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Wanting Like a God: Desire and Freedom in Thomas Traherne by Denise Inge

Posted by Pir Zia Inayat-Khan on December 16, 2009

But for a highly improbable string of discoveries, Thomas Traherne’s mystical masterpieces might have been irretrievably lost in the sands of time. The discovery of the 17th-century Anglican vicar’s Centuries and Poems in the bin of a street bookstall—“that last hope of books and manuscripts in danger of being consigned to the waste-paper mills”—created a literary sensation in fin-de-siecle London. More discoveries were to follow. In the 1960s, while looking for old car parts, a certain Mr. Wookey found Traherne’s Commentaries of Heaven smoldering on a burning rubbish heap. In 1997, six new works turned up in libraries in Washington DC and London.

These discoveries are no mere “curiosities of literature.” They are unearthings of a powerful and timeless voice. Traherne must be read, and there is no better means of approaching his oeuvre than through the eyes of his leading interpreter, Denise Inge. In Wanting Like a God, Inge offers readers the fruit of ten years of meditation on Traherne’s prose and poetry.

Traherne’s central theme is desire. The commonplace that “God is love” takes on vast implications in Traherne’s penetrating exegesis. God wants. To want is to experience a lack, a need. God possesses infinite abundance—“the fullness of all Blessedness”—and yet, paradoxically, God is “from eternity full of want.”

We are summoned into existence by the force of God’s longing. Humans are enflamed with perpetual desire not because we are fallen, but because, made in the divine image, we naturally partake of God’s passion. The problem with our desire is not that it is excessive, but that it is insufficient. To obtain real satisfaction we must become serious about wanting; we must “want like a God.”

To want is to seek “treasures,” the desiderata of the heart. The whole of creation is a treasury of endless aesthetic and spiritual riches, but a treasure is invisible until its value is discerned and prized. Each of us is the unwitting heir to a boundless estate, and Traherne urges us to open our eyes and claim our birthright: “You will 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 men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

Wanting is bound up with choice. God endowed the human soul with the freedom to choose its destiny. To use Traherne’s word, God “adventured” our freedom. For God’s treasure to be discovered and enjoyed we are needed, but the turn toward God must be our choice. God takes a risk on us, curbing his power to compel in the hope that his limitless desire might be freely returned. The gamble pays off when we willingly choose love—when we drink the world down to its dregs and send it back to God on waves of praise.

Thomas Traherne has often been seen as a sort of “ineffectual angel” (to borrow Arnold’s characterization of Shelley). Wanting Like a God demonstrates the injustice of this assessment. Inge shows us a Traherne who is critically engaged with the outstanding religious, political, social and scientific questions of his time. His poetic reflections on infinity and eternity, for instance, appear to owe as much to “the new infinities of microscope and telescope” as they do to private contemplative insight. His praise of common, simple and useful things can be seen as a prescient critique of the rise of an economy premised on exchange-value, where money becomes a means and end unto itself.

As a practitioner of Sufism, I am fascinated by the many nexuses of thought that link Traherne’s theology of desire to the spiritual psychology of the Sufi “School of Love.” I imagine Traherne and Rumi crossing paths in Hurqalya, the plane of visionary encounters. Rumi quotes God’s words from the hadith qudsi, “I was a hidden treasure, and I wanted to be known, so I created the world.” Swooning, Traherne answers with an exhortation from his Centuries—“You must want like a God that you may be satisfied like God!”—and the two whirl in ecstasy.

Comments (1)
  • Thank you for introducing me to Thomas Traherne. I will be reading more. Your description of an encounter between Traherne and Rumi is especially lovely.
    Bonne Annee!

    — Lisa on January 2, 2010

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16 December 2009

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