Luther, Newman, and Conversion

To the delight of philatelists and dismay of traditionalists, word was the Vatican’s post office would issue a stamp to commemorate Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of his Ninety-five Theses.  On that day in October, 1517, when he nailed up his now famous Theses, Luther began securing a place in history, but needless to say, a Vatican postage stamp highlighting his schism could make some people believe that there is suddenly ice skating in Hell.

For converts from Protestantism to Catholicism, Luther remains an unavoidable name in the background, a kind of ancestor:  He began the break that their conversions are small steps in repairing.  For someone whose Protestantism was outside Lutheranism, Luther looms as an odious and ominous figure; a fat, arrogant Scripture scholar who raged against anyone who was not open to his way of being inflexible.

With providential quirkiness, October marks not only the split between Luther and Rome, but also one of the more famous conversions to Catholicism.  More than 300 years after Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, John Henry Newman, an Anglican clergyman who taught and preached at Oxford, sought out a Catholic priest and was received into full communion with Rome.  Two years later Newman was ordained to the Catholic priesthood, and thirty-four years later he was made a cardinal.

“After October, 1845,” wrote Henry Chadwick, “Newman was never in doubt that his decision for conversion was correct,” and yet Newman “quickly discovered that the path of a convert can be uncomfortable, even miserable.”  Amidst his frustrations as a Catholic, Newman remained a prolific spiritual writer.  His prose tends to Victorian heaviness, the soporific lull of sunlight through gauze curtains in a widowed aunt’s parlor on a warm Sunday afternoon.  When his writings are not suggesting a prim and tedious author, they are challenging the reader to consider just how much more converting, how much growing closer to Christ, one must face.

Between 1834 and 1842, Newman preached in the university church at Oxford, the result being eight volumes entitled Parochial and Plain Sermons.  Still admired by Protestants and Catholics alike, those sermons pulled no punches.

In one entitled “The Religion of the Day,” Newman described English Christianity as having become genteel:  “Everything is bright and cheerful.  Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first sins.  Austerity is an absurdity; even firmness is looked on with an unfriendly, suspicious eye.”

Such shallowness developed, Newman explained, because Scripture’s wrath of God was dismissed as an anthropomorphism, but God’s love was not.  Heavenly glory was to be enjoyed here on Earth, so Christ dying on the Cross seemed like a gauche and outdated metaphor.  It was a faith of being nice, a polite piety reflected in Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

Other Protestants in Newman’s day and later had hymnals that flexed with more robust lyrics.  While those sterner Protestants’ churches had no crucifixes, their hymns left no doubt about what happened on Calvary.  “There is a fountain filled with blood,” began a hymn by William Cowper, “drawn from Emmanuel’s veins/And sinners plunged beneath that flood/Lose all their guilty stains.”

With Newman’s lukewarm Anglicans, though, those more hardy Protestants shared reverence for the King James Version of the Bible, with its poetic glimpses of a wild, primeval world:  “Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps” (Dt 32:33); “He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn” (Ps 29:6).

When a Protestant converts to Catholicism, it is often because of what Newman put so succinctly in the Introduction to his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845):  “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”  Study of the Church Fathers, such as Newman undertook, can lead one to see that their Church was the Church that Christ founded when He gave the keys of the Kingdom to Peter.  From those keys, through the days of Clement of Rome and Gregory the Great, the historical trail takes one through to the present day and to an old man in a white cassock on a balcony in Rome.

By tracing the path from Peter’s keys to Peter’s successor, one encounters a variety of characters.  One sees a saint like Pope Leo the Great stare down Attila the Hun, and one hears a sensualist like Pope Leo X, who eventually excommunicated Luther, blurt out, “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!”

That continuity carries a price, namely meeting unpleasant people, such as anti-Semites and pedophiles; throughout Church history, they turn up with disturbing regularity.  There are also tiresomely well-meaning people who insist that being a good Catholic means sharing their love of Baroque art or the music of the Saint Louis Jesuits, or who think that just a little more conversion will make one give up preferring The Federalist Papers to the Berrigan brothers, Joseph Conrad to Flannery O’Connor.

Along the way, one must leave behind a lot that is congenial and familiar.  Gone is the fountain filled with blood, gone are the unicorns.  Still, amidst the resulting drabness, what counts, Newman would say, is that vital continuity.  Its vitality means change as well as continuity, since all living things change, but even that change occurs within an established pattern.  Apple trees grow and mature (change) but end up producing apples, not artichokes.

Owen Chadwick, older brother of Henry, quoted above, said that Newman’s outlook on life could be summed up, “expect change because change cannot but happen to society, but see that the change grows out of and conserves the best of the past.”  He added that this perspective “was the thought of Edmund Burke, and thereafter of all sane and moderate conservatives.”

Sanity and moderation are not words historians consistently apply to Luther, but they fit Newman at his best.  (At his worst, he could be, like many scholars, prickly and pedantic.)  Whatever their respective inner steadiness, both men were deft and sinewy poets, Luther writing about God as our “mighty fortress,” and Newman about “that flesh and blood/Which did in Adam fail,/Should strive afresh against the foe,/Should strive and should prevail.”

One hundred twenty years after his death, the Catholic Church beatified Newman, and ironists await the day when Vatican postal meters will mark Luther cancelled.

Japanese Chess

This article appeared in an 1869 issue of the British periodical “Chess World”.


The following interesting article appeared lately in “The Philadelphia Daily Bulletin” :—

All of our readers, of course, remember the visit of the Japanese Embassy to our shores eight years ago. On their arrival in this city we determined to convert them into a grand means of communication between Oriental and Occidental Chess, and we entertained strong hopes of embellishing our column with a Japanese Gambit, between two leading players of the Sho-ho-ye, or some other Japanese Club. On being introduced into the quarters of the Embassy, we learned that the game was almost exclusively confined to the middle and lower ranks—a striking illustration of the semi-barbarism of these islanders.

A set of Japanese Chessmen, which we borrowed from a friend for the purpose, served as an interpreter, and very effectually too, for our strange guests immediately turned them out on the table and explained their use. In the absence of a board, they asked, in very intelligible English, for a piece of paper, and with marvellous rapidity laid out a “board,” writing the names of the pieces with great neatness in their appropriate squares. We prize this “autograph” Chess Board very highly as an interesting memento of the Embassy.

The delegation that visited the Philadelphia Chess Club consisted of eight of the soldiers, each carrying his long, heavy sword in one hand, and some of them a light fan in the other. After a few minutes spent in salutations, two of them took their seats at the table which had been prepared for them, and the first game of Japanese Chess ever played in a Christian land (except such as may have been played within the seclusion of the Japanese quarters since the Embassy reached America) was begun.
The players, one of whom, Yamada Woomagen, was a fine looking man, drew for the first move, by tossing a Ho-kei, or pawn, into the middle of the board (à la Mercantile Library fashion), the move being governed according to the side falling uppermost, and the game proceeded by the advance of the pawns, followed by the different pieces.

The board and pieces being carefully marked and numbered, we had hoped to make some record of the game, but owing to the game’s intricacies and peculiarities, and to the extraordinary rapidity of the play, we were soon hopelessly bewildered.

As the game progressed it was soon apparent, from the expression on the faces of their companions that one of the players was speedily gaining ground, and they all laughed heartily, but most good-naturedly, when the loser arose from the table, with the simple remark, “He beat me. ”

This game was not played out to a mate, and they accordingly agreed to play another game, the loser in the first game yielding his place to one of his companions, Sano Kanaye, who, from his greater proficiency in English, acted as interpreter to the party. He seemed to play a bold game, and in fifteen minutes he announced “Ote!” which signifies killed, suggesting a significant analogy with the mat of the Persians, which bears the same meaning.

Our visitors stated that there were in Jeddo seven ” Chess masters,” appointed by the Government, to instruct the people in the game, and that there were many Japanese books on the game, some of which they promised to send to us when the Niagara returned from Japan. The Orientals, however, have poor memories.

They described to us another Japanese game, somewhat similar to draughts, played on a board “nineteen squares each way,” making altogether three hundred and sixty-one squares.

Some of them expressed, much curiosity to learn our game, and took in some elementary lessons, which were given them, with remarkable aptness. They were much gratified by a present of a set of Chessmen and a copy of the “Handbook,” which will probably become a text book of the Japanese Chess College at some future day. After partaking of an impromptu collation and recording their names on the register, our visitors took leave of us in high spirits and with many expressions of pleasure at their visit, leaving with us a most agreeable impression of their gentle, cheerful politeness, and their aptness and intelligence in acquiring and communicating knowledge.

No Hell Below Us, Above Us Only Sky

It’s almost a commonplace that hell is never mentioned in most Catholic homilies anymore, nor is it even alluded to.  But it’s even more of a problem that heaven, while never mentioned by name (out of

embarrassment, I think), is even more misunderstood than hell.

As to the banishment of hell, you need look no further than today’s Mass readings, which feature Our Lord’s parable of the invited guests, many of whom ignore the invitation to come in to the feast.  The parable ends with a stern warning about hell …

But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. 
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Mat. 22:11-14)

The text of this dramatic ending of the reading is bracketed by the bishops – which means it is optional for the priest or deacon to read it.

Our priest today opted not to read the conclusion of the parable, which served to achieve the obvious: the parable loses its sting, and in some ways is robbed of its main point.

His homily reminded me of what you’ll experience at most Catholic parishes at the Easter Sunday Mass.  “Hey, everybody!  Lent is over!  We can go back to eating chocolate!!!”  The Resurrection is shorn of its true joy and drained of any real depth, even psychological depth.

For our universe has been flattened.  Banish the terrors of hell and you end up with a hole where heaven ought to be.  “No hell below us, above us only sky,” as John Lennon wrote – though I’m not even sure the sky is up there anymore.

Heaven has become either an all-you-can-eat buffet – which is more of less what the wedding feast symbolized in Our Lord’s parable, according to our homilist – or a place where everybody is nice and smiles at one another – a kind of psych ward for lobotomy patients.

And while the Kingdom of God is among us, and we get glimpses of it in the unsung bravery and love of the many ordinary people in our lives, that fleeting sense of a “joy beyond the walls of this world, poignant as grief” is utterly absent from our typical notions of eternal life with the Holy Trinity and the saints.

I think this kind of culture – or, more accurately, this vapid lack of culture – which, aside from the sacraments, is the only thing put forward in the Catholic Church at the typical parish level these days – this kind of anti-culture bears this kind of fruit.

The transcendent exists.  It is in a more fundamental way than we are – but if we can’t approach the transcendent (either heaven or hell) at church, then where can we approach it?