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John Henry Newman:
Surrender to God (1st Sunday in Lent), 1848

At St Chad's Cathedral, 1848.

I SUPPOSE it has struck many persons as very remarkable that in the latter times the strictness and severity in religion of former ages has been so much relaxed. There has been a gradual abandonment of painful duties which were formerly enforced upon all. Time was when all persons, to speak generally, abstained from flesh through the whole of Lent. There have been dispensations on this point again and again, and this very year there is a fresh one. What is the meaning of this? What are we to gather from it? This is a question worth considering. Various answers may be given, but I shall confine myself to one of them.

I answer that fasting is only one branch of a large and momentous duty, the subdual of ourselves to Christ. We must surrender to Him all we have, all we are. We must keep nothing back. We must present to Him as captive prisoners with whom He may do what He will, our soul and body, our reason, our judgement, our affections, our imagination, our tastes, our appetite. The great thing is to <subdue> ourselves; but as to the particular form in which the great precept of self-conquest and self-surrender is to be expressed, that depends on the person himself, and on the time or place. What is good for one age or person is not good for another.

There are other instances of the same variation. For example, devotion to the saints is a Catholic practice. It is founded on a clear Catholic doctrine, and the Catholic practice has been the same from the beginning. It could not possibly change. Yet it is certain that the prominent object of that devotion has varied at different times, varying now in the case of individuals, one person having a devotion to one saint, another to another; and in like manner it has varied in the Church at large for example, quite at first the Martyrs, as was natural, took up this principal attention. It was natural, when their friends were dying daily under the sword or at the stake before their eyes, to direct their devotion in the first instance to their glorified spirits. But when a time of external peace was granted, then the thought of the Blessed Virgin took up its abode in the hearts of the faithful, and there was a greater devotion than before to her. And this thought of the Blessed Virgin has grown stronger and clearer and more influential in the minds of the Church. The devout servants of Mary were comparatively few in the first ages; now they are many.

Again, to take another instance, the present war with evil spirits would seem to be very different from what it was in former ages. They attack a civilized age in a more subtle way than they attack a rude age. We read in lives of saints and others of the evil spirit showing himself and fighting with them face to face, but now those subtle and experienced spirits find it is more to their purpose not to show themselves, or at least not so much. They find it their interest to let the idea of them die away from the minds of men that, being unrecognized, they may do the more mischief. And they assault men in a more subtle way -- not grossly, in some broad temptation, which everyone can understand, but in some refined way they address themselves to our pride or self-importance, or love of money, or love of ease, or love of show, or our depraved reason, and thus have really the dominion over persons who seem at first sight to be quite superior to temptation.

Now, apply these illustrations to the case in point. From what has been said it follows that you must not suppose that nothing is incumbent on us in the way of mortification, though you have not to fast so strictly as formerly. It is reasonable to think that some other duty of the same general kind may take its place; and therefore the permission granted us in eating may be a suggestion to us to be more severe with ourselves, on the other hand, in certain other respects.

And this anticipation is confirmed by the history of our Lord's temptation in the wilderness. It <began>, you will observe, with an attempt on the part of the evil one to make Him break His fast improperly. It <began>, but it did not end there. It was but the first of three temptations, and the other two were more addressed to His mind, not His bodily wants. One was to throw Himself down from the pinnacle, the other the offer of all the kingdoms of the world. They were more subtle temptations. Now, I have used the word "subtle" already, and it needs some explanation. By a subtle temptation or a subtle sin, I mean one which it is very difficult to find out. Everyone knows what it is to break the ten commandments, the first, the second, the third, and so on. When a thing is directly commanded and the devil tempts us directly to break it, this is <not> a subtle temptation but a broad and gross temptation. But there are a great many things wrong which are not so obviously wrong. They are wrong as leading to what is wrong or the consequence of what is wrong, or they are wrong because they are the very same thing as what is forbidden, but dressed up and looking differently. The human mind is very deceitful; when a thing is forbidden, a man does not like directly to do it, but he goes to work if he can to get at the forbidden end in some way. It is like a man who has to make for some place. First he attempts to go straight to it, but finds the way blocked up; then he goes round about it. At first you would not think he is going in the right direction; he sets off perhaps at a right angle, but he just makes one little bend, then another, till at length he gets to his point. Or still more it is like a sailing vessel at sea with the wind contrary, but, tacking first this way and then that, the mariners contrive at length to get to their destination. This, then, is a subtle sin, when it at first seems not to be a sin but comes round to the same point as an open, direct sin.

To take some examples. If the devil tempted one to go out into the highway and rob, this would be an open, bold temptation. But if he tempted one to do something unfair in the course of business, which was to one's neighbour's hurt and to one's own advantage, it would be a more subtle temptation. The man would still take what was his neighbour's, but his conscience would not be so much shocked. So, equivocation is a more subtle sin than direct lying. In like manner a person who does not intoxicate himself, may eat too much. Gluttony is a more subtle sin than drunkenness, because it does not show so much. And again, sins of the soul are more subtle sins than sins of the body. Infidelity is a more subtle sin than licentiousness.

Even in our Blessed Lord's case the Tempter began by addressing himself to His bodily wants. He had fasted forty days, and afterwards was hungered. So the devil tempted Him to eat. But when He did not consent, then he went on to more subtle temptations. He tempted Him to spiritual pride, and he tempted Him by ambition or power. Many a man would shrink from intemperance who yet would not see the sin of his aiming at power or of being proud of his spiritual attainments; that is, he would confess such things were wrong, but he would not see that he was guilty of them.

Next I observe that a civilized age is more exposed to subtle sins than a rude age. Why? For this simple reason, because it is more fertile in excuses and evasions. It can defend error, and hence can blind the eyes of those who have not very careful consciences. It can make error plausible, it can make vice look like virtue. It dignifies sin by fine names; it calls avarice proper care of one's family, or industry; it calls pride independence; it calls ambition greatness of mind; resentment it calls proper spirit and sense of honour, and so on.

Such is this age, and hence our self-denial must be very different from what was necessary for a rude age. Barbarians lately converted, or warlike multitudes, of fierce spirit and robust power -- nothing can tame them better than fasting. But we are very different. Whether from the natural course of centuries or from our mode of living, from the largeness of our towns or other causes, so it is that our powers are weak and we cannot bear what our ancestors did. Then, again, what numbers there are who anyhow must have dispensation, whether because their labour is so hard, or because they never have enough and cannot be called on to stint themselves in Lent. These are reasons for the rule of fasting not being so strict as once it was. And let me now say that the rule which the Church now gives us, though indulgent, yet is strict, too. It tries a man. One meal a day is trial to most people, even though on some days meat is allowed. It is sufficient, with our weak frames, to be a mortification of sensuality. It serves that end for which all fasting was instituted. On the other hand, its being so light as it is, so much lighter than it was in former times, is a suggestion to us that there are other sins and weaknesses to mortify in us besides gluttony and drunkenness. It is a suggestion to us, while we strive to be pure and undefiled in our bodies, to be on our guard lest we are unclean and sinful in our intellects, in our affections, in our wills.

When the old rude age of the world was just ended and an age which is called light and civilization had begun -- I mean in the sixteenth century- the Providence of Almighty God raised up two saints. One came from Florence and the other came from Spain, and they met together in Rome. They were as unlike each other as any two men could be -unlike in their history, in their character, in the religious institutes which ultimately, by God's all-directing grace, they were prospered in founding. The Spaniard had been a soldier -- his history was exciting. He had been tossed about the world, and, after his conversion he founded a company of spiritual knights or cavaliers, as they may be called, who were bound to a sort of military service to the Holy See. The Florentine had been a saint from a boy; perhaps he never committed a mortal sin, and he was a stationary, home saint. For sixty years he lived in Rome and never left it. St Philip Neri is the Florentine, and St Ignatius is the Spaniard. These two saints, so different from each other, were both great masters in their own persons of the grace of abstinence and fasting. Their own personal asceticism was wonderful, and yet these two great lights, though so different from each other, and so mortified themselves, agreed in this -- not to impose bodily afflictions to any great extent on their disciples, but mortification of the spirit, of the will, of the affections, of the tastes, of the judgement, of the reason. They were divinely enlightened to see that the coming age, at the beginning of which they stood, required more than anything else not mortification of the body (though it needed that, too, of course), but more than it, mortification of the reason and the will.

Now then, I have got at length, my brethren, to my practical conclusion. What all of us want more than anything else, what this age wants, is that its intellect and its will should be under a law. At present it is lawless; its will is its own law; its own reason is the standard of all truth. It does not bow to authority, it does not submit to the law of faith. It is wise in its own eyes and it relies on its own resources. And you, as living in the world, are in danger of being seduced by it, and being a partner in its sin, and so coming in at the end for its punishment. Now then, let me, in conclusion, suggest one or two points in which you may profitably subdue your minds, which require it even more than your bodies.

For example, in respect to curiosity. What a deal of time is lost, to say nothing else, in this day by curiosity about things which in no ways concern us. I am not speaking against interest in the news of the day altogether, for the course of the world must ever be interesting to a Christian from its bearing upon the fortunes of the Church; but I speak of vain curiosity, love of scandal, love of idle tales, curious prying into the private history of people, curiosity about trials and offences, and personal matters, nay often what is much worse than this, curiosity into sin. What strange, diseased curiosity is sometimes felt about the history of murders, and of the malefactors themselves! Worse still, it is shocking to say, but there is so much evil curiosity to know about deeds of darkness, of which the Apostle says that it is shameful to speak. Many a person, who has no intention of doing the like, from an evil curiosity reads what he ought not to read. This is in one shape or other very much the sin of boys, and they suffer for it. The knowledge of what is evil is the first step in their case to the commission of it. Hence this is the way in which we are called upon, with this Lent we now begin, to mortify ourselves. Let us mortify our curiosity.

Again, the desire of knowledge is in itself praiseworthy, but it may be excessive; it may take us from higher things, it may take up too much of our time it is a vanity. The preacher makes the distinction between profitable and unprofitable learning when he says: "The words of the wise are like goads and nails." They excite and stimulate us and are fixed in our memories. "But further than this, my son, inquire not. Of making many books there is no end, and much study" (that is, poring over secular subjects) "is affliction of the flesh. Let us one and all have an end of the discourse: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man." Knowledge is very well in its place, but it is like flowers without fruit. We cannot feed on knowledge, we cannot thrive on knowledge. Just as the leaves of the grove are very beautiful but would make a bad meal, so we shall ever be hungry and never be satisfied if we think to take knowledge for our food. Knowledge is no food. Religion is our only food. Here then is another mortification. Mortify your desire of knowledge. Do not go into excess in seeking after truths which are not religious. Again, mortify your reason. In order to try you, God puts before you things which are difficult to believe. St Thomas's faith was tried; so is yours. He said, "My Lord and my God". You say so, too. Bring your proud intellect into subjection. Believe what you cannot see, what you cannot understand, what you cannot explain, what you cannot prove, when God says it.

Lastly, bring your will into subjection. We all like our own will -- let us consult the will of others. Numbers of persons are obliged to do this. Servants are obliged to do the will of their masters, workmen of their employers, children of their parents, husbands of their wives. Well, in these cases let your will go with that of those who have a right to command you. Don't rebel against it. Sanctify what is, after all, a necessary act. Make it in a certain sense your own, sanctify it, and get merit from it. And again, when you are your own master, be on your guard against going too much by your own opinion. Take some wise counsellor or director, and obey him. There are persons who cry out against such obedience, and call it a number of bad names. They are the very persons who need it. It would do them much good. They say that men are made mere machines, and lose the dignity of human nature by going by the word of another. And I should like to know what they become by going by their own will. I appeal to any candid person and ask whether he would not confess that, on the whole, the world would be much happier, that individuals would be much happier, if they had not a will of their own. For one person who has been hurt by following the direction of another, a hundred persons have been ruined by going by their own will. But this is another subject.


Source:


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu