John Henry Newman’s life illustrated a truth: It is only through quietly embracing selfless love that human suffering reaches a denouement, epitomized in the life of Christ. When gloom encircles, when hope is extinguishing, it is precisely in that moment Jesus Christ dwells, hunched over and bloodied, carrying his cross to Calvary, in a starling act of utterly unprecedented love.
“Saints are not literary men,” according to one recently-canonized saint. But this saint, John Henry Newman, was himself a literary man. He once wrote: “I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows . . . [Saints] do not love the classics, they do not write Tales.” This, I think, was Newman’s characteristic self-deprecation speaking. Despite his denigration of a literary life, surely he knew that great books can reveal the world’s radiance more vividly than one’s own eyes can. Little black letters filling page after page can direct our minds to the cosmic significance of our friendships, toils, motivations, and habits. And this is exactly what Newman’s writings have done for me. He taught me to see the grace and beauty that await our notice in every corner of life—especially in writing, learning, even suffering. As many of us wade through a coronavirus-tinted Lent without church, it is worth pondering what Newman’s remarkably clear mind and full heart can show us.
I first encountered Newman’s work as an Evangelical Protestant at the world’s largest Baptist university, Baylor—located in central Texas. My professor assigned Newman’s brilliant letters denouncing Sir Robert Peel’s Tamworth “reading room,” which Peel thought would facilitate civil unity during an era of heated religious strife. Civil harmony, Peel proclaimed, would be best achieved by teaching the unenlightened masses about sanitized, uncontroversial subjects like “natural theology” and Scientific™ topics. Notably, these reading rooms excluded material on Christian doctrine, a topic too inconvenient and unseemly. In response to Peel’s pamphlet on the reading room, Newman, mercilessly thorough, published seven long letters excoriating the naive idea that “neutral” knowledge of a lower order could somehow supplant disagreements of eternal magnitude.
These letters, more than any work I had previously read, showed me the wonders of crisp thinking and writing. I perceived a certain grandeur in his clarity of thought and his whimsical, sometimes caustic, tone. For instance: “[T]hat grief, anger, cowardice, self-conceit, pride, or passion, can be subdued by . . . chipping of rocks, or calculating the longitude, is the veriest of pretences which sophist or mountebank ever professed to a gaping auditory. If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in Libraries and Reading-rooms.” Newman illustrates that writing persuasively often means writing beautifully, sometimes at the expense of others’ silly ideas.
Convinced of Newman’s intellectual virtuosity, and also mildly intrigued by his dramatic conversion to Catholicism, I committed to reading more of him. So the following summer, while I was a college intern in Washington DC, I spent my weekends at a local coffee shop pouring over The Idea of a University. This book is a series of lectures Newman delivered while the rector of an Irish university. My own Great Texts program at Baylor in many ways resembled the educational scheme Newman lays out (except the girls, mind you!), so reading a systematic treatment of liberal education was, believe it or not, kind of thrilling. But before you scoff at my academic over-eagerness, consider: No one in my immediate family received a liberal education, so I became quickly captivated when I was first exposed to an environment where learning transpired, above all, for its own sake. These disciplines, especially the humanities, bathed the world in a mysterious shade, under which the cosmos possesses inexhaustible significance, and merits continual investigation and discovery. Newman’s articulation of this mode of learning was also an articulation of the world I knew at Baylor, one that I couldn’t explain on my own—and one that enriched my mind.
But Newman’s most pivotal influence over me was yet to come. After learning about the history of the Christian church, and reading too much Dostoevsky and Orthodox theology, I knew I would either become Catholic or Orthodox. But probably Orthodox because, well, the filioque was definitely uncool, and Catholics were kind of creepy, especially when they seemed to enjoy talking about sin and hell a little too much. My non-denominational Protestant upbringing gave way to the Catholic and Orthodox presentation of a unified, institutional church—one that was founded by Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry. Both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches claim to be this church—and both are right in a sense. They have 1000 years of shared history, and share more doctrine than any other two Christian communions. But one had a fuller possession of truth, and I was pretty sure it was the Orthodox Church.
This was my mindset when I read Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman lays out the idea that the early truths of the Church need time and fresh circumstances to be fully realized. The finite structure of the human mind, Newman argues, is such that we need to see a concept in various lights and even contrasted with error to grasp all of its key implications. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, for example, was not defined until 325 at Nicea, after the emergence of the Arian heresy. Newman showed me, quite clearly, that the Catholic Church is the only communion where doctrine still develops correctly. For instance, in 1854 Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary to be dogma (infallible, divinely revealed tenet of faith). This teaching became dogma after germinating in the Church’s sacred tradition for centuries. The portrait of the growing Church that Newman painted, one that is like a tree with formidable branches diverging into countless little truths to form a beautifully variegated whole, was exquisite. Persuaded, I was received into the Catholic Church on December 6, 2017.
Newman recounts his own conversion in his Apologia pro Vita Sua. There I saw the fullest portrait of him—an emotional and spiritually sensitive man, often ostracized and lonely. Already controversial as an Anglican publishing widely-read tracts (pamphlets) defending the Church of England against dangerous liberalizing reforms, his Catholic conversion meant he lost many friends and professional accolades. His conversion was not simply a jovial, friction-free event like mine—it was grave. He said, around the time of his conversion: “At present I fear, as far as I can analyze my own convictions, I consider the Roman Catholic communion to be the Church of the Apostles.” He entered the Catholic Church with fear and trembling, not just because of the social consequences that promised to follow, but because he was following the truth to a place he had initially resisted strongly. His search for the truth chastised and humbled him, leading him to pretty much the last place he wanted to be.
But this was, besides persuading me of Catholicism’s veracity, the most important insight Newman offered me. In his darkest, loneliest moments, he knew his deep suffering was not final. One of his most famous prayers is:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead me Thou on! The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step is enough for me . . . I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, pride ruled my will: remember not past years. So long Your power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on, o’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone; and with the morn those angel faces smile which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
When gloom encircles, when hope is extinguishing, it is precisely in that moment Jesus Christ dwells, hunched over and bloodied, carrying his cross to Calvary, in a starling act of utterly unprecedented love. Newman’s life illustrated a truth suggested by Dostoevsky’s novels—that it is only through quietly embracing selfless love that human suffering reaches a denouement, epitomized in the life of Christ. Despite his recurring despondence, Newman’s steadfast embrace of this truth is what made him worthy of sainthood.
Newman chose a beautifully simple motto as cardinal: “Cor ad cor loquitur,” heart speaks to heart. A longstanding theme in his work is that acquiring knowledge involves much more than a formulaic rational process. We attach prejudices to our thinking; we trust some sources of information more than others; we arbitrarily exclude pertinent information from our beliefs. That is why he emphasized that God speaks primarily to our hearts, and we communicate to one another best when our hearts are tuned to virtue. Newman’s heart carried love for his fellow creatures and for truth. He longed to silently illustrate truth, and not just argue it, to others. This final trait, I think, is the reason Newman’s gentle guidance has carried many thirsting souls, including mine, so far.
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The featured image is a photograph of John Henry Newman (1887) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.