Jeremy Taylor: Contentedness in Hard Circumstances

By Charles Hoffacker

The life of Jeremy Taylor (1613-67) was anything but easy. This Caroline Divine lived through decades of uproar, remaining a consistent Anglican and Royalist throughout the English Civil War, Protectorate, and Restoration. Taylor served as a chaplain to Archbishop William Laud and King Charles I, both of whom were executed, and was himself briefly imprisoned several times.

He spent years in exile at Golden Grove, the home of his patron Lord Carbery in Wales. He buried his first wife and several sons. After the Restoration, he served as a bishop in rural Ireland. His large, learned, and elegant literary legacy includes Holy Living and Holy Dying. Jeremy Taylor is honored on August 13 in some provinces of the Anglican Communion.

Thomas K. Carroll notes that Taylor’s Holy Living “has all the marks of an unconscious biography.” Motivated perhaps by his many sorrows, Taylor included an extensive discourse on contentedness (Chapter II, Section VI) that, along with other resources, features eight “Instruments or Exercises to procure Contentedness” in the belief that chance or circumstance cannot overcome someone who is content.

The first exercise involves recognizing that “everything has two handles,” or at least that we have two hands by which to grasp it. What troubles us can be turned to our spiritual advantage. An enemy who reproaches us may supply a more helpful account of our faults than any friend. While a supporter may flatter us, an opponent teaches us how to proceed with caution. Medicine that tastes bitter may contribute to the renewal of health.

If nothing else, our misfortunes in life “may make us weary of the world’s vanity, and take off our confidence from uncertain riches; and make our spirits to dwell in those regions where content dwells essentially.”

Taylor admonishes us not to compare our condition with those in more advantageous circumstances, but instead to notice those who would gladly exchange their place for ours. To grieve over the good that others enjoy is a folly rather than to rejoice in the good that God has graciously bestowed upon us.

He then appeals to our natural self-love. Wise or good people never wish to exchange their identity or circumstances entirely for those of others. We may desire some specific good enjoyed by another. There is “no reason to take the finest feathers from all the winged nation to deck that bird that thinks already she is more valuable” than any other.

Sometimes we must shift our attention from losses and grievances and instead consider what pleases and prospers us. Then what is better blots out what is worse. Recall blessings you have received, and imagine blessings likely to appear. “It may be that thou art entered into the cloud which will bring a gentle shower to refresh thy sorrows.”

Taylor encourages Christians to reflect on what salvation promises them: “how great is that joy, how infinite is that change, how unspeakable is the glory, how excellent is the recompense for all the sufferings in the world.” Because we are but strangers traveling to our country, where the kingdom’s glories wait for us, it would be folly to be much concerned about having “a less convenient inn to lodge in by the way.”

We are advised not to sit upon our little handful of thorns. Taylor seems to imply that, even while he is exiled at Golden Grove, his life is still rich. “I sleep and digest, I eat and drink, I read and meditate, I can walk in my neighbor’s pleasant fields, and see the varieties of natural beauties, and delight in all that in which God delights, that is, in virtue and wisdom, in the whole creation, and in God himself.”

Taylor’s fourth exercise cautions us to avoid solicitude about the future. Engaging in such misguided concern “is like refusing to quench your present thirst by fearing you may” lack drink the next day. Sorrows come soon enough, so enjoy today’s blessings and bear today’s evils with patience. Taylor quotes Christ: “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof” (Matt. 6:34), noting that this evil is sufficient, not intolerable.

Another exercise is to prepare our minds for changes, always expecting them. Even when our fortunes undergo violent change, our spirits may remain content if they stand “in the suburbs and expectation of sorrows.” This exercise is illustrated by a contrast between the rich man who promised himself “ease and fulfillment for many years,” yet lost his fortune to death that very night (Luke 12:16-21), and the apostles “who every day knockt at the gate of death.”

The troubles we now experience would appear as a welcome relief if we returned to them from a more desperate situation. If a toothache were added to our troubles, then those troubles would seem attractive by comparison. God has given us blessings, the absence of which we would feel more keenly than the difficulty we now lament. The blessings we already enjoy “deserve the thanksgiving of a whole life,” regardless of whether we recognize them. Gratitude for these gifts can heal us of discontent.

To secure and maintain contentment, Taylor advises, “you must measure your desires by your fortune and condition, not your fortunes by your desires.” Be governed by what you need, not by what you want. It is as easy to quench thirst from a full pitcher as from a flowing river. We make trouble for ourselves through appetites that do not originate with God or nature, whereas God and nature make no more ends than they mean to satisfy.”

The final exercise is to “take sanctuary in religion” whenever we are afflicted. The anchors that secure our souls does not keep us from storm, but from shipwreck. When we suffer in a good cause, then with St. Paul let us say, “We are troubled on every side, but not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8). While contentment requires virtue, virtue does not depend on good or bad fortune. To have God’s friendship is everything.

The way of contentment is challenging. Reliable guidance proves valuable.

From his difficult life in the 17th century, Jeremy Taylor speaks words of guidance to help us live contentedly in our time, whatever our hardships may be.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, an Episcopal priest, lives in Greenbelt, Maryland.


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