It is summer, and vacation is on our minds—either memories of vacations past, or plans for vacations coming up before Labor Day and a return to normalcy. This year, I am mostly staying at home, enjoying a brutally hot and humid Midwest summer in our suburban colonial house on the prairie.
It is here in the Missouri shade that I ran across Samuel Johnson’s essay on seeking solitude in the country. The confirmed Londoner scoffs at desires to get away from it all. For starters, he argues, to head for the country is an insult to civilization: “I know not whether those who thus ambitiously repeat the praises of solitude have always considered how much they depreciate mankind by declaring that whatever is excellent or desirable is to be obtained by departing from them.” I don’t think Dr. Johnson is referring to that feeling of envy and abandonment I get when I see the SUVs hauling boats off to the lake for a long weekend.
Like a scholastic, Dr. Johnson divides lovers of rustic solitude into subspecies. First, there are those who want to escape in order to gratify their passions, to live for a time “in a perpetual compliance with their own inclinations, without the necessity of regulating their actions by any other man’s convenience or opinion.” You know who you are.
Dr. Johnson also delineates this type’s opposite, those who seek to escape the scandal and corruption they see in the city: “There are others of minds more delicate and tender, easily offended by every deviation from rectitude, soon disgusted by ignorance or impertinence, and always expecting from the conversation of mankind more elegance, purity, and truth, than the mingled mass of life will easily afford.” These people “hope to find in private habitations at least a negative felicity, an exemption from the shocks and perturbations with which public scenes are continually distressing them.” We should hope these vacationers don’t end up with the first crowd by accident.
Dr. Johnson describes a final set, one he says is entitled to “higher respect”: “These retire from the world, not merely to bask in ease or gratify curiosity; but that being disengaged from common cares, they may employ more time in the duties of religion: that they may regulate their actions with stricter vigilance, and purify their thoughts by more frequent meditation.”
Yet the great Dr. Johnson errs a bit. He did not understand or appreciate the natural utility of the monastic life. Though he sings its praises here, he also says that it “bestows no assistance upon earthly beings, and however free from taints of impurity, yet wants the sacred splendour of beneficence.”
I assume Dr. Johnson never enjoyed monastic hospitality. Likewise, he downplays the value of the prayers monks and nuns send up to heaven on our behalf. He also discounts some key monastic products.
Were Dr. Johnson alive today, he might have read recently in one of his hometown newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, about the debut of the first Trappist ale brewed in England, at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, just over a hundred miles north of London. Monks have been brewing beer since the ninth century, and the Trappists excel at it, especially in Belgium, where Chimay is one of the most celebrated beer brands in the world. Two other abbeys must be mentioned here as well. The Benedictine monks of Norcia, a historic monastery in St. Benedict’s birthplace that was hard-hit by a series of earthquakes in 2016, started brewing beer in 2012, selling it as Birra Nursia. Proceeds from the beer benefit the monks’ rebuilding project. In the United States, Trappists have been brewing beer since 2014 at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
Dr. Johnson ends his essay on solitude by pointing out that there are certain people we all need to see more of: those who are “so inspired with ardour, and so fortified with resolution, that the world passes before them without influence or regard; these ought to consider themselves as appointed the guardians of mankind: they are placed in an evil world, to exhibit public examples of good life.” If such persons left the world for the solitude of the country, he argues, it would be tantamount to abandoning their civic responsibilities.
Whether we are summering at home or on Martha’s Vineyard; whether we’re living in the city, in the suburbs, or in small-town America; whether our homes are in elite northeast bastions, on the “left coast,” or in flyover states, Johnson’s challenge holds true. Make time to rest and rejuvenate while the real work continues of building up the Kingdom of God wherever you find it. We all should strive to exhibit Johnsonian “public examples of good life” in the world, especially to our family, friends, and neighbors.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.