Newman’s Thoughts on Holiness

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In the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, Pope John Paul II lists some priorities for pastoral care in the new millennium. Above all he recalls the vocation of all Christians to holiness. “First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness”.[1] A modern guide to holiness is John Henry Newman.

Once in old age, when Newman heard it said that others referred to him as a saint, he wrote: “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.’ Y It is enough for me to black the saints’ shoes – if St. Philip uses blacking, in heaven.”[2]

Throughout his life, Newman thought himself very far from Christian perfection. Yet from his “first conversion” (1816) on he sought only God, whom he recognized as the center of his life. He never again lost his lively consciousness of the presence of God and his profound respect for revealed truth. A motto which he had from his youth was: “Holiness rather than peace.” He remained faithful to this principle and firmly strove to recall Christians to the ideal of holiness.

Holiness: A Necessity

One of Newman’s first sermons, given when he was 25 years old, was entitled Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness. In this discourse he said: “It is told us again and again, that to make sinful creatures holy was the great end which our Lord had in view in taking upon Him our nature. Y The whole history of redemption, the covenant of mercy in all its parts and provisions, attests the necessity of holiness in order to salvation.”[3] He who does not obtain holiness cannot experience the joy of heaven. “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. Y None but the holy can look upon the Holy One; without holiness no man can endure to see the Lord.”[4]

Newman’s heart was focused on invisible and lasting values. In our time in which many cling to the visible and the transitory, and in which little is said, even in preaching, about the last things, Newman’s trusting gaze towards eternity is very fitting. This gaze can permeate daily life. Holiness, without which no one can contemplate God, is the result of many acts of faith, which purify the heart of sin and prepare it for God. “The separate acts of obedience to the will of God, good works as they are called, are of service to us, as gradually severing us from this world of sense, and impressing our hearts with a heavenly character.”[5] This transformation of the heart does not take place from one day to the next, it needs great effort and perseverance. “To obtain the gift of holiness is the work of a life.”[6]

Holiness: A Concrete Reality

Newman knew that many people were filled with joy and consolation in hearing him preach. But he did not preach with the intention of arousing emotion and winning human sympathy. Although he was aware of the importance of feeling for the life of faith, he was against an exaltation of sentiments. He did not primarily want to arouse good feelings in his listeners, but to encourage them to faithfulness and the obedience of faith in their daily duties. With total clarity he affirmed: “Those who make consolation the principal object of their preaching, seem to disregard the aim of their office. Holiness is the great goal. Here struggle and purification are needed. Consolation is a means which strengthens the heart, yet no one drinks medicine for the heart day and night.”[7]

As an Anglican, Newman emphasized sin, the dangers of the world, and the urgent need for penitence and conversion. This commitment in preaching came from the inner conviction that he should encourage his listeners to live a life according to the Gospel.

After his conversion to the Catholic Church, Newman’s tone became milder, but his conviction that holiness is found in the faithful fulfillment of one’s daily duties remained unaltered. In A Short Road to Perfection he summarized this understanding in simple words. “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.”[8]

Holiness: A Gift

Although Newman constantly emphasizes the aspect of conversion and personal striving for holiness, he does not forget that a person is unable to scale the peak of holiness by himself. God alone can render a person capable of this undertaking. He has opened to him the door of holiness through Jesus Christ. In Baptism He gives him a share in His holiness in the Holy Spirit. In his sermon The Indwelling Spirit, Newman affirms that the Son of God, made man through the Holy Spirit, remains present in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful. He has changed the world from within. “We are able to see that the Saviour, when once He entered into this world, never so departed as to suffer things to be as before He came; for He still is with us, not in mere gifts, but by the substitution of His Spirit for Himself, and that, both in the Church and in the souls of individual Christians.”[9]

It is the Holy Spirit who unites, purifies, and sanctifies the Church. It is the same Spirit who through baptism purifies and transforms men, introduces them to the community of the Church, and makes them sons of God. “He impresses on us our Heavenly Father’s image, which we lost when Adam fell, and disposes us to seek His presence by the very instinct of our new nature. He gives us back a portion of that freedom in willing and doing, of that uprightness and innocence, in which Adam was created. He unites us to all holy beings, as before we had relationship with evil. He restores for us that broken bond, which, proceeding from above, connects together into one blessed family all that is anywhere holy and eternal, and separates it off from the rebel world which comes to nought. Being then the sons of God, and one with Him, our souls mount up and cry to Him continually.”[10]

Since holiness comes from God, it must be always and continually asked for with humility. In this sense Newman invokes the Holy Spirit: “Through Thee our own dead souls are quickened to serve Thee. From Thee is every good thought and desire, every good purpose, every good effort, every good success. It is by Thee that sinners are turned into saints. It is by Thee the Church is refreshed and strengthened, and champions start forth, and martyrs are carried on to their crown. Through Thee new religious orders, new devotions in the Church come into being; new countries are added to the faith. Y I praise and adore Thee, my Sovereign Lord, the Holy Ghost.”[11] Holiness is a gift which no one can acquire through his own efforts: “Saints are creations of the Gospel and the Church.”[12]

Holiness: A Challenge

Since the natural actions of man are wounded by sin and its consequences, it is not easy for him to open himself up to the gift of holiness. He must be disposed to confront the necessary spiritual battle with the old man. “Grace has vanquished nature; that is the whole history of the Saints.”[13] A convincing sign of the fact that the grace of God imprints the image of the new Adam on the hearts of man, is humility and the consciousness of one’s own lowliness. For this reason Newman says: “The nearer they are towards heaven, so much the more lowly do they think of themselves.”[14] The call to holiness is a great challenge for human nature.

Also the world, which in great part thinks it can get by without God, has difficulty with that which we call holiness. The one who strives for holiness will often – like Jesus – be a sign of contradiction: some recognize an attractive force in him, others see him with diffidence, still others decidedly reject him. Newman once expressed this strongly: “The holier a man is, the less he is understood by men of the world.”[15]

The courage to go against the current for the love of God does not remain, however, without an effect on the world. On the contrary, it can be said that no one has such a great influence on the world as do the Saints. In his sermon Sanctity the Token of the Christian Empire, Newman specifies: “The Saints live in sackcloth, and they are buried in silk and jewels. The Church refuses the gifts of this world, but these gifts come to her unbidden. Power, and influence, and credit, and authority, and wealth flow into her, because she does not ask for them: she has, because she does not seek: but let her seek them, and she loses them.”[16] The Saints are like the window through which the glory of God illuminates the world. “As the sun’s light comes to us reflected and refracted, so God’s saints are the means under which His glory comes to us.”[17]

Holiness: A Personal Endeavour

Holiness consists in participation in the divine nature; that does not mean, however, that a person’s uniqueness is lost. Rather, the genuine, the personal, the original in every human person is purified and ennobled by grace. Newman stressed that God guides man in a completely personal way. He wants an “original” saint. In the discourse, Holiness as Norm of the Style of Christian life, he laments that many men have a false concept of sanctity. They think that Saints do not have to fight the good fight of faith, that their life is monotonous, that they do not know the world with its beauties and temptations, that they do not develop their personal talents.

A look at many saints in the history of Christianity shows that these are false conceptions. There are many differences among the saints – in their abilities, formation, age, background, and journey of faith. These indicate to us the path of following Christ and are in this sense “a standard before us of truth, of magnanimity, of holiness, of love.”[18] Yet Newman adds that “they are not always our examples, we are not always bound to follow them.”[19] The reason for this lies in the fact that every man is wonderfully unique and unrepeatable. No one may become the copy of another. Every man is a person loved and desired by God and, in faithfulness to Christ and to the Church, must travel his own personal journey of faith.

“God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art He ‘calls thee by name.’ He sees thee, and understands thee, as He made thee. He knows what is in thee, all thy own peculiar feelings and thoughts, thy dispositions and likings, thy strength and thy weakness. He views thee in thy day of rejoicing, and thy day of sorrow. He sympathizes in thy hopes and thy temptations. He interests Himself in all thy anxieties and remembrances, all the risings and fallings of thy spirit. He has numbered the very hairs of thy head and the cubits of thy stature. He compasses thee round and bears thee in His arms; He takes thee up and sets thee down. He notes thy very countenance, whether smiling or in tears, whether healthful or sickly. He looks tenderly upon thy hands and thy feet; He hears thy voice, the beating of thy heart, and thy very breathing. Thou dost not love thyself better than He loves thee. Thou canst not shrink from pain more than He dislikes thy bearing it; and if He puts it on thee, it is as thou wilt put it on thyself, if thou art wise, for a greater good afterwards. Thou art not only His creature (though for the very sparrows He has a care, and pitied the ‘much cattle’ of Nineveh), thou art man redeemed and sanctified, His adopted son, favoured with a portion of that glory and blessedness which flows from Him everlastingly unto the Only-begotten. Thou art chosen to be His, even above thy fellows who dwell in the East and South. Thou wast one of those for whom Christ offered up His last prayer, and sealed it with His precious blood.”[20]

Newman: A Saint?

In his “Biglietto Speech” made upon his nomination as Cardinal in 1879, Newman remarked: “In a long course of years I have made many mistakes. I have nothing of that high perfection, which belongs to the writings of Saints, viz that error cannot be found in them; but what I trust that I may claim all through what I have written, is this, – an honest intention, an absence of private ends, a temper of obedience, a willingness to be corrected, a dread of error, a desire to serve Holy Church, and, through Divine Mercy, a fair measure of success.”[21] These words demonstrate the humility of a true man of God, a sign of true interior greatness.

Once, a young boy wanted to confound Newman by asking: “Which is greater, a Cardinal or a Saint?” He reflected a few seconds and then replied: “Cardinals belong to this world, and Saints to heaven.”[22] Newman was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. Was he also a Saint?

Newman’s entire life was dedicated to the service of revealed truth and to the vigorous fight against the religious and moral liberalism which he considered the great enemy of the Christian faith. He had a strong sense of the closeness of God, fulfilled his duty with great faithfulness and dedication, and loved the Church and mankind. In his last years on earth he led a still more intense life of prayer and meditation. The many sufferings which he had to bear in faithfulness to God’s call made the lines of his face more noble and spiritual. In the months before his death he was no longer able to celebrate Mass or to recite the breviary. He substituted the latter with the recitation of the Rosary, which he loved more than all other devotions.

The day after Newman’s death, on August 11, 1890, a long obituary appeared in The Times (London), ending with the following words: “Of one thing we may be sure, that the memory of this pure and noble life, untouched by worldliness Y will endure and that whether Rome canonizes him or not he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England. The saint Y in him will survive.”[23]

[1] JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 30.

[2] C.S.DESSAIN et al. (eds.), The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, vol. XIII, Thomas Nelson, London 1963, p. 419.

[3] J. H. NEWMAN, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vols. I-VIII, Christian Classics, Westminster, Md. 1966 – 1968, here vol. I, p. 1.

[4] Ibid., pp. 3, 6.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid.,p. 12

[7] H. TRISTRAM (ed.), J. H. Newman. Autobiographical Writings, Sheed & Ward, London – New York 1956, P. 172.

[8] J. H. NEWMAN, Meditations and Devotions, Christian Classics, Westminster, Md. 1975, p. 286.

[9] Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. II, p. 221.

[10] Ibid., pp. 224 – 225.

[11] Meditations and Devotions, p. 397.

[12] Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. IV, p. 157.

[13] J. H. NEWMAN, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, Christian Classics, Westminster, Md. 1966, p. 49.

[14] Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. III, p. 239.

[15] Ibid., vol. IV, p. 244.

[16] J. H. NEWMAN, Sermons on Subjects of the Day, Christian Classics, Westminster, Md. 1968, pp. 245 – 246.

[17] Autobiographical Writings, p. 231.

[18] Discourses to Mixed Congregations, p. 101.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. III, pp. 124 – 125.

[21] M. K. STROLZ (ed.), John Henry Newman. Commemorative Essays on the occasion of the Centenary of his Cardinalate, Rome 1979, p. 100.

[22] L. BOUYER, Newman. His Life and Spirituality, Burns & Oates, London 1958, p. 387.

[23] The Times, August 12, 1890, cited from PH. BOYCE, John Henry Newman: the Birth and Pursuit of an Ideal of Holiness, in M. K. STROLZ, op. cit., p. 15.