On the greatness and littleness of human life
Our earthly life gives promise of what it does not accomplish. It promises immortality, yet it is mortal. It contains life in death and eternity in time, and it attracts by beginnings which faith alone brings to an end. When we take into account the powers with which our souls are gifted as Christians, the very consciousness of these fills us with a certainty that they must last beyond this life. That is in the case of good and holy men, whose present state is to them who know them well an earnest of immortality. The greatness of their gifts, contrasted with the scanty time for exercising them, forces the mind forward to the thought of another life, as almost the necessary counterpart and consequence of this life, and certainly implied in the life, provided there be a righteous governor of the world who does not make men for naught.
The very greatness of our powers makes this life look pitiful; the very pitifulness of this life forces on our thoughts to another; and the prospect of another gives a dignity and value to this life which promises it. Thus, this life is at once great and little, and we rightly condemn it while we exalt its importance.
And, if this life is short, even when longest, from the great disproportion between it and the powers of regenerate man, still more is this the case, of course, where it is cut short and death comes prematurely. Men there are, who, in a single moment of their lives, have shown a superhuman height and majesty of mind which it would take ages for them to employ on its proper objects, and, as it were, to exhaust; and who by such passing flashes, like rays of the sun, and the darting of lightning, give token of their immortality, give token to us that they are but angels in disguise, the elect of God sealed for eternal life and destined to judge the world and to reign with Christ forever. Yet they are suddenly taken away, and we have hardly recognized them when we lose them. Can we believe that they are not removed for higher things elsewhere? This is sometimes said with reference to our intellectual powers, but it is still more true of our moral nature. There is something in moral truth and goodness, in faith, in firmness, in heavenly-mindedness, in meekness, in courage, in loving-kindness, to which this world’s circumstances are quite unequal, for which the longest life is insufficient, which makes the highest opportunities of this world disappointing, which must burst the prison of this world to have its appropriate range.
Excerpt by Blessed John Henry Newman, from Waiting for Christ (Greenwood Village, Colorado: Augustine Institute, 2018), from “The Greatness and Littleness of Human Life,” pp. 132-135.
BLESSED CARDINAL JOHN HENRY NEWMAN (1801-1890), whose cause for canonization was just approved, was celebrated for his preaching and revered as a spiritual master long before his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. He was the 19th century’s most important English-speaking Roman Catholic theologian, spending the first half of his life as an Anglican, and the second half as a Roman Catholic. He was a priest, popular preacher, writer, and eminent theologian in both Churches.