It is apparent our times are in need of St. John Henry Newman’s emphasis on persons, the personal nature of reality, life, and history. Anxieties abound over ‘systemic,’ ‘cultural,’ ‘economic’, and ‘historical’ forces, as if mankind were driven by impersonal semi-spirits rather than particular human choices. Thus, blanket accusations of various kinds are often levied without measured accounts of personal motive, intention, or meaning.

For example, many today are questioning the value of classic works of literature, and the classical heritage they represent, even accusing Western Civilization itself of racism.  Of what value is ancient antiquity, so far in the past, and riddled with mistakes and corruption? Rather than quickly dismiss or villainize the past, Newman asks us to approach the persons of the past with humility, gratitude, and docility. The heritage of classical antiquity, and of classic works of literature in particular, is a heritage of persons devoted to excellence of various kinds. When we study a classic work, we are at the feet of a master, whose excellent thoughts gave forth an excellent voice that has resounded across space and time, universal in its scope, depth, and influence. As in all places and times, our pursuit of excellence is marred by error and sin; but as God’s beloved creatures, and most especially by Christ’s grace, we are still able not only to overcome our sins by repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but can also produce work of profundity, universality, and beauty.

Newman’s interest in classic literature spans his entire life, from his young years as an Oxford student, to his life as a Catholic priest and founder of the Catholic University in 1854, to the founding of the Oratory School, and to the very end of his life. His lecture “On Literature,” delivered to his Catholic University and collected at the end of Idea of a University, provides a compelling case for keeping the classics: classic works of literature are means by which we come in contact with the thoughts of past masters. 

He begins by wondering what makes “Literature,” or “Letters,” distinct as an academic discipline. It can’t be just the study of books, since students in the sciences, history, and philosophy also use books. And it is not just about “composition,” or writing with “style,” as if it “were the result of a mere art or trick of words,” since authors in any discipline should use sound style, and beauty is naturally sought after in other arts and disciplines, and is not merely dispensable “prettiness.” Literature is primarily the manifestation of character. It is in the highest sense not an objective science that deals with “things,” but a subjective study of personal “thoughts,” like Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (literally in French, Thoughts), which are not only deep philosophical musings, but also stylistic revelations of Pascal’s personal character in his profound search for truth and wisdom. The study of Literature is not a mere study of words, but a study of the great thoughts of great persons crafted with eloquence. Reading literature is an intimate encounter with the person of the author.

This is rooted in the “inseparable” connection between “thought and speech,” a connection captured by the complexity of the Greek world Logos, which can mean both reason and speech. Accordingly, an author’s style is “a thinking out into language,” not mere words, but “thought expressed in language.” The words are not mere ornamentation or external trappings, but are integral to the meaning and thought of the author.

Therefore, it might be said that we should talk less about “Great Books” and more about “Great Authors”, or better yet, “Great Persons,” in the canon of Classic Literature. Newman explains that the greatest writers, in company with Homer, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, produce mature work because they do not aim at “diction for its own sake,” but being “inspired with their subject,” pour forth “beautiful words because they had beautiful thoughts.” Like Aristotle’s “magnanimous man,” the “lofty intellect” of the author pours forth in his voice the great “elocution of a great intellect.” In reading the great classic works, the reader is at the feet of a master whose “language expresses not only his great thoughts, but also his “great self” in a flourish of detail that the “narrow critic will call verbiage, when really it is a sort of fullness of heart.”

Fittingly, then, Newman sees the exchange between great author and reader as a great heart speaking to hearts (his famous motto is Cor ad cor loquitur). The reader is brought in contact with the “personal presence” of the author, in a manner unlike any other kind of writing or academic discourse. If reading a classic really is placing ourselves in the personal presence of an excellent master, we should be reluctant to dispense with it. In pursuit of excellence, we must place ourselves at the feet of those who have mastered excellence. 

So, what is it that classical authors have mastered? Why are they worthwhile to listen to, to linger with? They have mastered the “two-fold Logos, the thought and the word,” brought together in the “faculty of Expression.” They have mastered the art of having something to say, and knowing how to say it. Throughout the ages, there are rare masterful geniuses of this art who have not only thought deeply of the deepest questions of human experience, but who then express that thought in a manner that “all feel, but all cannot say.” Through inquiring into the depths of human experience, of God, nature, others, and self, these great authors express their deep thought in a manner that becomes “a catholic and ecumenical character,” expressing what is “common to the whole race of man,” touching hearts in all places and all times with universal human thoughts and themes. Before these masters of such great achievement, the only proper response is the humility, gratitude, and docility of a learner, an auditor. 

Newman’s conclusion to his essay is a beautiful flourish about the human bond brought about by reading the great masters of thought and speech: 

If then the power of speech is a gift as great as any that can be named,–if the origin of language is by many philosophers even considered to be nothing short of divine,–if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,–if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,–if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and prophets of the human family,–it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study; rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master it in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become on our own measure ministers of like benefits to others, be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life,–who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.

Reading classic literature, in fact, puts us in the personal presence of great hearts and minds, teaching us to ponder the same great thoughts expressed in great words, so that we in our own measure may also master thought and speech to become sources of goodness, consolation, hope, wisdom, and charity to others. We read great authors to become great souls, great persons, great hearts. If this is not so, then why bother?

Further reading:

St. John Henry Newman “On Literature”

T.S. Eliot, “What is a Classic?”

Theodor Haecker, Virgil, Father of the West

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Newman lays down a firm rule in the light of life's abundant blessings: the Christian is not allowed to be gloomy.

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.”

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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.

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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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