Sam not only prayed frequently but also wrote his own prayers, sometimes tailored for a specific occasion, and sometimes simply composing something original instead of mouthing a well-known prayer, a passage from the Bible, or something like that. When he was nearly 60 (in the year 1768) he in fact transcribed many of his prayers, and made notes about when they were composed. They were later published the year after his death as Prayers and Meditations.
Of the one below, which has the great phrase “vain scruples” in it, Sam writes that it was transcribed on June 26, 1768, but that it is undated, “nor can I conjecture when it was composed.”
O Lord, who wouldst that all men should be saved, and who knowest that without thy grace we can do nothing acceptable to thee, have mercy upon me. Enable me to break the chain of my sins, to reject sensuality in thought, and to overcome and suppress vain scruples; and to use such diligence in lawful employment as may enable me to support myself and do good to others. O Lord, forgive me the time lost in idleness; pardon the sins which I have committed, and grant that I may redeem the time mispent, and be reconciled to thee by true repentance, that I may live and die in peace, and be received to everlasting happiness. Take not from me, O Lord, thy holy spirit, but let me have support and comfort for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
You see here some of the topics and self-criticisms that come up in a lot of his prayers. Wasting time is the one that I notice coming up over and over again, either castigating himself for having done it, or asking God to give him the diligence to avoid it in the future. I don’t think any man ever accomplished so much while at the same time berating himself about never getting anything done.
As for “vain scruples,” the latter word is actually defined in Sam’s dictionary:
Doubt; difficulty of determination; perplexity: generally about minute things.
So, again, it’s related to action and therefore to the fear of inaction: he’s asking God to give him the strength not to be held back by doubt and hesitation from getting things done. Sam’s practice was to provide quotations from other writers to illustrate the defined words (ahem) in action. One of those quoted for scruple is the 17th-century writer Jeremy Taylor:
For the matter of your confession, let it be severe and serious; but yet so as it may be without any inordinate anxiety, and unnecessary scruples, which only intangle the soul.
In my own life, there used to be a time when I was a very good boy, and actually knelt by the side of my bed and “said my prayers,” as my mother would put it. Maybe there are other lapsed theists out there who also remember the kind of jingle of a prayer that I recited:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And if I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
It’s a pretty stark thing for a child to be saying every night before he goes to bed. If I should die before I wake??
I went to a Catholic school because my mother thought I would get a better education there than in the public school system, but I wasn’t and have never been Catholic. A kind nun, Sister Ruth O’Reilly, allowed me and my younger brother to attend the school with the great name of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. My mother was a single mom (a lot rarer and more demonized in the mid-1960’s than it is now) and this was a great help to her as she trudged off to work as a waitress at Woolworth’s.
I “saw the light,” so to speak, when I was in about Grade 10, and during one of the Pentecostal services which my mother attended irregularly, I was, as they call it, “saved.” That lasted for about a year, and was sincere while I was in the throes of it, but I eventually stopped going to any church. Over the course of time my belief in God disappeared and I turned into a self-righteous but lovable atheist, which I am still today. Oh. I’m also a “backslider,” which is what the Pentecostals call anyone who has been saved, but has now slid in the wrong direction—back, of course, and in their view there’s no chance that I’ll ever be going up.
More about Sam and me in this week’s podcast. Please suppress the vain scruples which prevent you from listening.