On Thursday, February 21, we celebrated Blessed John Henry Newman’s birthday into this world. While all birthdays, feast days, and celebrations of different kinds are occasions of joy, they also make us aware that most days are not holidays; that many are painful and difficult, that Monday follows Sunday. Some people, in search of happiness, attempt to make every day a holiday of some kind to avoid ever landing hard on the ground of daily existence. In “Scripture A Record of Human Sorrow,” Blessed Newman explains how we might live rooted in reality without succumbing to despair.
Human history is a record of human sorrow, but Christians might be inclined to think Scripture is a record of joy and good news. It is truly good news, but this news punctuates the pages like the occasional exclamation point in a novel, with the same surprise as the arrival of spring. Blessed Newman says there is more written in Scripture of suffering, curses, and judgments, than of joys and pleasures. Newman explains, “We know it also abounds in accounts of human sin; but not to speak of these, it abounds in accounts of human distress and sufferings, of our miserable condition, of the vanity, unprofitableness, and trials of life.” Please do not turn away, the Scriptures seem to say, from the condition of man in the world. Do not ignore it, do not cover it up, do not dress it as something more tame than it is. Scripture says this for the only reason worth our attention: it is true.
It is God’s hope, Newman writes, that by speaking to us so truthfully, by warning us, we won’t have to learn, painfully, from experience. We won’t walk through our days expecting everything to go as planned, or for all our dreams to come true in this life. Most importantly, we won’t be fooled into thinking this world is enough. Our hearts ache for God, and how quickly we forget Him when all is well! In His wisdom, God knows we have a tendency to overvalue pleasures, not undervalue them, if we are not reminded that they are temporary and fleeting.
Won’t awareness of the dreariness of life “make a man melancholy and gloomy?” Not so long as his gaze is fixed on Him who planted every desire in man, and will bring them to fruition. Newman explains that such a view does not reject pleasure, but puts it in its proper place: “The true Christian rejoices in those earthly things which give joy, but in such a way as not to care for them when they go.” A good meal cannot be made any better by eating too much of of it. If we are to enjoy the comforts of this life, we must be able to enjoy the temporary cheer they bring, because they will taste bitter if we try to make them ultimate. G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy that Christians should “drink life like water, and death like wine.” There is incredible unwavering faith at the bottom of such an attitude, a willingness to throw oneself into the arms of our loving Lord who sustains us. This attitude does not admit of some Victorian prudishness, or the lust of the glutton, for it takes pleasure and pain as they are because it is not rooted in its own comfort, but in the God Who is the source of our very life.
Robert Frost once wrote, “The best way out is through.” Not over, under, around, avoiding what stands between us and our destination, but right through the center of it. “The great rule of our conduct is to take things as they come,” not as we wish they would be. Then and only then, Newman says, will you be able to “realize the paradox of making merry and rejoicing in the world because it is not yours.”
Think on these things, for our understanding of reality forms our approach to each and every day. Tomorrow will bring us both pain and pleasure; the former should not frighten us, nor should we attach ourselves to the latter. We will fear nothing if our hope is in the Lord Who never leaves our side if we but receive His presence. If God be for us, who can be against us?