You know very well, my brethren, and there are few persons anywhere who deny it, that in the breast of every one there dwells a feeling or perception, which tells him the difference between right and wrong, and is the standard by which to measure thoughts and actions. It is called conscience; and even though it be not at all times powerful enough to rule us, still it is distinct and decisive enough to influence our views and form our judgments in the various matters which come before us. Yet even this office it cannot perform adequately without external assistance; it needs to be regulated and sustained. Left to itself, though it tells truly at first, it soon becomes wavering, ambiguous, and false; it needs good teachers and good examples to keep it up to the mark and line of duty; and the misery is, that these external helps, teachers, and examples are in many instances wanting.
Nay, to the great multitude of men they are so far wanting, that conscience loses its way and guides the soul in its journey heavenward but indirectly and circuitously. Even in countries called Christian, the natural inward light grows dim, because the Light, which lightens every one born into the world, is removed out of sight. I say, it is a most miserable and frightful thought, that, in this country, among this people which boasts that it is so Christian and so enlightened, the sun in the heavens is so eclipsed that the mirror of conscience can catch and reflect few rays, and serves but poorly and scantily to preserve the foot from error. That inward light, given as it is by God, is powerless to illuminate the horizon, to mark out for us our direction, and to comfort us with the certainty that we are making for our Eternal Home. That light was intended to set up within us a standard of right and of truth; to tell us our duty on every emergency, to instruct us in detail what sin is, to judge between all things which come before us, to discriminate the precious from the vile, to hinder us from being seduced by what is pleasant and agreeable, and to dissipate the sophisms of our reason. But alas! What ideas of truth, what ideas of holiness, what ideas of heroism, what ideas of the good and great, have the multitude of men? I am not asking whether they act up to any ideas, or are swayed by any ideas, of these high objects; that is a further point; I only ask, have they any ideas of them at all? Or, if they cannot altogether blot out from their souls their ideas of greatness and goodness, I ask still, whether their mode of conceiving of them, and the things and persons in which they embody them, be not such, that we may truly say of the bulk of mankind, that “the light that is in them is darkness”.
Attend to me, my dear brethren, I am saying nothing very abstruse, nothing very difficult to understand, nothing unimportant; but something intelligible, undeniable, and of very general concern. You know there are persons who never see the light of day; they live in pits and mines, and there they work, there they take their pleasure, and there perhaps they die. Do you think they have any right idea, though they have eyes, of the sun’s radiance, of the sun’s warmth? Any idea of the beautiful arching heavens, the blue sky, the soft clouds, and the moon and stars by night? Any idea of the high mountain, and the green smiling earth? O what an hour it is for him who is suddenly brought from such a pit or cave, from the dull red glow and the flickering glare of torches, and that monotony of an artificial twilight, in which day and night are lost, – is suddenly, I say, brought thence, and for the first time sees the bright sun moving majestically from East to West, and witnesses the gradual graceful changes of the air and sky from morn till fragrant evening! And oh! What a sight for one born blind to begin to see, – a sense altogether foreign to all his previous conceptions! What a marvellous new state of being, which, though he ever had the senses of hearing and of touch, never had he been able, by the words of others, or any means of information he possessed, to bring home to himself in the faintest measure! Would he not find himself, as it is said, in a “new world”? What a revolution would take place in his modes of thought, in his habits, in his ways, and in his doings hour by hour! He would no longer direct himself with his hands and his hearing, he would no longer grope about; he would see; – he would at a glance take in ten thousand objects, and, what is more, their relations and their positions the one towards the other. He would know what was great and what was little, what was near, what was distant, what things converged together and what things were ever separate – in a word, he would see all things as a whole, and in subjection to himself as a centre.
But further, he would gain knowledge of something closer to himself and more personal than all these various objects; of something very different from the forms and groups in which light dwelt as in a tabernacle, and which excited his admiration and love. He would discover lying upon him, spreading over him, penetrating him, the festering seeds of unhealthiness and disease in their primary and minutest forms. The air around us is charged with a subtle powder or dust, which falls down softly on everything, silently sheds itself on everything, soils and stains everything, and, if suffered to remain undisturbed, induces sickness and engenders pestilence. It is like those ashes of the furnace which Moses was instructed to take up and scatter in the face of heaven, that they might become ulcers and blisters upon the flesh of the Egyptians. This subtle plague is felt in its ultimate consequences by all, the blind as well as those who see, but it is by the eyesight that we discern it in its origin and in its progress; it is by the sun’s light that we discern our own defilement, and the need we have of continual cleansing to rid ourselves of it.
Now what is this dust and dirt, my brethren, but a figure of sin? So subtle in its approach, so multitudinous in its array, so incessant in its solicitations, so insignificant in its appearance, so odious, so poisonous in its effects. It falls on the soul gently and imperceptibly; but it gradually breeds wounds and sores, and ends in everlasting death. And as we cannot see the atoms of dust that have settled on us without the light, and as that same light, which enables us to see them, teaches us withal, by their very contrast with itself, their unseemliness and dishonour, so the light of the invisible world, the teachings and examples of revealed truth, bring home to us both the existence and also the deformity of sin, of which we should be unmindful or forgetful without them. And as there are men who live in caverns and mines, and never see the face of day, and do their work as best they can by torchlight, so there are multitudes, nay, whole races of men, who, though possessed of eyes by nature, cannot use them duly, because they live in the spiritual pit, in the region of darkness, “in the land of wretchedness and gloom, where there is the shadow of death, and where order is not”.
There they are born, there they live, there they die; and instead of the bright, broad, and all-revealing luminousness of the sun, they grope their way from place to place with torches, as best they may, or fix up lamps at certain points, and “walk in the light of their fire, and in the flames which they have kindled;” because they have nothing clearer, nothing purer, to serve the needs of the day and the year. Light of some kind they must secure, and, when they can do no better, they make it for themselves. Man, a being endued with reason, cannot on that very account live altogether at random; he is obliged in some sense to live on principle, to live by rule, to profess a view of life, to have an aim, to set up a standard, and to take to him such examples as seem to him to fulfill it. His reason does not make him independent (as men sometimes speak); it forces on him a dependency on definite principles and laws, in order to satisfy its own demands. He must, by the necessity of his nature, look up to something; and he creates, if he cannot discover, an object for his veneration. He teaches himself, or is taught by his neighbour, falsehoods, if he is not taught truth from above; he makes to himself idols, if he knows not of the Eternal God and His Saints. Now, of which of the two, think you, my brethren, are our own countrymen in possession? Have they possession of the true Object of worship, or have they a false one? Have they created what is not, or discovered what is? Do they walk by the luminaries of heaven, or are they as those who are born and live in caverns, and who strike their light as best they may, by means of the stones and metals of the earth?
Look around, my brethren, and answer for yourselves. Contemplate the objects of this people’s praise, survey their standards, ponder their ideas and judgments, and then tell me whether it is not most evident, from their very notion of the desirable and the excellent, that greatness, and goodness, and sanctity, and sublimity, and truth are unknown to them; and that they not only do not pursue, but do not even admire, those high attributes of the Divine Nature. This is what I am insisting on, not what they actually do or what they are, but what they revere, what they adore, what their gods are. Their god is mammon; I do not mean to say that all seek to be wealthy, but that all bow down before wealth. Wealth is that to which the multitude of men pay an instinctive homage. They measure happiness by wealth; and by wealth they measure respectability. Numbers, I say, there are who never dream that they shall ever be rich themselves, but who still at the sight of wealth feel an involuntary reverence and awe, just as if a rich man must be a good man. They like to be noticed by some particular rich man; they like on some occasion to have spoken with him; they like to know those who know him, to be intimate with his dependants, to have entered his house, nay, to know him by sight. Not, I repeat, that it ever comes into their mind that the like wealth will one day be theirs; not that they see the wealth, for the man who has it may dress, and live, and look like other men; not that they expect to gain some benefit from it: no, theirs is a disinterested homage, it is a homage resulting from an honest, genuine, hearty admiration of wealth for its own sake, such as that pure love which holy men feel for the Maker of all; it is a homage resulting from a profound faith in wealth, from the intimate sentiment of their hearts, that, however a man may look, – poor, mean, starved, decrepit, vulgar; or again, though he may be ignorant, or diseased, or feeble-minded, though he have the character of being a tyrant or a profligate, yet, if he be rich, he differs from all others; if he be rich, he has a gift, a spell, an omnipotence; – that with wealth he may do all things.
Wealth is one idol of the day, and notoriety is a second. I am not speaking, I repeat, of what men actually pursue, but of what they look up to, what they revere. Men may not have the opportunity of pursuing what they admire still. Never could notoriety exist as it does now, in any former age of the world; now that the news of the hour from all parts of the world, private news as well as public, is brought day by day to every individual, as I may say, of the community, to the poorest artisan and the most secluded peasant, by processes so uniform, so unvarying, so spontaneous, that they almost bear the semblance of a natural law. And hence notoriety, or the making a noise in the world, has come to be considered a great good in itself, and a ground of veneration. Time was when men could only make a display by means of expenditure; and the world used to gaze with wonder on those who had large establishments, many servants, many horses, richly-furnished houses, gardens, and parks: it does so still, that is, when it has the opportunity of doing so: for such magnificence is the fortune of the few, and comparatively few are its witnesses. Notoriety, or, as it may be called, newspaper fame, is to the many what style and fashion, to use the language of the world, are to those who are within or belong to the higher circles; it becomes to them a sort of idol, worshipped for its own sake, and without any reference to the shape in which it comes before them. It may be an evil fame or a good fame; it may be the notoriety of a great statesman, or of a great preacher, or of a great speculator, or of a great experimentalist, or of a great criminal; of one who has laboured in the improvement of our schools, or hospitals, or prisons, or workhouses, or of one who has robbed his neighbour of his wife. It matters not; so that a man is talked much of, and read much of, he is thought much of; nay, let him even have died justly under the hands of the law, still he will be made a sort of martyr of. His clothes, his handwriting, the circumstances of his guilt, the instruments of his deed of blood, will be shown about, gazed on, treasured up as so many relics; for the question with men is, not whether he is great, or good, or wise, or holy; not whether he is base, and vile, and odious, but whether he is in the mouths of men, whether he has centred on himself the attention of many, whether he has done something out of the way, whether he has been (as it were) canonised in the publications of the hour. All men cannot be notorious: the multitudes who thus honour notoriety, do not seek it themselves; nor am I speaking of what men do, but how they judge; yet instances do occur from time to time of wretched men, so smitten with passion for notoriety, as even to dare in fact some detestable and wanton act, not from love of it, not from liking or dislike of the person against whom it is directed, but simply in order thereby to gratify this impure desire of being talked about, and gazed upon. “These are thy gods, O Israel!” Alas! Alas! This great and noble people, born to aspire, born for reverence, behold them walking to and fro by the torchlight of the cavern, or pursuing the wildfires of the marsh, not understanding themselves, their destinies, their defilements, their needs, because they have not the glorious luminaries of heaven to see, to consult, and to admire!
But oh! What a change, my brethren, when the good hand of God brings them by some marvellous providence to the pit’s mouth, and then out into the blessed light of day! What a change for them when they first begin to see with the eyes of the soul, with the intuition which grace gives, Jesus, the Sun of Justice; and the heaven of Angels and Archangels in which He dwells; and the bright Morning Star, which is His Blessed Mother; and the continual floods of light falling and striking against the earth, and transformed, as they fall, into an infinity of hues, which are His Saints; and the boundless sea, which is the image of His divine immensity; and then again the calm, placid Moon by night, which images His Church; and the silent stars, like good and holy men, travelling on in lonely pilgrimage to their eternal rest! Such was the surprise, such the transport, which came upon the favoured disciples, whom on one occasion our Lord took up with Him to the mountain’s top. He left the sick world, the tormented, restless multitude, at its foot, and He took them up, and was transfigured before them. “His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light;” and they lifted their eyes, and saw on either side of Him a bright form;-these were two Saints of the elder covenant, Moses and Elias, who were conversing with Him. How truly was this a glimpse of Heaven! The holy Apostles were introduced into a new range of ideas, into a new sphere of contemplation, till St. Peter, overcome by the vision, cried out, “Lord, it is good to be here; and let us make three tabernacles”. He would fain have kept those heavenly glories always with him; everything on earth, the brightest, the fairest, the noblest, paled and dwindled away, and turned to corruption before them; its most substantial good was vanity, its richest gain was dross, its keenest joy a weariness, and its sin a loathsomeness and abomination. And such as this in its measure is the contrast, to which the awakened soul is witness, between the objects of its admiration and pursuit in its natural state, and those which burst upon it when it has entered into communion with the Church Invisible, when it has come “to Mount Sion, and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to a company of many thousand Angels, and to the Church of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the just now perfected, and to Jesus the Mediator of the New Testament”. From that day it has begun a new life: I am not speaking of any moral conversion which takes place in it; whether or not it is moved (as surely we believe it will be) to act upon the sights which it sees, still consider only what a change there will be in its views and estimation of things, as soon as it has heard and has faith in the word of God, as soon as it understands that wealth, and notoriety, and influence, and high place, are not the first of blessings and the real standard of good; but that saintliness and all its attendants,-saintly purity, saintly poverty, heroic fortitude and patience, self-sacrifice for the sake of others, renouncement of the world, the favour of Heaven, the protection of Angels, the smile of the Blessed Virgin, the gifts of grace, the interpositions of miracle, the intercommunion of merits,-that these are the high and precious things, the things to be looked up to, the things to be reverently spoken of. Hence worldly-minded men, however rich, if they are Catholics, cannot, till they utterly lose their faith, be the same as those who are external to the Church; they have an instinctive veneration for those who have the traces of heaven upon them, and they praise what they do not imitate.
Such men have an idea before them which a Protestant nation has not; they have the idea of a Saint; they believe, they realise the existence of those rare servants of God, who rise up from time to time in the Catholic Church like Angels in disguise, and shed around them a light, as they walk on their way heaven-ward. Such Catholics may not in practice do what is right and good, but they know what is true; they know what to think and how to judge. They have a standard for their principles of conduct, and it is the image of Saints which forms it for them. A Saint is born like another man; by nature a child of wrath, and needing God’s grace to regenerate him. He is baptised like another, he lies helpless and senseless like another, and like another child he comes to years of reason. But soon his parents and their neighbours begin to say, “This is a strange child, he is unlike any other child;” his brothers and his playmates feel an awe of him, they do not know why; they both like him and dislike him, perhaps love him much in spite of his strangeness, perhaps respect him more than they love him. But if there were any holy Priest there, or others who had long served God in prayer and obedience, these would say, “This truly is a wonderful child; this child bids fair to be a Saint”. And so he grows up, whether at first he is duly prized by his parents or not; for so it is with all greatness, that, because it is great, it cannot be comprehended by ordinary minds at once; but time, and distance, and contemplation are necessary for its being recognized by beholders, and, therefore, this special heir of glory of whom I am speaking, for a time at least excites no very definite observation, unless indeed (as sometimes happens) any thing of miracle occurs from time to time to mark him out. He has come to the age of reason, and, wonderful to say, he has never fallen away into sin. Other children begin to use the gift of reason by abusing it; they understand what is right, only to go counter to it; it is otherwise with him, – not that he may not sin in many things, when we place him in the awful ray of divine Sanctity, but that he does not sin willfully and grievously, – he is preserved from mortal sin, he is never separated from God by sin, nay, perhaps, he is betrayed only at intervals, or never at all, into any deliberate sin, be it ever so slight, and he is ever avoiding the occasions of sin and resisting temptation. He ever lives in the presence of God, and is thereby preserved from evil, for “the wicked one toucheth him not”. Nor, again, as if in other and ordinary matters he necessarily differed from other boys; he may be ignorant, thoughtless, improvident of the future, rash, impetuous; he is a child, and has the infirmities, failings, fears, and hopes of a child. He may be moved to anger, he may say a harsh word, he may offend his parents, he may be volatile and capricious, he may have no fixed view of things, such as a man has. This is not much to allow; such things are accidents, and are compatible with the presence of a determinate influence of grace, uniting his heart to God. O that the multitude of men were as religious in their best seasons, as the Saints are in their worst! Though there have been Saints who seem to have been preserved even from the imperfections I have been mentioning. There have been Saints whose reason the all-powerful grace of God seems wonderfully to have opened from the very time of their baptism, so that they have offered to their Lord and Saviour, “a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice,” “a rational service,” even while they have been infants. And, anyhow, whatever are the acts of infirmity and sin in the child I am imagining, still they are the exception in his day’s course; the course of each day is religious: while other children are light-minded, and cannot fix their thoughts in prayer, prayer and praise and meditation are his meat and drink. He frequents the Churches, and places himself before the Blessed Sacrament: or he is found before some holy image; or he sees visions of the Blessed Virgin, or of the Saints to whom he is devoted. He lives in intimate converse with his guardian Angel, and he shrinks from the very shadow of profaneness or impurity. And thus he is a special witness of the world unseen, and he fulfils the vague ideas and the dreams of the supernatural, which one reads of in poems or romances, with which young people are so much taken, and after which they cannot help sighing, before the world corrupts them.
He grows up, and he has just the same temptations as others, perhaps more violent ones. Men of this world, carnal men, unbelieving men, do not believe that the temptations which they themselves experience and to which they yield, can be overcome. They reason themselves into the notion that to sin is their very nature, and, therefore, is no fault of theirs; that is, they deny the existence of sin. And accordingly, when they read about the Saints or about holy men generally, they conclude either that these have not had the temptations which they experienced themselves, or that they have not overcome them. They either consider such an one to be a hypocrite, who practises in private the sins which he denounces in public; or, if they have decency enough to abstain from these calumnies, then they consider that he never felt the temptation, and they regard him as a cold and simple person, who has never outgrown his childhood, who has a contracted mind, who does not know the world and life, who is despicable while he is without influence, and dangerous and detestable from his very ignorance when he is in power. But no, my brethren; read the lives of the Saints, you will see how false and narrow a view this is; these men, who think, forsooth, they know the world so well, and the nature of man so deeply, they know nothing of one great far-spreading phenomenon in man, – and that is, his nature under the operation of grace; they know nothing of the second nature, of the supernatural gift, induced by the Almighty Spirit upon our first and fallen nature; they have never met, they have never read of, and they have formed no conception of, a Saint.
He has, I say, the same temptations as another; perhaps greater, because he is to be tried as in a furnace, because he is to become rich in merits, because there is a bright crown reserved for him in Heaven; still temptation he has, and he differs from others, not in being shielded from it, but in being armed against it. Grace overcomes nature; it overcomes indeed in all who shall be saved: none will see God’s face hereafter who do not, while here, put away from them mortal sin of every kind; but the Saints overcome with a determination and a vigour, a promptitude and a success, beyond any one else. You read, my brethren, in the lives of Saints, the wonderful account of their conflicts, and their triumphs over the enemy. They are, as I was saying, like heroes of romance, so gracefully, so nobly, – so royally do they bear themselves. Their actions are as beautiful as fiction, yet as real as fact. There was St. Benedict, who, when a boy, left Rome, and betook himself to the Apennines in the neighbourhood. Three years did he live in prayer, fasting, and solitude, while the Evil One assaulted him with temptation. One day, when it grew so fierce that he feared for his perseverance, he suddenly flung himself, in his scanty hermit’s garb, among the thorns and nettles near him, thus turning the current of his thoughts, and chastising the waywardness of the flesh, by sensible stings and smarts. There was St. Thomas, too, the Angelical Doctor, as he is called, as holy as he was profound, or rather the more profound in theological science, because he was so holy. “Even from a youth” he had “sought wisdom, he had stretched out his hands on high, and directed his soul to her, and possessed his heart with her from the beginning;” and so, when the minister of Satan came into his very room, and no other defence was at hand, he seized a burning brand from the hearth, and drove that wicked one, scared and baffled, out of his presence. And there was that poor youth in the early persecutions, whom the impious heathen bound down with cords, and then brought in upon him a vision of evil; and he in his agony bit off his tongue, and spit it out into the face of the temptress, that so the intenseness of the pain might preserve him from the seduction.
Such acts as these, my brethren, are an opening of the heavens, a sudden gleam of supernatural brightness across a dark sky. They enlarge the mind with ideas it had not before, and they show to the multitude what God can do, and what man can be. Not that all Saints have been such in youth: for there are those on the contrary, who, not till after a youth of sin, have been brought by the sovereign grace of God to repentance, still, when once converted, they differed in nothing from those who had ever served Him, – not in supernatural gifts, not in acceptableness, not in detachment from the world, nor in union with Christ, nor in exactness of obedience, – in nought save in the severity of their penance. Others have been called, not from vice and ungodliness, but from a life of mere ordinary blamelessness, or from a state of lukewarmness, or from thoughtlessness, to heroical greatness; and these have often given up lands, and property, and honours, and station, and repute, for Christ’s sake. Kings have descended from their thrones, bishops have given up their rank and influence, the learned have given up their pride of intellect, to become poor monks, to live on coarse fare, to be clad in humble weeds, to rise and pray while others slept, to mortify the tongue with silence and the limbs with toil, and to avow an unconditional obedience to another. In early times were the Martyrs, many of them girls and even children, who bore the most cruel, the most prolonged, the most diversified tortures, rather than deny the faith of Christ. Then came the Missionaries among the heathen, who, for the love of souls, threw themselves into the midst of savages, risking and perhaps losing their lives in the attempt to extend the empire of their Lord and Saviour, and who, whether living or dying, have by their lives or by their deaths succeeded in bringing over whole nations into the Church. Others have devoted themselves in the time of war or captivity, to the redemption of Christian slaves from pagan or Mahometan masters or conquerors; others to the care of the sick in pestilences, or in hospitals; others to the instruction of the poor; others to the education of children; others to incessant preaching and the duties of the confessional; others to devout study and meditation; others to a life of intercession and prayer. Very various are the Saints, their very variety is a token of God’s workmanship; but however various, and whatever was their special line of duty, they have been heroes in it; they have attained such noble self-command, they have so crucified the flesh, they have so renounced the world; they are so meek, so gentle, so tender-hearted, so merciful, so sweet, so cheerful, so full of prayer, so diligent, so forgetful of injuries; they have sustained such great and continued pains, they have persevered in such vast labours, they have made such valiant confessions, they have wrought such abundant miracles, they have been blessed with such strange successes, that they have been the means of setting up a standard before us of truth, of magnanimity, of holiness, of love. They are not always our examples, we are not always bound to follow them; not more than we are bound to obey literally some of our Lord’s precepts, such as turning the cheek or giving away the coat; not more than we can follow the course of the sun, moon, or stars in the heavens; but, though not always our examples, they are always our standard of right and good; they are raised up to be monuments and lessons, they remind us of God, they introduce us into the unseen world, they teach us what Christ loves, they track out for us the way which leads heavenward. They are to us who see them, what wealth, notoriety, rank, and name are to the multitude of men who live in darkness, – objects of our veneration and of our homage.
O who can doubt between the two? The national religion has many attractions; it leads to decency and order, propriety of conduct, justness of thought, beautiful domestic tastes; but it has not power to lead the multitude upward, or to delineate for them the Heavenly City. It comes of mere nature, and its teaching is of nature. It uses religious words, of course, else it could not be called a religion; but it does not impress on the imagination, it does not engrave upon the heart, it does not inflict upon the conscience, the supernatural; it does not introduce into the popular mind any great ideas, such as are to be recognised by one and all, as common property, and first principles or dogmas from which to start, to be taken for granted on all hands, and handed down as forms and specimens of eternal truth from age to age. It in no true sense inculcates the Unseen; and by consequence, sights of this world, material tangible objects, become the idols and the ruin of its children, of souls which were made for God and Heaven. It is powerless to resist the world and the world’s teaching: it cannot supplant error by truth; it follows when it should lead. There is but one real Antagonist of the world, and that is the faith of Catholics; – Christ set that faith up, and it will do its work on earth, as it ever has done, till He comes again
J. H. Newman, Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregation, Gracewing, Notre-Dame University Press 2002, p. 83-103.