Arthur Middleton reflects on a Transfigured World

Donald Allchin comments,

By the transformation of heart, through the realisation of God’s presence there at the centre of man’s being, it becomes possible to see that ‘heaven and earth are full of God’s glory’. We discover our kinship with the material creation; we see all things marked with the name of Jesus. Here are two worlds, but two worlds in one; the familiar reality of earth shot through with the eternal reality of heaven. (The World is a Wedding, pp. 40-1)

To speak of the poetry of the seventeenth century poet Thomas Traherne is to speak of prayer and the vision that is born of it. In other seventeenth century Anglican divines we find this same vision. Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), George Herbert (1593-1633), John Donne (1571-1631), Henry Vaughan (1622-95), and Thomas Traherne (1636-74) are leading characters, but the main character is the language of the seventeenth century. Those of you who have tasted of this seventeenth century idiom in such writers will have been affected and formed in certain ideas and values.

These ‘spiritual writers’ bridge the worlds of earth and heaven but with an evocative power that rests on their sensitivity to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is epitomized by Herbert’s poem, ‘Teach me My God and King’. The paradox of mystery and revelation, transcendent and immanent, is beyond comprehension and yet it ‘is revealed through those images which can contain the truth of both states at once’. Beware of making rigorous distinctions between prose and poetry, because, through combinations of rhythm and sense and sound, the rhythms of feeling and intuition, when they find the right language,they are both capable of speaking of heaven in the ordinary.

This vision of a transfigured world which we see is present in our own tradition in the West. We will find this vision present in our own Anglican seven teenth century divines, in theologians, preachers and poets alike. C. S. Lewis speaks of Hooker’s model universe being ‘drenched with deity’ (‘English Literature in the Sixteenth Century’, in The Oxford Dictionary of English Literature, [Oxford, 1954], p. 460); and Hooker’s words ‘All things that are of God, have God in them and they in himself likewise, and yet their substance and his are very different.’ Lewis spells out what this presence of the transcendent God in his world implies; keeping together things that can easily be set in opposition,‘reason as well as revelation, nature as well as grace, the commonwealth as well as the Church, are equally though diversely, ‘of God’ … All kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences and disciplines … we meet in all levels the divine wisdom shining out through ‘the beautiful  variety of things’ in ‘their manifold and yet harmonious dissimilitude’.

This is nothing less than the patristic vision of God’s creation filled with his energy and wisdom, the presence of God participating in his world, which can be the only context within which to speak of man’s participation in God in terms of deification. ‘The Word of God, who is God, wills in all things and at all times to work the mystery of his embodiment.’(A. M. Allchin, Participation in God (DLT : London, 1988), p. 9, citing Maximos the Confessor). Within this context Hooker expounds a vision of man which finds its fulfilment in God, a theocentric humanism.   

If then in him we are blessed, it is by force of participation and conjunction with him… so that although we be men, yet being into God united we live as it were the life of God. (Hooker, Ibid, I.xi.2)

In Thomas Traherne it is a most intense experience with a comparable intensity of expression:

‘By the very right of your senses, you enjoy the world’, he claims, and then ex pounds what he means by this enjoyment of the world as God’s word and gift to us.

   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, and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because others are in it who are everyone sole heirs, as well as you.

   The combination of the literary and mystical in these seventeenth century ‘spiritual writers’, when the English language had a dignity, strength and high standard of excellence, is what T. S. Eliot tuned into and found such a converting influence. Here is a mystical theology that Anglicans have too often ignored. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was affected by it from his experience of using Andrewes’ Devotions. The Russian Orthodox Nicholas Lossky was similarly affected from his study of Andrewes’ Sermons, the origins of mystical theology in the Church of England. It is waiting to be discovered in the dignity of Hooker’s prose in the Laws of Ecclesiatical Polity, where the interpenetration of two worlds, the earthly and the heavenly, is nothing less than the Catholic and patristic vision of God’s creation filled with his energy and wisdom, the presence of God participating in his world.