In His Own Words: Newman on Sainthood

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By Isaac Withers


Many of the full texts of Newman’s hugely influential sermons and works remain with us still today and we can continue to be guided by Newman’s advice on many of the key questions of morality and spirituality. The extracts in this article are taken from his sermons, ‘Divine Calls’, ‘Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness’ and ‘The Communion of Saints’ – with other writings included.

On Sunday the 13th October this year, John Henry Newman will be canonised a saint – this makes him quite the authority on the matter of how we should become saints ourselves. His advice on this matter is invaluable. Here are just a few of Newman’s tips for you on the journey to sainthood.


The Short Road to Perfection

Perhaps the most concise direction Newman ever gave on this matter is his, ‘Short Road to Perfection’. Asked how someone should become a saint, Newman replied:

 ‘If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first – Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.’

Although naming this, ‘A short road to perfection’ Newman acknowledged that it is ‘short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.’ He also is keen to point out what he means by perfection, that he does not mean ‘anything out of the way, or especially heroic’ but, ‘that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent… He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.’

So there you have it, that is all you need to achieve perfection in Newman’s view. However, he said many other things throughout his life on the pursuit of holiness and sainthood, so if you want to keep receiving his words of wisdom on this topic, here are some of his other great insights.

Sainthood Is A Calling

 In perhaps Newman’s most famous prayer, ‘Some Definite Service’ he describes how he understands sainthood is the fulfilling of an individual vocation, living out a direct  and personal calling from God. He writes:

‘God knows me and calls me by my name.…

God has created me to do Him some definite service;

He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.

I have my mission—I never may know it in this life,

but I shall be told it in the next.

Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…

I have a part in this great work;

I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

He has not created me for naught. I shall do good,

I shall do His work;

I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth

in my own place, while not intending it,

if I do but keep His commandments

and serve Him in my calling.’

 Newman elaborates on this idea in his sermon on ‘Divine Calls’, tracing the stories of those who are called in the Bible, from Abraham to St Paul and others, tracking the common traits of their calling.

Such are the instances of Divine calls in Scripture, and their characteristic is this; to require instant obedience, and next to call us we know not to what; to call us on in the darkness. Faith alone can obey them.’

 These three characteristics, obeying the call straight away, following into the unknown and reliance on faith are what Newman sees as key to following our calling. On the point of obedience, Newman refers to the story of the rich young man in scripture who follows all the teachings but who does not obey when Jesus calls him to follow him and leave everything else behind. Newman remarks:

‘Others who seemed to waver, or rather who asked for some little delay from human feeling, were rebuked for want of promptitude in their obedience;—for time stays for no one; the word of call is spoken and is gone; if we do not seize the moment, it is lost. Christ was on His road heavenward.’

However, Newman also understands this calling as ongoing not a one off, with Jesus continuing to call us even if we leave the road heavenward.

 For in truth we are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in Baptism; but afterwards also; whether we obey His voice or not, He graciously calls us still. If we fall from our Baptism, He calls us to repent; if we are striving to fulfil our calling, He calls us on from grace to grace, and from holiness to holiness, while life is given us. Abraham was called from his home, Peter from his nets, Matthew from his office, Elisha from his farm, Nathanael from his retreat; we are all in course of calling, on and on, from one thing to another, having no resting-place, but mounting towards our eternal rest, and obeying one command only to have another put upon us. He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again,—and again and again, and more and more, to sanctify and glorify us.’


Preparing For Heaven

As he states in his, ‘Short Road to Perfection’, Newman is aware that the journey towards sainthood is not easy and that there are no shortcuts. Because of this he addresses an important question – if God loves us, why do we need to embark on this difficult journey of self-improvement - why do we need to pursue holiness?

 Now some one may ask, "Why is it that holiness is a necessary qualification for our being received into heaven? … Man is confessedly weak and corrupt; why then is he enjoined to be so religious, so unearthly? why is he required (in the strong language of Scripture) to become 'a new creature'? Since he is by nature what he is, would it not be an act of greater mercy in God to save him altogether without this holiness, which it is so difficult, yet (as it appears) so necessary for him to possess?"’

 It is a valid question and Newman offers a unique answer: that unless we attain holiness, we would not even enjoy being with God in heaven. This lies in what the nature of heaven is, and to paint a picture of that, Newman uses the image of a church.

 Heaven then is not like this world; I will say what it is much more like,—a church. For in a place of public worship no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit. … Here we hear solely and entirely of God. We praise Him, worship Him, sing to Him, thank Him, confess to Him, give ourselves up to Him, and ask His blessing.’

Newman points out that heaven is not about man’s pleasure but about God’s praise, and so those who strongly disliked religion, spirituality and God in their lives would not enjoy heaven because it is so focused entirely on those things.

 ‘If then a man without religion … were admitted into heaven, doubtless he would sustain a great disappointment. Before, indeed, he fancied that he could be happy there; but when he arrived there, he would find no discourse but that which he had shunned on earth, no pursuits but those he had disliked or despised, nothing which bound him to aught else in the universe, and made him feel at home, nothing which he could enter into and rest upon … he would be in the presence of that Supreme Power, whom he never on earth could bring himself steadily to think upon, and whom now he regarded only as the destroyer of all that was precious and dear to him. Ah! he could not bear the face of the Living God; the Holy God would be no object of joy to him … None but the holy can look upon the Holy One; without holiness no man can endure to see the Lord.’

 Simply put, he says that heaven, ‘is not a place of happiness except to the holy.’


Joining the Communion Of Saints

All journeys have their destination and so too does the journey to sainthood. Reaching the end of this journey is to become part of what the Church refers to as ‘The Communion of Saints’ – to join all those other saints who have arrived in heaven. Amazingly, as we now acknowledge John Henry Newman has joined this communion, we can reflect on his own sermon on ‘The Communion of Saints’. Newman writes about how this invisible company of the saints is ever growing.

This invisible body is the true Church, because it changes not, though it is ever increasing … Generation after generation is born, tried, sifted, strengthened, and perfected. Again and again the Apostles live in their successors, and their successors in turn are gathered unto the Apostles. Such is the efficacy of that inexhaustible grace which Christ has lodged in His Church, as a principle of life and increase, till He comes again.’

This link between the visible and invisible church, Newman views as a great source of support for those who are still on the journey to sainthood.

‘ … all successive generations of that holy company,—have sustained themselves in their own day, for thousands of years past, during their pilgrimage heavenward. When we profess the Creed, it is no self-willed, arbitrary sense, but in the presence of those innumerable Saints who well remember what its words mean, and are witnesses of it before God, in spite of the heresy or indifference of this or that day … When we are called to battle for the Lord, what are we who are seen, but mere outposts, the advanced guard of a mighty host, ourselves few in number and despicable, but bold beyond our numbers, because supported by chariots of fire and horses of fire round about the Mountain of the Lord of Hosts under which we stand?’

In this way, Newman sees the visible Church almost like like the tip of an iceberg or the hills of an island, with the unseen saints and God supporting the Church even when it is struggling.

 The unseen world through God's secret power and mercy, encroaches upon this world; and the Church that is seen is just that portion of it by which it encroaches; and thus though the visible Churches of the Saints in this world seem rare, and scattered to and fro, like islands in the sea, they are in truth but the tops of the everlasting hills, high and vast and deeply rooted, which a deluge covers.’


Remarkably, John Henry Newman also wrote what he believed arriving in Heaven would be like. He writes this.

 What a day will that be when I am thoroughly cleansed from all impurity and sin, and am fit to draw near to my Incarnate God in His palace of light above! What a morning, when having done with all penal suffering, I see Thee for the first time with these very eyes of mine, I see thy countenance, gaze upon Thy eyes and gracious lips without quailing, and then kneel down with joy to kiss Thy feet, and am welcomed into Thy arms. O my only true lover, the only Lover of my soul, Thee will I love now, that I may love Thee then. What a day, a long day without ending, the day of eternity, when I shall be so unlike I am now, when I feel in myself a body of death, and am perplexed, and distracted with ten thousand thoughts, any one of which would keep me from heaven. O my Lord, what a day when I shall have done once for all with all sins, venial as well as mortal, and shall stand perfect and acceptable in Thy sight, able to bear Thy presence, nothing shrinking from Thy eye, not shrinking from the pure scrutiny of Angels and Archangels, when I stand in the midst and they around me.'

Isaac Withers