Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading Newman: The Heart of Holiness (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In a sermon called 'Watching', dated 3 December 1837 (p.33), Newman discusses what it means to be 'watching for Christ', writing:

'Do you know the feeling in matters of this life, of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays? Do you know what it is to be in unpleasant company, and to wish for the time to pass away, and the hour strike when you may be at liberty? Do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something should happen which may happen or may not, or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when you are reminded of it, and of which you think the first thing in the morning? Do you know what it is to have a friend in a distant country, to expect news of him, and to wonder from day to day what he is now doing, and whether he is well? Do you know what it is so to live upon a person who is present with you, that your eyes follow his, then you read his soul, that you see all its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wishes, that you smile in his smile, and are sad in his sadness, and are downcast when he is vexed, and rejoice in his successes? To watch for Christ is a feeling such as all these; as far as feelings of this world are fit to shadow out those of another.'

There were two further quotations which particularly caught my attention:

 'So it is with the souls of holy men. They have a well of peace springing up within them unfathomable; and though the accidents of the hour may make them seem agitated, yet in their hearts they are not so.'

'The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world does not see. He is the greater part of his time by himself, and when he is in solitude, that is his real state. What he is when left to himself and to his God, that is his true life.'

I think these are good descriptions as to what it is that one seeks in the pursuit of holiness - holiness simply meaning to live a life near to the presence of God. It is described very well in the 'Collect for Peace' (as found in the Book of Common Prayer's 'Office for Evening Prayer') as 'that peace which the world cannot give...'

A Collect for Peace.

O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

It is a beautiful prayer, the words of which are, in themselves, like liquid poetry when slowly and quietly spoken aloud. I am sure Newman had them in mind when he was writing.


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