Sole Heir


In my father’s house are many mansions. (John 14:2)

The two anonymous manuscripts might never have seen the light of day. They languished in private collections for more than 200 years before they were rescued from oblivion by William T. Brooke, a hymnodist and expert in sacred poetry. He found them in a cart outside an antiquarian bookseller’s in London before the turn of the last century. The two notebooks contained handwritten prose and poetry that Brooke initially attributed to the 17th-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. However, a clever bit of literary sleuthing eventually determined the manuscripts were the work of an obscure country parson named Thomas Traherne, who was a contemporary of Vaughan. Other previously anonymous Traherne manuscripts have been turning up ever since in private collections, museums and libraries on two continents. Another text was retrieved from a burning trash heap by a man who had come to the dump seeking spare parts for his car. It was as if something in the universe wanted to make sure Traherne's work got the attention it deserved.

Traherne is sometimes classified among the English metaphysical poets, who included John Donne, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. However, he belonged to no known literary circle and published only a single volume in his own short lifetime. (He died of smallpox before the age of 40.) One of the two original manuscripts found at the London bookseller’s contained a collection of short contemplative passages that was eventually published in 1908 as Centuries of Meditations. Although his work is still relatively unknown, Traherne counts among his admirers C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Merton.

I stumbled across Centuries of Meditations some years ago and was struck by their numinous clarity. Here is one gem:

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 men are in it who are every one sole heirs well as you.

Even though I was much taken by this passage, it took me a while to focus on the particular meaning of the phrase: “sole heir of the whole world.” How can I be the sole heir of the whole world, particularly if everyone else is a sole heir as well as I? Traherne was an Anglican clergyman and surely would have been familiar with the New Testament passage in which St. Paul proclaims that all believers are “children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” It is one thing, of course, to say we are joint heirs of God’s creation and quite another to think that the whole world is created just for me. What exactly was Traherne getting at?

Traherne was no solipsist, but he was certainly aware that we are subjectively alone with our own thoughts and emotions in a world that we also apparently share with others. My inner world seems to encompass everything, but it is born with me and dies with me. If it is philosophical certainty I seek, as Descartes did, there is not much I can count on beyond my own consciousness. From there it is a slippery slope to insist my thoughts and feelings alone are real. We cannot say this with any philosophical certainty and are sure to bump into others who can make the same statement with equal conviction. To the extent that we owe our existence to God, we can regard ourselves as sole heirs of the world as we perceive it. But what about all those other people who may regard themselves as sole heirs as well?

Here one of Jesus’ more cryptic statements may apply. “In my Father's house are many mansions,” he told his disciples shortly before he was taken away to be killed. “I go to prepare a place for you.” The word translated as “mansions” in the King James Version of the Bible can also be rendered as “dwelling” or “abode.” But “mansion” may be appropriate here because of the expansiveness it conveys. Ralph Waldo Emerson was getting at something similar when he wrote, "Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house, a world, and beyond its world, a heaven.” Each of the mansions in our father’s house comes with a view that encompasses a world and a heaven beyond. As the sole heir, I take possession of it so completely that the sea flows in my veins; I am clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars, as Traherne expressed it. And yet in possessing everything I lay claim to nothing, not even to myself, leaving room for my fellow heirs to take full possession as well.

Romans 8:16-17

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