Sermon 7. St. Paul's Characteristic Gift

"Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me." 2 Cor. xii. 9.

{91} ALL the Saints, from the beginning of history to the end, resemble each other in this, that their excellence is supernatural, their deeds heroic, their merits extraordinary and prevailing. They all are choice patterns of the theological virtues; they all are blessed with a rare and special union with their Maker and Lord; they all lead lives of penance; and when they leave this world, they are spared that torment, which the multitude of holy souls are allotted, between earth and heaven, death and eternal glory. But, with all these various tokens of their belonging to one and the same celestial family, they may still be divided, in their external aspect, into two classes.

There are those, on the one hand, who are so absorbed in the divine life, that they seem, even while they are in {92} the flesh, to have no part in earth or in human nature; but to think, speak, and act under views, affections, and motives simply supernatural. If they love others, it is simply because they love God, and because man is the object either of His compassion, or of His praise. If they rejoice, it is in what is unseen; if they feel interest, it is in what is unearthly; if they speak, it is almost with the voice of Angels; if they eat or drink, it is almost of Angels' food alone,—for it is recorded in their histories, that for weeks they have fed on nothing else but that Heavenly Bread which is the proper sustenance of the soul. Such we may suppose to have been St. John; such St. Mary Magdalen; such the hermits of the desert; such many of the holy Virgins whose lives belong to the science of mystical theology.

On the other hand, there are those, and of the highest order of sanctity too, as far as our eyes can see, in whom the supernatural combines with nature, instead of superseding it,—invigorating it, elevating it, ennobling it; and who are not the less men, because they are saints. They do not put away their natural endowments, but use them to the glory of the Giver; they do not act beside them, but through them; they do not eclipse them by the brightness of divine grace, but only transfigure them. They are versed in human knowledge; they are busy in human society; they understand the human heart; they can throw themselves into the minds of other men; and all this in consequence of natural gifts and secular education. While they themselves stand secure in the blessedness of purity and peace, they can follow in imagination the ten thousand aberrations of pride, passion, {93} and remorse. The world is to them a book, to which they are drawn for its own sake, which they read fluently, which interests them naturally,—though, by the reason of the grace which dwells within them, they study it and hold converse with it for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Thus they have the thoughts, feelings, frames of mind, attractions, sympathies, antipathies of other men, so far as these are not sinful, only they have these properties of human nature purified, sanctified, and exalted; and they are only made more eloquent, more poetical, more profound, more intellectual, by reason of their being more holy. In this latter class I may perhaps without presumption place many of the early Fathers, St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Athanasius, and above all, the great Saint of this day, St. Paul the Apostle.

I think it a happy circumstance that, in this Church, placed, as it is, under the patronage of the great names of St. Peter and St. Paul, the special feast days of these two Apostles (for such we may account the 29th of June as regards St. Peter, and today as regards St. Paul) should, in the first year of our assembling here, each have fallen on a Sunday. And now that we have arrived, through God's protecting Providence, at the latter of these two days, the Conversion of St. Paul, I do not like to forego the opportunity, with whatever misgivings as to my ability, of offering to you, my Brethren, at least a few remarks upon the wonderful work of God's creative grace mercifully presented to our inspection in the person of this great Apostle. Most unworthy of him, I know, is the best that I can say; and even that {94} best I cannot duly exhibit in the space of time allowed me on an occasion such as this; but what is said out of devotion to him, and for the divine glory, will, I trust, have its use, defective though it be, and be a plea for his favourable notice of those who say it, and be graciously accepted by his and our Lord and Master.

Now, since I have begun by contrasting St. Paul with St. John, and by implying that St. John lived a life more simply supernatural than St. Paul, I may seem to you, my Brethren, to be speaking to St. Paul's disparagement; and you may therefore ask me whether it is possible for any Saint on earth to have a more intimate communion with the Divine Majesty than was granted to St. Paul. You may remind me of his own words, "I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me; and, that I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself for me." And you may refer to his most astonishing ecstasies and visions; as when he was rapt even to the third heaven, and heard sacred words, which it "is not granted to man to utter." You may say, he "no way came short" of St. John in his awful initiation into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. Certainly you may say so; nor am I imagining anything contrary to you. We indeed cannot compare Saints; but I agree with you, that St. Paul was visited by favours, equal, in our apprehensions, to those which were granted to St. John. But then, on the other hand, neither was St. John behind St. Paul in these tokens of divine love. In truth, these tokens are some of those very things which, in a greater or less degree, belong to all Saints whatever, as I said {95} when I began; whereas my question just now is, not what are those points in which St. Paul agrees with all other Saints, but what is his distinguished mark, how we recognize him from others, what there is special in him; and I think his characteristic is this;—that, as I have said, in him the fulness of divine gifts does not tend to destroy what is human in him, but to spiritualize and perfect it. According to his own words, used on another subject, but laying down, as it were, the principle on which his own character was formed,—"We would not be unclothed," he says, but "clothed upon, that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life." In him, his human nature, his human affections, his human gifts, were possessed and glorified by a new and heavenly life; they remained; he speaks of them in the text, and in his humility he calls them his infirmity. He was not stripped of nature, but clothed with grace and the power of Christ, and therefore he glories in his infirmity. This is the subject on which I wish to enlarge.

A heathen poet has said, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. "I am a man; nothing human is without interest to me:" and the sentiment has been widely and deservedly praised. Now this, in a fulness of meaning which a heathen could not understand, is, I conceive, the characteristic of this great Apostle. He is ever speaking, to use his own words, "human things," and "as a man," and "according to man," and "foolishly":—that is, human nature, the common nature of the whole race of Adam, spoke in him, acted in him, with an energetical presence, with a sort of bodily fulness, always under the sovereign command of divine grace, but {96} losing none of its real freedom and power because of its subordination. And the consequence is, that, having the nature of man so strong within him, he is able to enter into human nature, and to sympathize with it, with a gift peculiarly his own.

Now the most startling instance of this is this,—that, though his life prior to his conversion seems to have been so conscientious and so pure, nevertheless he does not hesitate to associate himself with the outcast heathen, and to speak as if he were one of them. St. Philip Neri, before he communicated, used to say, "Lord, I protest before Thee that I am good for nothing but to do evil." At confession he used to say, "I have never done one good action." He often said, "I am past hope." To a penitent he said, "Be sure of this, I am a man like my neighbours, and nothing more." Well, I mean, that somewhat in this way, St. Paul felt all his neighbours, all the whole race of Adam, to be existing in himself. He knew himself to be possessed of a nature, he was conscious of possessing a nature, which was capable of running into all the multiplicity of emotions, of devices, of purposes, and of sins, into which it had actually run in the wide world and in the multitude of men; and in that sense he bore the sins of all men, and associated himself with them, and spoke of them and himself as one. He, I say, a strict Pharisee (as he describes himself), blameless according to legal justice, conversing with all good conscience before God, serving God from his forefathers with a pure conscience, he nevertheless elsewhere speaks of himself as a profligate heathen outcast before the grace of God called him. He {97} not only counts himself, as his birth made him, in the number of "children of wrath," but he classes himself with the heathen as "conversing in the desires of the flesh," "and fulfilling the will of the flesh." And in another Epistle, he speaks of himself, at the time he writes, as if "carnal, sold under sin "; he speaks of "sin dwelling in him," and of his "serving with the flesh the law of sin"; this, I say, when he was an Apostle confirmed in grace. And in like manner he speaks of concupiscence as if it were sin; all because he vividly apprehended, in that nature of his which grace had sanctified, what it was in its tendencies and results when deprived of grace.

And thus I account for St. Paul's liking for heathen writers, or what we now call the classics, which is very remarkable. He, the Apostle of the Gentiles, was learned in Greek letters, as Moses, the lawgiver of the Jews, his counterpart, was learned in the wisdom of the Egyptians; and he did not give up that learning when he had "learned Christ." I do not think I am exaggerating in saying so, since he goes out of his way three times to quote passages from them; once, speaking to the heathen Athenians; another time, to his converts at Corinth; and a third time, in a private Apostolic exhortation to his disciple St. Titus. And it is the more remarkable, that one of the writers whom he quotes seems to be a writer of comedies, which had no claim to be read for any high morality which they contain. Now how shall we account for this? Did St. Paul delight in what was licentious? God forbid: but he had the feeling of a guardian-angel who sees every sin of the rebellious being {98} committed to him, who gazes at him and weeps. With this difference, that he had a sympathy with sinners, which an Angel (be it reverently said) cannot have. He was a true lover of souls. He loved poor human nature with a passionate love, and the literature of the Greeks was only its expression; and he hung over it tenderly and mournfully, wishing for its regeneration and salvation.

This is how I account for his familiar knowledge of the heathen poets. Some of the ancient Fathers consider that the Greeks were under a special dispensation of Providence, preparatory to the Gospel, though not directly from heaven as the Jewish was. Now St. Paul seems, if I may say it, to partake of this feeling; distinctly as he teaches that the heathen are in darkness, and in sin, and under the power of the Evil One, he will not allow that they are beyond the eye of Divine Mercy. On the contrary, he speaks of God as "determining their times and the limits of their habitation," that is, going along with the revolutions of history and the migrations of races, "in order that they should seek Him, if haply they may feel after Him and find Him," since, he continues, "He is not far from every one of us." Again, when the Lycaonians would have worshipped him, he at once places himself on their level and reckons himself among them, and at the same time speaks of God's love of them, heathens though they were. "Ye men," he cries, "why do ye these things? We also are mortals, men like unto you;" and he adds that God in times past, though suffering all nations to walk in their own ways, "nevertheless left not Himself {99} without testimony, doing good from heaven, giving rains and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness." You see, he says, "our hearts," not "your," as if he were one of those Gentiles; and he dwells in a kindly human way over the food, and the gladness which food causes, which the poor heathen were granted. Hence it is that he is the Apostle who especially insists on our all coming from one father, Adam; for he had pleasure in thinking that all men were brethren. "God hath made," he says, "all mankind of one"; "as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive." I will cite but one more passage from the great Apostle on the same subject, one in which he tenderly contemplates the captivity, and the anguish, and the longing, and the deliverance of poor human nature. "The expectation of the creature," he says, that is, of human nature, "waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of Him that made it subject, in hope; because it shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain until now."

These are specimens of the tender affection which the great heart of the Apostle had for all his kind, the sons of Adam: but if he felt so much for all races spread over the earth, what did he feel for his own nation! O what a special mixture, bitter and sweet, of generous pride (if I may so speak), but of piercing, overwhelming anguish, did the thought of the race of Israel inflict upon him! the highest of nations and the lowest, his {100} own dear people, whose glories were before his imagination and in his affection from his childhood, who had the birthright and the promise, yet who, instead of making use of them, had madly thrown them away! Alas, alas, and he himself had once been a partner in their madness, and was only saved from his infatuation by the miraculous power of God! O dearest ones, O glorious race, O miserably fallen! so great and so abject! This is his tone in speaking of the Jews, at once a Jeremias and a David; David in his patriotic care for them, and Jeremias in his plaintive and resigned denunciations.

Consider his words:—"I speak the truth in Christ," he says; "I lie not, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost; that I have great sadness and continual sorrow in my heart." In spite of visions and ecstasies, in spite of his wonderful election, in spite of his manifold gifts, in spite of the cares of his Apostolate and "the solicitude for all the churches"—you would think he had had enough otherwise both to grieve him and to gladden him—but no, this special contemplation remains ever before his mind and in his heart. I mean, the state of his own poor people, who were in mad enmity against the promised Saviour, who had for centuries after centuries looked forward for the Hope of Israel, prepared the way for it, heralded it, suffered for it, cherished and protected it, yet, when it came, rejected it, and lost the fruit of their long patience. "Who are Israelites," he says, mournfully lingering over their past glories, "who are Israelites, to whom belongeth the adoption of children, and the glory, and the testament, and the giving of wealth, and the service of God, and the promises; {101} whose are the fathers, and of whom is Christ according to the flesh, who is over all things, God blessed for ever. Amen."

What a hard thing it was for him to give them up! He pleaded for them, while they were persecuting his Lord and himself. He reminded his Lord that he himself had also been that Lord's persecutor, and why not try them a little longer? "Lord," he said, "they know that I cast into prison, and beat in every synagogue, them that believed in Thee. And, when the blood of Stephen, Thy witness, was shed, I stood by and consented, and kept the garments of them that killed him." You see, his old frame of mind, the feelings and notions under which he persecuted his Lord, were ever distinctly before him, and he realized them as if they were still his own. "I bear them witness," he says, "that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge." O blind! blind! he seems to say;—O that there should be so much of good in them, so much zeal, so much of religious purpose, so much of steadfastness, such resolve like Josias, Mathathias, or MachabŠus, to keep the whole law, and honour Moses and the Prophets, but all spoiled, all undone, by one fatal sin! And what is he prompted to do? Moses, on one occasion, desired to suffer instead of his rebellious people: "Either forgive them this trespass," he said, "or if Thou do not, strike me out of the book." And now, when the New Law was in course of promulgation, and the chosen race was committing the same sin, its great Apostle desired the same: "I wished myself," he says, speaking of the agony he had passed through, "I wished myself to be an {102} anathema from Christ, for my brethren, who are my kinsmen according to the flesh." And then, when all was in vain, when they remained obdurate, and the high decree of God took effect, still he would not, out of very affection for them, he would not allow after all that they were reprobate. He comforted himself with the thought of how many were the exceptions to so dismal a sentence. "Hath God cast away His people?" he asks; "God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin." "All are not Israelites that are of Israel." And he dwells upon his confident anticipation of their recovery in time to come. "They are enemies," he says, writing to the Romans, "for your sakes;" that is, you have gained by their loss; "but they are most dear for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance." "Blindness in part has happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles should come in; and so all Israel should be saved."

My Brethren, I have now explained to a certain extent what I meant when I spoke of St. Paul's characteristic gift, as being a special apprehension of human nature as a fact, and an intimate familiarity with it as an object of continual contemplation and affection. He made it his own to the very full, instead of annihilating it; he sympathized with it, while he mortified it by penance, while he sanctified it by the grace given him. Though he had never been a heathen, though he was no longer a Jew, yet he was a heathen in capability, as I may say, and a Jew in the history of the past. His vivid imagination enabled him to throw himself into the state of {103} heathenism, with all those tendencies which lay dormant in his human nature carried out, and its infirmities developed into sin. His wakeful memory enabled him to recall those past feelings and ideas of a Jew, which in the case of others a miraculous conversion might have obliterated; and thus, while he was a Saint inferior to none, he was emphatically still a man, and to his own apprehension still a sinner.

And this being so, do you not see, my Brethren, how well fitted he was for the office of an Ecumenical Doctor, and an Apostle, not of the Jews only, but of the Gentiles? The Almighty sometimes works by miracle, but commonly He prepares His instruments by methods of this world; and, as He draws souls to Him, "by the cords of Adam," so does He select them for His use according to their natural powers. St. John, who lay upon His breast, whose book was the sacred heart of Jesus, and whose special philosophy was the "scientia sanctorum," he was not chosen to be the Doctor of the Nations. St. Peter, taught in the mysteries of the Creed, the Arbiter of doctrine and the Ruler of the faithful, he too was passed over in this work. To him specially was it given to preach to the world, who knew the world; he subdued the heart, who understood the heart. It was his sympathy that was his means of influence; it was his affectionateness which was his title and instrument of empire. "I became to the Jews a Jew," he says, "that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the Law, as if I were under the Law, that I might gain them that were under the Law. To those that were without the Law, as if I were without {104} the Law, that I might gain them that were without the Law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak. I became all things to all men, that I might save all."

And now, my Brethren, my time is out, before I have well begun my subject. For how can I be said yet to have entered upon the great Apostle, when I have not yet touched upon his Christian affections, and his bearing towards the children of God? As yet I have chiefly spoken of his sympathy with human nature unassisted and unregenerate; not of that yearning of his heart, as it showed itself in action under the grace of the Redeemer. But perhaps it is most suitable on the feast of his Conversion, to stop at that point at which the day leaves him; and perhaps too it will be permitted to me on a future occasion to attempt, if it be not presumption, to speak of him again.

Meanwhile, may this glorious Apostle, this sweetest of inspired writers, this most touching and winning of teachers, may he do me some good turn, who have ever felt a special devotion towards him! May this great Saint, this man of large mind, of various sympathies, of affectionate heart, have a kind thought for every one of us here according to our respective needs! He has carried his human thoughts and feelings with him to his throne above; and, though he sees the Infinite and Eternal Essence, he still remembers well that troublous, restless ocean below, of hopes and fears, of impulses and aspirations, of efforts and failures, which is now what it was when he was here. Let us beg him to intercede for us with the Majesty on high, that we too may have some {105} portion of that tenderness, compassion, mutual affection, love of brotherhood, abhorrence of strife and division, in which he excelled. Let us beg him especially, as we are bound, to bless the most reverend Prelate, under whose jurisdiction we here live, and whose feast day this is; that the great name of Paul may be to him a tower of strength and fount of consolation now, and in death, and in the day of account.

(Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul—3rd Sunday after Epiphany, 1857. Preached in the University  Church, Dublin.)

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright ę 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.