I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from 1995 until 2001. Seven years of fear, anxiety, depression and paranoia, which I feared would last forever. But I got better, thanks to a near-death experience.
Your heart may sink when people start recounting near-death experiences. As a bishop once said to the Methodist John Wesley: ‘Pretending to special revelations of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing.’ I don’t think my ‘revelation’ was in any way unique or unusual. A lot of people have these kinds of experiences, including as many as one fifth of people who suffer cardiac arrests. In themselves, they’re not necessarily significant or sanctifying. But sometimes, whatever they are and wherever they come from, they teach us useful things.
In 2001, I fell off a mountain while skiing, broke various bones, and knocked myself unconscious. When I came to, I saw a white light and felt completely filled with an infinite love, for myself and for everyone else. I felt that light was our souls, and they were perfect and immortal.
For some reason we had lost touch with this treasure within us, and allowed ourselves to become imprisoned by false beliefs, false opinions. I, for example, was imprisoned by the belief: ‘I am permanently damaged and therefore unlovable’. This made me very anxious about whether others still liked or loved me. In that moment, I realized I was lovable, we all are, and we just need to trust in the treasure of love within us, rather than anxiously trying to prove ourselves to other people.
For several weeks, I felt completely healed, not just healed, more than healed, I felt in love with the world. Music sounded better, life felt better, everything was illuminated. But then gradually the insight faded, the old mental habits came back, and I found myself becoming imprisoned by depression and anxiety again.
So I went to do a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, knowing that it was based on the same wisdom I had accessed in my accident – that what hurts us is our own beliefs, and we need to learn to free ourselves from them. I practiced and practiced and gradually turned my insight into habits.
Then I wrote a book about how CBT came from Greek philosophy, and spent several years working to communicate the benefits of Greek philosophy to people – particularly non-believers, for whom Stoicism is a very useful resource.
But I started to feel both Stoicism and CBT left something out. I still wondered: what was that experience on the mountain? What was that ecstasy? What is that infinite love that can so transfigure and transform us? How do we access it?
Traherne’s ecstatic wisdom
This brings me to Thomas Traherne. He was a 17th century Anglican parson (his dates are roughly 1636 to 1674), who lived in Hereford. He wrote some poetry and some religious prose. He was never famous or well-connected, like John Donne or George Herbert. He was not some radical outsider, like William Blake. He died young and uncelebrated, and remained almost completely unknown until 1896, when some of his manuscripts were discovered in a wheelbarrow outside a London antiques bookstore, including a book called Centuries of Meditation, which is a contemplative guide made up of 400 brief meditations. It was first published in 1908.
Since then, Centuries has been recognized by a handful of people as a classic. CS Lewis called it ‘almost the most beautiful book in the English language’. Aldous Huxley quoted from it liberally in his Perennial Philosophy. Northrop Frye thought it one of the great works of western literature. Traherne is loved by Thomas Merton, NT Wright, the Bishop of London. Yet he’s still largely unknown, even among Christians, even among Anglicans.
There is no major edition of Centuries available, none by a major publisher, none for under £20. Is that not extraordinary, for a spiritual classic of the first order? Thankfully some scholars are working to bring his glory to light, including Denise Inge, the wife of the Bishop of Hereford, who sadly died earlier this year. She published several books on Traherne, including Happiness and Holiness.
Traherne and Greek wisdom
Here’s why I love Traherne. First of all, like all Anglicans of that era, he really knows and loves Greek philosophy. Would that were so today, when Christians are intellectually threatened by anything beyond CS Lewis.
Traherne gets the essence of Stoic wisdom. First, we are imprisoned by our beliefs – he writes: ‘our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward bondage of opinion and custom, than from any inward corruption or depravation of Nature’. False opinions ‘alienate men from the Life of God’. As Rousseau realized a century later, we are particularly alienated (or enslaved) by our need for others’ approval:
An ambition to please, a desire to gratify, a great desire to delight others being the greatest snare in the world. Hence it is that all hypocrisies and honours arise, I mean esteem of honours…For men being mistaken in the nature of Felicity, and we by a strong inclination prone to please them, follow a multitude to do evil. We naturally desire to approve ourselves to them, and above all things covet to be excellent, to be greatly beloved, to be esteemed, and magnified, and therefore endeavour what they endeavour, prize what they prize, magnify what they desire, desire what they magnify.
This is straight out of Seneca, and also taps into the tradition of Cynic wisdom: humans are ‘grown mad with customary folly’, writes Traherne, echoing Erasmus and before that Diogenes the Cynic.
What can free us from what Blake called our ‘mind-forged manacles’? Wisdom.
Traherne writes: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, yet all men neglect her.’ True philosophy is a love of wisdom, and this will direct us to happiness, or Felicity. We should strain every sinew to learn ‘the way to perfect happiness’. Yet philosophy and learning has become spiritually dead, pursuing only knowledge:
There never was a tutor that did professly teach Felicity, though that be the mistress of all other sciences…[At university] we studied to inform our knowledge, but knew not for what end we so studied. And for lack of aiming at a certain end we erred in the manner.
Wisdom involves learning to change your ‘frame’, as Traherne puts it. Your perspective, your life-philosophy – what you see, notice and value – is all-important, determining whether you live in Hell or Paradise. We must learn to ‘see aright’, to ‘enjoy aright’, otherwise, the ‘foundation’ of our reality is ‘out of course’ and we will be miserable.
The entire Centuries is really a contemplative manual, a therapeutic course, to try and help us see aright, value aright, and enjoy aright.
True wisdom involves not just theory but practice – this too is very much a Stoic insight. Philosophers ‘are not only those that contemplate happiness, but practice virtue.’ We must take wisdom and turn it into habits through repetitive meditation: ‘Having once studied these principles you are eternally to practice them. You are to warm yourself at these fires and to have recourse to them every day.’
Desire and yearning
So far, so Stoic. But Traherne goes beyond Stoic wisdom, towards more Platonic wisdom. Stoics, like Buddhists, believe desires and passions are basically bad. We should learn not to want. Plato, by contrast, thought that desire, love, wanting, yearning, was a good thing, it just needed to be steered to its proper goal. Desire is actually a yearning for our spiritual home – for God. We just need to follow this yearning and be true to it rather than narcotizing it with worldly comforts.
‘I want! by William Blake
Wants are good. Wants are ‘the bands and cements between God and us’. ‘Want is the foundation of all His Fulness’. Want is ‘a treasure in heaven’. ‘You must want like a God, that you may be satisfied by God’. We are lifted to God on the wings of desire. ‘The Desire satisfied is a Tree of Life.’
So we must follow the yearning of our soul, rediscover our heritage, rediscover the treasure within, and realize how blessed, how rich we are. We often feel like homeless exiles in this world, lonely, deprived, cut-off, scrabbling for a living, begging for approval, desperate for love.
If we could just learn to ‘see aright’, we could realize we are the heirs of God, we are inheritors of the kingdom, we have God within us – an infinite consciousness filled with infinite love. We have forgotten how rich we are.
Traherne recognizes that the key problem, the key false idea that is poisoning our reality, is a lack of self-esteem. We feel unloved, and unworthy of love, and this poisons our relationship with God and brings us to a depressed atheism. So what he does in Centuries is to try and teach us self-love, that we may learn to love others and to love God. ‘Self-love is the basis of all love…That pool must first be filled that shall me made to overflow.’
The way to self-love is to realize we are special. We are not mere machines in perpetual struggle with one another, as Traherne’s contemporary Thomas Hobbes insisted. We are the heirs of God.
All the World is yours…Though art the sole object of His eye, and the end of all His endeavours…the heavens are the canopy, and the earth is the footstool of your throne.
God created ourselves and the world solely that we should enjoy it. That’s the main purpose of life, according to Traherne. That should be at the top of our to-do list every morning: enjoy existence, enjoy creation. That’s the main thing God wants of us, that’s all we really need to do to live well. Everything else is secondary.
There’s a kind of mystical Epicureanism to Traherne – we have perfected the art of making ourselves miserable through our beliefs, now we can choose to give ourselves up to the pleasure of communion with God and nature. We can choose to be happy by seeing the richness of the moment, rather than choosing to be miserable by chasing after false goods:
Your enjoyment of the world is never right, til 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….You never enjoy the world aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.
God and the infinity of our souls
The evidence for God’s existence and for His love of us is, firstly, the wonder of nature, including ourselves, our bodies – ‘the greatest treasures of all’. We must learn to prize the things of nature rightly, to give thanks for them, treat them justly. But beyond that, the greatest evidence for God’s bountifulness is our infinite souls.
Traherne is part of a mystic tradition of English metaphysical poets, that stretches from Shakespeare to Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Blake, all of whom had the ability to use language and metaphor as catapults to propel themselves beyond language, beyond rationality, beyond the little walls of the self, towards the infinite.
Like these poets, and like Whitman later, Traherne sees God illuminated in nature. ‘The infinity of God…magnifieth all things.’ ‘Every spire of grass is the work of His hand.’ ‘An Ant is a great Miracle’, the ‘sweetness and unusual beauty’ of trees makes his soul ‘almost mad with ecstasy’.
When we’re children, we have a capacity to be ravished by the wonder, beauty and liveliness of the natural world, but then we lose our amazement through custom and familiarity. Poetry and philosophy help us to wonder like children again – here Traherne anticipates Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth, CS Lewis and the Romantic (and very English) idea that children’s souls are closer to God than those of adults, and that imagination can bring us back to that secret garden we lost.
Chief among the wonders of nature are our own souls, the infinite dimensions of which are proof to Traherne of God’s existence and our inheritance: ”I will in the light of my soul show you the Universe.’
here the dimensions of innumerable worlds are shut, up in a centre. Where it should lodge such innumerable objects, as it doth by knowing, whence it should derive such infinite streams as flow from it by Loving, how it should be a mirror of all Eternity, being made of nothing, how it should be a fountain or a sun of Eternity out of which such abundant rivers of affection flow, it is impossible to declare. But above all, having no material or bodily existence, its substance, though invisible, should be so rich and precious. The consideration of one Soul is sufficient to convince all the Atheists in the whole world.
Would that it were so. Instead, we have come to deny consciousness as an embarrassing outlier in the mechanistic model. Either it doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t do much. Not so, says Traherne. It shows us our true divine nature: ‘The true exemplar of God’s infinity is that of your understanding, which is a lively pattern and idea of it…The WORLD is but a little centre in comparison with you…Souls are God’s jewels, every one of which is worth many worlds.’
Next time you’re on a bus, look at the people round you. Each one is a miracle of consciousness. Each one is a universe. Yet we have forgotten this, and feel small and worthless, and God feels like an old and fanciful idea. We Measure GOD by our selves’, when we should measure our selves by God. ‘Every man is alone the centre and circumference of it. It is all his own, and so glorious, that it is the eternal and incomprehensible essence of the Deity. A cabinet of infinite value, equal in beauty, lustre and perfection to all its treasures.’
When we think of something, our minds stretch towards it, and transform it into apprehension. But even more so when we Love something. Love is a reaching, an attending, a stretching of the boundaries of the self. In love we discover the infinite nature of the soul, which can reach towards and take into itself even the infinity of God. ‘By Loving a Soul does propagate and beget itself. By Loving it does dilate and magnify itself. By Loving it does enlarge and delight itself…But above all by Loving it does attain itself.’
‘Love is deeper than at first it can be thought. It never ceaseth but in endless things. It ever multiplies.’ ‘God is Love, and my Soul is lovely!’ ‘By Love alone is God enjoyed, by Love alone delighted in, by Love alone approached or admired. His Nature requires Love, thy nature requires Love.’
God’s Love is infinity multiplying itself in the souls of all beings. This Love spreads not just through all the beings in this world, but perhaps through infinite worlds: ‘The Earth is too poor a cottage, too small a centre, to be the Single and Solitary object of his care and love’, Traherne writes in Kingdom of God. ‘What if beyond the Heavens there were Infinite Numbers of Worlds at vast unspeakable distances. And all Those worlds full of Glorious Kingdoms? and all those Kingdoms full of the most Noble and Glorious Creatures…Would this Abolish Heavens? Verily in my Conceit, it Enricheth it.’
Occasionally, Traherne attains a vision of God’s plan completed, when all beings are realized and filled with love for God and for each other, and the universes have become a network of conscious souls blazing with light. All are connected to God, and become God: ‘All are happy in each other. All are like Deities. Every one the end of all things, everyone supreme, every one a treasure, and the joy of all, and every one most infinitely delighted in being so.’
Grace and Jesus’ Love
This sounds great. How lovely for Traherne to have such an ecstatic nature. But the rest of us find it a little harder to tune our souls into Love FM. We are a little more insecure, a little more distracted by worldly cares, more besieged by adversity, more trapped in ugliness and cruelty, more imprisoned in our need for material consolations.
And yet sometimes we have experiences where something helps us, beyond our own efforts. Love picks us up. That was my experience – I had messed up my own life, I had become lost in a labyrinth of false beliefs. And Love lifted me out of it. Strange but true. The Stoics say nothing of such experiences. Nor does CBT. Yet they happen. So what are they?
Perhaps they are our souls revealing themselves to us. Perhaps in moments of heightened consciousness – including life-threatening accidents – we get glimpses of the Atman within us.
For Traherne, such moments are gifts from God, and the ultimate gift was his own Son, giving himself for Love of us. Jesus’ love and sacrifice, Traherne believes, opened up a new connection between God and humans, that can break through our prisons. The Cross is a ‘Jacob’s Ladder by which we ascend to the highest Heavens’. It is a spear piercing time and space: ‘Had the Cross been twenty millions of ages further, it had still been equally near.’
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’. It teaches us the way to the kingdom within us, by giving ourselves up to Love: ‘Teach me, O Lord, these mysterious ascensions. By descending into Hell for the sake of others, let me ascend into the glory of the Highest Heavens.’
Non-Christians may struggle with the Christology of this. Is Traherne saying the only way to God is through Christ, because Christ paid the debt of Original Sin? Anglicans would argue that he does say this – certainly in other books he is more dogmatic, less ecstatic. But I’m not sure Centuries argues this. It makes no mention of the Devil, nor much mention of Adam and Original Sin.
For Traherne, our fall comes after childhood, when we take on the opinions of the world. And we are freed from that fall when we become as children again and learn how much we are loved by God, and reciprocate that love. But Christ’s sacrifice made that liberation much easier. I don’t think I would necessarily have got better if Love had not lifted me out of the pit.
Does that mean The Only Way to God is through the worship of Christ? Traherne writes, intriguingly: ‘There are exceeding few such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who imparted His own soul unto us. Yet some may doubtlessly be found.’ So perhaps there are, in other cultures and other worlds, such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who beat a path through our folly back to God.
When we see aright, when we enjoy aright, when we discover the fountain of infinite love in our souls, and see it in others too, then we give praise and thanks, and sing like King David: ‘Are not praises the very end for which the world was created?’
‘Praises are the breathings of interior love, the marks and symptoms of a happy life, overflowing gratitude, returning benefits, an oblation of the soul, and the heart ascending upon the wings of divine affection to the Throne of God.’
Traherne was an extraordinary writer. He uses prose as a sort of poetic incantation, spilling clause after clause, image after image, until we are astonished. He repeats certain words like ‘frame’, ‘foundation’, ‘magnified’, ‘prized’, and certain images – the eye cleansed, the throne of God – until by frequent repetition they become fixed in the reader’s mind.
And Traherne was an extraordinary soul. The rest of us have our ups and downs, our good days and bad days. Traherne seemed peculiarly in touch with the Divine, and saw our ‘customary folly’ peculiary clearly. He is a prime example of what William James called ‘the once-born soul’, brimming with an almost bumptious optimism and certainty that he is loved by God, and through his certainty making us wonder if (could it really be?) we are also loved by God too.
I can barely remember what it was like to see that light on the mountainside and to feel connected to an infinite love. Fifteen years on, I remain the same lazy, petulant, misanthropic and egotistical person as ever. But when I read Traherne, very briefly, I seem to remember what I felt. This unknown country parson was, you could say, the richest man in the world, and he left his inheritance to all of us.
Here are some beautiful Traherne quotes I gathered together. And here is a very good speech by the Bishop of London about why Traherne is so vital for our own times.