September 27:Thomas Traherne; Priest, 1674

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About this commemoration

Though not as well known as John Donne or George Herbert, Thomas Traherne was one of the seventeenth century’s most searching, inventive poets and theologians.

Traherne was among about twelve Anglican lyricists dubbed by the rather prosaic Samuel Johnson as “the Metaphysical Poets.” Johnson meant this to imply that their poetry was pretentious and obscure. What he missed was not only their erudition but their subtlety and their profound awareness of the depths of Divine Mystery through which they tried to articulate the Christian Faith in a world which was changing from the sure faith of the Middle Ages to the bewildering maze of conflicting opinion which was the “Modern”.

Born in 1637, the son of a humble shoemaker in Hereford, Traherne went to Oxford thanks to the generosity of a prosperous relative. He was awarded the B.A. in 1656 and later the M.A. and B.D. He was ordained priest in 1660. From 1667 on he was the chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Keeper of the Great Seal. At 37 he died in his patron’s house.

Traherne’s poetry was unpublished and unknown until it was found in manuscript in a London bookseller’s stall at the beginning of the twentieth century. In all the Metaphysical Poets we find the attempt, often through startling images and seemingly contradictory metaphors, to express the inter-penetration of the sacred and the profane, the mortal human and the immortal divine, the verities of the new sciences and the eternal verities of God’s revelation in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Traherne was particularly taken with the paradox that the naive grandiosity and self-centeredness of a small child was, in fact, a kind of window into the Divine Being. In reading his poetry it is sometimes not clear whether he is speaking of himself as a small child or of the Christ-Child. In fact, he is often inferring both, by which he means us to understand that in the Incarnation, God assumed our humanity and so our humanity is in fact, our blessed access to God.


Creator of wonder and majesty, who didst inspire thy poet Thomas Traherne with mystical insight to see thy glory in the natural world and in the faces of men and women around us: Help us to know thee in thy creation and in our neighbors, and to understand our obligations to both, that we may ever grow into the people thou hast created us to be; through our Savior Jesus Christ, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in everlasting light. Amen.

Creator of wonder and majesty, you inspired your poet Thomas Traherne with mystical insight to see your glory in the natural world and in the faces of men and women around us: Help us to know you in your creation and in our neighbors, and to understand our obligations to both, that we may ever grow into the people you have created us to be; through our Savior Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in everlasting light. Amen.


Jeremiah 20:7–9

Revelation 19:1–5

John 3:1–8

Psalm 119:129–136

Preface of God the FatherText From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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11 Responses to September 27:Thomas Traherne; Priest, 1674

  1. John LaVoe says:

    I really hate it when two separate commemorations are appointed on a single day. Yesterday’s and today’s are good examples of having to make forced choices between outstanding individuals. It’s not practical to have a split focus, i.e., to attempt a split focus. I’d rather the numbers be pared down than that there be too many. You can’t use two sets of propers, two biographies, and be “inspired” by both commemorations. It’s bad psychology and bad “spiritual direction” — of this sort.

    Related, it’s also necessary to leave a blank day in every seven days to allow for the precedence of Sunday (and, additionally, major feasts) to be observed, and the “bumped” observance to be re-assigned to a subsequent day. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    Collect: Might you consider reversing the order of ‘men and women’ to ‘women and men’? This may seem overly politically correct – but it seems worth it to me.

    NT reading: This reading from Revelation is certainly worthy of a metaphysical poet.

  3. Steve Lusk says:

    If “saints” must share dates, shouldn’t the Metaphysical Poets share one? You can handle them as a group much better that paired up with non-similar persons. The bio doesn’t convince me that Traherne is significant enough to get a date of his own, and I don’t think the picture of God as a “naively grandiose and self-centered” two-year-old works in prose.

  4. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    I think Thomas Traherne is worthy of commemoration Putting him on the same day as Vincent de Paul seemsto preclude mentioning him. liturgically, since Vincent is so much better known.. Perhaps, as Steve Lusk suggests, he could be grouped with other “metaphysical poets”

  5. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    I wrote this earlier but it seems to have disappeared. Some suggested edits:

    In 2nd paragraph, why the “” for Modern? Why cap M?

    In 4th paragraph: Christ-Child should be Christ child
    Traherne implies – his readers infer

  6. John LaVoe says:

    September 27:Thomas Traherne; Priest, 1674

    Byron Stuhlman, in “Occasions of Grace” (p. 62) quotes a remarkable passage from Traherne that might be worth incorporating in this commemoration:

    The Cross is
    the abyss of wonders, the center of desires,
    the school of virtue, the house of wisdom,
    the theater of joy, and the place of sorrows.
    It is the root of happiness,
    and the gate of heaven.
    Martin Thornton, in “English Spirituality” (p. 235) quotes C. J. Stranks, “Anglican Devotion” on Traherne: “Traherne turns continually to the glories of the visible world as the wonders which may be most readily understood by those who have eyes to see, and which will lead them to a right apprehension of the deep mystery of the cross. It is rare that these two approaches to an understanding of the nature of God are so completely combined as they are in Traherne.”
    And again (ibid.), “Traherne’s eyes are not fixed on the damnation from which the Passion of Christ saves mankind, but on the felicity into which it admits us.”
    I was disappointed with the HWHM biography for Thomas Traherne. I haven’t found much about him in my personal efforts, but from what I have found, his ethos seems to express well the Celtic affirmativeness of God’s work in and through creation, which is a basic and important characteristic of Anglican ethos – in stark contrast to the opposite, so often preferred in other Christian traditions and now being over-emphasized by some Anglican provinces.
    I would like to be reminded by this commemoration of Traherne’s affirming and yet devout approach to the life of Christian faith. I felt the bio had a tone of intellectual abstraction to it, telling me more than I wanted to hear about a metaphysical poetic movement than about a man of Christ and the Holy Spirit, who happened to express his faith and insight poetically. And, while I’m of a disposition that usually appreciates Rite 2 language more than Rite 1 language, I thought in this set of propers the Rite 1 Collect was a bit more comprehensible, while the Rite 2 Collect was somewhat awful. (And I don’t mean it inspired awe.)

    In the first lilne of the Collect, “your poet” (God’s poet) sounded wrong – he’s not Poet Laureate of Heaven, he’s a fellow Christian, a priest, and a person of God’s redeeming. “The poet” might have been okay, but still not great. I’m dubious he had the alleged “mystical insight” (maybe “spiritual insight”) but “mystical insight” strikes me as unfounded, at least insofar as anything stated in the bio or title is concerned.

    The Collect’s phrase “our obligations to both” (i.e., both to God’s creation and to our neighbors) also goes beyond the description in the biography, making his emphasis sound as if it were on moral theology, while overlooking his actual emphasis on the life of prayer and devotion, including one’s own spiritual health and growth.

    I have high regard for this man and his expressed spirituality, and I found the write-up personally disappointing. I think it could be far more inspiring than it is.

  7. Steve Lusk says:

    One more thing: I’m sure Samuel Johnson fully appreciated the poets’ erudition: he (like many modern readers) just thought they used it pretentiously.

  8. Nigel Renton says:

    Again, we have the single word “priest” in the subheading. Thomas Traherne is not included because he was a priest. I suggest simply “Poet & Priest”.

    The text tells us more about the poet and fellow metaphysicals than about Traherne as a theologian. I have no specific suggestions to help restore the balance.

    In line 4 of the second paragraph, I would add “also” after “but”.

    In line 12 of the fourth paragraph, the phrase “in fact” may be valid literary criticism, but it seems dogmatic to me.

    The second use of “in fact” in the final sentence of the fourth paragraph is clumsy and awkward. It should be deleted. I suggest that the whole sentence be re-written as a helpful interpretation, rather than as indisputable fact.

  9. Pegram Johnson III says:

    The idea of lumping the 17th century devotional poets together is a deplorable suggestion. These poet priests are a chief glory of Anglicanism and deserve individual attention. The term “metaphysical poets” is now generally out of fashion.

  10. Pingback: September 27 – Thomas Traherne : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  11. Pingback: Wind Chimes: 29 Sep 2012 | Hear what the Spirit is saying

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