For the Feast of Blessed John Henry Newman here is a great piece written by a dear friend. If any other dear friend wants to post something then just send it on. No dear friend is too dear! Thank you, Monica. Notice also how some people know how to spell – even when English is not their first language!!!
Our Lady and Blessed John Henry Newman
by Monica Rapeanu
(a native of Romania and a lay Dominican of the Irish Province)
It is just a little over two centuries since John Henry Newman was born and only six years have passed since the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, beatified him. We celebrate his feast day on the 9th of October, which is not the day of his death, but the day he converted to Catholicism, the day when he was received – as he himself beautifully put it – “into the one true Fold of Christ”.
To many, Newman remains most certainly an intriguing figure of the Church. This Englishman used to say that he had nothing of a saint about him and he said this not out of a false humility but because he strongly believed that credible witnesses are more important than the words they say or what others say about them. Understood in this light then, his statement can no longer be seen in contradiction with the fact that only a few years ago he was formally raised to the altars and declared Blessed. His prayers, written at various stages of his life, reveal to us clearly the core themes of his spirituality: complete surrender, trust, patience, humility and, above all, the idea that teaching silently by way of example is the most effective way of preaching. A saint who would admit his own sanctity would hardly be credible; it is often not words that have the power to convince but the way one lives his life. And this is the case with Newman, too. All he wanted was to let Christ shine through everything he did and thus become himself a light to others. He often prayed to Jesus in these words: “Make me preach Thee without preaching – not by words, but by my example…”
John Henry Newman is perhaps known to most of us mainly through his famous Apologia pro vita sua, his eloquent sermons, his hymn “Lead, kindly light”, “The Idea of a University” and the poem “The Dream of Gerontius”. Some may even be familiar with the fact that Cardinal Newman has often been seen as a forefather of Vatican II because he was able to anticipate key themes of this council. But less known perhaps are Newman’s first statements concerning the Virgin Mary, his surprising devotion to Our Lady while he was still an Anglican and his beautiful sermons and prayers dedicated to the Blessed Mother.
His veneration for Mary was not simply an intellectual theory; it descended into practical living and expressed itself in a personal and fervent devotion. Surprisingly enough, Our Lady did play a significant role in Newman’s life even as an Anglican as he himself testifies: “…I had a true devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in whose College I lived [Oriel], whose Altar I served [St. Mary the Virgin], and whose Immaculate Purity I had in one of my earliest printed Sermons made much of.”(1)
Among his sermons given at that time, The Reverence due to the Virgin Mary is most noteworthy, and gives us one of the best summaries we have of Newman’s thought as an Anglican on Our Lady. In this sermon, Newman talks about “the silent duties of every day” which become meritorious and “are blest to the sufficient sanctification of thousands, whom the world knows not of.” Then he goes on to say that “the Blessed Virgin is a memorial of this.”
The value of little things and the importance of our daily duties was a truth dear to the heart of Newman. He contemplated this principle exemplified in an unparalleled fashion in the humble life of the Virgin of Nazareth. And in connection with this, another important point on which Newman dwells in his Anglican writings is the reserve with which Sacred Scripture refers to the Mother of Jesus. Although one may expect to be given a complete ‘picture’ of Mary, Newman regards this relative silence of these texts as containing an important message for believers: “…following the example of Scripture, we had better only think of her with and for her Son, never separating her from Him”.(2) It is, therefore, not by accident that the Gospel tells us nothing about events in the life of this Mother which do not appear to be closely connected with the mystery of her essential, Christ-centered vocation. In fact, in his Mariology, Newman repeatedly points out to the relative silence of Sacred Scripture on the details of our Lady’s life. In regarding Mary, we look to one who is so singular and special, both in herself and her relation to Christ, but at the same time, one whose actions we know not much of and would find hard to imitate. She is indeed continually brought before our minds as being present in the crucial events of Christ’s life, yet almost nothing is told us about her. An important question arises here: can the silence of the Gospels about our Lady be empty, void of any meaning or is it, in fact, an eloquent, expressive silence that we are to perceive? Newman’s answer is that, although we don’t know much of the Blessed Virgin, yet we can make much of the several instances in which she is mentioned.
The Magnificat speaks of her humility as the ultimate root of her greatness: “She has sketched for us her own portrait in the Magnificat”(3), Newman tells us. And while it is true that apart from the miracle at Cana, the presence of Mary remains in the background, another impressive picture of her is given to us here: the first of the ‘signs’ worked by Jesus clearly presents Mary in the guise of a teacher, as she urges the servants to do what Jesus commands. “Her faith anticipated His first miracle”(4) and Her advice “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5) becomes the great maternal counsel that Mary addresses to the Church of every age. This is in fact her essential spoken message to us; besides this, she appears as a Silent Teacher speaking to us through her life which bore this message in silence. What Our Lady teaches us through her own example is precisely how to be true disciples of Christ.
The Blessed Mother is our pattern in receiving and studying the faith. As we already know, little is revealed to us in Scripture concerning the Blessed Virgin, but – as Newman remarks – “there is one grace of which the Evangelists make her the pattern, in a few simple sentences – of Faith.”(5) At the Annunciation, Mary expresses her Fiat saying ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’(Luke 1:38). Later on, as she keeps and ponders everything in her heart, she is to be seen once again as “our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth.”(6) And this is why Newman presents the Blessed Virgin Mary also as a model for all true theologians: she accepts the word of God, ponders it in her heart, deepens or develops her understanding of it. The theological method she uses is what a Christian theologian should follow: ‘first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing’. “And thus she symbolizes to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate and weigh, and define, as well as to profess the Gospel.”(7)
Whether or not Blessed Newman will be considered a doctor of the post-conciliar Church is less important. It is the way he lived his life that will continue to speak to our hearts and it is his devotion to Our Lady that will continue to teach us silently how to follow Christ daily without hesitation. He used to advise seekers after perfection to do the duties of the day, however humdrum, as perfectly as possible. And to follow his advice we only have to follow Mary’s example and do whatever Christ tells us. In an age in which we acutely feel the pressure of having to follow the crowds and do whatever the others do, Newman’s life teaches us the importance of constancy, consistency, and perseverance.
1. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
2. John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons: The Reverence due to the Virgin Mary.
3. John Henry Newman, Letter to Pusey.
4. From a sermon preached by Newman to students and professors of Oxford university on 2 February 1843.