Newman - From Faith to Holiness

‘It is certain that the servant of God, John Henry Newman, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Founder of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England, practised the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity towards God and his neighbour also the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude and those connected with them  to a heroic degree..’ so said Pope John Paul II when he declared  Newman ‘Venerable’ on 22nd January 1991, paving the way for his future canonisation.
I have to admit to a great admiration, fascination and devotion to John  Henry Newman that goes back over 30 years to my early student days when I became an ardent anglo catholic– Newman was my hero– here was this man who with a few like minded friends and companions, began what was to become known as the Oxford Movement, changing the face of the Church of England and helping her rediscover what is at the very heart of her nature, her catholicity. A catholicity that Ultimately he could no longer hold with integrity, leading to his entry into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845—a move he made at great personal cost, spiritually and emotionally, not least in that he had to leave his old friends behind to champion the catholic cause in the Church of England alone. He was probably the church of England’s greatest gift to the Catholic Church, not only an outstanding catholic theologian in his own day but an abiding influence in the catholic church,  at the Second Vatican Council and  in today’s catholic church , there is no subject that can not be related to something or the other that Newman had not thought of or written about  already!   

His theology apart, his own merits as a Christian and as a priest and religious have marked him out in a singular way, and  with the visit of Benedict VI to England  the cause for his canonisation is bound to gather momentum! Indeed it is very possible that Benedict will declare him ‘Blessed’ when he visits Birmingham later this September! With this in mind, his mortal remains have already been translated, moved to a new tomb inside the Birmingham Oratory, a move not without some controversy, as it meant removing him from the grave at Rednal that he shared with his closest friend– Ambrose St John.

For those interested in biography I suppose one starts with Meriol Trevor’s monumental two volume work, it certainly influenced the major piece I wrote for my first theology degree.  Having recently re read it I suppose it doesn’t quite have that cutting edge – no wonder my own piece was described as a bit hagiographical!   However  it was that first reading  when I was 20 that fired me with  not only an enthusiasm for Newman but a religious fervour to fuel my growing sense of< vocation to the priesthood– I wanted to be just like him right down to the celibacy! 

So where does one begin when trying to talk about Newman? Newman was certainly a man of great imagination , an imagination which shows itself not just in his prose but his poetry and verse too. It was this imagination that gave him a  sense of God’s unseen, spirit filled world from childhood onwards. As Sheridan  Gilley puts it he had ‘an other worldly vision,’ a religious experience which gave him ‘ the platonic sense of another world more real than this one.’ in a sense all this world was for him but a dim image of a greater reality! He wrote in his Apologia that as a child he use to wish the Arabian tales were true; ‘my imagination ran on unknown influences, on magical powers and talismans’.. ‘I thought life might be a dream, or I  an angel and all this world a deception, my fellow angels by a playful device concealing them selves from me and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world.’

Newman was a sensitive person, he had the habit of seemingly taking offence at often quite small matters, although there were many occasions when he was sorely abused and mistreated not only by his critics but by his religious superiors who were quite happy to take advantage of Newman in various ways over the course of his long life. He certainly had more than his fair share of enemies who worked against him  behind his back whilst making out to be his friends. Yet he worked tirelessly, often in poor health, his parish work in the  Birmingham slums, founding the oratory and school, travelling backwards and forwards to Ireland, to almost single-handedly found the university in Dublin and raising much of the money, all this while finding time to write not only 100’s of letters, corresponding with individuals in need of spiritual advice as well as religious and political  leaders of the day, writing his diaries, but also the later theological works such as the Grammar of Assent. Described as a master of the English language, he managed to write the earlier ’Essay on Development’ in 1845 at Littlemore, standing up, for such was his habit, whilst undergoing his own deepest spiritual crisis before his final decision to go over to Rome. That Essay still the basis for much of what we talk about when we talk of doctrinal development in the Church, both Anglican and Roman!

Master of the English language, he was acutely aware of the importance of language in expressing religious ideas. He was a moving preacher if we are to believe that famous description by Matthew Arnold (son of Thomas) ( in Ker  JH Newman p.90 following) who writes of ‘the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St.Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music– subtle, sweet, mournful’. Most often noted , says Ian Ker, was the sweetness of the musical voice, low and soft but also piercing and thrilling– the antithesis of normal oratory but ‘having a mysterious power of its own’. The only  device he seemed to use was the long pause– but even that seemed to be not for effect but the result of sheer intensity of thought! His more eloquent passages seemed like ‘involuntary outbursts of a preacher unable to contain himself any longer but…..whose purpose was  to convey the most practical and real of messages in as plain and simple a language as  possible’. And yet  we are told he read his sermons ’without any change in the inflexion of his voice, without gesture– eyes remaining fixed on the text’.

As a preacher he believed the preacher of the word of Christ should not only preach the word, but live a life that reflected it! As a young man he spoke of ’personal influence’  as ’the means for propagating the truth’ . Nothing anonymous would ever convert people he said. Conversion is something personal, involving the human heart, ‘the heart.. reached not through reason but through imagination’ said Newman. Newman ‘believed  deeply in the creeds’, (Geoffrey Rowell) and yet ‘they were always symbols of a faith that was not exhausted by them.’ When he was made a cardinal in 1879 he took as his motto ’Cor ad cor loquitur’ -’Heart speaks to heart’. Words from the 17th century saint, Francis de Sales, for whom it summed up the pastoral mission of the preacher and teacher.

For him the revelation  of God in Christ was something personal, at heart about becoming Christ like– it is by living such a  life that we come to know the doctrine. Christ’s call is a call to discipleship, a call to holiness– that call which we respond to in faith –yes but before holiness there must come faith . A personal faith in a personal God,  not something to be measured and compared– FAITH just is! What is it then that  makes one person believe in god  and yet another person sees no reason to believe in his existence? This was a question Newman grappled with not least when his own brother abandoned his faith. Why don’t people believe? He thought the rejection of Christianity rose ‘from a fault of the heart, not the intellect.’ It was a ‘ dislike of the contents of scripture’ that was ‘at the bottom of unbelief’, he said!  Perhaps even more true in our own time!  For Newman what amounts to feelings makes us believe or not! He firmly believed that the most powerful arguments for Christianity did not convince, but only silence people! He described  at bottom ‘ a secret  antipathy for the doctrines of Christianity which is quite out of reach of argument.’  

In his Epiphany sermon of 1839 preached before the Chancellor and university ’ Faith and Reason, contrasted as habits of mind’  he speaks of a faith that exists in a person that is not tested or verified by reason, just as the faith we read of in the scriptures in fact! He says ’If faith were merely …. a believing upon evidence or a sort of conclusion upon a process of reasoning’ then it would scarcely be ’a novel principle of action, as the Bible regards it. Thus ’a child or uneducated person may…..  savingly act on Faith, without  being able to produce reasons why he so acts.’  Religious faith  for Newman, ‘was influenced …. less by evidence, more by previously –entertained principles, views and wishes’. Faith as something personal and subjective, dependent on what he was to describe as ‘antecedent probabilities’. 

Faith  created not so much by facts but probabilities according to one’s moral temperament– as he remarked ‘ A  good man and a bad man will think very different things probable‘ these feelings which ‘come only of a supernatural grace’ all add up to ‘make us think evidence sufficient, which, (he admits) falls short of a proof in itself.’ And I suppose most of us would understand exactly what he means.

Newman doesn’t deny reason its place, however in another sermon in the series’ Implicit and explicit reason’ (St. Peter’s Day 1840) he says ’ it does not follow that all who have faith should recognise and should be able to state what they believe and why’! True faith is not based on argument and proof,  ‘otherwise every child, every peasant must be a theologian!’ And in any case real faith is more than this,  for’ he states, ’ when our argument is  traced down to its simple elements, there must ever be something assumed ultimately which is incapable of  proof.’



Newman thought his idea of ‘antecedent probability’ developed in his university sermons of 1843, as one of his most original, it is ‘the great instrument of conviction in religious matters’. Later he was to write ’It is how you convert factory girls and philosophers’ (letters and diaries ,vol xi 293; xv 381) p167 Ker- ‘On being a Christian’ ). In his later work he also speaks of the peasant and the genius– all come to faith by the same processes! Faith isn't all probabilities however,  he also thought about how we move from probability to certainty! In his Apologia(1864) he completed his theory by saying that absolute certitude was the result of an assemblage of concurring and converging probabilities– he also speaks of a collection of weak evidences which make up a strong evidence and a converging evidence that amounts to proof– as human beings we exercise a prudent judgement which decides when there is enough probability for to be convinced!   

He uses a number of analogies to describe the proof of faith. He compares it for example to a cable made up of a number of separate threads, each feeble, yet together as sufficient as an iron rod! I suppose one could say that Newman is just making excuses for a lack of evidence to back up why we believe anything! However he  concludes that how we come to faith is basically true of most of the things we know in life– ‘ many of our most obstinate and most reasonable certitudes depend on proofs which are informal and personal, which baffle our powers of analysis and can not be brought under logical rule because they can not be submitted to logical statistics.’

*He does not adopt the  post –modern stance that religious faith is a purely personal subjective thing, and is basically whatever we want it to be– no, there is truth and that truth is attainable but ’its rays stream upon us through the medium  of our moral as well as our intellectual being’ That’s why Newman thought a good person is more likely to be a believer than a bad person! Some people will never believe  -what we believe just does not relate to the lives of many, the way others look at the world– no amount of proof will make any difference-  ‘ I can not change a man’s principles or the conclusions he draws from them anymore than I can make a crooked man straight.’

For Newman all religion is founded in one way or another on a sense of sin– and isn’t that why Jesus came—to save the world—to save each of us! Where there is no sense of guilt, where conscience is replaced by mere moral sense– there will be—he says—no true religion! Where there is on the one hand a consciousness  of God’s infinite goodness and on the other a consciousness of our own misery and need there will be a need for a revelation, and for faith. That revelation both for Newman and us is Jesus Christ– and here Newman passes from dry academic argument to the more deeply emotive which was so characteristic of him and which one readily identifies with–  there is only one religion in the world which… fulfils our aspirations and needs..(p333 GA)  A definite message addressed to all mankind– It is Christ –N ...speaks of Jesus as the one who ’fulfils the one great need of human nature, the healer of its wounds, the physician of the soul.’ (the Grammar p 359)  Christianity alone, he says, has ‘ that gift of


staunching and healing the one deep wound of human nature’

We all  here know this –we all know our need for God and we know how much he loves us and wants us for himself, despite ourselves , our fallen nature-  Basically we Believe because we love, this does not mean we deny the traditional arguments and proofs for the existence of God but we should not be afraid to admit to our very real feelings about his existence either!  Doesn’t matter how intellectual we may be– if there is nothing here in the heart then our faith is nothing– to live a life of faith is to follow one’s conscience and try to live a Christian life-for Newman the Christian revelation is one addressed to the heart– in his own words ‘a revelation addressed to our love of truth and goodness, our fear of sinning and our desire to gain God’s favour’ on the other hand, for someone who loves sin- ’he does not wish the Gospel to be true and therefore is no judge of it’.  ( Ref P & P sermons VIII p188)

And so to living out our faith– our quest for personal holiness . The first sermon in the first volume of Newman’s ‘Parochial and Plain Sermons’ is entitled ‘Holiness necessary for future Blessedness’ - based on the text ‘Holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’ (Hebrews 12:14)  

To obtain the gift of holiness is the work of a lifetime. No man will ever be perfect here, so sinful is our nature. Thus in putting off the  day of repentance, these men  are reserving for a few chance years, when strength and vigour are gone, that work for which a whole life would not be enough’. ‘There is much of sin remaining, even in the best of men—(our) doom may be fixed any moment; and though this should not make a man despair today, yet it should ever make him tremble tomorrow’. . Yes ’we know something of the power of religion– we love it in a measure– we have many right thoughts– we come to church to pray; this is proof that we are prepared for heaven– we are safe!’ ‘ quite sure that a man who is contented with his own proficiency in Christian holiness, is at best in a dark state, or rather in great peril’. ’Many men are contented with partial and indistinct views of religion, and mixed motives. Be you content with nothing short of perfection, exert yourselves day by day to grow in knowledge and grace, that, if so be, you may at length attain to the presence of Almighty God.’  

Newman doesn’t want to put us off in our personal striving after holiness , perfection, its not going to be easy but its not impossible!

‘Let no one say that I discourage him, and propose to him a task beyond his strength. All of us have the gifts of grace pledged to us from our youth up’. We know it but ’do not use our privilege’. When we realise what we have to do, ’we think God a hard taskmaster, who commands much from a sinful race. Narrow indeed, is the way of life, but infinite is His love and power who is with the church in Christ’s place, to guide us along it’.

Yes, ’We dwell in the full light of the Gospel, and the full grace of the sacraments. We ought to have the holiness of Apostles. There is no reason except our own wilful corruption, that we are not by this time walking in the steps of St.Paul or St.John, and following them as they followed Christ.’

The quest for personal holiness, perfection if you like, is an ideal says Ker , that Newman translates into ‘a ruthlessly realistic spirituality in which there is no room for merely uplifting  platitudes and pious aspirations’  (and yet he uses ‘the eloquence of a great rhetorician’)  

The paradox is that the ideal of holiness is as elevated and lofty, says Ker, as the means of attaining it are  humble and mundane. Real spirituality is for Newman characterised by its utter unpretentiousness– a life pleasing to Christ is one that  ‘consists in little things… in the continual practice of small duties which are distasteful to us’ — ‘‘Nothing is more difficult than to be disciplined and regular in our religion. It is very easy to be religious by fits and starts and to keep up our feelings by artificial stimulants, but regularity seems to trammel us and we become impatient.’ For Newman real holiness is achieved by concrete acts of no particular significance in themselves, for he says we should remember ’how mysteriously little things are in this world connected with great; how single moments, improved or wasted, are the salvation or ruin of all important interests.’ The hallmark of the truly spiritual person is that he or she ‘is consistent’ in a ’jealous carefulness about all things, little and great’.   In later life he would say ‘I have ever made consistency the mark of a saint’- the greatest mortification ‘to do well the ordinary duties of the day.’ It’s not that hard striving for holiness - we don’t have to ‘literally bear Christ’s cross or live on locusts and wild honey’ self denial lies rather in ’such light abstinences as come our way’.

Indeed he warns against the dangers of overdoing it– comparing us to plants, who unless ‘you prune off the luxuriances.. They grow bare, thin and shabby at the roots’. ‘The higher your building is the broader must be its base– so it is with sanctity– acts, words, devotions which are suitable in saints are absurd in other men’.!!  ‘If we would aim at perfection, we must perform well the duties of the day. I do not know of anything more difficult, more sobering, so strengthening than the constant aim to go through the ordinary day’s work well.’ Drawing the humorous conclusion- ’Go to bed in good time and you are already perfect! In pursuit of personal holiness Newman begins from the realistic assumption that rather than desiring to be holy, most people sin because they want to! If there is to be change in a person, there must be the will to change, a willingness that he admits is something that only gradually  develops- ‘Is not holiness the result of many patient, repeated efforts… gradually working on us and first modifying and then changing our hearts.’

It’s quite unreal to pray to be good when one does not in fact particularly want to be good’… rather pray for ’the desire to be good!’ He sees small, voluntary  acts of self denial as a means of acquiring self control and so be able to guard against unexpected temptations like anger, temptations that are ‘irresistible.. when they come upon you.’ A man’s real trial lies in his ‘weak point.. ’not in those things which are easy to him’, but in that one thing or things, that are against his or her ‘nature.’ ‘Any one deliberate habit of sin ‘ he warns ‘incapacitates a man for receiving the gifts of the Gospel.’  That’s why, he reminds us that a total commitment to Christ is rare, for most christians retain a reserve, a ‘corner’ in their heart which they intend not to give up, if only because they feel they will not be themselves any longer’ , and so on the whole we are quite content not to be changed at all and remain unchanged!  ‘‘Newman urges the constant need for self examination, searching the heart to understand our own nature so that we may see better our own sinfulness and so the greater experience the blessing of redemption, pardon, sanctification which otherwise remain mere words. He sees self deception as one of the great enemies of the Christian life- ‘the more guilty we are, the less we know it; for the oftener we sin, the less we are distressed at it’. However we should not become to self obsessed or self absorbed, Newman is alert to a too unhealthy introspection! Contemplate your sins whilst keeping Christ before you– however he warns against the person who ’imprisons himself in his own thoughts and rests on the workings of his own mind.. Instead of putting self aside, and living upon him who speaks in the Gospels.’ Our faith, our religion reveals itself above all in actions- ‘Its easy to make professions, easy to say fine things… easy to astonish men with truths which they do not know…’  but in order to prove that faith is real ‘Let not your words run on, force every one of them into action’. To do ‘one deed of obedience for Christ’s sake’ is better than any amount of religious eloquence, feeing or imagination’. ‘Lets avoid talking’ ….‘That a thing is true, is no reason that it should be said, but that it should be done’. And here particularly pertinent to the season— we shall be more moved by ‘bearing’ the cross rather than by ’glowing accounts of it’. ‘Think of the cross’, he says, when you rise and when you lie down, when you go out and when you come in, when you eat and when you walk and when you converse, when you buy and when you sell, when you labour and when you rest….sealing all your doings with this one mental action the thought of the Crucified. Do not talk of it to others, be silent, like the penitent woman, who showed her love in deep subdued acts’.

In all  Newman’s preaching there is a deeply pessimistic realism on the Gospel’s inherent lack of appeal for fallen man– some people are just inherently bad and they will never believe the gospel  and yet he continually draws our attention to its reality– not vague statements about Jesus’s love and his willingness to receive sinners, Christ as some nice idea or vision, rather the real Jesus, the man of gestures, words and deeds,.. A real ,living being’  A Jesus he made a powerful realization in those  Sunday sermons in Oxford that Christ who calls each one of us to faith and to live lives of personal holiness– We should all of us be on the look out for Christ- we don’t always know when he is calling us or where he calls us but we keep on searching-

 I draw to a close with words from one of the later parochial sermons—’The Shepherd of our Souls’ ‘Let us not be content with ourselves; let us not make our own hearts our home, or this world our home, or our friends our home; let us look out for a better country, that is a heavenly. Let us look out for him who alone can guide us to that better country; let us call heaven our home, and this life a pilgrimage; let us view ourselves as sheep in the trackless desert, who unless they follow the shepherd, will be sure to lose themselves… We are safe while we keep close to him and under his eye… Blessed are they who give the flower of their days, and their strength of soul and body to him, blessed are they who in their youth turn to him who gave his for them and ..would give it  to them ..that they might live forever. Blessed are they who resolve– come good, come evil, come sunshine, come tempest, come honour, come dishonour– that he shall be their Lord and Master, their King and their God! They will come to a perfect end, and to peace at the last. …  ‘  (P & P Sermons p1706 ff )

Such a man was Newman who surely found that peace at the last. The man of great intellectual sophistication, who had the heart and soul of a simple Christian believer for whom this world, for all its glories, is but an imitation of another. He spent his life in pursuit of the truth, religious truth, ‘a truth he believed could only be found through that growth in holiness which was for him the only evidence of life (or a life worth having), when heart speaks to heart and it is from the shadows and images of this world that mind and heart pass into truth’. Sheridan Gilley

His own epitaph  ‘Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem’