Friday, August 23, 2019

Preview: Newman and Literature, Part Two

As I commented on the Son Rise Morning Show earlier this week (Monday, 8/19), Blessed John Henry Newman knew the power of Literature--of stories, tales, fiction--to persuade and move an audience. One of the best proofs of this is his first novel, Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert. It is a semi-autobiographical story about a High Church Anglican at Oxford who becomes Catholic.

When the novel was published in 1848, the Advertisement to the novel explained its purpose:

THE following tale is not intended as a work of controversy in behalf of the Catholic Religion, but as a description of what is understood by few, viz., the course of thought and state of mind,—or rather one such course and state,—which issues in conviction of its Divine origin.

Nor is it founded on fact, to use the common phrase. It is not the history of any individual mind among the recent converts to the Catholic Church. The principal characters are imaginary; and the writer wishes to disclaim personal allusion in any. It is with this view that he has feigned ecclesiastical bodies and places, to avoid the chance, which might otherwise occur, of unintentionally suggesting to the reader real individuals, who were far from his thoughts.

At the same time, free use has been made of sayings and doings which were characteristic of the time and place in which the scene is laid. And, moreover, when, as in a tale, a general truth or fact is exhibited in individual specimens of it, it is impossible that the ideal representation should not more or less coincide, in spite of the author's endeavour, or even without his recognition, with its existing instances or champions.

It must also be added, to prevent a further misconception, that no proper representative is intended in this tale of the religious opinions which had lately so much influence in the University of Oxford.

Newman wrote the novel in part to answer another work of fiction, From Oxford to Rome: And how it fared with some who lately made the journey by Miss Elizabeth Harris. Harris had become a Catholic and then returned to the Anglican communion. She intimated in the novel that Newman and his Oratorian fellow converts were thinking about returning to the Church of England too. As the advertisement to the sixth edition of Loss and Gain in 1874 explained:

A TALE, directed against the Oxford converts to the Catholic Faith, was sent from England to the author of this Volume in the summer of 1847, when he was resident at Santa Croce in Rome. Its contents were as wantonly and preposterously fanciful, as they were injurious to those whose motives and actions it professed to represent; but a formal criticism or grave notice of it seemed to him out of place.

The suitable answer lay rather in the publication of a second tale; drawn up with a stricter regard to truth and probability, and with at least some personal knowledge of Oxford, and some perception of the various aspects of the religious phenomenon, which the work in question handled so rudely and so unskilfully.

Especially was he desirous of dissipating the fog of pomposity and solemn pretence, which its writer had thrown around the personages introduced into it, by showing, as in a specimen, that those who were smitten with love of the Catholic Church, were nevertheless as able to write common-sense prose as other men.

Under these circumstances "Loss and Gain" was given to the public.

Newman  was not aiming to write a Catholic novel of opposing propaganda, however, but a good novel. Notice that one of things he disliked about Harris's novel was that the Catholic converts she depicted weren't as able "to write common-sense prose as other men"! Her characters were pompous and pretentious--Newman wanted to write more naturally and often pokes fun at those who do speak pompously. He did not write about perfect, sinless men and women, but real, fallen people who are struggling to find their way. In this novel, the way the protagonist, Charles Reding, is navigating is the way of religion. Newman introduces the religious matters that were at issue in Oxford in his time with a discussion about a chapel as Reding and his friend William Sheffield encounter a Mr. Bateman as they walk down High Street in Oxford on their way to Oxley:

He proceeded to give the history of the chapel—all it had been, all it might have been, all it was not, all it was to be.

"It is to be a real specimen of a Catholic Chapel," he said; "we mean to make the attempt of getting the Bishop to dedicate it to the Royal Martyr—why should not we have our St. Charles as well as the Romanists?—and it will be quite sweet to hear the vesper-bell tolling over the sullen moor every evening, in all weathers, and amid all the changes and chances of this mortal life."

Sheffield asked what congregation they expected to collect at that hour.

"That's a low view," answered Bateman; "it does not signify at all. In real Catholic churches the number of the congregation is nothing to the purpose; service is for those who come, not for those who stay away."

"Well," said Sheffield, "I understand what that means when a Roman Catholic says it; for a priest is supposed to offer sacrifice, which he can do without a congregation as well as with one. And, again, Catholic chapels often stand over the bodies of martyrs, or on some place of miracle, as a record; but our service is 'Common Prayer,' and how can you have that without a congregation?"

Bateman replied that, even if members of the University did not drop in, which he expected, at least the bell would be a memento far and near.

"Ah, I see," retorted Sheffield, "the use will be the reverse of what you said just now; it is not for those that come, but for those who stay away. The congregation is outside, not inside; it's an outside concern. I once saw a tall church-tower—so it appeared from the road; but on the sides you saw it was but a thin wall, made to look like a tower, in order to give the church an imposing effect. Do run up such a bit of a wall, and put the bell in it."

"There's another reason," answered Bateman, "for restoring the chapel, quite independent of the service. It has been a chapel from time immemorial, and was consecrated by our Catholic forefathers."

Sheffield argued that this would be as good a reason for keeping up the Mass as for keeping up the chapel.

"We do keep up the Mass," said Bateman; "we offer our Mass every Sunday, according to the rite of the English Cyprian, as honest Peter Heylin calls him; what would you have more?"

Whether Sheffield understood this or no, at least it was beyond Charles. Was the Common Prayer the English Mass, or the Communion-service, or the Litany, or the sermon, or any part of these? or were Bateman's words really a confession that there were clergymen who actually said the Popish Mass once a week? Bateman's precise meaning, however, is lost to posterity; for they had by this time arrived at the door of the chapel. It had once been the chapel of an almshouse; a small farm-house stood near; but, for population, it was plain no "church accommodation was wanted". Before entering, Charles hung back, and whispered to his friend that he did not know Bateman. An introduction, in consequence, took place. "Reding of St. Saviour's—Bateman of Nun's Hall;" after which ceremony, in place of holy water, they managed to enter the chapel in company.

Thus, it's clear that Newman had made a good study of English literature; he knew how to use dialogue to depict character and the conflicts and quandaries faced by the characters in his story. The confusions about faith and worship in the Church of England will continue in Reding's heart and conscience. He begins to have doubts about the 39 Articles of the Church of England; he discusses these doubts with other Anglicans, High Church and Low; he talks to one Catholic convert; he has to tell his family about these difficulties, and once he has decided to become a Catholic Reding endures a succession of arguments against taking such a step. Finally, he comes into a Catholic church--the Passionist parish in London (a Passionist, Blessed Dominic Barberi, received Newman into the Catholic Church)--and presents himself for admission to the Church:

Though Reding had continued standing, no one would have noticed him; but he saw the time was come for him to kneel, and accordingly he moved into a corner seat on the bench nearest him. He had hardly done so, when a procession with lights passed from the sacristy to the altar; something went on which he did not understand, and then suddenly began what, by the Miserere and Ora pro nobis, he perceived to be a litany; a hymn followed. Reding thought he never had been present at worship before, so absorbed was the attention, so intense was the devotion of the congregation. What particularly struck him was, that whereas in the Church of England the clergyman or the organ was everything and the people nothing, except so far as the clerk is their representative, here it was just reversed. The priest hardly spoke, or at least audibly; but the whole congregation was as though one vast instrument or Panharmonicon, moving all together, and what was most remarkable, as if self-moved. They did not seem to require any one to prompt or direct them, though in the Litany the choir took the alternate parts. The words were Latin, but every one seemed to understand them thoroughly, and to be offering up his prayers to the Blessed Trinity, and the Incarnate Saviour, and the great Mother of God, and the glorified Saints, with hearts full in proportion to the energy of the sounds they uttered. There was a little boy near him, and a poor woman, singing at the pitch of their voices. There was no mistaking it; Reding said to himself, "This is a popular religion". He looked round at the building; it was, as we have said, very plain, and bore the marks of being unfinished; but the Living Temple which was manifested in it needed no curious carving or rich marble to complete it, "for the glory of God had enlightened it, and the Lamb was the lamp thereof". "How wonderful," said Charles to himself, "that people call this worship formal and external; it seems to possess all classes, young and old, polished and vulgar, men and women indiscriminately; it is the working of one Spirit in all, making many one."

While he was thus thinking, a change came over the worship. A priest, or at least an assistant, had mounted for a moment above the altar, and removed a chalice or vessel which stood there; he could not see distinctly. A cloud of incense was rising on high; the people suddenly all bowed low; what could it mean? the truth flashed on him, fearfully yet sweetly; it was the Blessed Sacrament—it was the Lord Incarnate who was on the altar, who had come to visit and to bless His people. It was the Great Presence, which makes a Catholic Church different from every other place in the world; which makes it, as no other place can be, holy. The Breviary offices were by this time not unknown to Reding; and as he threw himself on the pavement, in sudden self-abasement and joy, some words of those great Antiphons came into his mouth, from which Willis had formerly quoted: "O Adonai, et Dux domûs Israel, qui Moysi in rubo apparuisti; O Emmanuel, Exspectatio Gentium et Salvator earum, veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster".

More about Newman and Literature, including his other literary works, on Monday. Anna Mitchell and I will continue this discussion of Newman and Literature in our Santo Subito! series on the Son Rise Morning Show Monday, August 26 at 6:50 a.m. Central/7:50 a.m. Eastern!

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