Nine Days with St. John Henry Newman – Conclusion

Conclusion – Crossing the Stream

We seem to live and die as the leaves; but there is One who notes the fragrance of every one of them, and, when their hour comes, places them between the pages of His great Book.

-John Henry Newman

Only a couple of days before John Henry Newman died of pneumonia (Monday, August 11th, 1890), his assistant, Fr William Neville, entered Newman’s room and found the 89-year-old “unbent, erect. To the full height of his best days in the fifties, without support of any kind. His whole carriage was, it may be said, soldier like, yet so dignified: and his countenance was so attractive to look at; even great age seemed to have gone from his face, and with it all careworn signs; his very look conveyed the cheerfulness and gratitude of his mind; and his voice was quite fresh and strong: his whole effect was that of power combined with complete calm. One might add, with readiness to die.” It’s a lovely image of a man who, for almost a decade, had dealt with one illness after another. He was well into his 80s, which was quite a life span. But now it was coming to an end. 

Newman, who had suffered the losses of many family members and friends to death throughout his long life, chronicled the loss of one friend as “a sudden, unexpected blow — I shall not see him now, till I cross the stream which he has crossed. How dense is our ignorance of the future, a darkness which can be felt, and the keenest consequence and token of the Fall. Till we remind ourselves of what we are — in a state of punishment — such surprises make us impatient, and almost angry, alas! I wonder what day I shall die on — One passes year by year over one’s death day, as one might pass over one’s grave.”

His last few years had been difficult as his physical skills deteriorated, even though, according to The Times of London obituary, he had “fully retained his mental faculties, and has rallied in a wonderful manner from more than one severe illness.” When assisting with any sacred function in the Oratory chapel, he needed the help of two of the Fathers to enter and leave. The last function was the solemn triduo in mid-July, celebrating the beatification of Juvenal Ancina of the Roman Oratory. He had to be carried in on a chair. On the Saturday of the triduo “he gave the Benediction to the congregation with the relics of the Saint.”

Not long after that, he was in the audience for the annual performance of a Latin play by the students of the Oratory school. This one, the Andria, he had arranged. “He also distributed the prizes to the pupils, addressing a few remarks to each,” said The Times

Even at that age, Newman did not neglect the average, daily duties required of him as a servant of God. 

The symptoms of pneumonia came on suddenly the Saturday night of that final weekend. Dr. Blunt, his regular physician, was summoned back from his vacation. Newman’s condition deteriorated into Sunday, though he spoke with those who came to his room and recited the Breviary with Fr. Neville. He then fell unconscious and, apart from whispering “William” (Fr Neville’s first name), he was unresponsive. 

The Oratory Fathers were informed that he had only hours to live. The rite of extreme unction was performed. He lingered throughout the rest of the day, breathing his last at 8:48 that evening. 

“He died in the presence of the Fathers of the Congregation,” said The Times, “and there is every reason to believe that his death was painless.”

In a sermon called “The Lapse of Time,” Newman said: 

Let us follow the course of a soul thus casting off the world, and cast off by it. It goes forth as a stranger on a journey. Man seems to die and to be no more, when he is but quitting us, and is really beginning to live. He is gone, he now belongs to others; he now belongs entirely to the Lord who bought him; to Him he returns; but whether to be lodged safely in His place of hope, or to be imprisoned against the great Day, that is another matter, that depends on the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil. And now what are his thoughts? His lot is cast once and for all, and he can but wait in hope or in dread. We must die, the youngest, the healthiest, the most thoughtless; we must be thus unnaturally torn in two, soul from body; and only united again to be made more thoroughly happy or to be miserable for ever.

Forty years before, Newman noted that, “We are going on right to death; a truism, yet not felt. We are on a stream, rushing towards the ocean; every morning we rise nearer to death; every meal we take; every time we see our friends, etc.; [we are] nearer the time when we shall lose them. We rise, we work, we eat; all such acts are as milestones. As the clock ticks, we are under sentence of death. The sands of the glass run out; we are executed; we die. Seek the Lord therefore; this is the conclusion I come to; this world is nothingness. Seek Him where He can be found, i.e. in the Catholic Church. He is here in the same sense in which we are.

The Times, again in its obituary, expressed a sentiment that Newman might have said himself, “The truth is the great Cardinal has occupied so exceptional a place in human affairs that, while he has largely influenced them, he has had himself to discover and even to recognize that they could go on without him. Standing apart from the world, he has long been on excellent terms with it, and they part in peace.”

Many of us hope for an easy death – to “part in peace,” as Newman did. Perhaps we share Newman’s own feelings when he wrote:

What a day will that be when I am thoroughly cleansed from all impurity and sin, and am fit to draw near to my Incarnate God in His palace of light above! What a morning, when having done with all penal suffering, I see Thee for the first time with these very eyes of mine, I see Thy countenance, gaze upon Thy eyes and gracious lips without quailing, and then kneel down with joy to kiss Thy feet, and am welcomed into Thy arms. O my only true Lover, the only Lover of my soul, Thee will I love now, that I may love Thee then. What a day, a long day without ending, the day of eternity, when I shall be so unlike what I am now, when I feel in myself a body of death, and am perplexed and distracted with ten thousand thoughts, any one of which would keep me from heaven. O my Lord, what a day when I shall have done once for all with all sins, venial as well as mortal, and shall stand perfect and acceptable in Thy sight, able to bear Thy presence, nothing shrinking from Thy eye, not shrinking from the pure scrutiny of Angels and Archangels, when I stand in the midst and they around me!

The memorial tablet in the cloister of the Birmingham Oratory is inscribed with Newman’s own words: Ex Umbris et Imaginibus in Veritatem (“from shadows and appearances to the truth”), an accurate summation of a life dedicated to bringing light to the shadows and exposing the misleading appearances of the world. In the end, it was said that he proclaimed the Truth of Christ. 

May God allow the same to be said of all of us. 

PRAYER:

(From Newman’s “Prayer for a Happy Death”)
Oh, my Lord and Saviour,
support me in that hour in the strong arms of Your Sacraments,
and by the fresh fragrance of Your consolations.
Let the absolving words be said over me,
and the holy oil sign and seal me,
and Your own Body be my food,
and Your Blood my sprinkling;
and let my sweet Mother, Mary, breathe on me,
and my Angel whisper peace to me,
and my glorious Saints smile upon me;
that in them all,
and through them all,
I may receive the gift of perseverance,
and die, as I desire to live,
in Your faith,
in Your Church,
in Your service,
and in Your love. Amen.

 

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Written by Paul McCusker

 

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