Nine Days with St. John Henry Newman – Day 7

Day 7 – Loss and Gain

Each in his hidden sphere of bliss or woe,
Our hermit spirits dwell.

-John Keble, quoted in John Henry Newman’s Loss And Gain

It’s been said that John Henry Newman is the first novelist to become a Saint.

That may surprise a lot of people who do not know that Newman was a masterful storyteller of fiction. When they think of his writings at all, the classic Apologia Pro Vita Sua may come to mind, which is the nonfiction story of his doctrinal journey. They may also be aware of his published essays, sermons and meditations, either as books or as excerpts in other contexts. But, much like other communicators in the 19th century, Newman loved the arts, poetry and novels. He played the violin, composed poetry and wrote two novels. 

The first was written in 1847, a short time after Newman was received into the Catholic Church. Titled Loss And Gain: The Story of a Convert, Newman chronicled the life of young Charles Reding as he makes his way through the academic world, meeting lively characters with varied opinions about the deep questions of life, philosophy and faith. Inevitably, Charles finds himself in the middle of contradictory views, strained loyalties, the emergence of personal conviction, and the conflict between his personal beliefs and the world around him. Ultimately, Charles has to make a choice about his faith, regardless of the reactions of those around him. There is little doubt that Newman was drawing on aspects of his own life and interests. 

The second was Callista, written in 1855. Callista is the name of a beautiful Greek girl in the third century who is being pursued by a young Christian man who wants to marry her. To do so would alienate Callista from her pagan family, yet she finds aspects of Christianity deeply compelling. After a terrible plague strikes the country, the Emperor Decius and other leaders put the blame on the Christians and unleashes a terrible persecution. Against all good sense, Callista is drawn closer and closer to the Christian faith – until she is forced to make a decision between worshipping pagan gods or joining the doomed Catholic Church and becoming a martyr. No spoilers here. 

Most critics acknowledged that Newman was an excellent writer, gifted in his setting of scenes and dialogue, and even showed an unexpected sense of irony in his humor. Those close to Newman were not surprised, since he was an avid reader of fiction, enjoying the works of Walter Scott and Anthony Trollope, to name only two of the many authors he read.

Personally, Loss And Gain became an unexpected influence on my own personal journey into the Catholic Church, even ahead of Newman’s better-known works. Newman began the novel while he was staying in Rome, awaiting his marching orders from the Pope about what service he was to perform now that he’d become a Catholic. While there, he received a novel called From Oxford to Rome: And How It Fared With Some Who Lately Had Made The Journey, published anonymously but discovered to have been written by a Miss Elizabeth Harris. The story could have been called There And Back Again, since Miss Harris had converted to Roman Catholicism, only to change her mind and return to the Church of England.

Understandably, those who had followed Newman’s journey over the years wondered, or hoped, if he might do the same thing. The book, which was not written very well, caused a stir back in England. Newman recognized that it had to be answered somehow. Normally, he would have reviewed it in an essay and taken it apart using logic and reason. This time, it made more sense to respond in kind: a novel with more interesting characters, insights into their minds and hearts, and how an individual comes to make a life-changing choice. 

Newman began writing Loss And Gain immediately, finishing it in only a few weeks. (Though, he never completely left it alone; with every new edition, he made adjustments and changes to improve his work.) Many noted later that the novel contained a vibrancy and energy that surpassed Newman’s own nonfiction writing. It was as if he truly enjoyed writing the book. 

Scholars and biographers have noted that the theme of “Loss and Gain” was ongoing throughout Newman’s life. Much like his main character, Newman experienced many painful losses and joyous gains as he went from many difficulties, falling under a variety of influences, until he emerged into the light of Truth. Charles Reding and Newman both sacrifice the things they held dear to attain that Truth.

In reading Loss And Gain during my own journey, I so identified with Charles Reding that I actually delayed reading the last chapter until I had made up my own mind to join the Church. That’s the power of good storytelling. Charles Reding may have been based on Newman’s life to some extent, but the character also represented many young men in the 19th century who no longer accepted blindly what they’d been taught. The upheavals of that century knocked aside many assumptions about the role of the church and the state, personal conscience, logic, reasoning, and what, faith had to do with anything. Charles Reding – and all around him –seek the Truth, trying to make sense of it in the course of everyday living. Once again, we see a recurring theme from Newman’s life. A man’s moral self, as a priest explains to Charles, is “concentrated in each moment of his life; it lives in the tips of his fingers, and the spring of his insteps. A very little thing tries what a man is made of.”

And, like all great works of literature, the character of Charles Reding is pushed to find out who he truly is and what he believes, but only as he is put through life’s wringer. Newman was always unflinching about that part. Loss and gain, pain and joy, darkness and light… these are the things that make up all of our lives. 

O God, we thank you for the many storytellers who have used art to touch our minds and hearts. We thank you for those who have given their talents and skills to proclaim Your Truth. We pray, like them, that we may be “pens in the hands of a skilled artist,” instruments of your making, to create and inspire those things that will bring people closer to Your Love and the Truth of Your Church. Amen.

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Written by Paul McCusker


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