Thursday, March 2, 2017

Blessed John Henry Newman and Lent: Affliction and Love

Two years ago, I presented a lecture on Ash Wednesday at Newman University for Cardinal Newman Day. I was asked to highlight the season of Lent and what Blessed John Henry Newman had said about it. I started with a discussion of Newman and the Liturgy both as an Anglican minister and a Catholic priest, and then I cited examples from his Parochial and Plain Sermons and from his homilies at the Oratory. The lecture was included in the third volume of Archaeopteryx: The Newman Journal of Ideas, published late last year. An excerpt:

When Newman speaks of Lent, as both an Anglican minister and later as a Catholic priest, he speaks of it not only as the season for preparation for Easter, but as a season for affliction in the service of love for God and neighbor. In PPS “Life the Season of Repentance” he told his congregation:
From the earliest times down to this day, these weeks before Easter have been set apart every year, for the particular remembrance and confession of our sins. From the first age downward, not a year has passed but Christians have been exhorted to reflect how far they have let go their birthright, as a preparation for their claiming the blessing.
(his sermon was based on the story from Genesis of Esau selling his birthright for a mess of potage): Newman cites the Apostolic tradition of Lent and continues to highlight the essence of the liturgical year, reminding us of Christ’s life, from the virgin’s womb to the empty tomb:
At Christmas we are born again with Christ; at Easter we keep the Eucharistic Feast. In Lent, by penance, we join the two great sacraments together. . . . See, then, the Church offers you this season for the purpose. "Now is the accepted time, now the day of salvation." Now it is that, God being your helper, you are to attempt to throw off from you the heavy burden of past transgression, to reconcile yourselves to Him who has once already imparted to you His atoning merits, and you have profaned them.
Then Newman introduces his great theme for Lenten observance, the connection between affliction and love. The journey from acknowledgement of sin to reconciliation with God our Father passes through trials. What we think of as something to hate is the only way to love—God uses things we want to avoid to bring us closer to him and to our neighbor.
And be sure of this: that if He has any love for you, if He sees aught of good in your soul, He will afflict you, if you will not afflict yourselves. He will not let you escape.
To separate us from sin and lead to repentance, the Lord may afflict us, Newman says, with

~loss of friends and family
~darkness of mind
~lack of strength to bear a great burden
~lingering and painful death

Or we can actively choose our mortification ourselves. Therefore he urges his congregation:
Let us judge ourselves, that we be not judged. Let us afflict ourselves, that God may not afflict us. Let us come before Him with our best offerings, that He may forgive us.
Newman warns them however that this is definitely going against the spirit of the age (the Victorian age?) which values comfort and ease, luxury and wealth above everything because the focus of the day is to make life pleasant: “We aim at having all things at our will.” Newman therefore exhorted them:
Let not the year go round and round, without a break and interruption in its circle of pleasures. Give back some of God's gifts to God, that you may safely enjoy the rest.
He cites the traditional forms of penance and Lenten preparation—and more:
Fast, or watch, or abound in alms, or be instant in prayer, or deny yourselves society, or pleasant books, or easy clothing, or take on you some irksome task or employment; do one or other, or some, or all of these . . .
In another Lenten PPS sermon, “Apostolic Abstinence a Pattern for Christians” Newman used the example of St. Timothy, whom St. Paul urged to “drink no longer water, but use a little wine for your stomach” to demonstrate how strictly the Apostles and the early Christians denied themselves:
Such were holy men of old time. How far are we below them! Alas for our easy sensual life, our cowardice, our sloth! is this the way by which the kingdom of heaven is won? is this the way that St. Paul fought a good fight, and finished his course? or was it by putting behind his back all things on earth, and looking steadfastly towards Him who is invisible?
He describes again the link between love of God and affliction, even more strongly, saying that we cannot have one without the other:
But thus much we are able to see, that the great duty of the Gospel is love to God and man; and that this love is quenched and extinguished by self-indulgence, and cherished by self-denial. They who enjoy this life freely, make it or self their idol; they are gross-hearted, and have no eyes to see God withal. . . . Now, observe, I do not mean that abstinence produces this effect as a matter of course in any given person,—else all the poor ought to be patterns of Christian love . . . I should really be disposed to say,—You must make your choice, you must in some way or another deny the flesh, or you cannot possess Christian love.
Newman furthermore warns his listeners not to relapse after the self-denial of Lent and “indulge ourselves the more freely in this world's goods, for having renounced them for a while.” Instead he counseled them to make some sort of abstinence a habit so that “Self-denial will become natural to us.” . . .

If you wish to read the rest, it is available for purchase here.

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