“The great art of piety, and the end for which all the arts of religion seem to be instituted, is the perpetual renovation of the motives to virtue, by a voluntary employment of our mind in the contemplation of its excellence…. To facilitate this change of our affections it is necessary that we weaken the temptations of the world, by retiring at certain seasons from it….”—Johnson, Rambler (No. 7)
Since this will be my last commentary before Easter, a Lenten meditation seems appropriate. The interesting point that Johnson makes is that piety should be especially exercised “at certain seasons.” He was certainly familiar with dismissive attitudes towards the seasonal, cyclical (one could add, liturgical) concepts of religion. Religious experimenters tend to ignore man’s nature in this regard.
Man is not an angel. He is as much a physical as a spiritual creature. He works out his salvation progressively, through time. That is why—contra the antinomians and those who make the spiritual experience an undemanding “instantaneous” process—there is so much emphasis on virtue (i.e., good habits) in the New Testament. After all, it is easy to make religious commitments. It is another matter to keep them. That is why we must renew our efforts at those special times set aside to make up for the slack periods.
Boswell recalls in his biography of Johnson that
One of [the Quakers] having objected to the ‘observance of days, and months, and years,’ Johnson answered, ‘The Church does not superstitiously observe days, merely as days, but as memorials of important facts. Christmas might be kept as well upon one day of the year as another; but there should be a stated day for commemorating the birth of our Saviour, because there is danger that what may be done on any day, will be neglected.’
Ideally, every day should be as important as Sunday or the feasts of Easter or Christmas. But ask the simplifier to give up sleeping or resting, or any of the things that form the rhythm of normal life. Traditional religion takes into account man’s frailties. Idealists and Cathars, on the other hand, hold out “ultra-spiritual” goals which often become excuses for very non-spiritual ways of living. Some will say they have no need to pray in church, since they can pray just as well in the middle of a field. One wants to ask, when was the last time they held services in their sacred grove.
But to close on a note in keeping with the season:
On Sunday, April 7, Easter-day [writes Boswell]… I came to Dr. Johnson, according to my usual custom. It seemed to me, that there was always something peculiarly mild and placid in his manner upon this holy festival, the commemoration of the most joyful event in the history of our world, the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, who, having triumphed over death and the grave, proclaimed immortality to mankind.