The most important theologian to write in English, St. John Henry Newman gave up a life he loved to enter the Church in 1845, at the age of 44. He went on to found the Oratory in England and to write many enduring works, like The Development of Doctrine, Grammar of Assent, and his autobiography Apologia pro vita sua. Also one of the Church’s great preachers, he published many volumes of sermons, starting with the eight volumes of his Anglican Plain and Parochial Sermons and the volume from which these insights are taken. Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1879. He died in 1890. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and Pope Francis declared him a saint on 13 October 2019.
These insights are taken from his Discourses to Mixed Congregations, a book of sermons he gave after entering the Church, published in 1849. In it, Newman is eager to warn his listeners against worldliness and all the ways we give ourselves to the world and blind ourselves to God.
Death Stops Us
Every one of us, sooner or later, one by one, be stretched on the bed of death. We naturally shrink from the thought of death, and of its attendant circumstances; but all that is hateful and fearful about it will be fulfilled in our case, one by one. But all this is nothing compared with the consequences implied in it. Death stops us; it stops our race. Men are engaged about their work, or about their pleasure; they are in the city, or the field; any how they are stopped; their deeds are suddenly gathered in — a reckoning is made — all is sealed up till the great day.
What a change is this! In the words used familiarly in speaking of the dead, they are no more. They were full of schemes and projects; whether in a great or humbler rank, they had their hopes and fears, their prospects, their pursuits, their rivalries; all these are now come to an end.
We Forget We Will Die
The poor sinner has gone on so long in sin, that he has forgotten he has sin to repent of. He has learned to forget that he is living in a state of enmity to God. He no longer makes excuses, as he did at first. He lives in the world, and believes nothing about the Sacraments, nor puts any trust in a Priest if he falls in with one. . . . His thoughts are taken up with his family and with his occupation; and if he thinks of death, it is with repugnance, as what will separate him from this world, not with fear, as what will introduce him to another.
He has ever been strong and hale. He has never had an illness. His family is long-lived, and he reckons he has a long time before him. His friends die before him, and he feels rather contempt at their nothingness, than sorrow at their departure. He has just married a daughter, or established a son in life, and he thinks of retiring from his labors, except that he is at a loss to know how he shall employ himself when he is out of work.
He cannot get himself to dwell upon the thought of what and where he will be, when life is over, or, if he begins to muse awhile over himself and his prospects, then he is sure of one thing, that the Creator is absolute and mere benevolence, and he is indignant and impatient when he hears eternal punishment spoken of. And so he fares, whether for a long time or a short; but whatever the period, it must have an end, and at last the end comes. Time has gone forward noiselessly, and comes upon him like a thief in the night; at length the hour of doom strikes, and he is taken away.
Your Venial Sins, the Enemies of God
A fight is the very token of a Christian. He is a soldier of Christ; high or low, he is this and nothing else. If you have triumphed over all mortal sin, as you seem to think, then you must attack your venial sins; there is no help for it; there is nothing else to do, if you would be soldiers of Jesus Christ. But, O simple souls! to think you have gained any triumph at all! No: you cannot safely be at peace with any, even the least malignant, of the foes of God; if you are at peace with venial sins, be certain that in their company and under their shadow mortal sins are lurking.
Mortal sins are the children of venial, which, though they be not deadly themselves, yet are prolific of death. You may think that you have killed the giants who had possession of your hearts, and that you have nothing to fear, but may sit at rest under your vine and under your fig-tree; but the giants will live again, they will rise from the dust, and, before you know where you are, you will be taken captive and slaughtered by the fierce, powerful, and eternal enemies of God.
A Question for the Departing Soul
The world passes. It is but a pageant and a scene. The lofty palace crumbles. The busy city is mute. The ships of Tharsis have sped away. On heart and flesh, death is coming. The veil is breaking. Departing soul, how have you used your talents, your opportunities, the light poured ’round you, the warnings given you, the grace inspired in you?
How different is the feeling with which the loving soul, on its separation from the body, approaches the judgment-seat of its Redeemer! It knows how great a debt of punishment remains upon it, though it has for many years been reconciled to Him; it knows that Purgatory lies before it, and that the best it can reasonably hope for is to be sent there. But to see His face, though for a moment! to hear His voice, to hear Him speak, though it be to punish!
O Savior of men, it says, I come to Thee, though it be in order to be at once remanded from Thee; I come to Thee who art my Life and my All; I come to Thee on the thought of whom I have lived all my life long. . . . Whom have I in heaven but Thee? whom have I desired on earth, whom have I had on earth, but Thee? whom shall I have amid the sharp flame but Thee? Yea, though I be now descending thither, into “a land desert, pathless and without water,” I will fear no ill, for Thou art with me. I have seen Thee this day face to face, and it sufficeth; I have seen Thee, and that glance of Thine is sufficient for a century of sorrow, in the nether prison.
I will live on that look of Thine, though I see Thee not, till I see Thee again, never to part from Thee. That eye of Thine shall be sunshine and comfort to my weary, longing soul; that voice of Thine shall be everlasting music in my ears.
Image: Bust of Cardinal Newman at Trinity College, Oxford. Chihwiedavidliu/Wikimedia Commons.