“As we gain happiness through suffering, so do we arrive at holiness through infirmity, because man’s very condition is a fallen one, and in passing out of the country of sin, he necessarily passes through it.”

After its long chronicle of the horrid depths of human evil and sin, the Book of Genesis ends with Joseph’s declaration to his traitorous brothers, now reconciled: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” As the Church continues her Lenten journey, St. John Henry Newman’s sermon the “Sins of Infirmity” offers the paradoxically consoling reminder that what was true of Joseph’s brothers will remain true of us so long as we sojourn in this life. We must learn, especially in Lent, that Christ’s words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” are spoken for and about all of us, even those of us who have been graciously redeemed by Baptism, sanctified by the Eucharist and Confirmation, and by the grace of Confession have found ourselves free of habitually grave sin. In Newman’s words, sins of “infirmity” are not mortal; they do not deprive us of God’s grace because of willfully turning from Him. Sins of “infirmity,” while still serious, are those sins by which we recognize our constant dependence on God, his mercy, and the sacrifice of His Son. Newman’s consoling reminder is that these sorts of sins are, in fact, common even to saints, who are saints not because they achieve their own perfection, but because they progressively receive God’s perfection as a gift in the midst of their many failings and “infirmities.”

“It pleases Almighty God to work out His great purposes in and through human infirmity and sin. Thus Balaam had a word put in his mouth in the midst of his enchantments, and Caiphas prophesied in the act of persuading our Lord’s death.” St. Paul’s image is apt, that we bear God’s glory in “earthen vessels” that it may be more clearly evident that the work is God’s, not ours (2 Cor. 4:7). Newman imagines what we must look like to the Angels, who from a distance might see the brightness of Christ’s presence with the Church Militant, but who on closer inspection see Christians whose “dress is tattered” and whose faces have “lines of care.” While weary with warring against sin, God’s glory is displayed with paradoxical clearness.  

This teaches us that we have “no firm hope” in ourselves. Nothing about ourselves can tell us that God’s glory is ours; only God Himself and His mercy can hold out to us the hope of perfection. “As men in a battle cannot see how it is going, so Christians have no certain signs of God’s presence in their hearts, and can but look up towards their Lord and Saviour, and timidly hope.” A zealous convert, baptized, reconciled, confirmed, and fortified by the Eucharist, might be tempted to desire fast and easy Christian perfection. But by his very zeal he may err in neglecting his many infirmities as a member of the race of Adam. He must confront the ways in which he is “feeble-minded, excitable, wayward, irritable, changeable, miserable.” If we do not recognize our misery, we have no motive to receive mercy.

Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), in his spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, which deeply influenced St. Therèse of Lisieux, exhorts the Christian to abandon his or herself to God’s providence in all situations. His many letters to female religious clarify that this is especially important when one is perplexed or discouraged by persistent venial sins and imperfect habits. While advising Christians against tolerating the sin, Fr. Caussade counsels them to avoid allowing “sins of infirmity” to move us to distrust God and His mercy, or to despond and despair. Rather, we must depend upon God all the more deeply, who loves us in the midst of our sins. God has a glorious plan for our spiritual growth, but it is all too easy to mistake His plan for our own plan or expectations for our spiritual growth. Abandoning ourselves to God’s will in the midst of human failings and venial habits, we learn to trust and depend on Him alone.

In essential agreement with Fr. Caussade, Newman lists the following varieties of “sins of infirmity” that all Christians and all saints contend against throughout the whole of life:

  1. Sins wherein there is no consent of the will, such as original sin which is an inherited “evil principle within us.”
  2. Those that arise from former habits of sin that still exert a power over our souls, habits, and memories, coloring our thoughts, words, and works. These are the wounds of former sins.
  3. Those that arise from “want of self-command” or lack of habitual self-control–the mind is aware, and the conscience is informed, but the “governing principle is weak.”
  4. Sins fallen into from being “taken unawares.”
  5. Sins in which man succumbs to the devil’s subtle temptations that inflame the “wounds and scars of past sins healed,” disinclining us from God out of shame.
  6. “Deficiency of practical experience” or ”ignorance of how to perform our duties.” In other words, doing harm when we mean to do good. And,
  7. “Unworthy motives, low views, mistakes in principle, false maxims, which abound on all sides of us, and which we catch (as it were) from each other… that spirit of the world which we breathe, and which defiles all we do, yet which can hardly be said to be a willful pollution…”

These and more subtle flaws and errors abound. And yet we are loved beyond our imagining; Christ says of us from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  “Infirmities are no necessary mark of reprobation… God’s elect have infirmities, and that most of our own sins may possibly be no more than infirmities… is itself a consolation.”

In Lent, to rise to greater heights of holiness, we must let ourselves be loved and nourished by God even in the midst of our venial failings, and strive to let Him save us in the way that He wants, not in the way that we want. Our venial sins and human frailties do not disqualify us from sainthood, but are the very battle-ground where saints are made.

Suggested Meditations

Newman’s Stations of the Cross Meditations (short) (long)

George Herbert’s “Love (III)

Fr. Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence

Newman’s “Sins of Infirmity”

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Newman lays down a firm rule in the light of life's abundant blessings: the Christian is not allowed to be gloomy.

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

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We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

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About Cardinal John Henry Newman

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A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

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Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.

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Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

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What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

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Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

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Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
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