Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Preview: "Take Me Away": Gerontius's Soul At and After Judgment

We'll conclude our series on Saint John Henry Newman's The Dream of Gerontius on Monday, November 28 on the Son Rise Morning Show. I'll be on the air about 6:50 a.m. Central/7:50 a.m. Eastern. Please listen live here.

(I usually post these previews on the Friday before. I'm posting this early because I know the Thanksgiving weekend is a busy time!)

The end is indeed nigh as his Guardian Angel leads Gerontius's Soul to the threshold of his particular judgment. The Angel prepares him for the experience:

When then—if such thy lot—thou seest thy Judge,
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And feel as though thou couldst but pity Him,
That one so sweet should e'er have placed Himself
At disadvantage such, as to be used
So vilely by a being so vile as thee.
There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinn'd, {360}
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight:
And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
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.

This is one of Newman's great innovations in the Church's meditations on the Four Last Things. He does not dwell the wrath of Jesus at the particular judgment and the great fear of the sinner before his Judge. Rather, he dwells on the love and mercy of Jesus balanced with the Soul's own acknowledgment of his sinfulness. And yet, the love Jesus shows the Soul even as He judges Gerontius, has a great impact on him: it hurts perhaps more that wrath would in the Soul who has tried to prepare for eternal life with faith, hope, and charity.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, while not alluding to Newman's poem, might have been thinking of this when he wrote in Spe Salvi:

47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.

And Father Juan Velez, my theological guide through this work, concurs that for:

a faithful soul . . . it is sorrow and love communicated to the soul by a glance of God. Particular judgment is followed by purgatory. The former involves the “glance” of the loving God which consumes the soul. Purgatory entails the absence of that marvelous vision, but the real assurance and anticipation of it are a source of peace and joy.

But just before the Soul reaches the Judgment Seat, Newman shows how time "works" in the afterlife, as the Soul hears the voices of the priest and the attendants, still praying for him at his deathbed, and Guardian Angel explains:

It is the voice of friends around thy bed,
Who say the "Subvenite" with the priest.
Hither the echoes come; before the Throne
Stands the great Angel of the Agony,
The same who strengthen'd Him, what time He knelt
Lone in that garden shade, bedew'd with blood.
That Angel best can plead with Him for all
Tormented souls, the dying and the dead.

So, there is one more angel, the Angel of the Agony (the Agony in the Garden):

Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee;
Jesu! by that cold dismay which sicken'd Thee;
Jesu! by that pang of heart which thrill'd in Thee;
Jesu! by that mount of sins which crippled Thee;
Jesu! by that sense of guilt which stifled Thee;
Jesu! by that innocence which girdled Thee;
Jesu! by that sanctity which reign'd in Thee;
Jesu! by that Godhead which was one with Thee;
Jesu! spare these souls which are so dear to Thee;
Souls, who in prison, calm and patient, wait for
Thee; {366}
Hasten, Lord, their hour, and bid them come to Thee,
To that glorious Home, where they shall ever gaze on Thee.

The Soul endures his Judgment and is ready for Purgatory: he knows he must be purified and he wants to be purified:

Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be, {367}
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
Lone, not forlorn,—
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain,
Until the morn.
There will I sing, and soothe my stricken breast,
Which ne'er can cease
To throb, and pine, and languish, till possest
Of its Sole Peace.
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:—

Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And see Him in the truth of everlasting day.

The Souls in Purgatory welcome him, while the Guardian Angel--and here, you should listen to Janet Baker singing the Angel's loving farewell--promises to return soon:

Softly and gently, dearly-ransom'd soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And, o'er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.

And carefully I dip thee in the lake,
And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance. {370}

Angels, to whom the willing task is given,
Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou liest;
And Masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most Highest.

Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

As the Guardian Angel had told him before, time is of no matter in the afterlife; the Soul is among the Communion of Saints, the Church in Heaven, on Earth, and in Purgatory. What "the morrow" means to us after a night of sleep and waking the next day and what it means in Heavenly time is not the same.

And as at the beginning of the poem, Newman returns to how the dying and the dead need prayers and Masses offered for them, so that the bonds of the Communion of Saints remain close. We remember the faithful departed in the Eucharistic Prayers at every Mass, and in the month of November, we remember them in special ways.

One more thing: when you read and pray the Meditations and Devotions Newman composed for the boys of the Oratory School, you can get an insight into how he prepared for his own Particular Judgment, as he places all his faith, hope and love in Jesus alone, as in this "Act of Love":

2. And therefore, O my dear Lord, since I perceive Thee to be so beautiful, I love Thee, and desire to love Thee more and more. Since Thou art the One Goodness, Beautifulness, Gloriousness, in the whole world of being, and there is nothing like Thee, but Thou art infinitely more glorious and good than even the {332} most beautiful of creatures, therefore I love Thee with a singular love, a one, only, sovereign love. Everything, O my Lord, shall be dull and dim to me, after looking at Thee. There is nothing on earth, not even what is most naturally dear to me, that I can love in comparison of Thee. And I would lose everything whatever rather than lose Thee. For Thou, O my Lord, art my supreme and only Lord and love.

3. My God, Thou knowest infinitely better than I, how little I love Thee. I should not love Thee at all, except for Thy grace. It is Thy grace which has opened the eyes of my mind, and enabled them to see Thy glory. It is Thy grace which has touched my heart, and brought upon it the influence of what is so wonderfully beautiful and fair. How can I help loving Thee, O my Lord, except by some dreadful perversion, which hinders me from looking at Thee? O my God, whatever is nearer to me than Thou, things of this earth, and things more naturally pleasing to me, will be sure to interrupt the sight of Thee, unless Thy grace interfere. Keep Thou my eyes, my ears, my heart, from any such miserable tyranny. Break my bonds—raise my heart. Keep my whole being fixed on Thee. Let me never lose sight of Thee; and, while I gaze on Thee, let my love of Thee grow more and more every day.

We know that Father Newman prayed at the deathbeds of members of his congregation and that he prayed for those whom he loved in life after their deaths. Also, we have this poignant note, "Written in Prospect of Death", on March 13th, 1864, Passion Sunday, 7 o'clock a.m.:

I WRITE in the direct view of death as in prospect. No one in the house, I suppose, suspects anything of the kind. Nor anyone anywhere, unless it be the medical men.

I write at once—because, on my own feelings of mind and body, it is as if nothing at all were the matter with me, just now; but because I do not know how long this perfect possession of my sensible and available health and strength may last.

I die in the faith of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. I trust I shall die prepared and protected by her Sacraments, which our Lord Jesus Christ has committed to her, and in that communion of Saints which He inaugurated when He ascended on high, and which will have no end. I hope to die in that Church which our Lord founded on Peter, and which will continue till His second coming. . . .

Perhaps this--in the midst of Charles Kingsley's attack on him in January of that year--is in the background of Newman's inspiration to write The Dream of Gerontius! From April to June he was writing and serially publishing the Apologia pro Vita Sua. 

Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us!

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