Newman’s Angels and All Souls Day

Newman's poem “The Dream of Gerontius” is a poetic epic about the soul after death.

Portrait of John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane (1889), from the National Portrait Gallery
Portrait of John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane (1889), from the National Portrait Gallery (photo: Register Files)

Blessed John Henry Newman from childhood to old age wrote about God’s messengers, the Angels. In his “Apologia pro Vita Sua,” he even speaks of wondering if he was an angel when growing up, having such a strong sense of the invisible world even to thinking this world a dream. This love of the angels informs one of his great works, “The Dream of Gerontius,” which is an excellent source of meditation on the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell) throughout November, the month of prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory.


Angels and Saints

In his Parochial and Plain Sermon, “The Invisible World” (preaching as an Anglican), he used the Holy Bible to instruct his flock on the reality of angels:

Angels also are inhabitants of the world invisible, and concerning them much more is told us than concerning the souls of the faithful departed, because the latter “rest from their labours;” but the Angels are actively employed among us in the Church. They are said to be “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation.” [Hebrews 1:14] No Christian is so humble but he has angels to attend on him, if he lives by faith and love. Though they are so great, so glorious, so pure, so wonderful, that the very sight of them (if we were allowed to see them) would strike us to the earth, as it did the prophet Daniel, holy and righteous as he was; yet they are our “fellow-servants” and our fellow-workers, and they carefully watch over and defend even the humblest of us, if we be Christ’s.

Newman cites the dream of Jacob as evidence of another world that is real even though we don’t see it:

“He dreamed, and behold, a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached up to heaven; and behold, the Angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it.”  ... Angels were all about him, though he knew it not. And what Jacob saw in his sleep, that Elisha's servant saw as if with his eyes; and the shepherds, at the time of the Nativity, not only saw, but heard. They heard the voices of those blessed spirits who praise God day and night, and whom we, in our lower state of being, are allowed to copy and assist.

Based upon this belief in angels, the Anglican Newman also urged his congregation to remember the saints. In “Use of Saints’ Days,” he cited the Book of Revelation and the multitudes that are in Heaven, “the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the Children of the Holy Church Universal, who have rested from their labours.”


Angels and Demons 

In 1865 almost 20 years after becoming a Catholic, Newman wrote “The Dream of Gerontius,” a poetic epic about the soul after death. The poem was published in two installments of “The Month,” a journal published by the Jesuits in England later that year. It was an immediate and great success, even among non-Catholics, which is surprising since the soul of Gerontius, the title character, is committed to Purgatory. The role of angels, particularly of the guardian angel, is one of the highlights of the poem.

While it is sometimes mentioned along with Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Newman’s poem is more personal and spiritual since it tells the experience of one soul after death, not the journey of a poet through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The text of the poem is available here.

The poem begins with Gerontius on his deathbed. He fears death and judgment even though he is a faithful Catholic. He asks the attending priest and friends to pray for him because he cannot. One of Gerontius’s prayers demonstrates his faithfulness (and has been excerpted as a hymn):

Firmly I believe and truly

     God is three, and God is One;

And I next acknowledge duly

     Manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully

     In that Manhood crucified;

And each thought and deed unruly

     Do to death, as He has died.

After he dies, he meets his guardian angel who helps him understand what he is experiencing, leads him to the judgment seat, and finally conveys him to Purgatory, promising to wait for his release into Heaven. The angel first rejoices that Gerontius’s Soul has survived the great moral battle of life on earth, a battle that the angel fought with him:

Then was I sent from heaven to set right

      The balance in his soul of truth and sin,

And I have waged a long relentless fight,

      Resolved that death-environ'd spirit to win,

   Which from its fallen state, when all was lost,

   Had been repurchased at so dread a cost.

His guardian angel leads Gerontius’s Soul past the demons, who wait for those souls to convey to Hell—Gerontius notes that while they are energetic in their pacing and noise, they seem impotent—and then by Five Choirs of Angelicals singing “Praise to the holiest in the height.” This angelic song has also been excerpted as a hymn:

Praise to the Holiest in the height

      And in the depth be praise:

In all His words most wonderful;

       Most sure in all His ways!

O loving wisdom of our God!

       When all was sin and shame,

A second Adam to the fight

       And to the rescue came.

Before he is judged, Gerontius hears those on earth still praying by his deathbed. After his particular judgment, Gerontius is ready; he wants to be with God forever as soon as possible. His guardian angel takes him to Purgatory, gentling lowering his soul among the other souls in Purgatory, who pray Psalm 90 (“Lord, thou hast been our refuge, in every generation”). The angel describes the prayers and Masses that will be said for Gerontius’s soul and promises to be there to take him to Heaven when the temporal punishment for his forgiven sins is expiated:

Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,

       Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;

Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,

       And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.


Elgar’s Catholic Oratorio

Newman’s poem was adapted for an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar in 1900; while it faced some difficulties in its first performance, it has become a mainstay of the choral repertoire. Perhaps the finest performer of the Guardian Angel’s role is Dame Janet Baker, singing the angel’s farewell from the classic 1964 recording conducted by John Barbirolli.

During a series of concerts for its centennial, some music critics proclaimed Elgar’s oratorio too Catholic for a non-religious listener, but that just makes it the perfect recommendation for a Catholic to listen to it during November while praying for the Poor Souls in Purgatory.

This article originally appeared Nov. 2, 2016, at the Register.