Lake Michigan in the winter

The Feast of Epiphany celebrates the happy arrival of the Magi into Bethlehem bringing gifts to the newborn Christ. This date for Blessed John Henry Newman, however, was filled with sadness, for Newman’s beloved sister, Mary, on the 5th of January 1828, died suddenly at age 19. In this moving poem, Epiphany-Eve: A Birthday Offering, Newman majestically weaves together these two contrasting events, the glad feast and his sister’s devastating death, for Newman loved Mary dearly; she was particularly sweet and cheerful, even when she knew her death was imminent. The pain of her death saddened Newman into his old age. The spiritual effects were great, however. It caused Newman to be keenly aware of the transitory nature of life on earth, and made him more attuned to the “invisible” world all around. It also strengthened his trust in God’s providence. These things would find their way into his poetry. This poem was written on the second anniversary of Mary’s death. The first stanza lists fond things he wishes to bring his dear sister on this “birthday,” that is, her birth into eternal life.

 

BIRTHDAY gifts, with the early year,

Lo! we bring thee, Mary dear!

Prayer and praise upon thy death

Twined together in a wreath,

Grief and gladness, such as may

Suit a solemn holiday.

Christmas snow, for maiden’s bloom

Blanched in winter’s sudden tomb;

Christmas berries, His red token

Who that grave’s stern seal hath broken;

These for thee the faithful heart,

Due mementos, sets apart.

 

The second stanza makes reference to the evening of Mary’s death, as Newman weaves into this verse-memory the actual events celebrated on Epiphany, contrasting the family’s sorrow with the glad gifts brought by the wise men.

 

‘Twas a fast, that Eve of sorrow,

Herald veil’d of glorious morrow.

Speechless we sat; and watch’d, to know

How it would be; but time moved slow,

Along that day of sacred woe.

Then came the Feast, and we were told

Bravely of our best to bring,

Myrrh, and frankincense, and gold,

As our tribute to our King.

 

In this next uplifting stanza, Newman happily addresses Mary directly, imagining all the glories of heaven she’s experiencing, like the Angels and their fanning wings and of course, the “ALL-loving,” that is,  God!

 

Dearest, gentlest, purest, best!

Deep is thy mysterious rest,

Now the solemn hours are over

And the Angels round thee hover,

With the fanning of their wings

Keeping time to one who sings

Of high themes consolatory,

Of the All-loving and His glory,

Of the age that has no ending,

Of the day of thy ascending

From those shades of paradise

To the bright supernal skies.

 

In the next two stanzas, Newman, still addressing Mary, illustrates his intense interest in the invisible world in which she is dwelling; in a lovely way, he unites the path that Christ and his sister both traveled, that is, the path to death. Newman also reminds us that life and death are a continuum, and the one naturally leads to the other. Spirit and life cannot be severed.

 

Thinkest of us, dearest, ever?

Ah! so be it nought can sever

Spirit and life, the past and present,

Still we yield thee musings pleasant.

—God above, and we below;—

So thought ranges, to and fro.

He, in sooth, by tutorings mild,

From the rude clay shaped His child,

Fiery trial, anguish chill,

Served not here His secret will;

But His voice was low and tender,

And so true was thy surrender,

That the work in haste was done,

Grace and nature blent in one.—

Harmless thus, and not unmeet,

To kiss the dear prints of thy feet,

Tracing thus the narrow road

All must tread, and Christ has trod.

 

Newman sees the meaning of Mary’s death as drawing those she left behind into that invisible world, likening it to the star which guided the magi. This becomes clear in the following stanza, where he again unites the two events, Epiphany and Mary’s death.

 

Loveliest, meekest, blithest, kindest!

Lead! we seek the home thou findest!

Though thy name to us most dear,

Go! we would not have thee here.

Lead, a guiding beacon bright

To travellers on the Eve of Light.

Welcome aye thy Star before us,

Bring it grief or gladness o’er us;—

 

Newman ends the poem by admitting that thoughts of Mary still sadden him but also seem to him as “sparks” sent from her, which bring hope to his weary heart. The final stanza beautifully offers this poem as a monument to her. Those who take time to read this poem may feel Newman’s loss of his beloved sister, and think of their own losses. But they, too, may perceive the “sparks” sent from beyond the grave to ‘lighten weary hearts’ here on earth.

 

Keen regret and tearful yearning,

Whiles unfelt, and whiles returning;—

Or more gracious thoughts abiding,

Fever-quelling, sorrow-chiding;—

Or, when day-light blessings fail,

Transport fresh as spice-fraught gale,

Sparks from thee, which oft have lighted

Weary heart and hope benighted.

 

I this monument would raise,

Distant from the public gaze.

Few will see it;—few e’er knew thee;

But their beating hearts pursue thee,—

And their eyes fond thoughts betoken,

Though thy name be seldom spoken.

Pass on, stranger, and despise it!

These will read, and these will prize it.

 

(Epiphany-Eve: A Birthday Offering, Oxford. January 5, 1830)

 

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Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

For a Christian, death is no longer defeat nor something to fear, rather it is the sign of Christ’s victory.

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We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

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About Cardinal John Henry Newman

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A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

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Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.
 

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Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

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What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

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Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

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Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
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