20 March 2016

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (40)

A glass of white wine at Fort St George in Cambridge … Samuel Johnson gave up drinking wine throughout Holy Week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

This morning [20 March 2016], with Palm Sunday, we enter the last week in Lent or Holy Week.

Boswell in his biography recalls that Dr Johnson “kept fast in Lent, particularly the Holy Week, with a rigour very dangerous to his general health; and had left off wine for religious motives as I always believed, though he did not own it), yet he did not hold the communication of offences by voluntary penance, or encourage others to practice severity upon themselves. He even once said he thought it ‘an error to endeavour at pleasing God by taking the rod of reproof out of his hands’.”

Johnson noted that on Palm Sunday the Habesha people in Ethiopia remembered the dead in their prayers, and in his own prays on this day he would remember his wife Tetty.

However, one year on Palm Sunday, 24 March 1771, a depressed Johnson noted:

I purposed this day to begin my Greek Testament, but was unwilling to go to study, and hour stole away after hour. I did not go to Church.

Later that week he wrote:

O Lord God, in whose hand are the wills and affections of men, kindle in my mind holy desires, and repress sinful and corrupt imaginations. Enable me to love thy commandments, and to desire thy promises; let me by thy protection and influence so pass through things temporal, as finally not to lose the things eternal, and among the hopes and fears, the pleasures and sorrows, the dangers and deliverances, and all the changes of this life, let my heart be surely fixed by the help of thy Holy Spirit on the everlasting fruition of thy presence, where true joys are to be found, grant O Lord, these petitions.

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.

During Holy Week, Johnson would fast from Good Friday through to Easter morning every year. Indeed, sometimes his fast could last throughout Holy Week, and he once wrote:

I have fasted from the Sunday’s dinner to the Tuesday’s dinner without any inconvenience.

A glass of wine with an ‘old friend’ at lunch time in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty and everlasting God,
who, in your tender love towards the human race,
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
Grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings: Luke 19: 28-40; Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; or:

Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-16; Philippians 2: 5-11; Luke 22: 14 to 23: 56, or Luke 23: 1-49.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.

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