“Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” John 1. 47.
Using the well-known story of Nathanael, known also as Bartholomew, one of Christ’s first converts, St. John Henry Newman teaches us how we should live. Newman’s insights are particularly helpful in the current situation, since many of us are living lives of relative upheaval and unease, due to the ongoing coronavirus threat. The gospel story of Nathanael is short. Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah; however, Nathanael was unsure and wanted to investigate for himself. And Philip told him to go and see, which he did, humbly desiring the truth. Seeing Jesus, Nathanael (Bartholomew) converted. In Newman’s words:
“Now, from what occurred in this interview, we gain some insight into St. Bartholomew’s character. Our Lord said of him, ‘Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!’ and it appears . . . before Philip called him to come to Christ, he was engaged in meditation or prayer, in the privacy which a fig-tree’s shade afforded him. And this, it seems, was the life of one who was destined to act the busy part of an Apostle; quietness without, guilelessness within. This was the tranquil preparation for great dangers and sufferings! We see who make the most heroic Christians, and are the most honoured by Christ!”
And what are the attributes of heroic Christians, most honored by Christ? Newman muses that often, during the course of life, when someone first encounters the living Christ, inviting Him into his heart, the person is so moved that the natural response is to consider what grand things must be done in thanks for such a gift of grace. However, we learn from the story of Nathanael that “… we need not give up our usual manner of life, in order to serve God; that the most humble and quietest station is acceptable to Him, if improved duly, [gives us] means for maturing the highest Christian character, even that of an Apostle.”
St. John Henry continues with the observation that many believe the contrary. That is, many believe that to get ahead in the world, to be a success, a person must be the opposite of Nathanael. “Men of the world think an ignorance of its ways is a disadvantage or disgrace; as if it were somehow unmanly and weak to have abstained from all acquaintance with its impieties and lax practices.”
These worldly men, according to Newman, feel that being overly religious makes one unfit for a successful life. He writes, “When they hear of any young person resolving on being consistently religious, or being strictly honest in trade, or observing a noble purity in language and demeanour, they smile and think it very well, but that it will and must wear off in time.” These men feel as though one should be ashamed to strive for innocence and purity of heart. However, this is the key to heroic Christianity. This guilelessness or innocence is the “surest mark of Christ’s elect.” Of what does Newman say this guilelessness consists?
“ . . . to mean what we say, to love without dissimulation, to think no evil, to bear no grudge, to be free from selfishness, to be innocent and straightforward . . . take everything in good part and make the best of every one; thus [these persons] have always something to be pleased with, not seeing the bad, and keenly sensible of the good. And communicating their own happy peace to those around them, they really diminish the evils of life in society at large, while they escape from the knowledge of them themselves. Such men are cheerful and contented; for they desire but little, and take pleasure in the least matters, having no wish for riches and distinction.”
How does this apply to us today? One must only look around to see the turmoil resulting from the fear of illness or death from the coronavirus. Many find themselves at loose ends, unable to pass the time contentedly at home or to venture out with the necessary prudence. Newman writes, “Men of irreligious lives live in bondage and fear; even though they do not acknowledge it to themselves. Many a one, who would be ashamed to own it, is afraid of certain places or times, or of solitude, from a sort of instinct that he is no company for good spirits, and that devils may then assail him. But the guileless man has a simple boldness and a princely heart; he overcomes dangers which others shrink from, merely because they are no dangers to him, and thus he often gains even worldly advantages, by his straightforwardness . . .”
Newman concludes that this is the other requisite besides guilelessness for a person living in the world, and this virtue of prudence must be joined to innocence. Prudence will allow us to meet the trials of life “with discretion, self-command, gravity, patience, perseverance in well-doing, as Bartholomew doubtless learned in due season under his Lord’s teaching; but innocence is the beginning. Let us then pray God to fulfil in us ‘all the good pleasure of His goodness, and the work of faith with power;’ that if it should please Him suddenly to bring us forward to great trials, as He did His Apostles, we may not be taken by surprise, but be found to have made a private or domestic life a preparation for [heaven].”
Today, these great trials come in the form of many things, of illness, of loss of jobs, of financial hardship and insecurity, and even loss of family who are not able to visit because of the risk of infection. These words of St. John Henry Newman and the witness of Nathanael’s guilelessness with prudence can help us persevere, even as we stay home.