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A God Who Wants
The Joy of Being
God did infinitely for us, when He made us to want like Gods, that like Gods we might be satisfied. The heathen Deities wanted nothing, and were therefore unhappy, for they had no being. But the Lord God of Israel the Living and True God, was from all Eternity, and from all Eternity wanted like a God. He wanted the communication of His divine essence, and persons to enjoy it. He wanted Worlds, He wanted Spectators, He wanted Joys. This is very strange that God should want. But he wanted Angels and Men, Images, Companions: And these He had from all Eternity. – Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditation
Thomas Traherne’s story sounds like fiction. He wrote prolifically, but was virtually unknown in his own short lifetime (1637-1674). A parish priest in the time of Charles II, he produced thousands of pages of poetry, sermons, commentaries and contemplative pieces. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that some of his manuscripts were rescued from a wheelbarrow, en route to disposal—and they were not identified as his until the twentieth. More of his writings were discovered mere decades ago, and his works now comprise seven large volumes. C. S. Lewis considered one collection, his Centuries of Meditations, perhaps “the most beautiful book in English.”
The author was certainly one of earth’s most beautiful souls. He calls to my mind the church father Origen’s belief that some premortal spirits came to earth not as part of an educative ascent or purgatorial penance—but merely as angelic guides to assist the rest of us in our lives of pain and growth. Himself a firm believer in premortal life, he wrote many poems on that theme. In one, he writes of his certainty that
Long time before I in my mother’s womb was born, A God preparing did this glorious store, The world, for me adorn. Into this Eden so divine and fair, So wide and bright, I come His son and heir. A stranger here
In another, he recalls rather than imagines
How like an angel came I down! How bright are all things here! When first among His works I did appear Oh, how their glory me did crown! The world resembled His eternity, In which my soul did walk; And everything that I did see Did with me talk.
History favored him, in that he came of age in the aftermath of the English Civil War, a time of religious vitality and innovation. In those years a number of his contemporaries joined him in reviving not only the doctrine of premortality, but also belief in human deification and disbelief in any taint of original sin. The enduring appeal of his poetry rests in part on the simple guilelessness with which he insists on memory, rather than theology or orthodoxy, as his guide in spiritual matters:
But that which most I wonder at, which most I did esteem my bliss, which most I boast And ever shall enjoy, is that within I felt no stain nor spot of sin. No darkness then did overshade, But all within was pure and bright, No guilt did crush nor fear invade, But all my soul was full of light. A joyful sense and purity Is all I can remember. . . . I was an Adam there, A little Adam in a sphere Of joys!
In describing God as a God who wants, he meant that term in its premodern sense: He is telling us of his belief in a God who needs. That, too, was a novel claim against the background of creedal Christian belief. Traherne’s faith was immune to the classical heritage of God’s self-sufficiency, changelessness, impassibility. He knew his wanting, yearning, companionate God was “strange” in that regard. Yet there is another aspect of his faith that is delightfully surprising, and in that regard strange as well: that God would find that we humans, in our capacity as divine “companions,” answer to that divine hunger.
A decided bleakness with regard to human nature enters the Christian picture in the early fourth century. And that despair is certainly ramped up with the advent of those Reformation doctrines that emphasize fallenness and depravity. Even as an ordained cleric trained in those traditions, Traherne never lost his optimism, his faith in human nature.
No one aware of world events or national politics can harbor any illusions about the dominion of evil in our history. We are capable of monstrous acts against one another. Yet neither can anyone aware of the million martyrs who have fought against oppression or seeing the quiet doggedness of single parents in your ward, reading about Mother Teresa’s work in Calcutta or having witnessed a child’s kindness to a bullied classmate, doubt that God sees something in humankind worth healing and redeeming. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples he had overcome the world. Before the scourging, before Gethsemane, and before Calvary, he had overcome the world. He had already seen enough, and experienced enough, to shape his response to evil. He knew one friend had betrayed him, but he also knew that eleven would die for him. Perhaps, in at least one small but meaningful way, to overcome the world is to refuse defeat at the hands of despair and cynicism. It is to marvel at God’s love for us, and to engage in the hard work of discerning the diamonds everywhere in the rough.