Imagine you had a chance to write a letter to C.S. Lewis. Perhaps you would pour out words about how important his work has been in your spiritual development. Perhaps you’d explain how important passages of his had moved you. Perhaps you would ask him about what made him tick…
Knowing Lewis casually, and the works he talks about publicly, we might think the works that meant most to him were classics of western philosophy like Plato or Aristotle. Or knowing he was an English professor with a specialty in early modern poetry we might consider that Shakespeare or Milton were the most important. Perhaps you know that Lewis considered himself a poet and appreciate him mainly for his fiction so you would think he’d suggest epic poems like the Odyssey or the Iliad. Maybe knowing of his dramatic conversion you would think he’d recommend Augustine’s Confessions, Thomas’s Summa, or Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Indeed the list you just read was precisely what was produced when I asked one of the premium large language models “What would C.S. Lewis recommend that I read?”
One of the sad things about living in the temporal wake of such a literary and intellectual giant is that you cannot actually write him such a letter. And–pace chat GPT–language models are no substitute for the real thing. But one of the great things about living in such a wake, at least for Lewis fans, is that we have over three thousand such letters which Lewis wrote and which were saved by his brother and later by his literary estate available for us to imagine and reconstruct how he might respond. The results might surprise you.
There is a little known 2010 essay by Richard James titled “Guidelines for Spiritual Reading from C.S. Lewis” which sets out to systematically study the literature Lewis recommended in his letters in response to fans who wanted to know what else they should read. Of the sources that the algorithm predicted only one is even in the top 25: Augustine’s Confessions. It comes in eighth and was recommended four times. That is also how often Lewis recommended John Bunyan and Julian of Norwich. Incidentally that is also how often he recommends Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Laws of England. The first author on his recommendation list, however, is almost completely forgotten: Thomas Traherne, the pastor, philosopher, and poet, who lived and died in obscurity in 17th century England.
Traherne was virtually unknown in his lifetime, as I made clear in my first volume on him, but was well known by the time of Lewis. This is because his literary success began two hundred years after his death when a man named Bertram Dobble published some of his unpublished papers in 1903. Those works have become the defining feature of Traherne studies and are, indeed, what Lewis recommends to his readers. Centuries of Meditations and the Poems of Traherne are indeed fantastic works. And in the era when Lewis was writing were more or less the only editions readily available to Lewis and his contemporaries. However if we were to dig deeper we would find that Traherne himself considered his life's work and magnum opus to be the more rarely read Christian Ethics. This work of roughly four hundred pages and finished merely months before his death was a labor of love that pulled together his vast philosophical learning, his erudite wit, and his incredible insight into the human condition in light of the goodness of God. It is not an overstatement to say that Traherne is the Aristotle of the English. In his writings we see the shimmering brilliance of the English protestant synthesis.
Indeed it is in part Lewis’ love of Traherne that led me to begin modernizing his Ethics. The second volume of which was published just two weeks ago. And Lewis is correct, reading Traherne is good for the soul. His vision is perceptive of the manifold goodnesses of human life in the shadow of the cross in ways that we often miss. The reason we most often miss it are two fold. On the one hand many Christians get focused on the reality of corruption and guilt in a fallen world. This makes sense since death, suffering, and pain are realities for all of humanity. Our post-christian culture centers victims wherever possible and (whatever merits this might have in some cases) it insistently keeps before our eyes the reality of the suffering that sin has brought into the world. This can lead to pessimistic and overly critical understandings of the world God made and which God loves. In fact at the logical end point of such thinking we begin to lose sight of what there is for God to love in this world at all. We lose sight of why God made it in the first place.
There is a parallel danger in presuming the grace of God having covered all things already. This reading of the world jumps at the thought of the resurrection. It longs so deeply for the images of the first fruits of the brotherhood of all men that it fails to understand the restraints of the law, or the necessity for death. It is of course understandable because it is good to love that which is ahead, our hope always orients us to what is coming into being. But if we live our lives with this as our only point of reference we still miss the good that is in front of us and we fail to see the points where our own actions are called for to improve the world we live in. That good is often messy, yes, but we can really look at the world as a sphere in which excellence is supposed to be cultivated.
Traherne is a corrective on both sides. He commands us not to fall into acedia because the world is too corrupt to enjoy or improve, but also not to fall into the same sin out of an overreliance on the work God is going to do to set it right. Traherne thrills at the idea that Christians could think about the human happiness in this world. We must not forget that our capacity to live excellently is here and now. The Lord who is our perfection and our end commands us to be perfect on this side of the grave and is the same one who commands us to act justly.
There are real natural pleasures which we must enjoy while we are in the body. There are deeds to be done that we are called to do by our vocations. Our actions make the world in concert with the providence of God and as we listen and long for the moving of His Spirit we also prudentially, with our fellow man, decide how we are to live in light of all He has done and promises yet to do.
Traherne died, by our standards, a poor man. But he died rich in wisdom and in loves. I have modernized him in hopes that more people will be introduced to his work and can be blessed by them as C.S. Lewis was. In all of Lewis’ moments where the original creational grace God poured out into our world in the creation are present, there we see Traherne. There is a manifold goodness that cannot, to the chagrin of the trans-humanists and the secularists, be improved upon by any man-made things. And yet we are called to study that grace which we call nature. We are called to build in it and on it. Traherne is always stopping to smell roses and wonder at sunsets. In an age where we are all being trained to reach for the screens with ever greater compulsion Traherne shows us a world that is worth looking at for its own sake.