Nine Days with St. John Henry Newman – Day 9

Day 9 – A Quiet Legacy

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objecting, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’”

-from C.S. Lewis’, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer

In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer, one of the final works written by acclaimed author C.S. Lewis, we read this about Purgatory:

I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on ‘the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory’ as that Romish doctrine had then become…

The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream [ref. Dream of Gerontius]. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer ‘With its darkness to affront that light.

The actual passages Lewis references are from John Henry Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius, written in 1865. It explores the experience of a dying man and his encounters with angelic and demonic beings. Lewis is referencing two passages. In the first, The Soul of the dying man, upon hearing about Purgatory’s purpose, cries to the Angel:

His will be done!
I am not worthy e’er to see again
The face of day; far less His countenance,
Who is the very sun. Nathless, in life,
When I looked forward to my purgatory,
It ever was my solace to believe
That, ere I plunged amid th’ avenging flame,
I had one sight of Him to strengthen me.

Later, the Angel narrates how the Soul has rushed forward “with the intemperate energy of love” to the feet of Christ on His Throne, only to find himself “seized, scorched and hrivel’d” by the “keen sanctity” and “effluence, like glory” of that place. The Angel reports that the Soul now “lies passive and still before the awful Throne.” And yet, “O happy, suffering soul! For it is safe, consumed, yet quicken’d, by the glance of God.”

The Soul then proclaims:

Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be,
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
Lone, not forlorn,—
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain,
Until the morn.
There will I sing, and soothe my stricken breast,
Which ne’er can cease
To throb, and pine, and languish, till possest
Of its Sole Peace.
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:—
Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day.

For many 20th century readers, Lewis’ view of Purgatory as a necessary and desired cleaning-up before going in to see the King, was a refreshing and understandable one. Many (myself included) did not know its source.  Nor did many (myself included) realize that Lewis’ classic novel The Great Divorce was inspired by the same material. One can also find the theme being explored in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the annoying Eustace Scrubb becomes a dragon and must suffer the process of being transformed back to a boy by the lion Aslan. 

Newman wrote to a friend that he wasn’t sure how the poem had come to him. “It came into my head to write it” in January 1865. Written on “small bits of paper,” Newman was incapable of working on anything else until he finished it. It was published a few months later. 

Arguably, in the scheme of Newman’s life and work, the poem may seem like a small effort. Yet, as is often true, small efforts can have a large impact. Many in Newman’s time were touched and inspired by the poem. Ten years after Newman’s death, the composer Edward Elgar put it to music and, for many, became the version people know. And, as mentioned, there was C.S. Lewis.

This is one example of Newman’s legacy. His writings about faith, conscience, doctrine, history and conversion have influenced untold millions over the years. I saw this personally as thousands gathered for Newman’s canonization. In his homily, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, quoted Newman extolling the “holiness of daily life,” reminding us that “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not… The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretense… with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man.” Pope Francis concluded by asking us to “seek kindly lights” amid the encircling gloom. Jesus “stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest: so to shine as to be a light to others.”

The following day, at a Mass of Thanksgiving, to celebrate “Saint John Henry,” I watched hundreds of clergy process into the Basilica of St. John Lateran and joined a couple of thousand people who were there to recognize the man who’d influenced them so deeply. H.E. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, was eloquent about a man who inspired so many through his writings but was also a humble priest who went about his daily duties with the same enthusiasm. The Cardinal admitted that Newman may never be as well-known as other saints that performed more spectacular feats, and yet Newman is no less regarded for the subtle ways he spoke into the lives of so many. 

I sometimes wonder what my legacy will be. Will anything about my life and work influence those who come after me? What influence am I having now? Do I inspire others to holiness or distract them from it? Am I having a positive impact for Christ in this time and place? Do I attempt to big, noticeable things, when I should focus on my vocation as a husband and father, a friend and neighbor, a gracious stranger? I wonder. 


(Adapted from John Henry Newman)
O Lord God, the best and truest of teachers! O you who are the truth, I know, and believe with my whole heart that this very flesh of mine will rise again. I know, base and odious as it is at present, that it will one day, if I be worthy, be raised incorruptible and altogether beautiful and glorious. This I know; by Your grace, I will ever keep before me. 

O my God, teach me so to live, as one who believes the great dignity, the great sanctity of that material frame in which you have lodged me. And therefore, O my dear Saviour, do I come so often and so earnestly to be partaker of your Body and Blood, that by means of Your ineffable holiness I may be made holy. 

O my Lord Jesus, I know what is written, that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Should I not venerate that which You miraculously feed, and which Your coequal Spirit inhabits? 

O my God, who was nailed to the Cross, “pierce you my flesh with your fear,” crucify my soul and body in all that is sinful in them, and make me pure as you are pure. Amen.


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Written by Paul McCusker


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