Words on the Word
St John Henry Newman
An Anglican friend, staunchly High Church, once told me he found aspects of modern Catholicism difficult. For one thing, he said, he could not cope with saints with surnames. What he meant, I think, was this: that sanctity is cheapened when brought close to us in time. Sts Basil and Augustine are embellished by Antiquity’s veneer. They are safe, so to speak. But someone like, say, St Maximilian Kolbe? Do we not see, in his case, certain defects of character as well as heroic self-sacrifice? I suspect that we all share this perplexity to some extent. We can easily confuse holiness with personal perfection. We implicitly wish saints to be plastercast from birth, of blameless life, well-rounded character, and pleasant disposition. And so we miss the point. A saint is not a perfect human specimen. A saint is one who displays in his sometimes chaotic, contradictory life the triumph of God’s grace. A saint is one who puts on Christ and so reveals the face of God to others.
John Henry Newman is a paradoxical saint in some ways. Of great brilliance of mind, he had an awkward, prickly personality. He pursued his convictions with unfailing fortitude, but was vulnerable, too, to profuse self-pity. He got depressed. He never, though, got stuck in himself. At each stage of his life he was ready to leave himself behind, to follow Christ with new zest. That gave him, even well into old age, a freshness of perspective and a guilelessness that carried the sweet fragrance of Jesus Christ. Newman had a genius for wonderment. We find it expressed in natural terms, as when, at the end of his life, he picked up the violin again and was so moved by the sheer joy of it that he had, so he wrote to a friend, ‘to lay down the instrument and literally cry out with delight’. We find wonder, too, in his sublime poetry, not least in that great confession of faith, the Dream of Gerontius. Newman shows us that no contradictions of character are final for one prepared to give himself up ever anew to the transforming grace of Jesus. He shows that grace really can do more, that God’s purpose for us is to bestow the hundredfold, even here and now.