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Newman’s Inner Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 24, 2010

I’m a great admirer of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Ever since it became clear that his beatification was highly likely, I’ve prayed daily for his intercession. I’m a layman, married, and fairly insensitive—opposite characteristics to those of Newman—but when it comes to the sheer ability to write beautifully and persuasively about Christ, the Faith and the Church, well, I want to be like John. It is, of course, a vain hope: Newman was probably the greatest English prose stylist ever, certainly one of the greatest intellects of the 19th century, and undoubtedly one of the most spiritually perceptive of English-speaking saints.

Newman’s interior life was intimately bound up with his devotion to, and confidence in, the Church, which as a convert he never took for granted. This is one of the most important points made by Father Zeno, OFM Cap, in his wonderful new biography from Ignatius Press, John Henry Newman: His Inner Life. A Dutchman with a Ph.D. in English language and literature, Fr. Zeno is one of the world’s foremost Newman scholars, and in the preparation of this superlative volume, he was given unparalleled access to all of Newman’s papers in the archives maintained by the Oratorian Fathers in England. There are, in fact, over 400 files of such papers, for Newman was a great writer of letters and spiritual journals. The evidence for his interior life is unusually rich and extensive. And again, the spiritual life, for Newman, was to be understood in the context of the Church.

From a very early age, the young John Henry had a deep sense of being in the presence of God as of a Great Friend, who watched over him and spoke to him authoritatively in his conscience. Indeed, this sense of spiritual reality would ultimately play an important role in the development of his ideas on certitude, set forth in the Grammar of Assent (see The Meaning of Newman’s Grammar of Assent), which teaches us to understand the nature of the human assent to Faith, an essay of unparalleled precision and depth which both psychologists and philosophers are still studying over a hundred years later.

After a brief period in his teens when he strayed, Newman studied for Anglican orders and became an Anglican priest, ultimately leading the famous Oxford Movement to renew the Anglican communion, which then suffered all the complacency of establishment. Eventually he became aware that the Anglican claim to be the Church of Christ was exactly like the claims of those bodies in the Patristic Age, such as the semi-Arians, which in the face of heresy attempted to take a middle way between a dominant error and Rome, a middle way always rejected by the Fathers. After considerable soul-searching and study, he committed himself to write his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, realizing that if nothing in that study led him away from the Catholic Church, he would have to convert. It cost him the affection of his family and many dear friends to take that step, not to mention the loss of his position and income, and of everything he thought of as “home”.

Father Zeno traces Newman’s interior history throughout these and subsequent developments, including the difficulties of founding an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham; his intense suffering in a libel trial for his (perfectly accurate) efforts to unmask an apostate priest, Giacinto Achilli, who was spreading lies about the Church in England; his efforts to found a Catholic university in Ireland; his need to defend the Church wisely and prudently in a period of intense anti-Catholicism, during which the Catholic hierarchy in England was restored; his efforts to explain himself against so many attacks by Anglicans and so much distrust in Rome (primarily the result of the powerful influence of Cardinal Manning who, having a very different temperament, misunderstood Newman); the death of many of his closest friends and priestly collaborators as he lived well beyond his three-score-and-ten; and his final vindication when Pope Leo XIII made him a Cardinal.

Throughout his life, Newman’s administrative and teaching duties were always heavy, so he wrote for publication only when he felt a unique need and a distinct call. The completion of each of his key works was accompanied by a decline in health. Meanwhile, his humility, penance, patience, spiritual firmness and delicacy in guiding souls were legendary. Despite his sensitive nature and the deep emotions he often had to overcome, he was determined to be guided always by God’s will, the good of the Church, the dictates of his reason over his feelings, and his intense concern never to quench the smoldering wick or crush the bruised reed in others. He had always before him his own shortcomings and was ever aware of the many projects to which he had devoted his all, only to see them fail. But to serve the Church was his sole goal, and obedience to his ecclesiastical superiors his chief means.

At the same time, Newman always felt himself richly, even incomparably blessed. He saw in his own life, through his efforts to be one with the Body of Christ, a parallel to the experience of St. Paul and a shadow of the life of the Church herself:

Who can say why so old a framework, put together eighteen hundred years ago, should have lasted, against all human calculation, even to this day; always going, and never gone; ever failing, yet ever managing to explore new seas and foreign coasts—except that He, who once said to the rowers, “It is I, be not afraid”, and to the waters, “Peace,” is still in His own ark which He has made, to direct and prosper her course?

Ultimately, Newman’s prayer for himself became a prayer not to succeed but to be used by God. He did not yearn for trials, but he accepted them: “Visit me not, O my loving Lord—if it be not wrong so to pray—visit me not with those trying visitations which saints only can bear…. Still I leave all in Thy hands, my dear Saviour—I bargain for nothing—only, if Thou shalt bring heavier trials on me, give me more grace.” This is a prayer which those of us who hope fervently to avoid martyrdom may make our own without any fear, and without any fault. In our own situation, we can also identify with a man who devoted his life to combatting the ever-increasing secular liberalism which threatened to engulf the Church even in the 19th century, and which he strove to meet at every turn with both superior reason and deeper Faith.

Fr. Zeno’s book reveals to us how Newman’s quintessentially Catholic spirituality, at once so deep and so pure, came to dominate his life, to shine through his preaching, to captivate his students, to shape his Oratorians, to permeate his polemical writings, and even to breathe itself into the universal Church through his larger and more definitive studies, and through his prayers. This is a fine work, written as if from Newman’s own heart, full of human drama and intense witness and the triumph of Faith. It is a great tribute to the spiritual and intellectual English giant who will be beatified in England by Pope Benedict XVI later this year, and it shines a wonderful light into the soul of a dedicated priest who could honestly say of all his efforts and all his projects: “No wish really means anything, which is not a prayer too.”

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