Near the end of a very long and productive life, a life replete with honor and distinction — a life which pretty nearly encompassed the entire 19th century — Cardinal John Henry Newman was asked about something he wrote.
Now, Newman had written a great many things, all of exceedingly high order, whether as literature or theology. Indeed, by all accounts, he was among the great and distinguished writers of English prose and poetry; in short, a jewel to adorn the century in which he lived. He was also, of course, a celebrated convert and a formative influence in the life of the Church, whose doctrines he received most resolutely on becoming Catholic on Oct. 9, 1845, midway in the journey of his life (a date which, happily, will mark the annual observance of his feast, thus underscoring the continuing importance of conversion to the Catholic faith).
But for all that his writings exhibit a certain polemical edge, marking the controversies of a life spent in defense of the true faith, it never diminished his capacity for friendship, which was capacious and generous. Even those most likely to take exception to his views, i.e., the Anglican Establishment he left behind, found him endearing. It was a gift he especially thanked God for, describing it as the “blessings of friends, which to my door, unask’d, unhoped, have come.”
Cardinal Newman was no slouch, in other words, and whatever he wrote was instantly snapped up by everyone. Well, almost everyone. It seems this one fellow was simply too busy to keep up and so, confessing to the cardinal that he hadn’t the time to read his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, written the very year he entered the Church, asked if he would be good enough to provide a quick summary. One or two bullet points, as it were. To which Cardinal Newman replied: “Catholicism is a deep matter — you cannot take it up in a teacup.”
Now that’s neatly put. Very clever. It reminds me of an episode of 60 Minutes some years ago, in which a well-known writer was about to retire, and the host, having spent almost the entire hour recounting his many achievements, turns to him in the last half-minute or so to ask if he’d please summarize his life in the few seconds left of the show. He refused.
Well, God bless him for that. And God bless Cardinal Newman, too. I mean, if you can’t do justice to a life in 30 seconds, how much time would it require for a religion? How many words do you need to sum up the faith and the hope and the love of Catholic Christianity? I cherish in this connection Samuel Johnson’s distinction between words, which he calls the daughters of earth, and things, which are the sons of heaven. If you’ll permit Johnson’s point, notwithstanding the prejudice implicit in his rendering of it (why must it always be the sons who are the superior ones?), what he’s saying is that words will always fall short of the realities to which they point.
Like an asymptotic curve, one never quite reaches the baseline. You cannot fit the infinite God into a finite teacup. Otherwise the Higher Power would not be beyond us. Or, as Pope St. Gregory the Great reminds us, “Almost everything said of God is unworthy, for the very reason that it is capable of being said.”
Only God can exhaust the meaning of God, which he does in his self-revealing word. And when God speaks, there can be no other word necessary for us to add. At the end of the day, therefore, an adoring silence before the Mystery is always preferable to an avalanche of words.
Cardinal Newman would have approved. In his sermon “Unreal Words,” he tells us that it is no easy matter for men to master the language Christ came into the world to speak. “He has interpreted all things for us in a new way. He has brought us a religion which sheds a new light on all that happens. Try to learn this language,” he urges. “Time is short, eternity is long.”
All his life, therefore, he sought mastery of this language, his passion for the event of divine Revelation having been its unifying theme. If Christ came, as the Gospel of John tells us, “full of grace and truth,” which he then imparts to us, then to ponder and impart this to others is the chief business of being Catholic. We shall most surely be judged by God on how well we have given witness to this by our lives. In other words, the call to evangelize is not an optional extra; it is an imperative built into the nature of faith itself, to which John Henry Newman was especially drawn, pouring out his mind and heart to enlarge the reach of God’s self-revealing word — of which, he would insist, the Church is the very continuation in time and history.
In all this, however, and pursuant to all the words he wrote that particularly commend him to our own age — indeed, he qualifies as its premier apostle, even as Augustine and Aquinas divide up the ancient and medieval periods — he remained fixed on one thing only, about which no end of words would ever be enough.
Two things, actually, the intersection of which struck him early on with the force of a thunderbolt.
“When I was fifteen,” he tells us in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, written in answer to a vicious libel circulated by Rev. Charles Kingsley, “a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured … making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”
What a beautiful summary that is, identifying the twin engines turning the flywheel of his life: to be acutely aware of the self, yes, but always in relation to the Other, to God, on whom everything finally depends.
“I am a Catholic,” he assures us in the Apologia, “by virtue of my believing in a God; and if I am asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence (and of that fact I am quite sure) without believing also in the existence of Him.”
So: By all means let us leave room for the self, giving it, if you like, such fanciful formulations as “the turn to the subject,” but always in relation to God, whom we may rightly call the Supreme Subject.
All the words Blessed John Henry Newman wrote and spoke, which comprehensively combine to produce this wonderful mosaic of language, reduce in the end to a single cumulative footnote, giving us incomparable testimony to the sheer intensity of a life offered entirely to God.
And the result is canonization, the highest possible accolade conferred by the Church, she who is both Mother and Teacher: She whom he loved and served so well.
John Henry Newman, pray for us!
Regis Martin, Ph.D., is a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.