A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Newmania 7: "Vivisection practised by him on me"

Vol. 32 of Newmans Letters and Diaries contains hundreds of letters not discovered in time for their insertion in the chronologically ordered volumes, along with some precious appendices. One of these is a memoir giving the personal reminiscences of Canon Charles Wellington Furse, who heard Newman preach at Oxford was much influenced by Newman and was, he thought, the only parish priest still working in the Anglican Church to attend his funeral. Here is some of what he had to say about Newmans preaching:

Keenness was his characteristic. He was spare, and lean, walking with a firm quick elastic step....

There was a look of concentration and strong will in every gesture. The only sweetness was in his voice and even that was rather clear, and fine, and thrilling with vibrations of metallic force, than soft, with a penetrative and steely vibrating power which I have never known equaled. Its delineating and critical acuteness came out even more keenly in his reading St. Pauls Epistles from the lectern, than in the delivery of his own lucid style of sermon. His liquid analysis of the involved passages and swallow-like turns of thought in St. Paul, the delicate subtlety with which he would give the lightest accent with exact measure and propriety to every inflection of light and shade, in those wonderful revelations of St Paul himself, in his playful or ironical or complimentary or indignant words, is, after 50 years, quite as memorable to the sensitive ear as the sermon itself....As to Newmans sermons, they are in your hands and within your reach: and almost every man and woman who cares for English literature has at least read other mens descriptions of them. I promise to give only my own impressions, chiefly those of 50 and 40 years ago, partly those of a later date in the course of re-reading them.As to the immediate effect of hearing them: it was vivisection practised by him on me. He began at the less vital organs, sometimes at the extremes and worked upward and inward.The practical application of the sermon was made in successive paragraphs. The first paragraph stuck you and fastened you to your seat with a nail. The second clenched it. The third seized another limb and another nail was driven and clenched. And when you thought he could not possibly come closer to you he took up a finer drill and a sharper point and absolutely impaled you, till you became, not paralysed, but quickened in every fibre into more vivid sensibility, but fixed invincibly to your seat, with neither power nor will to move.And of this influence of his preaching, he consciously refers in his last sermon at Littlemore, the Parting of Friends: Should you know anyone whose lot it has been by writing or by word of mouth in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves or what you did not know, has read to you your wants and feelings, and comforted you by the very reading...With all this intense power of driving home the spear and drawing blood, with what John Wesley notes as the mark of the best preacher...: The hearer must hear the voice saying, "Thou art the man" There was nothing like hard-hitting in Newmanno exaggeration, no transcendentalismyou never resented a word, nor evaded it, nor appealed from his judgement to a higher court. You lay on your back, and it was the Good Samaritan all the time pouring wine (always the wine and then the oil.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.