Review: Paraclete Essentials Releases Edition of Newman's "Meditations and Devotions"
In a letter from 1863 to his sister Jemima, John Henry Newman remarked that "a man's life lies in his letters." Equally revealing, perhaps—at least in Newman's case—are the prayers that he composed and recited. While Newman's extensive correspondence with friends and family provide a fascinating glimpse into his closest earthly relationships, his devotional writings give us some sense of his relationship with God. Catholics with a devotion to Blessed Newman, then, will be pleased to hear that Paraclete Press has recently published an attractive paperback edition of Newman's Meditations and Devotions, a book of prayers originally compiled by Fr. William Neville just a few years after Newman's death.
As the editors note in the introduction to this edition, Newman for many years had wanted to compose a devotional volume that could be used by the lay faithful, but the pull of other responsibilities prevented him from bringing this project to fruition. Three years after Newman's death, however, his fellow Oratorian and literary executor, William Neville, took it upon himself to sift through Newman's papers in order to compile what was eventually published as Meditations and Devotions. This accessible devotional manual is organized around three sections of meditations: (1) meditations for the month of May, (2) meditations on the Stations of the Cross, and (3) meditations on Christian doctrine. Following this series of meditations, the book concludes with a sobering reflection "written in prospect of death," which Newman had composed on Passion Sunday of 1864.
The meditations for the month of May are moving expressions of ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Newman never loses sight of the fact, however, that Mary's glories are "for the sake of her Son." In the reflection for May 30, for instance, he remarks that the "true saints and servants have the special title of 'Faithful,' as being true to Him as He is to them . . . Mary, in like manner, is pre-eminently faithful to her Lord and Son. Let no one for an instant suppose that she is not supremely zealous for His honor, or, as those who are not Catholics fancy, that to exalt her is to be unfaithful to Him" (p. 45). Newman communicates his own zeal for Christ's honor in the following section of the book, which is structured around the Stations of the Cross. This part of the book could provide spiritual benefit throughout the year but is particularly suited for the season of Lent.
The third and final section of the book, meanwhile, is in a certain sense the full flowering of the preceding sections, in that Newman moves from the person of Christ, who was given to us through the womb of Our Lady, into meditations on our own status as sons and daughters of God. Newman, here, touches on such matters as the effects of sin, the power of the cross, the sacrifice of the Mass, and our hope in the resurrection. One of my favorite prayers from this section of the book is imbedded in a reflection on Christians being Temples of the Holy Spirit:
"O my God, teach me so to live, as one who does believe the great dignity, the great sanctity of that material frame in which Thou hast lodged me. And therefore, O my dear Saviour! do I come so often and so earnestly to be partaker of Thy Body and Blood, that by means of Thy own ineffable holiness I may be made holy. O my Lord Jesus, I know what is written, that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost. Should I not venerate that which Thou dost miraculously feed, and which Thy Co-equal Spirit inhabits! O my God, who wast nailed to the Cross, confige timore tuo carnes meas—'pierce Thou my flesh with Thy fear;' crucify my soul and body in all that is sinful in them, and make me pure as Thou art pure."
Notice how Newman powerfully weaves together in one prayer several important motifs of Christian doctrine (e.g., the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, reception of holy communion, being crucified with Christ, etc.). As readers will find, Newman's lived experience of these realities shines forth through his prayers. Newman was clearly a saint who approached theology not as an arid intellectual pastime, but as the heart and soul of life, for he was convinced that in the truths of the faith we come to know the One who created us and who is the source of our ultimate happiness. Through regular recourse to the meditations in this work, contemporary readers can come to know these truths for ourselves under Newman's guidance. We are blessed to have in the Paraclete volume an affordable edition of what is rightly identified as a modern classic.