People come to faith in various ways and in their own time. Newman came to his young (by my lights) at the age of fifteen, when, after reading some books “of the school of Calvin,” put into his hands by a Reverend Walter Mayers, he experienced a revelation: “I received it at once, and believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious, (and of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet,) would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory.” To his liberation from the doctrine of predestination he thanks the writings of Dr. Thomas Scott, of whom he says, “I almost owe my soul.” Not long thereafter he felt called to the celibate life, setting his mind on it by the age of 28, and, finally, to Anglican orders.
One might think that the consequences of a conversion - with the light of Christ now illuminating the mind – ought to be swift and certain, all difficulties resolved. But it seems that quite often conversion is not the end of a journey, but its beginning. As regards the recognizable form and substance of Christ’s one Church, I remember waking up one day – within a year of finding faith – to understand where I should be. Newman would require another 29 years of careful investigation before his conscience could clear the way.
It was this care for the dictates of a conscience seeking the Lord’s will that finally endeared him, after the eloquence of the Apologia, to his own countrymen, even those not of his fold, an effect still exerted on the modern reader. But before the Apologia, and especially before the Essay on Development, it was this cautionary nature that got him accused by all camps, Anglican and Catholic, of hesitation, evasion, prevarication – in short, of not knowing his own mind while happily casting the minds of others into doubt and leading them astray. It was almost as though Newman’s character required, before it could be convinced of a point, that he write a book about it.
Ever sensitive to imputations against his honesty, he was hurt by the accusations. After he became Catholic, they continued. Among the Protestants it was that he was unhappy in his new communion and would soon return to the sanity of the Anglican hearth. Among certain militant Catholics of unsubtle mind and a penchant for incomprehension, it was the suspicion that “he is not really one of us.” What kind of Catholic, after all, writes an essay entitled “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine?” It was the Apologia that quieted much of this and, in bringing him back to the attention and affection of his countrymen, brought joy to his heart.
But it was this care for conscience, and this need, which others found vexing, to deliberate at great length before making a move of any consequence that he readily extended to others. At the passing of his old friend, John Keble – whose preaching of the sermon “National Apostasy” is generally credited with beginning The Oxford Movement – unkind things were said of him, Keble, by ex-Anglicans of both the sceptic and Catholic-convert variety, to wit, that in his failure to become Roman Catholic he had been shown a hypocrite. Though a college was in time named after him, Keble was at the end living, so to speak, on the outskirts of his own communion, his High Church Anglicanism much diminished in prestige, as at Oxford that communion was rapidly yielding its influence to the Benthamite and Millsian philosophy, and to a pervasive religious indifferentism. Entering students were no longer required to subscribe to the 39 Articles. Of the unkindnesses uttered against him, Newman wrote to a friend:
“It is grievous that people are so hard. In converts it is inexcusable. It is a miserable spirit in them. How strange it is; - Keble seems to have received all doctrine except the necessity of being in communion with the Holy See…it seems to me no difficulty to suppose a person in good faith on such a point as the necessity of communion with Rome. Till he saw that (or that he was not in the Church), he was bound to remain as he was, and it was in that way that he always put it.”
The nature of the friendship between Newman and Keble is revealed in a letter written by the latter just prior to Newman’s passage to Rome:
“Besides the deep grief of losing you for a guide and helper, and scarcely knowing which way to look, you may guess what uncomfortable feelings haunt me, as if I, more than anyone, was answerable for whatever of distress or scandal may occur. I keep on thinking, ‘If I had been different, perhaps Newman would have been guided to see things differently, and we might have been spared so many broken hearts and bewildered spirits.’…And now I wish you to help me. That way of help, at any rate, is not forbidden you in respect of any of us.
“My dearest Newman, you have been a kind and helpful friend to me in a way in which scarce anyone else could have been, and you are so mixed up in my mind with old and dear and sacred thoughts, that I cannot well bear to part with you, most unworthy as I know myself to be. And yet I cannot go along with you. I must cling to the belief that we are not really parted; you have taught me so, and I scarce think you can unteach me.
“And having relieved my mind with this little word, I will only say, God bless you and reward you a thousand fold for all your help in every way to me unworthy, and to many others. May you have peace where you are gone, and help us in some way to get peace; but somehow I scarce think it will be in the way of controversy. And so, with somewhat of a feeling as if the spring had been taken out of the year, I am, as always, your affectionate and grateful,--J. Keble.”
In my own case, I had not even heard of Newman until after becoming Catholic. I had known slightly of Chesterton since high school, but he and Newman were excluded from my college anthologies in favor of Ruskin, Carlyle and Mill. A good Jesuit steered me in the right direction, and upon reading Newman for the first time I experienced, not a reconversion, but a continuation of the original. It is for this that I feel a debt to him. His was the kind of writing that, after reading one thing, there was created in me an insatiable demand for the next. I worked literally backwards from the Apologia to the Essay on Development to that great historical and theological mystery story, written in his Anglican days, Arians of the Fourth Century, wherein we become witnesses to the miraculous passage of the orthodox creed through a labyrinthine minefield of heresies, its purity protected by the valiant Fathers of the Ancient Church (to whom Newman had an abiding devotion, and of whom he is a modern descendant), and by the faithful themselves, its victory assured by the Spirit of Truth who made them His knights in battle.
But after years of immersion in his writings, one returns later to notice the quieter, more unsung moments. For a man is not beatified because of his erudition, his silver tongue, or his Ciceronian prose, but because he is holy. This is the part of the man, of any saint, hardest to find (save in the works they do in the world), for we cannot know what the confessor must, and no one can know what only God can see. We have been given glimpses: his unwavering devotion to truth and to the salvation of souls in his writings and priestly conduct, and his bravery on behalf of the afflicted during the cholera outbreak. But these alone are no guarantor, no proof that the Christian virtues have been lived to a heroic degree. Other glimpses are even less so, but affecting nonetheless as evidence of a sensitive heart, such as the story that an old man later identified as Newman, “poorly dressed…in an old gray coat with the collar turned up, and his hat pulled down over his face, as if he wished to hide his features,” was spotted “leaning over the lych-gate of the churchyard that surrounds the Littlemore church, which Newman had built thirty years before; and that the old man was crying.” He had returned after twenty-two years to lay eyes on the place where so many conversations of seemingly grave import to the revival of the Church of England had taken place, and to remember the old friends who had taken part, many now passed away. It was also the place he spent those last years suspended between two churches, before the Essay on Development freed him.
But then there is the testimony of those who knew him best, and whom we must trust in the end. In his last days, the Cardinal was visited by Bishop Ullathorne, who gives us another glimpse:
“I have been visiting Cardinal Newman today. He is much wasted, but very cheerful. Yesterday he went to London to see an oculist. When he tries to read black specks are before his eyes. But the oculist tells him there is nothing wrong but old age. We had a long and cheery talk, but as I was rising to leave an action of his caused a scene I shall never forget, for its sublime lesson to myself. He said in low and humble accents, ‘My dear Lord, will you do me a great favor?’ ‘What is it?’ I asked. He glided down on his knees, bent down his venerable head, and said, ‘Give me your blessing.’ What could I do with him before me in such a posture? I could not refuse without giving him great embarrassment. So I laid my hand on his head and said, ‘My dear Lord Cardinal, notwithstanding all laws to the contrary, I pray God to bless you, and that His Holy Spirit may be full in your heart.’ As I walked to the door, refusing to put on his biretta as he went with me, he said, ‘I have been indoors all my life, whilst you have battled for the Church in the world.’ I felt annihilated in his presence.”
The “law to the contrary” was the common rule that the lower Dignity should kneel before the higher.
On his deathbed, after receiving the Last Sacraments, he asked that a handkerchief that had been given to him some thirty years before by a “poor, indigent person” (whether man or woman I do not know), a complete stranger, be brought to him that he might put it on. At the time of receiving it the scarf had been accompanied by a message of sympathy and respect (its content again I do not know). It was a time of “great tribulation” for him, and in gratitude he died with it on. It was his last act in the world.
Now the Church this Sunday will take the opportunity to say publicly to this “good and faithful servant” what its Eminences sometimes failed to say during his lifetime: “Well done.” A miracle was required, and one has been reported. The rest of us, who did not know him in life but merely drank from his pen, will echo in our hearts Cardinal Manning’s proclamation at his brother priest’s funeral – “We have lost our greatest witness to the faith” – and with our prayers offer that witness our thanks. Now may he intercede for us in all our journeys.
For we believe that the same man who could thunder a warning to his parishioners that they might be too comfortable with the world - such that, “were you to die tonight you would be lost forever” – meant also for us what we read in his devotions, that
“I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by name.
“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his…Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away…He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me – still He knows what He is about…I ask not to see – I ask not to know – I ask simply to be used.”
cross-posted at W4.