A Kindly Light

Yesterday, August 11, was the anniversary of the death of a great Christian leader, apologist, poet, historian, homilist, controversialist, and soon to be saint (October 13), Cardinal John Henry Newman.

We’ll carry more about him here in coming weeks, but today I’ll focus on one facet of his genius: his greatness as a Catholic writing in English. Newman was not only brilliant himself. He was involved in the conversion and later vocation of the great Gerard Manley Hopkins. And he opened doors for later English converts such as Robert Hugh Benson, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and even the great G. K. Chesterton – what is sometimes called the English Catholic Literary Revival.

It’s not easy to say why Newman’s writing is so great.  Books such as The Idea of the University, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and A Grammar of Assent, make incisive arguments, of course, and major contributions to Catholicism on multiple fronts. Newman’s views on liberal learning, doctrine, conscience, etc., are inexhaustible sources of clear and deep thinking on crucial questions.

But there’s a certain spirit to Newman that encompasses all the elaborations of thought. To speak personally, it was more that spirit – calm yet ardent, gentle but sharp – that impressed me when I first read him as a young man. Amid controversies in the Church and world as heated as anything today – and even a libel suit by a corrupt, sexually abusive priest – Newman’s heart seems rooted elsewhere.

When I was writing Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century for JPII’s New Millennium celebrations, I intuited that I needed a kind of sheet anchor as I dug into the horrors and humiliations visited on Christians in modern times. And knew it should be Newman.

For an entire year, I read one sermon – sometimes I was entranced and read two – every morning before I turned to the day’s work: sheer revelation and inspiration.

Here’s a typical paragraph from one sermon, taken almost at random (it will soon appear in a book of daily Newman readings, edited by Christopher Blum and published by the St. Augustine Institute):

[T]he great and awful doctrine of the Cross of Christ may be called the heart of religion. The heart may be considered as the seat of life. It sustains the man in his powers and faculties, and when it is touched, man dies. In like manner the sacred doctrine of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is the vital principle on which the Christian lives, and without which Christianity is not.

Newman said in the Biglietto Speech, given in Rome when he was made a Cardinal, that liberalism in religion, saccharine formulas such as “God is Love,” or – to jump to our own time – “Who am I to judge?” has no real content. Liberalism eviscerates God’s action in saving us from a sinful state with eternal dimensions.

Blessed Newman’s writing desk at the Birmingham Oratory

He continues:

Without it [the Cross and atonement for sin] no other doctrine is held profitably. To believe in Christ’s divinity, or in his manhood, or in the Holy Trinity, or in a judgment to come is an untrue belief, unless we receive also the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice. Yet to receive it presupposes the reception of other high truths of the Gospel besides: it involves the belief in Christ’s true divinity, in his true incarnation, and in man’s sinful state by nature. And it prepares the way to belief in the sacred eucharistic feast, in which he who was once crucified is ever given to our souls and bodies in his Body and Blood.

In a single paragraph, he’s given virtually the whole of the Creed and explained the drama playing out in his time – and our own.

This confident catholicity emerged from his biography. Newman became an evangelical at fifteen, after an experience that made him believe in God, “more certain than that I have hands or feet.” At Oxford, he started groups to promote evangelicalism, but after serious study and personal maturation he became Anglican. As he read into the early Church Fathers, he tried to make Anglicanism a Via Media– a Middle Way – between Protestantism and Catholicism, until he realized there was no Via Media, only the Church Christ founded and the Fathers explained.

A trip to the Mediterranean impressed him, especially the ruins of Rome, but the Catholicism there seemed corrupt and polytheistic. Yet those voyages – and bouts of illness in parts foreign – planted multiple seeds. We owe to his ship being becalmed in the Strait of Bonifacio – the dangerous channel between Corsica and Sardegna – the composition of his famous hymn and poem “Lead Kindly Light,” which concludes in its most common form:

     So long Thy 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!

Newman’s literary works are less known, at least in America, than his other books. But he composed two novels, a whole volume of poetry (Lyra Apostolica)and a long poem about a dying old man, “The Dream of Gerontius” (later an oratorio by Edward Elgar). He was a gifted musician himself, a violinist with a special love of Beethoven.

The mice are already nibbling away at his legacy as his canonization approaches, trying to make him say things about conscience, papal infallibility, the laity, and more that he never said. But he will survive all such demolition experts because his whole being was founded on a Rock.

Many people complain about the way that the Internet, social media, and 24/7 news incitements are turning us into a shallow, ahistorical, emotional mob. Any Catholic – any person aspiring to something deeper, truer, brighter – should turn to Newman, first the sermons, but then the other works, in and for themselves, but also as a sure guide towards that belief of his, surer than “hands or feet.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.