Newman, growing up in London, was familiar with cockney slang and used colloquial language in his letters. Perhaps, he sympathised with his Oxford parishioners having, as his 1824 diary notes, buried “Gedge the umbrella maker” by calling him ‘the Brolly Man’. A popular English expression for an umbrella is ‘a brolly’. How often Newman protected those he wrote to, undergoing the storms of religious doubt, with an ‘over-arching canopy’ of reassurance. We see an example of this sure shelter in his 1839 Sermon, heralding the journey of forty days with Christ to Calvary and beyond:
From the first age downward, not a year has passed but Christians have been exhorted to reflect how far they have let go that birthright, as a preparation for claiming the blessing. At Christmas we are born again with Christ; at Easter we keep the Eucharistic feast. In Lent by penance, we join the two sacraments together. (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI, 2).
In thanksgiving for his spiritual reading on 27 March 1867, two weeks into the penitential season of accompanying Jesus in the wilderness, Newman enthusiastically responds to Emily Bowden’s gift: “…I rejoice to have this volume… I have long had a devotion to the Fathers of the Desert.” (Letters and Diaries XXIII,110).
Newman also sounds a note of caution – advising us not to set unrealistic Lenten goals. They are to be challenging, but achievable and carefully tailored.
We should very much be on our guard when we are engaged and contemplating the lives of Holy Men, against attempting just what they did; which might be right indeed in them, and yet to be wrong in us…We ought to attempt nothing but what we can do. (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI, 3).
Newman outlines the consequences of choosing penances which are too difficult to manage and become occasions of sin, which harm others, through our inevitable “ill-temper”. (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI, I).
He also warns us to be watchful: “It will be a sad remembrance…if we shall find after all that we have undone what was right and profitable in our Lent exercises by a relapse in Easter-tide.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI,3).
Newman recognizes that every serious spiritual intent benefits from a lightness of approach. Struggling to manage this balance himself, he crisply replies to Miss Munro’s Pre-Lent letter of 11 February 1850, because her friend, Miss Moore, has described him as “a saint”:
I have nothing of the Saint about me as everyone knows …I may have a high view of many things but this is very different from being what I admire… It is enough for me to black the saint’s shoes – if St Philip uses blacking in heaven. (Letters and Diaries XIII, 419).
Newman encouraged everyone to believe that becoming holy was within their reach and offered the following practical advice as a guide to reflecting upon Jesus’ risen presence at work in every event of their lives. Sharing a proverbial expression, commonly used by his congregation, he concludes:
It is an old saying, “out of sight, out of mind”. Be sure, so it will be, so it must be with us, as regards our blessed Saviour, unless we make continual efforts all through the day to think of Him, His love, His precepts, His gift, and His promises. We must recall what we read in the Gospels and in holy books about Him; we must bring before us what we have heard in Church; we must pray God to enable us to do so…In a word we must meditate, for all this is meditation; and this even the most unlearned person can do and will do, if he has the will to do it. (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI, 4).
Fr Peter Conley