Sermon given at Evening Service Sunday 10 October 2010

10 October 2010 at 18:00 pm

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster

Thomas Traherne


10th October is the day when the Church of England commemorates Thomas Traherne, poet and spiritual writer, whose 38 years of life spanned such events as the Civil War in this country, which started when he was about 6 years old, the execution of King Charles the First by the Parliamentary Forces under Cromwell when Traherne was about 13, and then the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.  He lived in dramatic times, and how he coped with all of that is itself interesting, but he also produced a volume of written work, some poetry and some prose, much of which, as I shall explain, was only discovered many years after his death. And many have found in his writing a spiritual depth and insight that has made it appropriate to give him the accolade of a special day of commemoration in the church’s year.


Thomas Traherne was the son of a Hereford shoemaker, who, though not a rich man, was evidently successful enough to employ two apprentices. He died when Thomas was a boy, but nonetheless somehow Thomas was able to go to Brasenose College, Oxford in 1652, then a college much under the influence of the Puritan forces in England, who had executed Charles the First only three years earlier, and who then provided the Government of England under Cromwell. When Traherne graduated he applied to become the Minister of Credenhill, a village near Hereford, and was appointed to that office by the Parliamentary Commission that dealt with such matters when Bishops’ power had been effectively eliminated from the constitution. However three years after he was appointed to that post the monarchy was restored under Charles II, Bishops were given back their power and Traherne applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and in that capacity he went back to Credenhill as now its parish priest.

A picture of his time there is given in an anonymous preface to his posthumously published work, “Thanksgivings”, which preface was probably written by a learned and devout Christian lady called Susanna Hopton, who lived fairly near Credenhill, and who was the central figure in a group that met in her house to which Traherne probably belonged. She said of him that he dwelt on the subject of Felicity and the love of God towards mankind ‘that those who would converse with him were forced to endure some discourse upon these subjects, whether they had any sense of religion or not. Therefore to such he might be thought troublesome, but his company was very acceptable to all such as had any inclinations to Virtue, and Religion.’ She also said he was ‘of a cheerful and sprightly temper, free from any thing of sourness and formality, by which some great pretenders of Piety rather disparage and misrepresent true Religion, than recommend it; and therefore was very affable and pleasant in his conversation, ready to do all good offices to his friends, and charitable to the poor almost beyond his ability.’

He remained incumbent of the parish until his death, but also from about 1665 held that post in plurality with being chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal under Charles II, who was also President of the trial of those accused of bringing about the execution of Charles the First. It is quite evident that Traherne was fundamentally a Royalist, indeed he considered Charles I to be a Christian Martyr. In churchmanship he was very Anglican, rejecting the claims of Roman Catholicism on the one hand, but certainly not accepting the gathered church concept of the puritans. He was strongly in favour of a national church that sought to minister to all in the community.  When he was not in Herefordshire he stayed in the houses of Sir Orlando, in the Strand and at Teddington, and it was there that he died at the age of 38 and he is buried in Teddington Church.

Now one of the many extraordinary things about him is that after his death he was almost forgotten. He had published only one book in his lifetime and then the book I mentioned earlier, Thanksgivings, was published shortly after his death, and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that he started to become well-known again, when a bookseller called Bertram Dobell identified Traherne as the author of a manuscript collection a friend had picked up for a few pence on a second-hand bookstall. Other writings by him were discovered in the British Library early in the 20th century, then yet more by an American bibliophile in the 1960s, then a further manuscript was rescued from a bonfire in 1967, then yet a further manuscript was found in Lambeth Palace Library in 1997.

What was central to his thinking was the concept he called Felicity, by which he meant a deep and sustained happiness rooted in the contemplation of God. He believed would be the state of the Christian soul in heaven, but intimations of that could also be known here on earth in one’s own lifetime, discovered through the knowledge and love of God’s created world. Unlike the Puritans Traherne put his emphasis on man’s capacity for goodness. He wrote ‘Love is so delightful in the lover, because it is the Communication of his Goodness; and the natural end of Goodness is to be enjoyed; it desireth to be another’s Happiness. Which Goodness of God is so deeply implanted in our natures, that we never enjoy ourselves but when we are a Joy of others; if all our desires the Strongest is to be good to others.’ And he went on ‘He that delights not in love, makes vain the Universe.’ I think he would have agreed with a Bishop I know who once said to me that those who go on about original sin should remember that in the Genesis story before the Fall of Adam God made man and saw that it was good. You can believe in original sin if you also recognise that there is an even more original goodness.

One of Traherne’s main interpreters, Anne Ridler, wrote ‘I have praised Traherne for his freedom from the oppressive sense of guilt that can taint Christian attitudes. Some have blamed him for a defective sense of sin – even a facile optimism. And when he writes that ‘of all our desires the strongest is to be good to others’, he provokes a wry smile as we look into our own souls, or indeed the casual selfishness apparent in our streets and supermarkets. Yet’ she wrote, ‘that optimism must have been dearly won. Here is a man who had lost his parents early, whose childhood had passed through the Civil War with all its cruelties, who had known his king cruelly executed. Every now and then in the notebooks’ she wrote, ‘one sees a glimpse of depression and distress, but...cheerfulness was always breaking in.’

And he gave some practical advice on how to develop this, encouraging his readers to cultivate a way of looking at the world with God as the source of its provisions and the source of man’s needs. He wrote:

‘It was (God’s) Wisdom made you need the Sun. It was his goodness made you need the sea. Be sensible of what you need, or enjoy neither. Consider how much you need them. For thence they derive their value. Suppose the Sun were extinguished; or the Sea were Dry. There would be no Light, no Beauty, no Warmth, no Fruits, no Flowers, no Pleasant Gardens, Feasts or Prospects. No Wine, no Oil no Bread, no Life, no Motion. Would you not give all the gold and silver in the Indies for such a treasure? Prize it now you have it, at that rate you shall be a grateful creature: nay you shall be a divine and heavenly person. For they in Heaven do prize Blessings when they have them. They in Earth when they have them prize them not. They in Hell prize them, when the have them not.’

He asked men and women to look carefully at the natural world about them and to reflect on why and how things are as they are, and to see God within and behind them. Of course today some scientists  tell us that God is not required as a scientific explanation of how and why the world is at it is, and they may well be right. But that knowledge does not remove the question of how we relate psychologically and spiritually to the universe of which we are a part. If we wish to find in that process the Felicity that Traherne so prized, he is a very interesting guide; it is surely right that the Church of England commemorates today this remarkable man.

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