Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My Brother John Henry

It rained in Maine all day today, and so we built a fire, and croquet was called off until tomorrow. I spent the afternoon and evening with John Henry Newman and came to a sharp feeling of brotherhood with the English convert who died over 120 years ago.

It helped me to better define the feeling of kinship I have had with him since I began reading him closely at the beginning of August.

Reading passages in Newman’s Apologia surrounding the moment of his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845, I came to a clear awareness of three distinct moments of transition in my own life and how they were like or unlike three of Newman’s critical moments. This has helped me gain perspective on the final chapters of the memoir I am struggling to complete by year-end.

In 2002, after more than 30 years of immersion, I left an alternative spiritual community. I wrote about that somewhat yesterday. Unlike Newman, I had left the Anglican (or Episcopal) Church many years previously and so, when I left The Work, as it was called, I found myself wandering in an unchurched wilderness.

Newman departed the Anglican ministry in 1843, though he remained an Anglican layman for two years before being received into the Catholic Church. His departure was far more public and scandalous than my own. But like me, he pointedly refused to bring anyone else with him, though there were others who would gladly have joined him. For long stretches of the Apologia, Newman explains this decision to laicize himself while trying not to mislead anyone else. It was a decision of lonely conscience, and so was mine, though the repercussions of my decision were narrower-reaching and less significant, except to myself.

Newman put his decision to leave the Anglican Church in the starkest terms:

The simple question [was], Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? am I in safety, were I to die tonight? Is it a mortal sin in me, not joining another communion? 

I put the question of my departure in reverse manner: Was I leaving my chance of salvation by straying from the spiritual path I had walked for thirty years? I really wondered that. It scares me how much I questioned whether I could be “saved” now.

Newman goes on:

How was I to be certain that I was right now? How many years had I thought myself sure of what I now rejected? how could I ever again have confidence in myself? 

It is hard to come to the middle of one’s life and realize you’ve been on the wrong path. Newman was forty-three. I was fifty.

I spent the next six years in a spiritual no-man’s-land. I had left one community without another to take me in. Then, by a small miracle, I found my way to the Catholic Church; attended mass for six months while studying in the RCIA program; was received into the Church at Easter 2008—and never once doubted the decision.

I repeat: In the past five years, I have never once questioned my decision to become Catholic, though I might have questions about the Church and its teachings. As Newman famously wrote in the Apologia:

Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.

Newman brilliantly spells out such “difficulties,” like the dogma of transubstantiation, which he cannot prove intellectually but accepts completely nonetheless.

Reading Newman shed light on my own certainty, if that’s the word. He writes:

From the time that I became a Catholic . . . I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment. I have never had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any difference of thought or temper from what I had before. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervor; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption. 

Most passages of Newman make me feel intellectually inadequate—far beneath him on any theological or academic ladder. But this passage makes me feel that he is my brother.

Twenty years after his conversion, Newman finally wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Apology for His Life). He would not have written it at all, he says, but for an attack on himself and the Catholic Church by Charles Kingsley, an Anglican. In fact, the whole book is essentially an open letter of rebuttal to Kingsley.

At the very beginning of the Apologia, he describes and defends this sensitive decision point. It was not easy:

I recognised what I had to do, though I shrank from both the task and the exposure which it would entail. I must, I said, give the true key to my whole life; I must show what I am that it may be seen what I am not, and that the phantom may be extinguished which gibbers instead of me. I wish to be known as a living man, and not as a scarecrow which is dressed up in my clothes. . . . I will draw out, as far as may be, the history of my mind.

Again, my case is private and trivial beside Newman’s. No one attacked me, as Kingsley did him. But certain events—and certain phantoms gibbering inside of me—provoked me to write a book, if only so that my children and nearest loved ones would know the history of my mind.

I had already decided to take my title from Newman, and by extension from St. Paul: All Things Are Pure. Today, while the rain fell in Maine, I realized that I may take more besides.

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