The great English scholar, writer, and preacher was above all a man of prayer.
John Henry Newman, born in London on February 21, 1801, was an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism. He was a distinguished thinker and writer, and later a Catholic priest and founder of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England. Underlying all these and other descriptions we find that the once Oxford tutor and afterwards Birmingham priest was above all a man of prayer.Editor’s note: Aleteia is very pleased to publish this reflection on the life of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman on the commemoration today of his birth in 1801.
John Henry Newman, born in London on February 21, 1801, was an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism. He was a distinguished thinker and writer, and later a Catholic priest and founder of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England. Underlying all these and other descriptions we find that the once Oxford tutor and future Birmingham priest was above all a man of prayer.
Much has been written about Newman’s scholarship, theology, and ideas on university education. It seems that not much has been said about his prayer life and his spirit of sacrifice. Often people say that he “read himself into the Catholic Church.” It is true that he did a great deal of reading and studying, but it is incomplete to thus sum up his life path. Aside from the fact that no one can read himself into the life of grace — which is a gift from God rather than the result of our efforts — Newman did a great deal of praying and worked at practicing the Christian virtues. This enabled him to be open to all the Catholic truths revealed by God in his Church.
At a young age, John Henry learned to read the Holy Bible from his paternal grandmother, and the Scriptures became the nourishment for his spiritual life and source of wisdom and truth. Later in life, Scripture occupied the heart of his preaching and the prayers that he composed. He found in the inspired verses the words with which to communicate with God — Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Here lies the depth and beauty of many of his prayers gathered in Meditations and Devotions (1893). They have the power to stir the heart because they flow from God’s Word.
As a young associate professor (or “tutor”) at Oriel College, Oxford, Newman discovered the richness and beauty of the Catholic Church’s tradition and liturgy, thanks in large part to the influence of Hurrell Froude, a very close friend at Oxford. Upon Froude’s untimely death, Newman inherited a copy of his Roman Liturgy of the Hours. John Henry began to pray the psalms and other prayers of the Church’s liturgy. It is likely that these prayers impressed on him the sense of respect for God’s greatness and goodness, and the duty of gratefulness and humility before God that characterizes his life of prayer. This serious dedication to prayer, together with strict fasts and acts of self-denial, where what disposed Newman further to understand and accept all the truths taught by the Catholic Church.
Many of his prayers put together in Meditations and Devotions extol God’s majesty and wisdom. They spring from his mediation on the psalms and a deep awareness of man’s created nature as well as his participation in God’s creation. Newman’s written prayers respond to the simple yet deep apprehension of man’s duty to praise and thank his Creator. The prayers are, however, all the more striking because of the contrast of Newman’s humble attitude with the pride of the Victorian age. He prays:
My Lord, my Only God, "Deus meus et omnia," let me never go after vanities.
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