Life & Soul

Why Gerontius is happy in purgatory

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote the Dream of Gerontius

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a beautiful performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius given by the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School Choir in the magnificent setting of St James’s, Spanish Place, last week. It is not as traditional Lenten fare as one of the Bach Passions, but it was spiritually (as well as musically) inspiring as we approach the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s own dying and rising. For this is the pattern for Gerontius’s and our own: the only guarantee that whatever is “the best of us” will outlast our life here on earth. For us men and for our salvation Christ came, and Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem is a beautiful meditation on that salvation.

“Gerontius” means “old man”, so he is an Everyman figure, a sinner, not a saint. He is a man of faith, and perhaps for that very reason is fearful of death and anxious about his salvation. Against the real and present horror of death and “emptying out of each constituent of all that makes me man”, he confesses faith in the words we know as a hymn: “Firmly I believe and truly”. This is faith as an exercise of the will, not of the emotions, and faith in a Catholic sense as assent to God’s revelation and faith in the Church as the fides quae – the means to know what God has revealed. In the face of death, Gerontius is challenged to give what Newman characterises as real assent to the faith he has professed. Later in the work, Newman will remind us that the same process of dying was for Gerontius’s Saviour a “double agony”.

His death agony passed, Gerontius “awakes” to find himself borne by a motive force. It is his own guardian angel bringing to completion the ministry of watching over him. In Catholic doctrine this angelic ministry personifies God’s individual and personal love and care. True to a biblical vision, the angel also acts as a messenger. Gerontius’s angel, when first met, bears the news that is the key to the whole work, the joyful “spoiler alert” of his salvation. The announcement is one of ecstatic joy: “My task is done, my work is oe’r … For the crown is won. Alleluia!” The Easter word emerges with the same force and effect as it will for us at the Vigil. It is a cry of triumph, but a triumph which belongs to God and is motive for loving him even more.

In what follows, this not only makes Gerontius’s Judgment and descent to purgatory bearable, but also gives it a greater poignancy, leaving us vividly aware of the drama of salvation, in which man is destined for heaven but in danger of hell, protected by angels but tempted by demons. The Easter Alleluia sounds for us too, to inspire us to learn from Christ’s teaching “in the garden secretly and on the cross on high”, that we suffer and die with him, in whose flesh and blood we share literally and Eucharistically, and which in Him have now prevailed for us against the foe.

Newman is careful to point out that Gerontius’s Judgment is not at the hands of a stern lawgiver. It begins in Gerontius’s own soul from the moment he dies, effected by his approach towards the love, and not the wrath, of God. Newman does not attempt to describe the moment at the judgment seat, the soul’s searing encounter with the beauty and love of the Godhead. Finally face-to-face with his Creator, Gerontius is overwhelmed. “Take me away!” he cries. This is not a self-loathing shame; it is the reaction of one who stands naked in the truth about himself, a truth revealed in the light of a love which has given everything, which deserves everything, which exceeds everything. It is with such a love that we should contemplate Our Lord’s Cross, with the same intensity of a love that longs to atone and reciprocate, to be liberated from all that is still anti-divine, and from all that has offended and rebuffed this love so infinitely beautiful and gratuitous.

All true love knows what it is to say sorry. Only such a love could make the resulting temporary separation bearable. Gerontius declares paradoxically that he will be “happy in [my] pain, lone, not forlorn”, as he waits in purgatory. To know himself unworthy to stand in such a presence is testament to his appreciation of how much he is loved and how much he desires to become worthy of this love. The saint of Chesterton’s paradox is the one who knows himself to be a sinner.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (27/3/15).

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