The Abyss of Wonders
Thomas Traherne on Joy and Ecstasy in the Holy Cross
“…almost the most beautiful book in English.”—C. S. Lewis
“Love is so amiable that it is irresistible. There is no defence against that arrow, nor any deliverance in that war, nor any safeguard from that charm. Wilt thou not live unto Him? Thou must of necessity live, unto something. And what so glorious as His infinite Love?”—Thomas Traherne, The First Century (71)
Though obscure in his own lifetime—and for several centuries afterward—the works of Anglican priest and mystic Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) have slowly been revealed to the reading public, seemingly through happenstances. The previously unpublished manuscript of Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations was bought from a discount bookstall by an intrepid book collector unsure of its worth. In doing so, he claimed for the world a trove of jewels. Published in 1908, the book attracted more notice than the writer had ever experienced in life. And since then, and as late as the 1990s, more of his work has been reclaimed, sometimes through dramatic circumstances—including Commentaries of Heaven, found in a trash pit by a scavenger for car parts.
Traherne’s chief concern in Centuries is the pursuit and expression of God’s love for man. From this ever-flowing font, we are to live in unbridled joy and ecstasy. It is everywhere and fills all things: “…the Love of God, and the joys of heaven melt us into tears, comfort and enflame us, and, do all in a celestial manner, that the Sun can do in a terrene and earthly.” It is present always, and so, he exhorts the reader to take note:
“Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages: and neglect to see the beauty of all kingdoms, and despise the resentments of every soul, and busy themselves only with pots and cups and things at home, or shops and trades and things in the street: but do not live to God manifesting Himself in all the world, nor care to see (and be present with Him in) all the glory of His Eternal Kingdom. By seeing the Saints of all Ages we are present with them: by being present with them become too great for our own age, and near to our Saviour.”
This vision of periochoresis carries throughout the book, and therefore, Traherne follows in a tradition of mysticism oriented towards discovering the deepest meaning of reality beyond frail physical perception. As the world, and all in it, is lit by the created sun, so are we lit by the Uncreated Light of the Triune Godhead.
Perhaps that reads as too heady, but in reality, Trahenre’s greatest triumph lies in the simplicity of his approach. Following Christ’s words, he strives to see with the eyes of a child. This innocent and rapt sense of joy leads him to see not only glory in the lower creation, but recognize mankind as the target of God’s creative and redemptive actions:—
“He tendereth thee as the apple of His eye. He hath set His heart upon thee: Thou art the sole object of His eye, and the end of all His endeavours.”
Reacting to this, Trahenre sees a joyful duty in not only loving God but loving his fellow man. He writes: “When you love them, they are your treasures; when they love you, to your great advantage you are theirs.”
The timely appearance of Traherne during the tumults of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries signifies a great return for those who are knowingly, or unknowingly, searching for both re-enchantment with the world and to fall back in love with God. The book is highly recommended and can be purchased easily from Eighth Day Books.
All the numbered sections of Centuries follow the main pattern of joy in God’s creation and love, yet each one flows easily into another, allowing smaller narrative arcs to form as subsets of the grander theme. Numbers 54-61 of The First Century have been selected for Traherne’s potent meditation on the Holy Cross of Christ. Its combination of sobriety and rightful inebriation is moving and poetic.
He that is in all, and with all, can never be desolate. All the joys and all the treasures, all the counsels, and all the perfections, all the angels, and all the saints of God are with him. All the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them are continually in his eye. The patriarchs, prophets, and Apostles are always before Him. The councils and the fathers, the bishops and the doctors minister unto him. All temples are open before him, the melody of all quires reviveth him, the learning of all universities doth employ him, the riches of all palaces delight him, the joys of Eden ravish him, the revelations of St. John transport him, the creation and the day of Judgment please him, the Hosannas of the church militant and the Hallelujahs, of the Saints Triumphant fill him, the splendour of all coronations entertain him, the joys of Heaven surround him, and our Saviour’s cross, like the Centre of Eternity, is in him; it taketh up his thoughts, and exerciseth all the powers of his soul, with wonder, admiration, joy and thanksgiving. The Omnipotence of God is his House, and Eternity his habitation.
The contemplation of Eternity maketh the Soul immortal. Whose glory it is, that it can see before and after its existence into endless spaces. Its Sight is its presence. And therefore in the presence of the understanding endless, because its Sight is so. O what glorious creatures should we be could we be present in spirit with all Eternity! How wise, would we esteem this presence of the understanding, to be more real than that of our bodies! When my soul is in Eden with our first parents, I myself am there in a blessed manner. When I walk with Enoch, and see his translation, I am transported with him. The present age is too little to contain it. I can visit Noah in his ark, and swim upon the waters of the deluge. I can see Moses with his rod, and the children of Israel passing through the sea; I can enter into Aaron’s Tabernacle, and admire the mysteries of the holy place. I can travel over the Land of Canaan, and see it overflowing with milk and honey; I can visit Solomon in his glory, and go into his temple, and view the sitting of his servants, and admire the magnificence and glory of his kingdom. No creature but one like unto the Holy Angels can see into all ages. Sure this power was not given in vain, but for some wonderful purpose; worthy of itself to enjoy and fathom. Would men consider what God hath done, they would be ravished in spirit with the glory of His doings. For Heaven and Earth are full of the majesty of His glory. And how happy would men be could they see and enjoy it! But above all these our Saviour’s cross is the throne of delights. That Centre of Eternity, that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of God!
There are we entertained with the wonder of all ages. There we enter into the heart of the universe. There we behold the admiration of Angels. There we find the price and elixir of our joys. As on every side of the earth all heavy things tend to the centre; so all nations ought on every side to flow in unto it. It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the Soul, that we travel thither. By withdrawing our thoughts from wandering in the streets of this World, to the contemplation and serious meditation of His blood sufferings. Where the carcase is thither will the eagle be gathered together. Our eyes must be towards it, our hearts set upon it, our affections drawn, and of thoughts and minds united to it. When I am lifted up, saith the Son of Man, I will draw all men unto me. As fishes are drawn out of the water, as Jeremie was drawn out of the dungeon, as St. Peter’s sheet was drawn up into Heaven; so shall we be drawn by that sight from Ignorance and Sin, and Earthly vanities, idle sports, companions, feast and pleasures, to the joyful contemplation of that Eternal Object. But by what cords? The cords of a man, and the cords of Love.
As eagles are drawn by the scent of a carcase, children are drawn together by the sight of a lion drawn people flock to a coronation, and as a man is drawn his beloved object, so ought we. As the sick drawn by the credit of a physician, as the poor drawn by the liberality of a King, as the devout drawn by the fame of the Holy, and as the curious drawn by the noise of a miracle, so ought we. As stones were drawn to the building of Thebes by Melody of Amphion, as the hungry are drawn with desire of a feast, and the pitiful, drawn to a woe spectacle, so ought we. What visible chains or cords draw these ? What invisible links allure? They follow all, or flock together of their own accord. And shall not we much more! Who would not be drawn to the Gate of Heaven, were it open to receive him ? Yet nothing compels him, but that which forceth the Angels, Commodity and Desire. For those are things which the Angels desire to look into. And of men it is written, They shall look on Him whom they have pierced. Verily the Israelites did not more clearly see the brazen serpent upon the pole in the wilderness, than we may our Saviour upon the Cross. The serpent was seen with their eyes, the slayer of the serpent is seen with our Souls. They had less need to see the one, than we to see the other.
The Cross is the abyss of wonders, the centre of desires, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theatre of joys, and the place of sorrows; It is the root of happiness, and the gate of Heaven.
Of all the things in Heaven and Earth it is the most peculiar. It is the most exalted of all objects. It is an Ensign lifted up for all nations, to it shall the Gentiles seek, His rest shall be glorious: the dispersed of Judah shall be gathered together to it, from the four corners of the earth. If Love be the weight of the Soul, and its object the centre, all eyes and hearts may convert and turn unto this Object: cleave unto this centre, and by it enter into rest. There we might see all nations assembled with their eyes and hearts upon it. There we may see God’s goodness, wisdom and power: yea His mercy and anger displayed. There we may see man’s sin and infinite value. His hope and fear, his misery and happiness. There we might see the Rock of Ages, and the Joys of Heaven. There we may see a Man loving all the world, and a God dying for mankind. There we may see all types and ceremonies, figures and prophecies. And all kingdoms adoring a malefactor: An innocent malefactor, yet the greatest in the world. There we may see the most distant things in Eternity united: all mysteries at once couched together and explained. The only reason why this Glorious Object is so publicly admired by Churches and Kingdoms, and so little thought of by particular men, is because it is truly the most glorious: It is the Rock of Comforts and the Fountain of Joys. It is the only supreme and sovereign spectacle in all Worlds. It is a Well of Life beneath in which we may see the face of Heaven above: and the only mirror, wherein all things appear in their proper colours: that is, sprinkled in the blood of our Lord and Saviour.
The Cross of Christ is the Jacob’s ladder by which we ascend into the highest heavens. There we see joyful Patriarchs, expecting Saints, Prophets ministering, Apostles publishing, and Doctors teaching, all Nations concentering, and Angels praising. That Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame, that Illuminateth all the world. The flame is Love: the Love in His bosom who died on it. In the light of which we see how to possess all the things in Heaven and Earth after His similitude. For He that suffered on it was the Son of God as you are: tho’ He seemed only a mortal man. He had acquaintance and relations as you have, but He was a lover of Men and Angels. Was he not the Son of God; and Heir of the whole world? To this poor, bleeding, naked Man did all the corn and wine, and oil, and gold and silver in the world minister in an invisible manner, even as He was exposed lying and dying upon the Cross.
Here you learn all patience, meekness, self-denial, courage, prudence, zeal, love, charity, contempt of the world, penitence, contrition, modesty, fidelity, constancy, perseverance, contentation, holiness, and thanksgiving: With whatsoever else is requisite for a Man, a Christian, or a King. This Man bleeding here was tutor to King Charles the Martyr: and Great Master to St. Paul, the convert who learned of Him activity, and zeal unto all nations. Well therefore may we take up with this prospect, and from hence behold all the things in Heaven and Earth. Here we learn to imitate Jesus in His love unto all.