John Henry Newman (1801-1890) challenged the Utilitarian trend of his day, insisting that there was more to human life than what facts and logic could determine. As Russell Kirk summed up Newman in The Conservative Mind (1986), “This sensitive and subtle man lived in an age . . . in which Caesar claimed the things that are God’s; and so Newman spent his life in arguments and struggles abhorrent to his contemplative nature.”
Around the same time another quiet Englishman, Charles Darwin, was mulling over evidence from the natural world for change over time, Newman was considering how elements in the spiritual realm change over time. Newman wrote at length about the development of Christian doctrine, how through the centuries Christian teaching grows organically. As James Hitchcock said of Newman in his History of the Catholic Church (2012), “Part of his achievement was to reconcile historical consciousness with faith.” By historical consciousness Hitchcock meant “the awareness that everything changes over time.”
While Newman composed sublime lyric poems, notably “Praise to the holiest in the height,” his prose works often carried ponderous titles such as An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent and Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and he proposed esoteric vocabulary, like “the Illative Sense,” a head-scratcher for the uninitiated, who would be forgiven for thinking it has something to do with ileitis. In short, students of philosophy gravitate towards Newman’s writings, although for an historian, Newman ranks with Aristotle as one of the greatest bores ever to put pen to paper. Nevertheless, long after any of us are dust, people will still be reading Aristotle and Newman.
Two of Newman’s shorter works that continue to invite reflection are essays on Benedictine monastic life. Those essays, “The Mission of the Benedictine Order” and “The Benedictine Centuries,” first appeared in The Atlantis in December, 1858, and January, 1859, respectively, and they remain in print in various formats. For Newman, the Benedictines stood as symbolic of the first thousand years of the Church. Readers of Newman’s two essays on the Benedictines will find no hint that as Newman wrote, the Benedictines were re-establishing themselves in England, France, and Germany, and that they were founding monasteries in Australia and the United States.
According to Newman’s perspective on monastic history, monks by definition seek out seclusion, silence, and solitude. Whether in the fourth century in the Egyptian desert or in the eleventh century in forested valleys of Western Europe, Newman believed the natural habitat for monks was in isolated locations, near which sometimes grew up cities. “The lonely Benedictine,” declared Newman in “The Benedictine Centuries,” “rose from his knees, and found himself a city.”
Newman’s model of monastic remoteness from what today we call the rat race comes most clearly into focus in his appreciation of the monks of Beaulieu Abbey. (Pronounced Bewley.) Founded in 1203 by King John in rural Hampshire, Beaulieu was a Cistercian monastery honoring the Virgin Mary, and it lasted until 1538, when an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII dissolved it.
To Newman’s way of thinking, those Cistercians of Beaulieu, following the Rule of Saint Benedict, “were not dreamy sentimentalists, to fall in love with melancholy winds and purling rills, and waterfalls and nodding groves; but their poetry was the poetry of hard work and hard fare, unselfish hearts and charitable hands.”
Another dimension to what for Newman was monasticism’s poetical character was educational or literary work. Although Newman acknowledged an extensive catalogue of Benedictine authors, from Bede in the eighth century to Jean Mabillon in the seventeenth, Newman admired that “there was nothing of original research, nothing of brilliant or imposing result,” because therefore “there would be nothing to dissipate, elate, or absorb the mind” and thereby “to violate the simplicity and tranquility proper to the monastic state.” With such comments it is unclear whether Newman saw that he was confirming a Protestant and Enlightenment prejudice that Catholicism is inherently anti-intellectual, rewarding rote memorization of answers in catechisms and lines from Aquinas.
Just as in these essays Newman never gave any indication that in his day Benedictine monasticism was undergoing a revival, he overlooked an important feature of Benedictine monastic life. Newman’s love of places like Beaulieu, tucked away in the woods, made him ignore places like Westminster Abbey, looming large in a major city.
Newman knew about Benedictine monasteries established in cities, but like Bartleby the scrivener, he preferred not to. In today’s terminology, they did not fit his narrative. In Discourse VI of The Idea of a University (1853), Newman observed that “the study of history is said to enlarge and enlighten the mind,” and he noted that studying history gives the mind “a power of judging of passing events, and of all events, and a conscious superiority over them, which before it did not possess.”
In the end, Newman’s essays on Benedictines reveal more about Newman than they do about monks. “When he wrote about monks,” explained Owen Chadwick, “he wrote about them with an idealised happiness which was not always very historical, but which spoke volumes about his idea of life.” Newman’s “conscious superiority” over events, what James Hitchcock called Newman’s “historical consciousness,” had a flaw that kept Newman from appreciating how Benedictines have changed over time.
It was an odd bug in Newman’s mental system, since he could see contemporary changes in philosophical currents, not least being Utilitarianism. As much as, say, Pope Gregory VII’s eleventh century, the nineteenth century was a Benedictine century, with new congregations (associations) of Benedictine monasteries, such as Solesmes, Beuron, and American Cassinese. What is more, during the first twenty-two years of Newman’s life, the Pope, Pius VII, was a Benedictine monk who had been imprisoned by Napoleon but emerged with his inner peace intact and with renewed respect, even reverence, from around the world.
Newman weighed bucolic monasticism against industrial metropolises and found the latter wanting. In his vision of what made several centuries Benedictine, there was room for only one style of monastic life, and it imagined monks as farmers and themselves as rather bovine. It is a sad fact that each congregation of monasteries, sometimes each monastery, preens itself as the gold standard of monasticism. In Newman’s mind, that standard existed around the time that Arthurian legends were new, but, as any honest Benedictine will say, Newman’s monastic standard was as real as Camelot.
I’ve just given an hour-long radio interview with the wonderful Jesuit, Fr. Robert McTeigue, discussing my new book Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know:
Link to the broadcast as streaming audio, with resources list:
Link to the broadcast as podcast: