Thomas Traherne was a seventeenth century Anglican priest originally known as one of the less prominent “metaphysical poets,” although he was until recently overshadowed by figures such as John Donne and George Herbert. As a simple country priest, he led a quiet, obscure, and pious life, dying of smallpox in 1674 at less than 40 years of age. In the winter of 1896-1897, a work of prose, his “Centuries of Meditations,” was discovered by accident in the bargain bin of a London bookseller who was about to discard them in the trash, and since then it has become a classic of English spirituality.
Unlike contemporary views of God as wrathful and of humanity as utterly depraved, Traherne focused on the beauty and goodness of God who is generous beyond all understanding, lavishing us with gifts such as the loveliness of nature and the delight of human community that are we are created to love and enjoy, our loving gratitude to God serving as an expression of worship. “Unimaginable divine generosity,” states editor Denise Inge of the theme of this work, is “woven into the very fabric of the universe.”
The entire extant work can be found online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Centuries of Meditations
By Thomas Traherne
[Written some time before 1674]
THE FIRST CENTURY
An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders. And since Love made you put it into my hands I will fill it with those Truths you love without knowing them: with those things which, if it be possible, shall shew my Love; to you in communicating most enriching Truths: to Truth in exalting her beauties in such a Soul.
Do not wonder that I promise to fill it with those Truths you love but know not; for though it be a maxim in the schools that there is no Love of a thing unknown, yet I have found that things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the center of the earth unseen violently attract it. We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us. As iron at a distance is drawn by the loadstone, there being some invisible communications between them, so is there in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?
I will open my mouth in Parables, I will utter things that have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Things strange yet common, incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; infinitely profitable, but not esteemed. Is it not a great thing that you should be Heir of the World? Is it not a great enriching verity? In which the fellowship of the Mystery which from the beginning of the World hath been hid in God lies concealed! The thing hath been from the Creation of the World, but hath not so been explained as that the interior Beauty should be understood. It is my design therefore in such a plain manner to unfold it that my friendship may appear in making you possessor of the whole world.
You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a [grain of] sand exhibiteth 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. Wine by its moisture quencheth my thirst, whether I consider it or no: but to see it flowing from His love who gave it unto man, quencheth the thirst even of the Holy Angels. To consider it, is to drink it spiritually. To rejoice in its diffusion is to be of a public mind. And to take pleasure in all the benefits it doth to all is Heavenly, for so they do in Heaven. To do so, is to be divine and good, and to imitate our Infinite and Eternal Father.
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. The bride of a monarch, in her husband’s chamber, hath too such causes of delight as you.
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth 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. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.
Till your spirit filleth 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. Till you more feel it than your private estate, and are more present in the hemisphere, considering the glories and the beauties there, than in your own house: Till you remember how lately you were made, and how wonderful it was when you came into it: and more rejoice in the palace of your glory, than if it had been made but to-day morning.
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. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. There is so much blindness and ingratitude and damned folly in it. The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven. When Jacob waked out of his dream, he said “God is here, and I wist [i.e. knew] it not. How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and the Gate of Heaven.”
THE SECOND CENTURY
Love is the true means by which the world is enjoyed: Our love to others, and others’ love to us. We ought therefore above all things to get acquainted with the nature of Love. For Love is the root and foundation of nature: Love is the Soul of Life and Crown of rewards. If we cannot be satisfied in the nature of Love we can never be satisfied at all. The very end for which God made the world, was that He might manifest His Love. Unless therefore we can be satisfied with His Love so manifested, we can never be satisfied. There are many glorious excellencies in the material World, but without Love they are all abortive. We might spend ages in contemplating the nature of the sun, and entertain ourselves many years with the beauty of the stars, and services of the sea: but the Soul of Man is above all these, it comprehendeth all ages in a moment; and unless it perceive something more excellent, is very desolate. All worlds being but a silent wilderness, without some living thing more sweet and blessed after which it aspireth. Love in the fountain, and love in the end is the glory of the world and the Soul of Joy. Which it infinitely preferreth above all worlds, and delighteth in, and loveth to contemplate, more than all visible beings that are possible. So that you must be sure to see causes wherefore infinitely to be delighted with the Love of God,if ever you would be happy.
When you love men, the world quickly becometh yours: and yourself become a greater treasure than the world is. For all their persons are your treasures, and all the things in Heaven and Earth that serve them, are yours. For those are the riches of Love, which minister to its Object.
You are as prone to love, as the sun is to shine; it being the most delightful and natural employment of the Soul of Man: without which you are dark and miserable. Consider therefore the extent of Love, its vigor and excellency. For certainly he that delights not in Love makes vain the universe, and is of necessity to himself the greatest burden. The whole world ministers to you as the theatre of your Love: It sustains you and all objects that you may continue to love them. Without which it were better for you to have no being. Life without objects is sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than Death or Nothing. Objects without Love are a delusion of life. The Objects of Love are its greatest treasures: and without Love it is impossible they should be treasures. For the Objects which we love are the pleasing Objects, and delightful things. And whatsoever is not pleasing and delightful to you can be no treasure: nay it is distasteful, and worse than nothing, since we had rather it should have no being.
That violence wherewith sometimes a man doteth upon one creature, is but a little spark of that love, even towards all, which lurketh in his nature. We are made to love, both to satisfy the necessity of our active nature, and to answer the beauties in every creature. By Love our Souls are married and solder’d to the creatures and it is our Duty like God to be united to them all. We must love them infinitely, but in God, and for God and God in them: namely all His excellencies manifested in them. When we dote upon the perfections and beauties of some one creature, we do not love that too much, but other things too little. Never was anything in this world loved too much, but many things have been loved in a false way: and all in too short a measure.
Suppose a river, or a drop of water, an apple or a sand, an ear of corn, or an herb: God knoweth infinite exellencies in it more than we: He seeth how it relateth to angels and men; how it proceedeth from the most perfect Lover to the most perfectly Beloved; how it representeth all His attributes; how it conduceth in its place, by the best of means to the best of ends: and for this cause it cannot be beloved too much. God the Author and God the End is to be beloved in it; Angels and men are to be beloved in it; and it is highly to be esteemed for all their sakes. O what a treasure is every sand when truly understood! Who can love anything that God made too much? What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!
Suppose a curious and fair woman. Some have seen the beauties of Heaven in such a person. It is a vain thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are ten thousand beauties in that creature which they have not seen: They loved it not too much, but upon false causes. Nor so much upon false ones, as only upon some little ones. They love a creature for sparkling eyes and curled hair, lily breasts and ruddy cheeks which they should love moreover for being God’s Image, Queen of the Universe, beloved by Angels, redeemed by Jesus Christ, an heiress of Heaven, and temple of the Holy Ghost: a mine and fountain of all virtues, a treasury of graces, and a child of God. But these excellencies are unknown. They love her perhaps, but do not love God more: nor men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all. And so, being defective to other things, perish by a seeming excess to that. We should be all Life and Mettle and Vigor and Love to everything; and that would poise us. I dare confidently say that every person in the whole world ought to be beloved as much as this: And she if there be any cause of difference more than she is. But God being beloved infinitely more, will be infinitely more our joy, and our heart will be more with Him, so that no man can be in danger by loving others too much, that loveth God as he ought.
The sun and stars please me in ministering to you. They please me in ministering to a thousand others as well as you. And you please me because you can live and love in the Image of God: not in a blind and brutish manner, as beasts do; by a mere appetite and rude propensity, but with a regulated well-ordered Love, upon clear causes, and with a rational affection, guided to divine and celestial ends. Which is to love with a Divine and Holy Love, Glorious and Blessed. We are all prone to love; but the art lies in managing our love: to make it truly amiable and proportionable. To love for God’s sake, and to this end, that we may be well-pleasing unto Him: to love with a design to imitate Him, and to satisfy the principles of intelligent nature, and to become honorable, is to love in a Blessed and Holy manner.
About the Author
- Thomas Traherne (1636 or 1637 – c. 27 September 1674) was an English poet, clergyman, theologian, and religious writer. The intense, scholarly spirituality in his writings has led to his being commemorated by some parts of the Anglican Communion on 10 October (the anniversary of his burial in 1674) or on September 27.