The trouble with memory is that often it plays us false. We may not remember an event exactly as it happened. Another witness may remember it differently. Here is Dr Johnson’s view of the matter, written well before we had such conveniences as camera phones to help – a little.
There is yet another cause of errour not always easily surmounted, though more dangerous to the veracity of itinerary narratives, than imperfect mensuration.
An observer deeply impressed by any remarkable spectacle, does not suppose, that the traces will soon vanish from his mind, and having commonly no great convenience for writing, defers the description to a time of more leisure, and better accommodation. He who has not made the experiment, or who is not accustomed to require rigorous accuracy from himself, will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from certainty of knowledge, and distinctness of imagery; how the succession of objects will be broken, how separate parts will be confused, and how many particular features and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea.
To this dilatory notation must be imputed the false relations of travellers, where there is no imaginable motive to deceive. They trusted to memory, what cannot be trusted safely but to the eye, and told by guess what a few hours before they had known with certainty. Thus it was that Wheeler and Spon described with irreconcilable contrariety things which they surveyed together, and which both undoubtedly designed to show as they saw them.
from “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” by Samuel Johnson.
George Wheeler and Jacques Spon rediscovered the site of ancient Delphi, using an old description from Pausanias, and published their findings in 1682. I wonder, what will be the effect of all those video recordings of himself that my 20 month-old grandson likes to watch?
In old age Johnson observed: I hope GOD will yet grant me a little longer life, and make me less unfit to appear before him.
Life of Johnson by James Boswell.
Amen to both these prayers!
When Johnson visited Skye in the late XVIII Century, the crossing from the mainland was by boat – rowing boat – the bridge would have been unimaginable. The rain, and the rainbow, were facts of everyday life. And still are.
‘When Mr. Vesey was proposed as a member of the LITERARY CLUB, Mr. Burke began by saying that he was a man of gentle manners.
“Sir, said Johnson, you need say no more. When you have said a man of gentle manners; you have said enough.”‘
‘The late Mr. Fitzherbert told Mr. Langton that Johnson said to him, “Sir, a man has no more right to say an uncivil thing, than to act one; no more right to say a rude thing to another than to knock him down.”‘
Johnson observed, ‘There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in his intellects. If a young or middle-aged man, when leaving a company, does not recollect where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will shrug up their shoulders, and say, “His memory is going”.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784, by James Boswell
It must have been 30 years ago that I had a parcel through the letterbox: my hat that I’d taken off on getting into the bishop’s car. So what was my excuse then? And now?
Let’s remind ourselves of Ecclesiasticus 3:12-14.
“My son, help thy father in his age, and grieve him not as long as he liveth. And if his understanding fail, have patience with him; and despise him not when thou art in thy full strength. For the relieving of thy father shall not be forgotten: and instead of sins it shall be added to build thee up.”
Boswell had arranged for Johnson to go with him to dine with Mr Dilly the bookseller, but the date had slipped Johnson’s mind. He had been expecting to dine in with Mrs Williams, the blind poet who lived with him and Frank – Francis Barber, his servant, a former slave. Boswell persuaded Mrs Williams to allow Johnson to break his date to dine with her. Boswell had been plotting for Johnson and Wilkes to meet, since they were often at odds in print. ‘How to manage it, was a nice and difficult matter’, but on May 15, 1776, Johnson and Bozzie went to Dilly’s.
As soon as I had announced to him Mrs. Williams’ consent, he roared, ‘Frank, a clean shirt,’ and was very soon drest.
When I had him fairly seated in a hackney-coach with me, I exulted as much as a fortune-hunter who has got an heiress into a post-chaise with him to set out for Gretna-Green.
When we entered Mr. Dilly’s drawing room, he found himself in the midst of a company he did not know. I kept myself snug and silent, watching how he would conduct himself. I observed him whispering to Mr. Dilly, ‘Who is that gentleman, Sir?’—’Mr. Arthur Lee.’—
JOHNSON. ‘Too, too, too,’ (under his breath,) which was one of his habitual mutterings. Mr. Arthur Lee could not but be very obnoxious to Johnson, for he was not only a patriot but an American. He was afterwards minister from the United States at the court of Madrid. ‘
And who is the gentleman in lace?’—’Mr. Wilkes, Sir.’ This information confounded him still more; he had some difficulty to restrain himself, and taking up a book, sat down upon a window-seat and read, or at least kept his eye upon it intently for some time, till he composed himself. His feelings, I dare say, were aukward enough. But he no doubt recollected his having rated me for supposing that he could be at all disconcerted by any company, and he, therefore, resolutely set himself to behave quite as an easy man of the world, who could adapt himself at once to the disposition and manners of those whom he might chance to meet.
from “Life of Johnson by James Boswell, via Kindle.
Johnson and Wilkes sat together and were unfailingly attentive to each other and enjoyed an evening of conversation and wit.
The day after tomorrow we find Jesus sitting down to eat with his enemies; no clean shirt, not even clean hands – and that’s where the trouble began.
The late Mr. James Ralph told Lord Macartney, that Doctor Johnson passed an evening with Dr. Young at Lord Melcombe’s (then Mr. Dodington) at Hammersmith. The Doctor happening to go out into the garden, Mr. Dodington observed to him, on his return, that it was a dreadful night, as in truth it was, there being a violent storm of rain and wind.
‘No, Sir, (replied the Doctor) it is a very fine night. The LORD is abroad.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784″ by James Boswell.
In Eastertide we consider the presence of the living Lord in our lives. But see how language changes! On this occasion the Doctor did not mean to suggest that the Lord was overseas, rather that he was out and about, ‘abroad’, even on a night of violent storm. At Hammersmith (West London) in the 1780s the night would have been many times darker than today, a violent storm more truly dread-full, but he felt God’s presence and seems to have enjoyed the storm. A very fine night indeed!
I would not have expected to be quoting Dr Johnson on Education Sunday, but he gives us something to think about, especially his final sentence.
‘Sir, the life of a parson, of a conscientious clergyman, is not easy. I have always considered a clergyman as the father of a larger family than he is able to maintain. I would rather have Chancery suits* upon my hands than the cure of souls. No, Sir, I do not envy a clergyman’s life as an easy life, nor do I envy the clergyman who makes it an easy life.’
Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Vol 3.
Pope Francis sees religious vocations as part of the ‘ordinary pastoral life’ of the Church, and his prayer for today asks for each one of us the gifts of boundless compassion, abundant generosity, and radical availability.
Dear friends, on this day in particular, but also in the ordinary pastoral life of our communities, I ask the Church to continue to promote vocations. May she touch the hearts of the faithful and enable each of them to discover with gratitude God’s call in their lives, to find courage to say “yes” to God, to overcome all weariness through faith in Christ, and to make of their lives a song of praise for God, for their brothers and sisters, and for the whole world. May the Virgin Mary accompany us and intercede for us.
Pope Francis, World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 2020.
Prayer for World Day of Prayer for Vocations
Holy Spirit, stir within us the passion to promote vocations to the consecrated life, societies of apostolic life, diocesan priesthood, and permanent diaconate.
Inspire us daily to respond to Your call with boundless compassion, abundant generosity, and radical availability.
Help us to remember our own baptismal call to rouse us to invite the next generation to hear and respond to Your call.
Inspire parents, families, and lay ecclesial ministers to begin a conversation with young Catholics to consider how they will live lives of holiness and sacred service.
Nudge inquirers and motivate discerners to learn more about monastic life, apostolic life, missionaries, cloistered contemplative life, and evangelical Franciscan life.
Ignite our Church with the confident humility that there is an urgent need for religious sisters, brothers, deacons, and priests to live in solidarity with those who are poor, neglected, and marginalised.
Disrupt our comfortable lives and complacent attitudes with new ideas to respond courageously and creatively with a daily ‘YES!’ Amen.
* Chancery Courts were concerned with domestic matters including adoptions, custody disputes and divorces; guardianships; sanity hearings; wills; and challenges to constitutionality of state laws.
‘Shall I ever,’ he asks on Easter Day, ‘receive the Sacrament with tranquility? Surely the time will come.’
from “Life of Johnson, Volume 2 1765-1776” by James Boswell
Doctor Johnson was staying with his friends the Thrales when he wrote this, well aware of his own sinfulness and the gulf that that could give rise to between himself and God, but also believing that salvation is ours: Christ has Passed-over through death to eternal life and so shall we. Believing does not mean being totally assured in my mind and heart that salvation is mine, and for the melancholic Johnson, all the theology in the world could not enkindle such certainty. Rather it is to accept the promise of salvation, even with a tiny part of myself, and forgive myself for my unbelief. Even a mustard seed faith can leaven the lump that I am; I can receive the Sacrament in fear and trembling, but at the same time, at a deeper level than my doubts, with tranquility.
Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1Corinthians 5:6-8)
Boswell was struck by this passage in Samuel Johnson’s papers, recorded at Easter 1777. He was at church, even on Easter Sunday aware of his sinfulness, but on this Easter Day he received a personal revelation of God’s peace.
I was for some time distressed, but at last obtained, I hope from the GOD of Peace, more quiet than I have enjoyed for a long time. I had made no resolution, but as my heart grew lighter, my hopes revived, and my courage increased; and I wrote with my pencil in my Common Prayer Book,
Vita ordinanda. Order my life. Biblia legenda. Read my Bible. Theologiae opera danda. Study works of theology. Serviendum et lætandum. Serve and rejoice.*
He continued later: ‘I passed the afternoon with such calm gladness of mind as it is very long since I felt before. I passed the night in such sweet uninterrupted sleep as I have not known since I slept at Fort Augustus.’ In a letter to Boswell he says:—’The best night that I have had these twenty years was at Fort Augustus.’ His good nights must have been rare indeed.”
It is the end of summer 1780, and Dr Johnson and James Boswell have not met together this year. In this time of lockdown and self-isolation, we can appreciate Boswell’s feelings when he writes:
I hope that you will agree to meet me at York, about the end of this month; or if you will come to Carlisle, that would be better still, in case the Dean be there. Please to consider, that to keep each other’s kindness, we should every year have that free and intimate communication of mind which can be had only when we are together. We should have both our solemn and our pleasant talk.
From Boswell’s Life of Johnson
But Johnson had to make his excuses. He was with his sick friend, Mr Thrale, who wanted his company during a stay in Brighthelmston (Brighton). It was then rather more than an hour from London, 60 years before the railway opened. Johnson’s words are worth taking to heart in 2021.
Mr. Thrale … is now going to Brighthelmston, and expects me to go with him; and how long I shall stay, I cannot tell. I do not much like the place, but yet I shall go, and stay while my stay is desired.
We must, therefore, content ourselves with knowing what we know as well as man can know the mind of man, that we love one another, and that we wish each other’s happiness, and that the lapse of a year cannot lessen our mutual kindness.
I was pleased to be told that I accused Mrs. Boswell unjustly, in supposing that she bears me ill-will. I love you so much, that I would be glad to love all that love you, and that you love; and I have love very ready for Mrs. Boswell, if she thinks it worthy of acceptance. I hope all the young ladies and gentlemen are well. I take a great liking to your brother. He tells me that his father received him kindly, but not fondly. Make your father as happy as you can.
You lately told me of your health: I can tell you in return, that my health has been for more than a year past, better than it has been for many years before. Perhaps it may please GOD to give us some time together before we are parted.
I am, dear Sir, ‘Yours most affectionately, ‘SAM. JOHNSON.’ ‘October 17, 1780
Who would like to hear from you today to keep the mutual kindness going till you can meet again?