Jeremy Taylor, Robin Williams and Holy Living

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Readings for the Feast Day of Jeremy Taylor

Psalm 139:1-9

Matthew 24:42-47

This homily was preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on August 13, 2014

“God is wholly in every place, included in no place, not bound with cords except those of love” – Jeremy Taylor

“It would just be nice, if heaven exists, to know that there’s laughter” – Robin Williams 

In 17th century England, during the reigns of King Charles I and II, a group of Anglican theologians emerged who continued to develop the Anglican ethos articulated a century before by Richard Hooker. They were known as the “Caroline Divines” and, in their theology, they attempted to forge a via media between Calvinist Puritanism and Roman Catholicism. Perhaps the most famous of the Caroline Divines was Jeremy Taylor, whose elegant prose earned him the title “Shakespeare of the Divines.”

Like the other Caroline Divines, Taylor emphasized the importance of liturgical prayer and its inextricable link to our everyday life, which was the key to what he called “Holy Living.” He wrote prayers for daily activities like getting dressed and invited people to experience God’s presence in nature, in the warmth of a fire, in the freshness of water and even in the joy of adult beverages. He wrote, “In the face of the Sun you may see God’s beauty: In the fire you may feel his heat warming, in the water, his gentleness to refresh you: he it is that comforts your spirit when you have taken Cordials: it is the dew of Heaven that makes your field give you bread; and the breasts of God are the bottles that minister drink to your necessities.”[1] 

Jeremy Taylor also invited people to be present to the here and now, which is what Jesus invites us to do when he says, “Keep awake therefore and be prepared to experience God now” (Matthew 24:42). Taylor wrote, “Some lose the day with longing for the night, and the night is waiting for the day. Hope and fantastic expectations spend much of our lives; and while with passion we look for a coronation, or the death of an enemy, or a day of joy, passing from fancy to possession without any intermedial notices, we throw away a precious year.”[2] 

And for Jeremy Taylor, each year was precious. Each day was precious. He was alive during a time of great religious and social upheaval and was imprisoned numerous times while his friend William Laud lost his head. England was not a safe place in the mid-17th century for a royalist like Jeremy Taylor and we can hear some of his anxiety about death in the Collect, which is based on one of his prayers: “O God, make us…deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let your Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days.”

Death was an especially real possibility for Taylor, which is why he wrote not only a book on Holy Living but also a book on Holy Dying. And for Taylor, even death, no matter how tragic, could be an opportunity to experience God, who according to Psalm 139, is present even in the grave (v. 7).

Taylor wrote, “God is wholly in every place, included in no place, not bound with cords (except those of love)…we may imagine God to be as the Aire and the Sea, and we all inclosed in his circle, wrapt up in the lap of his infinite nature, or as infants in the wombs of their pregnant Mothers; and we can no more be removed from the presence of God, than from our own being.”[3]

Jeremy Taylor echoes the promises of Psalm 139 (“Where can I flee from your presence? If I make the grave my bed, you are there”), promises that we need to hear and remember especially in the midst of tragedy and death in our lives and in the recent heartbreaking suicide of someone most of us have not met but to whom we feel deeply connected.

Although Jeremy Taylor would certainly not condone the tragic suicide of Robin Williams as a form of “Holy Dying,” I believe he would still insist that he is in God’s presence for God is “not bound with cords, except those of love.”

Williams was asked, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” He smiled and said, “ ‘There’s seating in the front. The concert begins at 5. It’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and then you have one of your choosing.’…Or it would just be nice, if heaven exists, to know that there’s laughter. That would be a great thing. Just to hear God go, ‘Two Jews walk into a bar…’”

Jeremy Taylor would appreciate this answer, which reveals a delight in beauty, joy and laughter, all expressions of God’s love for us. Taylor wrote, “We never read that Jesus laughed, and but once that he rejoiced in spirit; but the declensions of our Natures cannot bear the weight of a perpetual grave deportment, without the intervals of refreshment and free alacrity.”[4] I am thankful for the intervals of refreshment and alacrity that Robin Williams gave me and I am sure he is giving and receiving similar refreshment and alacrity now from the Source of all Joy. I imagine he is filling heaven with laughter (perhaps joking about the top ten reasons for being an Episcopalian) and moving deeper and deeper into what Jeremy Taylor would call the highest form of holy living.

[1] Jeremy Taylor, The rule and exercises of holy living, ed. P.G. Stanwood (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 39.

[2] Jeremy Taylor, The rule and exercises of holy dying, ed. P.G. Stanwood (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 35.

[3] Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living, 1.3, p. 35

[4] Jeremy Taylor, The great exemplar of sanctity and holy life (or The history of the life and death of the holy Jesus) (London: James Flesher, 1653), Exhortation 8, p. 5.

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