he already knew to be true; for from the first his faith in humanity was based on the principle of affinity: that what is intrinsically god-like finds its true level among divine things.

In some particulars the recital of Traherne's adventure in mysticism may not be so different from that of other mystics. But there is a stimulation received from a study of him that is like a clear fresh wind. Whether he is chiding himself for his "fickle, staggering, paralytic piety," or exclaiming over the delicate sight of the corn "thick-bearded, and strong-headed" — in whatever mood, one feels in his writing that here was someone who knew what it was to be really alive, physically, mentally, and spiritually. He not only conceived Love as "the most Delightful and Natural Employment of the Soul of Man," but he was in large measure that love incarnate; and his was a love that excluded nothing. The magically intricate workings of the physical body were as much a source of wonder to him as the stars in the heavens. He seemed, in short, to have attained that third Way of visioning Truth which the Zen Buddhists teach: where Divinity shines through and illumines the world.

The present book under review is the first full-length biography and critical study of this seventeenth century mystic who sought and found the secret of spiritual joy. It is a work so finely executed that it leaves nothing to be asked for. The chapters on literary criticism are a delight; and throughout the whole work the author exhibits the enthusiasm that Traherne and his significant life have aroused in her.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Thomas Traherne: A Critical Biography. By Gladys I. Wade. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1944. $3.00. (return to text)


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