Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Lord, have mercy"

From Alan Jacobs in "Man of Sorrows: Samuel Johnson and the power of sympathy":
.... Few people need the consolation of Christian faith more than Johnson did, but, then, few could have as much difficulty receiving it. As strongly as he lashed himself for his indolence in writing, he was fiercer still in his condemnation of his religious life. "I have made few improvements," he wrote in his journal on his fifty-sixth birthday. "Since my resolution formed last Easter I have made no advancement in knowledge or in goodness; nor do I recollect that I have endeavored it … . I have done nothing, the need of doing therefore is pressing, since the time of doing is short." Four years later he wrote, before going to bed, "On this day little has been done and this is now the last hour. In life little has been done, and life is very far advanced. Lord, have mercy on me."

In these moods, and in others, Johnson made a habit of writing prayers after the manner of the great collects of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of these match the collects of Thomas Cranmer in depth and wisdom and eloquence. When his mother's maid, Catherine Chambers, was dying, Johnson came to her bedside and prayed:
Almighty and most merciful Father, whose loving-kindness is over all thy works, behold, visit, and relieve this thy Servant, who is grieved with sickness. Grant that the sense of her weakness may add strength to her faith, and seriousness to her Repentance. And grant that by the help of thy Holy Spirit after the pains and labours of this short life, we may all obtain everlasting happiness through Jesus Christ our Lord, for whose sake hear our prayers. Amen.
He added in his journal, "I then kissed her. She told me that to part was the greatest pain that she had ever felt, and that she hoped we should meet again in a better place. I expressed with swelled eyes and great emotion of tenderness the same hopes. We kissed, and parted. I humbly hope, to meet again, and to part no more."

We are very far here from the Great Cham of Literature. It is characteristic of Johnson that the sufferings of this poor woman—who, as a mere servant, would have been ignored utterly in her dying by many men of that time—brought forth from him not only eloquence but also warmheartedness. It is also characteristic that as he prayed for her, he also prayed for himself, since he knew he was in need of the same mercy. .... [more]
Many of Johnson's prayers are collected in Daily Readings in the Prayers of Samuel Johnson

Man of Sorrows: Samuel Johnson and the power of sympathy