When St. John Henry Newman was a young man, his father died. Looking at his father’s corpse brought home to Newman the reality of the soul. In the sermon, ”The Individuality of the Soul,” Newman reflects on this truth which strikes a person perhaps for the first time on encountering the remains of a loved one. He writes:
“In the case of all men, the soul, when severed from the body, returns to God. God gave it: He made it, He sent it into the body, and He upholds it there; He upholds it in distinct existence, wherever it is. It animates the body while life lasts; it returns again, it relapses into the unseen state upon death.”
The human soul is individual; it is the soul of a unique living being. As Newman writes, we fail to grasp this: “We class men in masses, as we might connect the stones of a building. Consider our common way of regarding history, politics, commerce, and the like, and you will own that I speak truly.”
We think of individuals as parts of a group, but each one is a separate immortal being. Each person is unrepeatable and responsible for himself. St. John Henry writes:
“No one outside of him can really touch him, can touch his soul, his immortality; he must live with himself for ever. He has a depth within him unfathomable, an infinite abyss of existence; and the scene in which he bears part for the moment is but like a gleam of sunshine upon its surface.”
Newman considers the immortality of each soul. “Every one of those souls still lives. They had their separate thoughts and feelings when on earth, they have them now. They had their likings and pursuits; they gained what they thought good and enjoyed it; and they still somewhere or other live, and what they then did in the flesh surely has its influence upon their present destiny. They live, reserved for a day which is to come, when all nations shall stand before God.” In other words, each human being will come before his Maker at the end of his life and will have to account for his life.
Since the soul is spiritual or nonmaterial, it does not have parts, and thus does not sustain damage like material things and cease to exist. Newman affirms the Christian belief that the souls of the departed live on, and will be judged:
“Let us call to mind those whom we knew a little better, though not intimately:—all who died suddenly or before their time, all whom we have seen in high health and spirits, all whom we have seen in circumstances which in any way brought out their characters, and gave them some place in our memories. They are gone from our sight, but they all live still, each with his own thoughts; they are waiting for the judgment.”
Newman teaches that the individual souls of the departed are either in a state of favor (grace) or enmity with God (wrath), and he adduces various texts of Scripture in support of this doctrine, such as in Jesus’ words: “Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.”
He comments: “What makes this thought still more solemn, is that we have reason to suppose that souls on the wrong side of the line are far more numerous than those on the right. It is wrong to speculate; but it is safe to be alarmed. This much we know, that Christ says expressly, ‘Many are called, few are chosen;’ “Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be who go in thereat;” whereas “narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there be who find it.””
In this month during which the Church invites us to pray more for the souls of the faithful departed, the thought of personal judgment at the moment of death should move us to greater earnestness in the struggle to obey God’s commands and to live as His children. Belief in a personal and final judgment also leads us to more generosity in praying for those who die in a state of grace but are in need of purification to behold the face of God.
St. John Henry Newman elaborates on this purification, purgatory, in his most famous poem, “The Dream of Gerontius” He, having lived a long life and experiencing the deaths of so many of his family and close friends, is a trusted guide to teach us about the “last things.” St. John Henry Newman, pray for us!