With the morn, those angel faces smile which I have loved long since and lost awhile .

—John Henry Newman

Notes of condolence are among of the hardest things of all to write. They are obliged to console. Consolation is their raison d’etre. Yet how is that accomplished? What can be said at the moment grief demands its due without falling into maudlin cliché? Anguish seems better left with silence. Yet silence is cruel, a retreat from the one who grieves and an abandonment of the dead. Words are needed, somehow. Where to find them? How to shape them? How to let one’s own heart speak while granting dominion to the heart of another?

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The Flight of the Soul (15th C.). Manuscript illustration for Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Bibliotheque Municipal, Rouen.

The springs of condolence require exquisite sensitivity to the misery and bewilderment of the bereaved. John Henry Newman was gifted with just such discernment. His words were freed from constraints by the knowledge that they were addressed to fellow Christians. Beneficiaries of his sympathy assented to his meditation on the sympathy of Christ: “Wherever there is a heart to answer, ‘Lord, I believe,’ there Christ is present.”

The humanity of John Henry Newman is nowhere more apparent than in the condolences he sent to those with whom he lived and worked. His lifetime, spanning the nineteenth century, provided ample occasion to address the pain of bereaved friends. Mortality rates were high in Victorian England; death was omnipresent. Before 1900, a full fifteen percent of children died before adolescence. Records of 1839 show nearly one in three failed to reach the age of five. Pregnancy was hazardous—childbirth the most common cause of death among even healthy women. There was the chronic devastation of infectious diseases: influenza, typhus (bacterial infection), typhoid fever (from contaminated food or drink), tuberculosis, diphtheria, small pox, chicken pox, syphilis, and that quick and nasty killer, cholera.

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Flemish School. Woman on Her Deathbed (17th C.). Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen.

Nowhere is Cardinal Manning’s description of Newman as “a preacher of justice, of piety and of compassion” more evident than in Newman’s many letters to the bereaved. James Tolhurst’s Comfort in Sorrow is a valuable collection of these letters. Newman’s humanity is apparent in every one.

This is Newman responding to Elizabeth Johnson who had written to tell him that her mother had died three days before on 2 January 1881

My dear Child:

I hear with great sorrow of your and your Sister’s loss—with personal sorrow, for your dear mother was only one of a number whom I began to know and to love about sixty years ago. I knew your Grandfather before his marriage, and, as his large family gradually formed and grew up, I knew them all. And when he lost your Grandmother in 1835, it was I whom in the sad week that followed he let see his grief, and whose attempts to comfort him he accepted. And I have always kept all of you in mind, though I have been away from you.

But of course it is your own grief, my dear Children, which touches me most . . . .

After the death of his first wife, Richard Pope remarried to Elizabeth Phillips. She died seven years later, leaving him with with four children. Newman wrote: 

It would be wonderful indeed, if we did not feel much for the loss of dear Bessie, both for our own sake and then more especially for yours. We knew, much as we might love her, (and I assure you, though no one knew it, I never could look at her sweet bright face without great pleasure, and I may say, joy.) we could not love her, much less miss her and mourn for her, as you have loved her and you would mourn, and that made and makes me feel for you the more, for the very reason that we sorrow so much even on our own account.

Newman’s youthful diary entry for January 5, 1828, notes: “We lost my sister Mary suddenly.” He recalls: 

And how can I summon the strength to recount the particulars of the heavist affliction with which the good hand of God has ever visited me? . . . Here everything reminds me of her. She was with us at Oxford, and I took a delight in showing her the place—and every building, every tree, seems to speak of her. I cannot realize that I will never see her again.

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Ary Scheffer. The Death of Gericault, accompanied by painter Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, 1824. Louvre, Paris.

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Every one of Newman’s condolence notes gives evidence of a man capable of deep affection, one whose faith was illuminated by great kindliness. His own words—and those of others to and about him—stand in striking contradiction to Adrienne von Speyr’s portrait of him in Book of All Saints . Prompted by her illustrious stenographer to comment on Newman’s attitude to other people (“and people?”), von Speyr admits he loves them but immediately confounds the admission by adding: 

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

An entomologist who loves his insects. It is a bitchy remark, a shot of venom injected into otherwise unexceptional boilerplate. Unexceptional, that is, if you discount for the saccharine banality of off-the-rack piety: 

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.

If this is mysticism, then the line between mystic and mountebank is thinner than we want to think. Newman’s generous mind, apparent in his letters and sermons, are a more trustworthy guide to the character of his prayer life than the reveries of Balthasar’s medium.

Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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