ewman is missing from Caroline Spurgeon's book, Mysticism in English Literature. From the literary point of view he certainly qualifies: he was a novelist, poet, autobiographer, essayist, philosopher, and writer of sermons. Perhaps he was easy to overlook because nowhere (as far as I know) does he call himself a mystic, though clearly he was, and if that seems to be reading between the lines, at least the lines are pretty widely spaced. He said of himself when he was a child: "I thought life might be a dream or I an angel, and all this world a deception." At fifteen he became an evangelical, certain of salvation. This didn't make him careless of God, he tells us in his Apologia pro Vita Sua — just isolated from the world and doubtful of its reality. Two things only were "absolute and luminously self-evident, myself and my Creator." When he was eighteen he wrote: "Bells are pealing. It leads the mind to a longing after something . . . dear to us and well known to us, very soothing." Later, as an ordained Anglican, he preached: "What we see is but the outward shell of an eternal kingdom." The visible world is the veil of the invisible. It "conceals and yet suggests" things beyond itself which have neither shape nor are made of matter. In any religion, he thought, there'll always be the esoteric and the exoteric. And he was definitely on the side of the numinous.
Yet his mental make up was unusual, too; he was both a mystic and a thinker, an intellectual. While geology, the Higher Criticism, Colenso, and Darwinism devastated his fellow Victorians, he took it in his stride — it matched his own thinking; change was good, and even religions have to evolve. For that reason he thought Bible religion was not enough. "We have tried the book and it disappoints because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given." But he also foresaw that Darwinism would eclipse and destroy religion in England. What could he offer a Godless future? Not soft-boiled mysticism but, in the Grammar of Assent, hard-headed reasons for belief (not proofs; that he knew was impossible). In The Idea of a University he argued for the integration of the spiritual and the intellectual.
That integration, I suggest, can be read in The Dream of Gerontius, a narrative poem written in 1865 about the progress of a soul from death to salvation. It opens with a priest and Assistants imploring mercy, growing more and more frenzied until, abruptly, there is a sudden break into peacefulness. There follows what I think is a description of Newman's own mystic experiences.
I went to sleep; and now I am refresh'd,
A strange refreshment: for I feel in me
An inexpressive lightness, and a sense
Of freedom, as I were at length myself,
And ne'er had been before. How still it is!
I hear no more the busy beat of time,
No, nor my fluttering breath, nor struggling pulse;
Nor does one moment differ from the next.
At first Gerontius thinks he's still in his body though he can't move, not even an eyelid, and is blind — yet he can hear and feel; he hears singing and feels himself lifted. It's his Angel-guardian who has steered him through life Gerontius is now simply called Soul, no longer a man, nor old. Can he ask questions? Yes, the Angel tells him, nothing you can wish for now is wrong; whatever you do is right. When we die, Gerontius/Soul says, I thought we went straight to the Judgement Seat? Sun-time and clock-time no longer apply, he's told: only thought-time. The depth of your own thought is slowing you down. So why aren't I afraid? Soul/Gerontius. asks. You were so afraid before you died that all the fear has been burned up. More than that, Judgement has already begun and you sense that all will eventually be well. (Everything in the immaterial world, by the way, is fully alive — even the paving stones and bricks are life itself.)
Will I see God? Soul asks. You're disembodied but, because that might be unbearable, you've been given what appear to be earthly senses, apart from sight. You'll be blind in the fires of Purgatory, which burn without light, but first, for a moment, you'll see the face of God. The sight will open a wound, and heal the wound, and widen the wound all at the same time. The sight of the Divine will make you sick with love but filled with shame for what you did wrong in life. Because, in effect, this is not so much a judgement as a revelation, the coming of understanding (no longer seeing through a glass darkly, perhaps). Each soul will want to be punished because it's the right thing to do. (There's a similar idea in Dante; Arnaut Daniel, the troubadour, dives gladly back into the flame to be refined, like gold). Soul hears the priest on earth still intoning the last word of his prayer: "subvenite". No earth time has passed at all.Unsurprisingly, the actual sight of God is not described. Soul merely says: "Ah!..."
Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be,
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep.
Many people nowadays may be put off Gerontius because it's what Victorian schoolboys called "pi" — pious in a sickly kind of way. (In one passage, demons scoff at us mortals for being "psalm-droners and canting groaners" Even in his own day Newman's most famous hymn, Lead Kindly Light, was often mocked or quoted ironically.) Today (the summer of 2008) Gerontius is out of print. It is, however, still sung. General Gordon (1833-1885), troubled by fears of what happens after the end of life, had a copy of the poem sent to him in Egypt in 1884. He read it on his journey to his own death in Khartoum. This copy, with pencilled notes, was later given as a wedding present to Elgar. Elgar set it to music as an Oratorio, scoring the part of the Angel-guardian for a soprano voice. It was premiered (disastrously) at the 1900 Birmingham Festival and performed triumhantly in 2007 at thr Bard Elgar Festival and in 2008 to mark the re-opening of Symphony Hall in the same city. Newman had no great gift for the glittering line and Elgar's music helps convey what I think the poem is really about — not just intellectual theorising, but an attempt to express the insight that all will be well. Newman, I suspect, believed he knew this from direct personal experience. Although in the end of course it was only a dream.
References and Additional Reading
Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1975
Newman, John Henry. An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. ed. Ian T Ker. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1985.
John Henry Newman: Prayers, Poems and Meditations, selected and introduced by A N Wilson. SPCK, London, .
Newman, John Henry Apologia pro Vita Sua and Six Sermons, ed. Frank M Turner. Yale University Press. New Haven, 2008.
Last modified 13 July 2008