Sunday, 10 July 2011

Blessed J H Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman has been sitting quietly on the periphery of my vision for quite some time now. It hasn't been easy to attract my attention. I remember trying to read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua nearly twenty years ago and feeling defeated - I was then a callow youth of barely twenty - by the concept of a long, written self defence and by Newman's aversion to the full stop. God forgive me but Newman struck me at the time as one of those whinging, sallow Victorians who probably wrote poetry about the death of roses and who clearly ought to have got out in the fresh air more. Michael Davies, I knew, had compiled a volume of Newman's sermons against the liberals, but that imposing tome sat on my father's bookshelf undisturbed. And then just a few weeks ago in St Paul's Bookshop at Westminster I chanced upon an anthology of Newman's writings, or more strictly, an abridgment of an anthology of Newman's writings, made by Fr Erich Przywara SJ many decades ago. I confess now to being hooked.

It's not just Newman's aversion to the full stop which I have now managed to see through, nor does my new enthusiasm derive from the fact that I'm readier now to understand a man's pain (and the journey that has brought him to where he is) than I was as a twenty-something. I think what has struck me most in beginning to read through these excerpts is that Newman feels both like a contemporary and like a master. He feels like a contemporary because his psychological terrain is vast and complex; he seems to understand motives in all their ambiguity and confusion, much better than some spiritual analysts. He also seems to grasp like a true master the range of phenomena that stir us into action. For a Victorian the underpinnings of moral worthiness in his writings - the ethical sledge hammer against the will - are less emphatic than they are in many writings dating from that hugely moralistic age.

All this points to the conclusion that Newman had an instinctive feeling for the importance assumed by individual interiority in the modern period - the way in which emotion, sentient life and experience colour our judgments and resolutions, as much as will power. The Catholicism of his age rightly denounced individualism in various guises without realising how very individualistic its own spirituality had become, partly in order to deal with the challenge of individualism. O unhappy irony!

At the same time, however, the few Newman writings I have so far read communicate also a deep appreciation of the immensity of God, both in His love and in His majesty. Far from Newman's intensified interiority leading to a sterile, humanistic dead end, it seems to make him even more aware of God in His greatness and in His intimacy.

I've already every reason to feel grateful to Blessed JHN to whose intercession I attribute my new job. But I now have the whimsical but reassuring sense that I'll be learning from him more than I thought I had bargained for.

Perhaps the problem all those year ago was not the length of his sentences so much as the shortness of my attention span.


Trisagion said...

Then you must return to the Apologia without delay.

Ches said...

When I've finished Przywara!

Anagnostis said...

Very interesting; my experience is exactly the opposite of yours! I read the Apologia at 24 and found it rivetting. Returning to it a quarter century later, the impression was exactly yours at 20 - whinging, pompous sallow Victorian etc etc. I do continue to admire much about him, nevertheless, not least his lack of resemblance to Manning. Sorry to reprise Stratchey's journalistic gambit, but it remains irresistible.

Anagnostis said...

PS: I have seven 19th century volumes of Newman on my shelf, in two uniform editions, worn but certainly readable. Anybody willing to forward the postage to Somalia is welcome to them.

Ches said...

Bagsy the Newman volumes if nobody has taken them yet! Can I send you the address on Facebook?

Anagnostis said...


Ches said...