A homily commemorating John Henry Newman, at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, February 21, 2018
John Henry Newman spent his life pursuing the peace that this world cannot give. He tried to find it in the church, but even there it seems that he was disappointed. He is celebrated as some kind of martyr in the Roman Catholic church, after his conversion to their flock, and as some kind of lost sheep savant by the Anglicans. He was a man of deep and tormented faith, and of profound intelligence, but he was not what might call happy. He was a perfectionist, and can anyone, living this life, prefer perfection and find any lightness of being?
I love that the first reading chosen for John Henry is a love song, because I think that it is love that he was pursuing all that time, love that he longed for in his quest for perfection, completeness, soul-satisfaction.
When his father died, John Henry wrote in his diary,¹
When I die, shall I be followed to the grave by my children? my Mother said the other day she hoped to live to see me married, but I think I shall either die within a College walls, or a Missionary in a foreign land – no matter where, so that I die in Christ.²
I think John Henry was lonely, and that Christ was as much his consolation as his committed husband.
He approached his ordination like a wedding, with excitement and dread, with joy and cold feet. He wrote one day,
As the time approaches for my ordination, thank God, I feel more and more happy … Let me, living or dying, in fortune and misfortune, in joy and sadness, in health & Sickness, in honour and dishonour, be Thine
but the very next day, the day before he was ordained, he wrote,
Now, … how hard my heart is, how dead my faith. I seem to have an unwillingness to take the vows, a dread of so irreparable a step, a doubting whether the office is so blessed, the Christian religion so true
and after the event,
I feel as a man thrown suddenly into deep water.
Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer,
as the Song of Solomon says.
I was first introduced to Newman as one of the leading lights of the Oxford Movement, a revivalist movement in the Church of England, not to be confused with revivalists of the evangelical stripe. These were men (all men) who wanted to reform the Church of England, to purify it, to remove it from worldly and political concerns to a place of pure holiness and worship, untainted by impure Puritanism or superstitious Papism. The church should be, Newman considered, a place removed from this world, having more in common with the worshippers around the throne of heaven than with the passers-by outside its own doors. He wrote in one sermon,
Heaven then is not like this world; I will say what it is much more like, – a church. For in a place of public worship no language of this world is heard; there are no schemes brought forward for temporal objects, great or small; no information how to strengthen our worldly interests, extend our influence, or establish our credit. These things indeed may be right in their way, so that we do not set our hearts upon them; still (I repeat), it is certain that we hear nothing of them in a church. Here we hear solely and entirely of God. We praise Him, worship Him, sing to Him, thank Him, confess to Him, give ourselves up to Him, and ask His blessing.³
The problem, Newman found, was that the world simply would not leave its boots at the church door. It insisted on trampling its hobnailed problems across the pews and even echoing over the altar. He retreated further from conflict, fleeing the Reformation back to Rome, in case he should find it further removed from the day to day arguments and intrigues that beset all cities, all communities, all lives. He found himself a missionary, as he had predicted, but not to foreign parts, burned by sun and dust, but to the modern industrial desert of the English midlands, where the mines and the factories pressed poetry out of men’s souls, and soot marked the cities year round, and not only on Ash Wednesday. I do not know that he found it an escape. He did find more controversy, when the Pope decided to become infallible, a decision which Newman, in a rare moment of diplomacy, declared, “inopportune.”
Nevertheless, he was true to his new vows, his eternal husband, his Christ. He continued to seek consolation, perfection, the companionship of his spirit for which he yearned.
“I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him, but found him not.
Here is the problem: John Henry was right. The church needs, we need the church to be a retreat from the chaos and conflict of the world, a sanctuary for the troubled spirit, a balm for the sin-sick soul, salvation for the sorrowful. Our worship, such as we find on these Wednesday evenings, elevated by pure voices and artful light, is an oasis. It is respite. It is a relief to find ourselves lifted up to heaven along with our prayers.
But we do not take our boots off at the door. We cannot hang up our skin with our coats. We may not be unfaithful, commit adultery against our everyday lives and sneak off in secret to meet up with God. We will remain divided, unsatisfied, lonely unless we are able to love God with our whole lives, and to bring our whole lives to worship around God’s throne. That will mean, in this life, accepting imperfection in the separation of church and the scandalous state of being that surrounds us.
It is the very message of the Incarnation that this is not only possible, but desirable in our relationship with Christ. God’s own self chose the imperfect marriage of the sacred and the profane as the most perfect way of salvation for God’s children.
Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I had brought him into my mother’s house.
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
And so it turns out that Christ and the church, worship and the world, love and labour God and grime is the marriage made in heaven that we consummate on earth, to the satisfaction of our bodies and souls, a welcome companion on the lonely quest for perfection.
¹ John Henry Newman quotes were all found in Love’s Redeeming Work, compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (Oxford University Press, 2001), 402-411
² This and the following diary entries from John Henry Newman, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Henry Tristram (London, 1956), 200-221, quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work
³ John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. I (London, 1875), 1-14, quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work
Biblical quotations are from Song of Solomon 3:1-4