During a winter break by the seaside in Deal, Newman hired a telescope to see the boats more clearly. Throughout his Anglican and Catholic ministries, he often recommends that every circumstance be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Writing to his troubled brother Charles, Newman remarks: “We survey moral and religious subjects through the glass of previous habits, and scarcely two persons use a glass of the same magnifying power.” (Letters and Diaries I, p.226). He had an abiding interest in science and wanted to employ the best astronomer available for an observatory he built.
Many influential aspects of Newman’s own faith journey cluster around the Wise Men’s star-gazing encounter with Jesus. We can follow the unfolding gift of this revelation’s meaning for Newman, by focusing on the pastoral work he undertook, according to his letters and diaries, over a twenty-year period of Epiphanies (1822-1842), until his time of reflection at Littlemore.
We begin on 6th January 1822 when Newman’s father challenges him to decide about his Vocation. A week later, Newman records that “he made up his mind to go into orders.” By 1824 he had begun work as a Deacon at St Clements where he visited a young woman with throat cancer. Then, in 1825, as an Anglican priest, he enhances his people skills by memorizing the baptismal and burial services. As 1826 dawns, and the feast of the three kings is anticipated, Newman cares for a psychiatric patient, Sue Wharton, in a hospital called Bethlehem (or as he, a Londoner, refers to it as Bethel).
Newman’s empathy with the bereaved was profoundly shaped by his life-long anguish at the death of his youngest sister Mary, on Epiphany Eve, the year he became Vicar of St Mary’s in 1828.
On 4th January 1831, Newman admits to struggling with the “gradual mode of removing” from him his role as a tutor at Oriel. In response, his students bought him volumes of the Early Church Fathers, which proved so influential in his conversion to Catholicism. The new years of 1833-1834 and 1841 saw him composing many religious poems on his Mediterranean cruise; developing his ecclesiology lectures on The Prophetic Office and producing and distributing literature for the Oxford Movement, especially Tract 90. It is not surprising that Newman describes the Epiphany as the “gracious appointment of God’s Providence” in his sermon ‘The Glory of the Christian Church’. Adding, that it is only by considering “His dispensations at a distance, As the Angels do, that we see their harmony and their unity; whereas scripture, anticipating the end from the beginning, places at their very head and first point of origination all that belongs to them respectively in their fulness.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons II, 8.).
Louis Bouyer in Newman’s Faith refers to the ‘organic, unifying pattern’ of thought between his Anglican and Catholic sermons. We see this in Newman’s embodiment of the man whose:
thoughts words and actions are cast, all forming parts of one and the same whole. He sees God in all things; every course of action he directs towards those spiritual objects which God has revealed to him; every occurrence of the day, every event, every person met with, all news he hears, he measures by the standards of God’s will. (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI, 15).
Newman’s Ascension Day thoughts entitled ‘Rising with Christ’ inspire our own missionary travels, which the Magi’s persistence in faith, hope and love urges us to imitate.
Fr Peter Conley