The history of art is filled with images of sacred places and artists often attach themselves to places, carving out sacred spaces, and attending to the details of their specific location. Such a place is Hereford Cathedral and such an artist is Tom Denny.

The Pictures





The Words

This is what Hereford Cathedral has to say about Thomas Traherne.

He is not a saint in the accepted understanding – the Church of England has no machinery for canonisation – but he is included in recent revisions of the Lectionary, as a holy person whose life should be celebrated widely. Born in c. 1636, the son of a Hereford shoemaker, Traherne spent most of his early life in this area, going to Brasenose College Oxford to study and returning to Herefordshire as Rector of Credenhill, a village a few miles from the city.

There he ministered faithfully to his flock and wrote poetry and prose – much of it celebrating the goodness and wonder of God. He took up new work in London in the early 1670s and died at Teddington in 1674, being buried in St.Mary’s Church. Little was published in his lifetime, and his work was hardly remembered until a re-discovery of his writings in the early 20th century (discovered on a second hand bookseller's barrow in Farringdon Road). He is now seen as a great exponent of 17th century writing.

Late in his life, Thomas Traherne became the private Chaplain of Sir Orlando Bridgeman, who was keeper of the Great Seal to King Charles II. When Sir Orlando fell into royal disfavour, Thomas Traherne followed him into “exile” at his home at St Albans, London, where he did not long survive him.

This is how the authoress Gladys Wade opens her commentaries on Thomas Traherne:-

‘In the middle of the seventeenth century, there walked the muddy lanes of Herefordshire and the cobbled streets of London, a man who had found the secret of happiness. He lived through a period of bitterest, most brutal warfare and a period of corrupt and disillusioned peace. He saw the war and the peace at close quarters. He suffered as only the sensitive can. He did not win his felicity easily. Like the merchantman seeking goodly pearls or the seeker for treasure hidden in a field, he paid the full price.

But he achieved his pearl, his treasure. He became one of the most radiantly, most infectiously happy mortals this earth has known.’

Gladys Wade is of course referring to those tumultuous times in which Traherne lived; the Civil War which particularly raged through Herefordshire; the harsh puritanical interlude of Oliver Cromwell’s ascendancy; the more frivolous times of Charles II.

Thomas Traherne did not believe that God had created Man in his ‘physical image’ but that we should look interiorly for the image of God in our Souls. He believed that as little children we once knew that innocence and wonder which he equates with the Paradise as Adam knew it before the fall. We then become corrupted by the dirty devices of this world but should again seek to achieve the wonder of the childhood innocence. He undoubtedly did so. He believed that each day each of us was heir to the whole beautiful world.

Whilst in Herefordshire he had become acquainted with a highborn lady, Susanna Hopton, the wife of a former Parliamentary Officer, a person of great piety and vitality. She evidently gave him the notebook in which to write. He dedicated it to her with the opening words:-

‘This book unto the friend of my best friend (God?)
As of the wisest love a mark I send
That she may write my makers praise therein
And make herself thereby a cherubim.’

He instructed her that each of us was the heir, each morning, to a pristine radiant world of infinite wonder and beauty, a truly glorious kingdom and for which we should give thanks each day continually to our Creator and for our God-given limbs:-

‘The world is a mirror of Infinite Beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace did not man disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen, than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven.’

“You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibitith the wisdom and power of God and prize in everything” (C1. 27).

These writings have been named by those who discovered them, “Centuries of Meditation” (there are 410 meditations or spiritual instructions altogether) many also point us to the Kingdom of Heaven within and enjoin us (or indeed Susanna Hopton, for whom we now know they were intended) to look for the image of Christ within us and to meditate upon him, so I will conclude with part of one of the meditations, which might seem to deal with “Christ consciousness” ( and also to mirror the “Atman” of Indian spirituality):- (Century 100 of the First Century).

“… And thus all ages are present in my soul and all kingdoms and God blessed forever. And thus Jesus Christ is seen in me, and dwelleth in me, when I believe upon Him. And thus all Saints are in me, and I in them. And thus all Angels and the Eternity and Infinity of God are in me for evermore. I being the living temple and comprehensor of them. Since therefore all other ways of In-being would be utterly vain, were it not for this; And the Kingdom of God (as our Saviour Saith) is within you, let us ever think and meditate on Him, that His conception, nativity, life and death may always be within us. Let heaven and earth, men and angels, God and His creatures be always within us, that is in our sight, in our sense, in our life and esteem: that in the light of the Holy Ghost we may see that glory of His Eternal Kingdom, and sing the song of Moses, and the song of the Lamb saying, Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty, just and true are Thy Ways, Thou King of Saints”.

James J. Balakier takes the view that in Traherne's poem "Desire," he reminds the reader that the path from the state of Misery--in which his "Soul was full of Groans" (l. 15) and his heart was "a deep profound Abyss, / And every Joy and Pleasure a Wound"/ (ll. 22-23)--to full Glory has been the natural tendency to desire to enjoy or "Prize, and Taste, and See" more and more happiness.
This Soaring Sacred Thirst,
Ambassador of Bliss, approached first,
Making a Place in me,
That made me apt to Prize, and Taste, and See,
For not the objects, but the Sense
Of Things, doth Bliss to Souls dispense,
And make it Lord like Thee.
(ll. 53-59)

In his pursuit of happiness Traherne has joyously reached the goal of this "Soaring Sacred Thirst" which was the herald or "Ambassador" of infinite happiness. We now believe that this quest appears to be hard-wired into the central nervous system of human primates and motivates us to study, to work, to marry and have children, to make friends, to pursue all sorts of worldly pleasures, to dream of the future, and sometimes to fight for social and financial status **(Cardoso)** . Of all the goals we may pursue in life, happiness is the only one to have worth in itself; all the others—health, power, money, beauty, success—make sense only as means of achieving it. To many people, life would be unbearable without the belief that they can be happy. The counterpoint is the avoidance of sadness, which again is an evolved behaviour to cope with loss. In the 17th century Christianity was the source of inner strength to cope with fears, tragedy, disaster and sadness. These days we are more likely to turn to transcendental meditation with an Eastern flavour.

The search for happiness

Hence comes it to pass, that all Ages and Kingdoms, Heaven and Earth, Time and Eternity, Angels and Seraphins, the infinite Heights and Excellencies of God, are, after a sort, in the Soul of Man. -- Thomas Traherne (1637?-1674)

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell

Seventeenth-century England was the stage for fierce religious controversy, with a broad spectrum of differences between the Roman Church and the Puritans, and between both and the Church of England. Civil war raged among religious and political factions, cities were besieged, fear and bloodshed were common throughout the land. The Restoration of the monarchy brought a new set of problems; for the society of the court of Charles II was notoriously corrupt and profligate.

This England was nevertheless the setting for some outstanding thinkers, whose search for enlightenment surmounted the controversial atmosphere both of religious bigotry and blatant vice. The Cambridge Platonists brought to the scene a breath of the eternal verities, whose champions they were. Gladys Wade's 1946 biography of Traherne expresses a commonly held attitude of bias against all pioneering thought, while inevitably revealing the powerful influence of this group on their contemporaries:

[Henry] More, . . . Van Helmont, Lady Conway, Glanvil, Thomas Vaughan, are but some of the more prominent of those who wasted their energies on Hermetic and Cabalistic and Rosicrucian lore, and on incredible experiments in magic and necromancy. Traherne is perfectly free from any taint of this. More's speculations drifted off, as he grew older, into aberrations of mysticism, . . .It might be said that Traherne was saved from a like fate by the accident of early death. -- p. 233, 232

If it were indeed true that Thomas Traherne was "saved" from this "taint" by his early death, Christian mysticism would have lost one of its most enthusiastic proponents. There are, as we shall see, unmistakable indications that Traherne had some contact with individuals of the same bent, who mutually supported one another in the quest for universal truth and the revival of the Hermetic tradition, which had well nigh vanished from sight during Europe's dark ages.

Thomas Traherne was born in the late 1630s, the son of a shoemaker at Hereford in western England. He and his younger brother Philip did, however, receive an education above their station, probably through the generosity of a wealthy relative who owned a tavern and who twice served as mayor of the city. At two separate periods Thomas attended Oxford, where the variety of subjects for study delighted his avid mind. It is possible that he there became acquainted with Susanna Harvey who was later, as Mrs. Hopton, to be the recipient of the Centuries of Meditations, which expresses some of his most intimate and inspired philosophy. He became rector of a church at the little town of Credenhill, near Hereford, and subsequently private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Seals of England, a kindly and high-principled man.

The Centuries was evidently written at Credenhill, where the young man underwent an experience which was to color all his thinking for the remainder of his life. During his first undergraduate stay at Oxford, he had become an agnostic and found himself in that unhappy no-man's-land of youth, where existence seems to lack meaning. Such a crisis is not uncommon in sensitive natures and all too often results in tragic discouragement, even suicide. It is the age of emergence into adulthood, when the soul must determine what path to pursue through life: the lonely search for truth, or conformity to common standards. Traherne found himself at this point, when in a lowering and sad evening, being alone in the field, when all things were dead and quiet, a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination. The unprofitableness and silence of the place dissatisfied me; its wideness terrified me; from the utmost ends of the earth fears surrounded me. . . . I was a weak and little child, and had forgotten there was a man alive in the earth. Yet something also of hope and expectation comforted me from every border. This taught me that I was concerned in all the world: and that in the remotest borders the causes of peace delight me, and the beauties of the earth when seen were made to entertain that I was made to hold a communion with the secrets of Divine Providence in all the world: . . . -- Centuries of Meditations, III, 23

Before a human soul can "hold a communion with the secrets of Divine Providence," it must face the fears that convene about it "from the utmost ends of the earth," and overcome them. This experience marked the initial awakening of Thomas Traherne to the reality of consciousness as man's fundamental being and to the inward life which beckons beneath the concealing camouflage of trivial concerns. Singular individuals have, throughout history, taken this ancient and solitary path to self-discovery. Few of them are ever known among their contemporaries; it is only rarely and in retrospect that the bright trail of their passage may be glimpsed. Traherne's unobtrusive existence in his small sphere would have passed unnoticed but for a series of fortuitous circumstances which brought some of his writings to light and aroused the curiosity of scholars.

Having surmounted this trial, young Traherne resolved to seek above all else the felicity he now knew was attainable through the affinity he sensed within himself with all divine manifestation. Once opened, this "inward eye" demands unswerving allegiance to the glimpsed ideal. Traherne seized upon this vision and, excluding all self-interest, determined to pursue the path of growth toward ever more sublime apprehensions. Yearning to share his discovery, he found in Mrs. Hopton a receptive correspondent to whom he could convey the spiritual elation which fired his soul. To love the world, just as it is, arouses an inner effervescence, a bubbling source of delight in the whole of nature's mystery, and this is abundantly expressed in his subsequent work. His joyous exuberance, the poetic imagery in both verse and prose, arise from Traherne's commitment to a conscious alliance with the divine root of being, and portray an irresistible urge to share this exultation with his fellow human beings.

The Centuries was clearly never intended to be a published work. The brief paragraphs are the uninhibited outpourings of a man's most intimate and sacred discoveries on his road toward progressively greater awareness, shared with a sympathetic associate bent on the same quest. Every human being receives such "intimations of immortality," when tendrils of awareness touch on the sublime, but few have the courage to embark on a voyage of discovery that they fear others could not share or would not understand. For those who dare, the inner life becomes paramount; drawing sustenance from outer events, it transcends them and is independent of them. Thomas Traherne attained a recognition of this transcendence through his ordeal in the quiet field and knew that thenceforth he must pursue his quest for ever greater enlightenment through the means available to him. His daily life became the arena wherein he sought to gain a constant increment of soul-experience. He recognized the need to apply his vision of the solidarity of all beings to a selfless practice of unfailing kindness and understanding in the practical pursuits of his career. That he did gain insights is clear from the enthusiasm he infused into his writings to his friend.

But it is an happy loss to lose oneself in admiration at one's own Felicity: and to find GOD in exchange for oneself. -- Centuries, I, 18
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: . . . Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; . . . till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: . . . -- Centuries, I, 29, 30

He was moreover not alone in his search. His companions are not named, but he evidently introduced Mrs. Hopton to a group of students engaged in the same quest for human perfection and eternal truth, for he tells her that "there are a sort of Saints meet to be your companions, in another manner, but that they be concealed" and proceeds to describe three grades of searchers: those whom she might help instruct, also "practicers and growers [who] will mingle souls and be delightful companions" as well as "the sublime and perfect." Susanna Hopton's home became a gathering place for a "family" of such individuals, who led blameless and ascetic lives amid the surrounding profligacy of Charles II's reign. As no names are given there is no way of knowing whether the group included any of the Cambridge Platonists or their adherents, but there is ample room for conjecture.

Though devoutly Christian in approach and expression, Traherne clearly does not subscribe to the popular intent of gaining salvation merely for oneself. Bertram Dobell, in his splendid introduction to the Centuries of Meditations, remarks upon this attitude and contrasts the work of Traherne with the Roman Catholic classic Imitation of Christ:

The author of the "imitation" wanted to save his own soul; Traherne wanted to save the world. However much assured he might have been of his own salvation, the latter writer would never have been content merely with that. -- Centuries, xvi

Nor was he ignorant of the reality of an esoteric system of initiation, for he wrote: "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" (Centuries, I, 90).

There are other indications also that he belonged to some secret community of searchers. Traherne was familiar with Platonic thought and devoted himself to a study of Hermes Trismegistus, Plotinus and Ammonius Saccas. During his second sojourn at Oxford, he no doubt gathered material for Roman Forgeries, which was published in 1673 and dedicated to his patron, Sir Orlando Bridgeman, with an affectionate simplicity usually lacking in those days of fawning obsequiousness. Roman Forgeries traced with scholarly care and precision the adulterations to which Christian doctrine had been subject in its early history and, surprisingly, had far greater popularity than Christian Ethicks, which was published two years later, posthumously, for Traherne possessed that rare combination of qualities which marks the truth-seeker: scholarly integrity and intuition. His learning was remarkable and Dobell states that "he was an unwearied student of the antiquities of the Church, of its Fathers, Councils, and Doctrines" (Introduction to The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, B.D., Bertram Dobell, p. xxxv). Here was no starry-eyed mystic without common sense, but a man of learning and character, whose search for truth was founded on a solid base of scholarship and reason.

Traherne died in 1674, a few months after Sir Orlando, who had fallen into disfavor with the king over a matter of principle. The Bridgeman household had been one of harmony and kindliness, strangely at variance in its climate of virtue and unselfishness with the general tenor of the times. Into this atmosphere Traherne fitted admirably. Here also he was at liberty to devote himself to writing and research.

Before he died, Traherne made a will bequeathing such trivia as his best hat, but characteristically forgot four houses which he owned. His poems he gave into the keeping of his brother, who edited and prepared them for publication. Philip's slightly pedestrian alterations, while they improved their style and fluency, also robbed the poems of some of the vaulting elation which had infused his brother. Thomas had resorted to verse as a mode of expressing his unbounded love for all creation, a love which filled him with a sense of wonder and delight at nature's beauty and perfection.

Definitions of poetry are probably as numerous as its readers. What distinguishes the poet from the mere versifier is not excellence of rhyme and meter but the luminous ideation he conveys. Impelled by an inner urgency to share the sublimity of his vision of truth, the poet can but strike a chord, whose resonance he alone can hear; the reader must respond with his own inner harmonies attuned to the inexpressible import within the words. One may find Traherne's poems of less than perfect form, but a supernal awareness implicit within them is potent and sincere, evoking a remembrance of each reader's own most treasured moment.

Recalling his childhood, Traherne wrote: "My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason" (Centuries, III, 2).

This inner sensitivity is the subject of the poem "Sight":

Mine Infant-Ey
Above the Sky
Discerning endless Space,
Did make me see
Two Sights in me,
Three Eys adorn'd my Face:
Two Luminaries in my Flesh
Did me refresh;
But one did lurk within,
Beneath my Skin,
That was of greater Worth
For those were Twins;
but this had ne'r a Brother
It is tempting to multiply quotations on a wide variety of subjects that occupied the fertile mind of Thomas Traherne. The very discovery and identification of some of his writings make intriguing history, wherein many people were involved as well as curious coincidences and ingenious detective work. Bertram Dobell in his excellent introduction to The Poetical Works relates the serendipitous purchase by a scholar in the late 1890s of two manuscripts from a street barrow, "that last hope of books and manuscripts in danger of being consigned to the waste-papermills," their ascription to another author, and the fortuitous sequence of events which eventually led to their identification as the work of Thomas Traherne. It has been three centuries since the death of this almost unknown young mystic, which has made research into his life and writings an unusually difficult undertaking. Whether or not during his lifetime he had ever received credit for his enthusiastic expressions of the vision he perceived within the beauties and harmonies of the natural world, the stream of thought from which he drank has continued to flow through the consciousness of mankind. Our own times are no less obstreperous to the gentler influences he exerted, yet there is clearly today a receptivity that allows more open expression of the ideals of human growth and perfectibility.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)

The artist's commentary

The following notes were made by the artist Tom Denny who created the stained glass windows in the Treherne Chapel

Light 1
Landscape is seen as the body of God:
"How do we know, but the world is that body, which the Deity hath assumed to manifest His beauty!”
"Beauty being a thing consisting of variety, that body... must be sweetly tempered of a manifold and delightful mixture of figures and colours." (Centuries II 20)
A figure runs through a cornfield:
"The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown..." (Centuries III 3) The field is framed by trees, a large oak appears in the middle distance and beyond, wooded knolls:
"The green trees when I saw them first... transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap." (Centuries III 3) In the distance we see the city of Hereford and :
we are "entertained with prospects" and "surrounded with the beauty of hills and valleys" (Centuries II 8) A pool fed by a spring occupies the foreground:
"Love in the foundation and love in the stream." (Centuries II 41) "That pool must first be filled." (Centuries IV 55)

Light 2
"That Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame, that illuminates all the world. The flame is Love: the Love in His bosom who died on it. In the light of which we see now to possess all the things Heaven and Earth after His similitude." (Centuries I 60) Rising above the Cross is a bird:
"Love is a phoenix that will revive in its own ashes." (Centuries IV 61) "Felicity is a bird of paradise." (Select Meditations III 65)
Surrounding the Cross are various creatures – a bull, a leopard, a roebuck, men battling, birds: -
"God had before this made an Epistle of his love. He had written it upon the Earth in knots and flowers... in bloody characters in the living creatures which was in more bloody ones afterwards copied in the Death of his son."(Kingdom of God XLI 193-197)
The 'border' of this light contains knots and flowers.

Light 3
Traherne's sense of the revelationary in everything he encountered – seeing the vast and the miniature:
"You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth this wisdom and power of God" (Centuries I 27)
"Suppose a river, or a drop of water, an apple or a sand, an ear of corn or an herb: God knoweth infinite excellencies in it more than we: He seeth how it relateth to angels and men; how it proceedeth from the most perfect Lover to the most Perfectly Beloved" (Centuries II 67)
"An ant is a great miracle in a little room and no less a monument of eternal love than almighty power" (Commentaries)
A figure stands in wonder and in one-ness with creation:
"You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars. (Centuries I 29)
Behind this is a river valley sheltered by hills and full of orchards, the sun above:
"You are as prone to love as the sun to shine." (Centuries II 65)
"All its light shineth for you." (Centuries II 7) In the border are small creatures, apples, minerals, drops of water and
" a little church environed with trees" (Select Meditations III 83) Light 4
A gate opens to reveal a city crowded with its inhabitants:
"The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets are mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine.
The dust and the stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world:
The men! 0 what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels." (Centuries III 3)