William Faulkner and Holy Living and Holy Dying

Since we stay not here, being people but of a day’s abode, and our age is like that of a fly and contemporary with a gourd, we must look somewhere else for an abiding city, a place in another country to fix our house in, whose walls and foundation is God, where we must find rest, or else be restless for ever . . . we must carry up our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, angels are the company, the Lamb is the light, and God is the portion and inheritance.

  • Jeremy Taylor, Holy Dying {1651}

I cannot recall the time or the place, but I remember either being told or reading that William Faulkner kept two books by his bedside through most of his life – “The Book of Common Prayer,” and “Holy Living” and “Holy Dying,” by Jeremy Taylor.  Faulkner has been a companion in The Way for most of my life.  I remember sitting in my apartment in Burlington, Vermont while in college and reading “Absalom! Absolom!” in one sitting; beginning early in the morning and finishing late in the night.  The story of Shreve McCaslin and his family, told in the freezing Harvard dorm room of a New England Winter, in some mysterious way haunting my own apartment at the University of Vermont.  My grandmother told me stories of the young Bill Faulkner coming to Memphis from Oxford, his sitting barefoot on the porch of my great-great uncle, Clarence Ogilvie, having drinks on long summer evenings.  Generally I find a theological yearning in Faulkner’s characters; especially white Southerners haunted by a slippery, and mildly odiferous, Confederate mythos that was something like dreaming the dream of a dream. 

I remember seeing a photograph of one of my most beloved Bishops, the Right Reverend Duncan M. Gray, as a young man, standing as a priest over Faulkner’s grave giving the words of the Committal from the Book of Common Prayer.  Bishop Gray had been the Rector of St. Peter’s Oxford prior to become Bishop of Mississippi.

These days I read Jeremy Taylor far more than I read Faulkner.  The Anglican Divines are worthy guides from one world to another; and I sense the drawing near of a shore that was once distant.  Every day we come closer to the “something” for which we all search in this life.  While William Faulkner kept Jeremy Taylor beside his bed at night, during the day he wrote, he drank, he kept up a kind of “run-down” Virginia-Mississippi operation as a country gentlemen at Rowan Oak, in between the hours he was writing extraordinary literature that may have been as much serendipity as effort.  I am trying to be like the man in the photograph, who is standing over Faulkner’s grave reading from the other book that Faulkner kept by his bedside.  Both of us need good and boon companions like Jeremy Taylor, a guide from cradle to grave, until we are reunited on the other shore; where there will be a porch swing, a man named Clarence, and ice in glasses on a long summer afternoon in Memphis. 

Just thoughts and asides.

Blessings and Godspeed.

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