Newman and the Idea of Sanctity

Though writing in the 19th century, Bl. John Henry Newman anticipated the fervor of today’s evangelical atheists who seek to disabuse us of what they consider the illusions of faith.

Left: “John Henry Newman, by Sir John Everett Millais”. Right: Pope Benedict XVI raises the host during the beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham, England, Sept. 19, 2010. (CNS photo)

Editor’s note: Blessed John Henry Newman was born on this day, February 21, in 1801.

When we speak of a saint, we usually have in mind someone of extraordinary holiness, someone of heroic virtue, someone animated by God’s love and dedicated to his service. Then, again, we think of someone whose devotion to God is so extraordinary that he commands the public veneration of the faithful.

And yet when we think of actual saints, we begin to see the inadequacy of such general terms. Although they share a common love of the Creator and a common love of his creatures, the saints are so different, so unique. To name saints dear to the subject of this essay—St. Paul, St. Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the First, St. Leo the Great, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Philip Neri—is to be reminded of just how profoundly different the saints are. As Chesterton once observed, “It is a real case against conventional hagiography that it sometimes tends to make all saints seem to be the same. Whereas in fact no men are more different than saints; not even murderers.” Defining them all with one definition hardly does them justice. So our general definitions of sanctity must always be a kind of broad-brush shorthand, even if the personal force of sanctity is unmistakable.

Just a few months ago there was a piece in the Catholic Herald about Father Dominic Barberi, the Passionist who received Newman into the Church, in which the author noted how “Dominic’s encounter with Newman at Littlemore in October 1845 may perhaps be only a small part of his story, but it is important nevertheless. This is because Newman himself tells us that he entered the Catholic Church precisely at that moment because of the supernatural qualities he recognized instantly in the Italian missionary. ‘When his form came into sight, I was moved to the depths in the strangest way,’ Newman wrote years later. ‘His very look had about it something holy.’” Before meeting Blessed Dominic, Newman was intellectually convinced of the truth of the Church but in the presence of Dominic’s sanctity he was able to recognize that his heart had come to the same conviction.

Then, again, when Dominic wrote that the most formidable obstacles to the one true faith in England were “the extreme ignorance and indeed indifference” of the English people to their own salvation, he also gave Newman something of his own mission, which animates all of his Catholic work. In this essay, I shall endeavor to capture something of the specific sanctity that can be found in the life and works of Blessed John Henry Newman, which sets him apart from other saints and yet makes him so entirely at home in the Communion of Saints.

Newman’s humility

The first thing that we should bear in mind about Newman, when it comes to his sanctity, is that there was nothing sanctimonious about it. In 1850, when a woman wrote to tell him how she and a friend thought him a saint, Newman replied with characteristically witty self-deprecation.

I return you Miss Moore’s letter. You must undeceive her about me, though I suppose she uses words in a general sense. She called Newman a saint. I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one. I may have a high view of many things, but it is the consequence of education and of a peculiar cast of intellect—but this is very different from being what I admire. I have no tendency to be a saint—it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. I may be well enough in my way, but it is not the ‘high line.’ People ought to feel this, most people do. But those who are at a distance have fee-fa-fum notions about one. It is enough for me to black the saints’ shoes—if St. Philip uses blacking, in heaven.

This confirms something Chesterton once said, in that glorious book of his on St. Thomas, “The holy man conceals his holiness; that is the one invariable rule.”

What gives Newman’s sanctity its abiding appeal is that it is rooted in his recognition that sanctity is not something with which most of us are comfortable. Some of this insight came from his own experience: both his brothers became apostates. One renounced Christianity for the utopian socialism of Robert Owen and the other left Christianity altogether for Unitarianism. Indeed, he even went so far as to advocate euthanasia. Then, again, Newman could see from growing up in the Church of England that many English Christians were only nominally Christian; they professed what they scarcely knew how to practice.

The Oxford Movement can be seen as an attempt on the part of Newman and his friends to recover the reality of sanctity, not only for that strenuous thing called Anglican theology but for the religious life of individual Anglicans as a whole. Those familiar with that movement will recall the mockery that greeted the fasts of Newman’s friend Richard Hurrell Froude, which he recounted meticulously in diaries published after his early death. Froude’s English contemporaries thought fasting ridiculous. They thought self-denial an affront to the dignity of the natural man. In response to Froude’s diary entries recounting how he “looked with greediness to see if there was goose on the table for dinner” and how he “meant to have kept a fast and did abstain from dinner, but at tea eat buttered toast.” James Stephens, KCB, Leslie Stephen’s brother and Virginia Woolf’s uncle, observed how:

Luther and Zwingli, Cranmer and Latimer, may still rest in their honoured graves. “Take courage, brother Ridley, we shall light up such a flame in England as shall not soon be put out!” is a prophecy which will not be defeated by the successors of the Oxonian divines…so long as they shall be able to record, and to publish, contrite reminiscences of a desire for roasted goose, and of an undue indulgence in buttered toast.

Even for Froude sanctity was a novel, strange, foreign thing, though, of course, it was also a very attractive thing, especially in an England where, as Stephens shows, the very notion of self-denial had become risible. Newman proved his own sanctity by describing the barriers to sanctity that prevented his contemporaries from emulating the saints and making God’s love the center of their lives. In exposing these barriers, Newman showed his contemporaries how they could be overcome. In his sermon “The Weapons of Saints,” Newman sought to drive home to his Oxford audience just how spiritually revolutionary Christianity was. Before one can grasp what sanctity is, Newman contends, one has to understand the source of sanctity, and here he explicates those unforgettably ringing words from St. Matthew: “Many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

These words are fulfilled under the Gospel in many ways. Our Saviour in one place applies them to the rejection of the Jews and the calling of the Gentiles; but in the context, in which they stand as I have cited them, they seem to have a further meaning, and to embody a great principle, which we all indeed acknowledge, but are deficient in mastering. Under the dispensation of the Spirit all things were to become new and to be reversed. Strength, numbers, wealth, philosophy, eloquence, craft, experience of life, knowledge of human nature, these are the means by which worldly men have ever gained the world. But in that kingdom which Christ has set up, all is contrariwise. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” What was before in honour, has been dishonoured; what before was in dishonour, has come to honour; what before was successful, fails; what before failed, succeeds. What before was great, has become little; what before was little, has become great. Weakness has conquered strength, for the hidden strength of God “is made perfect in weakness.” Death has conquered life, for in that death is a more glorious resurrection. Spirit has conquered flesh; for that spirit is an inspiration from above. A new kingdom has been established, not merely different from all kingdoms before it, but contrary to them; a paradox in the eyes of man—the visible rule of the invisible Saviour.

Having reaffirmed the Faith in these clarion terms, Newman could begin to encourage his auditors to see sanctity in less abstract terms. “Now let us apply this great truth to ourselves,” he exhorted his listeners, “for be it ever recollected, we are the sons of God, we are the soldiers of Christ. The kingdom is within us, and among us, and around us. We are apt to speak of it as a matter of history; we speak of it as at a distance; but really we are a part of it, or ought to be; and, as we wish to be a living portion of it, which is our only hope of salvation, we must learn what its characters are in order to imitate them.” Newman wrote that in 1837, but it could describe his entire apostolate.

In showing the many reasons why men decide against following the saints and making the devout life their own, Newman exhibits his psychological acuity. In his sermon “Religion a Weariness to the Natural Man,” he shows how the world itself disposes us to disparage religion in favor of its own appointments. “The transactions of worldly business, speculations in trade, ambitious hopes, the pursuit of knowledge, the public occurrences of the day, these find a way directly to the heart; they rouse, they influence. It is superfluous to go about to prove this innate power over us of things of time and sense, to make us think and act. The name of religion, on the other hand, is weak and impotent; it contains no spell to kindle the feelings of man, to make the heart beat with anxiety, and to produce activity and perseverance.” Many have sought deep philosophical reasons for why men will not or cannot believe, but here Newman persuasively shows that hunting down such out-of-the-way reasons may be otiose when it is patent how much mere worldliness separates creatures from their Creator.

The contrariety between man and his Maker

Then, again, Newman gave the devil his due by never underestimating the pride of the natural man. Indeed, he sees “the natural contrariety between man and his Maker” as “still more strikingly shown by the confession of men of the world who have given some thought to the subject, and have viewed society with somewhat of a philosophical spirit. Such men treat the demands of religion with disrespect and negligence, on the ground of their being unnatural. They say, ‘It is natural for men to love the world for its own sake; to be engrossed in its pursuits, and to set their hearts on the rewards of industry, on the comforts, luxuries, and pleasures of this life. Man would not be man if he could be made otherwise; he would not be what he was evidently intended for by his Maker.’”

Keith Thomas, the Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who wrote the highly influential history Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), is something of a tout for the native atheism of the natural man, of which Newman spoke frequently with clairvoyant incisiveness. In his latest book, The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Modern England (2009), which garnered extravagant praise, Thomas writes of how the goal of his 17th and 18th-century English subjects was “subjective happiness.” He cites Thomas Hobbes, who, as he says, “observed that what pleased one man displeased another and that total satisfaction was unobtainable, life being a matter of desire succeeding desire, ceasing only in death….” He also cites John Locke, who thought it was idle to prescribe to others to seek “riches, or bodily delights, or virtue, or contemplation,” because, again, every man was different with different desires. For Locke, “The mind has a different relish as well as the palate; and you will as fruitlessly endeavor to delight all men with riches or glory (which yet some men put their happiness in) as you would to satisfy all men’s hunger with cheese or lobsters, which, though very agreeable and delicious fare to some, are to others extremely nauseous and offensive.” Here, where the end of life has been reduced to a question of man’s hunger for lobster or cheese, the metaphysical—let alone the theological—hardly registers. One may marvel at the amount of scholarly research Thomas has undertaken to recreate his scrimmage of appetite but one cannot deny its stubborn reality.

It is helpful to keep Thomas’ evocation of the worldliness of post-Reformation England in mind when one reads Newman because it is against this worldliness that he is always making his appeal for sanctity. For example, he writes, “Many, indeed, of those unhappy men who have denied the Christian faith, treat the religious principle altogether as a mere unnatural, eccentric state of mind, a peculiar untoward condition of the affections to which weakness will reduce a man, whether it has been brought on by anxiety, oppressive sorrow, bodily disease, excess of imagination or the like, and temporary or permanent according to the circumstances of the disposing cause; a state to which we all are liable, as we are liable to any other mental injury, but unmanly and unworthy of our dignity as rational beings.” Here, also, is a good example of that barristerial skill which enabled Newman to identify and frame the arguments of his opponents better than they did themselves.

Now, from our own 21st-century standpoint, when we consider the 19th-century audience to which Newman directed his sermons, we might be inclined to imagine that the English of his time were more religious than ours. But, in fact, Newman’s contemporaries, like ours, were often bitterly opposed to anything that required them to take the obligations of religion seriously. And Newman’s account of why this should be the case is as compelling to us as it must have been to his own contemporaries. “Truly it is a weariness to the natural man to serve God humbly and in obscurity,” he reminded his readers in one of his sermons; “it is very wearisome, and very monotonous, to go on day after day watching all we do and think, detecting our secret failings, denying ourselves, creating within us, under God’s grace, those parts of the Christian character in which we are deficient; wearisome to learn modesty, love of insignificance, willingness to be thought little of, backwardness to clear ourselves when slandered, and readiness to confess when we are wrong; to learn to have no cares for this world, neither to hope nor to fear, but to be resigned and contented!”

Having imparted these uncomfortable truths, Newman poses an even more unpleasant question: “Can we doubt that man’s will runs contrary to God’s will—that the view which the inspired word takes of our present life, and of our destiny, does not satisfy us, as it rightly ought to do? that Christ hath no form nor comeliness in our eyes; and though we see Him, we see no desirable beauty in Him?” Here is the natural man’s view of things, stripped of all pretense and dissimulation, and for Newman there is a reason why it should be so unrelievedly bleak. “The nature of man is flesh,” Newman says, “and that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and ever must so remain; it never can discern, love, accept, the holy doctrines of the Gospel. It will occupy itself in various ways, it will take interest in things of sense and time, but it can never be religious. It is at enmity with God.”

Many of those who heard Newman preach his sermons at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford left accounts of how moving they were, but, here, where he does not mince his words, we can also appreciate how terrifying they could be.

If our hearts are by nature set on the world for its own sake, and the world is one day to pass away, what are they to be set on, what to delight in, then? Say, how will the soul feel when, stripped of its present attire, which the world bestows, it stands naked and shuddering before the pure, tranquil, and severe majesty of the Lord its God, its most merciful, yet dishonoured Maker and Saviour? What are to be the pleasures of the soul in another life? Can they be the same as they are here? They cannot; Scripture tells us they cannot; the world passeth away—now what is there left to love and enjoy through a long eternity? What a dark, forlorn, miserable eternity that will be!

The moral Newman draws from these observations could not be more uncompromising. Nevertheless, his very disavowal of compromise reminds us that the appeal of sanctity is of a very serious urgency. “It is then plain enough,” Newman ends his sermon, “though Scripture said not a word on the subject, that if we would be happy in the world to come, we must make us new hearts, and begin to love the things we naturally do not love. Viewing it as a practical point, the end of the whole matter is this, we must be changed; for we cannot, we cannot expect the system of the universe to come over to us; the inhabitants of heaven, the numberless creations of Angels, the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the holy Church universal, the Will and Attributes of God, these are fixed. We must go over to them. In our Saviour’s own authoritative words: ‘Verily, verily, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ [John iii. 3.]… It is not His loss that we love Him not, it is our loss. He is All-blessed whatever becomes of us. He is not less blessed because we are far from Him. It is we who are not blessed, except as we approach Him, except as we are like Him, except as we love Him. Woe unto us, if in the day in which He comes from Heaven we see nothing desirable or gracious in His wounds; but instead, have made for ourselves an ideal blessedness, different from that which will be manifested to us in Him. Woe unto us, if we have made pride, or selfishness, or the carnal mind, our standard of perfection and truth; if our eyes have grown dim, and our hearts gross, as regards the true light of men, and the glory of the Eternal Father. May He Himself save us from our self-delusions, whatever they are, and enable us to give up this world, that we may gain the next—and to rejoice in Him, who had no home of His own, no place to lay His head, who was poor and lowly, and despised and rejected, and tormented and slain!”

Here, again, Chesterton supplies a useful gloss. In the Father Brown stories, that sage detective has occasion to observe, “No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be…till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees.”

Truth and faith

If the passion and pride of the natural man are barriers to sanctity, so too can be his intelligence, the very thing that should lead him to grasp the reasonableness of the faith. In his sermon “Truth Hidden When Not Sought After,” Newman shows how he anticipated the fervor of those evangelical atheists in our own day who seek to disabuse us of what they consider the illusions of faith. And here again, Newman shows how intent he is on treating the true attitudes of men, not what the impostures or self-deceptions of men would have them appear to be. “Let us honestly confess what is certain,” he urges his listeners, “that not the ignorant, or weak-minded, or dull, or enthusiastic, or extravagant only turn their ears from the Truth…but also men of powerful minds, keen perceptions, extended views, ample and various knowledge.” In his Oxford University Sermons, Newman spoke brilliantly of how right reason cooperates with and supports faith; but he was also aware of how errant reason disables faith by insisting that intellect alone can verify the objects of faith. For Newman, “the Christian revelation addresses itself to our hearts, to our love of truth and goodness, our fear of sinning, and our desire to gain God’s favour; and quickness, sagacity, depth of thought, strength of mind, power of comprehension, perception of the beautiful, power of language, and the like, though they are excellent gifts, are clearly quite of a different kind from these spiritual excellences—a man may have the one without having the other. This, then, is the plain reason why able, or again why learned men are so often defective Christians, because there is no necessary connexion between faith and ability; because faith is one thing and ability is another; because ability of mind is a gift, and faith is a grace.”

Then, again, in the highly intelligent and the dull alike, Newman recognized that there could be a tendency to spiritual sloth, a lazy indifference to the obligations of faith. “Nothing is more common,” he charged, “than to think that we shall gain religious knowledge as a thing of course, without express trouble on our part. Though there is no art or business of this world which is learned without time and exertion, yet it is commonly conceived that the knowledge of God and our duty will come as if by accident or by a natural process. Men go by their feelings and likings; they take up what is popular, or what comes first to hand. They think it much if they now and then have serious thoughts, if they now and then open the Bible; and their minds recur with satisfaction to such seasons, as if they had done some very great thing, never remembering that to seek and gain religious truth is a long and systematic work. And others think that education will do every thing for them, and that if they learn to read, and use religious words, they understand religion itself.”

For Newman, nothing could be further from the truth. In one of his greatest sermons, “Unreal Words,” preached in 1839, when he had first come to see the fundamental illegitimacy of the National Church, he warned his contemporaries against confusing not only profession with practice but profession with faith. To gain the faith, he insisted, we must do more than merely profess, we must embody the faith.

In a sermon that Newman wrote as a Catholic, aptly entitled “Nature and Grace,” he called attention to another barrier to sanctity, and that is the tendency on the part of Catholics to blend in, assimilate, and exchange their Catholic identity for a false accord with their non-Catholic neighbors. Speaking to his parishioners at the Birmingham Oratory, Newman called attention to how chummy they tended to be with those non-Catholic neighbors who, although contemptuous of the doctrines of the faith of Rome, were prepared to advance the political interests of Catholics for their own political gain. In this chumminess, Newman saw a distinct danger.

I do not mean to say that you are not bound to cultivate peace with all men, and to do them all the offices of charity in your power. Of course you are, and if they respect, esteem, and love you, it redounds to your praise and will gain you a reward; but I mean more than this; I mean they do not respect you, but they like you, because they think of you as of themselves, they see no difference between themselves and you. This is the very reason why they so often take your part, and assert or defend your political rights. Here again, there is a sense, of course, in which our civil rights may be advocated by Protestants without any reflection on us, and with honour to them. We are like others in this, that we are men; that we are members of the same state with them, subjects, contented subjects, of the same Sovereign, that we have a dependence on them, and have them dependent on us; that, like them, we feel pain when ill-used, and are grateful when well-treated. We need not be ashamed of a fellowship like this, and those who recognise it in us are generous in doing so. But we have much cause to be ashamed, and much cause to be anxious what God thinks of us, if we gain their support by giving them a false impression in our persons of what the Catholic Church is and what Catholics are bound to be, what bound to believe, and to do; and is not this the case often, my brethren, that the world takes up your interests, because you share its sins?

Here, faced as we are, with forces within our own country working aggressively to foist a Common Core curriculum on our Catholic schools that would effectively uncatholicize those schools or, worse, health care mandates that have been expressly designed to coerce us into conniving in contraception, abortion, and sterilization, we can see the point of Newman’s warning.

The map to sanctity

If Newman uncovered the many obstacles that can dissuade us from living the devout life, he was also full of sound advice as to how we should set about scaling those obstacles. And what is most encouraging about him is that he appreciates that embracing sanctity is not some grandiose or complicated undertaking but, instead, a quotidian discipline. One thinks of those famous lines from “Lead, Kindly Light”—

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst the encircling gloom,
                Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
                Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene—one step enough for me.

In his Meditations and Devotions, Newman even gives his readers a sort of road map to sanctity, and it is anything but labyrinthine. “He, then, is perfect,” he says, “who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day. I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—

Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising;

give your first thoughts to God;

make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament;

say the Angelus devoutly;

eat and drink to God’s glory;

say the Rosary well;

be recollected; keep out bad thoughts;

make your evening meditation well;

examine yourself daily;

go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.

Yet on this “short road to perfection,” as he called it, Newman realized that we naturally need encouragement, a model, if you will. And for Newman no one is better for this purpose than Our Lady. In another Catholic sermon entitled “The Glories of Mary for the Sake of her Son,” Newman explains how Mary is a pattern of our faith, a guide to the devout life, precisely because she is a remedy for the sins of Adam and Eve. Thus, in one of the most moving passages in all of his sermons, Newman speaks of how “Kings of the earth, when they have sons born to them, forthwith scatter some large bounty, or raise some high memorial; they honour the day, or the place, or the heralds of the auspicious event, with some corresponding mark of favour; nor did the coming of Emmanuel innovate on the world’s established custom.

It was a season of grace and prodigy, and these were to be exhibited in a special manner in the person of His Mother. The course of ages was to be reversed; the tradition of evil was to be broken; a gate of light was to be opened amid the darkness, for the coming of the Just—a Virgin conceived and bore Him. It was fitting, for His honour and glory, that she, who was the instrument of His bodily presence, should first be a miracle of His grace; it was fitting that she should triumph, where Eve had failed, and should “bruise the serpent’s head” by the spotlessness of her sanctity. In some respects, indeed, the curse was not reversed; Mary came into a fallen world, and resigned herself to its laws; she, as also the Son she bore, was exposed to pain of soul and body, she was subjected to death; but she was not put under the power of sin. As grace was infused into Adam from the first moment of his creation, so that he never had experience of his natural poverty, till sin reduced him to it; so was grace given from the first in still ampler measure to Mary, and she never incurred, in fact, Adam’s deprivation. She began where others end, whether in knowledge or in love. She was from the first clothed in sanctity, destined for perseverance, luminous and glorious in God’s sight, and incessantly employed in meritorious acts, which continued till her last breath. Hers was emphatically “the path of the just, which, as the shining light, goeth forward and increaseth even to the perfect day”; and sinlessness in thought, word, and deed, in small things as well as great, in venial matters as well as grievous, is surely but the natural and obvious sequel of such a beginning. If Adam might have kept himself from sin in his first state, much more shall we expect immaculate perfection in Mary.

Much is made of the beauty of Newman’s prose style but here is a good example of how it is the beauty of the content that makes possible the beauty of the style. For another example of this we can go to the conclusion of this wonderful sermon, where Newman leaves off writing prose altogether and instead takes up the language of prayer, the same language that we must employ to emulate the essence of Newman’s sanctity.

Such art thou, Holy Mother, in the creed and in the worship of the Church, the defence of many truths, the grace and smiling light of every devotion. In thee, O Mary, is fulfilled, as we can bear it, an original purpose of the Most High. He once had meant to come on earth in heavenly glory, but we sinned; and then He could not safely visit us, except with a shrouded radiance and a bedimmed Majesty, for He was God. So He came Himself in weakness, not in power; and He sent thee, a creature, in His stead, with a creature’s comeliness and lustre suited to our state. And now thy very face and form, dear Mother, speak to us of the Eternal; not like earthly beauty, dangerous to look upon, but like the morning star, which is thy emblem, bright and musical, breathing purity, telling of heaven, and infusing peace. O harbinger of day! O hope of the pilgrim! lead us still as thou hast led; in the dark night, across the bleak wilderness, guide us on to our Lord Jesus, guide us home.                  


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Edward Short 33 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. He chose the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.