To speak of the saint in John Henry Newman is to speak of a man who gave his entire adult life not only to embodying heroic virtue himself but guiding others to embody it as well.
Proof of this abounds in his letters. ‘I cannot help thinking of you always on the Epiphany,” James Stewart, Professor of Greek and Latin in the Catholic University of Ireland wrote the great convert in January of 1870, “for it was on that day I and my family were received into the Church, 20 years ago, and we never can forget how entirely it was owing to you that humanly speaking we ever became Catholics. Your sermons as a Protestant broke up the hardened protestant soil of my heart, and your sermons to mixed congregations was the last book I read before I became a Catholic; and my doubts and difficulties about the Blessed Virgin were dispelled by your two sermons in that volume, especially the one on ‘The Glories of Mary for the sake of her Son.’ You will never know how many people owe their conversion to you… till the day when all hearts are open.”
This testimonial confirms how much Newman’s life exemplifies the practical wisdom of the Catechism, which has this to say of the relationship between holiness and canonization:
By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors. “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history.” Indeed, “holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of her apostolic activity and missionary zeal.” (par 828)
Now that Newman’s canonization is imminent, we can see how much his life reaffirms the holiness essential to the Church’s “apostolic activity and missionary zeal.” Nowhere else is this more radiantly clear than in his sermon entitled “The Spiritual Mind” (1831), in which he proclaims:
We must have a deep sense of our guilt, and of the difficulty of securing heaven; we must live as in His presence, daily pleading His cross and passion, thinking of His holy commandments, imitating His sinless pattern, and depending on the gracious aids of His Spirit; that we may really and truly be servants of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, in whose name we were baptized. Further, we must, for His sake, aim at a noble and unusual strictness of life, perfecting holiness in His fear, destroying our sins, mastering our whole soul, and bringing it into captivity to His law, denying ourselves lawful things, in order to do Him service, exercising a profound humility, and an unbounded, never-failing love, giving away much of our substance in religious and charitable works, and discountenancing and shunning irreligious men. This is to be a Christian; a gift easily described, and in a few words, but attainable only with fear and much trembling…
This is hardly the sort of thing that we are used to hearing from our current Catholic pulpits, but, then, the fact that we hear it now from Newman the saint—when not only our social order but the Roman Church is in such a parlous way—is surely providential. Pace the Modernists, Newman never suggests that it might be pleasing to God that we forsake the devout life. What is it that G.K. Chesterton says in his St. Thomas Aquinas(1933)?
It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. …St. Francis of Assisi was the only medieval Catholic who really became popular in England on his own merits. It was largely because of a subconscious feeling that the modern world had neglected those particular merits. The English middle classes found their only missionary in the figure, which of all types in the world they most despised; an Italian beggar. So, as the nineteenth century clutched at the Franciscan romance, precisely because it had neglected romance, so the twentieth century is already clutching at the Thomist rational theology, because it has neglected reason. In a world that was too stolid, Christianity returned in the form of a vagabond; in a world that has grown a great deal too wild, Christianity has returned in the form of a teacher of logic.
Of course, Chesterton could not have known that our own world would be blessed with an even more countercultural saint. Yet so it is. In Newman we have been given the saint we need most.
Before delving into Newman’s dedication to holiness, I should say something of his life. Born in London in 1801, he was the son of John Newman, a Lombard Street banker, the son of a Mayfair grocer, originally from Cambridgeshire, and Jemima (née) Fourdriner, the daughter of a printer of Norman Huguenot stock, whose family became famous for their paper making. Newman was the eldest of six children, with two younger brothers and three sisters, none of whom, to put it mildly, understood his embrace of a Roman Catholic faith synonymous in Victorian England with treachery, backwardness, superstition and pious fraud. Of course, as Our Lord found to his chagrin, no prophet is loved in his own country, and this was certainly true in Newman’s case. Since he lived until 1890, his dates span nearly the entire extent of the nineteenth century, from the wake of the French Revolution to the arrival of what Newman called the “great Apostasia;” and as both an Anglican in Oxford and a Catholic in Birmingham—he converted in 1845—as a priest, poet, theologian, historian, philosopher, novelist, and educator, he worked sedulously to impress upon his contemporaries the reality of God’s love. This is why he was preoccupied with holiness, with purity, with living in accordance with God’s commandments. This is also why 10,000 people lined the funeral procession of his cortege after he died in Birmingham. What else should we know about Newman? He was given his red hat by Leo XIII in 1879; he was beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010; and he will be canonized by Pope Francis on the 13th of October. Whether he will be made a doctor of the Church is still unknown.
Newman’s “venture of faith”
Now for his life of sanctity, the life of the saint…. Newman once said that his true métier was education, which was true enough, but it is vital to appreciate that the education Newman had in mind was the education necessary for men to lead lives of sanctity, since it was only by leading such lives that they could enter into the glory of God’s love for them.
The provost of Oriel College, Edward Hawkins no sooner got wind of Newman’s view of education than he forbade him from serving as tutor. Then, as now, taking a pastoral view of the tutorial charge was not an acceptable view. Nevertheless, for Newman this would remain the essence of the educational charge—preparing those under his tutelage for Paradise. That this should have been confirmed most memorably by Anthony James Froude, who rejected Christianity, may be an amusing irony, but it certainly gives his testimony ungainsayable weight. “It has been said that men of letters are either much less or much greater than their writings,” Froude wrote in a brilliant essay on Newman’s influence in Oxford that he included in his Short Studies on Great Subjects(1899).
Cleverness and the skilful use of other people’s thoughts produce works which take us in till we see the authors, and then we are disenchanted. A man of genius, on the other hand, is a spring in which there is always more behind than flows from it. The painting or the poem is but a part of him inadequately realized, and his nature expresses itself, with equal or fuller completeness, in his life, his conversation, and personal presence. This was eminently true of Newman. Greatly as his poetry had struck me, he was himself all that the poetry was, and something far beyond. I had then never seen so impressive a person. I met him now and then in private; I attended his church and heard him preach Sunday after Sunday; he is supposed to have been insidious, to have led his disciples on to conclusions to which he designed to bring them, while his purpose was carefully veiled. He was, on the contrary, the most transparent of men. He told us what he believed to be true. He did not know where it would carry him. No one who has ever risen to any great height in this world refuses to move till he knows where he is going. He is impelled in each step which he takes by a force within himself. He satisfies himself only that the step is a right one, and he leaves the rest to Providence. Newman’s mind was world-wide. He was interested in everything which was going on in science, in politics, in literature. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light upon the central question, what man really was, and what was his destiny.
Newman’s “venture of faith,” as he called it, has never been so elegantly described. Nor his appreciation of the stakes of faith. Even for the agnostic Froude, “Where Christianity is a real belief, where there are distinct convictions that a man’s own self and the millions of human beings who are playing on the earth’s surface are the objects of a supernatural dispensation, and are on the road to heaven or hell, the most powerful mind may well be startled at the aspect of things. If Christianity was true, since Christianity was true (for Newman at no time doubted the reality of the revelation), then modern England, modern Europe, with its march of intellect and its useful knowledge and its material progress, was advancing with a light heart into ominous conditions.”
Newman, who is always marvelously practical about the life of grace, richly corroborates what Froude had to say here. Indeed, he speaks of how the sense of the supernatural emerges in the otherwise young distracted mind in a way that pointedly appeals to each one of us. We can see this in his sermon, “The Immortality of the Soul” (1833). “To understand that we have souls is to feel our separation from things visible, our independence of them, our distinct existence in ourselves, our individuality, our power of acting for ourselves this way or that way, our accountableness for what we do,” Newman says.
These are the great truths which lie wrapped up indeed even in a child’s mind, and which God’s grace can unfold there in spite of the influence of the external world; but at first this outward world prevails. We look off from self to the things around us, and forget ourselves in them. Such is our state,—a depending for support on the reeds which are no stay, and overlooking our real strength,—at the time when God begins His process of reclaiming us to a truer view of our place in His great system of providence. And when He visits us, then in a little while there is a stirring within us. The unprofitableness and feebleness of the things of this world are forced upon our minds; they promise but cannot perform, they disappoint us. Or, if they do perform what they promise, still (so it is) they do not satisfy us. We still crave for something, we do not well know what; but we are sure it is something which the world has not given us. And then its changes are so many, so sudden, so silent, so continual. It never leaves changing; it goes on to change, till we are quite sick at heart:—then it is that our reliance on it is broken. It is plain we cannot continue to depend upon it, unless we keep pace with it, and go on changing too; but this we cannot do. We feel that, while it changes, we are one and the same; and thus, under God’s blessing, we come to have some glimpse of the meaning of our independence of things temporal, and our immortality.
For Newman, it is only when this recognition of our immortality arrests our otherwise restless nature that we can begin to understand what that something is for which we crave. Moreover, he insists, in a sermon entitled “The Thought of God, The Stay of The Soul” (1839) that this process of recognition takes place in our affections, which, when one thinks of it, is a rather beautiful way of treating the matter, for we all know that when our affections are truly stirred, rightly stirred, deeply stirred, we are at our best. And in Newman’s testament to this truth we can see the real caritas he felt for others.
I say, then, that the happiness of the soul consists in the exercise of the affections; not in sensual pleasures, not in activity, not in excitement, not in self-esteem, not in the consciousness of power, not in knowledge; in none of these things lies our happiness, but in our affections being elicited, employed, supplied. As hunger and thirst, as taste, sound, and smell, are the channels through which this bodily frame receives pleasure, so the affections are the instruments by which the soul has pleasure. When they are exercised duly, it is happy; when they are undeveloped, restrained, or thwarted, it is not happy. This is our real and true bliss, not to know, or to affect, or to pursue; but to love, to hope, to joy, to admire, to revere, to adore. Our real and true bliss lies in the possession of those objects on which our hearts may rest and be satisfied. Now, if this be so, here is at once a reason for saying that the thought of God, and nothing short of it, is the happiness of man; for though there is much besides to serve as subject of knowledge, or motive for action, or means of excitement, yet the affections require a something more vast and more enduring than anything created. What is novel and sudden excites, but does not influence; what is pleasurable or useful raises no awe; self moves no reverence, and mere knowledge kindles no love. He alone is sufficient for the heart who made it.
When we read such wonderful writing–writing which seems as though it had been written for each one of us alone, so accurate is the measure it takes of our own intimate longing for God–we might be lulled into imagining that knowing, loving and serving God is an easy business. Newman, however, never lets us forget that, for fallen human nature, rebellious, proud, intractable human nature, sanctity is never an easy business. And one way he does this is by sharing with us the fate of the man who either rejects or despairs of following the counsels of sanctity. In reading of this hapless soul, we soon discover that Newman is not speaking of any imaginary creature. Indeed, the creature of whom he speaks bears an unsettling resemblance to ourselves. “He is at present attempting to satisfy his soul with that which is not bread,” Newman writes.
or he thinks the soul can thrive without nourishment. He fancies he can live without an object. He fancies that he is sufficient for himself; or he supposes that knowledge is sufficient for his happiness; or that exertion, or that the good opinion of others, or (what is called) fame, or that the comforts and luxuries of wealth, are sufficient for him. What a truly wretched state is that coldness and dryness of soul, in which so many live and die, high and low, learned and unlearned. Many a great man, many a peasant, many a busy man, lives and dies with closed heart, with affections undeveloped, unexercised. You see the poor man, passing day after day, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, without a thought in his mind, to appearance almost like a stone. You see the educated man, full of thought, fall of intelligence, full of action, but still with a stone heart, as cold and dead as regards his affections, as if he were the poor ignorant countryman. You see others, with warm affections, perhaps, for their families, with benevolent feelings towards their fellow-men, yet stopping there; centering their hearts on what is sure to fail them, as being perishable.
No honest reader can take this up without seeing something of himself in its unsparing assessment of human hard-heartedness. Moreover, Newman gives his cautionary sermon added urgency by reminding his reader that throughout this unedifying scene of self-complacency and sloth, the clock is ticking. “Life passes, riches fly away, popularity is fickle, the senses decay, the world changes, friends die.” In the Apologia,Newman boldly declares that God sent his infallible Church into the world to restrain “the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect…. to rescue it from its own suicidal excesses.” Here he also acknowledges that God has sent his infallible Church into the world to meet the needs of the heart, for “One alone is constant; One alone is true to us; One alone can be true; One alone can be all things to us; One alone can supply our needs; One alone can train us up to our full perfection; One alone can give a meaning to our complex and intricate nature; One alone can give us tune and harmony; One alone can form and possess us.”
The demand of holiness
Again, in this moving passage, one can hear Newman’s solicitude for his readers. He does not write to confirm them in their worldly impulses: he writes to show them the way to the unworldly sanctity without which they cannot know, love and serve God. If we turn to the first sermon of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, sermons which cover the entirety of his Anglican ministry, from the 1820s to the 1840s, and prefigure his Catholic work, we can see that its very title captures the essence of Newman’s preoccupation with the devout life, entitled as it is “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness” (1826). Being the good Aristotelian that he was, Newman begins the sermon by defining what he means by ‘holiness.’ For Newman, “To be holy is… to be separate from sin, to hate the works of the world, the flesh, and the devil; to take pleasure in keeping God’s commandments; to do things as He would have us do them; to live habitually as in the sight of the world to come, as if we had broken the ties of this life, and were dead already.”
These, to men of the world, might seem unduly harsh criteria. Are we really called to “hate the works of the world?” Baron von Hugel, the friend and confidante of the Modernist George Tyrrell, used to say that Newman’s Anglican sermons were too dour. Indeed, he once wrote his niece: “As a point of detail I had thought of starting you on Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons,” which he considered “certainly classics and well known to me.” But he thought them, as he said, too “rigorist … Just the opposite from Fenelon, who always braces me. And really, I cannot allow you to be depressed…” For von Hugel, such ‘rigorism’ was unchristian. “I hate rigorism it’s all wrong,” he wrote. “Our Lord was never a rigorist. He loved publicans and sinners.”
This is strikingly similar to what we often hear from those misguided antinomians in the hierarchy forever clamoring for their “paradigm shift.” We cannot insist too finely on holiness or sanctity because we do not wish to be thought “rigid.” Yet the saint in Newman had a decidedly different view of the matter. Indeed, one of the very first impressions he had of his coreligionists in Milan after he converted was that they were of a “rigid purity,” not something of which the present hierarchy would be inclined to boast. In his sermon, he concedes that God’s insisting on holiness might seem, on the face of it, too demanding. Reflecting on the text, “Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” Hebrews xii. 14, he says, in his best barristerial way, articulating the objections to his case in much the same way that Aquinas articulates objections to his case: “Now someone may ask, “Why is it that holiness is a necessary qualification for our being received into heaven? why is it that the Bible enjoins upon us so strictly to love, fear, and obey God, to be just, honest, meek, pure in heart, forgiving, heavenly-minded, self-denying, humble, and resigned? Man is confessedly weak and corrupt; why then is he enjoined to be so religious, so unearthly? why is he required (in the strong language of Scripture) to become ‘a new creature’? Since he is by nature what he is, would it not be an act of greater mercy in God to save him altogether without this holiness, which it is so difficult, yet (as it appears) so necessary for him to possess?”
Reading this, one can see that the best gloss on the events taking place in our woefully divided Church today is the gloss we find in Scripture, and since Newman fairly saturated himself in Scripture he is a good guide to the insights it offers to us in our present discontents. The answer Newman gives to the suppositious critic of holiness—the critic of the unwarrantable ‘rigidity’ of holiness, if you will—is a good case in point. “I answer as follows,” he says. “That, even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.” And in telling his readers why this should be so, Newman shows how inexpedient the expediency of the worldly can be, especially when one takes into account the unreality of the world for which they live.
“A careless, a sensual, an unbelieving mind,” Newman says, “a mind destitute of the love and fear of God, with narrow views and earthly aims, a low standard of duty, and a benighted conscience, a mind contented with itself, and unresigned to God’s will, would feel as little pleasure, at the last day, at the words, ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord,’ as it does now at the words, ‘Let us pray.’ Nay, much less, because, while we are in a church, we may turn our thoughts to other subjects, and contrive to forget that God is looking on us; but that will not be possible in heaven.” What is amusing about this parrying of the man of the world’s objection to ‘rigid’ holiness is its appeal to common sense, a common sense which most men of the world naturally claim to respect. Yet Newman drives home the practical nature of his argument even more insistently. “We see, then,” he says, “that holiness, or inward separation from the world, is necessary to our admission into heaven, because heaven is not heaven, is not a place of happiness except to the holy. …Nay, I will venture to say more than this;—it is fearful, but it is right to say it;—that if we wished to imagine a punishment for an unholy, reprobate soul, we perhaps could not fancy a greater than to summon it to heaven. Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”
Too little is made of Newman’s subtle sense of humor. Here it might be deployed for a very serious purpose, but it is still deliciously amusing. “We know how unhappy we are apt to feel at present, when alone in the midst of strangers,” he says, addressing an English audience fabled for its insularity, “or of men of different tastes and habits from ourselves. How miserable, for example, would it be to have to live in a foreign land, among a people whose faces we never saw before, and whose language we could not learn. And this is but a faint illustration of the loneliness of a man of earthly dispositions and tastes, thrust into the society of saints and angels. How forlorn would he wander through the courts of heaven! He would find no one like himself; he would see in every direction the marks of God’s holiness, and these would make him shudder. He would feel himself always in His presence. He could no longer turn his thoughts another way, as he does now, when conscience reproaches him. He would know that the Eternal Eye was ever upon him; and that Eye of holiness, which is joy and life to holy creatures, would seem to him an Eye of wrath and punishment. God cannot change His nature. Holy He must ever be. But while He is holy, no unholy soul can be happy in heaven.”
This may be funny, but it is also terrifying. Certainly, it is difficult to read without asking ourselves whether we too will be the same as Newman’s self-satisfied Mr. Podsnap, finding heaven full of insufferable foreigners. Writing as he does cor ad cor, Newman always elicits a personal response. And here is no exception.
Newman’s sermons urge us to recognize the transformative force of quotidian holiness, to make consistency in holiness the pattern of our lives. After all, this is what he did himself. We could be here for days citing passages that bear this out, for Newman’s work is a treasure trove of saintly witness, saintly guidance. Indeed, his very conversion was the product of saintly influence. What is that passage from his letters where he speaks of Blessed Dominic Barberi? “Certainly Fr Dominic of the Mother of God was a most striking missioner and preacher and he had a great part in my own conversion and in that of others,” Newman wrote. “His very look had a holy aspect which… most singularly affected me, and his remarkable bonhomie in the midst of his sanctity was in itself a real and holy preaching. No wonder, then, I became his convert and penitent.” Barberi perfectly personifies the influence Newman extolls in his Oxford University sermon, “Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth” (1832) when he speaks of “the natural beauty and majesty of virtue, which is more or less felt by all but the most abandoned.”
And here he was careful to stress that he was referring to the living, breathing article, not “virtue in a book.” Why? “Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principles, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence: it is holiness embodied in personal form, which they cannot steadily confront and bear down: so that the silent conduct of a conscientious man secures for him from beholders a feeling different in kind from any which is created by the mere versatile and garrulous Reason.”
The quintessential Newman
We have another example still of Newman’s appreciation of the force of holiness from a sermon entitled, “Christ Hidden from the World” (1837) which, again, nicely contrasts those who choose to reject God’s commandments with those who make up their minds and their hearts to obey them. “There are a number of persons who are in no sense irreligious, or open to serious blame, who are very much like each other at first sight, yet in God’s eyes are very different,” Newman says. “I mean the great mass of what are called respectable men, who vary very much: some are merely decent and outwardly correct persons, and have no great sense of religion, do not deny themselves, have no ardent love of God, but love the world; and, whereas their interest lies in being regular and orderly, or they have no strong passions, or have early got into the way of being regular, and their habits are formed accordingly, they are what they are, decent and correct, but very little more.”
In the Idea of the University, Newman would say the same of the English gentleman: he is a fine and respectable figure, but “the creation, not of Christianity, but civilization.” Saints, on the other hand, may “look just the same to the world,” but “in their hearts” they “are very different…” Why? “They make no great show, they go on in the same quiet ordinary way as the others, but really they are training to be saints in Heaven. They do all they can to change themselves… to obey God, to discipline themselves, to renounce the world; but they do it in secret, both because God tells them so to do, and because they do not like it to be known.”
Here is the quintessential Newman. All his life he was training to be a saint in heaven. And if we want to follow his example, we could do worse than read his magnificent sermons. Yes, they can help us to see how little we tend to honor the real stakes of our longing for God, but they can also make us see how we can redress that dishonor by heeding what he has to say of the necessity of holiness for future blessedness. We can also pray the prayer that he composed and prayed to his patron saint, St. Philip:
O MY dear and holy Patron, Philip, I put myself into thy hands, and for the love of Jesus, for that love’s sake which chose thee and made thee a saint, I implore thee to pray for me, that, as He has brought thee to heaven, so in due time He may take me to heaven too.
Thou hast had experience of the trials and troubles of this life; thou knowest well what it is to bear the assaults of the devil, the mockery of the world, and the temptations of flesh and blood. Thou knowest how weak is human nature, and how treacherous the human heart, and thou art so full of sympathy and compassion, that, amidst all thy present ineffable glory and blessedness, thou canst, I know, give a thought to me.
Think of me then, my dear St. Philip, be sure to think of me, even though I am at times so unmindful of thee. Gain for me all things necessary for my perseverance in the grace of God, and my eternal salvation. Gain for me, by thy powerful intercession, the strength to fight a good fight, to witness boldly for God and religion in the midst of sinners, to be brave when Satan would frighten or force me to what is wrong, to overcome myself, to do my whole duty, and thus to be acquitted in the judgment.
Vessel of the Holy Ghost, Apostle of Rome, Saint of primitive times, pray for me.
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