Thomas Traherne: Apostle of Joy

Lately I’ve been savoring Thomas Traherne’s book Centuries of Meditations, in a wonderful contemporary edition by David Buresh called Waking Up in Heaven. I heartily agree with what C.S. Lewis wrote about this book, calling it “almost the most beautiful book in the English language. I could go on quoting from it forever.”

Thomas Traherne was a 17th century Anglican parson who wrote both religious prose and gorgeous poetry. Unlike his contemporaries John Donne and George Herbert, he was never well-known or well-connected. He died young and uncelebrated, and remained almost completely unknown until 1896, when the manuscript of Centuries of Meditation was discovered in a London bookshop, finally to be published in 1908. This book is still not widely known, but is loved as a classic by people like Aldous Huxley, Thomas Merton, Northrop Frye, and N.T. Wright. 

Like C.S. Lewis, I could go on and on quoting Thomas Traherne. Here is just a selection of his thoughts on the topic of joy: 

“When I came into the country, and being seated among silent trees and meads and hills, had all my time in mine own hands, I resolved to spend it all, whatever it cost me, in search of happiness. For I came into this world only that I might be happy. And whatsoever it cost me, I will be happy. A happiness there is, and it is my desire to enjoy it. Nothing but felicity is worthy of our labour.” 

“The cross of Christ is the root of happiness and the gate of heaven. Of all the things in heaven and earth it is the most peculiar. There is displayed the wonder of all ages. There we enter into the heart of the universe. There we behold the admiration of angels. There we find the price and elixir of all our joys.”

“Your enjoyment of the world is never right until 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 very things that increase my difficulty increase my happiness when they are overcome.” 

“Love greatly delights in seeing its object continually seated in the highest happiness.” 

“The best of all possible ends is the glory of God, and yet happiness was the end I thirsted after. But I did not err, for the glory of God is to make us happy.”

“When we can cheerfully look on an army of misfortunes without amazement, we may then freely and delightfully contemplate the nature of the highest felicity.” 

“Nothing but ignorance can destroy your joy. For if you know yourself, or God, or the world, you must of necessity enjoy it.”  

“You will never be happy until you know what you want, wants themselves being sacred occasions and means of felicity. You must want like a god that you may be satisfied like God.” 

“O what joy, what delight and jubilee should there always be, would men but prize the gifts of God.” 

Finally, let me close with a strange thought—at least it was strange to me when I first encountered it in Traherne. For one of the things he encourages us to be happy about is hell. While I believe in hell, I’ve always struggled with the concept. How can God punish people eternally? What possible joy could be found in that? Well, listen to Traherne: 

“Hell is a part of God’s kingdom, to wit His prison. It is fitly mentioned in the enjoyment of the world, and is by the happy enjoyed as a part of the world. Our will ought to be united to God’s in all places of His dominion.” 

The reason we have trouble with Hell is that we think it’s our problem rather than God’s. But Hell is His idea: a place for people who don’t believe in Him. Hell is a provision of His mercy, because He knows people who don’t love Him would rather be there than in the glorious light of His presence. Thanks to Traherne, I’ve made the change from being cranky about hell to being happy about it. I’ve learned that fellow-feeling for the damned is misplaced pity. And I have to say, this has made me a happier person, more in step with reality and more in love with God. 

(Photo by Karen Mason)

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