John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons are, as Fr. Ian Ker has put it, “One of the great classics of Christian spirituality” (The Genius of John Henry Newman: selections from his writings, 121). Newman, the Anglican theologian who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, and who will be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in October 2019, delivered all of these sermons during his Anglican period. They are the paradigm of the classic Oxford preaching style of theological speech deployed for the sake of spiritual edification, while also reflecting the rigorous pastoral sensitivity and vigilance that marks Anglicanism at its best. By “rigorous pastoral sensitivity and vigilance” I mean primarily a sober realism about the complexities and ambiguities of the human heart, and a concrete summons to the faithful to confront that frightening reality with honesty and courage.
One of the primary ways this pastoral realism appears in these sermons is in Newman’s relentless efforts to identify the self-deceitfulness of the human heart, and to pull back the veils with which it habitually shrouds itself. In a sermon on “secret faults” (see Psalm 19:12), Newman remarks that “it is very difficult to know ourselves even in part,” but that self-knowledge is nevertheless a necessary condition for understanding the truths of redemption: only when we have an acute understanding of the twistedness of our hearts can we grasp the gravity and depth of Christ’s mercy towards us (vol. I, no. 4).
He offers a few concrete demonstrations of how we are mostly unaware of the dark and ugly disorders that afflict our souls. For instance, if we regularly see sins in others which they do not see in themselves, it is a safe bet that others see sins in us which we have failed to realize about ourselves. I see the inveterate impatience and anger in another man, who only gets more angry and impatient if I try gently to call him on this fault, but others may just as well see more than I do myself about, say, my motives for the good deeds from which I derive satisfaction about my own beneficence:
There are persons who act mainly from self-interest at times when they conceive they are doing generous or virtuous actions; they give freely, or put themselves to trouble, and are praised by the world, and by themselves, as if acting on high principle; whereas close observers can detect desire of gain, love of applause, shame, or the mere satisfaction of being busy and active, as the principal cause of their good deeds.
And if no other human being sees the slightest evidence of this externally, still “the stirrings of pride, vanity, covetousness, impurity, discontent, resentment … succeed each other through the day in momentary emotions, and are known to Him” who is greater than our heart, and knows all things.
Often the real state of the heart is disclosed by trials, when accidents occasion the unveiling of a subtle weakness that may otherwise have remained dormant. “Peter followed Christ boldly, and suspected not his own heart, till it betrayed him in the hour of temptation, and led him to deny his Lord. David lived years of happy obedience while he was in private life … yet power and wealth weakened his faith, and for a season overcame him.” We ought, therefore, “[n]ever to think we have a due knowledge of ourselves till we have been exposed to various kinds of temptations, and tried on every side.” No matter how persevering we are in prayer, no matter how watchful we are over our inner state, we can never get to the bottom of our hearts. Not until the last day, when we are placed into the final fiery trial of the soul, will we be confronted completely with “that fierce and terrifying vision of our real selves.”
The remedy for all of this is a proper self-knowledge. But self-knowledge does not come as a matter of course; it rather “implies an effort and a work.” Newman certainly means by this an effort of steadily reflecting on one’s motives for doing things, subjecting oneself to rigorous moral self-examination, even when this is painful either because of the ugliness we are afraid of confronting or because of simple spiritual laziness.
But Newman also emphasizes in other sermons that anxious navel-gazing attempts to work up a (likely artificial) affectedness about one’s own sins are bound but to reinforce and bind up even more tightly one’s own self-absorption. There is an immeasurable distance, he says, “between feeling right and doing right,” and perhaps the easiest way for the deceitfulness of our hearts to get the better of us is when we convince ourselves that we are sorry for our sin without making any concrete change in our conduct (vol. I, no. 13). Obedience is the real mark of conversion.
But this obedience cannot be achieved by stirring ourselves up into an ever-greater frenzy over our sins, but only by a total release of our dependence on ourselves to achieve any moral progress. We must, Newman says, be “ever suspicious of ourselves;” we must not take ourselves too seriously. The only desirable outcome and fruit of self-examination is that it lead us to “the habit of constant dependence upon the Unseen God, in whom ‘we live and move and have our being.’” This will be true for as long as we remain in the dark about ourselves (which is to say, for the rest of our mortal lives). To acquire this habit, then, is to make “the thought of God the stay of the soul” (as he put it in the title of another sermon).
The reason for having a good conscience is to lead our affections on to the eternal object apart from whom they will never realize their desire for infinitely blessed rest: “what is it to have a good conscience … but to be ever reminded of God by our own hearts” (vol. V, no. 22). To think of God always – his mercy and truth, his faithfulness and love – is to come to the true knowledge of oneself, for then alone are we naked and laid bare before “the eyes of the him with whom we have to do” (Heb 4:13).
I once heard a monk say that God doesn’t care about our morality, he just wants us to be self-aware. I’m not sure he was right about that. If by self-awareness he meant something like a recognition that we are habitually inclined to make everything about ourselves (and that this is a problem), then he may have had a point. But Newman reminds us that precisely because of this perpetual self-referentiality, our attempts to know ourselves better can easily result in a subtle evasion of the concrete demands God places on us. Newman, indeed, might offer exactly the opposite precept: God doesn’t care what you think about yourself, he just wants you to go do your job. Our job as Christians, as human beings, is to obey Christ. His commandments are clear, concrete, vivid, “real” and not “notional” (as Newman would say): just read the Sermon on the Mount.
The way truly to know ourselves is not idly to look within ourselves, but rather to look away from ourselves at the one who calls us by name, who commands us to love him by loving our neighbor, who sends us into the vineyard to work today. Self-examination has its place, but unless it results in obedience to the simple, every-day, common observance of the commandments, it will inevitably throw us back in the muck of the many illusions bred by self-absorption. God, however, is real – Reality Itself, in fact. And when we give ourselves fully to his service, he will not fail to bring us to the only self-knowledge that matters: the knowledge that we are his.
Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and serves as assistant priest at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland.