In all the years I have been writing a blog named in homage to one of my spiritual heroes, Blessed John Henry Newman, it is ironic that I have never written much about him. Even so, it is one of his writings, a poem, which will be the main focus here. The short poem is appropriate for today as a prayer of hope for when things seem a bit ‘out of hope’s reach.’ I purposely do not use the word ‘hopeless’ because we (Christians) believe that there is always hope, whether it be in this life or the next. The Father sent Jesus to give greater hope, not as some sort of panacea, but rather as the heart of the Good News: Jesus offers salvation, and we look to the day when we will overcome all that assails us here. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that we regard as holy those who heroically lived the virtues, especially the three baptismal virtues of faith, hope, and love. Blessed John Henry Newman was such a holy one. He held on to these virtues as he strove to discern and then follow the call God gave him with all the difficulties which arose as a result. The fruit of his struggle, and the hope he clung to, is most evident in his famous poem referred to by its first words: Lead Kindly Light.*
Briefly, Blessed (Cardinal) John Henry Newman was born in London in 1801 and died in 1890 in Birmingham. Biographers tend to focus on his brilliant theological mind, his ability to produce stellar writings, and his burning search for truth, all of which are accurate characterizations of him. But we must not miss his deep love of God which was the motivation for all of it. Newman was a great theologian, but he was also a poet with a sensitive heart; everything he did was the fruit of prayer and the graces which flowed from it. His life was seemingly defined by controversy which stemmed from his decision to become Roman Catholic after he was already an established Anglican priest. In short, after a serious illness followed by intensively studying the early Church Fathers, Newman became increasingly uneasy with his previous understandings and more attracted to Roman Catholicism. He converted in 1845 and ultimately went to Rome to become a priest. The conversion was incredibly costly; he lost all of his Anglican friends and simultaneously was not trusted by many Catholics because of his previous anti-Catholic writings. He eventually joined the Oratory, (a congregation of priests and brothers founded by St. Philip Neri in the 16th century), finding a spiritual home among these men. However, the pain of losing dear friends, many of whom now slandered him, caused a great deal of personal suffering for many years.**
Besides Newman’s extensive theological writings he also penned many poems, devotions, and prayers. These works offer insight into the depth of his relationship with God; we can see that only someone acquainted with the Gospels, and with the Lord who taught them, could have persevered through so many personal trials. It was his prayer that bore the fruit, both in cultivating his expression of theological knowledge and in helping him persevere through the pain. His aforementioned poem, actually named The Pillar of the Cloud but referred to as Lead Kindly Light, can be viewed as a work which reveals the place of hope in his spirituality. It was written after suffering an illness while in Sicily. Desperately wanting to return home, he had embarked upon a journey by ship when the winds calmed and they could not sail for days. It was during this time that he wrote these words:
"Lead, kindly Light, amidst th'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.” (See below for full text.) *
Upon reflection, it seems as if the poem is a lesson in hope, offering a glimpse into Newman’s sense of reliance upon God’s help, something he knew was indeed available. He trusted that God would lead him through the darkness of loneliness, but it also reveals a deeper conviction that God would guide him through this tumultuous life to the ultimate destination of Heaven. It was hope which enabled him to write that he did not need to see the final result, but only to know that he was at least headed toward it. Truly, this is the essence of hope: to realize that we do not need to see the final destination, but rather that it is enough to know it is there. Newman held fast to the hope that God would guide him through the dark, and in gratitude for this and the many blessings he received, he stated: “So long Thy power hath blessed me, sure it still will lead me on.” And thus he knew he would see his home and his friends again, if not in this life, surely in the next.
This poem is appropriate for our times since we all struggle with various burdens. We may feel lost due to illness, lack of certainty in our economic situation, betrayal by a friend or family member, being misunderstood for a stand we have taken (particularly if it is for our faith), or a sense that we do not fit in for whatever reason; these are all serious burdens. We may worry about the state of domestic or international politics, injustices in the legal system or in the world at large; we may be concerned about our own choices, or perhaps we have lost our spiritual compass and feel far from God. Even if we are in a time of prosperity and happiness, if we are truly living the Christian life, we are not oblivious to the needs of others both in the wider world and in our own personal sphere, and thus we are carrying a burden. Therefore we can learn greater hope from Newman’s words, even praying the poem: “Lead, Kindly Light, amidst the circling gloom. Lead Thou me on!”
We must call upon the spiritual gifts given to us at baptism. Jesus taught us to love, but it is because He loved us first that we can attempt to do this. His love never fails, and when we turn to Him, we allow His love to enter into our hearts in reassurance that nothing can separate us from Him. (Romans 8:38-39) We have been given the gift of faith, which does not mean we understand, but that we trust in His promises. And this is precisely where the gift of hope comes in: it is the glue that holds it all together and it is at the heart of the Good News. It is hope in our future with God in Heaven forever which enables us to love in the way Jesus teaches. If we did not have hope we could not forgive “70 x 7 times” (Matt 18:22) because we would not trust that it sets us, and the other, free; without hope we could not open our hearts to the poor because we would not accept that our work has any real value; and without hope we could not persevere through trials or overcome adversity because we would not realize that we are destined for heaven where there is no sorrow and there are no tears. Hope is what powers our love and our faith. It is what enables us to do more than ‘hang in there,’ but rather to find joy, peace, and acceptance because we find God when we most need Him for comfort and guidance; it is in the darkness that we find Him. Hope enables us to love the ‘unlovable’ because we see something in them we would not see without it. Hope enables us to trust in the message of Jesus which is to be merciful when we have the power not to be, and to be compassionate when we could walk away. Hope tells us there is a reason to live the virtues and to grow in holiness. And it is hope, not mere desperation, which enables us to let others reach out to us when we are in darkness.
Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman was a theological master, and I suspect one day he may even be named a Doctor of the Church. But that is not why he attracts me. Rather, he is attractive because of the grace and humility with which he lived: despite being misunderstood and maligned, and that he was never truly welcomed as one who belonged for much of his adult life, he never gave up hope in His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In so doing, he left us a legacy of hope through his writings, especially the beautiful poem, Lead Kindly Light. He teaches us that the grace of hope does ‘spring eternal,’ that hope does not mean blind acceptance, but rather it means that while wrestling with the messiness of life we rely on the Lord to lead us onward. Hope is indeed at the heart of the Good News. Therefore, with Newman, let us pray: “Lead, kindly Light….lead Thou me on!”
May we rely on the sacramental graces given to us by God! May we always hope in the promises of Christ! May we have confidence in the presence of God in the midst of the darkness when we are in search of His light! May we help lead others to Jesus through the living of our faith, hope, and love! And may we take one step at a time, trusting in the guidance and never-failing love of God! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next post, July 2.
* Here is the entire poem, The Pillar of the Cloud, commonly known as Lead Kindly Light, by Bl. John Henry Newman. (1833)
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'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 prayed 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!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
- More on the poem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead,_Kindly_Light
- A wonderful original version of Lead Kindly Light, sung by Audrey Assad, a Christian musician: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7g2xe7RlD9k
** A short biography of Bl. John Henry Newman: http://www.birminghamoratory.org.uk/oratorian-saints/blessed-john-henry-newman/
1. This is one of my photos of the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi. I added the golden hue for dramatic effect. I chose it because it depicts the light coming out of the gloom of the clouds.
2. This is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols, simply called Blessed John Henry Newman. He gave the original to me as a gift, and it is especially beloved. You can purchase a copy of it in one of many mediums at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/blessed-cardinal-john-henry-newman-221-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
3. This is called Wheatfield with Cypress painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889. No one does clouds like Van Gogh! Enough said.
4. Another of my photos: This rainbow formed after a brief storm in Kaikoura, New Zealand, (south island). It brought to mind the rainbow, the sign of God's covenant with Noah and the people, which ensured God's protection and enduring love.
5. I took this photo on the north island of New Zealand. It is one of the famous Kauri trees. I chose this photo because the majestic tree brought to mind the strength of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
6. I took this photo in the gardens of Larnach Castle in Dunedin, New Zealand (south island). I chose to use it here because gardens always speak to me of life and hope.
Finally, a big "thank you" to Lesley for assistance with a grammatical issue.
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart