Rorate Caeli

“The effect of this temper of innovation”: New anthology brings together best of Newman on worship, reverence, and ritual

We all known John Henry Newman was a rare genius, a brilliant preacher, a man of great earnestness and prayer. His sanctity has been formally recognized. But are people as familiar as they should be with his wisdom on matters liturgical, devotional, sacramental?

Some have suggested that there isn’t a whole lot of attention to liturgy in Newman. But the new 524-page anthology, John Henry Newman on Worship, Reverence, and Ritual (Os Justi Press, 2019), which I prepared in the months leading up to the canonization, gives us a treasure-trove to explore.

The anthology draws on the full sweep of Newman’s career, from young Anglican preacher in Oxford to the Meditations and Devotions published posthumously in 1893. All of the substantial discussions of divine worship, liturgical rites, and the various attitudes, feelings, mindsets, practices, that could come under the heading of “reverence” are found in this volume.

It is astonishing to see how relevant even the Oxford Newman of the 1830s remains to the issues that most plague the Catholic Church in 2020. He was dealing with the same urges of “tinkeritis” and “optionitis” in the liturgy, with the plague of casualness and indifference, with the loss of a correct attitude of veneration for inherited practices. We can see this in so many passages. Here are some samples.

On the temptation to “tweak” and “alter” and “fix” the liturgy according to our own lights:

Attempts are making to get the Liturgy altered. My dear Brethren, I beseech you, consider with me, whether you ought not to resist the alteration of even one jot or tittle of it. … [O]nce begin altering, and there will be no reason or justice in stopping, till the criticisms of all parties are satisfied. Thus, will not the Liturgy be in the evil case described in the well-known story, of the picture subjected by the artist to the observations of passers-by? … But this is not all. A taste for criticism grows upon the mind. When we begin to examine and take to pieces, our judgment becomes perplexed, and our feelings unsettled. … But as regards ourselves, the Clergy, what will be the effect of this temper of innovation in us? We have the power to bring about changes in the Liturgy; shall we not exert it? have we any security, if we once begin, that we shall ever end? Shall not we pass from non-essentials to essentials? And then, on looking back after the mischief is done, what excuse shall we be able to make for ourselves for having encouraged such proceedings at first?  (pp. 1–2)

Newman understood why the kind of changes that took place in the 1960s would be destined to cause havoc—a havoc from which we have not yet recovered:

Who can in practice separate his view of body and spirit? for example, what a friend would he be to us who should treat us ill, or deny us food, or imprison us; and say, after all, that it was our body he ill-treated, and not our soul? Even so, no one can really respect religion, and insult its forms. Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself. … Rites which the Church has appointed, and with reason,—for the Church’s authority is from Christ,—being long used, cannot be disused without harm to our souls. (pp. 78–79)

Is “Modern Man” really so much better or different that he can make a better liturgy for himself? That’s what they thought in the 1960s. But Newman judges otherwise:

We, at the present day, have particular need of the discipline of such commemorations as Saints’ days to recall us to ourselves. It is a fault of these times (for we have nothing to do with the faults of other times) to despise the past in comparison of the present. We can scarce open any of the lighter or popular publications of the day without falling upon some panegyric on ourselves, on the illumination and humanity of the age, or upon some disparaging remarks on the wisdom and virtues of former times. Now it is a most salutary thing under this temptation to self-conceit to be reminded, that in all the highest qualifications of human excellence, we have been far outdone by men who lived centuries ago; that a standard of truth and holiness was then set up which we are not likely to reach, and that, as for thinking to become wiser and better, or more acceptable to God than they were, it is a mere dream. (pp. 95–96)

As most readers will know, Paul VI made the decision in the late 1960s—even against the majority judgment of the Consilium—that many verses from the psalms should be omitted from the new Liturgy of the Hours, because they “presented difficulties.” Here is what Newman had to say about that proposal in 1836:

Nay, do we not know, though I dare say it may surprise many a sober Christian to hear that it is so, that there are men at this moment who (I hardly like to mention it) wish parts of the Psalms left out of the Service as ungentle and harsh? Alas! that men of this day should rashly put their own judgment in competition with that of all the Saints of every age hitherto since Christ came — should virtually say, “Either they have been wrong or we are,” thus forcing us to decide between the two. Alas! that they should dare to criticise the words of inspiration! Alas! that they should follow the steps of the backsliding Israelites, and shrink from siding with the Truth in its struggle with the world, instead of saying with Deborah, “So let all Thine enemies perish, O Lord!”
Against the Protestants, Newman always defended the necessarily ritual expression of Christianity, and for him it was important that these rites, like church buildings, have certain qualities, above all stability and permanence:

The glory of the Gospel is not the abolition of rites, but their dissemination; not their absence, but their living and efficacious presence through the grace of Christ. … Stability and permanence are, perhaps, the especial ideas which a church [building] brings before the mind. It represents, indeed, the beauty, the loftiness, the calmness, the mystery, and the sanctity of religion also, and that in many ways; still, I will say, more than all these, it represents to us its eternity. It is the witness of Him who is the beginning and the ending, the first and the last; it is the token and emblem of “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and for ever”… (pp. 236–37)

Think about this next passage in connection with how we receive Holy Communion:

Indeed, so natural is the connexion between a reverential spirit in worshipping God and faith in God that the wonder only is how anyone can for a moment imagine he has faith in God and yet allow himself to be irreverent towards him. To believe in God is to believe in the being and presence of One who is all-holy and all-powerful and all-gracious: How can a man really believe thus of him and yet make free with him? … To believe and not to revere, to worship familiarly and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one.
          Worship, forms of worship—such as bowing the knee, taking off the shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress and the like—are considered as necessary for a due approach to God. The whole world differing about so many things differing in creed and rule of life, yet agree in this: that God being our Creator, a certain self-abasement of the whole man is the duty of the creature; that he is in heaven, we upon earth: that he is all-glorious and we worms of the earth and insects of a day.
          I say this, then, which I think no one can reasonably dispute. There are a class of feelings we should have—yes, have in an intense degree—if we literally had the sight of almighty God; therefore, they are the class of feelings which we shall have if we realize his presence. In proportion as we believe he is present, we shall have them; and not to have them is not to realize, not to believe he is present. (pp. 309–10)

So much for ad libbing and false antiquarianism—and modifying the Lord’s Prayer:

We must in all respects act as if we saw God; that is, if we believe that God is here, we shall keep silence; we shall not laugh, or talk, or whisper during the Service, as many young persons do; we shall not gaze about us. We shall follow the example set us by the Church itself. I mean, as the words in which we pray in Church are not our own, neither will our looks, or our postures, or our thoughts, be our own. We shall, in the prophet’s words, not “do our own ways” there, nor “find our own pleasure,” nor “speak our own words;” in imitation of all Saints before us, including the Holy Apostles, who never spoke their own words in solemn worship, but either those which Christ taught them, or which the Holy Ghost taught them, or which the Old Testament taught them. This is the reason why we always pray from a book in Church; the Apostles said to Christ, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and our Lord graciously gave them the prayer called the Lord’s Prayer. For the same reason we too use the Lord’s Prayer, and we use the Psalms of David and of other holy men, and hymns which are given us in Scripture, thinking it better to use the words of inspired Prophets than our own.  (p. 311)

Catholic worship, says an older Newman, has to be “just so,” with super-detailed rubrics and careful ceremonies, just because of THE ONE we are dealing with—and Newman thinks this should be self-evident (how sad that it no longer is!):

A Protestant wanders into one of our chapels; he sees a priest kneeling and bowing and throwing up a thurible, and boys in cottas going in and out, and a whole choir and people singing amain all the time, and he has nothing to suggest to him what it is all about; and he calls it mummery, and he walks out again. And would it not indeed be so, my brethren, if this were all? But will he think it mummery when he learns and seriously apprehends the fact, that, according to the belief of a Catholic, the Word Incarnate, the Second Person of the Eternal Trinity, is there bodily present,—hidden, indeed, from our senses, but in no other way withheld from us? He may reject what we believe; he will not wonder at what we do.
         And so, again, open the Missal, read the minute directions given for the celebration of Mass,—what are the fit dispositions under which the Priest prepares for it, how he is to arrange his every action, movement, gesture, utterance, during the course of it, and what is to be done in case of a variety of supposable accidents. What a mockery would all this be, if the rite meant nothing! But if it be a fact that God the Son is there offered up in human flesh and blood by the hands of man, why, it is plain that no rite whatever, however anxious and elaborate, is equal to the depth of the overwhelming thoughts which are borne in upon the mind by such an action.
         Thus the usages and ordinances of the Church do not exist for their own sake; they do not stand of themselves; they are not sufficient for themselves; they do not fight against the State their own battle; they are not appointed as ultimate ends; but they are dependent on an inward substance; they protect a mystery; they defend a dogma; they represent an idea; they preach good tidings; they are the channels of grace. They are the outward shape of an inward reality or fact, which no Catholic doubts, which is assumed as a first principle, which is not an inference of reason, but the object of a spiritual sense. (p. 406)

These Newman writings are just stupendous, and make for superb spiritual reading, during Lent and beyond. The Table of Contents may be found below.

John Henry Newman on Worship, Reverence, and Ritual is available at all Amazon affiliates.