Saint John Henry Newman

The Perfection of Saint John Henry Newman

Tollite hostias et introite in atria eius: adorate Dominum in aula sancta eius. Bring up sacrifices, and come into His courts: adore ye the Lord in His holy court.—words, brethren, from the Communion of today’s Mass.

This Mass is offered in thanksgiving for the canonization of the Oratorian priest, John Henry Newman, which took place earlier this morning at the Vatican. 

In the early 1960s the Trappist monk Thomas Merton admitted: “For a long time I had no ‘resonance’ with Newman (because I did not bother to listen for any; I think pictures of him scared me). I was suspicious of letting him in…. But now I … am with difficulty restrained from taking too many books of Newman out of the library when I have more books than I need already.” Merton’s meeting with Newman, when at last it came, was on a profound level. As he said: “There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely observe, meet, or know. A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of the other. (Cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to heart in the wholeness of the language of music; true friendship is a kind of singing).” Merton makes reference here, of course, to the motto Cardinal Newman adopted for his coat of arms: cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to heart. His invocation of the language of music is apt because, as Merton notes, “Newman was a profoundly musical person and all that was best expressed itself, for him, in terms of music, harmony, oneness, sound.”

Merton thus came to revere Newman, despite the earlier failure on his part to resonate with the Oratorian Cardinal: “I revere him deeply, though formerly I ignored and misunderstood him. … What moves me is his greatness, the polish of a ‘finished’ man, a masterpiece, who because he is perfect beyond the ordinary seems to have reached a stasis, a condition that is not of time. He is not of his time, or ahead of it, or behind it. He is outside of it. Indeed, he reaches this condition by suffering a kind of rejection which liberates him into a realm of a final perfection, a uniqueness, a humility, a wisdom, a silence that is definitive and contains all that he has ever said. So that, even when he quietly continues to speak and to write, perhaps for a few people only or for no one at all, he is saying things for everyone of all time who can grow to understand this peculiar type of greatness. He seems ‘old’, and belongs to the past, yet he survives indefinitely. Newman is always young.” Merton even brilliantly imagines Newman’s very gestures: “He must have had a way of looking at you, of listening to you, with a respect you could not imagine you had suddenly deserved. He had, above all, style. And this, a fact which contradicts identification of banality with modesty, is necessary for perfection.”

In the language of the spiritual writers of his early monastic training, Merton thus affirms that Newman had achieved what is “necessary for perfection.” In other words, Merton quietly asserts that John Henry Newman was a saint. How many others have nurtured the same inner conviction? Lady Lothian, a new convert in 1851, was nervous of meeting Newman but was soon put at ease in his presence. “That which struck me most was his childlike sympathy and humility,” she wrote, “and next to that the vivid clearness with which he gives an opinion… His saying of Mass is most striking. I do not know what makes the difference, but one is conscious of a difference…” From the other end of the social spectrum, as it were, there is the story of an old Irish woman, an immigrant during the potato famine. She was always glad to learn that Newman was on the rota to celebrate Mass in the Oratory church. Why? “Oh, Father Newman!” she exclaimed, “How he used to lift our hearts!” Today the universal Church has proclaimed, to the overflowing joy of his sons and daughters down the ages, that John Henry Newman is a saint. John Henry Newman is a saint.

When, following the light of his conscience, informed by unremitting study, this popular Anglican clergyman at last assented to the truth of the Roman Catholic teaching on Church authority (which, he confessed, initially “gave him a stomach ache”) he said a final farewell to his familiar surroundings and nearly all of the dear friends from the first half of his life. He begged an Italian mission priest to hear his confession and receive him into the Catholic Church, which he believed to be “the one true fold of the Redeemer.” The famous politicians Gladstone and Disraeli wrote, trying to dissuade him from pursuing the course on which he was apparently determined. Renouncing his dearest ties, midway through life, for an uncertain future among the despised Roman Catholics was a white martyrdom, a witness of dispossession without shedding blood. Tollite hostias et introite in atria eius: adorate Dominum in aula sancta eius. The “little death” of Newman’s conversion was the seed sown in the earth that would bring forth fruit abundantly. For many years after his conversion, Newman remained a non-person, as far as the English Establishment and even many of his relatives were concerned. Today, an Anglican writer can fairly sum up the event in these words: “For Newman, only certainties would do: the Anglican compromise was not an option for him. So he fought again in his own brilliant and sensitive mind the battles which had bitterly divided Europe in the sixteenth century.” As Pope Paul VI saw it, “Guided solely by love of truth and fidelity to Christ, Newman traced an itinerary, the most toilsome but also the greatest, the most meaningful, the most conclusive, that human thought ever travelled during the last century, indeed one might say during the modern era, to arrive at the fullness of wisdom and peace.”

In his early days, from the high pulpit of St Mary’s Church in Oxford, Newman held university undergraduates captive with his vision of classical Christianity and the life fostered by the sacraments over the course of the liturgical year. Here they came face to face with a man of deep integrity, whose silvery voice bodied forth a serene but staunch conviction of the truth of the ancient Christian faith. Newman’s work of reviving Apostolic Christianity in the Anglican Church of his day, his concurrent search for the veritable Church of Christ, and his unsung service to the Birmingham Oratory when it became his Catholic home, was fuelled by an unquenched desire for truth and illumined by the gifts of the Spirit.

As Newman himself wrote to Sir John Acton: “Of course you know very well, without my telling you, that anyone who wishes to do good of any kind, must start with the full understanding that he will get no thanks for doing it from anyone—and must be content to look for his reward in that quarter only, towards which he looked in faith and prayer, when he began it. The poet calls fame ‘the last infirmity’—but I think for my part that the last infirmity is the wish to be praised by our Superiors, and intimate friends, and good men—and that we must set out by believing that God’s highest tribunals on earth, whether ecclesiastical or moral, will be, for the time, or till we are gone, unfavourable in their view of those deeds of ours which God Himself most approves. And therefore we must, with the holy Apostle, put ourselves above human judgment of every kind, for qui judicat me, Dominus est [he who judges me is the Lord].

Let St John Henry Newman’s voice resonate with us today, gathered here in Holy Family Church, as he himself meditates on the Holy Family: “O my soul, thou art allowed to contemplate this union of the three, and to share thyself its sympathy, by faith though not by sight. My God, I believe and know that then a communion of heavenly things was opened on earth which has never been suspended. It is my duty and my bliss to enter into it myself. It is my duty and my bliss to be in tune with that most touching music which then began to sound. Give me that grace which alone can make me hear and understand it, that it may thrill through me. Let the breathings of my soul be with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Let me live in obscurity, out of the world, the world’s thought, with them. Let me look to them in sorrow and in joy, and live and die in their sweet sympathy.”

By Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

The Eucharistic Consolation of St John Henry Newman

We are offering the Forty Hours Devotion this year in thanksgiving for the canonization of our Oratorian cardinal, John Henry Newman, which took place last Sunday in the Vatican. From that day forward John Henry Newman is inscribed in the roll of saints officially recognized by the Church, worthy of our devotion and fit to be publicly invoked for prayer. Some are already voicing the hope that this eminent convert, drawn to Rome from the Anglican Communion, will eventually be made a Doctor of the Church, in recognition of the rich store of religious literature he has bequeathed us. Tonight we can do no better than to attend to some things he has said about the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. 

Although Newman had already arrived at a deep understanding of what theologians call the sacramental economy and, in particular, the place of the Eucharist within the disposition of God’s saving work among us, a surprise awaited him when at last he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. He recounts this event in a letter to a friend:

We went over [i.e., to the Catholic Church] not realising those privileges which we have found by going. I never allowed my mind to dwell on what I might gain of blessedness —but certainly, if I had thought much upon it, I could not have fancied the extreme, ineffable comfort of being in the same house with Him who cured the sick and taught His disciples. … When I have been in Churches abroad, I have religiously abstained from acts of worship, thought it was a most soothing comfort to go into them—nor did I know what was going on; I neither understood nor tried to understand the Mass service—and I did not know, or did not observe, the tabernacle Lamp—but now after tasting of the awful delight of worshipping God in His Temple, how unspeakably cold is the idea of a Temple without that Divine Presence! One is tempted to say what is the meaning, what is the use of it?

Needless to say, in Newman’s time Anglicans had not yet begun to recover the Catholic practice of the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament outside of the liturgy. So Newman first encountered as a Roman Catholic what he described as “the distant glimmering Lamp which betokens the Presence of our undying Life, hidden but ever working.” Again, he writes to an Anglican friend:

I am writing next room to the Chapel—It is such an incomprehensible blessing to have Christ in bodily presence in one’s house, within one’s walls, as swallows up all other privileges. … To know that He is close by—to be able again and again through the day to go in to Him.

While studying theology in Rome, he exclaimed: “It is really most wonderful to see this Divine Presence looking out almost into the open streets from the various Churches.” 

Fittingly enough, Newman celebrated his first Mass as a Catholic priest on the feast of Corpus Christi. Later, preaching on this same feast, Newman entered a large claim for it: “There is no feast which shows more wonderfully what Christianity is.” No wonder Newman was drawn to St Philip Neri, who introduced the Forty Hours Devotion to Rome, and who enjoined his Oratorian Fathers to celebrate Solemn Vespers each evening during the Octave of Corpus Christi. But how does Newman underline the significance of the Blessed Sacrament as God’s present gift and privilege to us? Let us examine his teaching on the Presence of God, man’s loss of this Presence, and the manner in which the Presence was restored.

When God created the human race, man enjoyed not only the powers inherent in the nature God had given him, but the grace of living in God’s Presence. This Presence was the light of his soul and the fulfillment of his desire for happiness. But then the aboriginal catastrophe intervened. As Newman explains:

When Adam fell, his soul lost its true strength; he forfeited the inward light of God’s presence, and became the wayward, fretful, excitable, and miserable being which his history has shown him to be ever since; with alternate strength and feebleness, nobleness and meanness, energy in the beginning and failure in the end. … [Man] lost … [his] spiritual life and health, which was necessary to complete [his] nature, and to enable it to fulfill the ends for which it was created.

Newman underlines the emptiness of man’s soul deprived of God’s Presence, and the desperate and wayward quests provoked by the loss of what alone can satisfy him:

Man is not sufficient for his own happiness: he is not happy except the Presence of God be with him. … He has a void within him which needs filling, and he knows not how to fill it. He is ever restless when … not dull and insensible, seeking in one thing or another that blessing … lost. … He alone is sufficient for the heart who made it.

In the fullness of time, God made haste to repair the painful rift between himself and the human soul. He did this in a marvellous way, by himself coming among us as a man. For the brief span of Christ’s life on earth, man could come face to face with God, in an accommodated way, apposite to his own fallen condition. Of course, even then Christ was rarely enough perceived to the full extent of his divinity. And so this Presence must instigate a drama which held out the promise that man could once again be made whole—whole in Christ, perfect God and perfect man. Newman narrates the event of the Christian Mystery in this way:

Christ then took on our nature, when he would redeem it; He redeemed it by making it suffer in His own Person; he purified it, by making it pure in His own Person. He first sanctified it in Himself, made it righteous, made it acceptable to God, submitted it to an expiatory passion, and then He imparted it to us. He took it consecrated it, broke it, and said, “Take, and divide it among yourselves.

Newman’s formulation underlines the logic of his conviction that no one “realises the mystery of the Incarnation but must feel disposed towards that of the Holy Communion.” God not only unites himself to human nature in his conception and birth as man, he also binds himself to the appearances of bread and wine so that we might partake of the feast of this divinised humanity. He leaves us the Blessed Sacrament to build up his Church and perpetuate his saving Presence among us. Newman touches upon the mysterious sacramental Presence of Christ in a sermon on the road to Emmaus:

Only by faith is He known to be present; He is not recognized by sight. When he opened his disciples’ eyes, He at once vanished. He removed his visible presence and left but a memorial of Himself. He vanished from sight that He might be present in a sacrament; and in order to connect His visible presence to His presence invisible, He for one instant manifested Himself to their open eyes; manifested Himself, if I may so speak, while He passed from His hiding place of sight without knowledge, to that of knowledge without sight.

Newman meditatively ponders the paradox of a hidden Presence in the same sermon:

We know that the closer any object of this world comes to us, the less we can contemplate it and comprehend it. Christ has come so close to us in the Christian Church … that we cannot gaze on Him or discern Him. He enters into us, He claims and takes possession of His purchased inheritance; He does not present Himself to us, but He takes us to Him. He makes us His members. Our faces are, as it were, turned from Him; we see Him not, and know not of His presence, except by faith, because he is over us and within us.

Despite their initial blindness, the disciples on the road to Emmaus later recollected that their hearts burned within them when the Stranger was speaking. Just so, Newman says, for all Christians:

if they have come to Him in sincerity, they will experience a sort of heavenly fragrance and savour of immortality, when they least expect it, rising upon their minds, as if in token that God has been with them, and investing all that has taken place, which before seemed to them but earthly, with beams of glory. And this is true … of all the rites and ordinances of the Church, of all providences that happen to us; that, on looking back on them, though they seemed without meaning at the time, elicited no strong feeling, or were even painful and distasteful, yet if we come to them and submit to them in faith, they are afterwards transfigured, and we feel that it has been good for us to be there; and we have a testimony, as a reward of our obedience, that Christ has fulfilled His promise.   

Br Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

Newman and the Communion of Saints

Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, diem festum celebrantes sub honore Sanctorum omnium. Rejoice we all in the Lord, keeping feast day in honour of all the Saints. –words, brethren, from the Introit of the Mass.

The Roman Martyrology, a catalogue of martyrs and saints arranged according to the order of their feasts, was last updated in 2004. This edition lists 7,000 saints and blesseds currently venerated by the Church and makes no claim to comprehensive inclusiveness. Moreover, of those holy men and women actually noted in the Martyrology, we can commemorate only a fraction at Mass during the year. Today, therefore, we keep the feast not only of the sancti whose images surround us, whose names we know and customarily invoke, but of all God’s elect, who throughout the course of time have rendered him glory. Their variety is captured in memorable rhyme by a children’s hymn:

And one was doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green. … And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast. 

As this sprightly hymn draws to a close, it advises today’s children:

They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still… You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea. 

Still … you can meet them. A choirboy, who often sang this hymn, one day verified, all unanticipated, that last verse—first in a subjective event, later confirmed by an authoritative decree of the Church. You can meet them … and, if you do, it will probably be a surprise. This old choirboy, barely able to repeat the words of his childhood song, had been admitted to the chapel of Castel Gandolfo, where an old man already knelt before the altar. Then, without fanfare, commenced a quiet celebration of low Mass. A small congregation was assisting, and the readings of the foremass were parcelled out amongst those in attendance. An ordinariness veiled the splendour of the Roman rite such that all might have been unfolding at any small parish in North America. And then at last the celebrant arose and left his prie-dieu, mounted to the altar and turned towards the congregation saying, “The Lord be with you.” The first vision of his face this transition entailed made you catch your breath at the realization: “It is the Pope!” How could the pre-announced strike one as so revelatory? Perhaps because now, face to face, you saw with blinding clarity that the man who had been so inconspicuous, in no way imposing, face buried in his hands, was indisputably more present than anyone else in the room. At this Mass you, unsuspecting, were being immersed in his prayer—a prayer of unfathomable depth and stillness. Without your anticipation or approbation, you simply saw: here was a saint. Not the darling of the international media or a powerful Bishop of Rome, but completely St John Paul II. Still, you can meet them … So be vigilant.

It might seem as if a feast day in honour of all the Saints would reference something so abstract and general that it could at best pose a notional interest. The feast of any particular saint is compact of biography, legend, folklore and all the recorded idiosyncrasies of this peculiar person. But taking all saints together, we seem to be confronted with either an anonymous crowd or a dry definition of sanctity as such. Is this so? We good citizens of modern liberal democracies may well be tempted to think so. If we take either the political definition of man—a rights-bearing individual—or a characterization of individual human psychology—an entity moved by pleasure and pain—as exhaustively comprehending our human identity, we have little choice but to regard the human aggregate as impersonal and faceless. It is not a whole but an abstraction. To regard man as merely a rights-bearing individual or as a private entity motivated solely by his own pleasures and pains would condemn us to lifelong loneliness, owing nothing to anyone, our business exclusively our own, and in the last analysis loved and cared for by none. Of course the communists, the fascists, and even the various parties found in liberal democracies, in their own clumsy way, attempt to ameliorate our lonely individuality with resounding declarations of rights, the imposition of universal laws upon the recalcitrant, and ready use of coercive power for collective ends. But fewer and fewer these days believe such expedients touch the heart of man and its longing for community. Rather than mass disciplinary regulation of atomic individuals, we yearn—do we not?—for something both more intimate and more jubilant.

Isn’t this precisely what the saints—and pre-eminently all the saints together—possess? In the Credo, we profess our faith in the “communion of saints.” The earthly pilgrimage of a saint as he traces his way to the Lord may well appear solitary and idiosyncratic. But in heaven the saints are one body—una cum, united in one communion—to a degree that constitutes a standing reproach to the continuing feebleness of the Church Militant’s attempts to exhibit the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. The communio sanctorum is no communist device but the very lifeblood of a communitarian organism. A communion is no mere aggregate of individuals but a corpus of deeply personal relations interiorly achieved and mutually fulfilling. The communio sanctorum is suffused and embraced by the quiet light of God. This communitarianism has been well described by a modern scholar: “The soul which is open to the invasion of spirit … experiences an extension of its personality, interpenetrating and interpenetrated by the personalities of its fellows; this is the natural activity of the spirit, and is called love. It is the inner bond which unites spirit to spirit, like to like; but it comes to pass through reverent recognition of the unlikeness of soul to soul; their differentiation, that is, as separate and distinct manifestations of the same spirit.”

As you will know, the Toronto Oratory keeps this feast as its foundation day. On November 1, 1975, the brief granted to us by the Holy Father was implemented, thereby erecting the first Oratory of St Philip Neri in the Dominion of Canada. The date is a happy chance because the spirituality of the Oratory is nothing if not a recognition of the communio sanctorum, a corporate striving for communio. 

Not yet a month ago, we rejoiced in the canonization of the founder of the English Oratories: Cardinal John Henry Newman. No one can doubt, now, that this religious genius, so close to English Oratorians, is also a saint. In the course of his life, Newman fought free of the constrictions of individualism as well as the totalizing political control of the religious impulse. His traditional mentality was personalist and communitarian. Hence Newman’s fascination for St Philip Neri, whose Oratory was to be a “school of prayer” held together not by vows of religion but by the supernatural bond of charity. This is the positive statement of the Oratorian vocation. Fr Jonathan Robinson, in his own founding role, also drew out, by way of contrast, the shadow implications of this statement: “Everyone talks about the desirability of community today, but do we also know that community involves sacrifice?”

Newman, indeed, knew the “bright sacrifice” of community. When the redoubtable Fr Frederick Faber contemplated offering his own religious community as a complement to Newman’s fledgling Oratorian band, the future saint warned Faber that the Oratory bore little resemblance to the model he had adopted for his Wilfridian monks: “In many important respects it differs from what you are at present. It is not near so ascetic—indeed it is not ascetic.”

In thus disclaiming a decisive role in Oratorian spirituality for traditional works of asceticism, Newman was not declaring that the principle of mortification—putting to death the old man—is foreign to the Oratory. But the Oratory intends to forge another way, more suited to modern circumstances. The proper Oratorian mortification is not a matter of comparatively external disciplines, even when these are still practiced, but rather consists in consciously promoting the good of community life and so striving to love, without counting the cost. The editor of Newman’s Oratorian papers put it this way: “The precise point of contrast between Oratorians and all others, whether seculars or regulars, lies in a willing submission to the ascesis of community life as the great means of perfection.” This formulation correctly underlines the point that Newman regarded the common life as a means of spiritual perfection, not a dilution or mitigation of some higher ideal. Community life in the Oratory, Newman says, “is the exhibition and the exercise of a great counsel, carrying with it a great sanctification, according to the maxim, which has almost become a proverb in the Oratory: ‘Vita communis, mortificatio maxima.’ 

Pray, brethren, that all who are here tonight, who have been touched in some way by the holy presence of St Philip Neri, will enter into God’s glory and find within themselves the fruits of the bright sacrifice, the communion of all the saints. “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God—and I mean, God helping, to be one too.”

Br Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

Newman on the Liturgical Act: A Patrimonial Reflection

A precious gift arrived on the scene just in time for the canonization of St John Henry Newman and the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (subtitle: Providing for Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans Entering into Full Communion with the Catholic Church). We have received a book, a generous anthology of texts by Cardinal Newman on worship, reverence, and ritual. This Newman collection was edited by Dr Peter Kwasniewski, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center in Steubenville, Ohio. Dr Kwasniewski published this anthology under his own Os Justi Press imprint. What better entrée to this weekend’s anniversary celebration can one imagine? Kwasniewski’s book is a primary source for the liturgical theology of the great Oratorian priest who was, in sundry ways, the Father of those Anglicans who have enacted a ricorso, back from their Alma Mater to the Grandmother Church. Newman’s own struggles and lights cleared the path for so many who have settled in their own persons the quarrel between the Mother and Daughter churches which disfigured the sixteenth century. And what better instance to adduce of the Anglican Patrimony, now no longer a bridge to be crossed but an officially commended source of aqua vitae? Here not only the nostalgic can revisit former days, but also those of the ancient communion who hear in Newman’s musical prose a consummate English cantillation of the Faith. Newman’s liturgical theology is an appropriate lens to focus our investigations, a spiritual companion to that liturgical tome, Divine Worship: The Missal, which is the most tangible outcome, so far, of the re-patriation of the Anglican patrimony. Given the Anglican Communion’s reputation as a “liturgical church,” and the will to provide liturgical continuity expressed by the Anglicanorum coetus, the engrafted Anglican patrimony was almost necessarily initiated by live cuttings from The Book of Common Prayer. But I don’t think it was ever intended to end there.

At some propitious moment, no doubt, the Ordinariate will make a renewed effort to appropriate the intellectual patrimony of Anglicanism, as well. Recall that the Dominican Fr Aidan Nichols dedicated his theological history of Anglicanism, The Panther and the Hind, “To Eric Lionel Mascall, magistro catholicae veritatis.” E. L. Mascall, this master of Catholic truth, was, of course, an Anglo-Catholic priest and a member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. His thick and entertaining autobiography, Saraband: The Memoirs of E. L. Mascall, was published in 1992. The redoubtable Fr Hunwicke, whose blog “Mutual Enrichment” is a mine of clever erudition, occasionally brings to light various Anglo-Catholic scholars whose lamps are yet undiminished. Perhaps Fr Hunwicke can be persuaded to develop these jottings into a book or, at least, an annotated pamphlet. Taking a cue from such notices, a series of books collecting the English Catholic patrimonialia would be a desideratum for seminarians and bookish layfolk. But a publication program needn’t be all scholarly books in nearly-illegible typefaces. Dr Kwasniewski, our Newman editor, has also spearheaded the reprinting of My Book of the Church’s Year by Enid M. Chadwick, a charmingly illustrated children’s book originally published in 1948. In his Foreword to the 2019 edition from St Augustine Academy Press, Kwasniewski declares himself to be “one who believes that the Catholic imagination has withered and is in desperate need of reevangelization, and that we must begin in earnest with our children.” Only towards the end of his commendatory preface does Kwasniewski mention the Anglican Ordinariate and its restoration of “Gesimatide” and the Rogation Days. At the end, he confesses to his largely Roman Catholic traditionalist readers, “Enid Chadwick was a High Church Anglican.”

The communities now worshipping under the aegis of Anglicanorum Coetibus, if they remain patient and faithful, will become increasingly able to reflect on their past and present Christian experiences. Thus will the best of the Anglican intellectual tradition be preserved. Fr Aidan Nichols gives us two portraits of how this might be done. 

Fr Nichols’ first portrait records, in part, an accomplished fact, with roots in the first half of the twentieth-century. In his short book, Catholics of the Anglican Patrimony, Fr Nichols quotes the testament of one of his confreres, a former Anglican clergyman much—too much, some might say—influenced by Newman and received into full communion by the English Dominicans. Here is Fr Henry St John, O.P.’s testament: “Few Catholic priests can have had such concentrated Anglican antecedents and background as mine were. I can truly say that all the best things in Anglicanism are still in me at every human level, intuitive, affective and intellectual, integrated now into my Catholicism. These have been incorporated into my Catholic life, and I am very sure, perfected by it. But the roots of this composite are thoroughly Anglican, and I am deeply grateful for the ethos of the Church of England and its doctrine which had penetrated and built up the family, parents and brothers and sisters, in which I was bred.” Thus St John’s own achievement of Anglican patrimony. His testimony concludes with a projection for the future: “Our vision of the future must be that one day there will still be the Catholic Church, the same in its essential structure and truth. Towards unity with her the Churches now outside the Catholic Church will move. The Church will open wide its arms and accept all that is good and true in custom and in usage, in ways of thinking, worshipping and government that these Churches have practised and valued in their separated life. By this the Church of Christ will be greatly enlarged and enriched. All that the Catholic Church now stands for will still be the substance of the Church’s structure. In less essential things there will be a far wider variety of custom and usage, as there was in the early days of the Church’s history. As I look back over more than 50 years, during which history has been in the making, that must be the vision of our ecumenical hope and prayer.” In case you are wondering, Fr Henry St John was the great nephew of Newman’s dear confrere, Fr Ambrose St John.

We are given another, more concrete, blueprint by Aidan Nichols himself, in his first book on the Res Anglicana, the previously-mentioned Panther and the Hind. Adverting to the difficulty of sustaining ecumenical discussions with a Church whose internal unity was so highly fragile, Fr Nichols writes: “An Anglican church united with Rome but not absorbed, an Anglican Uniate church, is perfectly feasible but it can only be constructed on the basis of a selection from among the elements I have mentioned [in my history]. It might be a church with a religious metaphysic drawn from the Cambridge Platonists, supplying as this would a doctrine of creation, and an account of the human being ‘in the image and likeness of God’, necessary to the theocentric humanism of any truly Catholic tradition; a doctrinal and sacramental ethos taken from the Restoration divines, with their stress on the inseparable interconnexion of Incarnation, Church and liturgy; and a missionary spirit borrowed from the Evangelical movement, and centred therefore on the universal significance of the Saviour’s atoning work—the whole to be confirmed and, where necessary, corrected by acceptance of the framework of the Roman Catholic communion, including the latter’s teaching authority to determine those many questions of faith and morals which, historically, have kept Anglicans divided. In such a way, numerous elements of the Anglican theological tradition—‘classics’, both as texts and persons—could find re-patriation in the Western patriarchate, in peace and communion with that see with which the origins of English Christianity are for ever connected.”

Against such a speculative background, we turn to one of the founding fathers of the Oxford Movement, St John Henry Newman, to examine his treatment of three related liturgical themes: worship, reverence, and ritual. Because these three themes are intertwined, we may have some difficulty distinguishing them. Let us try to do so in a rough and ready way before probing the elements of Newman’s own analysis. 

Ritual, first, has to do with a “fixed set of words or actions to be performed.” The concrete ritus is determined pre-eminently by the words accompanying the act’s performance. This is reflected in the Proto Indo-European root of the word, *re- “to reason, count.” An Anglican priest who was a tutor in my college once took some of his students to attend the ordination of a bishop. It was very colourful, but not especially Anglo-Catholic. A “contemporary” chrome crozier was solemnly conveyed to the new bishop and ceremoniously handed over without a word. Our tutor took more exception to this event than to any other aspect of the ordination. “There should have been some words,” he said, as we got back into his car. Rite is principally a fixed utterance.

Reverence, on the other hand, has to do with what we might call a subjective attitude. Again this is present in the Proto Indo-European root, *wer-e-, “perceive, watch.” This root became the Latin revereri “to stand in awe of, respect, honour, fear, be afraid of, revere.” We can, of course, become aware of someone’s reverent attitude by his corporeal bearing—careful, reticent, and subservient. But any reverent gesture is a mark of inner recognition and a living response.

If rite is primarily a fixed form of exteriorized speech, and reverence is primarily interior acknowledgment, worship unifies the two and thus denotes totality or the complete act. It derives from Old English weorðscipe “condition of being worthy, possessing dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown.” Thus worship denotes a relation-between. It is, as St Thomas say, an act justly owed to God.  

One might link the triple dimensions of the divine cult—objective, subjective, and holistic/relational—to the spiritual writer’s well-known trope—prayer of the lips, prayer of the mind, and prayer of the heart. We find this traditional trichotomy, for example, in the nineteenth-century Russian monk, Theophan the Recluse. According to Theophan, oral prayer (prayer of the lips) is a simple recitation, still external to the practitioner. It can be a matter of mere words, the rote repetition of a stock formula. The prayer of the mind, by contrast, occurs when “the mind is focused upon the words” of the prayer, “speaking them as if they were its own.” A philosopher would call this subjective “owning” of the prayer ‘appropriation’. Prayer of the heart is attained when prayer is no longer something we do but when it constitutes our very identity, who we are. And of course our true identity is found only in conformity with the mind and will of God, rendering him due worship. From this last vantage point we can see the three dimensions of an integral liturgical action in their conjoint perfection. Praying with the lips need not be a mere parroting of sounds. Nor need prayer of the mind consist solely in a subjective emotional achievement. In an integral liturgical action both our lips and our mind are taken up, unified, and completed by the heart, where our spirit is met by the Spirit of Christ, by whose grace all true prayer is made. 

With this sketch in mind, we turn to the Newman texts. Dr Kwasniewski’s book is 513 pages long, so he provides a much richer feast than we can digest this afternoon. But we can glance at the menu.

Tract 34 (of the famous Tracts for the Times) is concerned with rites and customs of the Church. It is of course written to persuade low Churchmen of the Tractarian position, and so begins with the Scriptures. Newman contrasts the “complete ritual system which breaks upon us in the writings of the Fathers” with the rather more scanty ritual indications of Holy Writ. (We will find Newman returning to this Protestant obstacle in more depth thirty-eight years later with his collection, Discussions and Arguments.) Certainly in the Tract, he grants that the Scriptures are not a kind of Apostolic Ritual Notes. Nonetheless there are plenty of references, for those who are attuned to the matter, whereby St Paul alludes the existence of binding traditions in the churches. Indeed Tertullian and St Basil agree with Paul’s intimations that the ritual of the Church was derived from the Apostles. And it wasn’t only because of the tedium of extended ritual directives that the Apostles abbreviated such instruction in their Scriptural writings. According to St Basil, “the rites were memorials of doctrines not intended for publication except among baptized Christians, whereas the Scriptures were open to all men.” “Both,” he maintains, “have equal claims on our devotion.” Rites are not theatrical or aesthetic extras, but silent indications of doctrinal depths. As Newman says, “far from being unmeaning, [they] are in their nature capable of impressing our memories and imaginations with the great revealed verities; far from being superstitious, are expressly sanctioned in Scripture as to their principle, and delivered to the Church in their form by tradition.” Newman will reiterate the patristic thesis linking ritual and doctrine in Discourses and Arguments, published twenty-seven years after his reception into the Roman Catholic Church: “The doctrines of the Church are … not mere matters of opinion; … but they were external facts, quite as much as the books of Scripture;—how so? Because they were embodied in rites and ceremonies. … Now such usages are symbols of common, not individual opinions, and more or less involve the doctrines they symbolize.”

The year after publishing Tract 34, on the Feast of the Circumcision, Newman preaches his sermon “Ceremonies of the Church.” Here he makes a key distinction between the spirit and the body. “The Bible … may be said to give us the spirit of religion; but the Church must provide the body in which that spirit is to be lodged. Religion must be realized in particular acts, in order to its continuing alive.” Thus ecclesiastical rites. Like a true cleric, Newman observes: “When persons attempt to worship in … (what they call) [a] more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshipping at all.” Reflection on the relation between body and spirit pays dividends for articulating the ontological constitution of religious ritual: “… we may as well expect that the spirits of men might be seen by us without the intervention of their bodies, as suppose that the Object of faith can be realized in a world of sense and excitement, without the instrumentality of an outward form to arrest and fix attention, to stimulate the careless, and to encourage the desponding.” Thus Newman underlines the indispensable significance and power of ritual, its mediating function with respect to the invisible. But the analogy with the body can be mined further to yield a more than merely instrumental function for ritual. Those who think Newman a body-despising Platonist should take note. Newman asks: “Who can in practice separate his view of body and spirit? For example, what a friend would he be to us who should treat us ill, or deny us food, or imprison us; and say, after all, that it was our body he ill-treated, and not our soul?” Once again, Newman applies the analogy: “Even so, no one can really respect religion, and insult its forms.” Towards the end of the sermon Newman indulges an apocalyptic streak: “In these times especially, we should be on our guard against those who hope, by inducing us to lay aside our forms, at length to make us lay aside our Christian hope altogether. This is why the Church itself is attacked, because it is the living form, the visible body of religion; and shrewd men know that when it goes, religion will go too. This is why they rail at so many usages as superstitious; or propose alterations and changes, a measure especially calculated to shake the faith of the multitude.”

Fifteen years later, in Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, we find Newman again stressing the visible basis of imparting the invisible spirit: rites of the Church “do not exist for their own sake; they do not stand of themselves; they are not sufficient for themselves; they do not fight against the State their own battle; they are not appointed as ultimate ends; but they are dependent on an inward substance; they protect a mystery; they defend a dogma; they represent an idea; they preach good tidings; they are the channels of grace. They are the outward shape of an inward reality or fact, which … is not an inference of reason, but the object of a spiritual sense.” In short, rites are sacramentals.

Turning now to reverence, which I have called the more interior dimension of a liturgical act, we find ourselves very close to the spiritual sense we just heard Newman invoking, indeed what a modern French scholar has called the “sense of the sacred.” Newman’s phenomenological description of reverence takes us far beyond any external pose or mere corporal disposition. Reverence is the correlative act to the reserved dimension of Divinity: it is God as mysterium or secret that demands to be addressed by reverence on our part. Now you might say that this cannot be right, that Christianity is a religion of revelation, there are no secrets, that all has been made plain and clear, such that it can be “shouted from the housetops.” But, without being at all polemical, Newman meets this objection even before it is spoken. In sermon 23 of Plain and Parochial Sermons, “Christian Reverence,” Newman distinguishes reverence from respect or honour, which he calls an “easy work.” Newman reverses our easy assumption that revelation is meant to make everything clear and simple for us. After all, if it is indeed the Holy God Who reveals himself, he must be revealed in his incomparable mystery. Newman says, “Christ’s second sojourn on earth (after His resurrection) was in secret. The time had been when He ‘preached openly in the synagogues’, and in the public ways and; and openly wrought miracles such as man never did. Was there to be no end of His labours in our behalf? His death ‘finished’ them; afterwards He taught His followers only. Who shall complain of His withdrawing Himself at last from the world, when it was of His own spontaneous loving-kindness that He ever showed Himself at all?” I used to wonder why Christ said to his disciples, “it is better for you that I go away.” Newman goes far to demonstrate the “good necessity” of Christ’s Ascension out of our vision. According to Newman: “No man saw Him rise from the grave. His Angels indeed beheld it; but His earthly followers were away, and the heathen soldiers not worthy. They saw, indeed, the great Angel, who rolled away the stone from the opening of the tomb. This was Christ’s servant; but Him they saw not. He was on his way to see His own faithful and mourning followers. … Yet not even these, His friends, had free access to Him. He said to Mary, ‘Touch me not’. He came and left them according to His own pleasure. When they saw Him, they felt an awe which they had not felt during His ministry. While they doubted if it were He, ‘None of them’, St John says, ‘durst ask Him, Who art Thou? believing that it was the Lord’. … At length, after forty days, He was taken from them; He ascended up, ‘and a cloud received Him out of their sight’.”

Newman thus stresses the necessity of reverence: “Are we to feel less humble veneration for Him now, than His Apostles then?” he asks. “Assuredly, we are still to ‘serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with reverence’…” And what does that involve? “In a Christian’s course, fear and love must go together,” Newman declares. Later in the sermon he repeats these very words, “In heaven, love will absorb fear; but in this world, fear and love must go together. No one can love God aright without fearing Him; though many fear Him, and yet do not love Him.” Newman then provides a schema of three sorts of men: the self-confident man, the deliberate sinner, and the devout Christian. “Self-confident men,” he says, “who do not know their own hearts, or the reasons they have for being dissatisfied with themselves, do not fear God, and they think this bold freedom is to love Him.” We see here, in their self-ignorance, the superficiality, the lack of interiority, of a man without that fear which is requisite to reverence. His lack of self-knowledge causes him to confuse love with bold freedom. “Deliberate sinners,” Newman continues, “fear but cannot love Him.” Notice the implication that the deliberate sinner has a self-knowledge which is lacking to the self-confident man. What he lacks is love. But then neither does the self-confident man possess love, although he thinks he does. Newman then delineates the reverence of a devout Christian. “…Devotion to Him [God] consists in love and fear, as we may understand from our ordinary attachment to each other. No one really loves another, who does not feel a certain reverence towards him. When friends transgress this sobriety of affection, they may indeed continue associates for a time, but they have broken the bond of union. It is mutual respect which makes friendship lasting. So again, in the feelings of inferiors towards superiors. Fear must go before love.” Newman’s phrase ‘the sobriety of affection’ may well bring us up short. In a time when screaming for “transparency” is thoughtlessly taken as a sign of responsibility, when anything and everything is shouted from the housetops, when we “let it all hang out,” one may well wonder whether affection is not just about dried up. Is it possible that hidden riches thrived within the strait-laced reticence of our ancestors?

In another of the Plain and Parochial Sermons, “Reverence, a Belief in God’s Presence,” Newman further develops his teaching on fear and awe. We might have thought that fear is only a requisite of our sinful condition. But Newman says, “the existence of fear in religion does not depend on the circumstance of our being sinners; it is short of that.” Fortunately there is an example to hand that allows Newman, without presumption or ungrounded hypothesis, to forward this claim. “Were we pure as the Angels,” he says, “yet in His sight, one should think, we could not but fear, before whom the heavens are not clean, nor the Angels free from folly. The Seraphim themselves veiled their faces while they cried, Glory! Even then were it true that sin was not a great evil, or was no great evil in us, nevertheless the mere circumstance that God is infinite and all-perfect is an overwhelming thought to creatures and mortal men, and ought to lead all persons who profess religion to profess also religious fear, however natural it is for irreligious men to disclaim the feeling.” So it is the infinity and perfection of God—two things, by the way, which by their very nature are hidden from the gaze of a finite creature—that properly call forth awe and reverence.

In this sermon Newman propounds a number of ways in which very different sorts of man adopt an over-familiar manner with God. For our purposes, two are especially relevant because of their bearing on divine worship. He decries “the familiarity with which many persons address our Lord in prayer, applying epithets to Him and adopting a strain of language which does not beseem creatures, not to say sinners.” Does this apply to a bit of familiar Anglicana that has probably been left behind in the rush to the 1970s, Malcolm Boyd’s Are You Running with Me Jesus? But, as I indicated, there are deficiencies all round, and Newman also finds fault with “diffuse and free language, with emphatic and striking words, in a sort of coloured or rich style, with pomp of manner, and an oratorical tone, as if praying were preaching, and as if its object were not to address Almighty God, but to impress and affect those who heard them.” It seems that many recent liturgical translations have not escaped this temptation to strive for effect, even though contemporary rhetorical tone favours impoverishment rather than over-ripeness. Thomas Cranmer, however, the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible, and those who composed the lapidary Latin collects of the ancient Masses well knew how to give us words to utter in the court of the Almighty. And Newman’s own prose, most marvellously, conveys the palpable conviction that bespeaks the presence of another, higher world, a world in which we, too, can aspire to live. 

In the sermon we have been considering, Newman brings out the bearing of reverence on the essentially hidden or secret dimension in an especially arresting way. “There is,” he says, “a peculiar feeling with which we regard the dead. What does this arise from?—that he is absent? No; for we do not feel the same towards one who is merely distant, though he be at the other end of the earth. Is it because in this life we shall never see him again? No, surely not; because we may be perfectly certain we shall never see him when he goes abroad, we may know he is to die abroad, and perhaps he does die abroad; but will any one say that, when the news of his death comes, our feeling when we think of him is  not quite changed? Surely it is passing into another state which impresses itself upon us, and makes us speak of him as we do,—I mean, with a sort of awe. We cannot tell what he is now,—what his relations to us,—what he knows of us. We do not understand him,—we do not see him. He is passed into the land ‘that is very far off’; but it is not at all certain that he has not some mysterious hold over us. Thus his not being seen with our bodily eyes, while perchance he is present, makes the thought of him more awful. Apply this to the subject before us, and you will perceive that there is a sense, and a true sense, in which the invisible presence of God is more awful and overpowering than if we saw it. And so again, the presence of Christ, now that it is invisible, brings with it a host of high and mysterious feelings, such as nothing else can inspire.” 

Now Newman subtly points to the weakness of words to articulate “a feeling so refined, so strange and new”: “As some precious fruits of the earth are said to taste like all others at once, not as not being really distinct from all others, but as being thus best described, when we would come as near the truth as we can, so the state of mind which they are in who believe that the Son of God is here, yet away,—is at the right hand of God, yet in His very flesh and blood among us,—is present, though invisible,—is one of both joy and pain, or rather one far above either; a feeling of awe, wonder, and praise, which cannot be more suitably expressed than by the Scripture word fear.” For those who have been chafing under Newman’s use of the word ‘fear’, the thus affords a certain concession and a reassurance; it is not servile fear that Newman commends, but a very distant cousin of this familiar emotion, a somewhat rare and exotic fruit of the “religious sense.”

In yet another of the Parochial and Plain Sermons, “Reverence in Worship,” Newman brings together his doctrine on reverence with what I have identified as the third dimension of the liturgical act, viz., worship. He begins by noting that a reverential spirit in worshipping God is something universal, observed by “even heathen religions.” This enables him to identify a “greater than pagan error” in some of those who have separated themselves from the Church—“greater than pagan” because Newman clearly endorses the Catholic theological maxim that “grace presupposes and builds upon nature,” and so takes the universality of reverence in worship as witness to a universal law. They are in error, then, he says, who “may be said to form an exception to the concordant voice of a whole world, always and every where; they break in upon the unanimous suffrage of mankind, and determine, at least by their conduct, that reverence and awe are not primary religious duties.” Securus judicat orbis terrarum—“The verdict of the whole world is conclusive,” as St Augustine said in condemning the Donatists. Not without irony does Newman proceed to describe the state of mind of the “puritans” who would reject the testimony of pagan piety: “They have considered that in some way or other, either by God’s favour or by their own illumination, they are brought so near to God that they have no need to fear at all, or to put any restraint upon their words or thoughts when addressing Him. They have considered awe to be superstition, and reverence to be slavery. They have learnt to be familiar and free with sacred things, as it were, on principle.”

Proceeding ad extra from the interior principle of reverence in worship, Newman urges that we not “aim at forms for their own sake, but we must keep in mind where we are, then forms will come into our service naturally. We must in all respects act as if we saw God; that is, if we believe that God is here, we shall keep silence.” I suppose that those who are discomfited by silence in worship evidence a weakness similar to those who cannot share silences in their human relationships. An African cardinal has recently reminded the rest of the Church of the necessity of silence. Of course worship also involves speech. What Newman says about that may also strike us as unusual. Self-abnegation is a prerequisite of reverent worship and has its counterpart in all our liturgical acts. “As the words in which we pray in Church are not our own,” Newman says pointedly, “neither will our looks, or our postures, or our thoughts, be our own.” According to Newman this de-centring of self is radically Apostolic: “the Holy Apostles … never spoke their own words in solemn worship, but either those which Christ taught them, or which the Holy Ghost taught them, or which the Old Testament taught them. This is the reason why we always pray from a book in Church.” Such liturgical asceticism is literally crucial, but it would be wrong to think of the liturgical act as ultimately alienating. For while Newman has no tolerance of the attitude that sacred worship should pander to ignorance, weakness, and passion in order to cajole us into participation, he does regard worship as an integral activity in which man’s praise of God redounds both to God’s glory and the whole man’s salvation. 

Newman paints a fair picture of the complaints of irreverent man, but he makes clear that he will have no truck with the complaints such a man produces. “When they come into Church, and find nothing there of a striking kind, when they find every thing is read from a book, and in a calm, quiet way, and still more, when they come a second and a third time, and find every thing just the same, over and over again, they are offended and tired. ‘There is nothing’, they say, ‘to rouse or interest them’. They think God’s service dull and tiresome… for they do not come to Church to honour God, but to please themselves. They want something new. They think the prayers are long, and wish that there was more preaching, and that in a striking oratorical way, with loud voice and florid style. And when they observe that the worshippers in Church are serious and subdued in their manner, and will not look, and speak, and move as much at their ease as out of doors, or in their own houses then … they ridicule them as weak and superstitious.”

Newman notes that, unfortunately for the irreverent man, what we know of heavenly worship is that it is indeed repetitious and poor in words, mostly consisting of endless Alleluia’s and Holy Holy Holies. Nor did our Lord show any different spirit when, at during his own agony in the garden, he thrice repeated the words, “Thy will, not Mine, be done.” We might also think of the Church’s counsel to those in their death agony to repeat the Holy Name of Jesus with each remaining breath.

And so Newman does not promise any mitigation of the irreverent man’s boredom or suggest some new worship program specifically tailored to offer more excitement for the youth or more sentimental unction for the worldly. Instead, he sternly warns: “Let all persons … know for certain, and be assured beforehand, that if they come to Church to have their hearts put into strange and new forms, and their feelings moved and agitated, they come for what they will not find.” No nonsense there. But knowing Newman, the presence of the invisible world, the hidden mystery, is not far from his thoughts. And indeed he says, “We wish them to join Saints and Angels in worshipping God; to say with the Seraphim, “Holy Lord God of Sabaoth;” to say with the Angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and in earth peace, goodwill towards men;” to say after our Lord and Saviour, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” and what follows; to say with St Mary, “My soul doth magnify the Lord;” with St Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in Peace;” with the Three Children who were cast into the fiery furnace, “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him, and magnify Him for ever;” with the Apostles, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; and in the Holy Ghost.” We wish to read to them words of inspired Scripture, and to explain its doctrine to them soberly after its pattern. This is what we wish them to say, again and again: “Lord, have mercy;” “We beseech Thee to hear us, O Lord;” “Good Lord, deliver us;” “Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” 

Here then is the reserved dimension, the hidden reality, Newman sees as the centre about which liturgical action turns: “All holy creatures are praising God continually—we hear them not, still they are praising Him and praying to Him. All the Angels, the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the Holy Church universal, all good men all over the earth, all the spirits and souls of the righteous, all our friends who have died in God’s faith and fear, all are praising and praying to God: we come to Church to join them.”

And so, despite—indeed because of—the necessary moment of awe and alienation, liturgical worship ultimately integrates and fulfills man in its holy sacrifice of praise. This living and comprehensive vision of our communion with God does justice to all three dimensions of the liturgical act: ritual, reverence, and worship. As Newman teaches: “God hates the worship of the mere lips; He requires the worship of the heart. A person may bow, and kneel, and look religious, but he is not at all the nearer heaven, unless he tries to obey God in all things, and to do his duty. But if he does honestly strive to obey God, then his outward manner will be reverent also; decent forms will become natural to him; holy ordinances, though coming to him from the Church, will at the same time come (as it were) from the heart; they will be part of himself, and he will as little think of dispensing with them as he would dispense with his ordinary apparel, nay, as he could dispense with tongue or hand in speaking or doing. This is the true way of doing devotional service; not to have feelings without acts, or acts without feelings; but both to do and to feel;—to see that our hearts and bodies are both sanctified together, and become one; the heart ruling our limbs, and making the whole man serve Him, who has redeemed the whole man, body as well as soul.”

This is the patrimony. The theology of Newman surely has not been exhausted or superseded, as witness Pope Benedict XVI’s love for him and recourse to his works. Now that Newman has been raised to the altars of the Church, and the Ordinariate Use of the Mass is permitted to be celebrated on those altars,  all the more should Newman become the Father not only of former Anglicans who have been received into full communion but of cradle Catholics and inquirers, too. 

Newman would not mind, I think, if we finished our glance at his teaching with a coda from a more ancient Father, recorded in the Verba seniorum, a very picture the human vocation to divine praise: 

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?”

Br Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

Newman and Conscience

For Newman, religion consists more essentially in acting than in knowing. And for this reason he thinks that conscience is the most religiously attuned of our powers. In the experience of conscience, Newman writes, we discover

a relation between the soul and…something exterior, [which is] superior to itself; a relation to an excellence which [the soul] does not posses, and to a tribunal over which it has no power. 

In these words Newman describes an encounter with a goodness that transcends us, but which also intimately summons our allegiance. Mysteriously we are moved to give ourselves in order to receive ourselves. This, for Newman, is our experience of conscience, and it constitutes the primordial religious phenomenon. Because conscience belongs to humanity as such, it is larger than Christianity, and Christianity in a way depends upon it. But Christianity also brings it to completion.     

We can see all this if we consider for a moment how Newman speaks of conscience as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ. It is a startling expression. What startles us is the suggestion that conscience and the papacy might be rivals. Now it is certainly true that, for Newman, conscience is not just a primitive beginning, confined to pre-Christian experience and destined to be superseded within Christianity. On the contrary, according to Newman, conscience remains, even within Christianity, the persisting inward criterion of our approach to God. How then does Newman negotiate the relation between conscience and authority? He conceives of it this way: conscience, the inner criterion, finds itself fulfilled in the outward form and teaching of the Papacy. But fulfillment here doesn’t imply absorption. It is central to Newman’s argument that obedience to the Papacy in no way involves sacrificing individual liberty coram Deo in favour of an absolute institutional mediation. And he argues this precisely on the grounds that conscience, the aboriginal Vicar and mediator belonging to humanity as such, testifies in its own voice to the authority embodied in the Papacy. As Newman conceives it, then, the human finds itself corresponded to and completed in the ecclesial. It is a subtle and audacious argument. But it entirely depends upon retaining the independence of conscience from ecclesiastical authority, so that there can be a genuine relation between them, rather than identity. 

But why not identity? What logic is Newman pursuing? He is working from the conviction that conscience alone grounds a religious understanding of things – even, indeed especially, of religion. His concern with preserving the independence of conscience from ecclesiastical authority is not so that he can proceed to play them off one against the other. It is to ensure that ecclesiastical authority preserves a properly religious self-understanding. Newman thinks that if authority were to try to neutralize conscience, it would damage not only conscience but also itself. According to Newman ecclesiastical authority isn’t a religious power simply because it handles religious things; more importantly, it must handle things in a religious way, otherwise it will degenerate and lose itself – however ostensibly – even hyperbolically – religious it may continue to appear. It will have become what Newman, in private correspondence, calls an insolent and aggressive faction. Authority – even the Papacy itself – can discern and sustain its religious character only when practised in the light of conscience. The alternative involves a loss of its capacity to attract and persuade – or, more precisely, and more ominously, to attract and persuade rightly.

But Newman thought this not only with respect to authority but also with respect to reason itself. Conscience, as we have seen, is for Newman what he calls the essential principle and sanction of religion in the mind. This is why he said that authority – even (or rather especially) ecclesiastical authority – should not drift into separation from conscience and its demands. But for the same reason Newman tended to be unimpressed by philosophical approaches to God presented as exercises of reason practised independently of the light of conscience. Arguments, Newman reminds us, depend upon evidence. But in matters of existential depth and complexity what counts as relevant evidence cannot be neutrally, impersonally or purely rationally gathered and assessed. What is it, then, that guides the selection, interpretation and deployment of evidence? It was Newman’s conviction that such concrete practices of reason are always intimately personal events, and that what makes them personal is the interdependence of reason and conscience. Newman teaches an intangible, even mysterious interdependence between our fidelity to the experience of conscience, on the one hand, and the inspiration and bearing of our reasoning, on the other. For Newman, our perception of what is true is inwardly shaped by our relation to what is good. Conscience, we might say, is reason’s secret history. But why is this history ‘secret’? Because, Newman believes, the interdependence of reason and conscience has been intentionally occluded, in favour of promulgating an allegedly ‘pure’ rationality which, far from being the pre-eminent human excellence, is in fact the exemplary idol of fallen consciousness.    

Let us look at this a little more closely. Here is one of Newman’s many portraits of what it is like to attempt to live in fidelity to conscience:

since the inward law of Conscience [he writes] brings with it no proof of its truth and commands attention to it on its own authority, all obedience to it is of the nature of Faith; and habitual obedience implies the direct exercise of a clear and vigorous faith in the truth of its suggestions, triumphing over opposition both from within and without; quieting the murmurs of Reason, [which is] perplexed with the disorders of the present scheme of things, and subduing the appetites, [which are] clamorous for [a] good which promises an immediate and keen gratification. 

This passage portrays fidelity to conscience as a complex state of adventure. Newman’s description blends darkness and deferral, on the one hand, with the fertility of obedience and an imaginative entrance into the unseen, on the other. Our desire for certainty and sovereign understanding is mortified. Instead we must acclimatize ourselves to a different, one might call it an intuitive or poetic, logic, in which truth is intimated rather than demonstrated, trusted rather than seen, risked rather than grasped. Yielding to conscience opens up a very distinctive conception of the world and of our place within it, and therefore also of what reason is and of what counts as reasonable, beyond the satisfying aridities of what can be made logically or empirically evident. We stand here at the source of those fundamental but mysterious attractions and repulsions which seem to guide our thinking, inclining us to move in one direction rather than in another, to make certain connections and not others, to anticipate this conclusion rather than that. Newman’s conviction is that such differences originate in the agonies of conscience. Here we glimpse the essentially ethical, and in the final analysis spiritual, narratives in which, in Newman’s estimation, our histories of thought truly consist.

Br Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

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