Blessed John Henry Newman, who often wrote uplifting lyrical poetry, also wrote many somber verses. Since he used verse to express his inmost thoughts and feelings, Blessed Newman would naturally turn to verse when he wished to consider spiritual matters. His poem, “Penance” is one such verse, short but dense; his thoughts can help us prepare for Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday.
By penance we usually think of corporal or physical acts of atonement rather than mortifications by which we understand as small privations. In broad terms, however, penance includes other forms of mortifications, those that are not deliberately sought. Giving up something for Lent, or adding something extra for Lent, are all good, tried, and true forms of lenten discipline, referred to as active mortification. But what Newman writes of in the following verses is known as “passive mortification,” those unsought difficulties we experience each day.
At the Ash Wednesday service, we will be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. These familiar words are at once both stark yet hopeful. For how easy it is to count and measure our days, one day turning into the next, one month to the next, one year to the next, with the assumption that our life stretches out before us. But this should not be the way of the Christian, a pilgrim on earth, traveling to eternity. And this is why the season of Lent is so necessary. 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.
Listen to this poem in its entirety. Notice that the first word, “Mortal” is the only word in the whole poem which is a trochee, that is, two syllables, the first stressed, the second unstressed. The rest of the poem is written in regular iambs, two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed. This initial trochee begins the poem dramatically, and serves to emphasize this word: MOR -tal!
MORTAL! if e’er thy spirits faint,
By grief or pain opprest,
Seek not vain hope, or sour complaint,
To cheer or ease thy breast:
But view thy bitterest pangs as sent
A shadow of that doom,
Which is the soul’s just punishment
In its own guilt’s true home.
Be thine own judge; hate thy proud heart;
And while the sad drops flow,
E’en let thy will attend the smart,
And sanctify thy woe.
Off Pantellaria. December 23, 1832.
In this poem, one of Newman’s Mediterranean Verses, he is probably reflecting on those “woes” which humans experience, which come unsought, and we need to sanctify. He had become ill, almost to the point of death, on this voyage. He was in pain and homesick, while also thinking deeply about his Anglican faith. In this poem, he admonishes us in these instances neither to complain or to rely on false hope, but instead to see, even as ‘the sad drops flow,’ that is tears, to choose, by our own free will to ‘attend to the smart” or the pain, and sanctify this pain.
A contemporary author writes of this type of mortification: “These can be–when offered with love–what happens to us unexpectedly, or what does not depend on our will: cold, heat, pain, patience at having to wait longer than we expected, not reacting in kind to a brusque answer we might receive. . . . .” (Fr. Francis Carvajal).
As we begin Lent we can think of the woes that we are called to sanctify. What are we willing to offer to God, united to Jesus who bears the Cross for the salvation of man? Let us remember not only our active forms of lenten discipline, but also those minor unsought difficulties, which offered to God without complaint can help us on our lenten journey.