11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 17


This is the first of our series on English spiritual writers. It will run throughout Lent.

IT IS Samuel Johnson's personal infir- mities that make him particularly approachable as a spiritual author. His infirmities were physical, mental and moral. To scrofula, poor sight and bodily tremors were added bouts of depression so strong that he could stare fixedly at a church clock without know- ing what time it was.

Of Johnson's moral struggles we hear chiefly from Boswell's biography. John- son's life was a triumph of repentance in the face of repeated failures. At New Years and on Good Fridays he reviewed his past life and made resolutions for the future, often to get up earlier. Often he failed. His night fears made it impossible to go home, so late nights in company made for late rising. He could not drink moderately, so gave up strong drink. Practical charity in his life was amply demonstrated by his taking into his house a blind widow, a destitute doctor and a black orphan.

Johnson feared death — both dying and the next life. 'JOHNSON: As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned. DR ADAMS: What do you mean by damned? JOHNSON (passionately and loudly): Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly!' Yet when he approached death his mind became tranquil'.

Johnson wrote down prayers which may seem stilted to modern readers who are used to sincerity being shown by formlessness. The depth of feeling, and self-knowledge they show, howev- er, may be glimpsed in the following, composed the month after his wife's death:

April 26, 1752, being after 12 at Night of the 25th. 0 Lord! Governour of heaven and earth, in whose hands are embodied and departed Spirits, if thou has ordained the Souls of the Dead to minister to the Living, and appointed my departed Wife to have care of me, grant that I may enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration, whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams or in any other manner agreeable to thy Govern- ment. Forgive my presumption, enlighten my ignorance, and however meaner agents are employed, grant me the bles- sed influences of thy holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Johnson's life is best read in the biographies of Boswell and Walter Jack- son Bate. His prayers are to be found in the expensive first volume of the Yale edition of his works (1.60) and there are a few in Boswell. SCM published a selec- tion in 1947.