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Newman for the Rest of Us: Holiness, not Argument

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 06, 2013

Back when I was teaching at Christendom College, I assigned Blessed John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua (the title means a defense of his life) to a class of freshmen. This is the absolutely brilliant prose classic in which Newman explains and defends his spiritual progression into the Catholic Church. Some of the students loved it, but many others found Newman’s style simply too hard to follow. A generation schooled to read Ernest Hemingway and C. S. Lewis too easily became lost in Newman’s long rolling sentences, conveying ideas both subtle and precise, packed into perfectly balanced subordinate clauses.

A small experience of the difficulty may be found in the current translation of the prayers in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. The Proper prayers now closely follow the original Latin style, which means they invariably incorporate relative clauses somewhere between an auspicious beginning and a suitable conclusion. How many times do we hear priests stumble over these clauses at Mass! Typical English style now is simpler in construction, using shorter sentences with fewer clauses. Without too much exaggeration, we can say that most contemporary authors write a section of material where nineteenth-century authors wrote a paragraph. And they write a paragraph where a nineteenth-century author would write a sentence.

What used to go into a topic sentence now goes into a subtitle. White space, which amounts to rest for the eye, is not infrequently the largest part of the page for contemporary readers. For example, while I tend to write longish sentences with multiple clauses by today’s standards, most of Newman’s sentences are longer than the individual paragraphs I write on CatholicCulture.org, where a ten-line paragraph is really pushing things. With my longer sentences, a paragraph might contain only three or four of them, or five in this case. That might be true sometimes with a nineteenth century English writer as well, but the paragraph would still span a page or two, and very frequently even more—which we would immediately break up now into smaller chunks.

Newman was a prose master. He was certainly the very epitome of nineteenth-century writers, and in fact they all sound like lesser Newmans. It is not so much that his sentences are difficult to understand (and if that were true, we could not consider him a master), but they can be difficult because we are not used to seeing the cadences, rhythms and relationships of a whole paragraph or a whole page packed into a single tightly-sprung sentence, and so we tend to tire half-way through. Reading Newman becomes easy with practice, but it can be an almost foreign experience at first, confusing simply because it is not the style to which we are accustomed.

Some Solutions

The solution I devised for that class at Christendom the next time around was to assign Newman’s somewhat autobiographical novel, Loss and Gain. Deliberately designed for more popular consumption, Loss and Gain is written both in a simpler style and in the form, obviously, of a story rather than an argument. Freshmen found it far easier to grasp. And yet the verdict of history is fairly uniform: Loss and Gain is a middling novel; Apologia pro Vita Sua is a masterpiece of autobiography and apologetics.

A second approach to the problem has been taken by Sophia Institute Press in publishing some of the great cardinal’s devotional reflections in Everyday Meditations. Introduced by Bishop James D. Conley, STL, this is a collection of meditations drawn from the doctrinal section of the collected Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman, originally put together in 1916 by Longmans, Green, and Company in London. Newman very deliberately wrote these reflections, prayers and meditations over the years for others in coming day by day to a greater holiness and perfection of life. These are the work not of Newman the scholar, nor of Newman the controversialist, but of Newman the pastor.

As such, they are not only a collection of spiritual gems in their own right, but a superb introduction to Newman’s work for those who may initially find the style of his more extensive essays and books difficult. For example, there is this, drawn from the very first meditation, “Hope in God the Creator”:

God knows what is my greatest happiness, but I do not. There is no rule about what is happy and good; what suits one would not suit another. And the ways by which perfection is reached vary very much; the medicines necessary for our souls are very different from each other. Thus God leads us by strange ways. We know he wills our happiness, but we neither know what our happiness is, nor the way. We are blind. Left to ourselves we would take the wrong way; we must leave it to him. Let us put ourselves into his hands and not be startled even though he leads us by a strange way, a mirabilis via, as the Church speaks. Let us be sure he will lead us right, that he will bring us to that which is, not indeed what we think best, nor what is best for another, but what is best for us.

That is just one illuminating paragraph from an initial meditation of some three-and-a-half small pages. It is not at all like reading the Apologia or the Development of Christian Doctrine or the Grammar of Assent. It is brief, it is simple, and it still touches the fundamental things as Newman invariably touches them. There are fifty such meditations in this small volume, best designed, I think, to be read over as many days. They are intended as spiritual reading, and they serve their purpose admirably.

Newman for the rest of us? I think so, but perhaps only if, like Newman, we are really looking more for holiness than for argument.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Aug. 08, 2013 2:52 PM ET USA

    Yes, this observation has it exactly right, by our modern standard of writing Newman seems very tedious, and for other authors of the same time period the same observation applies, but with persistence one learns a different and more careful way to read, and eventually one begins to appreciate it: this is particularly true for his "Apologia pro Vita Sua for example or "The Idea of a University." The above would be a very short sentence for Newman.

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