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New Year's - 1740 Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 11 January 2011

For Christmas, my friend Scott Walter presented me with a handsome two-volume set of Johnsonian Miscellanies. These were recollections and writings concerning Samuel Johnson brought together in 1785 by George Birkback Hill, himself an “Honorable Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford and the Editor of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.” This edition was published in New York by Harper Brothers in 1897. Scott, one of my first Georgetown students, found them being discarded from the James V. Brown Library of Williamsport and Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. Unless it perchance has a second copy, any library downsizing by selling off anything of Johnson little deserves the noble name “library.” Must have been a “No-one-has-checked-it-out-in-years” decision.

The book’s Dedication is irresistible: “To the Reverend Bartholomew Price, D. D., F.R.S., F.R.A.S., (Fellow, Royal Society, Fellow, Royal Astronomical Society), Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy, in Commemoration of His Long and Honourable Connection with that ‘Little College’ which Johnson Loved, This Work Is Dedicated.” We need to recall that Johnson (1709-84) entered Pembroke College when he was nineteen.

The first section of Volume I is entitled: “Prayers and Meditations.” In this section are found “Prayers on New Year’s Day.” The fifteen line prayer for New Year’s Day, 1740 (after which is a cryptic note “after 3 a.m. in the morning”), begins:

Almighty God, by whose will I was created, and by whose Providence I have been sustained, by whose mercy I have been called to the knowledge of my Redeemer, and by whose Grace whatever I have thought or acted acceptable by thee has been inspired and directed, grant, O Lord, that in reviewing my past life, I may recollect thy mercies to my preservation, in whatever state thou prepares for me, that in affliction I may remember how often I have been sustained, and in Prosperity may know and confess from whose hand the blessing is received (#10, p. 9).

We don’t say prayers like that anymore! Alas.


      Samuel Johnson (James Watson’s engraving after the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Prayer is addressed to God. We are individually willed, sustained, and given mercy. Why? So that we might have a knowledge of our Redeemer. Not being Pelagians, we do not do the things acceptable to God inspired only by ourselves. On New Year’s Day 1740, Johnson is thirty-one years old. He reviews his life. Mercies are recalled that preserved him. A future state is being prepared. If he receives affliction, he recalls that he was also sustained. If he is in prosperity, he knows from whence it came. Prayer is also articulation and insight into our own lives, into the impossibility of our accounting for who and what we are by attributing everything to ourselves.

Johnson continues: “Let me, O Lord, so remember my sins, that I may abolish them by true repentance, and so improve the Year to which thou hast graciously extended my life, and all the years which thou shall yet allow me (there will be forty-four), that I may hourly become purer in thy sight; so that I may live in thy fear, and die in thy favour, and find mercy at the last day, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

On reading such a lovely prayer in our own language, we cannot but lament the almost forced dropping of the “thou’s,” “thy’s,” and “thee's.” It was not an improvement. Again, Johnson asks the Lord to let him remember his sins. We usually do not spend too much time remembering them. But why remember them? “To abolish them by true repentance.” No other way can be found. Johnson takes seriously New Year’s resolutions to improve our lives. Each year our life is “graciously” extended to us. Indeed, so are all the years of our lives.

Why more years? To become, even hourly, purer in God’s sight. The opposite is possible to us. But why should we become purer each hour? To “live in thy fear and die in thy favour.” Is this something “negative?” Nothing is wrong with fear. We are not Kantians. Fear is given to us precisely so that we “die” in God’s favor. We want “mercy at the last day.” The pope has often told us to remember the words of the Creed, “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” It is not a myth.

But we are to do all these things “for the sake of Jesus Christ.” Even when we turn inward to our sins, we look outward to our redemption. To such petitions, we can say with Johnson simply “Amen.”

Such was the prayer of January 1, 1740. Could we do any better on January 1, 2011? Why would we want to? Everything is already here – creation, providence, mercy, sin, repentance, remembrance, prayer, graciousness, thanksgiving – all “for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”


James V. Schall, S.J.
, a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.
 
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Comments (19)Add Comment
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written by Bangwell Putt, January 11, 2011
Thank you. We are so in need of ordered thinking about God, about the Trinity, about faith. The times require us to struggle to maintain belief itself and leave little time for reflection on prayer.
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written by Dennis Larkin, January 11, 2011
There is still hope as long as such prayers are preserved among us. In reconstructing Catholic education in this country, I hope we make a concerted effort to acquaint students with great minds like Johnson's, however Anglican he might have been. He was a good man and students can only benefit from his example.
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written by Nick Palmer, January 11, 2011
Gratitude and humility -- the foundation of right attitudes. What we have is of God; we are channels (St. Francis) or mirrors of God's love. We need not be afraid, if we are willing to take the leap and truly turn our lives over to God. Far from diminishing us, it allows us to live in joy and happiness. In those short moments when I truly turn my life and will over to God, I feel complete. Sad that I continue to wrest that will back from Him!
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written by Grump, January 11, 2011
Apparently God finds prayers wrapped in flowery language more appealing and effective. Interestingly, my prayers, no matter how phrased, never get higher than the ceiling.

So, what's the secret, Father? Do I need a ghostwriter? Does God only hear the prayers of some and not all? Of the three possible answers -- yes, no and wait -- what other options are there? Tell me, father, if praying for the recovery of a 12-year-old boy who was injured in an auto accident is selfish? Tell me, father, why the boy died despite the hundreds of prayers sent up, most from the "righteous."

Prayer is nothing more than talking to oneself. Because, in the end father, there is either no God or a God who is deaf.
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written by Nick Palmer, January 11, 2011
Grump, you have my deepest sympathy. I cannot imagine how you must feel. Selfish? Not remotely.

You, he, and your family will be in my prayers. Small comfort, I'm sure, but heartfelt.
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written by Ray Hunkins, January 11, 2011
Beautiful thoughts, beautifully written. Thank you Fr. Schall.
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written by debby, January 11, 2011
dear grump,
i am so sorry. i am sorry that your boy suffered and that you feel the great distress of being unheard by God. it was not for nothing. he has won great graces for your whole family and even the world....(big deal right? you'd rather he be playing in the snow right now....)
several of my friends have lost children; all of the accidents were horrific (one 3 year old boy was hung to death-an accident which occurred from the horse play of kids who had knocked out a support beam in a bunk bed earlier in the day, only for the little one to get stuck
in the middle of the night while trying to leave sleeping with his big brother to join his parents....can you hear the brother's screams when he wakes to find his baby brother dead-rigor mortis had already set in)....all of these friends of mine (4 losses by accidents, one a 20 month old baby with brain cancer, and one 13 year old who died on Christmas day last year by protracted bone cancer, years and years of pain and treatment)were unusually devout families. Daily Mass people, Rosary people, Novena people, joy filled, loving God, praying people. Righteous - as you said. even before the pain.
Maybe that's is why.
if "why" can ever be honestly pondered, maybe those who are righteous, and those who long for union with God who would never see themselves thus, maybe union with the God Who left Heaven to dwell among us, to be one with Emmanuel, GOD WITH US, means to suffer, so that all that will be our prayer in the end will be: Jesus.
not for what He can (or should or must) do, not for what He has done, but just for Him. to love Him. No Matter What. Like He loves us. No Matter What. "What can separate us from the love of God? Can anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?...No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.For I AM CONVINCED! that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." St. Paul to the Romans around chapter 8 or 9....
pain, suffering, deep sorrow, death they are here. what is different from you dear sir, dear father "grump", is that your GOD not only hears you, He joins with you, He will raise your beloved boy in perfection and you too will be raised. the whole world suffers, and we too suffer. we just suffer with HOPE. which makes all the difference.
can i please, let me please, extend my tears of Hope to you.
i will fast the day for you and your family tomorrow. i hate to fast. i love to eat. i will fast for you that your sorrow will be shorter rather than longer, that you will find Her holding you and your beloved ones, receiving all that cannot be fathomed, taking it to the deep place where LIFE grew within Her. Dear Mother of Hope, enfold them.
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written by debby, January 11, 2011
p.s. Fr. Schall, this was a wonderful post. i will be printing this prayer. thank you.
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written by Graham Combs, January 11, 2011
In university, they did not teach Dr. Johnson as a Christian, but Fr. Schall reminds us that his faith was at the heart of everything he did. And composing prayers was then common among the literate. Father also reminds us of a time of prayer as poetry. The quote from the Creed reads in my father's old Book of Common Prayer as "to judge both the quick and the dead;" It is the liturgical poetry with which Samuel Johnson would have been intimate -- concise and graphic and memorable.
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written by Grump, January 11, 2011
Debby, thanks for the kind words but you needn't fast on my account. I said that prayer for the dying boy 30 years ago. He was my son's best friend. Up till then I was a believing Christian; since then I have been mad at God. I can't reconcile the words of Jesus: "Ask anything in my name and it shall be done." I have asked for countless things in his name -- not selfish things, but for the sake of others -- and have never had a request fulfilled. I want to believe, but can't in a God who does not answer me.

Relationship with God, it seems to me, should be two-way, not one. I am always trying to reach him, but he does not reach out to me. Maybe he will when I am on drawing my last breath, which won't be long from now. I've grown old and embittered and just want peace. If death brings it I will be satisfied. I do not want anything beyond the grave except for a long, endless, peaceful sleep. Perhaps that prayer will be answered.

Thank you again for caring. If God be not with me, may he be with you.
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written by Louise, January 11, 2011
Dear Mr. Grump, How is God going to get through that heavy door you have shut against Him? Your mind sounds pretty well fixed and determined.

The following is not directly applicable to you, but you might find some application to your situation. It is about a man so sure of his unbelief that he resists all attempts to be persuaded.

" 'An adherent to the Enlightenment, a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him, too, to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of the faith. When he entered the Rabbi's room, he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, rapt in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly, and said, 'But perhaps it is true after all.' The scholar tried in vain to collect himself--his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Yitschak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly. 'My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and His Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.' The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength, but that terrible 'perhaps' that echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.'
. . . (the author goes on)
"No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel justified thereby, it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words 'Yet perhaps it is true.'

(Speaking about the believer and the doubter, the author continues:)

"In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being.

'Perhaps doubt . . ., which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever; for the other, it is the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him."

This is from Ratzinger: Introduction to Christianity, p. 46. He is quoting a story from Martin Buber.

Every one of us is challenged every day in our faith. If he isn't, he isn't thinking hard enough. In those times, I have found the prayer of the supplicant before Jesus to be a great help: "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief." (Sorry for the flowery language. I learned it when I used only a King James Version.) For most of our lives, belief is a matter of the will, a matter of choice, and we make that choice more often in spite of the evidence of our lives, rather than because of it.

God bless you.
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written by Louise, January 11, 2011
Dear Fr. Schall,

I was blessed (although at the time I didn't realize it) to have had as my advisor in college Dr. Thomas Curley, a well-known Johnson scholar. He has written several books that you may know: one about Sir Robert Chambers and the law; also The Age of Travel, and Celtic Renewal in Great Britain, and just last year he published a book about the Ossian Fraud, for which he received recognition and honors from Cambridge University.

My term paper for his class "The Age of Johnson" was titled, "Samuel Johnson: His Faith and Fears". I later submitted the paper for the new Humanities scholarship that was offered for the first time that year, and it saved my husband the cost of tuition for the next 2-1/2 more years.

I have forwarded your essay on to Dr. Curley. I'm sure that he will enjoy reading it.
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written by debby, January 12, 2011
dear "grump,"
today is my only boy's 12th birthday.
today i am fasting on this great day of joy for me (he was an answer to a long-awaited prayer/promise) for you. for the boy you loved.
God is not stuck in time. i will offer my prayer this day in time, Jan 12, 2011, and HE will hear it in the midst of your pain, your son's pain, the boy's last breath, his family's pain, and only good will come of it. because He is Love and that's all He can do. i am asking all the Holy Souls and Saints to join me. today in the Spirit, people you do not know, are loving you with who they are: cracked vessels, redeemed sinners, burning hearts with feet of clay.
Louise is amazing! i have no such references for you to encourage your struggle to persevere. my daughter is studying for her PhD and was sharing how she loves Kierkegaard...he found doubt absolutely necessary for Faith. rather than being in conflict, doubt can actually deepen and purify Faith. this is my prayer for you. that all your life's battle, the fatigue, hunger, blindness, stumbling yet still pressing forward, this "Brother Doubt" will meet and be embraced by "Sister Faith."
For nothing is impossible with God.
my love and "stomach growling" dear man of real faith.
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written by Grump, January 12, 2011
Dear Louise, you would do well to quote someone other than Buber or rabbis who stop well short of acknowledging Jesus as God.

Each of us must be convinced in our own heart of the truth. I do not question that you have found it. I myself am still searching and, not having found it, will not be surprised. Again, for reasons aforementioned, Christianity does not satisfy my quest for answers. For if I am promised something and it does not materialize I cannot believe. It is like a man who works for an employer, who tells him that at the end of the week he will be paid. And when the laborer shows up for his pay, he is told, "Don't worry, you will get it." So the laborer keeps showing up for his paycheck and he is repeatedly told not to worry, he will be paid. And so it goes, and he never gets paid. Who can blame the laborer for quitting the job and looking for work elsewhere?
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written by Grump, January 12, 2011
Dear Debby:

Happy birthday to your boy! And, please, have some birthday cake.

Love,

Grump
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written by Louise, January 12, 2011
Dear Mr. Grump,
I quoted that story because it expresses human nature so well. (Buber's story was quoted by Cardinal Ratzinger, BTW, and what's good enough for Cardinal Ratzinger is good enough for me.)

When I read that book, I was reading to help me through a thick fog of pain, and it struck me so forcefully that, months later, I went back to look for it. It was about all I remembered through the pain. It spoke to a human stubbornness to demand that God be and do what we think he ought to be and do. "I asked, and He withheld, therefore. . ." My Episcopalian minister (for whom I was once the church secretary) asked me if I thought that God was the "great White Out in the sky." I still smile at that.

No one here can "lay God and His Kingdom on the table" for himself or for anyone else, as our Holy Father said. We all struggle. We all suffer loss. We all doubt. I can hear in my head the wonderfully rich, baritone voice singing, "Behold and see, Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow." Even Jesus had to reach to the depths and say, "Not my will but thine be done."

Make no mistake, I don't say these things just to encourage you but to encourage myself as well, to remind myself that no one gets out of this world alive, and sometimes the most faithful suffer the most, and doubt is their greatest challenge. My friend's grandmother used to say to her when she had the sniffles, "Ya don't die so easy, honey."

Maybe the best evidence of God's love is present in your life is that you are addressing these issues at all. Sometimes, He knocks at the back door if no one answers at the front.
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written by chris in maryland, January 13, 2011
Grump:

The Lord has not promised that we will escape suffering. For mysterious reasons suffering is connected with our fallen nature. To be human is to suffer.

Instead, The Lord Jesus accepted ultimate suffering, so that each of us could have confidence that he understands in every sense our anguish.

If a child's death ends in nothingness - then all is lost. But it doesn't - it ends in union with God.
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written by Grump, January 14, 2011
Chris....Thanks for affirming what I've already thought: We are born to suffer. Not to have life "more abundantly," as promised. I got it now. That line about "ask and you shall receive," was just a throwaway by Jesus. He didn't really mean what he said.
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written by Chris in Maryland, January 16, 2011
Mr. G:

I am not affirming merley the limits of what you assert: We are born to suffer. Not to have life "more abundantly."

I assert, not merly that we are fallen, and that we share suffering, but that Christ suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and because of this/Him, we can have again, what we refused in the fall.

You and I and all are offered that gift by Him. He is waiting for each of us to open it.

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