No theologian working inside the traditions of western Christianity was more sensitive to the rhythms of the Church’s liturgical year than was John Henry Newman. Which, of course, stands to reason, given the fact that, as an Anglican curate at St. Clement’s in Oxford and later as vicar at St. Mary’s in Littlemore, he gave sermons “in season and out” that were soon recognized as the most theologically rich ever delivered since patristic times, later published in eight volumes as Parochial and Plain Sermons . Yes, his appointment as a Fellow of Oriel College at Oxford gave clear testimony to his academic brilliance, a verdict of his peers that he vindicated with such scholarly publications as Lectures on Justification and The Arians of the Fourth Century . But his real work during that period from 1824 to 1843 was in pastoral care, including preaching nearly every Sunday with a tenacity and depth that caught the imagination of hearers and readers from his day to our own.
This being the onset of the season of Lent¯when Christians think especially on the reality of sin in their lives¯I thought I would offer a string of quotations from Newman appropriate to this season now begun, a catena, as it were, of “edifying discourses” from a master at homiletical brilliance.
What has always struck me about his Lenten sermons are two themes delicately balanced: On the one hand, Newman sets the bar of Christian holiness very high; yet, on the other, he shows an acute awareness of the weaknesses that beset Christians and so understands them when they fail (as we are all bound to do) to measure up to his extraordinarily demanding standards. As to the first theme, take this typical passage from his sermon “The Religion of the Day”:
We dwell in the full light of the Gospel, and the full grace of the Sacraments. We ought then to have the holiness of the Apostles. There is no reason except our own willful corruption, that we are not by this time walking in the steps of St. Paul or St. John, and following them as they followed Christ . . . . Nothing is more difficult than to be disciplined and regular in our religion. It is very easy to be religious by fits and starts, and to keep up our feelings by artificial stimulants; but regularity seems to trammel us, and we become impatient.
The trick for any preacher when treating of sin, not least because he is a sinner himself, is to steer between this dilemma: First, he must not do anything to mitigate the Bible’s uncompromising demand for Christian holiness; but second, he must avoid the tub-thumping rhetoric of those preachers who think that mere denunciation will motivate their flocks to the abjuration of sin and the pursuit of holiness. In other words, the preacher must fuse together a high demand for a consistently pursued holiness with a shrewd¯and compassionate¯sense of human psychology, with its attendant weaknesses.
Newman managed this dilemma remarkably well. Perhaps it was his acute sense of the ways of human psychology that made him skeptical even of the Oxford Movement’s popularity (then in its heyday), which he himself did so much to promote. In a sermon aptly called “Self-Denial, the Test of Religious Earnestness,” he warned his congregation:
I am suspicious of any religion that is a people’s religion, or an age’s religion. The “token” of true religion is rather the light shining in the darkness . . . . Though doubtless there are seasons when a sudden enthusiasm arises in favor of the Truth, . . . yet such popularity of the Truth is but sudden, comes at once and goes at once, has no regular growth, no abiding stay . . . . [Even though] Truth has that power in it that it forces men to profess it in words, still when they go on to act, instead of obeying it , they substitute some idol in place of it.
Popularity in religion always made Newman worried that something else was afoot in the Church than the true gospel. To be sure, this inveterate suspicion could veer into elitism. His consistent polemic against Methodism, for example, ignored the hunger among the working classes for a version of the gospel that would speak to them. (Because Methodism was for Newman merely another species of “Dissent,” he could miss the movement of the Spirit in the Wesleyan reform of an ossified Established Christianity.) But he also had a point: In the face of any popular manifestation of religion, he says, “a cautious mind will feel anxious lest some counterfeit be, in fact, honored instead of it.” But that worry was only one aspect of his thought, for he balanced a fear of excessive religious “enthusiasm” with a correlative worry about dead religion, which would soon lead to its inevitable offspring, secularism. For the secular complaint with religion, he said, “is not that it is strict, or engrossing, or imperative, not that it goes too far, but that it is religion.”
So what is it about religion that makes it so irksome? Here we get to one of the most significant motifs of Newman’s sermons. Resistance to religion is based on an ineluctable fact of human psychology to which he returns again and again: No one sins without making some excuse to himself for sinning. This excuse-mongering is one of his main targets in the Lenten sermons. In a droll observation, he calls excuse-making the “second sin” of both Adam and Eve¯Original Sin immediately followed, so to speak, by Original Excuse. In a passage not without its element of dry wit, he dissects the pathetic expedient to which Adam and Eve felt driven:
The original excuse offered by them after sinning was that they were not really free, that they had acted under a constraining influence, the subtlety of the tempter . . . . And this has been the course of lawless pride ever since: to lead us, first, to exult in our uncontrollable liberty of will and conduct; then, when we have ruined ourselves, to plead that we are the slaves of necessity.
I can imagine these lines drawing a wry smile from Newman’s flock¯at least until he drove home the conclusion. For him the psychology of sin and its attendant need to claim victimhood (“I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!”) is simply too ingrained, too much a part of what sin is all about, for us not to feel vexed when reminders come of the opposite reality, which it is precisely the office of religion to provide: “Accordingly, it has always been the office of Religion to protest against the sophistry of Satan, and to preserve the memory of those truths which the unbelieving heart corrupts: both the freedom and the responsibility of man, the sovereignty of the Creator, the supremacy of the law of conscience as His representative within us, and the irrelevancy of external circumstances in the judgment which is ultimately to be made upon our conduct and character.”
Of course Newman is under no illusions that a mere sermon, or set of them, will do the trick. If Original Excuse comes as a package, so to speak, with Original Sin, he could hardly be naive about expecting mere rhetoric, no matter how brilliant, to uproot the culture of victimhood. Rather, with an unsparing Augustinian realism, he points to the consequences of sin to drive home his point, especially in his sermon devoted to this theme, “The Moral Consequences of Single Sins”:
[The Holy Spirit] intimated that great law of God’s governance, to which all who study that governance will bear witness, that sin is ever followed by punishment. Day and night follow each other not more surely, than punishment comes upon sin. Whether the sin be great or little, momentary or habitual, willful or through infirmity, its own peculiar punishment seems, according to the law of nature, to follow us, as far as our experience of that law carries us¯sooner or later, lighter or heavier, as the case may be.
Left alone like this, these passages would seem to give the lie to my assertion of balance in Newman’s sermons on sin, as if all he had to say was that the world was riding a toboggan downhill to hell without help from God, and this despite our infirmities bequeathed to us by our first parents. But even when he is speaking in the tones of Jeremiah, he will suddenly break in with the melody of Isaiah, offering hope that in repentance we can still go forward toward God in genuine hope; and he will do so in passages (here from “Transgressions and Infirmities”) that powerfully recall the cadences of St. Paul: “On the whole, then, this may be considered a Christian’s state: ever about to fall, yet by God’s mercy never falling; ever dying, yet always alive; full of infirmities, yet free from transgressions; and, as time goes on, more and more free from infirmities also, as tending to that perfect righteousness which is the fulfilling of the Law.”
This is always the delicate dilemma for the confessor (and penitent): how to distinguish true transgression from infirm weakness without relapsing into the second sin of the Original Excuse. In fact he devoted one brilliant sermon, “Sins of Infirmity,” to that painful fact of the human condition. Just as he will apply his acute sense of human psychology to Adam and Eve, so he will apply that same insight to their children caught in the web of sin and infirmity. The first point he makes is this: “As we gain happiness through suffering,” he says, “so do we arrive at holiness through infirmity, because man’s very condition is a fallen one; and in passing out of the country of sin, he necessarily passes through it.” Doubt that, and we but doubt the grace given to King David, whose Son Jesus was:
We have much to be forgiven; nay, we have the more to be forgiven the more we attempt. The higher our aims, the greater our risks. They who venture much with their talents, gain much, and in the end they hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But they have so many losses in trading by the way, that to themselves they seem to do nothing but fail. They cannot believe that they are making any progress; and though they do, yet surely they have much to be forgiven in all their services. They are like David, men of blood; they fight the good fight of faith, but they are polluted with the contest.
Is there any Christian who starts by taking Lent seriously on Ash Wednesday and yet comes to Easter Sunday who does not feel “bloodied by the contest,” caught up in the ganglia of sin coiling about the soul? But for Newman that’s just the point. For it is the struggle itself that teaches us how we stand before God. Reliance on grace is taught in the pedagogy of the struggle, and Lent is that pedagogue:
I am speaking of . . . what every one must know in his own case: how difficult it is to command himself, and do what he wishes to do; how weak the governing principle of his mind is, and how poorly and imperfectly he comes up to his own notions of right and truth; how difficult it is to command his feelings, grief, anger, impatience, joy, fear; how difficult to govern his own tongue, to say just what he would; how difficult to rouse himself to do what he would, at this time or that; how difficult to rise in the morning; how difficult to go about his duties and not be idle; how difficult to eat and drink just what he should, how difficult to regulate his thoughts through the day; how difficult to keep out of his mind what should be kept out of it.
These are difficulties for all Christians, of course, but most especially for those serious about Lent. That was why for Newman Lent ultimately was the season for learning how to rely on the grace of God¯and on the hope that is the fruit of that grace. And that, in the last analysis, is all he can really have to say to us infirm sinners: “As men in a battle cannot see how it is going, so Christians have no certain signs of God’s presence in their hearts, and can but look up towards their Lord and Savior, and timidly hope.”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.