A “Pure Block of Purpose”
My Life with Cardinal Newman
By: Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB
I know exactly when Cardinal Newman came into my life. It was in the spring of 1964, halfway through the Second Vatican Council.
Articles were appearing in the Catholic press about the 100th anniversary of John Henry Newman’s spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I was remotely interested, but I knew very little about Newman. Besides, I had other things on my mind.
I was going through a difficult time. I had been in the monastery for five years, had made my final vows as a Benedictine, and had been ordained a deacon. I had no thought of leaving the monastery, but like many young religious of that time, I was troubled by the slow pace of renewal in the Church. I was angry at religious were beginning to leave, and it seemed to me that some Church leaders were making sure that even more would leave.
A headline about Cardinal Newman in a Catholic paper caught my eye, and I began to read the article. Somehow the story went right to my heart. It wasn’t Newman’s historical stature or his teaching that struck me. I would learn all that later. What resonated was the man himself and his integrity. I was struck by his devotion to the Lord and his unwavering pursuit of truth. A former student of his had commented: “He told us what he believed to be true. He did not know where it would carry him.” It carried him, like St. Peter, where he didn’t want to go, and at a pivotal moment of his life, it cost him virtually everything.
Living for the Truth Within fifteen minutes of meeting Newman, my whole perspective began to change. I saw that my anger was selfish and adolescent, not pure and righteous. I got a sense of what responding to the call of God really means. Here was the most brilliant man of his generation, one of the great intellects of all time, humbling himself in obedience to Church leaders who were weak and often untrustworthy, because he believed God acted through them and would lead him to the truth through obedience.
Here, too, was a man traveling a path that could only lead to misunderstanding, malicious criticism, loss of position, and loss of friends. But he traveled it anyway, believing that it was the path charted for him by God. He had no idea where this path would end, but that wasn’t important. All he could do was walk it one step at a time—and know that every step mattered. It’s as he wrote in his hymn “Lead, Kindly Light”: “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”
Later I would encounter a meditation that Newman wrote early in life, and which turned out to be a description of the way he lived all his years. I have tried to make it a beacon for my own life as well:
“He who obeys God conscientiously and lives holily, forces all about him to believe and to tremble before the unseen power of Christ. . . . To his neighbors he manifests the Truth in proportion to their knowledge of him. And some of them, through God’s blessing, catch the holy flame, cherish it, and in their turn transmit it. And thus in a dark world Truth still makes its way, in spite of the darkness, passing from hand to hand.”
I realized that my job as a disciple of Christ was not to undertake grandiose projects but just to take the next step as faithfully as I could, being open to God’s presence in the next person or the next situation. This was how I would find and pass on truth— not an abstract reality but the life of God.
Apologia. I began reading Newman’s Apologia and then his sermons. These only whetted my appetite for more. In the summer of 1967, I made a “Newman Pilgrimage” to Oxford and Littlemore and then to the Birmingham Oratory, where Newman spent the last forty years of his life. Through the kindness of Father Stephen Dessain, the wonderful editor of Newman’s letters and diaries, I was able to spend several days praying and reading in Newman’s chapel and library with his own books, many containing his annotations.
I have been on a spiritual pilgrimage with John Henry Newman ever since, constantly reading and rereading his works and reading about him, and asking his help for my own journey. I have gotten to know him best through his letters and diaries, which now amount to more than thirty large volumes. The public record of a life is one thing, but the record of a life as portrayed through unguarded private letters is something quite different. Here the true person is revealed, with motives, judgments, and feelings exposed without varnish. In these brilliantly edited volumes, I was able to walk day by day with Newman and understand him from the inside.
There was also help from the outside. During the 122 years since his death, an avalanche of studies related to Newman and his time has appeared. All this material has given us a better understanding of the forces Newman was dealing with and the pressures exerted on him from all sides.
It has also shown how Newman responded to the pressure. No matter where it came from and no matter how threatening it seemed, Newman remained committed to his pursuit of the truth as he had come to understand it. No matter how viciously he was maligned or how carelessly he was treated, he held fast to his convictions. A former colleague of his put it best. Commenting on Newman after his death, he wrote: “Nowhere has there been a life so completely all of a piece, so patiently carved out of one pure block of purpose.”
The image of life as a pure block of purpose gave me new insight into the meaning of my own monastic vows. I began to see that though I made my solemn profession on a particular day in history, my vows did not remain in the past. Rather, they are with me to light the way as I get up every morning. I am unconscious of their presence until a choice comes that could lead me astray. That’s when I have the opportunity to decide again to stay true to the path God has laid out for me.
Spiritual Doctrine. Very soon after I met Newman, my reading began to open me to the world of his theology and his spiritual teachings. There are many elements that have stood out for me and have become lights for my own spiritual path, but above all of them is his belief that God was intimately present to him every step of the way. “A true Christian,” he once wrote, “may almost be defined as one who has a ruling sense of God’s presence within him.” This has resonated especially in my monastic life, as the Benedictine Rule places a strong emphasis on our call to be aware of the divine in all our work and prayer.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for our abbey newsletter in which I spoke of something I called “God’s Mantra.” I shared how my years of study and prayer had shown me three messages from God that span the entire Scriptures: “I am with you. I love you. Trust me.” We can easily fail to appreciate how unexpected this message is from an all-powerful Creator, and how it is almost indefensible in philosophical terms. But if this revelation of the nature of God is not true, nothing of the revelation is true. At the time, I did not realize it, but I am convinced that my long association with Newman helped me to recognize these dominant biblical themes.
God Will Take Care of You. Newman’s conviction of God’s constant presence gave him a profound humility. This permitted him to be free of the pressure of making his mark, protecting his flanks, defending his integrity. He expressed it in a famous meditation:
“God has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work, I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it if I just keep His commandments. Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. . . . He knows what He is about.”
Even though many of his mature years were spent under a cloud, he felt that God would vindicate him, either in this life or the next. What has helped me in Newman’s teaching more than anything on an everyday basis is his principle: “Never defend yourself if it is only yourself you are defending.” You may need to defend yourself because a slur or insult toward yourself implicates someone else or because it assaults your community or the Church or God. This is why he responded so vigorously to Rev. Kingsley. But God will take care of you. You don’t have to take care of yourself.
This is what it means to live as a pure block of purpose. This is what it means to surrender yourself into the loving, powerful hands of your heavenly Father. Newman has taught this to me, and I’m sure he can teach it to all of us.