Louis Bouyer was a priest of the Oratory, a convert to Catholicism from Lutheranism, which he had served as a minister, an eminent liturgiologist and historian of spirituality, an influential scholar of Newman (whose studies of Newman helped to pave the way for Newman’s eventual beatification), and, perhaps most importantly of all, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century.
Dr. Keith Lemna, Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology
I would be deeply remiss if I did not point out that the author of this piece, Fr. Louis Bouyer, is a giant of 20th century Catholic Theology and most of all a scholar of liturgy and spirituality. His book Newman: His Life and Spirituality (from which this post was created) was recently reissued by Ignatius Press.
How could Newman attach such importance to a conversion which he himself describes as doctrinal in its nature, if the very doctrine by which he was converted was soon, despite the terms in which he had just alluded to it, to fade, and at last totally to disappear, from his mind? The answer to this question is implicitly conveyed in the very page of the Apologia which gave rise to it. In order, however, to make this clear, we must interpret the words of the Apologia in the light of a passage contained in the Memoir. We have now once again to hark back to an earlier period — as far back, in fact, as 1826.
In the matter in question, that is conversion, my own feelings were not violent, but a returning to, a renewing of, principles, under the power of the Holy Spirit, which I had already felt, and in a measure acted on when young.
If we carefully bear that statement in mind, the passage from the Apologia which we shall now quote will need no explanation.
I received it [the doctrine of final perseverance] at once, and believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I am still more certain than that I have hands and feet) would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory. I have no consciousness that this belief had any tendency whatever to lead me to be careless about pleasing God. I retained it till the age of twenty-one, when it gradually faded away; but I believe it had some influence on my opinions, in the direction of those childish imaginations which I have already mentioned, viz, in isolating me from the objects which surrounded me, in confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator; — for while I considered myself predestined to salvation, my mind did not dwell upon others, as fancying them simply passed over, nor predestined to eternal death. I only thought of the mercy to myself.
We have already adverted, in the course of our narrative, to an idea very strange in a small child — the idea, namely, that he thought he might be an angel and all this world a deception, his fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from him and deceiving him with the semblance of a material world. That passage readily recurs to our mind when Newman himself tells us that in the spring of 1816, reading a book by Isaac Watts which spoke of Saints unrecognized by the world, he took it to be an allusion to that early notion of his, as if Watts was speaking of angels living in the world, but disguised.
The first of the two passages we have quoted seems to furnish the clue to the second, and to explain its apparent contradictions. If the 1816 conversion, all-important though it was, was but a return to beliefs which he had already held as a child, if, rather, it was a revival, a renewal of them, we may well understand how it was that Romaine’s doctrine took such a hold on him and affected him for so long, destined though it was gradually to fade and finally to disappear from his mind.
The truth is, as he clearly indicates, that Romaine’s doctrine merely acted as a catalytic, reviving in the mind of the adolescent a conviction, an idea prematurely implanted in the mind of the child. The sense of God’s immediate and sovereign presence had been obliterated by the consciousness of his own growing intellectual powers. But now, behold! into a mind rendered mysteriously receptive by the solicitations of divine grace, there comes, to resuscitate that conviction, a wholly different doctrine operating in a manner that none but Newman could perceive. It would not only reawaken; it would transform, what, in the child, was merely a passive impression, into a reasoned belief that was destined to remain an enduring factor in the life of the man.
How can this be explained? The truth is that, in some degree, we read into a book what we bring to it ourselves. This is especially the case with young people of exceptional endowments. The books they read, particularly the things that fire their liveliest enthusiasm, are as often as not misunderstood by them. But these misinterpretations bear rich fruit. These young people have within them riches which, to begin with, they are unable to realize, to take account of; but a sentence, even a single word, will often avail to bring them to light.
Thus it comes about that they think they have found something in a book which, later on, when they have had more experience of real life, they will, to their grievous disappointment, be quite unable to rediscover in it. The truth is that what they thought they had found in the book was something which they themselves had brought to it. The book and what it set forth was the steel which struck the spark from the flint; but the spark was theirs, and theirs alone.
So, no doubt, it was with Newman, and the call to a conversion conceived as the intuitive consciousness of an indefectible election was interpreted by him in his own way. Giving definite shape to a conception of the Universe hitherto vaguely floating in the subconscious imagination of the child, it suddenly projected it into the consciousness of the adult, now arrived at maturity.
The young man’s intellectual powers were displaying themselves in all their sovereign pride, notwithstanding the importance he ascribed to virtue. Disquieted, it may be, by the obscurity which overhung the destiny of man, he was soon to be still more deeply moved by the truly Christian witness of his master, which he found strangely in harmony with the memories of his far-off childhood.
Those memories needed but the touch of some external stimulus to bring them once more to the surface and to be interpreted in the light of his now maturer understanding. The young man, in the fullness of his intellectual pride and self-sufficiency, now becomes aware of something, of some power, which he had dimly guessed at, even when he turned away from it — Something, Someone, stronger and more wise than he, Someone who subdued him to His will, even in the proudest hour of his intellectual self-reliance. To that other Power, the mind, be it never so proudly confident, must needs defer. The very clearness with which he recognizes this is a token that he has already surrendered.
Interpreted thus, and we see no other way of doing equal justice to all the various views of it that he has given us, it is, to begin with, quite clear that his was no conversion after the Evangelical pattern. His association with an Evangelical of the milder type, his reading of Evangelical books may have been the means of bringing his conversion about, but, in its nature, it never really belonged to what was its occasion rather than its cause.
This break in the chain of logical sequence escaped the notice of hasty or superficial observers. The docility displayed by the boy Newman in adopting the characteristic mode of speech and thought of those to whom his conversion was due, may to some extent account for the error, an error which was his own to begin with, the rest merely following suit. But with him, and in spite of Bremond, an error it was, and as such it must be recognized [C£ Bremond, The Mystery of Newman, passim]
And in truth, much as he owed to the evangelical teaching, so it was, he never had been a genuine evangelical. The evangelical teaching, considered as a system and in what was peculiar to itself, had from the first failed to find a response in his own religious experience, as afterwards in his parochial. He had indeed been converted by it to a spiritual life, and so far his experience bore witness to its truth; but he had not been converted in that special way which it laid down as imperative, but so plainly against rule, as to make it very doubtful in the eyes of normal evangelicals whether he had really been converted at all.
Autobiographical Memoir, III, in Autobiographical Writings, Shoed & Ward, 1956
To put it briefly, what is principally notable about the conversion which thus robs him of his independence, is the independence which it nevertheless betrays. Just as it points, not so much to a change, as to a releasing, a rising to the surface, of something hidden in the profoundest recesses of his being, so too it shrinks instinctively from adopting all such fixed and definite forms as may suggest themselves or be suggested to him.
As a boy of fifteen most certainly would, he expresses his ideas and his feelings in the sort of terms he hears used by the people about him, at the same time adapting them to suit what he has in his own mind. As soon as experience shows him how inadequate they are, there will be nothing to prevent his dropping them. So far from that weakening his impression of what he has experienced, it will strengthen it. Let us now enquire more closely into the nature of that spiritual experience. What was it that was so personal about it, so peculiar to himself? And what rendered it so indifferent to the strongest influences brought to bear on it, even to those which were, or seemed to have been, its exciting cause?
But here a twofold snare awaits us. Either we may pass over the condensed and pregnant passage in the Apologia without fully penetrating to the precious metal within, or we may be tempted, as Newman himself may have been, to read into the experience of the boy all the things that entered into the maturer reflections of the man. This latter would be the lesser evil. There is no doubt that the extract in question, revealing as it does Newman’s striking originality, also exemplifies the continuity of personality, its normal concomitant.
Borrowing again from Wordsworth, he seems to have been an outstanding example of those of whom it is said, “The Child is father of the Man.” It is this independence, this pronounced individualism, which, before everything else, we must stress, and, if possible, define. Of all his various characteristics, is it not this that first demands our attention? It and it alone explains the mystery of his acceptance, so complete, so spontaneous, of Romaine’s Calvinism, an acceptance which was, in fact, much rather an unconscious annexation. Moreover, we have here our first opportunity of examining Newman’s undoubted individualism. If, taking it at its source, we succeed in avoiding any misapprehension of the goal at which it aimed, we may hope to avoid distorting it when, later on, we find it enriched but possibly subtilized [vocab: To render subtle] by experience.
In the story, or rather the balance-sheet, presented by the Apologia, one phrase stands out beyond all others: “Making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”
“Myself and my Creator” — that theme, what elaborate variations Bremond composed on it! Variations that have found a responsive echo in the hearts of all who are unable to resist the spell of the enchanter. Alas! giving play to his gift for improvisation, Bremond began with the effect the words had on him, not, as he should have done, if he wanted to interpret them correctly, with the circumstances in which Newman came to utter them. If we now go back and take the only road permitted to the historian, we may find the enchanter vanished, and only a conjurer in his place. Still, the real Newman may even yet be disentangled from those verbal arabesques which were at least as well calculated to bury as to adorn him.
We do not hesitate to stress this point. The whole Mystery of Newman idea, which led Bremond to make of him a figure so engaging and so unreal, depends entirely on the interpretation put on those words. What he called in Newman “the Poet”, “the Voluntary Recluse”, and some others, less flatteringly, “the Misfit”, “the Incurable Egoist”, all arises from that interpretation. Were there any grounds for the idea, or did Bremond simply invent them?
The enquiry to which we propose to address ourselves will go some way towards elucidating that crucial question. The state of mind in which this fifteen-year-old youth found himself at the beginning of summer in the year 1816 shows us that this apparent emphasis on “Myself” and the implied disregard of others, far from being centered in his religious experience had, in fact, no connection with it. On the contrary, it was the outcome, gradually set free, of all that was purely natural and, in the last analysis, a-religious in his personality. That there was in Newman a strong notion of self, of independence, of self-reliance cannot be denied; but to confuse this basic characteristic with his religious experience is to condemn oneself a priori, to a misunderstanding of the latter.
This consciousness of self, more astonishing, when we come to think of it, in the child than in the adolescent, has, no doubt, something disquieting about it, but let us not call it irreligious or immoral. It comes under the category of the “natural” in the strict sense of the word. It is, perhaps, that which constitutes the peculiar genius of Newman, if genius be an exceptional concentration, a more than ordinarily intense glow, in something that is no more than a natural attribute, or faculty, of the human mind. But that there is in it, from the religious, the Christian, point of view, an element of danger, of temptation, particularly in the case of one such as Newman, there is no denying.
Let us remind ourselves of Goethe, who resembles him so closely in this respect. Was it not the firm resolve of his daimon to assert its independence and not to capitulate or bow to anyone or anything that at last drew him away from religion which, round about the year 1770, was attracting him so powerfully?
With Newman, things took a different course. What he found was that, when this independent spirit, this innate self-reliance of his, was brought into the presence of Another, of God, it meant nothing more nor less than the negation of meaning. How, then, did it come about that this “self”, so adamant in its nature, was suddenly projected into the “self” of that Other and became wholly obedient to Him? That no doubt is the crux, the mysterious element in this conversion. Still some gleams of light are thrown on it in what Newman tells us and always held.
Let us now picture to ourselves this boy of fifteen, strong in the possession of an intelligence that enables him to expose fallacies, to detect sophistries and faulty reasoning, all those specious arguments by which ordinary folk are impressed, but which lack the hall-mark of indubitable truth. It does not appear that he was now, or that he ever had been, in any danger of falling into scepticism. An instinctive conviction, but a conviction confirmed by his intelligence, put the claims of morality beyond all question. If for a time he thought he could dispense with God, it never entered his head that he could disregard the Good, or the True.
Now whence came this moral sense? Evidently it was the fruit of his training, of the way he had been brought up, and especially of that Biblical instruction which taught him to connect truth and goodness by connecting both with God, with God to whose Word he listened. But now his intellect took hold, as part of its own belongings, of this union of truth and goodness. This union was now one with his affirmation of self. It was at this time that he fell in with a man, and heard words and read books, in which this twofold union in God reappears. Its effect was to make him recognize that what belonged to his consciousness, belonged in the first place to God; to put it plainly, it was the presence of God within himself and this he realizes even when, though not denying Him, he turns away from Him.
Romaine speaks to him of predestination, of conversion, which implies the recognition that God is concerned with each one of us, and that from His purposes regarding us there is no escape. Little matters the system of which that is a part. What took hold of Newman and continued to hold him was the revelation that God was there, within him, in those very gifts (for they were His gifts, personal gifts, inseparable from the Giver), in those gifts which were his strength and support. It was as a ray of light amid the shadowy region from which his mind was emerging.
If it be true, as he was now beginning to feel that it was, that all complete consciousness of self is moral consciousness, he realized that moral consciousness is the consciousness, the awareness, of Someone, of God.
Let us ponder that well. Of that, even as a child, he had caught glimpses. Let us recall again the passage recently quoted, the passage about the child who suddenly became aware of religious truths on which he had been living without knowing it. Once more, as he himself bears witness, his conversion did not proceed from anything newly discovered. It was rather a rediscovery of something he had already known, something he thought he had left behind him, but which now, in the light of his maturer understanding, appeared as something fully, because freely and independently, thought out and established.
Thus the words “Myself and my Creator” imply no more than the recognition that the soul only escapes from what is harmful to it, from what has been vainly endeavouring to enslave it, by discovering that it belongs wholly to God, and that it is truly itself only in the light of God’s presence, God being its master, and the soul His, and His alone.
If this be a true account of what happened, if we may say of this unforgettable experience of this fifteen-year-old boy in a phrase which an old Oxford scholar applied to him some years later, in allusion to his love of solitude, Nun quam minus solus quam cum solus [never less alone than when alone], we shall see that Newman in no way claimed to have been vouchsafed any sort of incommunicable intuition of God.
On the contrary, the God who revealed Himself to him in solitude was the God defined by dogma in a course of teaching now for the first time fully understood, clearly recognized, the God of Holy Writ. With that Word he had been long familiar, though he had never been able to fathom its full meaning till he became aware of himself in the light of it. Thus it was not a mere discovery or rediscovery of God that he bore in remembrance. He tells us that God Took possession of him in this direct and intimate manner, personal in the fullest sense implied by the words “Myself and my Creator”, bringing him thus to realize and embrace defined dogma.
For it is as person to person that God reveals Himself.
It is as a person that God reveals Himself, it is in deeds in which He takes part, deeds which are destined to bring about a renewal of our own lives. It is as a duologue which enlightens us concerning our own existence by revealing on whom that existence depends. To discover God as the soul’s Creator is, then, for Newman to recognize that that revelation is visible to us in His Son, who is at the very heart of the Bible. It amounts to accepting, not as abstract ideas but as vital truths, the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Redemption, themselves dominated by the revelation of the Trinity. For it is thus that God becomes Someone for us, Someone to whom we belong, Someone who has given all, even His Son, to save us from our own disobedience.
As for the other concomitant of his conversion, the objective counterpart, without which the subjective considerations which have hitherto been engaging us would make the whole narrative seem like a dialogue with one of the speakers left out, there were the works of Thomas Scott. These provided him with something more lasting than the idea he got from Romaine. “To Scott,” he says, “humanly speaking, I almost owe my soul.”
Referring to his book, Force of Truth, which captivated him straight away, Newman enlarges better than we could do on all that he owed to this autobiography. It implanted in him the ineradicable conviction that fidelity to the living truth must naturally result in the acceptance of Christianity in all its gradually unfolding plenitude. Scott, in fact, tells us how, beginning as an unbeliever, he came to realize that without disobeying God and disregarding the dictates of conscience, he could not avoid traditional Christianity, the Church (which for him meant the Church of England), or belief in the Trinity.
Was it not all like a preliminary sketch, or adumbration, of that Odyssey, or perhaps we should call it that spiritual Æneid, that was to be Newman’s own story, when his guide and help were those prophetic words uttered by him during the illness that struck him down in Sicily, words to which before long we shall again recur — “I have not sinned against the light.”
On that same page of the Apologia, a page whose wealth of significance it is hardly possible to exhaust, Newman confesses that what attracted him in Scott and in his account of his eventual acceptance of a progressively integrating Christianity was what he calls his “bold unworldliness, and vigorous independence of mind”. It is curious to note how the dearest aspirations of the adolescent, and those the most spontaneous, found their echo in this book, as he interpreted it. Scott became his hero. Such a spiritual adventure fascinated him as offering an example of that virile independence of mind at which he himself aimed — that, and a standard of moral rectitude which was destined to remain with him all his days.
What exactly is it that he means by “this bold unworldliness”? It is precisely that intellectual freedom, on which his young mind had set such store, transferred to the ethical plane. It is the conviction, at once instinctive and reasoned, that the only way of maintaining complete spiritual and intellectual independence in this unintelligible and deceptive world lies in uncompromising fidelity to the voice of conscience.
How all things meet together and link up here! — the free and independent quest for truth, unhesitating obedience to the voice of conscience, acceptance of the teaching of Christianity. This helps us to understand his joy at finding himself in accord with the essential elements in Scott’s religion, as one by one he unfolded them.
They appeared to him, as to Scott himself, to be the pure and simple expression of the process which was destined to bring him also to the same religious goal: “Holiness rather than peace”, and “Growth the only evidence of life”.
In the sequence to which we referred just now — that is to say, the intellectual conscience, the moral conscience, and the recognition of God’s sovereignty over the ego — we have, in embryo, the whole of Newman’s apologetic. And now, in those two closely connected motifs of unworldliness and the search for perfect truth, as set forth under the twofold device, “Holiness rather than peace”, “Growth the only evidence of life”, we have something still better — we have, if not the whole, then at all events the kernel, of his spiritual being.