Sunday, September 1, 2013

Newman on Vacation

Maybe it’s that I am an Englishman at heart. Or a convert. Or both.

I’m trying to understand why I have read nothing but John Henry Newman for three weeks while on vacation in Maine. And why I can’t get enough of him.

Light reading Newman is not. His style is Dense Victorian. His erudition is frightening. I understand about a third of his theology, and a tenth of his politics. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua is heavy, heavy going.

Fortunately, I am reading another book in parallel, Erich Przywara, S.J.’s The Heart of Newman: A Synthesis. The Jesuit theologian took snippets from Newman’s writings and sermons and grouped them thematically. Newman is more easily digestible this way. I don’t want the book to end.

But I keep going back to the difficult Apologia. And I have downloaded three other (free) Newman works to my Kindle: An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: In Nine Discourses; and Selections from the Prose Writings of JHN. 

I haven’t felt quite this way about a saint(ly)* Catholic since I read Vita Sackville West’s life of St. Joan of Arc in the mid-1990s. That was a major stepping stone to my conversion: the realization that the strange people the Catholic Church called saints had lived. This woman Joan was. Her entire life is documented in hundreds of pages of testimony taken before and after her death. Joan of Arc was fact, not fiction.

I still haven’t put my finger on what it is about Newman that grabs me. But I think I found a clue today.  Writing in his Apologia of the years just before his 1845 conversion, Newman reflects on reading the sermons of Italian saint Alfonso Liguori:

Devotional manifestations [such as St. Alfonso’s] in honour of our Lady had been my great crux as regards Catholicism [before conversion]; I say frankly, I do not fully enter into them now; I trust I do not love her the less, because I cannot enter into them. They may be fully explained and defended; but sentiment and taste do not run with logic: they are suitable for Italy, but they are not suitable for England. 

This “suitable for England” stuff sounds almost racist. But I think there is something distinctly English about Newman with which I identify. I was an Anglican myself, or what we called an Episcopalian when I was an altar boy who thought he might be a minister, in the 1960s. I love the English of the King James Bible. I love Dickens, who lived concurrently with Newman’s. I like Kipling, especially “The Man Who Would Be King,” and don’t even get me started on H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. 

Could there be something in the English soul that responds to certain strains of Catholic experience and not others? Like Newman, I confess that my love for the Virgin Mary is not what it might be. I say the rosary. I try to love her. But my love for the Blessed Mother is a work in progress.

There is something refreshingly frank about Newman to me: a brilliant man struggling against his own prejudices, fighting to reach a new form of faith. He converted halfway through his 90-year life, and I wasn’t so lucky. It was 57 when I converted, and I don’t expect to see 114.

But I will keep reading Newman and underlining passages like this one from his Meditations and Devotions, excerpted by Przywara:

O my Lord and Saviour, in Thy arms I am safe; keep me and I have nothing to fear; give me up and I have nothing to hope for. I know not what will come upon me before I die. I know nothing about the future, but I rely upon Thee. I pray Thee to give me what is good for me; I pray Thee to take me from whatever may imperil my salvation; I pray Thee not to make me rich, I pray Thee not to make me very poor; but I leave it all to Thee, because Thou knowest and I do not. . . .

Don’t make me rich, Lord, but not too poor either, please. I certainly like the honesty of that.

* Blessed J. H. Newman is not yet canonized.

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