Newmania 19: A tottering pilgrim writes
An illustration of how Newman was regarded as a spiritual counsellor is given in a letter written to him while still an Anglican priest, sixteen months before he entered the Catholic Church. It came from John Bramston, who had been a fellow of Oriel at the same time as Newman and was then an Anglican vicar:
My dear Newman:
I must write one line to you to tell you of the deep affliction it has pleased God to visit me withal–My dearest wife breathed her last breath this morning at 2 o clock. She had long desired to depart out of this world, for her gentle and pure and confiding spirit was no match for the rough ways of this sinful world–she felt her own infirmities so keenly that she could not endure being of no use, as she thought, to any one. But if there was one upon earth who came under the description of our blessed Saviour, as pure in heart, she was.
She always remembered with lively interest the little visit you paid us at Baddow–and took a great interest in every thing which came from you or befell you.
But my purpose in writing is to ask you to give me a few words to do me good–When I lived at Oxford for a short time, I think [I] received more spiritual good from your conversation than you thought of–and since that time I have from your published works gained very great instruction, comfort and support. As you have therefore no parish, consider me for a few minutes one of your children in the faith and write me what you think I need in a state of desolation and bereavement.
I can see God’s hand clearly in this blow, and I think I can say from my heart I would not have it otherwise–but how is it to be improved? I think my tendency is to busy ways, and constant occupation and so to have too little time for meditation, and retirement and prayer.
Give me a line my dear friend and you may be blessed to support a tottering pilgrim in the narrow way.
To which Newman replied:
My dear Bramston:
Indeed you are not wrong in thinking that I should be deeply pained at the news contained in your letter. If sympathy is a warrant for my writing to you, I have it. I never have forgotten my visit to Baddow–I have often thought of your wife–and whenever I did, it was with the hope I should some day see her again….
I quite believe her to be what you describe–I am sure–I feel–that she was, from what I saw of her. In great truth I say that there is no one scarcely whom I have seen but once, but whose memory has been so fixed in me as hers. Ah–how great your loss must be–may God support you under it–and He will do so–It is no unkindness in me thus to speak of it–I am not augmenting your pain–I trust not–As is the pain, so is the consolation.
…. Time comes and goes–years pass–but kind deeds, warm affections, services of love, the religious ties which bind heart to heart, remain. This sorrowful time will pass away–but you will not lose what for the moment you may seem to have lost irrevocably. You will have greater comfort in looking back upon the past than you can now believe possible. Indeed you will–and it will make you look to the future–for you are from henceforth by God’s great mercy one of those who have their ‘treasure in heaven.’
I do really and most fully believe that you are thus visited from God’s especial love to you–and may you be enabled to accept duly and profit by this great though most awful mercy! It is plain indeed, you must know it as well as I, that I am not the person to teach or admonish you. It would indeed be a great forgetfulness of his place, if a person so evidently untrustworthy as I am in religious matters, attempted to do so. Yet since you ask me a question, I will in a few words answer it.
Your intention then, at which you hint, of giving additional time henceforth to meditation or similar exercises, promises the very best consequences. Such exercises are our very great want at present. We all must know in a measure their advantages, particularly in a day when our necessary occupations tend to make us little better than outside Christians. I think it would be imprudent to make any sudden resolution or one which is likely to oppress or perplex you, but I think you have accurately pointed out what is most likely to do you, as any of us, real good. (LD, X, 207-209)
One can hear in the third paragraph an echo of Newman’s own experience of having lost his beloved sister Mary at the age of nineteen in 1828. His description in the next paragraph of himself as “so evidently untrustworthy …in religious matters” may reflect the state of uncertainty and decision he was in about his relationship with the Church of England and the prospect of his going over to Rome.