The Praise of Men: Part 1

The Saints are men and women whom the Church sets as standards for living holy lives as children of God. Today is the memorial or feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a renowned Anglican convert and Catholic priest who stands out for his intellectual accomplishments lived with humility and charity.

In “The Praise of Men,” one of his sermons in Parochial Plain Sermons, Newman tells us that it is not wrong to seek the praise of men. After all, as children we are taught to seek the praise of others and to avoid their displeasure. Where we go wrong is to seek the praise of men in excess. Newman knew about this because, as a student at Oriel College and later Trinity (both at Oxford University), he was beset by the idea of success in his studies. To this end he overworked himself, lost his inner peace and fell ill.

In his own words:

“To seek praise is in itself as little wrong, as it is wrong to hope, and to fear, and to love, and to trust; all depends upon the object hoped, or feared, or loved, or trusted; to seek the praise of good men is not wrong, any more than to love or to reverence good men; only wrong when it is in excess, when it interferes with the exercise of love and reverence towards God. Not wrong while we look on good men singly as instruments and servants of God; or, in the words of Scripture, while “we glorify God in them.” [Gal. i. 24.] But to seek the praise of bad men, is in itself as wrong as to love the company of bad men, or to admire them.” [1]

Newman was well aware of the opinions of others and felt keenly their approval or disapproval, but through the practice of daily devotion and the exercise of humility he measured the response he gave to other people’s recognition. Throughout his life he wrote articles and books in defense of Christian doctrine and moral truths, and also of his own religious journey; yet, as can be seen from the prayers that he composed he no longer sought the praise of men.

He explained that while we may not be tempted by gain or ambition, we are often afraid of the opinion of the world. Newman warns us of ridicule, a trial which we must endure if we are to be good soldiers of Christ. People use ridicule as a weapon. “They have very little of definite opinion themselves, or probably they even feel with you, though they speak against you. Very likely they have uneasy, unsatisfied consciences, though they seem to sin so boldly; and are as afraid of the world as you can be, nay, more so; they join in ridiculing you, lest others should ridicule them; or they do so in a sort of self-defence against the reproaches of their own consciences.”

Thus our pride is hurt and we feel angry while seeking the praise of othe rather than the praise of God. Newman continues:

“Ridicule is a most powerful instrument in the hands of Satan, and it is most vividly felt by the young. If any one wishes to do his duty, it is most easy for the cold, the heartless, and the thoughtless, to find out harsh, or provoking, or ridiculous names to fix upon him. My brethren, so many of you as are sensitive of the laughter or contempt of the world, this is your cross; you must wear it, you must endure it patiently; it is the mark of your conformity to Christ …”

A Christian accepts reproach with humility for the sake of doing what is right and of serving God. Often he must endure the scorn or contempt of others.

People who do so “know they ought to be other than they are, but are glad to avail themselves of any thing that looks like argument, to overcome their consciences withal. And ridicule is a kind of argument—such as it is; and numbers ridiculing together are a still stronger one—of the same kind.”

The saints have true self-knowledge, which is synonymous to humility. St. Theresa of Avila would say that ‘humility is walking in the truth,’ and she advised her nuns to be careful when they lock the house because pride is the enemy within. Her countryman and a modern day saint, Josemaría Escrivá wrote many points for meditation on humility. In his life he wished to disappear so that Christ alone would shine, and wrote: “The more I am exalted, Jesus, the more I want you to humble me in my heart, showing me what I have been, and what I will be if you leave me.” [2]

This prayer resembles an earlier one by Newman:

“Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shinest: so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from Thee. None of it will be mine. No merit to me. It will be Thou who shinest through me upon others. O let me thus praise Thee, in the way which Thou dost love best, by shining on all those around me.” [3]

Little by little Newman overcame his pride and vanity, accepting insults and ridicule with equanimity. As he meditated on the Scriptures he came to realize the folly of seeking the praise of men instead of that of God. He understood that it is God who bestows on each person talents and a mission – so that no one should boast of his gifts, “for God is at work in (them), both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philip 2:13).

Like Blessed Newman we should strive for better self-knowledge. We, too, must recognize the motivation behind our thoughts and actions, and strive in all things, both small and big, to serve God and to seek his praise above all else.

On his saint’s day let us ask him to obtain for us the grace to walk humbly before our God.

[1] John Henry Newman, “The Praise of Men,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 7. Unless specified the other quotes are from this sermon.

[2] Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, n. 591.

[3] John Henry Newman, “Jesus, the Light of the Soul,” in Mediations and Devotions.

Reprinted with permission from the author, Fr. Juan R. Vélez G.

Fr. Juan R. Vélez G., author of this biography, is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei who resides in greater Chicago area. He holds a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the University of Navarre. His doctoral thesis was on John Henry Newman’s Eschatology.

The author’s interest in the life and works of Cardinal Newman began with his doctoral studies under Prof. José Morales, author of John Henry Newman (1801-1890).

Fr. Vélez has a medical degree, also from the University of Navarre, and was previously board certified in internal medicine.

He is the editor of the blog where this article was originally published.

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