There is a thoughtful essay in the Catholic World Report for 21 February by Edward Short on “Newman and the Idea of Sanctity”. As Short shows by his judicious quotations from Newman’s voluminous writings, Newman would entirely recognise and understand modern society. Indeed, the English 19th-century world – the century that Newman spanned in his long life – sounds startlingly like our own from his analysis. Newman saw that “sanctity is not something with which most of us are comfortable”. He also knew the power of worldliness and did not underestimate “the pride of the natural man”. Again, he understood that the intellect can be a barrier to faith and that “spiritual sloth” can make our actual practise of what we profess tepid and lacklustre.
Perhaps the most telling point that Short highlights in his essay, which deserves to be read in full, is Newman’s keen insight into the tendency of Catholics to “blend in, assimilate and exchange their Catholic identity for a false accord with their non-Catholic neighbours”. None of us likes to be mocked or sneered at (including blog posts) for stating what we know to be the Truth; it is so much more comfortable to swim with the tide rather than against it, and thus to avoid the incredulity of our neighbours when they say, “You actually believe that?”
The only difference today is that the incredulity often comes from fellow Catholics rather than from those outside the Church.
Yesterday’s Gospel at Mass puts our all too human fears into divine perspective. Whatever the world says we have to seek first the kingdom of heaven; then everything else will fall into place. “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own” as the reading reminds us. My old French teacher at school, a woman whose fiancé had been killed in the War and who had had in many ways an unhappy life, used to quote to us, with mordant emphasis, the older translation of this text: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” It is always comforting to be reminded that our worries and anxieties are generally fruitless.
Newman has a wonderful and brief response, quoted by Short, and from his Meditations and Devotions, to the question, how do we best seek the kingdom of heaven i.e. how to become perfect. He writes, “Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising. Give your first thoughts to God. Make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Say the Angelus devoutly. Eat and drink to God’s glory. Say the Rosary well. Be recollected, keep out bad thoughts. Make your evening meditation well. Examine yourself daily. Go to bed in good time and you are already perfect.”
How simple it is and how we complicate things. I know an elderly gentleman who was 103 yesterday. I phoned him to congratulate him and interrupted him saying his Rosary. He spends his days giving thanks to God, yet he also enjoys a drink “to God’s glory”. I am sure he is following all Newman’s precepts as a matter of course. In conversation he is wise, charitable, forgiving – but never tolerant of assaults on the Faith. The secret of his serenity and joy is living the day well in the sight of God and not worrying about tomorrow. It’s a good formula.