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Exploring Cardinal John Henry Newman's Personal Spirituality

by Vincent Ferre Blehl, S.J.

Conversion is one of the fundamental principles of Newman's spirituality. But his must be properly understood. In 1826 after a period of reflection he rejected the Evangelical view of conversion, affirming it is the process, not the beginning of a religious course. It is the gradual changing, not the initial change. "Every baptized person is under a process of divine influence and sanctification, a process often interrupted, often given over, then resumed, irregularly carried on, heartily entered into; finally completed, as the case may be."

Newman later referred to these so-called conversions as responses to divine calls.

In this sense Newman underwent a number of conversions. To mention but a few in his Anglican days, at the death of his sister Mary he became further detached from worldliness and began to pray "absolutely and without condition against rising in the Church."

Again after a spiritual experience in Sicily he rushed back to England eager to take up the work which he thought God had for him to do there. After his first doubt of the Anglican Church in 1839 he increased his customary private fasting and preached the sermon, "Divine Calls" determined thereafter to follow the light of truth wherever it might lead him and not to be "disobedient to a heavenly vision." Newman's life as a Catholic was once again a response to successive calls.

. . . Conjoined to this search for God's intentions and the readiness to respond to them is an ever deepening conviction of and surrender to God's personal Providence over the soul. Spiritual writers had often spoken of God's Providence as a general one. Newman stands out as the writer to have given prominence to Providence as personal and individual. . . Newman experienced God's personal Providence in ever deepening fashion, that it was continuous, dynamic and progressive.

This entire process could only take place within the context of prayer and recollection. Now the special characteristic of Newman's prayer was its intercessory nature. He practiced intercessory prayer daily for ever increasing numbers of persons for whom he prayed. As one time his prayer list read like a Who's Who of the Oxford Movement. This orientation balanced his personal union with God in contemplation.