March 2009 - Vol. 28

On Saints and Saintliness

by John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman, 1801-1890, was an influential writer and major figure from the Church of England in the Oxford Movement. In 1845 he became a Catholic priest and was made a Cardinal late in life in 1879.
An ordinary man thinks it enough to do as he is done by; he will think it fair to resent insults, to repay injuries, to show a becoming pride, to insist on his rights, to be jealous of his honor, when in the wrong refuse to confess it, to seek to be rich, to desire to be well with the world, to fear what his neighbors will say.  He seldom thinks of the Day of Judgment, seldom thinks of sins past, says few prayers, cares little for the church, has no zeal for God's truth, spends his money on himself. 

Such is an ordinary Christian, and such is not one of God's elect. For the latter is more  than just, temperate and kind; he has a devoted love of God, high faith, holy hope, over-flowing charity, a noble self-command, a strict conscientiousness, humility never absent, gentleness in speech, simplicity, modesty, and unaffectedness, an unconsciousness of what his endowments are, and what they make of him in God's sight. This is what Christianity has done in the world; such is the result of Christian teaching; viz., to elicit, foster, mature the seeds of heaven which lie hid in the earth, to multiply (if it may be said) images of Christ, which, though they be few, are worth all else that is among men, and are an ample recompense and "a crown of rejoicing" for apostles and evangelists "in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming". 

Their excellence is supernatural
All the saints, from the beginning of history to the end, resemble each other in this, that their excellence is supernatural, their deeds heroic, their merits extraordinary and prevailing. They all are choice patterns of the theological virtues; they all are blessed with a rare and special union with their Maker and Lord... But, with all these various tokens of their belonging to one and the same celestial family, they may still be divided, in their external aspect, into two classes. 

There are those, on the one hand, who are so absorbed in the divine life, that they seem, even while they are in the flesh, to have no part in earth or in human nature; but to think, speak, and act under views, affections, and motives simply supernatural. If they love others, it is simply because they love God, and because man is the object either of his compassion, or of his praise. If they rejoice, it is in what is unseen; if they feel interest, it is in what is unearthly; if they speak, it is almost with the voice of angels; if they eat or drink, it is almost of angel's food alone... 

On the other hand, there are those, and of the highest order of sanctity too, as far as our eyes can see, in whom the supernatural combines with nature, instead of superseding it, –  invigorating it, elevating it, ennobling it; and who are not the less men, because they are saints. They do not put away their natural endowments, but use them to the glory of the Giver; they do not act beside them, but through them; they do to eclipse them by the brightness of divine grace, but only transfigure them. They are versed in human knowledge; they are busy in human society; they understand the human heart; they can throw themselves into the minds of other men; and all this in consequence of natural gifts and secular education. While they themselves stand secure in the blessedness of purity and peace, they can follow in imagination the ten thousand aberrations of pride, passion, and remorse. The world is to them a book, to which they are drawn for its own sake, which they read fluently, which interests them naturally, –  though, by the reason of the grace which dwells within them, they study it and hold converse with it for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Thus they have the thoughts, feelings, frames of mind, attractions, sympathies, antipathies of other men, so far as these are not sinful, only they have these properties of human nature purified, sanctified, and exalted; and they are only made more eloquent, more poetical, more profound, more intellectual, by reason of their being more holy.

A child of wrath regenerated by God’s grace
A saint is born like another man; by nature a child of wrath, and needing God's grace to regenerate him.  He is baptized 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 neighbors begin to say, "This is a strange child, he is unlike any other child;" his brothers and 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. 

Reading the lives and writings of saints
I confess to a delight in reading the lives, and dwelling  on the characters and actions, of the saints of the first ages, such as I receive from none besides them; and for this reason, because we know so much more about them than about most of the saints who come after them. People are variously constituted; what influences one does not influence another. There are persons of warm imaginations, who can easily picture to themselves what they never saw. They can at will see angels and saints hovering over them when they are in church; they see their lineaments, their features, their motions, their gestures, their smile or their grief. They can go home and draw what they have seen, from the vivid memory of what, while it lasted, was so transporting. I am not one of such; I am touched by my five senses, by what my eyes behold and my ears hear. I am touched by what I read about, not by what I myself create. As faith need not lead to practice, so in me mere imagination does not lead to devotion. I gain more from the life of our Lord in the Gospels than from a treatise de Deo. I gain more from three verses of St. John than from the three points of a meditation. 

...I want to hear a saint converse; I am not content to look at him as a statue; his words are the index of his hidden life, as far as that life can be known to man, for "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." This is why I exult in the folios of the Fathers. I am not obliged to read the whole of them, I read what I can and am content... 

A saint's writings are to me his real "Life"; and what is called his "Life" is not the outline of an individual, but either of the auto-saint or of a myth. Perhaps I shall be asked what I mean by "Life."  I mean a narrative which impresses the reader with the idea of moral unity, identity, growth, continuity, personality. When a saint converses with me, I am conscious of the presence of one active principle of thought, one individual character, flowing on and into the various matters which he discusses, and the different transactions in which he mixes. It is what no memorials can reach, however skillfully elaborated, however free from effort or study, however conscientiously faithful, however guaranteed by the veracity of the writers.

[Excerpted from A Newman Treasury, selected and edited by Charles Frederick Harrold, (c) 1943 by Longman, Green and Co., Inc., Arlington House Publisher, New Rochesse, New York.]

Perpetua and Felicitas, martyred in  203 AD 

Augustine of Hippo, bishop, writer, died 430 

Mary of Egypt, desert ascetic, died in 421

Francis of Assisi, preacher, founder of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), died in 1226

Isaac Jogues, Jesuit missionary to Huron Indians in North America, martyred in 1646

Kateri Tekakwitha, daughter of Mohawk warrior and devout Christian, died in 1679, age 24

Susanna Wesley, mother of 19 children, including John Wesley & mother of Methodism

Hudson Taylor, Methodist missionary to China for 51 years, died in China in 1905

John Henry Newman, influential writer and major figure in Oxford Movement, died 1890

Edith Stein, German Jewish philosopher, 
Carmelite nun, Auschwitz martyr in 1942

Jim Elliot, Baptist missionary to Auca tribe in Ecuador, martyred in 1956, age 28

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