Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson

26 December: Happy Families

Here is Saint Francis, witnessing the life of the Holy Family by CD

Did it make you squirm when well-meaning priests or other adults urged us as children to be ‘like the Holy Family’. If we were, it was never for long – rarely if ever were we free from petty jealousies or quarrels, despite my father’s holding to the motto, ‘the family that prays together, stays together’, which is not totally untrue in our case, decades past childhood. Perhaps we have been blessed, guided and defended more than we generally acknowledge.

A silent ‘thank you’ for that grace on this, the feast of the Holy Family, which is usurping Saint Stephen’s day.

Following the death of his close friend Mr Thrale, Doctor Johnson realised that he would be seeing much less of the Thrale family. He composed this prayer on the last occasion that he stopped over at the house they were putting on the market, where he had spent many happy days.

To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, 
I commend this family. 
Bless, guide, and defend them, 
that they may so pass through this world, 
as finally to enjoy in thy presence 
everlasting happiness, 
for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen

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14 December: Johnson on Winter.

A festive fire at the Turnstones’ a few years ago.

Festive fires are few and far between these days, but ‘Rouse, rouse the fire, and pile it high, Light up a constellation here’, as Samuel Johnson says. It will soon be Christmas. We have our constellation of fairy lights, now what would he have made of that?

Well, we nor more than Johnson, should not submit to a dreary winter’s tale: it will soon be Christmas! Let’s use each transient hour to restore the spring in our own – or other people’s hearts. It is the time of Joy.

But many are in danger of death in regions where conflict has led to famine, cold, sickness and separation from family and friends. Let us not bar the door of our hearts to them!

Winter

Haste, close the window, bar the doors,
  Fate leaves me Stella, and a friend.

In nature’s aid, let art supply
  With light and heat my little sphere;
Rouse, rouse the fire, and pile it high,
  Light up a constellation here.


Let musick sound the voice of joy,
  Or mirth repeat the jocund tale;
Let love his wanton wiles employ,
  And o’er the season wine prevail.

Yet time life’s dreary winter brings,
  When mirth’s gay tale shall please no more
Nor musick charm—though Stella sings;
  Nor love, nor wine, the spring restore.


Catch, then, Oh! catch the transient hour,
  Improve each moment as it flies;
Life’s a short summer—man a flow’r:
  He dies—alas! how soon he dies!”

(from The Works of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., in Nine Volumes.

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November 27: Of so little use, Money.

The ladies could not, for a long time, comprehend what the merchants did with small pieces of gold and silver, or why things of so little use should be received as equivalent to the necessaries of life.

(from Rasselas by Samuel Johnson)

Samuel Johnson’s ‘Rasselas’ of 1759 takes a Prince of Abissinia, Rasselas, from his luxurious captivity, escaping out into the world, accompanied by a female cousin and her maid, all guided by a wise man who had become weary of the place as well. He takes them to Egypt, where Cairo was already a bustling metropolis. The young people have a lot to learn.

And so do we. We have seen these tokens before: they were minted in German cities after the Great War when inflation impoverished many people. And they remind us that Judas sold his Lord for a handful of silver, and that Mammon will always ‘see a market’ and persuade us that things of little use are equivalent to the necessaries of life. We sometimes waste our money, but money has wasted many people around the world since the hyperinflation of Germany in the 1920s.

If money loses the trust of people it will no longer procure the necessaries of life. Can we help provide some necessaries during this Advent, beginning tomorrow?

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13 November: Grief must be digested: I


While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.

From Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780″ by James Boswell.

It can be difficult to get alongside someone grieving. We want to take the pain away, but our attempts at comfort are rejected, quite possibly irritably. Johnson lost his wife young and never remarried; she had been the love of his life. Although he was a thoughtful, believing Christian, he was acutely aware of his own sinfulness, and had to make an effort to accept that God’s forgiveness was indeed extended to himself. He was melancholic and understood all too well how well-meant kind words can sound like hollow platitudes.

Waiting till grief is digested does not mean shunning a bereaved relative or friend, but something like a waiter in a restaurant: attentive waiting, not fussing. A hard role sometimes.

WT

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7 November: Rescue me from the captivity of sin.

O, GOD, giver and preserver of all life, 
by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained, 
look down upon me with tenderness and mercy; 
grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed; 
that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness. 

O, LORD, let me not sink into total depravity; 
look down upon me, and rescue me at last from the captivity of sin. 
Almighty and most merciful Father, 
who hast continued my life from year to year, 
grant that by longer life I may become less desirous of sinful pleasures, 
and more careful of eternal happiness. 
Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt; 
but as my age advances, let me become more pure in my thoughts, 
more regular in my desires, and more obedient to thy laws.

Forgive, O merciful LORD, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws. 
Give me such a sense of my wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance; 
so that when I shall be called into another state, 
I may be received among the sinners to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon, 
for JESUS CHRIST'S sake. 
                                               Amen. 


From "Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784" by James Boswell

Boswell acknowledged Johnson as a most pious friend, who was by no means as wicked as the reader might imagine. Johnson was inclined to melancholy and to a deep sense of his own sinfulness, but any of us could make our own the last paragraph of this prayer.

Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder dates from some 20 years after Johnson’s prayer. May they both be received among the sinners who have obtained pardon.

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6 November: Providing for Autumn and Winter.

apricot.stones.mouse
No need to disturb an anthill to illustrate this post. This is the work of a provident mouse, who amassed these apricot stones, snatching the blessings of the plenteous days of summer.
Doctor Johnson paraphrased Proverbs 6:6-11 in the verses below.

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard.” Proverbs: 6-11.

Turn on the prudent ant thy heedful eyes, 
Observe her labours, sluggard, and be wise: 
No stern command, no monitory voice, 
Prescribes her duties, or directs her choice; 

Yet, timely provident, she hastes away, 
To snatch the blessings of the plenteous day; 
When fruitful summer loads the teeming plain, 
She crops the harvest, and she stores the grain. 

How long shall sloth usurp thy useless hours, 
Unnerve thy vigour, and enchain thy pow'rs; 
While artful shades thy downy couch inclose, 
And soft solicitation courts repose? 

Amidst the drowsy charms of dull delight, 
Year chases year with unremitted flight, 
Till want now following, fraudulent and slow, 
Shall spring to seize thee like an ambush'd foe.   

From "Volume 1 The Works of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., in Nine Volumes", via Kindle.

This is one of those instances where we actually have to think when trying to live by Bible teaching. Panic buying, anyone?

After the parable of the rich farmer filling his new barns with grain up to the day before his death, Jesus goes on to say: Consider the ravens, for they sow not, neither do they reap, neither have they storehouse nor barn, and God feedeth them. How much are you more valuable than they? Luke 12:24.

We should be thinking of other people’s barns, empty because of climate change or conflict. There are Cafod and other Church and secular agencies that we can help fill them.

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12 October: Friendship in letters.

Let’s rejoice in true friendship. On this occasion, Boswell missed Johnson’s company and longed for a letter. Johnson excuses himself with great eloquence! But who would like a letter or email from me – or you?

I set a very high value upon your friendship, and count your kindness as one of the chief felicities of my life. Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write; nor has any man at all times something to say. ‘That distrust which intrudes so often on your mind is a mode of melancholy, which, if it be the business of a wise man to be happy, it is foolish to indulge; and if it be a duty to preserve our faculties entire for their proper use, it is criminal.

Suspicion is very often an useless pain. From that, and all other pains, I wish you free and safe; for I am,

dear Sir, Most affectionately yours,

SAM. JOHNSON.

(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)

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7 October, Our Lady of the Rosary: Review of The World of Marian Apparitions by Wincenty Laszewski

My Catholic primary school taught us stories from the Bible, one between two at a shared desk. We also heard about miracles outside Scripture, including visitations of Our Lady, especially at Lourdes and Fatima. I came to feel the emphasis on these ‘private revelations’ was excessive, but visiting England’s Walsingham, a shrine for almost 1000 years, set me thinking about the role of Mary ever since.

We’d been told that only Catholics honour Mary, yet Walsingham has beautiful Anglican and Orthodox Shrines as well as the Catholic one. Each one made us welcome. We learned that icons like the Mother of Perpetual Succour came from the East. Later, joining  ecumenical pilgrimages meant walking and talking, eating and praying together.

This book may inspire the reader to go on pilgrimage to one of the featured shrines, or to turn the pages while voyaging in imagination, beads in your hand, a candle and pilgrim’s shell beside you. The many well-chosen pictures will help you to be there. 

Doctor Samuel Johnson, a devout 18th Century Anglican philosopher, had this to say regarding pilgrimage: ‘To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible’. In other words, there is room to be led by feelings as well as by intellectual theology when visiting shrines.

The book may set you thinking about Mary and her place in the life of the Church. When it first opened Walsingham’s Anglican shrine attracted charges of ‘Mariolatry’ – idolising Mary. Less stridently, others judge the honour given to Mary to be obscuring her Son. But on the Feast of the Assumption this year, Pope Francis pointed out that Mary was and remains humble, so that God was able to beget his Son through her and pour out blessings through her, down to today. So it is in humility that we should set out on pilgrimage, on foot, by transport, or through the imagination. 

Whoever receives an apparition can expect grief from a naturally sceptical world and a deliberately sceptical Church which has to discern the spirits at work in these incidents. But once the Church has accepted an apparition as genuine, we can follow Johnson’s advice: ‘Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.’

Wincenty Laszewski has limited his explorations to apparitions beginning from the late 19th Century, thus omitting Lourdes which still witnesses renewal of faith as well as physical and emotional healings. Renewal and healing occur at other shrines too, and Laszewski leads us to many across the world.

Fatima, whose Sister Lucia certainly suffered at the hands of the Church, is well known but most of these shrines were new to me. At Beauraing, Belgium, in the 1930s the children who saw and heard Mary came from families indifferent to religion; it was only after the Occupation ended that the local bishop could pronounce the supernatural nature of the events. The children faded into the background, later marrying and raising Christian families. Thus they lived out their response to Mary’s two questions: “Do you love my Son?” and “Do you love me?” 

Far from there, in Ngome, South Africa, a German Benedictine missionary received visions in the 1950s. Sister Reinolda heard from Mary that she should be addressed as ‘Tabernacle of the Most High’, as she had held Jesus, the Host, in her womb and in her arms. It was time for Christians to be ‘a sea of hosts’ to bring Christ’s salvation to the world; a poetic but doctrinally orthodox idea. We are the Body of Christ, as Saint Paul proclaims (1 Corinthians 12:27). Mary also asked for a shrine where seven springs come together.

In Egypt it was at a Coptic Orthodox Church dedicated to Mary that she was seen by thousands of Muslims and Christians on a number of occasions. As always there is scepticism from more than one side, theories of mass suggestion  or natural phenomena or fakery, as Laszewski makes plain. But in the spirit of ecumenism which characterises Egyptian Christianity, the Catholic Church accepts the judgement of the Orthodox Patriarch’s Commission that the apparitions, and subsequent individual healings, were God’s work. 

Scepticism is an honest position to adopt towards apparitions, and always the first stance of the Church which proclaims Christ Crucified, foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). But Mary makes the sign of the cross during many apparitions, indicating that the Cross is central to her message. Those who accept the divine origin of the apparitions should not disdain people who are indifferent or unmoved.

As time goes by, shrines may continue to flourish in ways that the original visionaries could not have expected. Who would have predicted today’s ecumenical scene in Walsingham? Mary was seen here before the Reformation, before even the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity; now it is a place where some of those wounds are being healed. What blessings will be made available to the faithful and the world as these modern shrines find their lasting mission?

A few points regarding Wincenty Laszewski’s labour of love. At p197 he wrongly portrays Frank Duff as seeking permission of St John Paul II to found the Legion of Mary. Duff had begun this work in 1921 in Dublin, more than half a century before meeting the Pope in Poland. Saint Pius X became Pope in 1903, not 1913. Laszewski relates how his predecessor, Leo XIII had a vision of the 20th Century and its evils. The Pope did not reveal details of this event, but Laszewski claims it as a Marian Apparition because Leo championed the Rosary. Pious suppositions are not history!

I would not be alone in scratching my head over Laszewski’s description of Ngome as  a place where natural realities came into contact with the supernatural. Springs of water have always been places where contact with the supernatural is a given, as at the Pool of Bethesda, or Lourdes, or many a holy well. In the words Chesterton put into the mouth of Mary, speaking to King Alfred:

The gates of Heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

Lord, grant us eyes to see with and to discern your presence in the people we meet.

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5 October: some places may operate upon us.

Doctor Johnson had a few thoughts on pilgrimage: In Autumn 1773, he made his way to the Island of Iona (or Icolmkill) in Scotland with James Boswell, who recorded:

 When we had landed upon the sacred place, which, as long as I can remember, I had thought on with veneration, Dr. Johnson and I cordially embraced. We had long talked of visiting Icolmkill; and, from the lateness of the season, were at times very doubtful whether we should be able to effect our purpose. To have seen it, even alone, would have given me great satisfaction; but the venerable scene was rendered much more pleasing by the company of my great and pious friend, who was no less affected by it than I was; and who has described the impressions it should make on the mind, with such strength of thought, and energy of language, that I shall quote his words, as conveying my own sensations much more forcibly than I am capable of doing:—

‘We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!’

Johnson says in Rasselas, ch. xi:—’That the supreme being may be more easily propitiated in one place than in another is the dream of idle superstition; but that some places may operate upon our own minds in an uncommon manner is an opinion which hourly experience will justify. He who supposes that his vices may be more successfully combated in Palestine will, perhaps, find himself mistaken, yet he may go thither without folly; he who thinks they will be more freely pardoned dishonours at once his reason and religion.’

( both from “Life of Johnson, Volume 5 ” by James Boswell)

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September 12, 1775: A most pleasing effect on my mind. Season of Creation XIV.

An Island ferry docked at Mallaig.

Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.

More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.

All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.

We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’

This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.

From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.

Keeley Psalms devotions_30
Follow this link for Sister Johanna’s Psalm reflection for today, again bearing out CS Lewis and Thomas Merton:

‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’ 

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