“Our Future” – St. John Henry Newman
It has already become cliché at the end of this tumultuous year to exclaim that 2021 has got to be better. But better in what way? And what happens if 2021 is, instead, worse? And by what yardstick do we measure such sentiments? Aren’t we as Christians called upon to sanctify and give thanks for all time, even difficult times? St. John Henry Newman helps us answer these questions in his poem, “Our Future.” He begins with a quote from the Gospel of St. John 13:7, in which Christ hints at His future suffering: “What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” In the first stanza that follows, Newman ponders what would happen if we were given foreknowledge of the future:
“What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know
Did we but see,
When life first open’d, how our journey lay
Between its earliest and its closing day,
Or view ourselves, as we one time shall be,
Who strive for the high prize, such sight would
The youthful spirit, though bold for Jesu’s sake.
In this stanza, Newman says that if we, when young, knew what lay before us in our life’s journey, it might break our spirit, even if we intended our life to be for Christ. In the next lines of this short poem, St. John Henry addresses Christ directly, thanking Christ for sparing him this knowledge of his future.
But Thou, dear Lord!
Whilst I traced out bright scenes which were to
Isaac’s pure blessings, and a verdant home,
Didst spare me, and withhold Thy fearful word;
Willing me year by year, till I am found
A pilgrim pale, with Paul’s sad girdle bound.
(Tre Fontane. April 2, 1833)
In this stanza, Newman tells us of all the plans he had for his life, referring to Isaac’s blessing. Newman believed that God spared him punishment or “fearful word” for youthful pride and doubts. Instead God prepared him for future suffering. Composed in 1833, this “girdle” foretelling suffering might refer to his losses at Oriel College or other future hardships involved in the Oxford Movement which was about to begin. In the final line of the poem, “Our Future,” St. Paul’s harsh death is referenced, which serves to remind us that we all will face trials and hardships in life. But those who possess persevering faith not only live by faith, but also die in faith. This is a poem about supernatural hope.
There is human hope and supernatural hope. Human hope is the natural desire for some future good in life, for ourselves or our loved ones, and it relies on our own effort and the goodness of others. In contrast, theological hope is not natural; it is supernatural. It is the desire of obtaining from God the heaven which He promised to those who serve Him faithfully and the necessary means to reach heaven to be with Him forever. Our faith and hope depend on our understanding what we believe and what we hope for.
St. John Henry Newman tells us how we should approach the future: by faith, which is impossible without grace. Regardless of how much of our human hope is dashed by the rocks of hardship on our pilgrim journey through life, nevertheless, the real measure of whether our 2021 will be better or worse than 2020 is through our fidelity and trust in God’s promise of eternity.