A Glimpse Into the Soul of Newman | By Fr. Zeno, O.F.M., Cap. | An excerpt from "John Henry Newman: His Inner Life" | Ignatius Insight
A Glimpse Into the Soul of Newman | By Fr. Zeno, O.F.M.,
Cap. | An excerpt from "The Soul of Newman" (Chapter Twelve), from John Henry
Newman: His Inner Life | Ignatius Insight
What we have described of the distinctive traits in Newman's portrait, have
been considered especially from the natural viewpoint. But the natural man in
him formed a unity with the supernatural. We may even assert that the
supernatural purified and elevated the natural in such a way that the
supernatural could reign supreme.
In his Autobiographical Writing we find
a curious document consisting of only one page. He began to write it in 1812 as
a schoolboy, and he finished it seventy-two years later. The first lines are a
boyish expression of his joy at the coming holidays. Then he wrote down with
long intermezzi where he was and what he did. The last entry tells us in a few
words that he has been made a Cardinal. But there is one passage, the fifth and
the longest, that gives a touching picture of his whole life:
And now in my rooms at Oriel College, a Tudor, a Parish Priest and Fellow,
having suffered much, slowly advancing to what is good and holy, and led on by
God's hand blindly, not knowing whither He is taking me. Even so, O Lord.
September 7, 1829. Monday morning. 1/4 past 10. 
This is a summary of his supernatural life, his life in the invisible world,
his life in God's presence, while he is led on by the Almighty and surrenders
himself to His will, expressing his resignation in the biblical words:
"Even so, O Lord", that is, "Do Thou with me whatever Thou
wilst, I abandon myself to Thee."  These words could be used as the
motto of his life. They arc the most profound explanation of his entire
Whoever starts reading Newman will be struck by his intense awareness of the
invisible world. He lived, so to speak, his doctrine that material phenomena
are both the types and instruments of real things unseen. For him the world of
sense was less real than the world of the spirit; from the time when he thought
life might be a dream and he an angel  up to his old age this remained one
of his great principles. Hence he scorned materialism with utter disgust and
gave the impression that he attributed no reality at all to material phenomena.
For him the outer world, whether in its beauty or its grandeur, was the
manifold but transient garb of the one eternal Being, the voice of Him Who
"worketh hitherto"  and had called him as well . This belief led
him to the prayer "Even so, O Lord" and made him ask for the great
gift of perfect obedience to God's will. 
We often come across passages in his works where he expresses this idea, the
so-called sacramental principle. Thus meals and feasts, wine and bread, not
only rejoice the heart of man and strengthen him, he said, but they mean much
more: they create social feelings; they are tokens of good will and kindness;
they are, he says, "of a sacramental nature". They are not an end in
themselves. We do not enjoy them in solitude. They are intended to open our hearts
toward each other in love.  Joys and pleasant things are also a
manifestation of this sacramental principle. All that is bright and beautiful
he sees as a figure and promise of what is to be. He declares that "it is
God's unusual mode of dealing with us in mercy to send the shadow before the
substance, that we may take comfort in what is to be, before it comes."
 In a sermon preached in the year 1880, he remembered how he once climbed
Vesuvius and saw the hot lava. There is something very awful in the lava, he
said. It is very slow but very sure and very destructive. It is a kind of type
of the Almighty. The lava comes; it may not come today, it may not come
tomorrow, but in its slow course it is sure to come. So it is with God's
judgments: they are just as sure, though they are just as slow.  These
habitual thoughts of the transcendent reality of the invisible world declare
the utter unworldliness which is so conspicuous in him. "All is
vanity", he exclaimed in his last sermon as an Anglican. "And time
and matter, and motion, and force, and the will of man, how vain are they all,
except as instruments of the grace of God, blessing them and working with them!
How vain are all our pains, our thought, our care, unless God uses them, unless
God has inspired them! how worse than fruitless are they, unless directed to
His glory, and given back to the Giver!" 
After all this we can easily understand how intensely Newman realized God's
presence. From his earliest days he had become more and more aware of the fact
that there were but two beings in the whole universe, he himself and God, Who
had created him. Everything else vanished before the clear vision he had, first
of his own existence, next of the presence of the Supreme Being, Who revealed
Himself through his conscience. His conscience was God's representative. 
Thus he heard God's voice in his heart when still a very small child. He
obeyed, except for a short time when as a wayward boy he "loved to choose
and see his path" and went astray. This voice resembled the pillar of the
cloud, the kindly light that led him on. This voice was his great proof of
God's existence, speaking louder than the voice of the visible world. 
The divine presence gave him a great trust in Providence, even in the most
desperate circumstances. "Such is God's rule in Scripture, to dispense His
blessings silently and secretly." God leads us forward by a way we know
not of. So we should have faith in what we cannot see, "the Presence of
the Eternal Son, ten times more glorious, more powerful than when He trod the
earth in our flesh".  Therefore he could write down this hopeful
statement: "When we get to heaven, if we are worthy, we shall enjoy the
sight of how, all our failures and disappointments, if borne well, have been
for God's glory and our own salvation."  Therefore, too, he could
trust in Providence after the three blows and the failures of the Via
Media; when he was harassed by the Achilli
trial; when he suffered from the deadlock in Catholic education; when he was
misunderstood and suspected by Church authorities. He knew that Providence
would fight for him and set things right, probably not in his lifetime, but
most certainly when he had gone. So at the end of his life he could say in all
truth: "I have lived a long life and can witness to His faithfulness. He
is a true friend, and "the more you can trust Him, the more you will gain
from Him." 
God's presence also intensified his love of prayer. Since the Almighty lived in
his soul, he could not but converse with Him. He prayed not only when he felt
the joy of heavenly consolations—which seems to have been not so very
frequently—but when he felt indifferent and cold, or when his mind was
wandering and distracted and affective prayer was almost impossible. His
journal of retreats shows clearly how hard and difficult it often was. When he
became older he even felt a loss of confidence in his prayers.  In spite
of this, he never left off praying. In the solitude at Littlemore where God's
presence could be felt, he had prepared himself for the great sacrifice by
prayers combined with fasting and study. He prayed not only in church, near the
Blessed Sacrament, and at set times but in all circumstances and all places,
during his walks, at sickbeds, before decisions of consequence and even when
writing letters. "No wish really means anything, which is not a prayer
too", he declared.  He did not understand how religious men could
have an aversion to prayer, nor how a priest could be bored when he had to be
alone for a long time.  He was convinced that God's presence could never
become a reality without a life of prayer. "Is anyone then desirous . . .
of bringing Christ's presence home to his very heart . . . ? Let him
pray", he said as an Anglican. And as a Catholic he asked: "Shed over
me the sweetness of Thy presence lest I faint by the way." 
The reverence he desired in his prayers made him anxious about "wandering
thoughts". This was especially the case in his Anglican period, probably under
the influence of his book of meditations, written by Bishop Wilson, who called
it a crime to indulge in distractions.  So Newman wished to achieve
attention in prayers by humble and tedious practice. He thought it "a most
irreverent and presumptuous judgment" to attribute lack of feeling and
inattention "to the arbitrary coming and going of God's Holy Spirit".
Neither could the length of Church prayers be a reason for not keeping one's
mind fixed upon them.  But he softens his severe remarks on
"wandering thoughts" by adding: "Inattention to our prayers . .
. should not surprise or frighten us . . . unless we acquiesce in it."
He had an immense confidence in the efficacy of prayer. He never undertook a
work of importance without much previous prayer, and when he had done his best
in all respects for any object or person, he left the rest to prayer, with
great comfort. To hear that anyone had been praying for him and his interests
touched him with deep gratitude, touched him more than anything else. High as
were his intellectual gifts, they were absolutely secondary in his eyes
compared with the gift of prayer, in the poor and ignorant as in others. Thus
he could accept trials with great patience because they were left in God's
hands by means of prayer.  In an eloquent way he tried to lead others to
such confidence: "You can never have an idea of the worth and power of
prayer, or of the great efficacy of your prayers . . . till you are in the
unseen world. He does for us 'exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or
think according to power that worketh in us'."  Even when apparently
there was no answer to his prayers, he was convinced of the truth of his words:
"It is certainly wonderful", he wrote to Sister Maria Pia, "that
no one of your or my own family has been converted, considering how many
prayers have been offered for them but . . . your prayers most surely are not
thrown away, not one of them is lost or fails." 
The above mainly concerns what spiritual authors call vocal prayer. But Newman
was a man of mental prayer as well. He considered this kind of prayer a
necessary part of his and, everyone's spiritual life. Without it we easily
prefer the visible world to the invisible. His sermons, preached as an
Anglican, often exhort his congregation to apply themselves to mental prayer,
to meditation. One of the main lessons of the Grammar of Assent is the necessity of meditation, so that notional
assent to religious truths might be changed into real assent and certitude. In
an Anglican sermon he asked why we are not moved by the Passion of Our Lord. He
answered that it is because we do not meditate: "We have stony hearts,
hearts as hard as the Highways; the history of Christ makes no impression on
them. And yet, if we would be saved, we must have tender, sensitive, living
hearts; our hearts must be broken, must be broken up like ground, and dug, and
watered, and tended, and cultivated, till they become as gardens, gardens of
Eden, acceptable to our God, gardens in which the Lord God may walk and dwell;
filled, not with briars and thorns, but with all sweet-smelling and useful
plants, with heavenly trees and flowers. . . . And how is this to be effected,
under God's grace, but by godly and practical meditation through the day?"
 Of course, he knew that it is only by slow degrees that meditation is
able to soften our hearts. It will be like the unfolding of leaves in the
spring. But gradually it will bring us to deep feelings of love and gratitude,
self-reproach, earnest repentance and an eager longing after a new heart. 
He admitted, however, that meditation was not very easy: "We are what we
are—Englishmen; and for us who are active in our habits and social in our
tempers, fasting and meditation have no such great attractions, and are of no
such easy observance."  Nevertheless, he asked his hearers,
Englishmen as himself: "Is God habitually in our thoughts? Do we think of
Him, and of His Son our Saviour, through the day? . . . When we do things in
themselves right, do we lift up our minds to Him, and desire to promote His
glory . . . to know His will more exactly . . . and aiming at fulfilling it
more completely and abundantly? Do we wait on His grace to enlighten, renew,
strengthen us? . . . We are always with ourselves and God. . . ." 
Words such as these prove the reality of Newman's faith and show the background
of his beautiful, unshakeable mental balance. They also prove a certain inner
experience of the invisible world and his Creator, a perception effected not
only by means of his intellect but of his entire personality. This perception
helped him to bear his failures and troubles and also the weaknesses and
shortsightedness of some ecclesiastical authorities. Though God acted so
mysteriously regarding his special talents, his faith prevented the slightest
doubt. He never feared for the future as far as the Almighty was concerned
because he knew that God's hand was over him and that he acted under the
patronage of the Blessed Virgin and the wonderworking Saint Philip.  He
often experienced the reality of his good guardian angel.  That is why he
could live in a wonderful stability and serenity of mind. While he was always
extremely careful in his statements concerning secular matters, he spoke with a
surprising boldness of speech about the dogmatic truths of revelation. Though
he naturally shrank from troubles and difficulties, and though he could shudder
at the pain his "sensitive skin" caused him, his faith conquered all,
and unhesitatingly he followed the kindly light of God's will and God's
revelation and became a Catholic.
If we consider that he seems to have enjoyed only very seldom, if at all, the
experiential perception of God's presence and the palpable certitude of his
union with "the Lover of his Soul" which is bestowed on the mystics,
his faith must have been great indeed. For mystics it is easier, at least in a
sense, to be magnanimous and heroic. Newman's most intimate biographical
writings, however, his most confidential letters, his most self-revealing
sermons, do not contain a single passage that can be explained solely as a
mystical experience in the strict sense of the word. We cannot suppose that he
would have excluded such experience from the many things he wrote about his spiritual
life. Of course, his life of pure faith was now and again brightened by great
supernatural consolations. He wrote about "special visitations and
comforts from the Spirit . . . yearnings after the life to come, or bright and
pleasing gleams of God's eternal election". He thought about them and
considered them a "choice encouragement to his soul".  He spoke
about "a thick black veil" which is spread between this world and the
next. Every now and then, however, "marvellous disclosures are made to us
of what is behind it. . . . At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which
we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness,
our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible
of the contact of something more than earthly. We know not where we are, but we
have been bathing in water, and a voice tells us that it is blood. Or we have a
mark signed upon our foreheads, and it spake of Calvary. Or we recollect a hand
laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled
His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead." 
This he taught in one of his sermons, convinced that "the spiritual heart
may see Him even upon earth".  But all these statements can be
explained quite apart from the mystical works of Saint Teresa of Avila and
Saint John of the Cross.
There are even some positive proofs which seem to show that in his long life he
seldom or never enjoyed God's presence in this mystical way. When a meditation
had seemed very long to him he wrote down in his diary: "If an hour tries
me, what will serving and adoring for ever in heaven?"  Is it
possible that one who had real mystical experiences should say such a thing?
Moreover, his diaries, his meditations and devotions, and the fact that the
pages in the works of Saint John of the Cross in his study have never been cut,
raise the same question. He himself seems to confirm this view explicitly when
he prays: "The Saints . . . who keep close to Thee, see visions, and in
many ways are brought into sensible perception of Thy presence. But to a sinner
such as I am, what is left but to possess Thee without seeing Thee? . . . To
live by faith is my necessity, from my present state of being and from my sin;
but Thou hast pronounced a blessing on it. Thou hast said that I am more
blessed if I believe on Thee, than if I saw Thee. . . . Enable me to believe as
if I saw; let me have Thee always before me as if Thou wert always bodily and
sensibly present." 
 Aut. Wr., 5.
 See Mt 11:26, Authorised Version.
 Ap., 2.
 Jn 15:17.
 Car. C., A.10.11.; an account by Fr. Eaglesim, who
lived with Newman during his later years. That Newman admitted the reality of
material phenomenon is shown in Dr. Zeno, John Henry Newman, Our Way to
 Sub. D., 208-29.
 Par. Pl. S., 6:92.
 Card. C., A.43.8.
 Sub. D., 398.
 Par. Pl. S., 1:20-21.
 Gramm. 389ff.
 Pa. Pl. S., 4:257, 261, 265.
 Lett. D., 20:437.
 Cop. L., to Morris, Jan. 4, 1885.
 Aut. Wr., 222-48, passim, esp. 247.
 Pers. C., Ornsby, Jan. 16, 1879.
 Lett. D., 18:198.
 Par. Pl. S., 3:348; Med. 12: (3), 3.
 See Private Meditations, Devotions and Prayers, esp. the chapter "On Devotion and
 Par. Pl. S., 1:142-43.
 Ibid., 145.
 Card. C., B.13.10.
 Pers. C., Gilberne, Oct. 10, 1876.
 Par. Pl. S., 6:41-42.
 Ibid., 43, 40.
 Ibid., 4:475.
 Ibid., 7:212-13.
 Murray, 231.
 Ward, 2:346.
 Par. Pl. S., 2:226.
 Ibid., 5:10-11.
 Ibid., 4:242.
 Aut. Wr., 229.
 Med., 7: (2), 1, 2.
Fr. Zeno, O.F.M. Cap. is one of the world's foremost Newman scholars, obtained a Ph.D. in English language and literature and did his doctoral thesis on Newman's epistemology.
If you'd like to receive the FREE
IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes
regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and
author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!