Monday, 27 September 2010

Two biographies and an autobiography

Guess who is in vogue at the moment? I'll give you a clue...the Pope came to England because of him. I am not normally a follower of fashion, but the recent turn towards John Henry Newman has caught my attention. (Yes, before you say it people, I am aware that 'fashion' in reading is to many deeply ironic - run with me here). I have taught Newman's view of conscience as part of the A2 syllabus many times, and I have always really liked his pattern of thinking. I never read much more about him than that though. A few pages ahead in the set texts is all I ever aimed to be.
So, then comes the news that Newman is to be beatified, and with it a swathe of books about Newman's life and new editions of his most famous works. You know it is going to catch the eye of any book lover. I am no exception. I took for my first biography John Henry Newman: His Inner Life by the Capuchin Friar Dr. Zeno. This is Ignatius publications at its evangelical best, and whilst I learnt lots about the life of Newman as a man of faith, I could get no handle on him as a human being worth understanding or relating to. Zeno paints Newman the holy man - saint. It was a very easy read though, and so whilst I was busy, I read the whole thing in a few days. Cute family portraits of Newman as a friend are painted, the story of his life moves quickly and in great uncomplicated, divinely inspired patterns. You can't help feeling it wasn't quite like that at all and you are being taken for a ride. You are probably right.

Next, I picked up Newman and his Age by Sheridan Gilley. Let's put by prejudices about the name Sheridan aside for the moment, shall we? This is a much slower, slightly more academic read. It goes painfully through the intricate disputes that marked Newman's life. Extracts from Newman's letters illustrate when and how he stopped speaking to various friends and family. His diary shows the hurt this caused him. Some of the controversies seem so academic and high minded it makes you wonder what they were all getting their knickers in a twist about. I wonder what Newman would make of the various controversies with the Church today. No doubt he would have a blog, and no doubt it would cause trouble.

One thing about Newman seriously bothers me. He never seems happy. He is always worried about one thing or another, always caught up in some controversy or suffering some failure. His biographers never seem to paint him laughing or telling a joke. That makes me sad.

Now I am going to turn my attention to his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Again, it was written whilst Newman was under attack. But, I hope when he writes in his own words, there might also be a sense that he loved his life. For someone who achieved so much, I would be very sad if the case were otherwise. After that I might read some more of his own writing, who knows? Amazon are going to have to give me credit though, my passion for books is leading quickly to bankruptcy.

1 comment:

Dominic Mary said...

The Apologia is a remarkable book : I arrived at it via Ronnie Knox's A Spiritual Aeneid, which has been described as being his version of the Apologia, but of course I found Newman was on an entirely different plane . . .
For example : listen to him on Infallibility :
'This power, viewed in its fullness, is as tremendous as the giant evil which has called for it. It claims . . . to have for itself a sure guidance into the very meaning of every portion of the divine message . . . which was committed by our Lord to His apostles. It claims to know its own limits, and to decide what it can determine absolutely and what it cannot. . . . It claims that whatever may be the judgment of Catholics upon such acts, those acts should be received by them with those outward marks of reverence, submission, and loyalty, which Englishmen, for instance, pay to the presence of their sovereign, without public criticism on them, as being in their matter inexpedient, or in their manner violent and harsh.'
Reading that, one has to wonder why the 'Spirit of Vatican II' mob were in any way supportive of the Beatification !