Newman on the Last Things

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Josh Orsi, The Catholic University of America, Edited by Michael Twohig

C. S. Lewis credited Cardinal Newman with reclaiming Purgatory for religion with his Dream of Gerontius, published in 1865.  Newman’s poem “stands first among the few great poems that depict the life after death,” according to Newman scholar Maurice Francis Egan after a list which includes the Purgatorio, and the Cardinal’s achievement came in the late middle age of a life already filled with theological innovation.  This essay, which can only briefly address some of the essential points of Newman’s presentation of the afterlife, judgement, and purification discussed in the Dream, will begin with an analysis of the sermon “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness” which Newman, then a young Anglican, delivered sometime between 1825 and 1834.  His explanation of heaven in light of Hebrews 12:14 provides the framework for his later developments in the Dream, as well as the theological grounding for the innovations of the twentieth-century revival of traditional Christian scholarship.

The sermon “Holiness” is concerned with the question “why is it that holiness is a necessary qualification for our being received into heaven?”  Newman first seeks to correct his parishioners who “consider heaven a place like earth,” as “a place where every one may choose and take his own pleasure.”  This is the chief limitation of depicting heaven as a physical space, because it is really concerned with the adoration of the deity, of which both object and act are spiritual and therefore, in this life, capable of only abstract depiction.  Newman will encounter this constraint later in his Dream.  In “Holiness,” however, he describes his point in the following words: “For heaven, it is plain from Scripture, is not a place where many different and discordant pursuits can be carried on at once, as is the case in this world.  Here every man can do his own pleasure, but there he must do God’s pleasure.”

The first step to understanding heaven, therefore, is to disabuse ourselves of the idea that heaven is chiefly a place of earthly delights.  These may be constitutive of it, but its true nature is that of “a church.”  A religious convocation in this world is dedicated to one supernatural End.  There are, and should be, one might add, sensual aspects – the beauty of music and singing, the aroma of incense, the ringing of bells and the sonorous cadences of the liturgy, to say nothing of religious artwork and architecture – but these are accidental to the true work of the liturgy, which is invisible and spiritual.  Heaven is analogous to church, per Newman, in its singular worship of God, but in church, “we may turn our thoughts to other subjects, and contrive to forget that God is looking on us; but that will not be possible in heaven.”

Newman draws from this analogy two interrelated corollaries, the first about the nature of eternal punishment, and the second about the nature of our sanctification.  Both of these figure prominently in the works of later apologists such as C. S. Lewis and Frank Sheed.

The first corollary is that hell is an act of divine mercy, for “if we wished to imagine a punishment for an unholy, reprobate soul, we perhaps could not fancy a greater than to summon it to heaven.  Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”  Newman describes the particular nature of this evil in paradoxical terms – profound loneliness, like that of a traveler wandering in a country where everything is foreign and inexplicable, and “wrath and punishment” under the “Eternal Eye.”  Newman asserts that anything otherwise is impossible for God: “Fire does not inflame iron, but it does straw.  It would cease to be fire if it did not.”  A memorable line, referring to the parable of the rich man, reads: “The finger of Lazarus would but increase their thirst.”

Newman’s view was striking in an era characterized by puritanism, but his doctrine is rooted in the Fathers and is particularly redolent of Eriugena.  Still, he does not take his view to the furthest possible point and reject that there will be positive “torments of hell.”  A century later, Frank Sheed would expound on this twofold schema in his A Map of Life, averring that the souls of the damned would suffer both a punishment under divine justice and eternal, self-willed separation from God.  This latter evil is the greater, for, in the spirit of Newman, “our whole nature needs God far more than our bodies need food and drink.  If, then, a man is deprived of God, he must, inescapably, suffer, and this with the greatest suffering possible to man.”

Newman’s second corollary about the nature of heaven proceeds naturally from the first.  If holiness, a “certain character of mind” or “state of the heart and affections,” is necessary to experience the joys of heaven, then “our actions will avail for our salvation, chiefly as they tend to produce or evidence this frame of mind.”  This is far removed from a spirit of “works salvation,” because “holiness be not merely the doing a certain number of good actions, but is an inward character which follows, under God’s grace, from doing them.”  When applied to eschatology, Newman could have penned this line in Lewis’ Mere Christianity: “What really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul, which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature.”

“To obtain the gift of holiness is the work of a life.”  What about those who do not spend a lifetime in pursuit of the Good?  Newman is vague on this point in “Holiness,” but much of The Dream of Gerontius is devoted to the doctrine of Purgatory, which reflects the same principles of the Cardinal’s early career.  Before discussing postmortem purification, however, a few brief words are in order concerning Newman’s thoughts on the state of the soul in the afterlife.

Newman’s understanding of “spiritual time” is profoundly phenomenological: according to Gerontius’ guardian angel, who bears his soul to meet God, “intervals in their succession / Are measured by the living thought alone.”  He goes further: “every one / Is standard of his own chronology.”  Newman does not apply this principle to purgation directly, but the final lines of the Dream, in which the Angel bids Gerontius a temporary farewell as he lowers him into the “penal waters” of Purgatory, run “Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, / And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”  Another point of note, especially vis-à-vis contemporary near-death experiences, is that the souls of heaven are physically blind until the Resurrection; even the Beatific Vision is a spiritual and not a physical perception.  Still, Newman allows for (nonliteral) forms of the other five senses in order to represent a “world of signs and types.”

I noted earlier that there is a sort of tension or juxtaposition in Newman’s early presentation of hell – it is a place of corporeal as well as spiritual torment, something involving positive punishment as well as separation from God (though Lewis, per The Problem of Pain, averred that the two are in the end identical).  This tension, between a purgatory conceived of solely as the encounter with God and as a sequestered correctional facility, is also apparent in the Dream.  While the Dream ends with the soul of Gerontius baptized in the aforementioned “penal waters,” this penance is something for which it longs: “Take me away, and in the lowest deep / There let me be.”

However, Newman is far more interested in describing the purifying encounter with Jesus.  As the Soul and its Angel speed toward the divine, the Angel assures the Soul that it will have a bracing glimpse of God before Purgatory and offers several descriptions of the moment, the most striking of which in my mind is a reference to the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi, which reads in part, “the flame of the Everlasting Love / Doth burn ere it transform.”  In the introduction to the text, Egan quotes from a French document, The Psychology of Purgatory, which describes the actions of the soul before God: “Its sorrow grows with its love, as it loves God more and more with all the fibers of its being; it is drawn by vital and mighty bonds towards the object of its love, but each bond is broken by the weight of its faults, which like a mass of lead hold it down.”

Such is the encounter as Newman gives it poetic form.  The density of Newman’s theology, refined into a handful of lines, merits a lengthy quotation, but I must paraphrase.  The Soul is sinless, and, in a probable reference to Dante, it is no longer inclined to sin.  Even so, the glory and the holiness of God will both hearten and shame the soul, now confronted by the magnitude of God’s undeserved love: “And these two pains, so counter and so keen,- / The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not; / The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,- / Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.”

Indeed, when the Soul finally does see God, it flies forward of its own accord to the Judgement Seat “with the intemperate energy of love.”  The Angel, narrating the scene, says that “the keen sanctity, / Which with its effluence, like a glory, clothes / And circles round the Crucified, has seized, / And scorched, and shriveled it; and now it lies / Passive and still before the awful Throne. / O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe, / Consumed, yet quickened, by the glance of God.”  It is at this moment that the soul “begs to be taken away and cleansed,” in the words of Lewis, commenting on the poem.

The contributions of Cardinal Newman to religious theology, epistemology, literature, history, and many other fields cannot be overstated.  He was the most original religious mind of the nineteenth century and perhaps the greatest theologian, certainly the greatest Catholic theologian, since St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.  While still very much a part of the Catholicism of his day and age, Newman’s keen understanding of the Faith inspired him to innovate and rethink many of the ossifying dogmas of his day which were failing in the light of contemporary skepticism.  His theology has proved formative for many Christians, even if they know his work only through a figure such as C. S. Lewis.  Lewis’ whole soteriology, about the soul’s gradual formation to live in heaven or hell, is of a piece with Newman’s beliefs even from his youth, and while Lewis was never so explicit about “the mercy of hell,” as one might phrase it, his understanding of the abode of the damned as more preferable to its inhabitants than heaven has done much in preserving the integrity of the doctrine in the modern day.  And as I have said before, Lewis’ belief in Purgatory is directly traceable to, or at least deeply influenced by, Cardinal Newman’s depiction of the just and merciful God and the humble and penitent soul in The Dream of Gerontius.  He may not yet have been declared a Doctor of the Church, but St. John Henry Newman is as deserving of the honor as any of the saints of old.


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