Happiness, Augustine and Traherne, by Eve Lockett

Traherne windows by Tom Denny, Hereford Cathedral

Very occasionally, I dip into the ‘Confessions of St Augustine’, which is his personal blog written in the fourth century. I’m not really getting into theology or doctrine here, but I want to reflect on something he says about happiness.
Happiness is not often talked about in the Christian life – it’s as if it isn’t deep enough or spiritual enough to be really taken seriously. Either that, or happiness is associated with a kind of self-indulgent naughtiness careless of common sense or duty.

As with Augustine, the writings of Thomas Traherne give a very profound view of happiness as part of the Christian experience. Traherne, born in Hereford in the seventeenth century, wrote on the flyleaf of his work, ‘Why is this soe long detaind in a dark Manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World and a Universal Blessing?’ Ever felt like that? His words would have to wait four centuries to be published. Some of them were found on a bookstall barrow, many have turned up in manuscript form in private libraries, and one section was found burning on a bonfire in the 1960s and was fortunately rescued.

So what is happiness and where can it be found? I don’t mean the desperately forced jollity of game shows and holiday camps, but the inner glow of life-enhancing wellbeing that lifts our hearts. Does it just exist for the lucky and the strong? It seems crucial to explore its nature in a world where so many around us are stressed-out, anxious and despondent to an alarming degree.

Augustine made some observations about happiness. Firstly, that everyone wants it. No one would say they didn’t! A happy life, he goes on, is to joy in the truth. An interesting statement in our post-truth, unhappy world.

How does he argue this? Because everyone desires to joy in the truth. He says that he has met many prone to deceive others, none that wish to be deceived. And yet many deliberately do not choose the truth, and so forego happiness. Why? Because ‘they love truth when she enlightens, they hate her when she reproves.’ ‘…they love her, when she discovers herself to them, and hate her, when she discovers them.’ So the mind of man wishes nothing to be hidden from it, but wishes itself to be hidden.

I think this hits on something in our own experience with God. We don’t like being exposed to truth or God’s discerning Spirit, we like to keep the power balance in our favour. And yet happiness is found when we accept God’s love looks clear-eyed into our souls.

Traherne was adamant that we were created for happiness, and that happiness was allied to active holiness, virtue and humility.

Holiness is more than Righteousness is. It is the Zeal wherewith we render unto Things their sacred value…

I love that idea of passionately according things – and people – their sacred value. Think how life-affirming it would be if we all lived such holiness towards our work, our creative writing, our planet, our relationships.
Traherne saw blessing in God’s creation and a life lived in harmony with God’s infinite and eternal love. Ultimately, it is the generous love of God that bestows happiness on his creation:

But after all to be Beloved is the Greatest Happieness… I intirely Lov Him, that He is Infinite Lov to every Soul!

May we all find the happiness of knowing and rejoicing in God’s love, truth and holiness in a world where so often we find ourselves, as Traherne puts it, ‘Swerving from this Glorious and Happy Life’.


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