Trahernian Theology and Bare-Branch Decor
May 24, 2011 § 2 Comments
Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child. . . . The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. –Thomas Traherne, Centuries 3.1, 3
Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours; and you were made to prize them according to their value. –Thomas Traherne, Centuries 1.12
We have bare branches hanging on our walls. Not large ones—“sticks” might be the more accurate word, but it’s so unlovely—and not entirely bare, I guess, as they do have buds on them. Nonetheless, they are relatively stark things to have on your walls. My wife picks up various pieces of nature as we walk around our neighborhood, and some of them she hangs on our walls. Some people have taken this to be rather forlorn, having bare branches hanging on our walls. Others no doubt would interpret this behavior as exactly what you’d expect from an eccentric artist. The truth is, though, that my wife decorates with these unadorned chunks of wood simply because she thinks they are beautiful—which is to say, she realizes they are beautiful because she gives them the attention they deserve. When you really look at a bare branch, it’s a thing of wonderful complexity and beauty, subtle gradations of color and texture that defy my ability to describe. You have to look closely to see that, though.
I want to talk about this attitude toward nature—and such a little-noticed part of nature as bare branches—with reference to the work of a 17th-century poet and religious writer named Thomas Traherne. He is not a major figure in the history of English letters, but he nonetheless wrote what C.S. Lewis called one of the most beautiful books in the English language—a judgment with which I concur—Centuries (also known as Centuries of Meditations). I’m not going to try to summarize the book for you: it is a work of theology written in the language of a poet, which makes it difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to summarize. You should just go read it for yourself.
I will touch on one point of the book which I think I have understood. One of Traherne’s main topics, and the part of the book which has most stayed with me since I first read it in high school, is his concern with the beauty and value of Things in themselves, and the theological imperative that we pay attention to them. I began with two quotes from Traherne which point at that, the value he places upon a childlike view of the world, in which every pebble and bare branch is a marvelous creation of God to be prized as if it were made of gold. For Traherne, we were created to take joy in the created world and love it as it was made to be loved—which implies that we must pay close attention to even its most seemingly insignificant elements. Traherne thus directly opposes certain religious ideologies now current, which privilege the afterlife exclusively and which say that since God is just going to burn up this world anyway, to hell with it.* Today’s green movement has registered complaints with this view in terms of our politics and economics, but I think Traherne points to something even more fundamental than environmentalism: that the material world is not just worth preserving, it’s worth looking at.**
Essentially, Traherne is saying that we should love the world, and that the only way to do that adequately is by paying it close attention. Love cannot exist without attention—the idea you can’t love something if you aren’t attentive to it is a truth which has been acknowledged since Augustine. If you claim to love the world, then, you must begin by looking at it closely, even (or especially) the parts which seldom draw our casual attention.
As an artist who works directly with her hands and her eyes, my wife is a lot better at paying creation the attention it deserves than I am—my work as a writer and scholar pushes me in some badly idealist directions at times, encouraging me to act as if books and screens and ideas were more important than the physical world. As a student of the gift, though—and this is a claim I believe extends across various religions and philosophies—I must acknowledge that the beauty of the natural world is a gift which deserves my attention and love. I neglect my proper response to that gift all too often. So it’s good to live with someone who hangs bare branches on the walls.
*Excuse the language, but that is literally the implication of this attitude. Note the idea in Harold Camping’s recent apocalyptic prophecies that the world will eventually be consumed by a fireball. If this isn’t exactly the fires of hell, it’s as close as to make no difference. Sadly, plenty of people who don’t think they can predict the onset of the apocalypse still believe it will involve God burning up this world, a belief more gnostic than biblical. End theological rant.
**Traherne’s is an extreme theology in some ways, and it has its problems like any other theology. But whether or not his perspective on this should be mitigated, at its core I think it’s more healthy than the otherworldly, idealist view which many religious people now hold.