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We may struggle to please God, but we’re not that bad

      One hears little of Dr. Samuel Johnson these days. Of course, he did live in 18th century England, and the meter and vocabulary of his prose is foreign to the beat and prattle of today’s spinmeisters, so I suppose his obscurity comes as no surprise.

      Still, for those who love and appreciate the written English word, Johnson is a delight. Recently, I revisited The Rambler No. 21:

      “Every man is prompted by the love of himself to imagine that he possesses some qualities, superior, either in kind or degree, to those which he sees allotted to the rest of the world; and, whatever apparent disadvantages he may suffer in comparison with others, he has some invisible distinctions, some latent reserve of excellence, which he throws into the balance, and by which he generally fancies that it is turned in his favour.”

      An astute student of humanity was Johnson. Rambler No. 21 is actually concerned with writers, as the title of the essay exclaims: “The Anxieties of Literature Not Less Than Those of Public Stations. The Inequality of Authors’ Writings.”

      I do not believe a writer consciously chooses to be a writer. Burl Grundy does not wake up one morning, place his hands behind his head, look up at the ceiling and say to himself, “You know, I think I’ll be a writer.” Rather, writing is a craft someone is compelled to practice.

      And so Burl Grundy does. He dashes off poems, pounds out short stories, grinds out novels, slaves over screenplays, fine-tunes stage plays or agonizes over essays. Upon completion? A masterpiece.

      Now Burl Grundy searches for the agent who will snatch it up and, by hook or by crook, persuade that New York publisher that Burl Grundy’s piece of writing is the next Harry Potter. Millions to be had! Millions!

      Years pass. Nothing. Reality stares Burl Grundy square in the face: nobody wants to read what you write. “But my (fill in the blank: novel, short story, essay, etc) is just as good as all that other stuff out there!” So Burl doubles-down.

      More years pass. Still nothing. One day it finally dawns on Burl Grundy that perhaps, just perhaps, this craft of writing he practices is not meant to be; that Apollo has not bestowed upon him the gift of prose, verse and rhyme; that the sum of his scribbling is, indeed, drivel.

      All that time wasted! Energy burned for nothing! Dreams dashed! In a rage Burl heaves his Strunk & White, his Chicago Manual of Style and his thesaurus out the window. Gone! All gone!

      And as time slips on and the memory of his literary labors recedes, he wonders why the fever of fortune and fame held such a grip on him. Pondering all this, he suddenly recalls the conclusion to Johnson’s Rambler 21:

      “Our juvenile compositions please us, because they bring to our minds the remembrance of youth; our later performances we are ready to esteem, because we are unwilling to think that we have made no improvement; what flows easily from the pen charms us, because we read with pleasure that which flatters our opinion of our own powers; what was composed with great struggles of the mind we do not easily reject, because we cannot bear that so much labour should be fruitless.”

      I sometimes think that the Christian life is a lot like that of Johnson’s writer. We struggle and fail; we cannot seem to please God; but when we compare ourselves with others, we judge ourselves not all that bad. “After all, it’s not like I’ve killed anybody.” And then, in the dead of night, stone-cold sober, we ask: “What do I gain by doing all this church stuff?”

      But we did not choose God; God chose us. And God “does not treat us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our faults (Psalm 103:10). Rather, God asks “Did you search for me? Did you do justice and love goodness?”

      That’s why we Christians don’t throw the tools of our faith out the window in frustration, although there are times when that seems like the most plausible response.


      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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