The Wisdom of Youth by Fr. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem

Blessed are they who give the flower of their days, and their strength of soul and body to Him; blessed are they who in their youth turn to Him who gave His life for them, and would fain give it to them and implant it in them, that they may live for ever.

(Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. VIII, no. 16)

John Henry Newman was declared Venerable by St. John Paul II (January 20, 1991) and later Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. Steeped in the Word of God Newman’s sermons place youth before God’s call. In the sermon The Shepherd of Our Souls Newman pronounces blessed the uncalculating wisdom of youth—which gives itself fully to the Lord at the dawn of life. At an age when the future opens wide before the young and the good and beautiful things of the world make claims upon the heart, they are most happy who look beyond the horizon of temporal possibilities to Him who is eternal Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Rather than a personal initiative it is man’s response to God’s call (“You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jn 15:16), Newman echoes the Scriptural praise of youthful devotion: “It is good for a man to bear the yoke from his youth” (Lam 3:27).

Taking up the Lord’s yoke even as the visible world might retain its fascination results not from having “figured out” what even the least religious man knows for a fact: that time is fleeting and life is short. Rather to arrive at God so early in life signals an exceptional touch of grace—one which Jesus (rejoicing in the Spirit) declares to be the work of His Father:

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.” (Mt 11:25-26)

Whatever the Lord touches, He changes. He leaves behind His fingerprints. Perhaps as He once laid hands in blessing on the little ones who came to Him, so does Jesus extend that contact throughout every time and place to those whom it pleases Him to call. Such a revelatory touch leaves in its wake a soul dilated to receive more than the world can give. While the goods of this world can only be received one handful at a time, the Lord instills a lifelong thirst for the mysterious “what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

Though Ecclesiastes cautions that “youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Eccl 11:10), this is because early on we experience everything as a novelty. Life appears as a quasi-endless variety of experiences, and the danger lies in an indiscriminate sampling of them. Perceiving the emptiness of worldly things, the wise youth leaves them behind, untried and forgotten.

The weight of Newman’s blessing rests on this blindfolded renunciation and surrender. Those who heed the gospel call to leave behind everything and follow Christ necessarily offer Him the dreams and potentials of the unknown future. Those who give to God the flower of their days place all their hopes squarely in His hands—in an abandonment that really amounts to entrustment. In advance, we waive the right to point our own compass and give Him complete freedom to direct our lives, without knowing where this will land us.

St. John Paul II whose feast we celebrate on October 22nd comments on the Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man in the Gospel:

When the young man asks about the “more”: “What do I still lack?”, Jesus looks upon him with love, and this love finds here a new meaning. Man is carried interiorly, by the hand of the Holy Spirit, from a life according to the commandments to a life in the awareness of the gift, and Christ’s loving look expresses this interior “transition”. And Jesus says: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”[1]

Although the young man in the Gospel went away sad other youth continue to respond to God’s call. Such is the Lord’s power of attraction that even youth are drawn to dismiss all competitors, all rival loves. And this can only come from the upward call of grace. Not that the world comes in a close second to the love of God, nor are the two loves ascending notes played on the same scale. They rather occupy different tiers altogether, as Scripture plainly teaches:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. (1 Jn 2:15-17)

Blameworthy love for the world accepts its parameters as the only boundaries of human happiness, allows its values and standards to limit our aspirations. With earth as the sole foundation and sky as the only ceiling, people tend to exploit what is at hand, what satisfies pro tem. The lusts into which fallen people descend all reach for passing, essentially corruptible things, as if they could patch the holes on the worn garment of our humanity.

But where the “love of God” or “will of God” may seem nebulous to the worldly, as it cannot be pocketed or otherwise manipulated, St John calls us up higher where love and union are by no means vague. He describes authentic love as a union of wills. As “he who does the will of God abides forever,” so the same God initiates that eternal life in time, implanting within the soul a hunger for His will as for an all-satisfying food. If, in imitation of Christ, this will becomes our daily bread, then everything we see and touch become means to carrying it out. What others may use to take the place of God, devoted Christians cross as bridges to Him.

And whereas misplaced love characterizes the worldly spirit, what animates single-hearted devotion—in both young and old—is love rightly ordered and prioritized. Newman calls this having a virginal soul, demonstrating to what lengths of maturity grace can lead the one who says yes to the Lord from youth:

That soul is virginal which is ever looking for its Beloved who is in heaven, and which sees Him in whatever is lovely upon earth, loving earthly friends very dearly, but in their proper place, as His gifts, and His representatives, but loving Jesus alone with sovereign affection, and bearing to lose all, …[to] keep Him. (Meditations and Devotions, part II)

After a lifetime of yeses, each said with a greater intensity and deeper trust than the last, the initial grace of youthful self-giving finally bears this mature fruit: a soul so totally given to God that He is everything to it—seen everywhere, loved in everyone, reflected in all that is pure and good.

Whatever our age, we might ask ourselves if our present generosity, the depth of our self-gift, is such that it can realistically be expected to produce these results. No one is expected to know beforehand how much God will ask of them; none can guess where the initial self-surrender will lead, nor what kind of saint will result. But are we walking that narrow path?


[1] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Dilecti Amici, March 31, 1985.

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