Friday, March 4, 2016

An Ordinary Mystic

O Thou who ascendedst up on high, and ledst captivity captive, and gavest gifts unto men, as after Thy ascension into heaven Thou didst send Thy Holy Spirit down upon Thine apostles in the form of a rushing mighty wind, and in the shape of cloven fiery tongues; send down the Holy Ghost upon me: Breathe upon me, inspire me, quicken me, illuminate me, enflame me, fill me with the Spirit of God; that I may overflow with praises and thanksgivings as they did.  Fill me with the riches of Thy glory, that Christ may dwell in my heart by faith, that I being rooted and grounded in Love may speak the wonderful Works of God.  Let me be alive unto them: let me see them all, let me feel them all, let me enjoy them all: that I may admire the greatness of Thy love unto my soul, and rejoice in communion with Thee forevermore.

These are the words of a man who knew to whom he belonged, that he was indeed no orphan, but a person capable of penetrating and sanctifying communion with the Triune God.  These are the words of a man who relished in the abiding nature of the Holy Spirit, and felt in every fiber of his being that inter-connectedness Jesus promised to his disciples: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” These are the words of Thomas Traherne, an English mystical poet and Anglican priest of the mid-17th century.  Little is known about his life, other than basic facts about his education and the high-points of his ministry.  However, many of his writings have survived, though they were only discovered in the early 20th century.  Some who are familiar with his work described it by saying “His work looks upon the hidden things of the soul, and, in them, he sees the image of the glory and love of God and the eternal theme of the goodness and the splendor of God.”  Traherne was a man absolutely in love with and absorbed by the Triune God, and this reality is echoed in his works, most prominently a work entitled Centuries of Meditations, from which I quote tonight.

Two things astonish me about his life and work, specifically Centuries of Meditations.  First, it was written while he was an everyday parish priest.  These are not the words of a man cloistered inside a monastery, with every minute of every hour dedicated to worship and liturgical spirituality.  Traherne, as a parish priest, would have been occupied by the normalcy of village life, by the struggles of his congregants, and by the painful difficulties he endured throughout his own life. Even still, he was madly in love with the Triune God. His work reflects the profound truth that everybody can be a mystic.  Everybody has the potential to see themselves first and foremost as a person living in deep communion with the Triune God in spite of, and alongside, our ordinary, everyday circumstances. As Jesus said, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  For Traherne, the Holy Spirit was not the oft-forgotten third person of the Trinity.  Rather, the Spirit was the illuminating principle, the instigator of the deep love affair between God and humanity, the One who abides within the deep places of our humanity and elevates us to a place of communion and fellowship with the Living God.

Secondly, Traherne came of age during a time of great civil and religious turmoil in England.  He was born shortly before the Second English Civil War and the subsequent execution of Charles I, and would have been old enough to understand the weight and significance of such political violence.  He lived during the time of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, and would have felt the stinging effects of an atmosphere hostile to the Anglican spiritual tradition he inherited.  Yet his poetry and theological writings reflect not a man caught up with fear and trepidation, hatred or animosity.  Rather, his mystical poetry reflects someone who embodied these words of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  Rather than being filled with fear, he was so full of palpable, passionate love, so full of the Holy Spirit, that he could proclaim with a loud voice, “It is an inestimable joy that I was raised out of nothing to see and enjoy this glorious world: It is a Sacred Gift whereby the children of men are made my treasures, but O Thou who are fairer than the children of men, how great and unconceivable is the joy of Thy love! That I who was lately raised out of the dust, have so great a Friend, that I who in this life am born to mean things according to the world should be called to inherit such glorious things in the way of heaven.”

Like all the saints that have gone before us, Traherne can inspire us to strive more intently to live life caught up in the beauty and love of the Triune God. “On that day you will now that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Despite the struggles we endure, and right alongside the normalcy and difficulty of everyday life, we really can be ordinary mystics, feeling a rapturous love for the Living God.  So tonight, let’s allow our souls to sing, and welcome with open arms the rushing wind of God’s Holy Spirit.

*A sermon preached at an Ecumenical gathering in Los Alamos, NM on March 3, 2016.  The text was John 14:15-20, 25-27.

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