The 17thc group of theologians known as the Cambridge Platonists were, on the face of it, Calvinist puritans who went back to classical philosophy to look for ideas that were based on reason and might create common ground in a time of violent argument. Of the thinkers who were actually based at Cambridge the outstanding figure is John Smith.

His various Discourses, principally on the theme of living a good life, were published posthumously. He is the most peaceful, gentle and elegant of the Cambridge Platonists. It was a chance glance at one particular passage of Smith which set me off on this search:

“God made the universe and all the creatures therein as so many glasses in which he can reflect his own glory. He hath copied forth himself in the creation, and, in this outward world, we may read the lovely characters of the divine goodness, power and wisdom. In some creatures there are darker representations of God; there are the prints and footsteps of God; but in others, there are clearer and fuller representations of the Divinity, the face and image of God.” (Cragg p.127)

To me, at least, this reads as virtual paraphrase of Bonaventure. The image of “glasses”, or mirrors, is typical of Bonaventure and “footsteps” is a translation of Bonaventure’s technical term “vestiges” for the marks of God imprinted on Nature. These two ideas appear together in the opening lines of Chapter Two of Bonaventure’s “Journey of the Soul into God.” Whether this is a deliberate or conscious use by Smith or is a pure coincidence, it is, for me, a clear sign of the Franciscan spirit at work in this period:

“Concerning the mirror of things perceived through sensation, we can see God not only through them as through his vestiges, but also in them as he is in them, by his essence, power and presence.” (BONAVENTURE 1 p. 69)

Smith’s primary concern is for how we make ourselves good, how we make our own vision clear enough to be able to see God in the world. We have to become Christ-like to be able to read the world aright:

“Thus many a good man may walk up and down in the world as in a garden of spices, and suck a divine loveliness from every flower. There is a two-fold meaning in every creature, as the Jews speak of their law – a literal and a mystical – and the one is but the ground of the other….” (Cragg p. 128)

This passing idea, that the world can be read on more than one level, in the same way that we read scripture, is also found in Bonaventure. To Bonaventure scripture is like a forest. This Book of Nature is not something fixed and separated from God but a glass through which God’s light shines continually. (More like a Kindle?)

“And seeing God hath never thrown the world from himself, but runs through all created essence, containing the archetypal ideas of all things in himself…a soul that is truly…god-like…cannot but everwhere behold itself in the midst of that glorious, unbounded Being who is indivisibly everywhere. A good man finds every place he treads on holy ground; to him the world is God’s temple; he is ready to say with Jacob, “How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God.” (John Smith: The Excellency and Nobleness of True Religion, Chapter 8 CRAGG)

As with Bonaventure we can discover God’s light in creation and in our own souls – the second stage of Bonaventure’s Journey into God.  The Cambridge Platonists tend to emphasise reason very strongly, as an antidote to the unreasoning passions of 17th century religious conflict. Reason is important to Bonaventure, as long as it is tempered by love and doesn’t lead to the analytical excess of Aristotelians like Aquinas. Smith’s praise of reason is Platonic here –

“God hath stamped a copy of His own archetypal loveliness upon the soul, that man by reflecting into himself might behold there the glory of God…Reason in man being lumen de lumine, a light flowing from the fountain and father of lights…was to enable man to work out of himself all those notions of God which are the true groundwork of love and obedience to God and conformity to him.” (The excellency and noblenesse of true religion) (CRAGG p. 95)

The archetypal realities of God can shine in our Souls as well as in the world. We need to polish up our own glasses to let the light shine clearly within and without.

“It is to be feared that our nice speculations about what concerns us in theology have tended more to exercise men’s wits than to reform their lives.” (CRAGG p. 31)

Smith is, in theory, a Calvinist divine, but this platonic view of the world seems to be quite distinctive from a Calvinist world view in which the world was created at the beginning but is occasionally manipulated by God.  The most visionary, and hardly known, of the 17th century writers, Peter Sterry, stretched what could be considered to be properly Calvinist to the absolute limit.

The most familiar and loved of these Platonist writers, Thomas Traherne, was from the opposite camp – Oxford rather than Cambridge, Royalist rather than Cromwellian, High Anglican rather than Calvinist.


I first came across Thomas Traherne by opening a book of his poetry in a library and being delighted by how mad it looked. In 1977 I found myself living in a bedsit in Teddington, where he died, and I treated myself to the Oxford edition of his works in a local bookshop. I tried to visit his memorial in the church but a vicar with a bucket was cleaning and wouldn’t let me in. Traherne is by far the most Franciscan-seeming divine of the 17th century and by far the most well-known. That he has become well known is a kind of miracle. He did publish an academic book “Roman Forgeries” in his lifetime and a more characteristic but formal “Christian Ethics” was published posthumously but his life was mostly spent in a quite Herefordshire village.  His other work has gradually been rediscovered.

His most startling work the “Centuries” was bought from a London bookstall in the late 19th century. A manuscript was plucked from a bonfire, partly burned, and several texts have fairly recently been unearthed, in an uncatalogued volume in Lambeth Palace library. Traherne has become famous for a few wonderful and endlessly quoted passages about creation as experienced in innocence. This overfamiliarity does him a disservice. He can launch into mystical rapture but he also wrote tough arguments against the Calvinist, Dr. Twisse. (Traherne was very much against Calvinist predestination) He may have had visionary tendencies  but he was a very devoted priest, living and working with down to earth people in his parish of Credenhill. Traherne was, it turns out, a prolific writer. The new complete works is currently aiming at nine substantial volumes.

The “Centuries” and the collection known as “Poems of Felicity” stand out from the mass of words. They are not, at least the “Centuries” are not, written for publication. The “Centuries” are addressed to a friend, as a kind of spiritual manual.  This might have been Susannah Hopton, who lived nearby and had a small religious community around her. She published devotional books herself, based on catholic originals. Louis Lohr Martz, writing in 1964 when far less was known of him, detected the general shape of Bonaventure’s “Soul’s Journey” in Traherne’s “Centuries” (MARTZ) though there is no direct evidence that Traherne knew Bonaventure. It is more likely that Traherne was inspired by many of the earlier writers who had influenced Franciscan theology and that these had been selected and combined through his own personality and vision.

The “Centuries” are written in a completely informal, personal style. It’s incredibly refreshing and readable compared to most 17th century devotional writing. The book seems to be unfinished. It stops part of the way through the fifth set of 100 short passages. There is a sense of completion, though, and the work progresses from child-like simplicity to visionary complexity. It does follow Bonaventure’s journey loosely, in moving from finding God in Creation, through Christ and the cross, on a journey upwards, but it ends with celebrating God in everything rather than taking the “way of negation” through “the cloud of unknowing” into God alone.

The most famous passage is the innocent vision of the world where “the corn was orient and immortal wheat.” Traherne sees the world as illuminated with God and that our sins obscure the vision. To Traherne love is an immense “alluring” force that draws us towards God, and drives everything in creation. This is certainly close to Bonaventure who developed a Trinitarian theology of love from the earlier Victorines – who do appear to have been known in 17th century England.

All love comes from God and is all one love, just as the three Persons of the Trinity are One:

“Lov in the Fountain and Lov in the stream are both the same…Though it Streameth to its Object it abideth in the Lover, and is the Lov of the Lover.” (TRAHERNE C 2:41)

In Love we live in each other, in the deepest spiritual sense, and we also live in Christ. A Franciscan parallel in Traherne is his insistence on poverty as a necessary factor in being able to find God in the world. His poverty is not, though, literal, he owned property In Hereford, but he did live as simply as possible. He is very insistent on the principal that by owning nothing (or perhaps being detached in an Ignatian sense) we own the whole world – and so can everyone else.

“You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your Veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and Perceiv your self to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, because Men are in it who are every one Sole Heirs as well as you. Till you can Sing and Rejoyce and Delight in God, as Misers do in Gold, and Kings in Scepters, you never Enjoy the World.” (TRAHERNE C 1:29)

He may be rather over enthusiastic and he admits himself that he could button-hole people and talk endlessly about “felicity”, but Traherne isn’t soppy. Everything focusses on the cross:

“The Cross is the Abyss of Wonders, the Centre of Desires, the Schole of Virtues, the House of Wisdom, the Throne of Lov, the Theatre of Joys and the Place of Sorrows; It is the Root of Happiness, and the Gate of Heaven.” (TRAHERNE C1:58)

Gordon Mursell introduced me to my last character on the “if you like Traherne you’ll like him even more” basis. He was right. Otherwise I would never have got to know Peter Sterry. If I had come across him without this recommendation I might have passed him by. Sterry was not only a Calvinist, but Cromwell’s personal chaplain. In his earlier days he preached sermons which declared that God must be on the side of the New Model Army because it was winning.

Sterry did not leave any accessible works to compare with Traherne’s “Centuries”. There are treasures, though, in his letters. After the restoration of Charles II Sterry retired to Sheen, near Richmond, and set up what he called a “lovely society”, a family religious community reminiscent of Little Gidding. His views become peaceful and gentle.  He wrote letters to his family, poetic essays and poetry.

The introductory chapter of his long and convoluted “Discourse on the Freedom of the Will”, published posthumously in 1675, speaks at length about the value of have opposing views in order to reach the truth and he beseeches us to accept opposite arguments and love our enemies. The title suggests a deadly puritan tract but Sterry stretches Calvinism as far as it will go. God may predestine people but as He is infinitely creative He may create infinite alternatives for us – and, like John Smith, Sterry is an Origenist and wonders whether everyone might be saved in the end. The introductory section, though, sets forth Sterry’s basic beliefs. He has a Trinitarian view of Creation, with all things deriving from one archetypal source, the Word, which is close to Bonaventure’s:

“The Idea, in this sense, is the first and Distinct Image of each form of things in the Divine Mind…Every Idea of each Creature is this Idea, bringing forth itself according to the inestimable Treasures of the Godhead in it, into innumerable distinct figures of it self in the unconfined Varieties of its own Excellencies and Beauties, so that it may enjoy itself, sport with it self, in these, with endless and ever new Pleasures of all Divine Loves.” (STERRY 1 p. 149)

Everything that exists is a copy, or emanation, of the Word, but in infinitely varied form, and these infinite works exist in a constant state of play, or performance. This is what is wonderful about Sterry, and as far as I know completely original. His writing is full of musical imagery. He accepts the traditional idea, elaborated by Giorgi, that there are fundamental harmonies in everything, resonating down from the Music of the Spheres, but Sterry writes about music as music, a completely different angle. Harmony is a static thing. Music is active, made up of complex patterns of notes and harmonies, and of concords and discords.

Music is like the world, and God speaks through Creation in a hidden music:

“Every single Note in this sacred Musicke is a particular and singular Forme in the Divine Works…These single Notes are contrary to another, are distinguished into flatts, and sharpes, Concords and Discords: struck singly by a rude Hand, like to the Dancings of Witches, or howlings of Devills. These same Notes, the flatts, the sharpes, the Discords, the stops, the breaking of Notes, as the Divine Harmony by an excellent Order, and Just Degrees of Decents slides into them, reconviles, and marries them into answearing, and suitable Notes…Thus they become the sweetest Rellishes of the Musicke, most necessary, and delightull Parts of it, which bear the Universall Harmony Itselfe, as a Pearle-seed in their Bosomes, and a Crowne of Dyamonds upon their Heads.” (STERRY 2 p. 174)

Sterry writes as if he is intimately familiar with the instrumental music of the period. To the puritans elaborate church music was suspect and theatres were closed under Cromwell, but private instrumental music had developed into a new high art in England since the end of the previous century. This consort music was built on the complex interplay of several parts, usually on viols, with accompanying organ or keyboard. The music was like a philosophical conversation, and advancing harmonic technique meant that it could explore the widest range of expression and touch the  strangest and darkest of discords.

Sterry recognises this as a true image of what the world is like. We hear God’s music in the interplay of light and shade, discord and concord in creation. This is not simply a static idea of Harmony but a living music in which many parts can interweave, sometimes creating creative discord, and all having their own life but forming a whole. Music had evolved a language that could represent the working of God in the world and help us understand it. This dark 17th century music, particularly William Lawes and Orlando Gibbons, is as much part of the English spiritual tradition as the poetry of Herbert, a poet who played this music himself.

Elsewhere Sterry writes of the Trinity playing in Creation as in a Masque,“a divine play, composed and acted by themselves in the riches of their divine spirit” (STERRY 2 p. 119) and “a mixt dance of divine Beauties, and loves, to quicken, soften enlighten, sweeten all.” (STERRY 2 p. 120)

Sterry’s imager of the Consort of Musicke is more than a metaphor. Music itself is part of the world, a laboratory in which we study how things are formed, how many small things in relationship combine to make a language. God made everything, visible and invisible. We have to look at all things as being of God, as infinitely varied products of the Word. This has to mean everything – including the difficult, discordant parts, the shadows, the sharps and flats. St Francis praised God with all the four elements, from which everything in Nature is made, as well as with Sister Death. It’s not Franciscan, or Christian, to look for God only in green fields and flowers.

Even those are complex works.

The flower may have diseases and parasites. The field may contain bones and pieces of shrapnel. We have to know God in all, in the whole, not just in the pretty bits. Everything that has Being reflects God’s Being, as Sterry says elsewhere. God is in all. God is not a Deus ex Machina, occasionally reaching down from above the stage. The whole performance emanates from God. The works of God, as Bonaventure, Smith, and Sterry all tell us, are all images of the Word, however small. Nothing exists on its own, as a separate thing. Everything is made of many smaller parts..

Sterry’s image of the masque or dance reminds us of something that should be obvious. Everything exists in relationship with other things Everything exists in performance, constantly forming new relationships, new works. Every relationship is a part of the work of the Trinity. God’s very nature is love and relationship. Love draws us all to perform and create.

When we walk through a forest or a town we are creating an aspect of that place.  We are audience, composer and performer. We cannot think a place is dead and godless if we’re there. Maybe we have a part to play. It’s a very hard job to learn how to listen, let alone how to perform. All these theologians grapple with the question of how we can be “good people.” We have to learn enough, or forget enough, to allow the “sea itself to flow in our veins.”

The Affirmative Way is as difficult as the Negative Way. Satan, our personal trainer, keeps telling us to look at the pretty flowers or listen to nice relaxing music (both are good in their proper place) just as he tries to persuade us, if we try to contemplate, that we have finally reached God when we have simply arrived at a comforting parody of God, or a nice snooze. (The Cloud of Unknowing is as relevant as it ever was.) The only music in the Negative Way is Silence. Our first step to finding God in the most difficult times or places is to accept reality. Simply doing this can be revelatory.

My study, of which this is a part, is towards a Musical Theology, of forming, performing, listening. Sterry provides me with a text for my work. I feel everything I am working on could be a commentary on this one paragraph.

Sterry is writing to his son. He has in mind the idea, which Giorgi, Ficino and other Renaissance Platonists wrote about, that we have in our souls the same harmonies as ring through the spheres and through all creation. Sterry, Traherne and Smith sing loudly about the beauty of the world and they are sure that everything comes from God, diversity springs from Unity. The more we know that music in Creation and that beauty the more we are drawn by love through the mirror towards the source of love, our true home.

“Let us ever remember that we are here in our pilgrimage and Disguise. Let us have our own country and the way to it ever in our hearts…I know nothing pleasanter, than that which David sung to God; Thy Statutes are my Songs in the house of my pilgrimage. Even in this earthly body, the Manifestations of the Love, and beauty…are Songs, harmony, Musick made by the heavenly spheres of the divine beings themselves in us, by the Charms of which even our house, our Pilgrimage, and all things in it are turned into heavenly Dances and Delights.”   (STERRY 2)

I have imagined, if nothing more, that there is a particular spirit which was focussed and formed in St Francis and his followers. I have followed just one trail of this spirit here, looking at the way we look for God in Creation. I am sure the same Spirit flows through English religious life in other ways. It seems to have poured smoothly into some aspects of Lutheranism. It may have percolated gently into the Quaker tradition. It doesn’t belong to any one church or denomination. These people I have spoken about, working in a broken and shadowy England, are part of my personal tradition – they may not appeal to everyone. They are a few of the Invisible Pilgrims who accompany me on my journey.


BONAVENTURE 1 Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God. The Tree of Life. The Life of St Francis. Paulist Press, 1978.

BONAVENTURE 2 Bonaventure: On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology. Translation with introduction and commentary by Zachary Hayes O.F.M, D. Th. New York. Franciscan Institute, St Bonaventure University, 1996

CRAGG The Cambridge Platonists, edited by Gerald R Cragg, Oxford University Press Inc., 1968

DELIO Ilia Delio: A Franciscan View of Creation. Franciscan Institute Publications.

MARTZ Louis L. Martz: The Paradise Within. Studies in Vaughan, Traherne, and Milton. Yale University Press, 1964

MILNE Joseph Milne: The Ground of Being. Foundations of Christian Mysticism. Temenos Academy, 2004.

SCHMIDT-BIGGEMANN Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann: Philosophia Perennis. Historical Outlines of Western Spirituality in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought. Springer, 2004.

STERRY 1 Vivian de Sola Pinto: Peter Sterry. Platonist and Puritan, 1613-1672. New York. Greenwood Press, 1968.

STERRY 2 Peter Sterry. Select Writings. Edited by N. I. Matar. Peter Lang, 1994

TRAHERNE Centuries of Meditations. Various editions available. YATES Frances A. Yates: The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979