Family,  Food for thought

The friendship of a saint (part 1)

The previous article considered what the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had to say about friendship. In this article, to be published in two parts over two weeks, Paul Shrimpton looks at the life of the English saint John Henry Newman who taught both by example and word what it means to be a true friend.

Among the many qualities for which St John Henry Newman is admired is his remarkable capacity for friendship, both natural and acquired. He was generously endowed with the ability to form and nurture friendships, but at the same time, he actively developed this skill. 

His talent for friendship is a wonderful example for our age because, despite living in the nineteenth century, he inhabits the same modernity as we do: a world split across large and socially fractured cities and pulled a thousand different directions by the sheer busy-ness of life.

Newman is one of the finest prose writers in the English language. However, it is not in his 34 major published works that he is visible as a person but in his many letters – 25,000 of them, collected into 32 fat volumes.

Open any page, and in no time you will be eavesdropping on a conversation between Newman and a fellow human being.

There we see heart speaking to heart in friendship – cor ad cor loquitur – or in a relationship which is open to and inviting friendship.

Newman had a prodigious capacity for work and lived a remarkably full life, yet he always made time for his letters: around two hours a day. Why have so many survived? His correspondents treasured them because his insights were so profound, whether they were deeply personal or about the world at large. 

Speaking directly to the heart, Newman wrote the truth with clarity. His many letters showcase his range of friends and interests, as well as his insights and erudition. Many of them contain spiritual advice and amount to a form of spiritual direction, while others explain perplexities of faith. 

Overall, Newman’s correspondence shows that he took the trouble to enter as fully as he could into the other person’s doubts and concerns, according to his own principle that ‘The first duty of charity is to try to enter into the mind and feelings of others’. And he did so with a lightness of touch and with humour. There is a winning authenticity in all he writes and a striking emphasis on the real and practical.

School and University

At school, Newman not only excelled academically but developed socially. He acted in Latin plays, learnt to play the violin and compose music, took part in debating, led a boys’ society, and edited several school magazines. He made many close friends and kept in touch with them in later years. 

At Oxford he threw himself into the life of the University, attending concerts, played first violin in a music club at St John’s College, co-founding the Trinity College Book Society for the dissemination of modern novels, and starting a periodical with his closest friend John Bowden called The Undergraduate, which was Oxford’s second student-run magazine. 

As a college tutor he befriended his students, went walking with them, invited them for meals in Oriel, and gave them academic and sometimes spiritual advice. Such friendship between tutor and students broke with convention at the time. 

For Newman, education was a relational activity:

“An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils”, he once wrote, “is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.”

He felt strongly that personal influence is what gives any system its dynamism: the action of mind on mind, personality on personality, heart on heart. And if acquaintance became friendship, all the better since friendship was the privileged way of doing good to someone; “it requires one to be intimate with a person, to have a chance of doing him good”, Newman once told his sister Jemima.

“We are to begin with loving our friends about us”, Newman once preached, “and gradually to enlarge the circle of our affections, till it reaches all Christians, and then all men. […] Having benevolent feelings towards the world – feelings and nothing more – is the mere offspring of an indulged imagination. […] This is not to love men, it is but to talk about love. The real love of man must depend on practice.” And he went on to spell out the consequences:

By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth.

Newman’s sway over Oxford in the 1830s cannot be attributed to his preaching alone, but owed a great deal to his personal magnetism, which made disciples of many of those around him. He captivated an idealistic and serious-minded younger generation in the University who reacted against the academic conservatism and religious laxity of the time and was idolised by undergraduates who hung on his words and even imitated his gait and gestures. 

Newman entered into full communion with the Catholic Church halfway through his life, in October 1845, after many years of searching for the true successor of the primitive or original Church.

The title of his last Anglican sermon, ‘The Parting of Friends’, reminds us of the huge sacrifice his conversion entailed in putting the quest for the truth above ties of family and friendship.

His sister Harriet never saw him again (through her own choice); though his other sister Jemima did, she declined to receive him into her home. 

Almost all of Newman’s Anglican friends cut their ties with him; he was completely ostracised from society and treated as someone who had lost his mind. In 1845 he hardly knew any Catholics, only those who had preceded him into the Catholic Church. For the sake of the truth, therefore, Newman was prepared ‘to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him’, as Pope Benedict XVI put it, including ‘family ties and many friends’, and join a people who were effectively strangers to him.

The Bowdens and the Froudes 

It was typical of Newman that once he got to know someone, he was soon welcomed into their circle of relations. This happened with his closest undergraduate friend at Trinity College, John Bowden, and with his fellow tutor at Oriel, Hurrell Froude. Though they both died before Newman’s conversion, many of their relatives followed him and maintained close ties with him for the rest of their lives. 

Newman and John Bowden were so inseparable at Oxford that other undergraduates got their names mixed up. When Newman visited John on his death bed, he refrained from sharing his doubts about the Church of England, but as John instructed his wife to take Newman as her guide after his death, Newman felt obliged to inform Elizabeth of his state of mind. 

Newman officiated at John’s funeral in September 1844 and thereafter kept in close contact with Elizabeth and her children. On 8 October 1845, she was among the fifteen close friends or relatives whom Newman informed about his imminent reception into the Catholic Church. 

Elizabeth’s eldest daughter Mary Anne, whom Newman had baptised in 1831, began to think of entering a convent when she was seventeen. During the next five years Newman was in communication with Elizabeth about her daughter’s vocation. He shared with her some shrewd observations about Mary Anne and the type of religious life that would suit her, and he took the trouble to visit the Bowdens in London to speak to them in person. In all this we get a glimpse of Newman’s closeness to the family.

Hurrell Froude was one of Newman’s closest friends in the Oriel common room. He joined Newman as a college tutor in 1827 and, along with Robert Wilberforce, they refashioned the system for tutoring so as to provide what one historian has called ‘the germ of the modern tutorial system’ at Oxford. 

When they lost their tutorship in 1831, Newman joined Hurrell and his father on a Mediterranean trip for the sake of Hurrell’s health. Hurrell did not improve, however, and he died of tuberculosis in 1836. Newman got to know two of Hurrell’s brothers, who followed him to Oriel: William, who become an engineer and well-known scientist, and James Anthony, the future historian. 

Through the Froude family circle, Newman got to know Catherine Holdsworth who married William in 1839. In his correspondence with William and Catherine over five decades, Newman shared his lifelong quest for truth and his insights on such matters as faith and reason, certitude and assent, the vitality of grace, the life of prayer, and, not least, the difficulties felt by Anglicans in submitting to the Catholic Church.

Catherine began to regard Newman as a ‘light to my paths’ after reading his sermons in 1834 and thereafter took him for a guide. Once they started corresponding on religious matters, Newman recognized in her a fellow truth-seeker who was ready to sacrifice whatever was necessary to cooperate with God’s grace. He found her deeply sympathetic, and in due time shared with her his doubts about the Anglican Church. 

After becoming a Catholic in 1845, he was exquisitely delicate in the way he dealt with the concerns that were holding her back. Eventually, on 19 March 1857, Catherine overcame her religious procrastination and was received into the Catholic Church. That very day she expressed her heart-felt thanks to Newman, particularly for his tact and telling advice:

“Other Catholics always seemed ‘making a case’ when they said things to me; you always contrived to say exactly what suited my mind.”

She was followed, one by one, by four of her five children – but not by her husband. Extraordinarily, Newman managed to remain on close terms with William, despite his religious scepticism.

Such was the friendship between them that Catherine could say to Newman, “You are dearer to me than any person in the world after my husband and children and my dear sister. What would I give to be able to help you!” “I thank God every year more and more, that we have had you a friend. It is curious to me to see that, although my children are all so different, yet there is something in your writings which fits into their minds in a way that no other serious reading does.”

Though it might surprise us that she should write in such familiar terms to a priest, it should be born in mind that they had known each for decades, that she was married, and that her husband was a loyal friend of Newman.

Her husband William was a loving father who was fair-minded and thoughtful, but he had absorbed from his fellow scientists an attitude of doubt in all matters, above all in religion. Newman, however, declined to abandon his friend to his sophistical doubts and did all he could to undo his scepticism. 

Shortly after his wife’s conversion, he told William, “Whatever pain it is to me to think of our actual differences of opinion, I feel no separation from you in my heart, and, please God, never shall.”

Newman dedicated to him the first volume of Essays Critical and Historical (1871) “as to a true friend, dear to me in your own person, and in your family […] as one, who, amid unusual trials of friendship, has always been fair to me, never unkind; as one […] with […] a deep sense of the responsibilities of religious inquiry, and the sacredness of religious truth”. 

By ‘trials of friendship’ Newman refers to his influence over the Froude family and the reception of Elizabeth and her children into the Catholic Church, to the dismay of William. Right up to William’s sudden death in 1879, he and Newman exchanged lengthy letters on certainty in science and religion, though William remained a religious sceptic to the end.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of an article which first appeared in the newsletter of the International Centre of Newman Friends. For the original article see here: It is republished in Adamah Media with the author’s permission. The second part of this article will appear next week.

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Dr Paul Shrimpton is the author of A Catholic Eton? Newman’s Oratory School (2005) and The ‘Making of Men’: the Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin (2015). He has also written about the influence of Newman on the students of the White Rose resistance in Nazi Germany in Conscience before Conformity (2018). Recently he brought out two volumes of Newman’s unpublished university papers, My Campaign in Ireland, Parts I & II, both of which are critical editions, as well as editing the festschrift for Ian Ker.

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