The Basics of Enjoyment (A Day with Thomas Traherne, Part 2)

The concept and practice of enjoyment are central to Traherne’s writing. The 2nd part of “A Day with Thomas Traherne,” is, therefore, focused on the idea of enjoyment itself. These are stepping stones that will lead you to a practice of enjoyment.

1. A Definition of Enjoyment.

From Webster’s Dictionary:

  • Enjoy: to have for one’s use, benefit, or lot: EXPERIENCE.
  • To take pleasure or satisfaction in

Enjoyment is an antidote to:

  1. Controlling things and people,
  2. Jealousy and envy,
  3. Depression,
  4. Lethargy, anxiety, and despair,
  5. Attachment

Esther de Waal, who captured the spirit of Traherne in her writings, said:

“The gift of sight was after all one of God’s earliest gifts to the earthling, the dust-person in the garden of Eden, and in Genesis we are given that first glimpse of the sight of beauty: ‘every tree that is pleasant to the sight.’ Did Adam and Eve at first enjoy those trees, and see them with wonder and delight, and did everything change with the desire to possess the fruit of the tree? Was that when things began to go wrong? Are we being told about the connection between wonder and delight and non-attachment – about standing back with reverence and awe and being aware of the destructive impulse of wanting to own and to control?” (Esther de Waal, Lost in Wonder, p. 57).

2.  The Philosophy of Enjoyment.

Philosophy is a ‘love of wisdom,’ and enjoyment is concerned with how we know. When we enjoy things, we know them. Enjoyment is a connection between the possessor (the knower) and the thing possessed (the thing known).

3.  C. S. Lewis & Enjoyment.

The idea of ‘enjoyment’ captivated C.S. Lewis in his years as a student at Oxford University. It was closely tied to the theme of ‘joy’, and played a central role in his autobiography. This may be part of why Traherne was one of C.S. Lewis’s favorite devotional and philosophical writers.

C.S. Lewis wrote the following, at the age of 31, in a letter to his best friend, Arthur Greeves:

“Almost ever since the Vac. began, I have been reading a little every evening in Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations (Dobell. About 7/–, Lovely paper). I forget whether we have talked of it or not. I think he suffers by making out everything much too easy and really shirking the problem of evil in all its forms: at least, as far as I have got, for it is unfair to say this of a book not yet finished. But apart from this he has extraordinary merits. What do you think of the following: — ‘The world. . . is the beautiful frontispiece to Eternity’ – ‘You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and croned with the stars. . . till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold’ – ‘I must lead you out of this into another world to learn your wants. For till you find them you will never be happy’ – ‘They (i.e. Souls) were made to love and are dark and vain and comfortless till they do it. Till they love they are idle or misemployed. Till they love they are desolate.’ But I could go on quoting from this book forever.”

4. Enjoyment in the Book of Common Prayer.

The following excerpt is taken from “An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism”, Section on God the Father, The Book of Common Prayer.

Q.  What do we learn about God as creator from the revelation to Israel?
A.  We learn that there is one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

Q.  What does this mean?
A.  This means that the universe is good, that it is the work of a single loving God who creates, sustains, and directs it.

Q.  What does this mean about our place in the universe?
A.  It means that the world belongs to its creator; and that we are called to enjoy it and to care for it in accordance with God’s purposes.

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Traherne’s Challenges (A Day with Thomas Traherne, Part 1)

Traherne’s primary message in Centuries of Meditations is that the world is our ‘possession’ to enjoy as soon as we’re born, and that our lifelong challenge is to joyfully manage everything that God has given us. In contrast, other people often teach us that we have nothing when we enter the world, unless of course we are born into privilege, and that we must learn to acquire and control as much as possible.

In our efforts to enjoy the world, we can lean on the cross of Christ to free us from our self-poisoning control of people and things. Then, we ‘ll naturally respond to this enjoyment with overflowing praise to God.

The Challenges

At the beginning of Centuries of Meditations, Traherne offers eleven challenges to enjoy the world, each touching on some dimension or element of the world.

Challenge #1: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right till you so esteem it, that everything in it is more your treasure than a king’s exchequer full of gold and silver. And that exchequer yours also in its place and service.”

Challenge #2: “You never enjoy the world aright till you see how a sand exhibits the wisdom and power of God, and prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting his glory and goodness to your soul far more than the visible beauty on their surface or the material services they can do your body.”

Challenge #3: “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, having such a reverent esteem of all, as if you were among the angels.”

Challenge #4: “You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself flows in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

Challenge #5: “Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.”

Challenges #6-10: “Till your spirit fills the whole world, and the stars are your jewels;
Till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all ages as with your walk and table;
Till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made;
Till you love men so as to desire their happiness with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own;
Till you delight in God for being good to all;
You never enjoy the world.”

Challenge #11: “Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it.”

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A Day with Thomas Traherne

A little enjoyment of the world and all the people in it can go a long way. In her book, Lost in Wonder, Esther deWaal  quotes the Jewish proverb, “On the day of Judgment God will only ask one question: Did you enjoy my world.” And in the Catechism portion of the Book of Common Prayer, the answer to the question, “What does this mean about our place in the universe?” is, “It means that the world belongs to its creator; and that we are called to enjoy it and to care for it in accordance with God’s purposes.”

Traherne was committed to what I think of as the discipline of enjoyment. He believed that enjoyment could be learned, cultivated and improved. When I met Denise Inge in 2005, she suggested the idea of offering “A Day with Thomas Traherne” in the Washington, DC area. Since then, I’ve facilitated several half-day retreats, where people explore some of Traherne’s writings for the first time and reflect on ways to enjoy the world more tangibly.

In the next few blogs, I’d like to share a possible framework for your own “Day with Thomas Traherne.”

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Ronald Blythe Describes a Traherne Festival in Credenhill

This past Christmas, a long-time family friend and fellow bibliophile and anglophile, Katherine Brown, gifted me with Ronald Blythe’s Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year.  She and I took a 17th century literature class together at University of Maryland way back in the spring of 1986, and she later gave me suggestions for my contemporary edition of Centuries of Meditations in 2002. So, she guessed that Blythe’s references to Traherne, along with his brilliant descriptions of the English countryside, would strike a chord. She guessed right!

On pages 131-132, Mr. Blythe describes his participation in a Traherne Festival organized by Richard Birt in Credenhill, Herefordshire in the ‘90’s. My family and I participated in similar Traherne Festivals in 2004 and 2005, but I could never describe it so elegantly. He gave words to the memory of this extraordinary event near the Welsh border. Here is his description in full:

“C.S. Lewis once described Traherne’s Centuries as ‘almost the most beautiful thing in English literature’. Certainly, this marvelous book comes very near to being the happiest thing in English Christianity. After my lecture at the Traherne Festival a young man, who was about the same age as the poet when he wrote Centuries, stood up to ask, simply, ‘how could he?’ How could he be so joyfully affirmative when he must have witnessed Civil War horrors of Bosnian ghastliness? Well, how could he? I had no answer. We were in Credenhill church on the eve of Trinity Sunday, a place which with Little Gidding and Bemerton is part of a wonderful triune Anglican ‘intelligence’. The church stands high up above the Wye and it was filled with those who, like myself, require their saints to be wordsmiths. The forging of Centuries, and the priest-poet’s other writings, was certainly miraculous. Thomas Traherne was hungry, ravenous, for joy, but for fame he appeared to have no appetite at all. He begs all kinds of questions. How, for instance, could such a glorious writer be content to write for just one pair of eyes – those of a Mrs. Hopton, who had temporarily slipped into popery, and who had to be reconfirmed in Anglicanism via his ecstatic and unique language? But then we haven’t much to go on in this direction. My young questioner hazarded that celebrated passages such as ‘The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat’ was in effect an elegy on the lovely Hereford of Traherne’s childhood which the bloody fighting and mayhem of the 1640s had ruined.

“I felt overwhelmed to be reading Traherne’s writings in the church where his voice had sounded. Mine and the other scholars’ papers failed to explain him. Nor could we bring him to the real attention of those listening to us, for his is that form of happiness which travels at the speed of light, and is well on its way in a single spoken sentence from his work. When Richard Birt inspired these Trinity gatherings at Credenhill five years ago, his purpose was partly to re-establish the claims of happiness and delight as being a necessary aspect of the Christian experience. Traherne’s is the ultimate apology for such claims.

“Outside, thin skeins of summer rain blurred the Black Mountains. The park trees were drenched and shadowy, and the steep path up which Traherne climbed to his matins was wet and glittering. ‘When I came into the Country, and being seated among silent Trees, and had all my Time in my own Hands, I resolved to spend it all, whatever it cost me, in Search of Happiness.’ He did not have to search far.”

From Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year, Ronald Blythe, First Published by Viking, 1997.
pp. 131-132

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Dorothy Sayers Compares Traherne to Dante and Wordsworth

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), was a noted English novelist, essayist, poet, dramatist, and translator. She is one of the first women ever to receive a degree from Oxford University. In 1957, the last year of her life, she gave a lecture entitled “The Beatrician Vision in Dante and Other Poets” at the University of Nottingham. It was later published in Nottingham Mediaeval Studies (1958, Vol. II).

She opens the lecture with: “It is a favourite pastime of literary critics to debate the question: ‘Why did Wordsworth lose his inspiration?’ The cognate question, ‘Why did Dante not lose his?’ seldom appears among the quodlibets.” She later adds Thomas Traherne to her short list of poets who did not lose their inspiration. Giving this lecture during the last year of her life could be viewed as a testimony to her not having lost her inspiration through the many ups and downs of her life – and anyone familiar with Sayers’ life knows that it had its severe trials.

The lecture is a survey, an analysis, and a meditation. In terms of a survey, at least half of the lecture consists of direct quotes, mostly from Wordsworth’s poetry and Traherne’s poetry and prose. It contains an education in and of itself. The following is Sayers’ conclusion:

“I have endeavoured to sketch a certain fundamental pattern in the spiritual experience of four poets who appear to have gone by the same way to the final goal of all vision. Dante, Blake and Traherne attained the goal, and carried their poetry with them; Wordsworth, as a man, did perhaps attain, but somehow lost much of his poetry by the way. I suggest that Wordsworth’s comparative failure was due to a turning inward of the spiritual eye, which led to the loss of his authentic inspiration: the intuition of the divine in an Image extraneous to the self. Those who knew him in his old age said that he impressed them as a man ‘living in the presence of God by habitual recollection.’ But, as Professor Lascelles Abercrombie has said, ‘to live self-conscious in a mystical experience of the Divine Being of the impersonal world, as transcendent as any mystic’s experience of his personal God, is to live, as unspeakably alone; and that, for many years, was Wordsworth’s experience.’ From this exalted and intolerable solitude, Wordsworth managed to withdraw – first into an effort to find community with his fellow-men, and finally, it would seem, into communion with a God more personal, and in that sense more orthodox, than the ‘God of Nature.’ But in finding this inner peace, he could not take his art with him. To quote Abercrombie again: ‘the crucial change in Wordsworth was a retreat from that mystical experience of the world which entailed a loneliness he could no longer support. When he cut himself off from this, he cut off the native inspiration of his poetry.’” (Nottingham Mediaeval Studies, Vol. II, 1958, pp. 22-23)

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Poem about Traherne, by Robert Siegel

It never fails to surprise me when I come across another noted author or poet whose vision of the world was influenced by Thomas Traherne. I recently happened upon this poem by Robert Siegel (1939-2012), an American poet and novelist. It is certainly worth sharing. Enjoy!

TRAHERNE

     The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never
     should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it
     had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust
     and stones of the street were as precious as gold;
     the gates were at first the end of the world.
               — Centuries

               1

In God’s green camp you sit in a silk tent,
flowers springing under your feet, intent upon
marigolds, goldenrod—sweet ragweed—
Ferdinand forgetful of the fly
which shakes the air with its small news of war.
The ramparts of the camp unwatched, you think:

Let Charles the Martyre go and Cromwell come,
turning his ear to horn inside the coach
while George Fox running beside it shouts for peace—
still at the still point Thy Kingdom comes.

We marvel how an angel like you came—
when precious stones were smoothed for every sling
that flickered at Goliath in the clouds—
to gather ordinary stones from the road
and wash them till they shone in a sluice of light.

               2

The smallest grain of wheat would light the ground
like the sun or perhaps the moon gorging
on the summer air—
                                        each drop of dew,
a world lying spendthrift in the grass,
and the sky dreaming between wheel-ruts
an image of the soul.
                                        In the best sense simple,
each word is a single drop in a still pool,
a leaf turned up by the barest stitch of wind,
accommodating as the edge of a lake and yet
resting at its own level.

                    To read your prose we need a kind
of smoked glass. Each sentence flashes like gold
dredged from the sea’s grave—the absolutely
real, from which we startle like fish
streaking to hide in a thick net of dreams.

               3

Suppose a river, a drop of water, an apple, or a sand.
Suppose the object in the patina of being,
cushioned on the infinitude of God, a light shifting
like a rainbow on the lake’s sandy bottom.

Here is the promised rest—a motion and a rest—
the soul, Ezekiel’s wheel full of eyes,
wings unfurling candescent Beatrice
while red and white and green dancers shift their ground.

Suppose a curious and fair woman, like this one
tense with the lineaments of fire,
busy about the two infernal refugees
dragged from the pit.
                                        The poet turns to his guide,
the film through which everything might be borne—
gone, nothing now but fire beating air.

 

Copyright 2006 by Robert Siegel
Published in Pentecost of Finches: New and Selected Poems (Paraclete Press)

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The Trinity of Love

One of Traherne’s most poetic and profound concepts is the Trinity of Love. Though the origin of the concept can be traced back to Augustine, the poetic quality of Traherne’s explication is uniquely his own. It occupies approximately 30 of Traherne’s meditations in the 2nd Century.

Professor Martz  explains its role in the Centuries:

“Thus Traherne moves toward the central portion of his Second Century, containing his highly Augustinian analysis of the Trinitarian nature of Love, both in God, and in man. The theme emerges in all its formal grandeur at the opening of Meditation 39: “God by Loving Begot His Son. For God is Lov. And by loving He begot His Lov.” So begins the mode of interpretation that dominates the next thirty meditations; a trinity of Love is found at work throughout the universe.” (The Paradise Within, p. 74)

Martz goes on to highlight Traherne’s striking statement about man propagating himself through love:

“’By Loving a Soul does Propagat and beget it self,’ Traherne declares: ‘when it loveth, it gaineth Three Subsistencies in it self by the Act of Loving. A Glorious Spirit that Abideth within: a Glorious Spirit that floweth in the Stream. A glorious Spirit that resideth in the Object.’” Century 2.56 (TPW, p. 75)

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Traces of God in Creation

Building on the challenges and encouragements in Traherne’s First Century, Professor Martz helps us embrace Traherne’s Second Century as an aid to finding the traces of God in creation. Martz points to two Traherne passages that could stimulate our imaginations over a lifetime:

“The Services which the World doth you, are transcendent to all Imagination. . . . it Discovers the Being of GOD unto you, It opens His Nature, and shews you his Wisdom Goodness and Power. . . It enflameth you with the Lov of God, and is the link of your Union and Communion with Him.”

“If you desire Directions how to enjoy [the world], Place yourself in it as if no one were Created besides your self. And consider all the services it doth, even to you alone”.

One may, on first pass, be inclined to think of this as a selfish view of the world. But, on the contrary, it is a step towards freedom from selfishness. This way of viewing the world is a path back towards Eden and Paradise. As Martz says, “One must return by memory to Eden, become like the unfallen Adam in imagination.” (The Paradise Within, p. 69). It is not surprising that Martz connects Traherne to the essence of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Traherne will elaborate on this theme of finding traces of God in Creation throughout the rest of his Centuries.

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Professor Martz’s Structural Study of Traherne’s Centuries

A. Leigh Deneef, in his important study, Traherne in Dialogue, noted that Louis Martz’s The Paradise Within, is one of the most important structural studies of Traherne’s Centuries. I would argue that it is probably the most helpful guide as one works his way through Traherne’s Centuries.

Although he emphasizes the similarities to Bonaventure’s subject matter and organization within Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Mind’s Road to God), the structure he assigns to the Centuries is valid in and of itself. It includes the following five parts:

  1. Preparation (First Century)
  2. Journey through the Creatures of the external world (Second Century)
  3. Journey through the Image of God in the “mind and Memory” (Third Century)
  4. Journey through the Principles of Being and Good “signed upon our minds” (Fourth Century)
  5. Repose: in which “all intellectual operations should be abandoned” (Fifth Century)

Martz starts his thesis with a bang when he makes his well-founded claim about the nature of Traherne’s Centuries being a “treatise of instruction.” He elaborates:

Traherne’s First Century is in every way a ‘Preparation’ of the kind advised in the seventeenth-century handbooks of meditation: it sets forth the topics and images to be considered; it cultivates the presence of God and invokes the assistance of God in the performance of the meditative action. Meanwhile, Traherne makes it plain that he has in mind the writing of a treatise of instruction, an introduction to the devout life.” (The Paradise Within, p. 58)

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Traherne’s Technique of Repetition

In preparing his readers for a tour through Traherne’s Centuries, Professor Louis Martz dedicates twelve pages of The Paradise Within to Traherne’s (and Augustine’s) “technique of repetition.” Traherne’s overall approach is most cogently defended in the following assessment:

“The Centuries, although we may sometimes lay them aside in weariness or bewilderment, leave behind a tantalizing sense of some determined purpose underlying and created through those massive repetitions.” (The Paradise Within [TPW], p. 44)

In his exploration of the ways that both Augustine and Traherne use repetition to draw us “toward an inward understanding of the good,” Professor Martz offers us statements about this method that are in themselves worthy of a commonplace book:

“Repetition is a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all form arises.” (TPW, p. 48)

“Repetitions are, we might say, stepping stones that rise above the heaving mass of unformed matter in the mind.” (TPW, p. 48)

“By repetition the mind gradually brings forward into the light of the Divine Idea that knowledge which lies, unformed, within the mind’s unconscious and subconscious depths.” (TPW, p. 48)

The following conclusion about both Augustine and Traherne is a valuable encouragement for anyone who wants to work their way through Traherne’s Centuries:

“Such, I think is the effect of continuous reading in the Confessions or in the Centuries, for these writings proceed through a ‘darting movement of passage,’ working through short segments of thought that often seem, in themselves, inchoate, obscure, aimlessly wandering; and yet, after a series of such darting, exploratory movements, the process finds its form in a perfect meditation, ‘fully made, fully apparent, fully found’”. (TPW, p. 49)

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