St. John Henry Cardinal Newman on faith and conscience

20191205_145045Prior to the canonization of St. John Henry Newman I ordered Saint John Henry Newman His Life and Works from the Catholic Truth Society.

It’s a slim volume that has a short biography of the new saint and short samples of his writing on various subjects.  I’m finding it a helpful introduction that has whet my appetite for more.

This quote from Chapter 5  “The Way to Faith” has stayed with me.

True faith is what may be called colourless, like air or water; it is but the medium through which the soul sees Christ; and the soul as little really rests upon it and contemplates it, as the eye can see the air. When, then, men are bent on holding it (as it were) in their hands  . . . they substitute for it a feeling, notion, sentiment, conviction, or act of reason, which they may hand over, and dote upon. They rather aim at experience (as they are called) within them, than at him that is without them.

Loving faith leads to Christ. It may be “blind and without feeling”  Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification 336

Contrast the above quote with this one, a more familiar quote of St. John Henry Newman, that is also in the book:

Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself, but it is a messenger from him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal vicar of Christ.

The supremacy of conscience

True faith as something as clear as air or water through which one sees Christ;  but then he speaks of conscience as a messenger from Christ who “speaks to us behind a veil.”

As I have pondered these sayings,  I recall the classic work of English Catholic mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous 15th Century monk.  I encountered this work when I was in college, during a time in my life when I held organized religion, particularly Christianity, in derision.    But this profound little volume spoke to me despite my prejudices and contempt even then and its insights have stayed with me and deepend with experience over the decades.

So, Newman has led me to revisit The Cloud of Unknowing, which is available online with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill.   Here’s the introduction to Chapter Six

BUT now thou askest me and sayest, “How shall I think on Himself, and what is He?” and to this I cannot answer thee but thus: “I wot not.”

For thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness, and into that same cloud of unknowing, that I would thou wert in thyself. For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and go not thence for thing that befalleth.

Entering into that silence of unknowing, of approaching God with a naked longing and no preconceptions, only a desire to know Him as He is, this has been a consistent thread in my prayer life over the years.  Sometimes I wonder if I missed a vocation to be a contemplative somewhere along the line!   It’s one example of our English Catholic patrimony that has led me to deeper conversion even before I knew what I was searching for and I would encourage those who do not know this classic work to discover its sweet wisdom.   I see echoes of The Cloud of Unknowing in the above quotes of Newman.
“By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never,” makes me think of these words from the Newman quotation on faith:  “When, then, men are bent on holding it (as it were) in their hands  . . . they substitute for it a feeling, notion, sentiment, conviction, or act of reason, which they may hand over, and dote upon.”

3 thoughts on “St. John Henry Cardinal Newman on faith and conscience

  1. I believe almost every Christian has “missed a vocation as a contemplative,” because the contemplative life is the essence of that to which every Christian is called: union with Christ, which we approach in this life along the contemplative path. This, at least, is what English spiritual theologian David Torkington argues, and he has convinced me.
    In fact, reading Torkington’s work (beginning with Wisdom from the Western Isles) has led me to start a new blog in which I read and comment on great works from the English spiritual tradition, beginning with The Cloud of Unknowing. In one post, I addressed the paradox of how, the more our faith draws us closer to Christ, we all inevitably encounter this “cloud of unknowing,” which is beautifully illustrated in the mandorla (a nimbus surrounding Christ which is darkest at the center) used in Eastern Christian iconography. Read the post here:

    Liked by 1 person

    • True contemplation always inspires and animates action. The scriptures speak clearly to this.

      James 2:14-26 (NIV):

      What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

      But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

      Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

      You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

      In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.



  2. Pingback: Approaching the Cloud of Unknowing | Anglicanorum Coetibus Society Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s