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John Henry Newman: A very brief history, by Eamon Duffy, and Newman: The heart of holiness, by Roderick Strange

15 November 2019

Michael Wheeler reads two RC scholars’ short guides to Newman

WHEN the BBC devoted three-and-a-half hours of screen time to the beatification of Cardinal Newman by Pope Benedict XVI, on 19 September 2010, two experts were invited to Birmingham to explain the significance of the ceremony and of the Blessed John Henry: Mgr Roderick Strange, then Rector of the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, and the late Dr Geoffrey Rowell, then Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. As this year’s canonisation ceremony took place in Rome, no such extended coverage was offered. But at least we now have two further short books that mark the event, after Rod Garner’s (Features, 11 October).

Strange, now Professor of Theology at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, dedicates his book to Rowell, with whom he taught a class on Newman for 11 years in Oxford. “When people think about Newman”, he writes, “they tend to think immediately about his ideas, the contribution he has made to Christian thought.” Strange’s interest in this, his latest book on Newman, is not so much in what the saint has to say on a variety of subjects as in “his own interior life — in his intimacy with God, in his understanding of Christ, in contemplation, in prayer and his experience of darkness, the dark night of the soul”. Written by a Roman Catholic priest who, like Newman, has always been involved in education in one way or another, this book lives up to its subtitle, focusing upon “the heart of holiness”.

Holiness takes many forms, he reminds us, ranging from the holiness of martyrs and mystics to that of teachers and pastors. Newman, Strange believes, “embraced the paschal mystery” throughout his long and often difficult life. Newman considered that he had “nothing of a Saint” about him, and yet he was a holy man who found in solitude and stillness a “depth of peace in the presence of God”, as explored in the Christmas sermon “Equanimity”, which he preached in 1839. Here was “no dry academic”, but rather a man who lived out his motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, and who wrote joyfully in 1846 of having the Reserved Sacrament “under the very roof” in which he lived at Maryvale.

If Strange’s book can be described as a series of reflections on the interior life of a saint by a theologian, Eamon Duffy’s is largely a study of Newman’s life and ideas, written by the distinguished Emeritus Professor of Christian History at Cambridge. Setting aside occasional signs of haste, as in errors that slip into the Chronology, this “very brief history” offers a well-judged account of the territory — Newman and the Fathers, faith and doubt, Newman’s Catholicism, Man of Letters — and finally Newman’s legacy.

Duffy is very good at finding the right lapidary statement to which the reader can cling when the subject-matter is difficult. When discussing Newman’s reflections on “the problems of dogmatic definition”, for example, that “rose out of his study of the Christological beliefs of pre-Nicene authors”, he points out how he was “aware that doctrine had a history”. As one might expect from Duffy, documentary evidence is deployed to good effect, as when he quotes from the “oddest item” in a scrapbook in the Birmingham Oratory: the faded back cover of a school exercise book dating from 1812, when Newman was just 11 years old, and on which, “then and at other key points over the course of his long life, he made a series of autobiographical jottings.”

How revealing it would be to put this list, ending “And now a Cardinal. March 2 1884”, alongside similar lists made by Gladstone and Ruskin. What Duffy describes as Newman’s “self-conscious brooding over his own past” was characteristic of all three of these truly eminent Victorians.

Duffy is right when he suggests that every other Victorian theologian has become of mainly historical interest, but that Newman’s writings are “still worth reading for their continuing relevance and vitality”: “He is still our contemporary.”

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and a former Lay Canon of Winchester.

John Henry Newman: A very brief history
Eamon Duffy
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Newman: The heart of holiness
Roderick Strange
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
 Church Times Bookshop special price £12.99

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