Thomas Traherne was a visionary spiritual poet, writing in the seventeenth century. He is closely associated with Hereford and was probably born there. Apart from his time at Brasenose college, Oxford he spent his life in the area, working closely with the clergy of the cathedral and developing a close association with the living of Credenhill as minister of the parish. He was rooted in Herefordshire and well known as a clever, pious and faithful man. He also talked too much, was passionate in his beliefs and well able to argue a point. All this made the work of loving his parishioners hard and frustrating. He believed in practical help and care for those in need and lived this principle out all his life. He was also a prolific writer and his subject was his constant conviction of God’s love and grace which he saw around him in creation. His writing is exhilarating, overflowing with the sheer joy of being alive. Only one of his works was published during his lifetime followed by another a year later but more work has recently been discovered, increasing his reputation.
I was lucky enough to spend time in the Audley chapel in Hereford cathedral recently, where a set of new stained glass windows, designed by Tom Denny, were dedicated in 2007. Stained glass is a perfect medium in which to pay tribute to Traherne, reflecting his love of light and beauty. I have chosen some quotations from his writing, brought to mind by my photographs of the windows, and added a few thoughts of my own. Whether you share a faith with Thomas or not I hope that you will share my delight in looking at his work, alongside that of Tom Denny, and admire his capacity for love and his delight in everything around him.
Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another World beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious Skie
Reversed there abus’d mine Eys,
I fancy’d other feet
Came mine to touch and meet;
As by som puddle I did play
Another World within it lay.
Water has always fascinated people. It is a necessity for life, of course, but it has also played a part in many religious rituals over the centuries, as a sign of purification and new life. Looking into water fires up the imagination as it moves constantly and sequences of reflections and colours dance over the surface of a pond or stream, or move powerfully in the tides of the great oceans. As Thomas looks into a simple puddle he is led to wonder about other worlds and spiritual possibilities.
You are as prone to love, as the sun is to shine.
It being the most Delightfull and Natural Employment
of the Soul of Man: without which you are Dark and
Miserable, consider therefore the extent of Lov, its vigor
This is a magnificent statement. We are not only able to love as human beings, it is in our nature. It is what we are born for, and it radiates from us as naturally as the sunshine. We are at our happiest when we love. Knowing this we should not take this natural ability for granted. We should foster it, and give thought to how powerful our capacity for love is, and celebrate it as a gift given by our creator, a little bit of God inside each one of us.
O Joy! O Wonder and Delight!
O Sacred Mysterie!
My Soul a spirit Infinit!
an image of the Deitie!
A pure substantiall light!
That being Greatest which doth Nothing seem!
why twas my All, I nothing did esteem
But that alone, A Strange Mysterious sphere!
A Deep Abyss
That sees and is
the only Proper Place or Bower of Bliss.
To its Creator tis so near
In lov and Excellence
In life and Sence,
In Greatness Worth and Nature; And so Dear;
In it, without Hyperbole,
The Son and friend of God we see.
The belief that we have a spirit, a part of us which is not physical but a little bit of God inside each one of us, an unending core of our being which will go back to our maker when our physical body dies, is a very powerful image. This quotation is Thomas expressing his awe at the thought that it could be true. He is an ordinary man, frail and seemingly transient, apparently worth nothing, but he carries a part of the glory of almighty God within him. However unworthy he may seem to be there is a part of him which is worth God’s friendship and care as a father and he delights in that.
The Cross is the Abyss of Wonders. the Centre of Desires, the Scole of Virtues, the hous of Wisdom, the Throne of Lov, the Theatre of Joys, and the Place of sorrows. It is the Root of Happiness and the Gate of Heaven.
This is not the place to try to do it, but you could unravel that statement and find almost all of Christian theology within it. It is a masterpiece of brevity and clarity. Beyond that statement everything else is just filling in the details.
By the very Right of your Sences you Enjoy the World. Is not the Beauty of the Hemisphere present to your Ey? Doth not the Glory of the Sun pay Tribut to your Sight? Is not the Vision of the WORLD an Amiable thing? Do not the Stars shed Influences to Perfect the Air? Is not that a marvellous Body to Breath in? To visit the Lungs: repair the spirits: revive the Sences: Cool the Blood: fill the Empty Spaces between the Earth and Heavens; and yet giv Liberty to all Objects? Prize these first : and you shall Enjoy the Residue. Glory, Dominion, Power, Wisdom, Honor, Angels, Souls, Kingdoms, Ages. Be faithfull in a little, and you shall be master over much.
When all is said and done this is an astonishing and beautiful world to be alive in. Whether you believe that you will continue on, or feel that you are a brief flash of consciousness, only here for a short while, there is no clearer rallying call than this to wake up and enjoy creation while you are fortunate enough to walk among it.
Infinity of Space is like a Painters Table prepared for the Ground and feild of those Colors that are to be laid thereon. Look how great he intends the picture, so Great doth he make the Table.
Infinity is an impossible concept for our mind to grasp. Thomas invites us to look at what we can see and experience and imagine it as an ambitious painters preparations- an array of brushes, paints and palletes which will produce something far greater than what is in front of our eyes.
O Wondrous Self! O Sphere of Light,
O Sphere of Joy most fair;
O Act, O power infinit;
O subtile and unbounded Air!
O Living Orb of Sight!
Thou which within me art, yet Me! Thou Ey,
And Temple of his Whole Infinitie!
O what a world art Thou! a World within!
All things appear,
All objects are
Alive in thee! supersubstancial, Rare,
Abov themselves, and nigh of Kin
To those pure Things we find
In his Great Mind
Who made the World! tho now Ecclypsed by Sin.
There thev are Usefull and Divine,
Exalted there they ought to Shine.
This is a contemplation of the wonder of the human spirit, using the sun as a starting point.
I that so long
Was Nothing from Eternitie,
Did little think such Joys as Ear or Tongue,
To Celebrate or See:
Such Sounds to hear, such Hands to feel, such feet,
Beneath the skies, on such a Ground to meet.
For anyone who tries to contemplate it the fact that each one of us was nothing for eternity, waiting for the moment of our birth is both astonishing and difficult to comprehend. I can remember wondering as a child, given that I imagined time going on into infinity both forward and back, how it ever got to the actual moment when I was born. That tiny spark of life created in the womb could have no idea of the beauties and excitements waiting for it in the outside world. It is another simple assertion by Thomas of what a wonderful privilege it is to be alive.
My thanks to my friend Catherine for showing me the windows and my friend Elizabeth for showing me the poems.