After the ceremonies on August 28 [Dr. Arbery’s inauguration as President of Wyoming Catholic College], Pres. Michael McLean of Thomas Aquinas College in California presented me a gift: John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons. Of course, I know Newman from other works, but I have never read his sermons.
In the very first one, “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness,” Newman makes the case that any worldly sinner, accustomed to his pleasures, would be intensely miserable in heaven. His reasons more or less echo those of Milton’s Mammon, who asks what it would be like for the fallen angels to be readmitted into the presence of God:
With what eyes could weStand in his presence humble, and receiveStrict laws imposed, to celebrate his throneWith warbled hymns, and to his Godhead singForced hallelujahs?
Nobody likes a forced hallelujah. Newman’s emphasis is on God’s holiness, which will be a sheer torment to anyone who has spent his time entirely otherwise. Newman imagines a sinner in Heaven who “could no longer turn his thoughts another way, as he does now, when conscience reproaches him. He would know that the Eternal Eye was ever upon him; and that Eye of holiness, which is joy and life to holy creatures, would seemed to him an Eye of wrath and punishment.” Heaven would be Hell, in other words. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’s short novel The Great Divorce, in which a busload of the denizens of Hell makes a brief foray into Heaven. Those who don’t like the place—and most find it intensely uncomfortable—get back on the bus.
After reading Newman, I found myself thinking about the distinction between the good and the holy that our newly matriculated freshmen will be experiencing as they read the Greeks and the Old Testament. Holiness, not to put too fine a point upon it, is terrifying. “Do not come near,” the LORD tells Moses in Exodus. “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses hides his face because he is “afraid to look at God.” Or think of poor Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, who puts out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant when the oxen drawing it behind them stumble. God strikes Uzzah down on the spot. Why? Because the Ark is holy. Like fire, holiness has its own nature, according to Newman: “Fire does not inflame iron, but it inflames straw. It would cease to be fire if it did not.”
But how different holiness is from the Good, understood philosophically. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates leads his young friends on a dialectical ascent to the Idea of the Good, whose image is the sun. The sun provides light and nourishes growth; by analogy, the Good illumines the intellect and at the same time brings all things knowable by it into being. But is the Good the same thing as the Holy?
“Socrates is terribly at ease in Zion,” writes Matthew Arnold in “Hebraism and Hellenism,” attributing the saying to Thomas Carlyle. Arnold interprets Carlyle to mean that Socrates is not concerned with sin, the “obstacle to perfection” of which he seems entirely unaware. But it also strikes me that it is precisely holiness which brings about a sense of sin—a perfect, fiery cleanness, a purity so intense that the “Eye” reveals every imperfection. Could it be that Socrates did not experience the terror of the Holy? Arnold does not say so directly, but the difference between the Good and the Holy separates “Hellenism,” or the Greek mode of understanding, from “Hebraism,” or biblical revelation. Our faith of course brings the two back into harmony. In his Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict XVI claims that the “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history.”
Newman’s analogy to heaven is church, where there are “no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small.” But sometimes even in church we confuse the goodness of God with the holiness of God. God’s goodness to us means that He is gentle, merciful, forgiving, “slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” When we think of God’s holiness, on the other hand, our interior posture changes. There is a considerable difference, even liturgically, between thinking, “God is good,” and thinking, “Holy, holy, holy/is the Lord God of hosts.”
In church, in other words, our focus should be on God’s terrifying holiness, which demands of us everything that holiness has always demanded, but it is holiness made bearable in Christ, the Logos, whose death breaks open the goodness of God.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (August 2016).
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