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The Return of Prayers by Thomas Goodwin

The Return of Prayers

by Thomas Goodwin

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Review from "Other People's Books" by Paul Ruxin.
"...What a complex pleasure it is then to have in my library, as I do, Johnson's own copy of that very despised Leviathan.
Perhaps the appeal of association copies can be better expressed by spending a little more time with a few others. Let us begin with a book by Thomas Goodwin, entitled The Returne of Prayers: a treatise wherein this case [How to discerne Gods answers to our prayers] is briefly resolved. A copy of the fifth edition, published in 1638 in London, 141 years later, in 1779, came into the possession of James Boswell, in Edinburgh. We know this because it is signed and dated in his distinctive hand on the free front fly-leaf. To understand what this book — a frequent resident of Boswell's pockets — suggests about Boswell perhaps we need a slight refresher course in who he was.
Of course he was the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson, but he was much more than that. A complex and contradictory life is sometimes best illuminated by small insights, such as the ones provided by Boswell's devotion to an old book offering reassurance of the efficacy of prayer and its constant availability both as a source of solace and of hope for a better life, not only in the hereafter, but in this world. James Boswell was born in 1740, scion of an ancient and noble Scots line, whose family had held the estates of Auchinleck, in Ayrshire, since the fourteenth century. His father, Alexander, was a distinguished jurist who sat on the highest civil and criminal courts of Scotland. Boswell himself was a lawyer, and an author, long before 1791, when his famous Life of Samuel Johnson was published. In fact his first book, an account of his travels to Corsica, made him famous in 1768 when he was only twenty-eight; published to great success, it was translated almost immediately into five languages. He was, even by the lofty standards of the time, highly educated, a master of many languages and famous as a wit, a social butterfly, a skillful advocate, a politician and also as an intemperate drunk, a debauched profligate, and an ambitious man always at work defeating his own ambitions.
Among his most consistently pursued, and consistently undermined, ambitions, was to be pious. A staunch Scots Presbyterian, he flirted with Roman Catholicism in his youth, then attended Protestant church services regularly in England and Scotland, where he was often moved to tears. He repented his sins deeply, but frequently, because he was in fact better at remorse than he was at reform. Boswell was torn by his own need for salvation, and by profound self-knowledge that led him to fear it would, in the end, be denied him. The late Prof. Pottle of Yale — known as "Boswellianissimus" — explains his dilemma — and his appeal to us — this way.
There is nothing painful in the autobiography either of a saint or of a complacent libertine. John Wesley's Journal is not painful, nor does one suffer as he reads the Memoirs of Casanova. We can stand apart from such men and judge their lives as we would works of pure fiction. But Boswell's Journal is painful to read, because, while we are laughing with him and at him, the scales fall from our eyes and we come suddenly to see that he is ourselves. He is the articulate honest expression of that state of being which nearly all of us experience: of piety that seldom issues in righteousness; of primordial indecencies mocking our boast of civilization; of ambitions misdirected beyond our strength; of warring motives which can never be reconciled; of childish dreams carried over into mature life. Like him we do our best work half-heartedly while we pursue phantoms; we spend our lives in turmoil and heartache, lacking the power to shape our destinies.
Reading Boswell's journals and his recitations of his hopes for his children, his desires to excel, to be faithful to his beloved wife, interspersed with his accounts of whoring and drunkenness, it is clear how this little book was a source of comfort. It was, no doubt, a physical as well as spiritual bridge that allowed him to cross quickly back from the depths of his worst self, to the peaks of his better hours. Reading it we can consider one source of his continually renewed optimism, his eternal hope and his belief that it is never too late to become better. The object itself, always within his literal grasp in his pocket, was, we can believe, a physical comfort to this tormented man..." ( )
  JamesBoswell | Apr 6, 2010 |
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