Intelligence and Faith Working Together
Cardinal John Henry Newman is one of the great modern figures of the Christian tradition. A 19th century English academic who converted to the Catholic faith in his forties, Newman was a person of both committed scholarship and deep piety. With the increasing number of people abandoning Christianity today due to the belief that religion is sub-rational and superstitious, Newman’s example as someone of deep intelligence who believed in God should be made more well-known and his works should be more widely read, especially in our churches.
Cardinal Newman strongly believed that being a well-instructed Christian would help bring the heart closer to God. Rather than seeing education as an impediment to one’s devotion, he believed the mind and heart worked in a symbiotic relationship. The formation of the whole person—heart, soul and mind—to use the categories of Jesus, were all important for the Christian life, according to Newman. During the speech for Newman’s beatification, Pope Benedict XVI described the cardinal in similar terms. “Firmly opposed to any reductive or utilitarian approach, he sought to achieve an educational environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together.” (Beatification of John Henry Newman)
Moreover, Newman made appeals for an intelligent laity, because he saw great value in the role they had to play in the Church. He wanted people “who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.” (Present Position of Catholics in England)
Suffering, Prayer and Providence
For Newman, the well-trained Christian was knowledgeable about the faith through study, and knowledgeable about faith through practice and prayer. The well-trained Christian had good habits of both kinds: intellectual and spiritual. One of the most important spiritual habits was prayer. He writes:
“a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency – prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualizing and elevating the soul. A man is no longer what he was before; gradually … he has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles.”
Prayer transforms a person’s soul. Newman’s Motto, cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart), expresses his view of what the ultimate purpose of the Christian life is: that the human heart can enter into the heart of God. While a prolific thinker and writer, Newman above all, wanted spiritual intimacy with God, and that meant to train both the mind and the heart, to be a harmonious, consonant person of serious scholarship, deep wisdom, and profound love.
Because Newman believed that God had created him, and that God was a loving, providential God from whom all things good come, he had hope and confidence that whatever he was going through in life, it was for a greater good. One can tell he had lived this wisdom and learned it from experience. When Newman became Catholic, he endured many challenges. He lost his position at Oxford University, many people were suspicious of his intelligence, and others turned on him and abandoned him. While weathering such trials, he remained faithful to God, trusting Him and His plan with confidence and peace. In his Meditations, we get a glimpse into the spiritual fruit he bore from his suffering. Here is one example of his spiritual wisdom:
“I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.
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 never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain.”
When we do not know what the future brings, we can become fearful or worried. When our current situation is difficult to bear, it can be challenging to confidently believe that there is a purpose to our suffering. But Newman shows us a new way to understand our trials. We can serve God in every situation, regardless of whether we can make sense of the immediate purpose or eventual outcome. Newman reminds us that because God does nothing in vain, and we are created by Him, everything we go through, whether loss or sickness, sorrow or confusion, it can all serve Him.
Newman, the Oratory and J.R.R. Tolkien
Newman’s belief that he had a part in the great work of God, that he was a link in a chain, and that there is meaning in suffering all guided him to stay committed to his faith, especially when things were hard. Those beliefs gave him the strength to overcome whatever spiritual challenges he was facing, and it gave him the fortitude and ability to pursue the desires God placed in his heart. Though not successful in every endeavor, Newman was however, successful in one particular work that he carried out that continues to impact countless numbers of people.
How many people know of the life of the author of the great work, the Lord of the Rings? JRR Tolkien, the author, was an orphan by the time he was 12. He had lost his father at 4 and his mother at 12. Just a few years before his mother’s death, his mother had joined the Catholic church and was good friends with Fr. Francis Morgan, a priest who belonged to the Birmingham Oratory, a Catholic community that Cardinal Newman had founded earlier in 1849.
Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, came from a non-Catholic family which did not take well to her conversion to the Church. When she realized that after falling gravely ill that she would not be able to ensure her children’s upbringing in the faith, she gave guardianship to Fr. Francis, so as to avoid the possibility that they may be forced to renounce their Catholic faith.
Newman’s trust in God helped him through a very dark time. And this trust gave him strength to continue doing whatever was before him. It gave him renewed strength to establish an English Catholic religious and intellectual community. This created a foundation for Tolkien, who was able to develop spiritually with the guidance of a kind and generous priest. Without the Birmingham Oratory, there may have never been a Fr. Francis, and without Fr. Francis, there may have never been the chance for Tolkien to have a Catholic outlook on life, which would have profoundly affected the great Catholic literature he produce in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Tolkien himself has stated:
“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity…”
What wonderful evidence we have to the link in the chain that Newman was meditating on for his own spiritual journey. Newman’s love for God bore rich fruit, and it brought about the Birmingham Oratory, which helped to nurture the spiritual life of Tolkien, whose works people for generations to come will continue to draw spiritual benefit. When we think of the Lord of the Rings, and the themes of loyalty, the value of sacrifice for a greater good and commitment to a principle greater than one’s own preferences, we can now connect them to a long chain of links, from Tolkien, to Mabel to Fr. Francis, to Cardinal Newman to the early Church Fathers whom Newman read and who assisted him in his decision to join the Church.
Truly, as Benedict XVI has said about Cardinal Newman, “in Blessed John Henry, that tradition of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord has borne rich fruit, as a sign of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit deep within the heart of God’s people, bringing forth abundant gifts of holiness.” May we all give thanks for the riches we have been able to harvest from the many different links, seen and unseen, in the great chain of God’s loving Providence.