Newman’s childhood memories, in his letters and diaries, included hearing grass being cut, the first cuckoo in Spring and seeing the donkeys at the seaside. He owned a pony called Charlie and a lively Irish horse “Klepper” who threw him off, breaking his glasses!
John Henry loved his daily, solitary, walking or being joined by others to chat, think through problems and, while riding, compose homilies and addresses. He described the holiness of nature as a “Temple” or “vast Cathedral”:
Does not the whole world speak in praise of God? Does not every star in the sky, every tree and every flower upon the earth, all that grows all that endures, the leafy woods, the everlasting mountains, speak of God… (Parochial and Plain Sermons, V: 21).
Newman was full of excitement when visiting the Victorian Zoo(logical) Gardens in London with close friends Rogers and Wood and in Birmingham and Dublin, accompanied by his Oratorian confrere, Ambrose. Remembering this particular trip, John Hungerford Pollen, who designed the University Church at St Stephen’s Green for Newman, comments upon his “wonder at and speculations on the design of beasts; their ferocity; their odd ways; birds especially.” (LDXVII, p.230).
Newman, a keen gardener, laments to Mrs Maxwell-Scott that, in the grounds of the Oratory house in Rednal:
The chestnut and lime leaves are just a quarter out – and the Sycamore shows just a few beautiful pink buds where there should be a burst of full rejoicing verdure… We excel in rhododendrons, camellias and arbutus – but our soil is not the best. (LD XXVIII, p.62)
Whereas, he celebrates the glory of creation, in its fulsome late summer bloom, when commenting to W.J. Copeland, from the same setting:
The green is of a thousand hues, as the corn begins to turn – the heather is purple and the mountain berries are in profusion. (LD XX, p.262)
Newman also found, in nature, a fruitful source of analogy to describe the development of virtue in different people:
The soul which is quickened with the spirit of love has faith and hope…one and all exist in love, though distinct from it; as stalk, leaves and flowers are as distinct and entire in one plant as in another, yet vary in the quality, according to the plant‘s nature. (Parochial and Plain Sermons IV, 21)
In his advancing years, Newman, with poignancy, humanity and wit, compares himself to a variety of wild life!
Writing to Mrs T.W. Allies he says:
You asked me what bones I am cracking? The bones of old jackals and hyenas, or foxes, rats and mice, in some ancient paleontological cave. (LD XXI, p.22)
Then, after Richard Stanton enquires, Newman replies:
You kindly ask after my health. I have nothing the matter with me, but I am feeble…I have had several falls – I walk, read, write, speak at a snail’s pace, and my mind gets confused, especially my memory. Thus I may call myself emphatically in God’s hands, unable to move day by day except He wills it. (LD XXXI, p.100)
Newman viewed his frailties as an invitation to engage with the cross. He recognized hints of the paschal mystery in the cycles of birth, death and rebirth in creation and concludes:
As on a misty day, the gloom gradually melts and the sun brightens, so have the glories of the spiritual world lit up this world below. The dull and cold earth is penetrated by the rays. All around we see glimpses of reflections of those heavenly things, which the elect of God shall one day see face-to-face. (The Heart of Newman, Erich Przywara, p.307).
Fr. Peter Conley