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Cardinal Newman

Cardinal John Henry Newman
Cardinal Newman is set to be beatified during this autumn's papal visit to the UK

By John Cornwell
Author, "Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint"

The climax of the papal visit to Britain in September will be the beatification of Cardinal Newman in Coventry, paving the way for him to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church.

That would make him the first non-martyr in this country to be accorded sainthood since the Reformation. Newman was an Anglican who converted in the mid-nineteenth century and became an intellectual and cultural icon for many Catholics.

Newman complained during his life time of the phantoms that "gibbered" instead of the real him.

There were lots of versions of the real Newman: the protestants thought he was a turncoat who had betrayed the religion of his family, church and country to enter the embrace of the whore of Babylon - Rome.

Catholics have always regarded him a courageous person who resisted the pressures to stay in the Anglican faith.

He has been viewed as gay, by Peter Tatchell, and as "irrefutably heterosexual" by the Newman scholar, Father Ian Ker.

He has been celebrated as a champion of papal authority by conservative Catholics, and of freedom of conscience by liberal Catholics.

Writer Lytton Strachey thought he was like a dove and then changed his mind: perhaps more like a hawk.

Today the Catholic Church is about to beatify him, the last stage before being made a full saint.

But there are Catholics who believe that he was spiteful, narcissistic, and arrogant.

His great fellow convert, Cardinal Manning, thought he was "a great hater."

Yet whatever these different versions, his most compelling and most neglected reputation is that of a writer.

The virtuosity, the energy, was prodigious: polemic, essays, poetry, hymns, tracts, satires, histories, scholarly monographs, discourses, lectures, meditations, novels, sermons, letters - he wrote scores of them daily.

His prose was described by James Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus as "cloistral silverveined."

Cardinal John Henry Newman
Cardinal Newman is one of Britain's highest-profile Catholic converts

Many have remarked on the musicality and elegance of his writing. But such descriptions fail to do justice to the dogged, driven, multi-drafted, self-disciplined industry.

The impression is of a night and day foundry, an indefatigable, pressurised letting of of steam.

To borrow from Newman's own industrial metaphor for Catholic Christendom, his output was like "some moral factory, for the melting refining, and moulding, by an incessant, noisy process, of the raw material of human nature, so excellent so dangerous, so capable of divine purposes."

He was, in short, a superabundant literary workaholic. He even prayed with a pen in his hand.

His gifts were those of a prose writer rather than a poet, although his long poem Dream of Gerontius was a best seller and set to music by Elgar.

He did not find writing easy. He spoke of it as like "gestation or childbirth, great pain reaching to the body as well as to the mind." Few writers have ever described the labour of drafting and redrafting, in the way that he did.

Why all this labour? When he became a cardinal he chose these words as his motto: "Heart speaks unto Hearth."

He strived and toiled in writing to reach out through the medium of cold print to achieve a heartfelt luminosity and personal contact and feeling.

He worked hard for it, all the while conscious of the power of mass publishing that dominated the reading public.

"I have not tendency to be saint - it is a sad thing to say so. Saints are not literary men."
Cardinal Newman

He was convinced that people are not made religious through scientific reasoning, or philosophy, or giant leaps of faith.

"The heart," he wrote, "is commonly reached not through reason by through imagination."

Faith, like love, he believed is the result of approaching religion as a total person, but particularly through one's imagination.

And so he strived in his writing to give a total holistic experience of faith rather than proofs based on a a set of cold, abstract, logical proofs.

My book attempts to tell the story of Newman's writing life; and, as a writer, he had many of the failings of a professional writer, not least a tendency to be self-engrossed and jealous of his reputation.

In his own view the literary vocation would disqualify him from sainthood:

"I have not tendency to be saint - it is sad a thing to say so. Saints are not literary men..."

And yet, Christians, and non-Christians, I believe, owe him an enormous debt of gratitude: for he discovered new ways of writing about religion, more attuned to imagination than to dogma.

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