The Ordinary “work of the day” and Perfection: Personal Reflections on Lent Inspired by Newman

By Christopher Cimorelli
Published in Newman Today & Spirituality
February 27, 2024
9 min read
The Ordinary “work of the day” and Perfection: Personal Reflections on Lent Inspired by Newman

For many, it is easier to be caught up in the academic, fiscal, or calendar years than the liturgical year that indicates the ultimate frame of our lives. In my case, this is especially true during Lent. More often than not, I find myself full of zeal on Ash Wednesday, only to see the weeks of this holy season slip away, soon overshadowed by academic and administrative responsibilities, and then the advent of Holy Week, the Paschal Triduum, and ultimately the Easter season, the pinnacle of God’s revelation: “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14; NABRE). While I have usually managed to abstain from some-thing for several weeks, the season itself—and its meaning within the liturgical year—has passed, and I wonder if I’m actually still asleep in the garden.

This year, I came across a pithy meditation of Newman’s “A Short Road to Perfection”1 (dated 27 September 1856), which I hope can reframe the way I understand Lent and discipleship more generally, even though it was not a Lenten reflection, per se. However, it can illuminate our efforts in Lent, given that the season of “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving” cultivates “a true inner conversion of heart as we seek to follow Christ’s will more faithfully” and prepares us to celebrate Easter.2 This concise text is part of the volume, Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman, which was edited by Newman’s fellow Oratorian, Rev. W. P. Neville (1824–1905). Such meditations were, according to Neville, “likely … to have formed part of what [Newman] proposed to call a ‘Year-Book of Devotion’ for reading and meditation according to the Seasons and Feasts of the year.”3 Newman was immersed in financial and administrative matters pertaining to the Catholic University in Dublin in late September of 1856, and perhaps these matters were in the back of his mind while writing this reflection.4 Newman’s opening proverb encapsulates its main argument:

It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones (381).

For Newman, this short—though not easy—road to perfection involves nothing more than performing our ordinary duties of each day well.

It seems so simple, perhaps even anti-climactic, especially when applied to Lent. I tend to link, like many others, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent with Jesus’s sojourn and temptation in the desert, a cosmic battle and trial with evil that prepares the way of his earthly ministry. While each of us surely contends with evil on a daily basis, could the framing or imagining of Lent in this way be detrimental for some of us, who, despite desiring a time of preparation and vigilance like Jesus, find ourselves not in the desert conversing with the devil himself, but rather occupied with packing lunches, sitting in traffic, working at the office, driving our kids to afterschool activities, and cleaning up after dinner? Relatedly, could the perceived gulf between Jesus’s own trials in the wilderness of first-century Palestine and my own in an urban, twenty-first-century American context—even at a subconscious level—be at play in the difficulty of growing spiritually in this season? I don’t claim to address these questions fully here, but rather will initially explore them in conversation with Newman’s text.

In “A Short Road to Perfection,” Newman briefly addresses the imagination in a way that helps us think through these questions. He notes how easy it is to have “vague ideas” of what constitutes perfection, and even to discuss these ideas profitably. But, when it comes to the pursuit of perfection, one “is dissatisfied with anything but what is tangible and clear, and constitutes some sort of direction towards the practice of it” (381). A vague notion of perfection that does not correlate with one’s experience simply is not enough when one actually sets out to be perfect. Thus, the focus and emphasis on performing ordinary duties well is “of great practical use” to the disciple. The pursuit of perfection and growth in holiness occur when one attends well to daily duties, which are, if anything, quite tangible and clear to us.

Without question, many fellow Christians benefit greatly from the language of “battle” and “trial” during Lent, which resonates with their own experience of discipleship, and moreover, connects them in a tangible way with Christ. In fact, I attempt—somewhat poorly—the ancient practice of Christian contemplation. The process, which involves metaphors of descent or movement from the mind to the heart, or perhaps the “birth of the Word in the soul,” to borrow a phrase from Meister Eckhart, involves the experience of great contention. One quickly becomes aware of the vices, afflictive thoughts, or “demons” as Evagrius of Pontus called them, to which we so often yield, carrying away our attention from our Origin, Ground, Companion, and Destiny. The language of battle and trial makes sense in this context, and, for those who undertake the practice, it is rather tangible. Similarly, Pope Francis has recently exhorted believers to enter the desert and battle disordered passions, which “must be tamed and fought, otherwise they will devour our freedom.”5 Newman himself substantially treats the themes of struggle, self-denial, and obedience in his properly Lenten sermons. For example, in “The Duty of Self-denial” (28 March 1830), he writes, “To be righteous and obedient implies self-command; but to possess power we must have gained it; nor can we gain it without a vigorous struggle, a persevering warfare against ourselves.”6

Yet, for my own part, this language has lost some of its motive power as I have aged into the middle years of my life, while working and navigating family life with relatively young children. This is true even in contemplation; spiritual combat is not as appealing as simply dwelling with the Lord for a time and striving to sustain consciousness of God throughout the day and when encountering others. Whether I am imagining the battle of this preparatory season in my head, or hearing about it from the pulpit, I must admit it often seems somewhat fanciful, even disconnected from my experience in such a way that the initially vibrant images dissipate rather quickly. Many of the images associated with such language thus function as intelligible notions more than real objects, to use language like that of Newman’s Grammar of Assent. In other words, they are vague, even if I am tempted to see the devil at work in a variety of daily events and interactions (e.g., while stuck in traffic with other angry motorists). If I am being honest, outside of my selected fast, more focused commitment on the practice of contemplation, and refraining from meat on Fridays, the forty days of Lent are, in my case, very much like the other days of the year. What potentially distinguishes Lent is how we use the precious gifts of time and attention at both personal and ecclesial levels, within the flow of the liturgical year. Time and attention are quite ordinary things, even boring. Yet, the orientation of that which is mundane can indeed prepare the way for the transcendent, or even the majestic.

Newman proceeds in “A Short Road to Perfection” to reflect on the actual notion of “perfection.” “By perfect, we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound” (382). He tells his readers that they can certainly recognize imperfection, and he points to imperfect “religious service” as an example that would resonate with their experience. Just prior to this passage, Newman had given a negative definition that is quite helpful for the subject of my reflection: Perfection “does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings.” Later, he concludes that one “is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day” (382). For many people, most days are quite ordinary, but attention to completing the work presented each day is what constitutes perfection more than seeking something extraordinary or heroic where not applicable.

This is an opportune time to revisit the imagination and questions above. Connecting the extraordinary, heroic actions of Jesus in the desert to my own Lenten efforts has not borne much fruit over the years—notwithstanding the renewed efforts at contemplation and naming the vices that forestall life with God. The Gospels are breathtaking, eschatological dramas in which the forces of good and evil are in contention in the most pivotal years of Jesus’s life—that is, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word and Son of God. For those of us in developed, consumerist nations two-thousand years later and working a steady job, these dramas are often of a different character, especially when we are blessed with times of peace or even monotony—even while our personal narratives take place within this larger drama or redemption.7

Newman’s attention to the work of the day has resonated with me this year, particularly in this season of Lent, which has seen greater resistance to the idea of letting the weeks slide by yet again. He challenges me to stop seeking to reopen God’s revelation so that I can be its main character. Instead, he is exhorting me and others to focus on the work before us and doing it well. It is thus possible to connect themes from Newman’s “A Short Road to Perfection” and his Lenten sermons. For most of us, the trials we face, the opportunities for self-denial, are in the mundane. If hyperbolic language of the liturgical season seems disconnected from our experience, we can simply focus on the work of the day. Like Newman in 1856, I have a great many administrative and financial matters to attend to, especially those associated with my present position. These matters, as well as myriad family obligations, mark the (dare I say, substantial) “round of the day.” A very real temptation is flight from such obligations, which seem so ordinary compared with images of epic spiritual battles in the wilderness. But, giving in to such fancies might actually feed ancient spiritual vices, for example acedia, what some have called “the-grass-is-greener syndrome,” which upends spiritual and communal life.

I realize now that I may not have been sleeping in the Garden in past seasons of Lent, but I might very well have been daydreaming. In this holy season, if I would follow Christ more faithfully as part of ever deeper conversion and loving praxis, preparing to celebrate the defeat of evil, joy of the Resurrection, and gift of the Holy Spirit, then attending well to the work of the day seems most fitting. Newman has described a very ordinary path to perfection, and for some of us, this is the only way we can “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).8

1 Newman, “A Short Road to Perfection” (27 September 1856), in MD, ed. W. P. Neville (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912 [1893 original]), 381–83.

2 Passages are from the following helpful resource: Catholic Bible, “Lectio Divina for Ash Wednesday,” USCCB.

3 W. P. Neville, “Prefatory Notice,” in Newman, MD, vii. See NINS Digital Collections and Newman Reader.

4 For example, see Newman’s correspondence from 23 September 1856 forward in his LD xvii, 384ff.

5 Quoted in Matthew Santucci, “Pope Francis: Lent is a time to ‘encounter wild beasts and angels,’” Catholic News Agency (28 February 2024).

6 Newman, PS vii, sermon 7, 86.

7 Admittedly, a great number of our Christian brethren do not have such luxuries in the present.

8 This is the final verse of chapter five. The opening of chapter six of Matthew’s Gospel is used for the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading each year, as well as for numerous Lenten reflections.

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Christopher Cimorelli

Christopher Cimorelli

Director of the National Institute for Newman Studies

Christopher Cimorelli is the Director of the National Institute for Newman Studies and Associate Editor of the Newman Studies Journal. He is the author of the monograph, John Henry Newman’s Theology of History: Historical Consciousness, ‘Theological Imaginaries’, and the Development of Tradition (Peeters, 2017) and the co-editor of Salvation in the World: The Crossroads of Public Theology (Bloomsbury, 2017). He has varied research interests, including Newman studies, doctrinal development, views of doctrine and the magisterium, apophatic theology, spirituality, and ecotheology.


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