Katie van Schaijik

Newman becomes Catholic

Oct. 8, 2010, at 2:26pm

October 9th is the anniversary of the day in 1845 when Newman entered the Catholic Church, “the one true fold.”

Looking for something to post in honor of the occasion, I read just now for the first time a remembrance of Newman by J.A. Froude, brother of Newman’s close friend, Hurrell. It’s more than worth reading in full, and I won’t resist quoting it at length. For me it evokes Newman exactly as I have encountered him imaginatively, reading his works and reading about his life, and through beseeching his intercession as a friend in heaven.

When I entered at Oxford, John Henry Newman was beginning to be famous. The responsible authorities were watching him with anxiety; clever men were looking with interest and curiosity on the apparition among them of one of those persons of indisputable genius who was likely to make a mark upon his time. His appearance was striking. He was above the middle height, slight and spare. His head was large, his face remarkably like that of Julius Cæsar. The forehead, the shape of the ears and nose, were almost the same. The lines of the mouth were very peculiar, and I should say exactly the same. I have often thought of the resemblance, and believed that it extended to the temperament. In both there was an original force of character which refused to be moulded by circumstances, which was to make its own way, and become a power in the world; a clearness of intellectual perception, a disdain for conventionalities, a temper imperious and wilful, but along with it a most attaching gentleness, sweetness, singleness of heart and purpose. Both were formed by nature to command others; both had the faculty of attracting to themselves the passionate devotion of their friends and followers; and in both cases, too, perhaps the devotion was rather due to the personal ascendency of the leader than to the cause which he represented. It was Cæsar, not the principle of the empire, which overthrew Pompey and the constitution. Credo in Newmannum was a common phrase at Oxford, and is still unconsciously the faith of nine-tenths of the English converts to Rome.

He captures two particularly striking features of Newman: his originality and the intense reality of his faith.

Here were thoughts like no other man’s thoughts, and emotions like no other man’s emotions. Here was a man who really believed his creed, and let it follow him into all his observations upon outward things.

...No one was more essentially tender-hearted. But he took the usually accepted Christian account of man and his destiny to be literally true, and the terrible character of it weighed upon him.

Sunt lacrymæ rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

One feels his essential personalism, both in the sense of the power and breadth and refinement of his individual personality, and in the sense of the way his mind and heart operated, and in the themes that occupied his attention.

I had then never seen so impressive a person. I met him now and then in private; I attended his church and heard him preach Sunday after Sunday; he is supposed to have been insidious, to have led his disciples on to conclusions to which he designed to bring them, while his purpose was carefully veiled. He was, on the contrary, the most transparent of men. He told us what he believed to be true. He did not know where it would carry him. No one who has ever risen to any great height in this world refuses to move till he knows where he is going. He is impelled in each step which he takes by a force within himself. He satisfies himself only that the step is a right one, and he leaves the rest to Providence. Newman’s mind was world-wide. He was interested in everything which was going on in science, in politics, in literature. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light upon the central question, what man really was, and what was his destiny…

Listen to what Froude says of Newman’s sermons of the day.

The hearts of men vibrate in answer to one another like the strings of musical instruments. These sermons were, I suppose, the records of Newman’s own mental experience. They appear to me to be the outcome of continued meditation upon his fellow-creatures and their position in this world; their awful responsibilities; the mystery of their nature, strangely mixed of good and evil, of strength and weakness. A tone, not of fear, but of infinite pity runs through them all, and along with it a resolution to look facts in the face; not to fly to evasive generalities about infinite mercy and benevolence, but to examine what revelation really has added to our knowledge, either of what we are or of what lies before us.

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us. Pray for the Church.

Josef Seifert • Oct 9, 2010 - 1:57 am


Dear Jules,
Your text on and by the Maritains is just wonderful. The young Maritains must have had a very similar experience to the one Friedrich Nietzsche describes so forcefully in the third Untimely Meditation (Unzeitgemäße Betrachtung); this is a work which overtly deals with Schopenhauer but, as we know from later letters and works of Nietzsche, really recounts Nietzsche’s own experience. There Nietzsche expresses his conviction that every philosopher who takes his starting point from Kant will fall into a scepticism which ‘corrodes and smashes everything.’ Nietzsche expresses his own feelings in the moving words of the famous German poet Heinrich von Kleist who wrote in a letter that, after having studied Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he felt his deepest aspirations and search for meaning had been frustrated, the ‘most sacred inner sanctuary of his soul had been deadly wounded,’ and ‘the highest and only goal of his life bad sunk.’ The goal referred to by Kleist was his hope to come to know a truth which was not relative to human consciousness and opinion, a truth ‘which remains true until after the grave.’

Josef Seifert • Oct 9, 2010 - 3:54 am

Here is the text of Nietzsche and Kleist from Nietzsches 3rd Untimely Meditation on Schopenhauer as Educator, a work in which Nietzsche’s fight against truth is obvious but in which he makes the astonishing comments of which your Maritain and truth piece reminded me:

This was the first danger in whose shadow Schopenhauer grew up: isolation. The second was despair of the truth. This danger attends every thinker who sets out from the Kantian philosophy, provided he is a vigorous and whole man in suffering and desire and not a mere clattering thought- and calculating-machine. Now we all know very well the shameful implications of this presupposition; it seems to me, indeed, that Kant has had a living and life-transforming influence on only a very few men. One can read everywhere, I know, that since this quiet scholar produced his work a revolution has taken place in every domain of the spirit; but I cannot believe it. For I cannot see it in those men who would themselves have to be revolutionized before a revolution could take place in any whole domain whatever. If Kant ever should begin to exercise any wide influence we shall be aware of it in the form of a gnawing and disintegrating skepticism and relativism; and only in the most active and noble spirits who have never been able to exist in a state of doubt would there appear instead that …  despair of all truth such as Heinrich von Kleist for example experienced it as the effect of the Kantian philosophy. “Not long ago,” he writes in his moving way, “I became acquainted with the Kantian philosophy—and I now have to tell you of a thought I derived from it, which I feel free to do because I have no reason to fear it will shatter you so profoundly and painfully as it has me.—We are unable to decide whether that which we call truth really is truth, or whether it only appears to us to be it. If the latter, then the truth we assemble here is nothing after our death, and all endeavor to acquire a possession which will follow us to the grave is in vain.—If the pointed edge of this thought does not pierce your heart, do not smile at one who feels wounded by it in the deepest and innermost sanctuary of his being. My only and highest goal has sunken and I have no other one left.” [Letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, Mar. 22, 1801.] When indeed will men feel in this natural Kleistian fashion, when will they again learn to assess the meaning of a philosophy in the “innermost sanctuary” of their soul?

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 9, 2010 - 6:56 pm

Dear Josef,

Thanks so much for this amazing quote from Nietzsche. Unless you beat me to it, which would be great, I’m going to turn it into a separate post soon.


Josef Seifert • Oct 10, 2010 - 12:26 am

that is of course fine. No beating for it. I will also look for a fuller translation of the truly outstanding letter of Kleist on truth being the condition of a life worth living, of which Nietzsche only quotes a part. Unfortunately Kleist’s despair of truth did not end so happily as the Maritains’. He did not encounter a Bergson and committed with his fiancee suicide.

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