Media Comment: Cardinal John Henry Newman and the lot of saints.

It was an indication of Britain’s still-vigorous religious life to see so many people turn out for Pope Benedict’s beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman on the last day of his visit to the United Kingdom.  The Roman Catholic faithful left cosy homes in the middle of the night to trek to a cold and damp pre-dawn Cofton Park, Birmingham, to get a ringside seat for the ceremony.  Then just as Pope Benedict arrived, the sun came out, according to the title of an on-the-ground video by Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill.   The video includes interviews with clergy and lay worshippers.

My favourite line in the video, from one of the travellers, resonates with my reason for attendance at my own church: “I think people have got up early in the morning and travelled halfway across the country because they believe God exists, because they have had an experience of God in their lives, not because someone’s told them.”

There is, however, a question as to whether or not Cardinal Newman himself would have joined the throng for this penultimate step before full sainthood, were he still with us.  An article in The Financial Times by Catholic John Cornwell – a biographer of John Henry Newman – suggests the Cardinal might not have been a great fan of the enthusiasm greeting his own beatification in Birmingham yesterday.

Cornwell’s article, The papal hijacking of Cardinal Newman mainly focuses on what could be described as the (internal) political dimensions of Cardinal Newman’s historic and present-day relationship with the papacy.  I have no expertise to comment on that.  What did grab my attention, though, was a comment in the article that points out that “Newman, by his own frequent admission, warned that he was no saint.”

That humble comment would be one that most of us who consider ourselves to be faithful followers of Christ – or maybe that should read those of us striving to be faithful followers of Christ! – can readily identify with.

So, what is a saint?   According to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary the word “saint” refers to “a holy or godly person; one eminent for piety and virtue. It is particularly applied to the apostles and other holy persons mentioned in Scripture”.  The word “saint” is used throughout the Bible in just this way.

This, to me, is saintliness as a quality of living a spiritual life of putting off personality for spirituality – by prayer and growth in grace and loving labour – rather than through exalting personality either before or after death.  In this way Cardinal Newman and many other religious thinkers and activists  could be classed as saints without awaiting anyone’s official beatification.  They were holy and pious people living their lives out in consecrated service to humankind based on their love of God, grounded in their reverence for the Bible, in particular the life, words, and works of Jesus.

In this sense of sainthood, perhaps John Cornwell would agree that Cardinal Newman has always been a saint.  He is clearly an unabashed enthusiast for what Newman accomplished, according to his assessment that he was “…the most electrifying religious thinker and writer in English of the past 200 years.”

As an equally unabashed enthusiast for another “thinker and writer in English of the past 200 years” I would have preferred to see that statement qualified to read “one of the most electrifying thinkers and writers in English of the past 200 years”.   That would appropriately encompass such thoughtful authors as Mary Baker Eddy who, in the first 100 of those 200 years, wrote with what is still a visionary discernment of the spiritual and practical meaning of the life of Jesus.  At the same time she healed many people with incurable conditions, taught others to heal, founded a church – the Church of Christ, Scientist – established its publishing arm, and launched a still current and respected world-class newspaper with the object ‘to injure no man but to bless all mankind’ to counteract the sensationalist news reporting of her day.

Surely all of the above would be more than enough to be beatified several times over, if she would have approved of being honoured in this way.  Like most spiritual pioneers, however, her dearest wish was not recognition for its own sake, but that successive generations would continue her work of aiding humanity’s salvation through an understanding and proof of the saving grace of God.

Mary Baker Eddy knew of Newman.  During her days at the helm of the burgeoning Christian Science movement, she so loved the words of his hymn Lead, kindly Light that she constantly kept it open on her desk.  Perhaps it was a reminder to herself, as she formed a church despite great opposition, that, “I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.”  (This hymn is included to this day in the Christian Science hymnal.)

The “miracle healing” that has led to John Henry Newman’s beatification is certainly a striking one.

Is dramatic physical change for the better, however – as precious and as thought-provoking as that is – necessarily evidence that someone who has died is able to intercede with God on behalf of the one praying? Or might it, rather, be down to the power of the faith that individuals are placing in these dear, departed luminaries?

My own perspective, based on the many experiences of physical healing I have had as a Christian Scientist – turning directly to God for healing through a better understanding of His nature – is that God needs no persuading from human personalities, alive or dead, to love His children enough to free them from suffering.   That’s His whole inclination as infinite Love.  We only have to come alive to His forever “on” Father-Mother Love to benefit from the healing power He/She impartially proffers to all. You could say that Christ – the saving aspect of God that Jesus knew and exemplified – is always interceding on behalf of all humanity, and when we come into the consciousness of that spiritual light then our minds and our bodies can be benefited.

When this is better understood, Mary Baker Eddy’s life of proving that the true healing power is directly from God will be more broadly valued and her writings – particularly Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures – will be sought out more and more as the electrifying and illuminating spiritual works they are.

One of Britain’s favourite singers, Aled Jones, sings Lead, kindly Light

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Categories: A More Spiritual Church, Spiritual healing

Author:Tony Lobl

I write and speak on spirituality from my perspective as a Christian Science practitioner. I am also an Associate Editor for the Christian Science periodicals. I studied at the University of Surrey earning a BSc Hons Degree in Modern Mathematics before the impact of spirituality on health caught my attention and re-shaped my career.

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3 Comments on “Media Comment: Cardinal John Henry Newman and the lot of saints.”

  1. September 21, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    Like it, love it! Thanks for the news and especially for the thoughtful comments Tony. Sharing it…

  2. September 21, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks, Jerry – great to have a comment from Latin America. Right?

  3. September 21, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    Right Tony, we are in Ecuador and have just enjoyed two weeks with a lovely family who are devout Roman Catholics. I shared a Spanish translation of Hymn 342 from the Christian Science hymnal, “This is the day the Lord hath made,” which the Señora appreciated deeply. In fact, she read it to a large gathering of military wives in Cuenca just last night. Don’t know if she could read your post, but it’s worth a try.

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