If our charge as Christians is to be holy in all that we do (see 1 Pet. 1:15), what does this way of life look like in today’s world? This question is not easily answered simply by looking to past examples. When I read about St. Teresa of Ávila or St. Francis of Assisi, their lifestyles feel so foreign to my own. I cannot presently imagine experiencing the mystical ecstasy that St. Teresa described or bearing in my own body the stigmata that St. Francis received. If the goal is to be another St. Francis, I am not sure that I am up to the task. Yet, as the documents of the Second Vatican Council emphasize, the call to holiness is a universal one, meaning that none of the baptized are exempt from pursuing the charge. Furthermore, there are not separate tiers among the faithful when it comes to this charge, as if some were called to a more radical form of discipleship than others. Rather, we all have as our telos, or end goal, total conformity to the image of Jesus Christ.
For those of us who feel discouraged by our lack of spiritual progress, St. John Henry Newman stands ready as a sage and exemplar. Newman’s life (1801–1890), in the grand scheme of human history, is not terribly far removed from our own time. Dying just 130 years ago, Newman was already experiencing some of the secularizing forces that have intensified in our own day. He knew what it was like to experience the comfort and ease so characteristic of developed Western societies. He also suffered ridicule for his convictions, which were viewed by some as backwards and contrary to the spirit of modern progress. Yet, standing amid these currents, Newman offers a powerful witness of personal holiness, the substance of which has been preserved in his rich treasure of spiritual writings. Within these writings, Newman shines a bright light on the obstacles that stand in the way of attaining holiness and then guides his readers through what it will take to overcome those obstacles. In certain places he may appear as a rigorist in his approach. However, ultimately, Newman’s writings on this topic are a testament to the transformative power of God’s grace when it enters the everyday lives of seemingly ordinary persons.
The Austerity of Newman’s Spiritual Vision
We are prone, it seems, to overestimate how far along we are on the path to perfection. I say “perfection,” because according to Newman, we cannot settle for anything less. Channeling a mandate originally given by Christ himself (Matt. 5:48), Newman charges his readers to “be … content with nothing short of perfection” (PS i). Many Christians, Newman observes, approach this endeavor with a partial view and mixed motives: “We do not like to be new-made,” he writes, “we are afraid of it … and much as we profess in general terms to wish to be changed, when it comes to the point when particular instances of change are presented to us, we shrink from them, and are content to remain unchanged.”1 It is one thing to express verbally a desire for holiness; it is quite another to undergo the purgative process that is necessary for actually attaining it. Newman, like a good physician, prods his audience to take the difficult steps that will lead to lasting change.
So, what are the obstacles that get in the way of reaching union with God? Newman is unsparing in his diagnosis:
Fanciful though it may appear at first sight to say so, the comforts of life are the main cause of [spiritual apathy]; and, much as we may lament and struggle against it, till we learn to dispense with them in good measure, we shall not overcome it. Till we, in a certain sense, detach ourselves from our bodies, our minds will not be in a state to receive divine impressions, and to exert heavenly aspirations. A smooth and easy life, an uninterrupted enjoyment of the goods of providence, full meals, soft raiment, well-furnished homes, the pleasure of sense, the feeling of security, the consciousness of wealth—these and the like, if we are not careful, choke up all the avenues of the soul through which the light and breath of heaven might come to us (PS v).
This is a challenging passage, for sure. As I note above, we are prone to thinking that we are further along in the spiritual life than we actually are. “I’m a nice enough person,” we may tell ourselves. “I’m kind to my acquaintances, dutiful at my job, regularly attend Mass, and occasionally give alms. Surely, the gates of heaven will not be barred to someone who is so agreeable as me.” Newman shatters the false sense of security engendered by this sort of outlook. What keeps most of us from the full measure of holiness are not glaring sins but simple comforts: a fully stocked pantry, a well-furnished home, the feeling of security, and knowing that we have money in the bank to spare. As Christ warns in the parable of the sower, the worries of this world and deceitfulness of wealth are prone to choking the word of God, making it unfruitful (Mat. 13:22)
Now, there is a catch: Newman is quick to qualify that, “A hard life is, alas! no certain method of becoming spiritually minded.” We can suffer, Newman notes, and still remain mired in sin. Undergoing trials, in other words, does not automatically lead to holiness. Nevertheless, “it is one … of the [primary] means by which Almighty God” sanctifies His children. For Newman, the lesson is clear: “We must, at least at seasons, defraud ourselves of nature, if we would not be defrauded of grace” (PS v). In other words, if our station in life leaves us with abundant food, with comfortable clothes, and with excess wealth, then we must be intentional about detaching ourselves from these things and embracing asceticism. Only by doing so will we open ourselves up to the transformative presence of God in our lives. This is one of the reasons why it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. When we look to the things of this world for security, obsessively clinging to our material possessions, we are not light enough, as it were, to ascend to the heights of heaven.
Newman’s Rigorism Balanced by Grace
This brief survey of Newman’s spiritual outlook naturally raises a potential concern: Is it possible that Newman ends up being too rigorist in the counsel that he provides? Christianity is foundationally a religion of grace. The vision that Newman casts, however, feels unrelenting. Consider, for instance, what Newman says about the work that the Church is about in contrast to social projects that are undertaken for the sake of improving our temporal condition:
The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse (Diff).
Even disciples who are acclimated to a life of self-denial may find themselves unsettled by the starkness of Newman’s outlook. Does the kingdom of God truly demand the level of otherworldliness manifested in Newman’s spirituality?
Before moving too quickly to resolve this tension, we should reside for a time in the fiery heat of Newman’s spiritual vision. As a preacher and spiritual guide, Newman refuses to dial back the harsher demands of the Gospel in order to make the message more palatable for modern listeners. When addressing our Lord’s preaching, Newman notes that Christ said, “Anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself and take up his cross daily” (Lk. 9:23). In other words, the cross bearing that we undertake as disciples of Jesus Christ is not a one-off conversion but involves daily sacrifice. In fact, for Newman regular self-denial is the very test of religious earnestness (PS i), by which he means we will know that we are devoted to God to the extent that we practice mortification in our daily lives. Religious professions, however, earnestly expressed, mean next to nothing to him; what matters is obedience—and obedience is only ever forged in the fires of asceticism and affliction.
Reflecting upon the above, it is easy to see how Newman might be mistaken for too staunch a rigorist, someone who writes tone deaf to the role of grace in the process of sanctification. If we were to isolate Newman’s moral exhortations and take them on their own, the Christian life could seem a burden too heavy for us to bear. To do so, however, would be to opt for a one-sided reading of Newman’s body of writings, for he is careful to clarify that holiness is not attainable by our own efforts, but only by allowing divine grace to permeate every facet of our existence. And the source of grace—its wellspring—is the Holy Spirit at work within us. Any righteousness that might be attributed to us, in other words, is not properly our own; rather, it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. In this manner, we are made like Christ, and clothed with his holiness, through his Spirit coming to dwell within us. Or as Newman puts it, “Christ [makes us righteous] by coming to us through His Spirit; and, as His Spirit is holy, we are holy, if we are in the state of grace. Christ is present in that heart which He visits with His grace. So that to be in His kingdom is to be in righteousness, to live in obedience, to breathe, as it were, an atmosphere of truth and love.”
The dual dynamic of God’s Spirit at work within us and our response to the Spirit’s promptings is one of the mysterious “both-and” elements of the Catholic faith. On the one hand, we are confronted with Christ’s commands—most notably, those delivered in the Sermon on the Mount—and our obedience to those commands is the test of our love for him (Jn. 14:15). On the other hand, none of us could live up to the ethics of Jesus apart from the power of divine grace at work within us. Saint Paul captures something of this paradox in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
The key to attaining authentic holiness, then, is to live in a state of absolute dependency upon the one who died for our sins. Worldly persons have difficulty grasping this point. They see the life of faith, and it strikes them as a life of servitude. What they fail to understand is that all of us serve someone or something. In Newman’s words, “All of us must rely on something; all must look up to, admire, court, make themselves one with something. Most men cast in their lot with the visible world; but true Christians with Saints and Angels” (PS iv). Thus, holy women and men will always appear as “foreigners” in the eyes of the world, and the “holier a [person] is, the less he is understood by men of the world” (PS iv). But these holy persons do not reach that state through their own strenuous efforts. Rather, they are the ones who have been broken down, as it were, and transubstantiated into the person of Christ to such an extent that their daily living has become a manifestation of divine love incarnate in the world.
Newman’s writings on these topics have not lost any of their relevance in the intervening 133 years since his death, and the recent canonization of Newman has only increased interest in his work. In my experience, individual members of the Church develop a special devotion to particular saints for all sorts of reasons. One might be drawn to St. Francis, for instance, because of us his loving care for all God’s creatures, or to St. Thérèse of Lisieux because her “little way” naturally maps onto one’s humble station in life. Many Catholics, it seems, have found solace in the example of Newman because of his proximity to their own experience. This is not a saint residing in the misty fog of the distant past, whom we must squint our eyes to see. Newman, rather, is one who stared down the modern world with all its deceitful vanities and false promises. Because we have many thousands of his letters and the testimony of several of his close friends, we know also of Newman’s struggles. He was a flesh-and-blood student, scholar, and pastor, who struggled with the same self-doubt and peccadilloes that plague so many of us. We remember him with reverence not because he was flawless, but because he confronted the temptations of this life and persevered.
The moral vision that Newman casts for us is daunting indeed. Nevertheless, we can embrace it as a gift, knowing that to live up to its demands depends not upon our own strength but upon the transformative power of the Holy Spirit at work within us. We forge ahead in the life of faith, therefore, being confident of this, that “the One who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:16). Newman knew this statement of St. Paul to be true, not simply because he had reflected and written about it, but because he experienced it for himself, in his own journey towards union with God. In this light, he can rightfully be considered a doctor of grace.
Ryan ("Bud") Marr Associate Provost at Mercy College of Health Sciences. He has served as the Director of NINS and Associate Editor of the Newman Studies Journal from 2017-2020. He is the author of To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often: The Development of John Henry Newman's Ecclesiological Outlook, 1845–1877 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), and has also contributed essays to Newman and Life in the Spirit (Fortress Press, 2014), Learning from All the Faithful (Pickwick, 2016), and The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman (Oxford University Press, 2018). His research interests include the life and writings of John Henry Newman, ecclesiology, and the reception of Vatican II.