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.”