Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman


I CONFESS to a delight in reading the lives, and dwelling on the characters and actions, of the Saints of the first ages, such as I receive from none besides them; and for this reason, because we know so much more about them than about most of the Saints who come after them. People are variously constituted; what influences one does not influence another. There are persons of warm imaginations, who can easily picture to themselves what they never saw. They can at will see Angels and Saints hovering over them when they are in church; they see their lineaments, their features, their motions, their gestures, their smile or their grief. They can go home and draw what they have seen, from the vivid memory of what, while it lasted, was so transporting. I am not one of such; I am touched by my five senses, by what my eyes behold and my ears hear. I am touched by what I read about, not by “what I myself create. As faith need not lead to practice, so in me mere imagination does not lead to devotion. I gain more from the life of our Lord in the Gospels than from a treatise de Deo. I gain more from three verses of St. John than from the three points of a meditation. I like a Spanish crucifix of painted wood more than one from Italy, which is made of gold. I am more touched by the Seven Dolours than by the Immaculate Conception; I am more devout to St. Gabriel than to one of Isaiah’s seraphim. I love St. Paul more than one of those first Carmelites, his contemporaries, whose names and acts no one ever heard of; I feel affectionately towards the Alexandrian Dionysius, I do homage to St. George. I do not say that my way is better than another’s; but it is my way, and an allowable way. And it is the reason why I am so specially attached to the Saints of the third and fourth century, because we know so much about them. This is why I feel a devout affection for St. Chrysostom. He and the rest of them have written autobiography on a large scale; they have given us their own histories, their thoughts, words, and actions, in a number of goodly folios, productions which are in themselves some of their meritorious works.

I do not know where else to find the daily life, the secret heart, of such favoured servants of God, unveiled to their devout disciples in such completeness and fidelity. Modern times afford some instances of the kind: St. Theresa is one of them; St. Francis de Sales is another: still, on the whole, what should we have known of the generality of the great Saints of the later centuries, had we been left to themselves for the information? We should of course have had the treasure of their recorded visions, prophecies, and meditations; but these are portions of their divine, not their human life, and rather belong to what God did for them, than to what they did for themselves. There is one circumstance, indeed, which tells in their favour; we have their portraits. This, I grant, is in favour of the moderns; certainly we have no idea at all of the personal appearance, the expression of countenance, or the bearing of St. Athanasius or St. Hilary. It is assuredly a great point, if the case be so, that we have likenesses of the modern Saints. But I am not sure that we have; often there was no attempt at all made to take their likenesses in their lifetime; sometimes they would not let themselves be taken when there was. St. Philip Neri once caught an artist in the very commission of that great offence, and stopped him; and the unfinished picture hangs up to this day at the Pellegrini, a memorial of a painter’s devotion and a saint’s modesty. Sometimes, again, there may be a good likeness; but, perhaps, however interesting in itself, it was taken before the Saint’s conversion, and can only satisfy a human curiosity: sometimes it was taken, indeed, but has been lost, and the copies, if there are any, are not to be trusted. Sometimes the artist’s veneration has idealized the countenance, or the popular demand has vulgarized it. How has a devout poetry embellished some of the ordinary portraits of the great St. Carlo! how does the original likeness of St. Ignatius differ from the military countenance and figure which ordinary pencils have bestowed upon him! You cannot thus wander from the original, in the new edition you put to press of St. Ambrose or the blessed Theodoret.

I repeat, what I want to trace and study is the real, hidden but human, life, or the interior, as it is called, of such glorious creations of God; and this I gain with difficulty from mere biographies. Those biographies are most valuable both as being true and as being edifying; they are true to the letter, as far as they record facts and acts; I know it: but actions are not enough for sanctity; we must have saintly motives; and as to these motives, the actions themselves seldom carry the motives along with them. In consequence, they are often supplied simply by the biographer out of his own head; and with good reason supplied, from the certainty which he feels that, since it is the act of a Saint which he is describing, therefore it must be a saintly act. Properly and naturally supplied, I grant: but I can do that as well as he; and ought to do it for myself, and shall be sure to do it, if I make the Saint my meditation. The biographer in that case is no longer a mere witness and reporter; he has become a commentator. He gives me no insight into the Saint’s interior; he does but tell me to infer that the Saint acted in some transcendent way from the reason of the case, or to hold it on faith because he has been canonized. For instance: When I read in such a life, “The Saint, when asked a question, was silent from humility,” or “from compassion for the ignorance of the speaker,” or “in order to give him a gentle rebuke,”—I find a motive assigned, whichever of the three is selected, which is the biographer’s own, and perhaps has two chances to one against its being the right one. We read of an occasion on which St. Athanasius said nothing, but smiled, when a question was put to him: it was another Saint who asked the question, and who has recorded the smile; but he does not more than doubtfully explain it. Many a biographer would, simply out of piety, have pronounced the reason of that smile. I should not blame him for doing so; but it was more than he could do as a biographer; if he did it, he would do it, not as an historian, but as a spiritual writer.

On the other hand, when a Saint is himself the speaker, he interprets his own action; and that is what I find done in such fulness in the case of those early luminaries of the Church to whom I am referring. I want to hear a Saint converse; I am not content to look at him as a statue; his words are the index of his hidden life, as far as that life can be known to man, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” This is why I exult in the folios of the Fathers. I am not obliged to read the whole of them, I read what I can and am content. Though I may not have advanced into their interior more than a certain way, still, what I have read is good so far as it goes. It does not derogate from the reality of that knowledge and love of a Saint which I have actually got from what I have read already of his writings, that there is much more of those writings to be read and much more of him to be loved. Cannot we know and love the King of Saints? Yet we always can know more about Him, and gain further motives for loving Him.


Now the Ancient Saints have left behind them just that kind of literature which more than any other represents the abundance of the heart, which more than any other approaches to conversation; I mean correspondence. Why is it that we feel an interest in Cicero which we cannot feel in Demosthenes or Plato? Plato is the very type of soaring philosophy, and Demosthenes of forcible eloquence; Cicero is something more than orator and a sage; he is not a mere ideality, he is a man and a brother; he is one of ourselves. We do not merely believe it, or infer it, but we have the enduring and living evidence of it—how? In his letters. He can be studied, criticized if you will; but still dwelt upon and sympathized with. Now the case of the Ancient Saints is parallel to that of Cicero. We have their letters in a marvellous profusion. We have above 400 letters of St. Basil’s; above 200 of St. Augustine’s. St. Chrysostom has left us about 240; St. Gregory Nazianzen the same number; Pope St. Gregory as many as 840. St. Nilus close on 1400 short ones; St. Isidore, 1440. The blessed Theodoret, 146; St. Leo, 140; St. Cyprian, 80 or 90; St. Paulinus, 50; St. Jerome, above 100; St. Ambrose, 90. St. Bernard, the last of the fathers, supplies 444; and St. Anselm, the first of the schoolmen, nearly the same number. I am passing beyond the early Saints; so I might go on to certain modern, as St. Francis Xavier; but they all belong to one school of literature, which is now well-nigh extinct.

These letters are of very various characters, compared one with another: a large portion of them were intended simply for the parties to whom they are addressed; a large portion consist of brief answers to questions asked of the writer, or a few words of good counsel or spiritual exhortation, disclosing his character either by the topic selected, or his mode of dealing with it. Many are doctrinal; great numbers, again, are strictly ecclesiastical and ex cathedrâ. Many are historical and biographical; some might be called state-papers; some narrate public transactions, and how the writer felt towards them, or why he took part in them. Pope Gregory’s epistles give us the same sort of insight into the holy solicitude for the universal Christian people which possessed him, that minute vigilance, yet comprehensive superintendence of the chief pastor, which in a very different field of labour is seen in the Duke of Wellington’s despatches on campaign, which tell us so much more about him than any panegyrical sketch. Those of St. Isidore and St. Nilus consist of little more than one or two terse, pithy, pregnant sentences, which may be called sermonets, and are often as vivid as if we heard them. St. Chrysostom’s are for the most part crowded into the three memorable years in which the sufferings of exile gradually ripened into a virtual martyrdom. Others, as some of those of St. Jerome and St. Ambrose, are meditations on mystical subjects. Those of St. Dionysius of Alexandria, which are but fragments, recount the various trials of the time, and are marked with a vigorous individuality which invests the narrative with an interest far higher than historical.

This manifestation of themselves the Ancient Saints carry with them into other kinds of composition, where it was less to be expected. Instead of writing formal doctrinal treatises, they write controversy; and their controversy, again, is correspondence. They mix up their own persons, natural and supernatural, with the didactic or polemical works which engaged them. Their authoritative declarations are written, not on stone tablets, but on what Scripture calls “the fleshly tables of the heart.” The line of their discussion traverses a region rich and interesting, and opens on those who follow them in it a succession of instructive views as to the aims, the difficulties, the disappointments, under which they journeyed on heavenward, their care of the brethren, their anxieties about contemporary teachers of error. Dogma and proof are in them at the same time hagiography. They do not write a summa theologiæ, or draw out a catena, or pursue a single thesis through the stages of a scholastic disputation. They wrote for the occasion, and seldom on a carefully-digested plan.

The same remark holds of their comments upon Scripture. A speaker and an audience are prominent throughout them; and we gain an insight into their own character and the circumstances of their times, while we are indoctrinated in the sacred text. When Pope Gregory comments upon Ezechiel, he writes about the Lombards, his own people, and himself. What a vivid idea we have of St. Chrysostom! partly from his style, partly from his matter; yet we gain it from his formal expositions of Scripture. His expositions are discourses; his discourses, whether he will or no, are manifestations. St. Gregory Nazianzen has written discourses too, by means of which he has gained for himself the special title of “Theologus;” yet these same orations give us also a large range of information about his own life, his kindred and friends, his feelings and his fortunes; and, as if this were not enough, he has bequeathed to us, besides his letters, his poems, a huge collection of miscellaneous verse, full of himself and his times. They are his confessions.

Here I am reminded of the celebrated work of St. Augustine’s which bears that name, and which has no parallel in sacred literature. Of the same character are portions of the correspondence of St. Basil, and, again, of St. Jerome. It is remarkable, on the other hand, that certain ancient writers, who, able and learned as they are, have no title to be called Saints, such as Tertullian and Eusebius, afford as few instances as possible in their works, as far as I know, of that tenderness and simplicity of character which leads their saintly contemporaries to an unstudied self-manifestation.


It is perhaps presumptuous in me to have spoken of the Fathers thus universally, and I may have made mistakes in detail; but I have confidence in my general principle, and its general exemplification in their case. Words are the exponents of thoughts, and a silent Saint is the object of faith rather than of affection. If he speaks, then we have the original before us; if he is silent, we must put up with a copy, done with more or less skill according to the painter. But in saying this, I do not mark off the Saints into two distinct classes, those who speak and those who are silent; I am only contrasting two kinds of exhibition which are variously fulfilled in them, taken one by one. Nor is a silent Saint one who does not write, but one who does not speak; and some of them may manifest themselves by their short sayings and their single words more graphically than if they had written a volume. When St. Philip Neri excused his abstemiousness on the ground of his fear lest he should get as fat as his friend Francesco Scarletti, or hid his religious tears with the jest, “Mayn’t a poor orphan weep, who has neither father nor mother?” or made Consolini read out loud a story-book to him, when certain great lords of Poland came to see a Saint, he let us into his character better than by many treatises. Nor are any words at all necessary in some cases; for I suppose the Martyrs, who are the most ancient Saints of all, speak by their deaths; whereas some of the Fathers, as St. Isidore of Seville, and various medieval Saints, have written many large books, and tell us, alas! about themselves nothing. And further still, in the present state of education among us, I do not see how it is possible we should enjoy that personal knowledge of the Saints which seems to me so desirable. The bulk of the faithful have nothing at all to do with Saints’ lives or writings, for this simple reason, because they cannot read, or do not like reading. They are devout to a Saint, as they are devout to their Guardian Angel, because he is a work of God, full of grace and glory, and able to protect them. I recollect an Irishman of the humblest class complaining of the sermon of a Religious because it had nothing in it about the Saints: the fact was not so at all, and in the pulpit from which the sermon was preached there had been much about Saints Sunday after Sunday. But it turned out that the complainant was devout to St. Joseph; and his real grievance was, that St. Joseph was not mentioned in the sermon. Nor did he want more than the mention of his glorious patron’s name; his very name inspired devotion, he needed no life of him. I wish we, with all our learning, were sure of having this poor man’s devotion; but that wish is nothing to the purpose in my present argument, in which I am not contrasting educated and uneducated piety, but the popular biographies of Saints and their actual writings.

Nor must it be supposed that I think lightly of the debt of gratitude which we owe to their biographers. It is not their fault if their Saint has been silent; all that we know about him, be it much, be it little, we owe to them. As I was saying just now, some of those saints who have written most have told us least. There is St. Thomas; he was called in his youth the Bos Siculus for his silence; it is one of the few personal traits which we have of him, and for that very reason, though it does but record the privation of which I am complaining, it is worth a good deal. It is a great consolation to know that he was the Bos Siculus; it makes us feel a sympathy with him, and leads us to trust that perhaps he will feel some sympathy for us, who for one reason or other are silent at times when we should like to be speaking. But it is the sole consolation for that forlorn silence of his, since, although at length he broke it to some purpose, as regards thelogy, and became a marvel (according to the proverb in such cases), still he is as silent as before in regard to himself. The Angel of the schools! how overflowing he must have been, I say to myself, in all bright supernatural visions, and beautiful and sublime thoughts! how serene in his contemplation of them! how winning in his communication! but he has not helped me ever so little in apprehending what I firmly believe about him. He wrote his Summa and his Hymns under obedience, I suppose; and no obedience was given him to speak of himself. So we are thrown upon his biographers, and but for them, we should speak of him as we speak of the author of the Imitation, or of the Veni Creator, only as of a great unknown benefactor. All honour, then, and gratitude to the writers of Saints’ lives. They have done what they could. It would not have improved matters if they had been silent as well as the Saint; still, they cannot make up for their Saint’s silence; they do not deprive me of my grievance, that at present I do not really know those to whom I am devout, whom I hope to see in heaven.


A Saint’s writings are to me his real “Life;” and what is called his “Life” is not the outline of an individual, but either of the auto-saint or of a myth. Perhaps I shall be asked what I mean by “Life.” I mean a narrative which impresses the reader with the idea of moral unity, identity, growth, continuity, personality. When a Saint converses with me, I am conscious of the presence of one active principle of thought, one individual character, flowing on and into the various matters which he discusses, and the different transactions in which he mixes. It is what no memorials can reach, however skilfully elaborated, however free from effort or study, however conscientiously faithful, however guaranteed by the veracity of the writers. Why cannot art rival the lily or the rose? Because the colours of the flower are developed and blended by the force of an inward life; while on the other hand, the lights and shades of the painter are diligently laid on from without. A magnifying glass will show the difference. Nor will it improve matters, though not one only, but a dozen good artists successively take part in the picture; even if the outline is unbroken, the colouring is muddy. Commonly, what is called “the Life,” is little more than a collection of anecdotes brought together from a number of independent quarters; anecdotes striking, indeed, and edifying, but valuable in themselves rather than valuable as parts of a biography; valuable whoever was the subject of them, not valuable as illustrating a particular Saint. It would be difficult to mistake for each other a paragraph of St. Ambrose, or of St. Jerome, or of St. Augustine; it would be very easy to mistake a chapter in the life of one holy missionary or nun for a chapter in the life of another.

An almsgiving here, an instance of meekness there, a severity of penance, a round of religious duties,—all these things humble me, instruct me, improve me; I cannot desire any thing better of their kind; but they do not necessarily coalesce into the image of a person. From such works I do but learn to pay devotion to an abstract and typical perfection under a certain particular name; I do not know more of the real Saint who bore it than before. Saints, as other men, differ from each other in this, that the multitude of qualities which they have in common are differently combined in each of them. This forms one great part of their personality. One Saint is remarkable for fortitude; not that he has not other heroic virtues by concomitance, as it may be called, but by virtue of that one gift in particular he has won his crown. Another is remarkable for patient hope, another for renunciation of the world. Such a particular virtue may be said to give form to all the rest which are grouped round it, and are moulded and modified by means of it. Thus it is that often what is right in one would be wrong in another; and, in fact, the very same action is allowed or chosen by one, and shunned by another, as being consistent or inconsistent with their respective characters,—pretty much as in the combination of colours, each separate tint takes a shade from the rest, and is good or bad from its company. The whole gives a meaning to the parts; but it is difficult to rise from the parts to the whole. When I read St. Augustine or St. Basil, I hold converse with a beautiful grace-illumined soul, looking out into this world of sense, and leavening it with itself; when I read a professed life of him, I am wandering in a labyrinth of which I cannot find the centre and heart, and am but conducted out of doors again when I do my best to penetrate within.

This seems to me, to tell the truth, a sort of pantheistic treatment of the Saints. I ask something more than to stumble upon the disjecta membra of what ought to be a living whole. I take but a secondary interest in books which chop up a Saint into chapters of faith, hope, charity, and the cardinal virtues. They are too scientific to be devotional. They have their great utility, but it is not the utility which they profess. They do not manifest a Saint, they mince him into spiritual lessons. They are rightly called spiritual reading, that is just what they are, and they cannot possibly be any thing better; but they are not any thing else. They contain a series of points of meditation on particular virtues, made easier because those points are put under the patronage and the invocation of a Saint. With a view to learning real devotion to him, I prefer (speaking for myself) to have any one action or event of his life drawn out minutely, with his own comments upon it, than a score of virtues, or of acts of one virtue, strung together in as many sentences. Now, in the ancient writings I have spoken of, certain transactions are thoroughly worked out. We know all that happened to a Saint on such or such an occasion, all that was done by him. We have a view of his character, his tastes, his natural infirmities, his struggles and victories over them, which in no other way can be attained, And therefore it is that, without quarrelling with the devotion of others, I give the preference to my own.

This is why it is so difficult to be patient with such Church histories as Mosheim’s, putting out of the question his Protestant prejudices. When you have read through a century of him, you have as little distinct idea of what he has been about, as when you began. You have been hurried about from subject to subject, from external history to internal, from ceremonies to divines, from heresies to persecutions, till you find that you have gained nothing but to be fatigued. If history is to mirror the actual course of time, it must also be a course itself; it must not be the mere emptying out of a portfolio of unconnected persons and events, which are not synchronous, nor co-ordinate, nor correlative, but merely arranged, if arrangement it can be called, according to the convenience of the author. And I have a parallel difficulty in the case of hagiographers, when they draw out their materials, not according to years, but according to virtues. Such reading is not history, it is moral science; nay, hardly that: for chronological considerations will be neglected; youth, manhood, and age, will be intermingled. I shall not be able to trace out, for my own edification, the solemn conflict which is waging in the soul between what is divine and what is human, or the eras of the successive victories won by the powers and principles which are divine. I shall not be able to determine whether there was heroism in the young, whether there was not infirmity and temptation in the old. I shall not be able to explain actions which need explanation, for the age of the actors is the true key for entering into them. I shall be wearied and disappointed, and I shall go back with pleasure to the Fathers.

Here another great subject opens upon us, when I ought to be bringing these remarks to an end; I mean the endemic perennial fidget which possesses us about giving scandal; facts are omitted in great histories, or glosses are put upon memorable acts, because they are thought not edifying, whereas of all scandals such omissions, such glosses, are the greatest. But I am getting far more argumentative than I thought to be when I began; so I lay my pen down, and retire into myself.

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