The newly canonized saint said we need to take risks to be fully alive.
Newman was working on a book about an obscure theological controversy when he realized he needed to change his life. I was also reading a book the moment I realized I needed to change my life. In fact, it was a book by Newman. As a young, soon-to-be Anglican cleric, I began reading his book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which is a biographical explanation of his controversial life. Writing as an older man, he was candid about the choices he had made and why he made them. When I picked it up to read, I expected an interesting historical story; instead, I encountered a personal challenge.
I grew up in a pentecostal, non-denominational church — the sort of place with a pastor who delivers amazing, self-helpish spiritual meditations and a worship band that rocked out on contemporary Christian music. The energy in places like this is intoxicating, but I felt a need for more structure and silence in my spiritual life. In college, I wandered into a local Anglican Church and after that, I never missed a Sunday. The worship was intimate, reflective, and a much better fit for my self-conscious, introverted personality. This was my first major religious conversion. It felt fairly easy.
A few years later, I was at Yale Divinity School preparing to be ordained as an Anglican priest. It was near the end of my time there that I had the fateful encounter with Newman. The interest was natural, because Newman was a famous Anglican theologian who had left a deep and lasting impact on the English Church. He was, however, a metaphorical bull in a china shop. He wrote some of the most brilliant explanations of Anglican spirituality that exist, but his eloquence, in retrospect, was the work of a man on the brink. He had lost faith in his priesthood, lost faith in the truth of his previous opinions, and began to see the need for a drastic change.
It took him six years to finally make the change, but finally, on October 9, 1845, Newman became a Catholic. He was 43 years old. Still in the prime of his life, ready to grasp the future with both hands.
I read the Apologia in 2006 and it took me five years to make the change. But in 2011 I was received, along with my wife and children, into the Catholic Church. This was my second major religious conversion. It was incredibly difficult.
As part of the change, we sold our house in Cape Cod and moved back to our childhood home in St. Louis. I quit my job and wasn’t sure I’d ever be a priest again. We packed up the moving truck and said goodbye to the place three of our children were born. Driving the moving truck alone over the canal that separates the Cape from the mainland, I cried.
When Newman became a Catholic, he was forced to leave his home in Oxford. In his day, Catholics were not welcome there. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he cried as he walked away for the last time. To make it worse, he was heading into a difficult situation, a Catholic Church that neither appreciated him nor particularly welcomed him. He was, however, convinced that it was a change that needed to be made and he never regretted it.
Newman is insistent that just as a tree that does not grow is dead, so too is a person who does not change and develop.
“Growth is the only evidence of life,” he said. When he studied the Catholic Church, he saw a living, breathing, developing Body of Christ that was able to adapt and change. In his own life, he committed himself to personal growth, too, no matter the difficulties and challenges. “To live is to change,” he insisted, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.” In other words, if we want to discover the best version of ourselves, we need to take some risks.
In a nutshell, here’s what I learned from St. John Henry Newman: Be confident in who you are. From that place of self-confidence, take a risk. Don’t be afraid of new challenges. Change is demanding and it may feel like leaving a whole part of yourself behind. It’s uncomfortable and may feel like deliberately going into exile. But Newman understood that, if a person is truly alive, he’s always growing. So go ahead, put out a new branch and see how the sunshine feels over in an unexplored patch of sky.
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