Hellebore and Religion

The counsels of religion are not to be applied to the distempers of the soul as men used to take hellebore; but they must dwell together with the spirit of a man, and be twisted about his understanding for ever: they must be used like nourishment, that is, by a daily care and meditation; not like a single medicine, and upon the actual pressure of a present necessity: for counsels and wise discourses, applied to an actual distemper, at the best are but like strong smells to an epileptic person; sometimes they may raise him, but they never cure him. The following rules, if they be made familiar to our natures and the thoughts of every day, may make virtue and religion become easy and habitual; but when the temptation is present, and hath already seized upon some portions of our consent, we are not so apt to be counselled, and we find no gust or relish in the precept: the lessons are the same, but the instrument is unstrung, or out of tune.

This is quoted from Jeremy Taylor, a seventeenth-century Englishman and one of the most simply expressive uses of the English language. Hellebore is a flowering plant that was used medicinally as a cure for insanity. One would only eat little bits of it when suffering some “distemper of the soul.” It could not be taken regularly as a preventative because it is quite poisonous. It was not what we would now call a “dietary supplement.” Taylor’s point is that “the counsels of religion” are quite otherwise. The disciplines that he is about to recommend in aid of “holy living” are not solutions for a time of crisis, for a sudden “distemper” of body, mind, or soul. Rather, they are for dwelling with, for twisting about one’s understanding, for daily consumption.

    It was fashionable about a century and a half ago to predict the demise of religion. Sorry, but it survived, but now mostly as foxhole religion. After religion quits being a part of the assumptions by which most people in a society carry on daily life, it can become something to be taken only in times of crisis. Did you hear, if you’re old enough, about large numbers of Americans who hadn’t had a habit of going to church taking up such a habit after the 9/11 events? Did you hear about that not lasting very long? Both reports were believable because we saw it happening.

    The church I attend has more than a few constant foxhole-dwellers. Life is hard for them, on an ongoing basis. Our prayers for housing seldom concern wise real estate investments., and our prayers for the spirit are often for “today, now, one day at a time.” Church-going is for some a remedy for the momentary crisis of spirit, for the time of specific trouble. Because the crisis comes every week or every day, the pill is swallowed nearly every Sunday and possibly a couple other days of the week. Some of us can afford to regard religion as an unnecessary but pretty crutch, but others of us don’t have that luxury. They can, therefore, fall into being often “raised” but never “cured” by religion. An alcoholic friend told me that he was most likely to lapse into drinking when things were going well and he was feeling good. So he could be “raised” by church but might never be “cured” without habits of faith that function in good times and bad.

    A book that was put into the hands of many people who were becoming Christians back when I was doing that was Fritz Ridenour’s How to Be a Christian without Being Religious, and it’s still in print after nearly fifty years. It introduced many of us to the idea (and reinforced it for others) that “religion” is a word that Christians shouldn’t like. But it wasn’t an unsuitable word for what Christians do back when Jeremy Taylor wrote, and that is not just a matter of changing word-meanings. If we dislike the word “religion,” that is because we aren’t sure about what it represents, which is the daily use of “means and instruments” to assist our “holy living.”

    “The following rules,” Taylor says, “if they be made familiar to our natures and the thoughts of every day, may make virtue and religion become easy and habitual,” and that is just the sort of thing that puts off those of us brought into the faith in an age when grace means not “being religious.” But the disciplines that teach us about holy living and that twist those lessons around our minds have a value far outweighing anything we might grab at crisis time, “when the temptation is present, and hath already seized upon some portions of our consent.” The latter is like a guitar that hasn’t been picked up in a while: “The lessons are the same, but the instrument is unstrung, or out of tune.”

  • Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living (1650), chapter 1.
  • Nothing meant against Ridenour’s book. It’s still a good and practical introductory explanation of Pauline theology.
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