Essay / Education

In All Things, Be Fearful

I just returned recently to southern California after a nice, long vacation with my family. As well, I was able to spend two good weeks at the National Institute for Newman Studies in Pittsburgh, PA. The Institute, run by the Pittsburgh Oratorians, is a research facility containing all the works of John Henry Newman as well as many other works related to the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement (a.k.a. Tractarians) of which Newman was such an integral member. The purpose of my time in Pittsburgh was to research what Newman and other Tractarians had to say about monasticism. It was a rewarding time for they had much to say. Newman himself talks about monasticism regularly though it is important to keep in mind which phase of life Newman was passing through when he made his statements about the religious life. Newman’s first conversion, as it is often called, was to the Evangelical party of the Church of England and happened when he was only 15 years of age. His second conversion happened about 10 years later and it was a conversion to a Catholic Anglicanism, or what is now known as Anglo-Catholicism>. His final conversion in 1845 was to the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, many of Newman’s strongest statements about monasticism were made while an Anglican. For example:

… they ‘sold all that they had, and gave alms;’ they ‘washed one another’s feet;’ they ‘had all things common.’ They formed themselves into communities for prayer and praise, for labour and study, for the care of the poor, for mutual edification, and preparation for Christ; and thus, as soon as the world professed to be Christian, Christians at once set up among them a witness against the world, and kings and monks came into the Church together. And from that time to this, never has the union of the Church with the State prospered, but when the Church was in union also with the hermitage and the cell;

I should not be surprised to see conversions to Romanism some where or other. I think the women will be going, unless nunneries are soon held out to them in our Church;

… I am not without hope of setting up some day a real Monastery here [at Littlemore], and coming up myself to it, though I do not wish it to be talked about. I think if we could but set up a type it will spread–and till we set up a complete type, that all attempts will not be approximations but will slip back into nothing. I should not care if no one joined me, but should begin it by myself, and if other came, they might.

What is most interesting, I believe, is that Newman was wholly committed to monasticism and believed that it belonged in the Protestant church. He saw it as one of the “good” things that the Reformation discarded and that should be re-introduced into the nineteenth-century Church of England. Yet Newman knew that his thoughts on the matter were unique and only shared by a small number of people. In fact, on more than one occasion he expresses his fear of others finding out that he is in favor of establishing monasticism again. For example, in one letter he writes, “I am publishing my Church of the Fathers, which is so dreadfully monastic, that I have some tremours what will happen to me.” Similarly, in the last quote above, he does not want his monastic project at Littlemore to be talked about (though ultimately it received much negative attention). What is behind Newman’s fear regarding monasticism? Well, in the climate of the Church of England at that time, monasticism was a Roman Catholic practice and Anglicans were not Roman Catholics, nor should they strive to adopt Roman practices. Of course, the whole focus of the Oxford Movement was to produce a more “Catholic” (though not necessarily Roman) church in England. Newman’s ultimate conversion to Roman Catholicism reveals most clearly Newman’s own personal aspirations. But prior to this final step, Newman desired, as an Anglican, to see monasticism renewed in England but was afraid of the consequences of such a position, and rightly so. As one author in the Christian Observer of 1844 wrote, “The key-stone of the Tractarian fabric is the monastic system” and “Monachism, male and female,–we cannot iterate it too often–is the basis of the whole [Tractarian] system.” Though an overstatement, Newman’s espousal of monasticism made him vulnerable to many attacks that the Tractarians were really just Roman Catholics masquerading as Anglicans. Newman’s conversion to the Church of Rome, of course, did not help matters.

What I find most striking in this whole historical episode is the place that fear played in the theological life of Newman. He knew that his theologizing and innovative practices were pushing accepted boundaries in the Church of England and, rightly, he was afraid of the ramifications. Oftentimes we tend to think of fear negatively, that is, it is something to be avoided since it is a sign of weakness or vulnerability. Newman, I think, had a very healthy fear, one that oftentimes caused him to pull up short or delay a project or publication that he was working on. As seen above, he knew that The Lives of the English Saints (which he partially wrote and edited) were “monastic” and were going to cause a stink. And he was right. Sometimes fear should not necessarily be avoided but rather it should be highly respected. What are the consequences of what I say or do? Should I be fearful of the results of what I say or do? As a university teacher and mentor, I should have a healthy respect, or fear, for the influence that I intentionally or unintentionally have in the lives of my students. As a father, I should be fearful of the way in which I raise my children. Fear is good when rightly understood and utilized. The Psalmist and the writer of Proverbs knew as much when they admonished their readers to “Fear the Lord!” Newman also knew when to be fearful of the consequences of his words and actions. Did such fear ultimately stop him from doing and saying that which he felt called of God to do and say? No. He kept writing even when attacked and alienated, and he kept moving forward with his “monastic” project at Littlemore despite some measure of resistance. The point being this: fear is good and should be used appropriately, although we should never let fear derail us from that which we are called of God to accomplish. Fear is not our enemy but instead is our ally.

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