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John Henry Newman:
The World and Sin (2nd Sunday in Lent), 1848

At St Chad's Cathedral, 1848.

IN the passage of St Matthew's Gospel, part of which is read as the Gospel for this day, we have a very remarkable contrast, the contrast between this world and the unseen world. It is so distinctly drawn out and so impressive, that it may be profitable to us, with God's grace, to attempt to enlarge upon it.

Our Lord often passed the night in prayer, and as afterwards in that sad night before His Passion He took with Him three Apostles to witness His prayer in agony, so at an earlier time He took the same favoured three with Him to witness His prayer in ecstasy and glory. On the one occasion He fell on His face and prayed more earnestly till He was covered with a sweat of blood which rolled down upon the cold earth. In the other, as He prayed His countenance became bright and glorious, and He was lifted off the earth. So He remained communing with His Father, ministered to by Moses and Elias, till a voice came from the cloud, which said: "This is My beloved Son, hear ye Him." The sight had been so wonderful, so transporting, that St Peter could not help crying out. He knew not what he said. He did not know how to express his inward feelings, nor did he understand in a moment all the wonders about him. He could but say: "Lord, it is good for us to be here." Simple words, but how much they contain in them. It was good, it was the good of man, it was the great good, it was our good. He did not say that the sight was sublime and marvellous. He was not able to reflect upon it and describe it. His reason did not speak, but his affections. He did but say that it was good to be there. And he wished that great good to continue to him ever. He said: "Let us build three tabernacles, one for Thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias." He wished to remain there for ever, it was so good. He was loath the vision should come to an end. He did not like to descend from the mount and return to those whom he had left behind.

Now let us see what was taking place below while they were above. When they reached the crowd, they found a dispute going on between the rest of the Apostles and the Scribes. The subject of it seems to have been the poor demoniac, who is next spoken of. A father had brought his son to be cured by the Apostles. He was a frightful maniac, possessed by the devil. None could hold him. The spirit took away his voice and hearing. He was ordinarily deaf and dumb, but sometimes he dashed himself to the ground, threw himself into the fire or into the water, foamed at the mouth, and then perhaps collapsed. The devil was too much for the Apostles. They could not master him, they could not cast him out. They were reduced to a sort of despair, and this was the occasion, as it appears, of their dispute with the Scribes, who might be taunting them with their failure. Oh the contrast between what St Peter had come from and what he had now come to! He had left peace, stillness, contemplation, the vision of heaven, and he had come into pain, grief, confusion, perplexity, disappointment, and debate.

Now this contrast, as I have said, between the Mount of Transfiguration and the scene at its foot, fitly represents to us the contrast between the world and the Church, between the things seen and the things unseen.

I will not dwell on the mere physical evils of this life, though they are enough to appall us, the miseries of sickness, pain, want, cold, hunger; but let us dwell upon the moral evils which it contains. The poor youth who was brought to Christ to be cured was possessed by the devil, arid alas ! is not a great portion, is not the greatest portion of mankind at this day possessed by the devil too? He is called in Scripture "the god of this world", and "the Prince of the I powers of this air, the spirit which now worketh in the children of disbelief". In the book of Job we read of his "compassing the earth and walking up and down in it", and St Peter speaks of our "adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, compassing the earth, seeking whom he may devour". Thus he is found all over the earth and within the souls of men, not indeed able to do anything which God does not permit, but still, God not interfering, he possesses immense power, and is able to influence millions upon millions to their ruin. And as the poor epileptic in the Gospel was under the mastery of the evil spirit, so that his eyes, his ears, his tongue, his limbs were not his own, so does that same miserable spirit possess the souls of sinners, ruling them, impelling them here and there, doing what he will with them, not indeed doing the same with everyone, some he moves one way, some in another, but all in some pitiable, horrible, and ungodly way.

Wickedness is sometimes called madness in Scripture -- so it is. As literal madness is derangement of the reason, so sin is derangement of the heart, of the spirit, of the affection. And as madness was the disorder in which possession by the devil showed itself in Scripture, so this madness of the heart and spirit is the disorder which in all ages the devil produces in the spirit. And as there are different forms of that madness which is derangement of the reason, so there are different forms of that worse madness which is sin. In an asylum there are different forms of the disorder, and so this whole world is one vast madhouse, of which the inmates, though shrewd enough in matters of this world, yet in spiritual matters are in one way or another mad.

For example, what is the drunkard but a sort of madman? Who is possessed and ruled by an evil spirit, if not he ? He has delivered himself over to the power of Satan, and he is his slave. He cannot do what he would. Through his own fault he cannot do what he would. In that he differs from the real madman, whose fault it is not that he is mad; whereas it is the drunkard's own fault that he is the slave of evil. But so it is, he has put himself under the power of evil, he puts himself away from grace, he cannot make up his mind to will to be otherwise, his will is set on what is evil, and thus he is a mere slave. The relentless spirit of evil carries him off to the haunts of intemperance. He knows that he is ruining himself, soul and body, he knows the misery he brings upon his family, he knows that he is shortening his life, he curses perhaps his own infatuation while he persists in it. He wishes he had never been born. Perhaps he has a bad illness in consequence, and the medical man who attends him says to him that it will to a certainty be his death if he does not reform. He knows it, yet his sin is too strong for him, and in this despair and agony of mind perhaps he takes up some dreadful belief, most injurious to God's honour and glory, as if he were fated to all this and could not help it. He says: "Every man is fated to be what he is, it can't be helped, it's not my fault, I never could have been otherwise, it did not depend on me." Miserable and most untrue saying. Is it not the saying of a madman ? Is it not the word of one possessed with a devil? Here, then, is one instance in which the demoniac in the Gospel may be taken as a type and emblem of the state of the world.

Others are possessed by spirits of a different kind. They are not outrageous, but they are bowed down to the earth and kept in a close awful captivity. How many, for instance, are there with hard hearts ! And what is hardness of heart but a sort of possession by the evil one? The drunkard has often moments of religious feeling, but there are numbers, and they perhaps what the world calls moral, well-conditioned men, who seem to have no heart whatever for spiritual subjects. A true Christian cannot hear the name of Christ without emotion, but in this country there are multitudes, poor and rich, who are set upon nothing else whatever but on getting money, and who have no taste whatever for religion. Sometimes, I say, they are poor, and thus they not merely aim to get a livelihood, for this is right, but are engrossed with the thought. Religion seems to them, not a real thing but a name, and to concern them no more than what is going on in China or Patagonia. It seems beside the mark, and they merely wonder and stare at those who introduce it. The rich again are engrossed with the wish to make their wealth greater, and the pursuit of wealth blocks up the avenues to their hearts, and they have neither time, nor thought, nor love, for the great things which concern their peace. What is all this but another possession of the devil, though very different from the former? It is like moping melancholy. The demoniac in the Gospel, not only cried out and tore himself, but at other times he became dry or shriveled, which seems to mean a sort of collapse. What is this love of the world, which we see whether in rich or poor, but a sort of shriveling up or collapse of the soul? What then is so like a possession of Satan? And can any state be more fearful than that of an immortal being, who is to live for ever, attempting to live on mortal food, and having no relish for that immortal food which alone is its true nourishment ? What is to be your food, my brethren, when you get into the next world ? Will this mortal food on which you feed now be present to you then ? What are your souls then to feed on ? What is to employ them ? Nay, what is to possess them ? If a soul goes on contentedly, now the slave of the evil one, if he lets the evil one take up a lodgement in his breast, how is he to dislodge him ever? Will not that evil spirit necessarily and inevitably carry down that soul at once to hell when death comes?

I might go on upon this subject at great length were it necessary. Accustom yourself to the idea, my brethren, and a terrible idea it is, that the state of sin is a demoniacal possession. Consider how such a possession of the body is spoken of in Scripture. Consider how the devil tormented the poor suffering body which he was allowed to get hold of. Then consider, what we may so often see now, what a fearful affliction madness is. Then, when you have considered these two things and got a clear hold of the idea, think that sin is just such a possession of the heart and spirit. It is not that the body is afflicted, as in the case of a demoniac. It is not that the reason is afflicted, as in the case of a madman. But it is that the spirit, the heart, the affections, the conscience, the will, are in the power of an evil spirit, who sways them about at his pleasure. How awful is this!

When, then, St Peter, St James, and St John came down from the Mount and saw the miserable youth tormented by an evil spirit, they saw in that youth a figure and emblem of that world of sinners, to whom in due time they were to be sent to preach. But this is not all. They found their brethren disputing with the Scribes, or at least the Scribes questioning with them. Here is another circumstance in which the scene which they saw resembled the world. The world is full of wrangling and debate, and not unreasonably, because when the heart is wrong the reason goes wrong too, and when men corrupt themselves and lead bad lives, then they do not see the truth, but have to hunt about after it, and this creates a great confusion. For instance, suppose a sudden darkness were to fall upon the streets of a crowded city in day- time, you may fancy without my telling you what a noise and clamour there would be, foot passengers, carriages, carts, horses all being mixed together. Such is the state of the world. The evil spirit, which worketh in the children of disbelief, the god of this world, as St Paul says, has blinded the eyes of them that believe not, and hence they are obliged to wrangle and debate, for they have lost their way; and they fall out with each other and one says this and one says that, because they do not see. When men do not <see>, they begin to <reason.>

When men do not see, they being to talk loud. When men do not see, they begin to quarrel. Look around, my brethren, is it not so? Have not you theories innumerable, arguments interminable offered to you, on all sides ? One man says truth is here, another there. Alas, alas, how many religions are there in this great yet unhappy country! Here you have the Scribes wrangling with each other. There is no end of religions -- there are new ones continually. Now if one is true, the other is false; if the new is true the old are false, if the old are true the new are false. All cannot be true. Can even a dozen be true, or six, or two ? Can more than one be true ? And which is that one? Thank God, we, my brethren, know which that one is -- that is the true religion which has been from the beginning and has been always the same. But on all sides there are wranglings and doubtings and disputings, uncertainty and change.

Now I will mention one other respect in which the scene before the three Apostles when they came down from the Mount resembled the world, and that is a still more miserable one. You will observe that their brethren could not cast the evil spirit out. So it is now. There is an immense weight of evil in the world. We Catholics, and especially we Catholic priests, have it in charge to resist, to overcome the evil; but we cannot do what we would, we cannot overcome the giant, we cannot bind the strong man. We do a part of the work, not all. It is a battle which goes on between good and evil, and though by God's grace we do something, we cannot do more. There is confusion of nations and perplexity. It is God's will that so it should be, to show His power. He alone can heal the soul. He alone can expel the devil. And therefore we must wait for a great deal, till He comes down, till He comes down from His seat on high, His seat in glory, to aid us and deliver us.

In that day we shall enter, if we be worthy, the fullness of that glory, of which the three Apostles had the foretaste in the moment of Transfiguration. All is darkness here, all is bright in heaven. All is disorder here, all is order there. All is noise here and there there is stillness, or if sounds are heard, they are the sweet sounds of the eternal harps on which the praises of God are sung. Here we are in a state of uncertainty; we do not know what is to happen. The Church suffers; her goodly portion and her choice inheritance suffer; the vineyard is laid waste; there is persecution and war; and Satan rages and afflicts when he cannot destroy. But all this will be set right in the world to come, and if St Peter could say at the Transfiguration, "It is good to be here", much more shall we have cause to say so when we see the face of God. For then we shall be like our Lord Himself, we shall have glorified bodies, as He had then and has now. We shall have put off flesh and blood, and receive our bodies at the last day, the same indeed, but incorruptible, spiritual bodies, which will be able to see and enjoy the presence of God in a way which was beyond the three Apostles in the days of their mortality. Then the envious malignant spirit will be cast out, and we shall have nothing to fear, nothing to be perplexed at, for the Lord God shall lighten us, and encompass us, and we shall be in perfect security and peace. Then we shall look back upon this world, and the trials and temptations which are past, and what thankfulness, what joy will not rise within us -and we shall look forward, and this one thought will be upon us, that this blessedness is to last for ever. Our security has no limit. It is not that we shall be promised a hundred years of peace, or a thousand, but for ever and ever shall we be as we are, for our happiness and our peace will be founded in the infinite blessedness and peace of God, and as He is eternal and happy, so shall we be.

May this be the future portion of you all, my brethren.


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