Skip to main content

Bishop Jeremy Taylor: The Great Exemplar

‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.   2 Cor.3.16

You will have read something today.  Your immutable, completely conceived self will have scanned the shifting babble of voices which speak from the protean forms of screen, ‘phone, sign, codex, and leaf.  You will have taken from them the things you want to take, and left the rest.

Put that aside.  You are in a different world now.  In this world you are protean, merely provisional; a work in progress, constantly changing, subject at any time to unexpected decay.  But you search the scriptures for what is immutable and immortal – the same yesterday, today, and for ever -  because when it meets you, you will be changed from one degree of glory to another.  Many of the books and pamphlets you encounter attempt to effect such a meeting.  It is like glimpsing an image in shifting and troubled water – fractured and splintered by weather and wind – but in occasional miraculous calms, clear and deep as a looking glass, that eternal image looks back to you out of eyes both like and unlike your own.

That is the world of the early modern devotional reader.  It is a bit simplified, and it certainly leaves out the major element of religious controversy which spiced – not to say dominated – most writing about God in the period.  But the picture is true enough to give you a sense of the context and materials out of which Taylor’s book The Great Exemplar was made.  This book, which first appeared in print in the troubled year 1649, was a life of Christ, and it was a bestseller well into the eighteenth century.

It was a life of Christ, but it wasn’t a biography.  Its form was three-fold: first a narrative section, which would tell a chunk of Jesus’s life story in chronological sequence, starting with the annunciation and ending with the ascension; then some discursive or meditative prose consideration which arose from that chunk of narrative (some of which had started life as freestanding sermons); and finally a prayer on the theme.  There are variations – you can get more than one ‘consideration’ on a narrative theme, for example – but the tripartite structure is maintained in the three different ways of considering Jesus’s life, from narrative, to discursive, to affective.

Taylor had borrowed his structure from an older tradition.  In fact, he owed a good deal to one work, the Meditationes Vitae Christi of Pseudo-Bonaventura, as it was rendered in Middle English in around 1400 by the Carthusian author Nicholas Love under the title The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ.  Love was a bestseller for the period. As many manuscripts survive of his translation as of the Canterbury Tales.

But there were more modern influences on Taylor’s book too.  As he used it, his structure made use of the threefold form of the Ignatian meditation, which brought to bear on a sacred subject the potentially holy faculties of Memory, Understanding and Will.  So, as you read the book, it read you back.  First you imagined – visualised -  the circumstances and accidents of a part of Jesus’s life, let’s say for example his baptism and temptation in the wilderness.   This visualisation would be external to you, a story passing before the eyes of your mind, while you played no part in its events.  That’s, if you like, surface reading.  But as you return and consider the same events again, you find yourself falling into the story.  So here is Taylor pulling us into the events of Jesus’s baptism:

[Jesus] would need be baptized by his servant [John], and though he was of purity sufficient to do it, and did actually by his baptism purifie the purifier, and sanctifie that and all other streams to an holy ministery and effect, yet he went in, bowing his head like a sinner, unclothing himself like an imperfect person, and craving to be washt, as if he had been crusted with an impure leprousie, thereby teaching us to submit ourselves to all those rites which he would institute; and although some of them, be like the baptism of John joined with confession of sins, and publication of our infirmities, yet it were better for us, to lay by our loads, and wash our ulcers, then by concealing them, our of vainer desires of impertinent reputation, cover our disease until we are heart-sick and dye.

Jesus’s baptism is not an obvious type for our baptisms, because he was sinless -  nor was it then a common analogy as it is now.   So Taylor marks Jesus’s perfection as a reason for our obedience, and allows us into the experience of baptism by eliding Jesus’s experience with the healing of Naaman the Syrian and then pointing out all the ways in which our own pride and rebellion might be like Naaman’s.  It’s up to us to make the act of recognition – but once we’ve made it we cannot stop there.  We have a responsibility to act upon our understanding through intercession, although it may wholly change our relationship with ourselves and the world to do so.  ‘Let me not return to the Infirmities of the old man…who was buried by thee in Baptism’ runs Taylor’s prayer, ‘nor renew the crimes of my sinful years, which were so many recessions from baptismal purities, but let me ever receive the emissions of thy Divine Spirit, and be a Son of God.’  Within three pages of this substantial three-volume work we, the readers, have been moved, from refusal and rebellion, to adoption by grace into the image of God’s Son.

But if you were to go and read that passage in full, you would notice something else –Taylor’s weird insistence on what he calls ‘a life of evennesse’.  Taylor’s Jesus refuses all extremes; his life, though holy, is, says Taylor, ‘an ordinary life’; he obeys the civic power; he doesn’t give in to the excesses of enthusiasm; he is decent, self-possessed and polite.  Well, it’s 1649, and Taylor, a good royalist, is making a point about loud, excessively zealous rebellious types who execute kings. 

Or, at least, that’s part of it.  Taylor’s Jesus is very Johannine, especially around the crucifixion; he does not despair; he never loses his authority; he does not cry eli, eli, lama sabachthani or doubt the outcome of his sacrifice.  And although Taylor is clear that people sin and need forgiveness, the command ‘be ye perfect’ holds surprisingly little terror for him.  Growing into the likeness of Christ is largely (though not entirely) a matter of habit and practice.  Conversion is a process, not a moment, and is born out of the habits of obedience.

Perhaps that’s why his book isn’t short, and goes through so many cyclical motions alongside its linear trajectory.  He provides a means for the exemplary book of Christ to read its readers, and, through reflection as well as refraction, transform them chapter by chapter into the Divine Image.