I suppose every one has a great deal to say about the Providence of God over him. Every one doubtless is so watched over and tended by Him that at the last day, whether he be saved or not, he will confess that nothing could have been done for him more than had been actually done -- and every one will feel his own history as special and singular. --John Henry Newman, in his journal for June 25, 1869
It is a fundamental conviction of Christian faith that God loves every human person. The acknowledgment and discernment of this in the life of the individual is the doctrine of Providence, the doctrine that God is with us through thick and thin, or, as the Rite of Marriage puts it, ''for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health,'' until death brings us to our final homecoming in God.
''Providence'' is never entirely clear to the person as he makes his way through the immediate intricacies of life. Providence is not helpfully understood as God manipulating the course of events for us from outside, so to speak, but is better thought of as God inviting us to recognize and respond to Him as the within of our within. As one author has it, ''The ordinary outward event is recognized as providential as the divine presence is perceived within.''2
As we move along in life, it is both healthy and good to look back over the years and ''see'' the hand of God at work, not as a Divine Puppeteer's hand but as the hand within us, leading, guiding, nudging, inviting perception of His transforming presence. This is especially so when it comes to looking back over the difficulties and challenges that life ineluctably brings to us.
John Henry Newman's poem of 1833, ''The Pillar of the Cloud,'' is particularly helpful in this regard. When Newman entered into his journal the passage cited at the outset of this essay, he was 68 years old, and he was looking back over the course of what was often a difficult life.
As he looked over his life, he was certain that God was always with him, and in all his writing nowhere does he express the conviction more finely than in this poem, ''The Pillar of the Cloud.'' Before coming to the poem, however, it may be helpful briefly to sketch something of Newman's life context. Let's begin with his family, for that is where everyone necessarily begins.
The Newman Family
The spiritual writer, Esther de Waal, has wisely written:
It is never easy to live with other people; it is much simpler to be a saint alone. In a community or a family, or a parish or a group of friends, it is inevitable that we are going to be hurt time and again by others, sometimes so deeply that the pain retains its power for years afterwards.3
Everyone can readily identify with this sentiment. The Newman family had its problems and challenges. The father, the elder John Newman, had become bankrupt, something that both shamed Newman and left the family in difficult financial circumstances. John Henry contributed as best he could to the family financially, a role that would continue until his mother died and his sisters married in 1836.4
For the most part, he got on well with his sisters -- Jemima, Harriet and especially the youngest, Mary -- not so with his brothers, Francis and Charles. John Henry put Francis through Oxford University, so that in 1826 Francis achieved a ''double first,'' and was soon elected to a fellowship at Balliol College. He wrote in his journal at times of being ''ill tempered with Francis,'' and then in 1827, ''Frank is off my hands, but the rest are now heavier.''5
Francis Newman traveled a very different path from his better-known brother, going on an ill-thought-out Christian missionary expedition to the Middle East, and moving later in life into various educational institutions as a teacher. It would be impossible to say that Francis and John Henry were close. Starting in 1823, John began a long running debate with Charles who had become involved in a socialist movement devoted to the political and religious thought of Robert Owen.
The Irish Newman biographer, Sean O'Faolain, describes Charles's situation accurately but with a degree of wry humor: ''To his heartriven family (Charles) might just as well have declared himself an atheist, an anarchist, an abortionist, or a Roman Catholic.''6
Faced with such odds, one can understand that this fraternal debate, if that is the right word, between Charles and John continued throughout Charles's life.
The youngest sister, Mary, born in 1809, died in early January 1828, a devastating blow for Newman. Though Newman seldom commented in his letters on his father's death, he frequently spoke of Mary's. In February 1829, just over a year after Mary's death, he was still dreaming vividly of her.
Newman's State of Mind
Hilary Jenkins writes of Newman at the time of the Mediterranean trip:
Newman was scarred by his experience of life. . . We can recognize major deprivations, first, he had been deprived of his childhood happiness at Ham when the family suffered from his father's bankruptcy; second he had been brutally deprived through the death of his much loved sister, Mary; third, he had felt deprived of his chosen career at Oriel in the defeat of his tutorial policy, which he bitterly resented. . . The fact that these sadnesses were borne in a Christian manner and did not embitter him in the conventional sense may be the obverse of a pattern confirming his rejection of life as essentially desolate.7
There seems little doubt that Newman went through a period of desolation at the time of the Mediterranean journey, even if he could not quite put those words on it. He needed rest and recovery from the ordinary trials and tribulations of life. He was, as we should say today, seriously depressed. He needed a breathing space to find himself and to re-direct the course of his life. The external journey of the voyage might hold out hope for an internal journey of self-rediscovery.
The Mediterranean Journey
On Dec. 8, 1832, Newman left Falmouth in England with his close friend Hurrell Froude and his father Archdeacon Froude, for a journey to the Mediterranean, a journey that was to last some seven months. Hurrell Froude was ill, an illness from which he would never recover, but the medical wisdom of the time suggested a warmer climate. He invited Newman along, as his best friend.
It was Newman's first trip outside England. It brought him into very close encounters with Catholicism, eliciting from him both positive and negative thoughts of the Church. Louis Bouyer, the French Oratorian, writes so descriptively of Newman's attitude to the mainly Catholic Mediterranean peoples of his tour:
Revolting filth, beggars pushing their way everywhere, sloth, dishonesty -- all these shocked (him) as they were calculated to shock any average Anglo-Saxon tourist. Nevertheless, (he) did not fail to detect innumerable evidences of kindliness and humanity. But the basis of their religion seemed on the whole to be a form of idolatry that had virtually no connection whatever with righteous living.8
Newman was conflicted about Catholicism. He appreciated the historic expression of Catholicism throughout his travels in the churches, monasteries, art and so forth, but found the popular religious expression of the faith repulsive. He thought of Catholic devotions in his typical English way as superstitious. He was scandalized at priests roaring with laughter in confessionals in Naples.
During his months abroad, Newman wrote many letters to his family and friends, letters that are not particularly significant, describing as they do the various places he visited and experiences he had, typical tourist letters. However, he also wrote verse, and the verse is more revealing of the inner journey that Newman was undertaking.
There were many such verses that have come to be known collectively as the Lyra Apostolica. The English literary critic, Roger Sharrock makes an interesting remark about these Mediterranean poems:
The steady flow of poems on the Mediterranean journey may have been partly due to an effort to relieve the tedium of a long voyage. But once Newman got into the vein there is no doubt that a serious part of his mind became engaged by the contemplation of a distant England under the sway of liberalism. . . .9
With more time on his hands than he has ever experienced before, Sharrock implies, Newman turned to writing poetry. The poems provide commentary on how he saw the state of the Church of England now that he was geographically removed. The church, due to forces both within and without, was undergoing a forced process of liberalism, but more of that later when we turn to comment on ''The Pillar of the Cloud.''
At the same time, the poems provide a sort of window into Newman's soul. ''The verses . . . are significant in revealing the spiritual purification and development he underwent which gave meaning to the entire journey, ending in a conviction that God had a work for him to do in England.''10
Both at the actual time and later through a series of recountings of what had occurred, Newman came to understand the fearful experience of the illness that befell him in Sicily and his recovery as a providential sign that he must reorder the course of his life.11 But that did not happen immediately. On April 9, his companions, the Froudes, left to return to England, but Newman remained behind. He wanted to re-visit Sicily on his own, though his friends had cautioned against it. After a few days in Naples, he sailed for Sicily.
He arrived at Messina on April 21 with his Neapolitan servant Gennaro. On April 30 he had a fever, but felt better the next day so that he set off again, arriving at the town of Leonforte on May 3. There he succumbed in all probability to typhoid. Gennaro thought his master was on the verge of death.
Confined to bed with the illness, he found himself constantly saying to himself, ''I have not sinned against the light.'' This sinning against the light may have been immediately a self-reflection on not taking the advice of the Froudes about the Sicilian trip. Could it have been more?
Just before leaving Oxford to join the Froudes for the trip, Newman preached a sermon, his ninth Univer- sity sermon, entitled ''Willfulness, the Sin of Saul.'' It was fresh in his mind. Was Newman willful? He thought of the disrespect he had expressed toward his superior, the Provost Edward Hawkins of Oriel, with whom he had seriously disagreed over educational and theological matters to the point where Hawkins disallowed him any more students.
Newman thought he might have received Holy Communion unworthily because he cherished in his heart a measure of resentment against Haw- kins, who effectively had deprived him of his tutorship at Oxford: ''At the time I was deeply impressed with a feeling that it was a judgment for profaning the Lord's Supper, in having cherished some resentment against the Provost for putting me out of the Tutorship''12 Could there have been more?
Feeling somewhat better, he set off with Gennaro from Leonforte, but, after walking about seven miles, he collapsed. Subsequently, Newman was taken to a house and cared for over the next three weeks both by a local medical doctor and Gennaro, with the latter sleeping in the same room as Newman who feared being left alone. As the crisis passed, Newman longed for the light of day, and when it came through the shutters in the room, he responded, ''O sweet light, God's best gift. . . .''13
Finally, when the fever was spent, Newman moved on by carriage toward Palermo. He was still very weak and unable to walk on his own and about May 26 or 27 found him ''profusely weeping, and only able to say that I could not help thinking God has something for me to do at home.''14 It was time to go home.
On June 13, Newman sailed from Palermo on an orange boat bound for Marseilles. The boat found itself in a calm in the Straits of Bonifacio, and it was here at sea on June 16 that Newman wrote his ''Pillar of the Cloud.'' After arriving at Marseilles on June 27, he traveled through France, crossed the English Channel, and arrived back in England on July 8.
It is fanciful to delve too deeply into Newman's psychology, but the Newman scholar, Joyce Sugg, in a popular little book, may have captured the heart of the ''something more'' that ailed him when she says:
He went down even further into his past actions and motives, and saw his own ''utter hollowness.'' The fever was not clouding his mind at that moment; indeed, he felt that he was seeing himself more clearly than ever before. He was sorry and ashamed. . . .15
''The Pillar of the Cloud''
The title of the poem comes from the Book of Exodus. Hilary Jenkins, echoing the sentiments of the consensus of Newman scholars, says: ''It is a peculiarity of Newman's literary genius that he should write such clear poetic prose and be such a bad poet. . . .The prose can sing, the choice of words seems to be ordained, but the verse so often falls flat.''16
The one exception Jenkins notes to this judgment of Newman's poetry in the Lyra Apostolica is this poem entitled ''Pillar of the Cloud,'' best known in English as ''Lead, Kindly Light'' from its opening line. It is Newman's ''one immortal song.''17 The poem was so personal to Newman that it seems never to have been sung in the Birmingham Oratory during his life.
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!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene -- one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
In this first stanza Newman asks God, the ''kindly Light,'' to lead him on. ''Lead Thou me on,'' occurs three times in the poem. It is a prayer trusting in God's kindly providence, to lead Newman on through the tumult of life. He acknowledges that he is far from home. He looks for small steps forward, ''one step enough for me.'' Home is England, yes, but home is also heaven.
Life is like a dark journey, like the journey of the ancient Hebrews from slavery to their homeland flowing with milk and honey. In the Book of Exodus we read: ''The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night'' (Ex 13:21).
And so, Joyce Sugg comments: ''We are like the Israelites released from Egypt, struggling on through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, weary and homesick, but at peace because God is leading us.''18
He names the darkness in which he finds himself, ''the encircling gloom.'' This is a complex issue, reflecting Newman's illness and undoubted depression but perhaps also his fear of what he called ''Liberalism,'' ''the mechanical, mathematical, ecologically disastrous spirit of a disenchanted new order.''19 This new order, descended from the 1798 French Revolution with its proclamation of ''liberté, égalité, fraternité,'' had disastrous results, as far he was concerned.
Gloom, as Newman saw it, abounded socially, politically and religiously. Liberalism affected religion and the church. A liberal religious spirit was abroad that had even been willing to concede Catholic Emancipation in 1829! The great educationist, Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School, had called for comprehensiveness in religion, a coming together of all the denominations, but of course, without Roman Catholics and Quakers.
Newman saw this ''ecumenical'' proposal as monstrous. He was afraid that in this temper the Church of England might very well be disestablished, finally demonstrating the victory of liberal thinking to the detriment of the church and its witness in the nation. Life as he understood and experienced it, was gloomy indeed.
What was the next step for the church? What was the next step for himself? Newman did not know, but he knew that, as in Exodus, in the ''pillar of cloud'' and the ''pillar of fire'' the Lord was going in front of him.
Having trustingly asked God to lead him on, Newman now confesses his sins. Past years had demonstrated perhaps a degree of complacency with his life, especially his life in the church. Newman was well known. He had cut quite an impressive figure at Oxford. He loved ''the garish day.'' He was proud.
The Sicilian illness, however, had laid him low. Newman seems to confess in the words ''I was not ever thus'' that he was not always able to see God's holy yet mysterious presence in his life, inviting him to flourish through a gentle but confident submission, a submission that in its very submitting is far from passive.
Newman was marked by a constant and vivid sense of living in God's presence, but his Sicilian illness brought about a much-deepened awareness of this presence. This is how the Newman scholar, Roderick Strange, puts it: ''(Newman's) perilous condition brought about a revelation of divine presence . . . His declining fortunes . . . may all have combined, even in him whose sense of God's presence was so vivid to dull his awareness of that presence. The illness revived it.''20
This last stanza has been described as ''magically beautiful.''21 Now, aware of God's providential presence as never before, he moves into the unknown future with confident hope. The ''kindly Light'' will continue to lead him on. This is realist verse. Newman had traveled on a mule through the mountains of Sicily, a tough and dangerous journey over ''moor and fen, crag and torrent.''
The physical dangers were all too real, not least his illness. But God has been with him, and God will lead him on ''till the night is gone.'' The ''night'' is the gloom of the first stanza -- the circumstantial gloom of the Church of England and his own existential gloom. He is full of hope as he waits for the night to pass and the ''morn'' to arrive.
The loss in death of his sister Mary had a powerful impact on Newman. They shared a strong and intimate bond in the family. Some weeks after Mary's very sudden death, Newman wrote these words of his experience during a horseback journey, the short ride between Oxford and the village of Cuddesdon, just north of the city.
In a letter to his sister Jemima of May 10, 1828, he wrote: Dear Mary seems embodied in every tree and hid behind every hill. What a veil and curtain this world of sense is! Beautiful, but still a veil!''22 Louis Bouyer thinks that Mary was in Newman's mind when he penned the last two lines of the poem, that she was the first of ''those angel faces, loved long since and lost awhile.''23
It may also be the case that he was thinking too of the home he first remembered, the garden at Ham, ''where as a child he thought that angel faces were all around him.''24
So many others in Victorian England found real solace in this poem, including Queen Victoria herself to whom it was read as she lay dying. It may be, thinks Hilary Jenkins, that the last words she heard on earth may have been:
So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
Mrs. Tait, wife of the Anglican Bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury, lost five children in death in 1856. Beneath the framed picture of her children were the words:
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
That I have loved long since and lost awhile.25
Thirty-two years after it was written, ''The Pillar of the Cloud'' was set to music by John B. Dykes (1823-1876). The music is simply splendid. Newman in point of fact attributed the popularity of the poem to Dykes's musical rendition. While there is something in that, it nonetheless remains true that the poem captivates because it is John Henry Newman. Not only is it Newman, but it is also ourselves, as we allow it to penetrate our thoughts before God, the kindly Light, who is leading us too through life ''till the night is gone.'' TP
Mr. Cummings is Regents' Professor of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary, St. Benedict, Oregon, and is also a permanent deacon.