Need a Good Read During COVID? Try the Writings of St. John Henry Newman

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St. John Henry Newman was born in the city of London in 1801. He was strong in his Anglican faith in his youth, and by the age of 24, had already become a cleric in the Church of England. As a young man he pursued his studies at Trinity College in Oxford, and it was in Oxford that he converted to the Catholic Faith: a profound and public conversion. This conversion required many sacrifices from Newman, who by that point had become a renowned figure in the Anglican Church, as well as a professor of theology at Oxford. You might imagine the uproar it would have caused for a leader of his prominence to convert to Catholicism in Anglican England, and the difficulty of taking that step.

To take such a risk and to follow the call of conversion would require a profound faith and trust in the Lord’s fidelity. One of the blessings Newman left us is his collective writings which demonstrate such a faith. Through his writings—which include sermons, meditations, written prayers, important philosophical texts, and poems—we catch a glimpse of this faith that involves his whole person and integrates his keen mind and deep heart. Indeed, when Newman was later appointed as a Cardinal in 1879, he took for his motto the Latin phrase, Cor ad cor loquitur — “Heart speaks to heart.” With such a motto, one can imagine the intentionality he would have put into his attempts to communicate his faith, his heart, to the flock entrusted to him.

We see the fruits of this sacrifice and conversion spilling out to our own times: the numerous Newman Centers scattered throughout the country are Catholic centers on college campuses to encourage growth in the faith and community. They have been powerful centers of conversion and of igniting leaders in the new evangelization.

We also can experience the fruits of his conversion through the writings he left us. A literary great and inspirational to perhaps better-known literary names such as Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien, his writings are not to be ignored by anyone desiring to be caught more fiercely on fire for Jesus.

On a budget? Never fear. We are lucky that his writings are available to read free online. The Newman Reader, offered by The National Institute for Newman Studies, has collected numerous works and is continuing to add to the collection.

One of the beauties of the collected works of Newman is their variety. In the mood for some deep philosophical thought? Check out The Grammar of Assent, one of Newman’s most important works, and one very helpful for growing in the understanding of the New Evangelization. Or, if reading the text isn’t quite your speed, listen to this talk from Bishop Barron explaining Newman’s role in the New Evangelization!

Looking for spiritual reading to fuel your meditation and prayer? Newman’s homilies are among the most stirring I have ever encountered. I can especially recommend this homily on “The Ventures of Faith”, a stirring call to venture big for Jesus!

Also quite stirring is this short but beautiful reflection on why Jesus chose to ascend physically into heaven, to allow the Paraclite to come and be the interior and constant companion for which our hearts yearn:

For Thou didst know that the true way of possessing Thee was to lose Thee. Thou didst know that what man stands most of all in need of, and in the first place, is not an outward guide, though that he needs too, but an inward, intimate, invisible aid. Thou didst intend to heal him thoroughly, not slightly; not merely to reform the surface, but to remove and destroy the heart and root of all his ills. Thou then didst purpose to visit his soul, and Thou didst depart in body, that Thou mightest come again to him in spirit. Thou didst not stay with Thy Apostles therefore, as in the days of Thy flesh, but Thou didst come to them and abide with them for ever, with a much more immediate and true communion in the power of the Paraclete.

Perhaps you are looking to deepen your devotion to St. Philip Neri. After Newman’s conversion and meeting the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri in Rome, he moved to Birmingham, England and founded the first Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England, which is a community of priests and lay brothers dedicated to the merry St. Philip. (Fun fact: it was a priest of the Oratory in Birmingham, who cared for J. R. R. Tolkien and his brother after the death of their parents.) Newman was very devoted to the saint and composed many prayers in his honor. Click here for his litany to St. Philip Neri.

Newman was not only Priest, Preacher, and Philosopher; he was also Poet.  His best known poem is doubtless Lead Kindly Light, which has been set to music by a variety of artists. During this year full of uncertainties, I have found it particularly comforting, but no less comforting to me has been this lesser-known poem, Desolation:


O, SAY not thou art left of God,
    Because His tokens in the sky
Thou canst not read: this earth He trod
    To teach thee He was ever nigh.

He sees, beneath the fig-tree green,
    Nathaniel con His sacred lore;
Shouldst thou thy chamber seek, unseen,
    He enters through the unopen’d door.

And when thou liest, by slumber bound,
    Outwearied in the Christian fight,
In glory, girt with Saints around,
    He stands above thee through the night.

When friends to Emmaus bend their course,
    He joins, although He holds their eyes:
Or, shouldst thou feel some fever’s force,
    He takes thy hand, He bids thee rise.

Or on a voyage, when calms prevail,
    And prison thee upon the sea,
He walks the wave, He wings the sail,
    The shore is gain’d, and thou art free.

Off Sardinia
.
June 18, 1833.  

Newman, who died in 1890 and was canonized by Pope Francis in 2019, knew what it meant to walk in the darkness of faith. He is a saint for our times, but particularly a saint for 2020: he encourages us to remember that among all the fears and difficulties we are surrounded by on the choppy seas of life, Jesus is there, bidding us to rise, setting us free.

Featured image: Wikimedia commons.

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