The holiness of John Henry Newman

Newman's coat of arms (Mazur/

The forthcoming canonisation of Blessed John Henry Newman in Rome on October 13th makes one ponder the category of holiness – the word we give to those people, whom the Church describes as “saints”. In his study of Newman in Unearthly Beauty (Gracewing, £25), Fr Guy Nichols refers to the impressions of Newman’s contemporaries; even before his conversion, his friends sensed an otherworldly earnestness in him and the “magnetic attraction” of his personality. Charlotte Giberne wrote of “the beauty of holiness in so young a man”, a beauty later refined by suffering and disappointment during his long life and clearly apparent in many portraits and photos: a combination of strength and soulfulness, nobility and intellect.

Newman, as Nichols acknowledges, was one of the greatest prose writers of the 19th century – but a writer always driven by the wish to communicate truth, or “reality” as he described it. Unlike the aesthetes of his age, he had no interest in art for art’s sake, or writing for writing’s sake – always a temptation for those who are gifted with a great facility with words.

Alongside Nichols’ book I am reading Robert Ellsberg’s A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives (Orbis Books), a study of the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Charles de Foucauld and Flannery O’Connor. The list suggests that Ellsberg’s definition of what it means to be holy is wider than Catholic convention usually suggests and certainly wider than Newman would have regarded it.

His first two chapters, on Day and Merton, make an interesting comparison. I am particularly struck by the contrast in their styles of writing. Both were naturally fluent with words and exercised great influence through their pen. Yet Day, like Newman, was always urgently concerned to communicate truth; in her case, more usually as a journalist and founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper, the link between the Gospels and the poor of the earth. In 1933, in her first editorial, written in her early 30s at her kitchen table, Ellsberg quotes Day as writing, “For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunshine. For those who are huddled in shelters trying to escape the rain. For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work. For those who think there is no hope in the future, no recognition of their plight – this little paper is addressed.

“It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program – to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.”

Her voice, passionate, clear, reaching out to others and resonant, is unmistakeable. Merton, who became the most famous Trappist monk in the world with the publication, also in his 30s, of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948, concludes it with this passage – “a mysterious speech in the voice of God” as Ellsberg describes it –  in which he contemplates his death: “Do not ask when it will be or where it will be or how it will be: on a mountain, or in a prison, in a desert or in a concentration camp, or in a hospital or at Gethsemani. It does not matter. So do not ask me because I am not going to tell you. You will not know it until you are in it…But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty, and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created  you for this end.”

Perhaps I am being unfair to Merton in quoting this one early passage from a total output of more than 50 books, but I sense in it a love for the sound of his own voice, a love of the music of prose for its own sake and a love of fine phrases and stances (in fact, he was to die in a tragic accident, electrocuted by faulty wiring in a hotel shower in Bangkok, on a lecture tour in 1968.)

Cardinal Newman, to the joy of innumerable people, is soon to be canonised; Dorothy Day’s cause for eventual canonisation has been opened, with the hopes of all those who love her willing it on; Thomas Merton, a hugely talented communicator who influenced many people, still remains – like billions of others after their death – in the hands of the living God.