Essay / On This Day

Cotton Mather, the Cistern of Nature, and Pressing After Piety

Cotton Mather, American Puritan, was born yesterday and died today. That is, he was born on February 12 in the year 1663, and died February 13 in the year 1728.

Mather kept a voluminous diary which would be worth reading just for its historical value, since he was on the scene for so many important events in colonial America. But Mather was also sharp: a sharp-eyed observer, a sharp-minded interpreter, and a sharp-tongued commentator on the world around him. This makes his diaries a “racy” read in the old-fashioned sense of the word: fast-paced and full of zest and vigor. They are almost never “racy” in our modern sense: risqué, on the verge of improper. Except for this one fascinating entry that might be racy in both senses.

In an entry made during July of 1700, Mather breaks off his daily narrative to interject a random thought about his spiritual life: “There have been several Customes in my Life,” he says, “which upon Reflection I find, I have not inserted, either at the Time when I first of all took them up, nor at any other Time.”

And yett it may be a little instructive to my Son if I leave some Hint concerning some of them which I may do as well in this Place perhaps as in another and bring in here a small collection of Paralipomena under the Head of Methods of pressing after Piety.

In other words, whenever it occurs to him to write down the reasons why he does certain things, he will toss them in. They will be Paralipomena, a fancy greek word for a body of things put in place by themselves. And if one were to gather them up, they would have the title Methods of Pressing After Piety.

Mather’s main Method of Pressing After Piety is to take everyday events and turn them into reminders of God and the Christian life. When he finds one, he remembers it so he can bring it up in edifying conversation. Others he keeps to himself. Here is how he says it:

From my Youth, it has been my Frequent my Daily practice, to make occasional Reflections, or, from Occasions which I have seen in Occurrences before me, to raise Thoughts of Piety, and these mostly by finding Similitudes to assist and excite such Thoughts in those Occurrences.

These occasional Reflections do not only serve me very commonly, to carry on useful Conferences, made savoury with some little sort of Witt, when I am in Company; but they are also a delightful Entertainment unto me when I am alone.

That particular prompt that Mather wants to share about is rather quirky. Here it is:

But at length, I saw, I had one Opportunity every Day for such occasional Reflections, as it might not be amiss for me, to oblige myself, rarely to lett pass me, without them.

I was once emptying the Cistern of Nature, and making Water at the Wall. At the same Time, there came a Dog, who did so too, before me.

Thought I; “What mean and vile Things are the Children of Men, in this mortal State! How much do our natural Necessities abase us, and place us in some regard, on the same Level with the very Dogs!”

My Thought proceeded.

“Yett I will be a more noble Creature and at the very Time, when my natural Necessities debase me into the Condition of the Beast, my Spirit shall (I say, at that very Time!) rise and soar, and fly up, towards the Employment of the Angel.”

Accordingly, I resolved, that it should be my ordinary Practice, whenever I step to answer the one or other Necessity of Nature, to make it an Opportunity of shaping in my Mind, some holy, noble, divine Thought; usually, by way of occasional Reflection on some sensible Object which I either then have before me, or have lately had so: a Thought that may leave upon my Spirit some further Tincture of Piety!

And I have done according to this Resolution!

Be sure the loathsome and filthy Nature of SIN, and the Method of Deliverance from it, must make an Article, in some Thousands of Thoughts, on these Occasions.

That is, if you wanted to add up the number of times Cotton Mather has reflected on what a foul stench sin makes, you’d have to start by adding up how many times he’s gone to that stinky colonial outhouse. Never mind all the water he’s made at the wall.

I’ve seen this passage quoted several times by people who think of it as evidence for their case that that our unenlightened forefathers had a low view of the body, that they were gnostic about it, that they were embarrassed about their physical natures. But I think you have to already have that opinion, and also think Cotton Mather’s not as smart as you are, to get that impression from this passage.

I think this was a man who knew a lot more about his own embodiment as a Christian than is likely to be the case for anybody who uses flush toilets on a regular basis and is reading this on the internet. I think he knew that the necessary things of caring for the body are not ends in themselves, but are to be rightly ordered in service of the true goal of human life. I think he knew that if you start that kind of thought project, you might as well carry it out all the way down to the daily details: As one Puritan remarked when a high churchman accused him of being too precise: “Oh sir, I serve a precise God.”

And I think he knew that dog was making fun of him, as dogs are wont to do.

Margaret Miles, who has made a scholarly program out of pondering embodiment, had only one brief sentence to say about this notorious Mather passage. She cites it in full, and then says “In short, ingenuity and self-knowledge have always been required for the discernment of methods of prayer that maximally nourish a religious self!” (see her Practicing Christianity: Critical Perspectives for an Embodied Spirituality, p. 131)

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