As I was preparing the sermon this week (which you can listen to HERE), Samuel Johnson was frequently on my mind.
Johnson (1709–1784) stands among the most important writers and critics of English literature. His impressive resume includes numerous essays in The Rambler, The Idler, and The Adventurer; critically acclaimed poetry, such as London; the monumental A Dictionary of the English Language; and the entertaining and incisive Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. It is amazing that he frequently chastised himself for being idle!
While Johnson’s productivity and output are inspiring, I am particularly touched by his humanness.
He was plagued with severe health problems from the moment that he was born, and various maladies caused him great discomfort. He exhibited “ticks” which have posthumously been attributed to Tourette’s Syndrome, and he struggled with certain obsessive compulsive tendencies. His family was poor, and though he was accepted to Oxford, he was forced to withdraw for financial reasons. He lived with fear, guilt, anxiety, and a melancholic disposition that often overwhelmed him.
Through this, a constant aspect of Johnson’s life was his Anglican faith. It is said that his mother had him memorize portions of the Book of Common Prayer from a young age, and it is clear from another work of his, Prayers and Meditations, that the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer suffused his approach to life and work. The collects and liturgies became a comforting model as he progressed in godly devotion.
For instance, as he struggled with his physical and psychological difficulties, he wrote:
Almighty and most merciful Father, Creator and Preserver of mankind, look down with pity upon my troubles and maladies. Heal my body, strengthen my mind, compose my distraction, calm my inquietude, and relieve my terrors; that if it please Thee, I may run the race that is set before me with peace, patience, constancy, and confidence. Grant this, O Lord, and take not from me thy Holy Spirit, but pardon and bless me, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Or, when contemplating work, he wrote:
O LORD, who hast ordained labour to be the lot of man, and seest the necessities of all thy creatures, bless my studies and endeavors; feed me with food convenient for me; and if it shall be thy good pleasure to intrust me with plenty, give me a compassionate heart, that I may be ready to relieve the wants of others; let neither poverty nor riches estrange my heart from Thee, but assist me with thy grace so to live as that I may die in thy favour, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
As he grew older, Johnson often considered how he might best use the days and years that remained in his life:
Almighty God, most merciful Father, look down upon me with pity. Thou hast protected me in childhood and youth; support me, Lord, in my declining years. Preserve me from the dangers of sinful presumption. Give me, if it be best for me, stability of purposes, and tranquility of mind. Let the year which I have now begun be spent to thy glory, and to the furtherance of my salvation. Take not from me thy Holy Spirit, but as death approaches, prepare me to appear joyfully in thy presence, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As we walk along the Tracks of Righteousness, we walk with many saints who have helped prepare the way before us. Johnson provides us with an example of prayerful diligence that is molded by Anglican traditions and deeply personal in expression.
Other Thoughts and Resources
The New York Times asked nine artists to draw their deepest fears. Their fascinating responses can be seen HERE.
As you consider structuring your life in an intentional way, THIS blog post is a brief, helpful introduction to spiritual disciplines.
If you’re looking to integrate the Book of Common Prayer into your spiritual life, pick one up and maybe David deSilva’s Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation through the Book of Common Prayer. DeSilva draws out many of the pastoral and practical applications of the baptism, communion, marriage, and burial services.
One song that I have frequently listened to this week is “Littlemore Tractus” by Arvo Pärt, which you can listen to HERE. The text is from a sermon by John Henry Newman:
May he support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and holy rest, and peace at the last.
Samuel Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations can be accessed HERE.