In this Octave of Easter, we continue to contemplate the empty tomb, the Living God, the Risen Lord. Although the Easter Vigil resounded with Alleluias, we still look about to a world that is deaf to its ring, indifferent to its joy, and incredulous of its hope. The resounding praises of our Risen Lord have echoed for 2000 years—why do more not hear its magnified refrain? St. John Henry Newman offers us the key to understanding this: God hides beneath the surface of things and acts quietly in people’s hearts.
From its very inception, God’s work in the world has always been quiet, hidden, humble. God spoke to Abraham in the depths of his heart, not with violent reproaches upon the people of Ur. The Blessed Virgin Mary received the Annunciation while in prayer, closed up in her room, not shouting from the housetop. Christ was born in obscurity and raised for thirty years in a backwater town, the son of a carpenter. A few mournful and weary disciples laid his body in the tomb—his Mother, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea. And it was a quiet, dewey morning in the garden when he spoke to St. Mary Magdalene and she encountered her risen Lord. We look back now at the grandeur of his resurrected appearance to 500 witnesses, we read the power of his works in the Gospels—yet His has always been the way of quiet intimacy. He appeared behind locked doors, along the seaside over a breakfast of fish, in the quiet cool of a garden.
In this way, although he will be revealed one day to all in glory, Christ’s manifestation is “hid” beneath a “servant’s form,” as St. John Henry Newman describes in his circa 1840s sermon “Faith and Experience.” Although Christ comes to us in ways that we can understand, the call of faith is at utter odds with our common experience of the world. We cannot judge the things of faith as the world judges things—through outward appearances, through the “visible.” Our “bounden duty” as Christians, “our very profession,” is “to walk by faith and not by sight.”
Newman would ask us to be judicious in discerning if we have worldliness still lingering in our piety—if we mistake the outward, visible forms of faith to be the true substance and heart. Around the same time Newman wrote this sermon, Charles Dickens in nearby London was publishing his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. As in many of his novels, Dickens sounds a famous critique of Christian hypocrisy, self-righteousness, sanctimonious sententiousness; this time in the figure of Mr. Pecksniff, from whom is coined the term “Pecksniffian.” While he outwardly and frequently quotes Scripture, imparts wisdom, and reproaches friends and family for their sins, Mr. Pecksniff is a down-right scoundrel, a charlatan teacher of architecture. He portrays himself to be a “moral man,” but only his “throat” is truly moral—his moralizing words mask his true deceptive genius, “ensnaring parents and guardians, and pocketing premiums.”
Newman invites us to look beneath pious surfaces and have eyes of faith—to “trust the revealed word” of God and not any merely human appearance. He notes how for example, the truth of our baptismal regeneration is a fact of faith that may not correspond to any outward human measurement of personal character, virtuous development, or worldly success. The unbaptized may appear moral, while the baptized may appear scoundrels. Even in the world of religion, “We see wrong principles, unsound doctrines, apparently making men what Christians should be, and what the true Gospel can alone really make any one,” and often heretics or divided sects appear more zealous, more missionary, more effective and apparently successful at winning converts. But faith requires that we look beneath all these appearances to the works and promises of God, not what shines in promises of worldly power and success. Much in human formation and experience can change our outward demeanor, but only God can transform the heart and renew the soul. We should strive for an integration of our character and heart, our inner and outer lives, but should not mistake one for the other.
Here and in many passages of his writings, Newman makes an important distinction: the refined gentleman of manners and taste, even of high religious sensibilities, is not the same thing as the regenerated Christian. Newman describes a man of no faith but high worldly morals, “not merely amiable, benevolent, and friendly—this might be easily allowed—but showing forth an integrity in his daily business, an honorable view of things, a correctness, a delicacy of sentiment, a considerateness and generosity of conduct, and, in a certain sense, a reliance upon Providence, a feeling of the greatness of religion and of its awfulness, a knowledge and admiration of Scripture, and when he comes into trouble, a recurrence to it, and a touching application of its words to himself.” What could a life of faith possibly offer this sort of man? Would God not be cruel to damn such an upright man for lacking certain doctrinal beliefs, for failing to have eyes of faith because of such an accomplished human experience?
Newman’s essential response is that such a Pecksniffian portrait is, first, entirely fictional. No man who has faced real trials can boast of austere moral ground in his own self. And what truly honest man will say he loves the world—the world of vengefulness, of caprice, of back-stabbing and indifference and character assassination? What strange moral toxin dulls our senses to believe that we are indeed sufficient in the world, without God? Newman counters that the truly honest man sees that “we need His teaching; we are very blind,” that “God alone seeth the hearts of men,” that only God is true, and “every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). We seek real knowledge, knowledge of the Creator, His Creation, and His work redeeming fallen man’s waywardness—not a “mere barren knowledge of things that ‘perisheth with the using,’” based only on “human precepts and doctrines,” which St. Paul cautions against in referring to false teachers (cf. Colossians 2:20-23).
We must not measure the things of faith by the things of the world; we must learn to see as God sees, to will as He wills, and to abide in that peace which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Learn to wait in God’s presence and, in fidelity to Christ on the Cross, sink beneath the appearances of the world in order to rise with Him in faith. This Easter, consider spending extra time reading Scripture, in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, assisting at daily mass more frequently, or augmenting some other spiritual practice that will deepen your faith beyond appearances. Rest your inner gaze upon the things of God, like the hidden seed that dies in the burying but grows into new, everlasting life (cf. John 12:24).