Newman at prayer, according to von Speyr

J. H. Newman

Adrienne von Speyr relates the following account of Newman’s prayer-life and personality in one of her numerous visions, dictated to her friend and co-worker, Hans Urs von Balthasar. These accounts are collected in The Book of All Saints (Ignatius, 2008), which includes a wide variety of persons, mostly canonized saints but also a few surprises (e.g., Joseph Haydn, Kierkegaard). Her description of Newman is, thankfully, far more kind and sympathetic than her less-than-flattering estimation of Thomas Aquinas. I thought this was a wonderful account of Newman.

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I see him in prayer. He prays so carefully, with a fastidious, good love, a love that has no patience for anything that is not entirely pure and entirely righteous [rechtschaffen]. He brings everything that is troubling and occupying him into prayer with him. At first, it is all unsorted; he sorts it out in prayer. And in prayer, he receives a certainty concerning whether what he brought is really worthwhile, whether God can use it, whether God can bless it. If God blesses it, he contemplates it once again in prayer and looks to see whether God’s light is now reflecting from it. His thoughts, his concerns, his recommendations are like diamonds that were not initially polished, stones he was not entirely sure were in fact really diamonds. Then the expert, that is, God, inspects them and gives them a true polish, and in the end Newman also sees that they were in fact precious stones. But one would have to say that almost everything he brings to God is really a diamond and that he already made the selection in a holy way.

(And his work?) He loves it. He loves it, because it is God’s work. …It is often the case that he writes, as it were, with his blood and attains to insights with the last of his strength. There is much that is demanded of him personally. In fact, he stands in relation to his work the way a founder of an Order stands in relation to that which he founds.

(And people?) He loves them. It is a bit odd. He sees them as God’s creatures, but in a way that somewhat resembles an entomologist who loves his insects. He often has difficulty making the first human contact. He receives it first through the translation of God.

Adrienne von Speyr, The Book of All Saints (Ignatius, 2008), pp. 261-262.

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7 comments

  1. Fascinating! I’ve read this and that by von Balthasar but nothing of von Speyr’s visions, although I’ve heard of her in association with his work/life. What she says here rings true from what I know of Newman. My grandmother has always told me we are related to Newman – obviously not directly descended, but from the same family (Newman was her maiden name). She is 100 years old and looks exactly like Newman in the photo!
    What a pity JHN got justification so wrong, though.
    Now, Kevin, what do we do theologically with such visions?
    Interesting.

  2. Now, Kevin, what do we do theologically with such visions?

    You got me. I tend to steer clear of negative pronouncements when the Holy Spirit may be involved (thanks to Jesus’ friendly warning about sins against the Holy Spirit being more-or-less not forgiven). My capacity for credulity is heightened especially when the content is this good. Besides, these are not nearly as weird as St. Faustina’s visions.

    • I wasn’t trying to paint you into a corner, Kevin, just genuinely interested in your view. Personally, I adopt a position of studied neutrality in regard to such things – not outright scepticism, but certainly v. cautious. My doctrinal commitments clearly warn against any need for further revelations, so, at best, I would regard these as private communications with no wider significance, but the fact that they are so closely bound up with a Roman Catholic worldview makes me feel very tentative about them. I have had enough experience of the uncanny in life to know that there is a “spiritual realm” that certain types of personalities are tuned into, willingly or unwillingly. As I said, interesting.

      • Well put.

        By “you got me,” I meant, “it beats me,” or such. Needless to say, if indeed all these saints are communicating their prayer life with von Speyr, then Protestantism is clearly too restrictive when it comes to the divide between here and there (earth and heaven). But, abuses in this regard are numerous and serious.

        As for von Speyr, it is difficult (for me, at least) to call her a liar and von B duped.

    • Francesca,
      Yes, the implications are quite far-reaching when you think about it, which is why I am very cautious. But just the same I’m grateful to Kevin for bringing this to our attention.

      • I agree about the implications being far-reaching, which is why it seems curious that, as far as I know, von Speyr is a relatively unknown mystic…compared to St. Faustina, for example, even though von Speyr’s reflections are more profound. Also, you would think that someone having all of these supernatural occurrences (with past saints, and even Charlemagne!) would get more attention.

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