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‘You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars.’
These words, and many more like them, were written in the mid-1600s by a young man from Herefordshire called Thomas Traherne. He died at the age of 37. His writings remained undiscovered until they were found “in a barrow of books about to be trashed” in the 1890s, rescued, and, after some doubts about authorship, eventually published in 1908, some 250 years later.
‘You are as prone to love, as the sun is to shine; it being the most delightful and natural employment of the Soul: without which you are dark and miserable.’
Traherne was a poet, a priest, and a scholar. He was described as “a man of a cheerful and sprightly Temper… ready to do all good Offices to his Friends, and Charitable to the Poor almost beyond his ability.” He complained that he thought he was “too open” and had “too easy and complying a nature.”
‘Your enjoyment of the world is never right till you esteem every Soul so great a treasure as our Saviour doth.’
He is now recognised as one of the great ‘metaphysical poets’, whose number include the likes of John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. These poets of the early to mid-1600s sought to write about the mystery of God’s presence in the world around us, his presence in the midst of us.
‘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 reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the angels.’
Traherne, it is thought, was the eldest son of his father’s third wife, the others probably having died in childbirth, many of his older siblings also having died in infancy. And so I find myself wondering how, amid such pain and sorrow, writers like Traherne could find such beauty, awe and wonder in the sad world around them.
And I wonder, too, what the world would be like if we were all able to see it in such a way, and to see the hidden beauty in each soul; to be filled with kindness and generosity towards each other and the world. Sometimes, when I’m on my morning prayer walk, I find myself pondering why people of different nations, races, religions, treat each other the way they do. Why do children grow up to carry on their parents’ grudges? What are these stories we tell our children? Where does all this hatred and conflict come from?
Then, sadly, I realise its already there in each of us. However much we long for peace and equity, it seems to evade us, not just in our communities, but even in our families. ‘Good fences make for good neighbours’ goes the saying. But, when you think about it, that says quite a lot about the way we relate to each other; borders, boundaries and ‘ownership’ being but one expression. For if your fences are in poor repair and your stock ends up on your neighbour’s land, angry exchanges begin and relationships sour. Or when someone receives an inequitable part of the inheritance. Or a whole host of other reasons that give rise to anger, resentment, a sense of injustice or hurt, jealousy and bitterness. And that’s the same seed that starts all the wars in the world.
Then I stumble across a couple of deer in the pasture, quietly grazing. They look up and see me, watch for a while, nibble some more grass, then trot away, nonchalantly leaping the fence, cross the lonning, over another fence and into another field. They are totally oblivious to these ‘boundaries’ that we create, have no concept of ‘ownership’, and care nothing for ‘possessing’ anything; they own nothing. And because they own nothing, the whole world is theirs and they are free. And there’s the oxymoron that Traherne (and Jesus) is talking about.
I find my heart lifted when I see the deer; their grace, gentleness and their freedom. I want to learn something about beauty and our relationship with the world around us from them, and Traherne. Then, perhaps, we may find peace at last, with God, each other and the good earth, and the Sea, itself, will flow in our veins.
Your friend and priest,