JOHN EVELYN (1620 - 1706)
DIARIST AND WRITER
FAITHFUL SON OF THE
THE BISHOP OF GLOUCESTER PREACHED
IN A MANNER LIKE BISHOP ANDREWS FULLOF DIVISIONS, AND SCHOLASTICAL, AND THAT WITH MUCH QUICKNESS
One of the most faithful laymen during the later Caroline period and the Interregnum was John Evelyn. From his diary that covers fifty years (1640 – 1706) he has left posterity an insight to what church life was for faithful chuchmen during the Interregnum and the hardship that were endured by them during the time of Cromwell. He of course was one of those who suffered grievously during this period. After the Restoration his diary manifest the joy in the return of the monarch and church but also subtle differences in the style of preaching and of music. For the latter the cornet that Evelyn felt “gave life to the organ” had now been replaced twenty-four violins that he thought more suited to “a tavern or playhouse than a church.”
Born at Wotton in Surrey it would seem that his early years were spent with his grandmother for whom he had a great affection, and especially after her husband died. His education was at Balliol College, Oxford but he never graduated. Those early years were spent travelling abroad but he returned to support Charles I with the outbreak of the Civil War and briefly fought in the Royalist Army. However he soon ventured abroad again and visited the English College in Rome in 1644. On a visit to France he became good friends with the English Ambassador in Paris, Sir Richard Browne, and in 1647 married Mary, his daughter. He returned briefly to England but after the execution of Charles I he wandered again in Europe for another three years. In the early fifties it was clear that Cromwell was here for a stay and so Evelyn decided to return to his native land and settled in Deptford in 1652.
John Evelyn is known as a prolific writer reflecting many of his own interests such as art, architecture, forestry and of course religion but it diary that has given an unadorned picture of social, political and religious life for his time. Undoubtedly his diary shows us what it is to live truly to the Gospel and the spiritual life of a devout Christian. Thus it is from his diary that one discovers the real worth of his piety, especially during that time that the Church was "underground". “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Thee O Sion” was apt.
Evelyn's devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the observing of special holy-days such as Christmas was reflected in the risks he took, amongst others to attend Church services, usually in London or at his home, Sayes Court where sequestered clergy such as Jeremy Taylor and Richard Owen of Eltham celebrated the sacraments and preached. His preparation for receiving the Sacrament is reflected in this entry for the first day of 1653, "I sit apart in preparation for the Blessed Sacrament which next day Mr. Owen administered to me and all my family in Sayes Court, preaching on John 6:32-3 showing the exceeding benefits of our blessed Saviour taking our nature upon Him." On this particular day Owen baptised his son and churched his wife. . So what does his Diary reveal to us about that time? Writing in his diary on Advent Sunday, 1654 we learn: There being no office at the church, but extemporie prayers after the Presbyterian way, for now all formes were prohibited, and most of the preachers were usurpers, I seldom went to church upon solemn feast days.
In that same entry he also remarked that he sometimes went to London for Prayer Book services as there were some churches in London such as St. Peter’s at Paul’s Wharf, St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street and Exeter House where “orthodox sequestered ministers” such as Dr. Wild and Dr. Owen celebrated the Eucharist and other Prayer Book services for as long as they could. However as time went by, this became even more difficult. Then on 27th November, 1655, the Protector’s Edict forbade all Church of England’s ministers to preach or teach in schools. So that at Christmas in London, a month later, “Dr. Wild preach’d the funeral sermon of Preaching” and of administering the Sacraments. Evelyn wept. “This was the mournfullest day that in my life I had seene, or the Church of England herselfe since the Reformation.”
Evelyn also went to London to hear divines like Jeremy Taylor preaching as ascertained from his entry for the 18th March, 1655. "I went to London on purpose to hear that excellent preacher Dr Jeremy Taylor on St. Mat 14:17 showing what were the conditions of obtaining eternal life". A few months later in August he heard him speak on "the benefit of self-examination". After listening to Taylor, Evelyn added "more learning in so short a time as an hour I have seldom heard. Although publicly Prayer Book services and festivals such as Christmas were forbidden some services were still conducted in private homes. Thus Christmass 1656, Evelyn went to Dr. Wild’s lodgings for the Eucharist. In his diary he commented on such as full “assembly of devout and sober Christians.” However the next year, Christmass, 1657, attending the Eucharist in Exeter Chapel, presided by Mr. Gunning, the Law was enforced. Describing this, Evelyn outlined how just before communicants were to receive the Sacrament, “the chapel was surrounded with souldiers”. Those attending were taken as prisoners and were informed they were breaking the ordinance that forbad the keeping of Christmas, of which they said “spiteful things”. They also said spiteful things about the Eucharist that was “the Masse in English” in which prayers were said for Charles Stuart. Evelyn informed them we pray for all Christian kings and princes. Services must still have continued in homes as there is an entry on 7th March, 1658 showing that Evelyn had gone to London where Dr. Taylor preached on Ch. 13. vv. 23 – 4 from St. Luke’s Gospel followed by the Eucharist.
As intimated above Prayer Book services taken by sequestered clergy were celebrated at Sayes Court. An entry on the first day of 1653 reads, "Mr. Owen, a sequestered and learned minister [of Eltham] preached in my parlour, and gave us the blessed Sacrament, now wholly out of use in the Parish Churches which the Presbyterians and Fanatics have usurped. “
In another entry for the 10th December, 1654, we are again told that “Dr. Richard Owen, the sequester’d minister of Eltham, preach’d to my family in my library, and gave us the Holy Communion.” Evelyn also commented in his diary that another sad feature of this period was that the young were not instructed in the catechism and prepared for confirmation by the parish priest – a duty that now fell to him and other like-minded parents or visiting clergy. Jeremy Taylor became Evelyn's spiritual father and so he was a frequent visitor to his home at Sayes Court. Here he baptized Evelyn’s fourth son, George. Writing to his confessor on 18th March, 1655, he declared, "I have learned from your excellent assistances, to humble myself and to adore the inscruptable paths of the Most High. ... Juilanus Redivivus can shut the schools indeed and the temples; but he cannot hinder our private intercourses and devotions, where the breast is the chapel, and our heart is the altar."
During the Interregnum there are entries noting collections being taken “for persecuted and sequester’s Ministers of the C of E, whereof divers are in prison.” Fasts were kept too for our “poor Church, now trampled on by rebels” in this “dangerous, treacherous time!” What “A sad day! The Church now in dens and caves of the earth.”
One of the most striking features of his diary, despite the hardships endured during the Interregnum and his obvious love for the English Church he is not caustic in his remarks about its persecutors and usurpers as evident in his entry for Advent Sunday, 1654, as quoted above. Even after the Proclamation when for "the first time the Church of England was reduced to a chamber and conventicle," Evelyn described this in mild language for that time - "The Parish churches were filled with Sectaries of all sorts, blasphemous and ignorant mechanics usurping the pulpits everywhere." Furthermore in his letter to his cousin Geoge Tuke, written when his brother became "a proselyte to the Church of Rome", Evelyn spoke of having "a very great charity for all who sincerely adore the blessed Jesus, our common and dear Saviour." He does not condemn as his faith enables him to let God be the judge. So he could write that he is "full of hope that God... will at last be compassionate of our infirmities, clarify our judgments and make abatements for our ignorances, superstructures, passions and error of corrupt times and interests of which the Roman persuasion can no way acquit herself, whatever the prosperity and secular polity may pretend. But God will make all things manifest in His own time; only let us possess ourselves in patience and charity." Patience and charity along with his prayerfulness were certainly manifested in Evelyn’s life.
What I am most grateful about from the life of John Evelyn is his Devotionarie Book. As it was a spiritual dry time to receive the Blessed Sacrament he gave us this book to direct the faithful to meditate on the mystery of the Eucharist and to make a spiritual communion. Even so one feels it was a poor substitute for the real thing.
One way of approaching this book is to read it under appropriate headings. The first is: ON FREQUENT COMMUNION
Evelyn intimated that this had been the usual Christian practice and he lamented that it was not so during his life time. “I would to God that holy custom were as frequent now." .
What were the benefits gained from frequent communions? Evelyn explains. "There we strengthen ourselves with the Bread of the Valiant, the Forces and Ammunition of all the militant Saints on earth, and triumphant in heaven: There we cement and consolidate our union with Christ, and are possessed with all the benefits of His death and intercession: There our debt is cancelled and the very memory of all our sins obliterated and forgotten, as if they had never been contracted: By His righteousness, our persons are then justified; by the beams of His wisdom our understandings are illuminated, our conversations sanctified, our souls purified, our lives refined and improved; our repentance made effectuall our faith corroborated, our hopes encouraged, our charity inflamed, our devotion heightened; in a word, there all mercies are conveyed and secured, all graces confessed, all losses repaired; our minds established and in perfect composure; so as if there be an heaven upon earth, it is at the holy assembly and action devoutly celebrated." . Knowing this therefore, "Let us approach with humble joy to the Eucharist prepared as our natural frailties will permit: Let us do our endeavour, and it will soon produce an acceptable disposition enabling us to receive the symbol of immortality: Faith and repentance, charity and a full resolution to depart from evil, are the necessary qualifications.”
Hence “nothing so much improves a disposition to this degree of perfection as often to communicate.” Why? It is because “one communion prepares us for another."
Furthermore "Those who are much given to converse with God by Prayer, close meditation and frequent communion, do usually far exceed in holiness and virtue those who only contemplate his attributes at distance and approach him but seldom." Those who communicate frequently realise that love “is better than fear, nay as love is the noblest passion, and highest felicity which the soul is capable of in this, or the life to come; so doubtless, if love carry us to this Lover of Souls, we cannot come too often to this Holy Table." When the soul contemplates on the life of Jesus one discovers that our Lord himself encourages one to feed at His table often. "What could our blessed Jesus more to encourage us than He has done? He bids us come without money and without price to the waters of life: He came Himself to seek the lost sheep and bear it on His shoulder. Not satisfied with all this, He sends His ambassadors to assure us of our peace, nay to entreat us to be reconciled and His servants sweetly to compel even the most miserably indigent to come in, that His Table may be furnished with guests: O inexhaustible treasure, never failing source; banquet of love, where the hungry soul is treated with the Bread of Angels and the Manna which descends from Heaven. How O how should we not thirst after these cooling streams and languish after this precious food!" For Evelyn, the most precious moment in one’s life was that moment after receiving Jesus at the altar and joined in the Lord with all their separated loved ones.
The second part is : MENTAL COMMUNION
The next section deals with having to make a mental or spiritual communion when one was unable to receive the Sacrament. This begins with "A serious and grateful meditation upon these sacred mysteries of the love of Christ by an after reflex act; and this you may contract or enlarge as you find convenient."
This is followed by a prepatory prayer:
"O sweet and holy JESUS! Who has called me to thy Table, and now to the commemoration of what you do there exhibit to the faithful: Come, come unto me, lead me to the contemplation of it; Assist me at it: Open my heart to receive thee, Give me holy affections to entertain You, and the felicity to enjoy You.
Bread of Life ! Come and feed me! Blood of Jesus, come and refresh me! O wash and make me clean! Be the propitious Sacrifice for all my sins, and the supply of all my wants. Amen. . When one wanted to make a spiritual communion with Jesus one had to follow the whole service of Holy Communion. This often meant adding one's own devotions as for example when saying the General Confession, after the words “‘against thy divine majesty,’” add "and all those sins and frailities which I have been guilty of and fallen into, since my last solemn humiliation and repeated promises to thee", and then continue, “‘I do earnestly repent ...’”
After the words “‘This is my Body....of me’” pause and imagine that “you visibly behold our blessed Saviour's action with what ardent love and sweetness.” Recall too that “He bids His disciples call to mind his future approaching passion and both to them and to you, His past sufferings when He should be absent, as to His corporeal presence."
After the "‘drink it in remembrance of me’” pause and imagine “ the Lord Jesus, reaching out (as it were) the Holy Elements to you, entertain Him with this or the like." . At that moment offer up this prayer:
"Come, O come holy Jesus! you the delight of Your Father, the love and admiration of angels: the desire of nations. The joy of Saints: The Sanctuary of Souls: Come, O come Lord of my life and love. Come my sweet and holy Jesus; my heart is ready (yet, ah, who is sufficient for these things?) Enter into the everlasting doors: The King of Glory! Life of my soul!” pp.27-8.
This was followed by the mental Communion Prayers:
O sweet and holy Jesus! Who has called me to Your table, and now to the commemoration of what You did there exhibit to the faithful: Come, come unto me; lead me to the contemplation of it; Assist me at it: Open my heart to receive You, Give me holy affections to entertain You, and the felicity to enjoy You.
Bread of Life! Come and Feed me! Blood of Jesus, come and refresh me! O wash and make me clean! Be the propitious Sacrifice for all my sins, and the Supply of all my wants. Amen.
By following Evelyn’s method the faithful even today can use his little book as a guide to making a spiritual communion when unable to attend our parish church. Even if we are able his prayers certainly put us in the right frame of mind to receive and give thanks for the Bread of heaven.
Much of Evelyn's philosophy was based on St. John Chrysostom's The Golden Book, which he translated from the Greek, and which was the basis for bringing up his own children. At the heart of this education was to love God, to worship Him, dwell on His goodness and delight in the virtues of the kingdom of God. All learning and an appreciation of the aesthetic was ultimately to inherit the Kingdom.
It is another contribution that John Evelyn left to posterity beside his diary and other secular writings. He explained how this book had been of great comfort to him when he lost his son, only five years old. In the dedication to his two brothers he illustrated how this little boy “was taught to pray as soon as he could speak, and taught to read as soon as he could pray. Hence every morning "the first thing he did ... was to say his French prayers, and our Church-Catechism.” After Breakfast it was “that Short Latine Prayer, which having encountered at the beginning of our Lillies Grammar, he had learned by heart.” Eyelyn proudly commented how “wonderful was it to observe the chapters which himself would choose.” Similarly he would choose psalms and verses “that he would apply upon occasions, and as in particular he did to some that were sick in my family a little before him, bidding them to consider the Sufferings of Christ, how bitter they were, and how willingly he endured them.” His little boy “frequently would pray by himself in the daytime, and procure others to joyn with him is some private corner of the house.” At those times “this pious Infant spoke to the Lord “of his being weary of this troublesome world ...and whilest he lay sick, of his desires to go to heaven, that the Angels might convey him into Abraham's bosome.” Indeed “not many hours before he fell into that sleep which was his last... he prayed, till his prayers were turned into eternal praises."
Evelyn commented that his learning was exceptional, not only in English and French but also in Latin and Greek in language, literature and history.
After the dedication Evelyn proceeds to convey how to educate a child. He saw the mind of each child like a city, Within that city Christ has his court in the palace, the entrance to which is through various gates , each represented by one of the senses. The first gate is the tongue. Therefore “Let their talk be giving of thanks, modest songs, and let them always be discoursing of God, and of that philosophy which is from above." In instructing a child parents must not be severe judges. "Give him a law immediately, that he wrong none, that he defame none… that he be peaceable; and if you see shall perceive him to transgress this Law, chastize him sometimes,... but not always with blows, ... for if you are used to correct him every day, he will soon learn to despise it.” Better it is for “him to fear the rod.” But also to be modest and courteous even to servants. The next gate is hearing. It is therefore important that children “hear nothing impertinent, neither of their Domesticks nor their Governors, nor their Nurses” Children are like plant that are “most need of care, when they are young and tender.” So they must be given “a good Foundation” so “that from infancy they receive nothing of evil [and] ... any foolish and oldwives fables.” After all children are being prepared for being “citizens for the kingdom of heaven.” Therefore tell them parables and stories from the Bible and of the lives of saints and martyrs and bishops and then at Supper time encourage children to repeat them. Children should also be encouraged to listen to the Lessons read in Church. When children reach adolescence they should be told about hell and some of those Old Testament stories such as the Flood and the Destruction of Sodom and what happens when people disobey God. Another gate is the eye. With this gate it is important to allow children to behold beautiful object such as the stars and flowers and anything that is not offensive. It is also important to prevent children from seeing evil things. What children seen should reveal to them something of the beauty of the kingdom of heaven. The last gate is of touch. Children should not be brought up only being acquainted with “soft clothing”; they need to know “more hardy” stuff to grow up “seriously minded”. In training children parents teach them either to live under virtue or vice. Those main virtues are sobriety, modesty, chastity and prudence, while those main vices are rashness, morosity, luxury and folly. This means either living under virtue or vice. One way of practising the virtues is to pray, attend church, fast and to follow a holy life. That way children will grow up knowing the kingdom and the Lord of it. . In this twenty-first century John Evelyn is a breath of fresh air as he upholds and practises those principles of life that are eternal. If every parent followed his example of praying with their children from the time they are born, read to them from Holy Writ and taught them the virtues of life what a better world it would be.
"For 'tis certain, that the most precious moments of our lives are those which immediately precede or succeed the participation of the Holy Eucharist; For before, we strive to fit, and prepare ourselves to receive our Lord, and afterwards to keep possession of Him: And then how pleasant must it needs be for devout souls, to be assured, at whatsoever distance they chance to be separated from one another; that though they are absent in Body, they are present with the Lord."