Voice of Peace Ministry Retreat Friday, December 19th, 2019, St. Flannan’s College
What a delight and privilege it is to be with you on this Advent and eve of Winter Solstice day as you begin your retreat here in St. Flannan’s College. These Advent days are a penitential season, a season of waiting patiently in vigil for the coming of the Lord and seeking to improve our lives. It is also a Joyful season and we focus on that very much in the liturgy at Masses this these days. We have been on a pilgrimage these past few weeks with Isaiah in the Scriptures along with Mary, Mother of God and of course John the Baptist.
In being with you today, I would like to share some reflections on something that has brought me great joy this year and helped in reflecting on the core of what it means to be a person of faith.
All of this was around the canonization of one of the newest saints of the Churches calendar John Henry Newman, who was elevated to the status of sainthood on October 13th in Rome.
I have been a fan of Newman since I was a seminarian in Maynooth many moons ago. During that time, I used to work in Knock Shrine during the Summer and one of the Summers I was working in the bookshop there. During quiet times we got a chance to dip into some of the books there. One of the books I read was the classic spiritual autobiography of Newman called his Apologia and from then-on I was a fan.
For the past 30 years since that I have been collecting his work, his primary work and volumes written about him and at this stage have over 300 Newman volumes and have dedicated a full room in the Bishops House in Killaloe in his honour with the books, pictures, plaques and various bits of Newman memorabilia.
John Henry Newman
So, what do we need to know about this new saint? What has he to say for us today? Is he relevant for our faith lives on this Advent day, in St. Flannan’s College, in Ennis in 2019? Newman was born in London around 1800 and lived until he was nearly 90. He was a scholar in Oxford and one of the leading lights of the Oxford Movement and attempted to rejuvenate the Church of England in the 1830’s. However, to the shock of so many in England in 1845 he left the Anglican Church and became a Catholic. He wrote many books, poems, hymns and lived a most extraordinary life of pushing out the frontiers in exploring the biblical, theological and spiritual tradition of the Church. In the 1850’s he came to Ireland with the intention of founding a Catholic University, which eventually became the fore-runner of UCD. After many twists and turns, triumphs and failures he was created Cardinal before he returned to God after a long and interesting life.
Newman the Preacher
When Newman was preaching – his homilies were almost an hour long! He read them from beginning to end with his head literally stuck in his text, barely looking up. What he lacked in communication skills he certainly made up in genuineness, holiness, personal charisma and most of all fresh and genius insights.
You’ll be glad to hear – I won’t even try to emulate any of that length of speaking, even though Jomon assures me ye are up for long homilies and are good to go, but I won’t inflict that on you in close proximity to lunch time! What I intend to do during this short time is just pick a few of Newman’s mottos or phrases that give an overview or insight into a flavour of his thought and spirituality.
The recently canonized saint was a great man for mottos, phrases, short phrases or sound-bytes and would have been a dream for media folk if he was around today.
Holiness before Peace
One of his favourite early mottos in life was Holiness before Peace. This was the motto of a devout young Anglican who came to faith through a sudden conversion as a fifteen year old. This was the motto (Holiness before Peace) of a man who did his best to live a good life, to say his prayers well and lived as the phrase goes a “God-fearing life”, a phrase meant in a the positive sense of the term. He said in one of his sermons that the duty of a priest is to remind people know that “Life is short, death is certain and eternity is long” and that we were at God’s mercy in terms of the salvation of our souls. Holiness before Peace.
Lead kindly light…
Another phrase synonymous with the new saint is Lead Kindly Light. This is the first phrase in one of the most famous hymns of our tradition that was written by Newman at a time of deep depression as a result of illness, sadness, bereavement and unhappiness as he was thinking of leaving the Anglican Faith.
A Very Human Saint
One of the things I find most attractive about the saint is that while a lot of the time he is portrayed as a cold, distant, intellectual sort of chap – so much of his weak and struggling humanity comes across in his works of literature and theology. It was often at times of struggle, failure, disappointment that Newman learnt most about the God of Jesus Christ and got the inspiration and courage to persist against the odds. We get a profound sense of that in the words of The Pillar of the Cloud:
Lead kindly light
Amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on
The night is dark and I am far from home
Lead thou me on.
During these dark solistice days of mid-Winter we long for a glimpse of light and the light of Jesus Christ brightens up our spiritual lives at this time.
The light of Jesus Christ that lead Newman was a Kindly Light.
Lead Kindly Light!
To Live is to change
One of Newman’s great insights was developed in a book called On the Development of Doctrine in which he put forward the idea that doctrines are like a living organism that they grow and develop and mature and evolve as time goes by and also with the human person. Perhaps his most famous quotation is:
To live is to change & to be perfect is to have changed often.
Isn’t that in many ways a summary of our Christian lives, our pilgrim journeys, our Advent Journey. A journey of change, transformation, of adjustment, a journey out of ourselves towards the perfection modelled by Jesus Christ. During this penitential time we endeavour the be transformed by focusing on the sinful aspects of our lives and the Sacrament of Reconciliation helps us to return to Gospel living in that regard.
A Perfect Peace
Advent is a time of longing. Longing in these dark days for the light of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. One of the phrases that Newman used was his longing for A Perfect Peace. That simple, yet profound phrase happens to be the title I chose for my little book on Newman. A Perfect Peace. Newman longed for that Perfect Peace when he converted from being an Anglican to being a Catholic. Little did he think that life would certainly not be a bed of roses as a Catholic and he would still have many crosses and struggles, but he longed all the time for that Perfect Peace. During this season of Advent, we name and give expression to that desire and longing for that Perfect Peace.
Heart speaks to heart
When Newman was created a Cardinal his simple motto was Heart speaks to heart. This lovely motto puts words on that deep relationship of the believer who prays to God and enters into the life and world of contemplation and profound conversation with God. This Heart to Heart conversation and genuine communication is a world that is open to each and everyone of us if we respond to God’s invitation to do that. Heart speaks to heart.
Out of shadows & images into truth
The epitaph on the grave that Newman chose was equally profound, interesting and simple – Out of shadows and images into truth. So much of our earthly existence is searching, groping for moments of happiness, contentment, fulfilment and little glimpses of God’s grace. Sometimes we get more of a sense of that light amidst the shadows of this world and at other times this is elusive for us. It is only with the beatific vision with God in heaven that this reaches it’s perfection and this is the goal of our longing, our desire, our destiny, our true joy. We give expression to this in rejoicing and joyfulness during these joyful Advent days.
Prayer for Perseverance
So there we have it in a few profound phrases, mottos or sound bytes:
- Holiness before Peace
- Kindly Light
- A Perfect Peace
- Change that leads to perfection
- Heart speaks to heart
- Out of Shadows into light
Gentle, yet reassuring sign-posts along the way to that great light revealed to us in the incarnation of Jesus that first Christmas.
In the mean-time we journey in that direction with steady resolve and diligent commitment. The words of one of the most loved prayers of our Christian tradition of the newly crowned saint encourage us on that pilgrim way as we say:
May He support us all the day long,
till the shades lengthen and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging,
and a holy rest and peace at the last.