We’re all excited about Ryan Marr’s new book in the Ex Libris series, John Henry Newman, about one of our newest saints! He graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts with us today. Ryan is the director of the National Institute for Newman Studies and the associate editor of the Newman Studies Journal.
In what ways can reading John Henry Newman assist those who wish to develop their own prayer lives?
Ryan Marr: Based on the testimony of his closest friends, we know that Newman had a deep and consistent prayer life. One can get a sense of just how deep by working through Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, a collection of prayers culled from Newman’s papers just a few years after his death. Newman’s prayerfulness, however, shines forth not only in his devotional writings but in all of his essays. The reader can immediately sense that Newman composed his theology from the place of an intimate encounter with the living God. By internalizing some of Newman’s thoughts, we can, in a certain sense, retread the path that he took in coming to know God.
Can you say a little about the phrase “heart speaks to heart” and how it might be meaningful for modern Catholics?
Ryan Marr: John Henry Newman chose the phrase cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaks to heart”) as his cardinatial motto. This quote taken from the writings of St. Francis de Sales informed Newman’s vision of evangelization. Newman thought it was rare for persons to come to faith through being convinced by argumentation. Rather, conversion normally takes place through personal influence—that is, we see the faith embodied in another person close to us and are inspired by that person’s personal example of holiness and charity. As Newman put it in his Tamworth Reading Room lectures, “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” This vision also impacted how Newman wrote about matters of faith. Certainly, Newman was not in any sense anti-intellectual, but his theological method went beyond dialectical reasoning and was infused with a very personalist element. In other words, it flowed out of his lived experience of an all-holy God. This is a significant factor, I think, in why contemporary readers continue to be converted through an encounter with Newman’s writings.
You’ve written, “this was a writer who demanded a response from his readers.” How does he do this in ways that other theologians don’t, or do less well?
Ryan Marr: Newman was compassionate toward sinners and gentle in the spiritual counsel that he gave, but he also had a knack for getting to the heart of the matter when it came to important questions about God and the meaning of life. The preeminent example for me is at the end of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman has just articulated this incredibly nuanced, four-hundred-plus page explanation of how doctrine develops, but he ends on a very personal and pressing note: “And now, dear Reader, time is short, eternity is long. Put not from you what you have here found … Wrap not yourself round in the associations of years past, nor determine that to be truth which you wish to be so, nor make an idol of cherished anticipations. Time is short, eternity is long.” For Newman, what mattered was the truthfulness of what we believe about God, because matters of faith have eternal import—that is to say, they bear upon our eternal destiny. In contrast, many theologians today publish simply for the sake of advancing their career. As a result, their writing lacks the urgency with which Newman approached theological questions.
The passage you quote in the foreword about God having a plan for one’s life is a famous one, but really holds in it several truths. Can you unpack some of them? (Reminder of quote: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.”)
Ryan Marr: One of the most difficult things to accept about life is that we have very little control over our circumstances. This recognition can either generate a great deal of anxiety in our hearts or drive us to develop a complete trust in the God who cares for us. Newman opted for the latter. He lived his life convinced that God had created him to accomplish some definite service. Furthermore, because we serve a crucified Lord, Newman believed that even our trials and sufferings can bear witness to the truth of our faith. Yes, our final destiny is eternal communion with the Triune God, but we arrive at that point by first passing through death. In Newman’s own spiritual journey, even while facing serious illness and the loss of friends, he maintained an abiding conviction that God had a plan for his life and was directing it towards a good end. Thus, Newman could genuinely affirm: “[God] may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
You write, “and he compassionately counseled others not to allow scandals or abuses of power to weaken their sense that God was ultimately in charge and would preserve the Church from ever falling into error.” This is reassuring as we weather the current problems within the Church. Can you talk some about the hope this thought might inspire in all of us?
Ryan Marr: To borrow a fancy phrase from another writer, Newman wanted to give an account for the “double aspect of the Church”: how to square the sins and abuses of the Church’s leaders with the fact that it is truly the body of Christ in the world. Over the course of his spiritual journey, Newman came to recognize that God’s love is always mediated in and through the Church, apart from which there is no salvation. On a human level, ecclesiastical leaders can and do make mistakes—of course—but on the basis of Christ’s promise to Peter, we know that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. Newman clung to this promise. When other Catholics wrote to him with their concerns about what they saw happening in the Church, Newman counseled them to have faith and to be patient, taking solace in the fact that the Holy Spirit would never abandon the people of God.
If you could give readers one gift of understanding about John Henry Newman, what would it be?
Ryan Marr: In an address from 2013, Pope Francis remarked, “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.” In my view, there is a very Newman-esque component to this perspective. For instance, Newman described conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.” What he seemed to mean is that, it is through listening to the stirrings of conscience that we first encounter the voice of God in our lives. Even the most hardened criminal, if he will only soften his heart, has the possibility of turning back towards God. Because of Newman’s convictions on this point, he didn’t feel like it was necessary to badger others into the faith. Newman certainly shared the truth of the Gospel when he was presented with the opportunity to do so, but his preaching and teaching were always imbedded in a personal encounter with the other. We can learn a lot from Newman’s trust in divine providence and gentle modes of persuasion.
Newman can be difficult to understand because of his writing style. Could you elaborate on the “note from the compiler” at the end of the Introduction?
Ryan Marr: I added that note because I didn’t want readers to get discouraged when they first encountered Newman’s writing. There are so many powerful, potentially life-changing insights in Newman’s thought, but they sometimes require work on the part of the reader to mine them. Victorian-era rhetoric was characterized by long sentences, often with several subordinate clauses before you reach the period. I’m convinced that anyone who commits to studying Newman’s work at length will be richly rewarded for their efforts, but I also know that some may be tempted to give up during the early stages of reading him. So that compiler’s note was the literary equivalent of a pep talk on my part!