22 February 2023

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (1)

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) … a portrait by Joshua Reynolds

Patrick Comerford

The Season of Lent begins today with Ash Wednesday. Later today I hope to be present with the Parish Choir at the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford at 7 pm.

In previous years, my Lenten reflections have journeyed with the saints, looked at Lent in Art, reflected on the music of Vaughan Williams, and similar themes.

This year, I am planning to take time each morning reflecting once again on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

Perhaps I am sympathetic to Johnson because of his origins in Lichfield. Perhaps I am drawn to him because he recalled that when he lived in in London he went ‘every day to a coffee-house.’ But he was also a pious Anglican, a regular communicant, and he writes regularly and carefully about his observance of Lent and Easter.

At early age, his mother encouraged him to learn the Book of Common Prayer by heart, including its many rich Lenten collects. The Book of Common Prayer invites us ‘to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and Repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.’

Samuel Johnson once declared, through his amanuensis James Boswell, that unless we set aside certain days for particular remembrances, we will probably fail to remember.

Johnson was generally negative about religious verse and his own devotional poems, marked by earnestness and humility, were composed mainly in his later years. There are several meditations and seven Latin prayers, the majority of them based on the Collects in The Book of Common Prayer.

David Nichol Smith, in Samuel Johnson’s Poems, says these verses ‘are preserved for us in sufficient numbers to rank [Johnson] as a religious poet, though a minor one.’

The Collect of Ash Wednesday in its traditional version in The Book of Common Prayer prays:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent; Create and make in us new hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Johnson translates this into Latin as:

Summe Deus, qui semper amas quodcunque creasti,
Judice quo scelerum est poenituisse salus,
Da veteres noxas animo sic flere novato,
Per Christum ut veniam sit reperire mihi.

His translation is dated 13 April 1781 and was first published in Works in 1787 (see Poems, pp 229-230).

Translated back into English, this reads:

Almighty God, who dost always love what thou hast made, before whom as judge to have repented of one’s sins is salvation, grant that with my soul made new I may so lament my former sins as to be able to obtain forgiveness through Christ.

Johnson has condensed the original without losing very much and has made it a personal prayer. But his emphasis is a positive one, so that he begins with an affirmation of God’s love rather than asserting that God does not hate. It is a twist in emphasis that reveals much about Johnson’s piety and his confidence in the love of God.

Yesterday’s Reflection
Continued tomorrow

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square, Lichfield, at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Avi said...

How do i contact you email or number - I want to use your pictures with or edit

Patrick Comerford said...

For Avi: I do not make my email address or phone number available online. However, I monitor all comments before they go online, so you can sent another comment with your email address. IThis will not be reposted online, protecting your details, but I can then reply to your email address. Patrick