Living in Wonder; Living in Love – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Thomas Traherne (1637-1674)

Job 12:7-13
John 3:1-8

Thomas Traherne, whom we commemorate today, was a mystic, a childlike mystic. If his own lifetime had overlapped with J. R. R. Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis, or George MacDonald, I think they would have been very good friends. However Traherne lived more than two centuries earlier than these other three, Traherne born in 1637. He was the son of a shoemaker, and he went on to earn three degrees at Oxford. His university days during the 1650s were the best of times and the worst of times. Best was the intellectual stimulation. However this was a time of civil war and of religious conflict, actually less religious conflict and more agnosticism, which was certainly true for Traherne. For him, life was without meaning; he was listless, full of dread, deeply lonely. In his journal, we read about one sad evening, his being alone in a field, when all things were dead quiet. He writes, “a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination.”

And then something happened, we don’t know how. It was like an implosion of light in his soul. His abject emptiness seemed to create the inner space for a revelation. It’s not that Traherne looked up; he looked down and awakened to the enthralling wonder of creation. His deadened soul became illuminated with his experience of the created beauty that surrounded him and filled him: from things celestial to things infinitesimal, all of it, he now realized, as a reflection of none other than God’s glory. In this awakening, this epiphany, Traherne found meaning in life, or rather, the meaning of life found him. He became smitten with God. And within a couple of years following Oxford, he was ordained a priest, year 1660, at the age of 23.

In this spiritual awakening – I’ll call it Traherne’s conversion experience – he now saw what he had earlier failed to see. “The world,” he now said, “is the frontispiece of eternity.” Traherne began living his newfound life, his soul flowing in wonder and gratitude. His despair had been converted to utter amazement. “You never enjoy the world aright,’ he says, “till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.”

Traherne was reawakened to his own life experience as a young child. Children do not need to be taught about innocence and the innate wonder of life. To a young child, everything is new and fascinating. Watch the face of a very young child as their eyes grow in amazement over – what? – almost anything. The rapturous smile coming over a newborn’s face, their eyes teeming with fascination, their arms beginning to drum, their hands squirming with delight. Traherne imagined God’s delight in his own birth. One of Traherne’s poems begins, “How like an angel came I down…!”

It’s not so much that Traherne learned something new but that he rediscovered something old, what he had actually experienced beginning in his own childhood: the everyday wonder and delight in so much of life, especially the commonplace. Obviously, he was no longer a young child. His realization was that the epiphany of childhood delight could complement his very schooled adult mind. It’s as if his innate experience of wonder made his brilliant mind brighter.

For Traherne, the linchpin was Jesus: God becoming fully human, God entering the world that God had made, in the face and form of Jesus. This becomes Traherne’s primary language: the cohabitation of the eternal with earthly life, the God-created life that fills us and surrounds us. Jesus gives us access to participate now, every day, in every way, in the life of God. “Your enjoyment of the world is never right,” Traherne says, “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… as if you were among the angels.” The wonder and beauty of life always connects us with its source, with its Creator. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy the beauty of creation that surrounds us and fills us. But don’t stop there. Always experience beauty as a bridge back to its Source. Beauty is not an end in itself. Our experience of beauty on earth ferries us to God’s presence. Traherne writes, “All earthly beauty is but the shadow of heaven.” For Traherne, our praise to God encircles us back to God, the beginning and end of life and the source of all beauty. So we are reminded in our lesson from the Book of Job:

“Ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;

ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?”[i]

The whole of life is God’s revelation. This becomes the centerpiece of Traherne’s experience of life and his newfound theology.

Another theme that laces through Traherne’s preaching and poetry is love. God is love. God so loves to share life with people, with plants and animals, with seas and mountains. We as humans have special agency to beam God’s love, especially to the little and lonely ones – not only to people but to other creatures as well. We are to be lovers; love is of our essence. Traherne writes that “love is the soul’s light.” He writes, “[We] are as prone to love, as the sun is to shine.”  And yet, Traherne adds a qualifier. Though love is of our essence, living life in love must begin with our own selves. It’s to look on our own selves as God looks upon us, enlightened with love. Traherne writes, “Had we not loved ourselves at all, we could never have been obliged to love anything.” We have been given life to participate in God’s love. Receive God’s love to reflect God’s love. Live life in wonder; live life in love.

Near the end of his life, Traherne wrote that we should view the world as if we are already in heaven. Live our lives from a heavenly perspective. Isn’t that inviting? That insight maybe in some way prefigured in Traherne’s preparation for his own early death from smallpox in 1674. He was 37 years old.

Within a generation Traherne seems a forgotten man. Traherne’s poetry and prose went unpublished and largely unknown for more than 200 years until it was found in handwritten form in a London bookseller’s stall in 1896.[ii] Shortly before his death, Traherne had written:

“Flesh is but clay!
O fly my Soul and haste away
To Jesus’ Throne or Cross!
Obey! [iii]

And that he did. Traherne had lived and died as an immensely satisfied, deeply inspired, grateful man, and, for us, such an encouragement in our own day. Live life in wonder. Live life in love.

Blessed Thomas Traherne, whom we remember today.

[i] Job 12:7-9.

[ii] Traherne’s most well-known work is Centuries of Meditations, a collection of prose reflections and meditations on living an inspired life: “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.”

[iii] These are four lines from Traherne’s “Hymn Upon St. Bartholomew’s Day.”

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  1. Fr Alan Gilmore, ocso on February 2, 2024 at 18:59

    Thank you Brother for sharing this ! Deeply inspiring!
    I am a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
    I have no doubt whatever that Traherne inspired Thomas Merton’s – “4th and Walnut” – experience.
    About 1932 Merton found a copy of Traherne’s work at Clare College. No doubt, that would
    have greatly influenced him. It may have been suppressed for a while, but resurfaced when a monk. .

    I found Traherne’s book while browsing our Library. The book
    had the signature inside – Thomas Merton – Clare College
    It is now in the Merton Center – Bellermine College, Louisville Kentucky

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