The Forecourt of Heaven
Getting to Know the Recently Beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman
BY Peter J. Mango
January 2-15, 2011 Issue | Posted 12/29/10 at 12:40 PM
The highest-profile beatification of 2010 was surely that of Blessed John Henry Newman. Pope Benedict XVI, long an admirer of the English Catholic convert, thinker, university founder and cardinal, chose to beatify him himself, during his state visit to Great Britain in September.
At least a dozen books regarding Newman were published during the year, including a second edition of The Heart of Newman: A Synthesis, Arranged by Erich Przywara, S.J. (Ignatius); Blessed John Henry Newman: Theologian and Spiritual Guide for Our Times, by Father Keith Beaumont of the French Oratory (Ignatius) and Take Five: Meditations With John Henry Newman, edited by Mike Aquilina and Father Juan R. Vélez (Our Sunday Visitor).
The literary biographer Joseph Pearce, in the foreword to The Heart of Newman, contends that Newman’s conversion was the birth of the English Catholic Revival. “After Newman’s conversion,” Pearce writes, “Catholicism became a major intellectual presence in English cultural life. … In Newman’s wake, thousands of Englishmen followed his example and converted in droves. In terms of prestige and numbers Catholicism was once more in the ascendant.”
If one needed partial confirmation of this, he need only review any “short” list of the 20th-century English converts who followed Newman into the Church; starting with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox, Muriel Sparks, J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, R.C. Zaehner, Lady Antonia Fraser and John Saward — not to mention Pearce himself. Pearce, a professor and EWTN personality, quotes one George Levine as calling Newman “perhaps the most artful and brilliant prose writer of the nineteenth century,” highlighting the fact that this is “a judgment seemingly echoed by James Joyce.”
Pearce continues by claiming that “Newman was also one of the finest poets of the Victorian age,” singling out the latter’s “The Sign of the Cross,” “The Golden Prison” and “The Pilgrim’s Queen” as ranking “alongside the best verse of his illustrious contemporaries.”
Pearce slips up when identifying the composer who transformed Newman’s poem “The Dream of Gerontius” into what Andrew Wilson-Dickson calls a song which “immediately put artistic standards of the English oratorio onto a quite different plane,” one “unprecedented in English music,” and which “has been rarely equaled since.”
That is, Pearce accidentally references Benjamin Britten. Yet the composer in question was Edward Elgar, who had received a copy of “Gerontius” as a wedding present. (Some consider “Gerontius” not only Elgar’s greatest choral work, but his greatest work, period; one of which Elgar said, “I have allowed my heart to open once.”)
Pearce goes on to claim that Newman’s “Gerontius” — about a man sent through purgatory — was “greatly admired by C.S. Lewis, who drew on what he called its ‘right view’ of purgatory” for Lewis’ own short story, “The Great Divorce.”
Pearce cites one critic as saying Newman strikingly “anticipates” T.S. Eliot, but this may not be the best choice of words. (Eliot was very aware of Newman.) Not only does Eliot mention Newman as the type of “saint” in relation to culture, but Eliot’s first poem to use Christian imagery self-consciously is titled “Gerontion.”
But enough about the four-page foreword. This new edition of The Heart of Newman hits the “reset” button on the 1963 English translation of theologian Father Erich Przywara’s attempt to “systematize” Newman’s thought in six volumes, J.H. Newman-Christentum: Ein-Aubau. Przywara, himself a critical figure in 20th-century Catholic thought, not only served as mentor to St. Edith Stein and Hans Urs von Balthasar, but was the first avatar of that “Newmanian (or ressourcement) Thomist” thinker who reappears under various high-profile names throughout the 20th century: Yves Congar, Jan Walgrave, Paul VI, Aidan Nichols, Servais Pinckaers, John Saward, Alasdair MacIntyre, etc. In other words, someone with one eye on the “eternal,” as a companion of St. Thomas, and another eye on the ever-shifting “world picture” of the history of ideas, from Christian antiquity to contemporary thought, which Newman kept in view — thereby proving that Catholic intellectuals really can walk and chew gum at the same time after all. Such arguably was the authentic spirit not only of the Second Vatican Council (of which Newman has been called the “father”), but of the papal magisterium of the last several decades.
How well does the book fulfill its purpose of systematizing Newman’s thought? About as well as any book trying to systematize anything: arguably more tantalizing as a reference work, rather than in beginning from page one. Not drawn to the opaque chapter title “Shell and Kernel”? Then try “The Forecourt of Heaven,” where we read how “the world may seduce, may terrify, may mislead, may enslave, but it cannot really inspire confidence and love. There is no rest for us, except in quietness, in confidence, in affection. … This is the Church of God, which is our true Home … His own heavenly court, where He dwells with Angels and Saints … in which we forget the outward world and its many troubles.”
An unexpected pleasure is Blessed John Henry Newman: Theologian and Spiritual Guide for Our Times by Father Keith Beaumont of the French Oratory. Rather than the usual pieties and laundry list of events in Newman’s life, the book borders on coffee-table style in its abundance of pull quotes, plus photos of Newman, his contemporaries and places he knew. Billed as the “authorized biography” for Newman’s beatification, it serves as an excellent introduction for the newcomer to Newman’s life.
Father Beaumont quotes Jean Guitton as calling Newman “the invisible thinker of Vatican II” and Paul VI as calling Newman the Council’s “outstanding precursor.”
Yet, the book also quotes Newman: “I have nothing of a Saint about me, as everyone knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one. … I have no tendency to be a saint — it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men; they do not love the classics; they do not write Tales.” (Newman wrote two novels.) In retrospect, of course, what any of Newman’s contemporaries could have said was: Saints didn’t write “Tales” before Newman came along.
Beaumont’s book is swift to accommodate ecumenical sensitivities, locating the young, pre-Catholic Newman within that Wesleyan “revival” felt on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1800s. (U.S. founding fathers Dr. Benjamin Rush and Alexander Hamilton also experienced its pull.) Paradoxically, Newman wound up receiving from his evangelical mentor books “all of the school of Calvin.” Later, as a Catholic convert, Newman credited Anglican Thomas Scott as the one to whom he most owed his salvation.
A final unexpected delight was the neat pocket-size volume Take Five: Meditations With John Henry Newman, edited by Mike Aquilina and Father Juan R. Vélez. Each of the “bite-sized” meditations in the book takes up all of two tiny pages. In this way, it makes a better introduction for the newcomer than The Heart of Newman, as one is “bitten by the bug” of Newman’s prose more easily. A brief paragraph or two of Newman’s (most from his “Parochial and Plain Sermons” and his “Sermons of the Day” — all the equivalent of receiving spiritual surgery) is followed up by a quick three-point schema: Think (of three points in the paragraphs). Imagine (something from a Scripture passage). Remember (how to act on this insight during the day).
For those who do not yet know Newman — and those who wish to know him better — these three books will provide much food for thought in 2011.
Peter Mango writes from Somers, New York.
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