Mark McIntyre on the lessons learned by Newman during a trip to Italy

In the winter of 1832-3, Hurrell Froude, a close friend of John Henry Newman was suffering from tuberculosis. Froude’s father was anxious to take his son to warmer climates to see if it would help with the infection. The Froudes asked Newman if he would accompany them on an extended holiday around the Mediterranean. Newman was much in need of a break, having just completed a major scholarly work on the Arian heresy and had been relieved of many of his tutorial students.

The party set off from Falmouth and made their way to Corfu, Malta, Palermo, Naples and Rome. Interestingly, what Newman saw in Rome did not impress him on this first visit. Perhaps this shows us something of his later more moderate catholic sympathies, rather than some of the more elaborate continental customs and practices.

Work to do

In Rome he heard the news that the British Government were about to abolish some Irish Bishoprics. This angered bothNewman and Froude and they became determined to act in protest of the state interference in the life of the Church. Before leaving Rome, the party made contact with Nicholas Wiseman, later Archbishop of Westminster.

As they parted, Wiseman expressed the hope that they would meet again sometime in Rome. Newman replied, `We have a work to do in England: It was at this point that Newman left the Froudes, who began their return journey back to England. Newman, on the other hand, went to Sicily, fascinated by its beauty.

Not abandoned

While in Sicily, John Henry Newman was taken seriously ill and came very close to death. Everything became

dark for him and he found himself in a state of despair and personal upheaval. He felt that by leaving his travelling companions he had been particularly wilful, seeking his own way. He also knew, however, that God had not abandoned him. He kept saying when the fever was at its worst, have not sinned against the light

When he began to recover, Newman caught a ship to Palermo but was unable to depart from here for a number of weeks due to his recurring illness. Finally he left Palermo, but the ship he was on was becalmed between Corsica and Sardinia. Famously, it was at this point, in his physical and spiritual journey, that Newman wrote the now famous poem, ‘The Pillar of the Cloud; or as it is better known, lead Kindly Light:

Two certainties

When Newman finally reached home, on 9 July 1833, he was refreshed and revitalized. On 14 July 1833, his friend and colleague John Keble preached the now famous Assize Sermon, challenging the role of the state in the life of the Church. This sermon was described by Newman as indicating the beginning of the

Oxford Movement.

From this brief description of a journey made by Blessed John Henry Newman we see the working through of vocation which originated in his conversion experience of 1816 when he was fifteen years old. At this time, Newman had the sense of two absolute certainties: knowledge of God as creator and the knowledge of self. These made Newman deeply aware of God’s desire for him to serve him and do him a ‘definite service’. Clearly we see that the Christian life is not a static one; it is truly a journey of discovery. One of the saddest things to see in the life of a Christian is when their faith journey has become static and as stagnant as a trapped pool of water.

Newman himself said that in order to grow we need to change, and so to grow towards perfection is to have changed often. He went on to say that this change is necessary in order to remain the same — not flitting from one opinion to another but to see a clear line of development and growth, from `shadows and images into the truth

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encirding gloom, lead ‘Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on; I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead Thou me on! I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my with Remember not past years!
So long ‘Thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on. O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone, And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I
Have loved long since, and lost awhile!


Newman’s words to Dr Wiseman are worth taking notice of when reflecting on the Christian vocation, ‘I have a work to do in England’ There is, first of all, a certainty about the sense of calling, even though Newman was not exactly certain about what that work would look like and how it would develop. He was not saying ‘I must found the Oxford Movement…’ No, he knew God was calling him, but what he was being called to be and to do would become clearer later and would of course also change and develop. But at the time of his meeting with Wiseman, Newman knew he needed to return to England and trust that God would show him the work, the `definite purpose’, that was to be his vocation. Here we learn from Blessed John Henry Newman that we need to trust God and his call even when the direction and picture is not one hundred per cent clear.


Newman recognized what he calls the ‘sin of wilfulness’ when he was determined to follow his own mind to Sicily instead of making the journey home with the Froudes. On one level this is a very minor incident, but it became for Newman a lesson that he had to learn before he could answer God’s call. He recognized that this `wilfulness’ was a symptom of his state of mind and soul. He saw in himself a little too much ‘I want. Yet even such self-centredness God can use to show us the error of our ways, of our own -wilfulness. This does not mean God abandons us to our folly, but rather even mistakes can be used as a blessing and opportunity to give glory to God. They can even be a chance to show God’s mercy and love to others. In short, God’s mercy is not dependent upon us getting it right all the time, and for this we should be ever thankful. Newman realizes that God is always able to call him back to his first love and that first deep realization of certainty, ‘myself and my creator’.

Dependence on God

Another characteristic of John Henry Newman’s journey back to Oxford in 1833 was his illness and finally the becalming of the ship on the final leg of his journey. In sickness Newman was called to stop and rest awhile. Again something for us to learn is that God’s work is not totally dependent on us. God called Newman to realize that his dependence was to be on God. If he was to move forward in answering this call, Newman needed to know his dependence.

This makes sense of the poem we know as ‘Lead Kindly Light’. The darkness of wilfulness and wanting to plan his own way and have it all mapped out, Newman rejects for a path that will be step by step and guided by God. He realizes that he will not always see what may be around the corner, but he will trust, `one step enough for me: In verse two, Newman acknowledges the novelty of this newly discovered way of being a disciple. Perhaps it is the garish day, with its attractions and fears, that sounds so contemporary with modern living. Even the pride that rules our will has resonances in modern society and individual lives. Newman speaks to our contemporary lives when he recognizes that he remains on the journey towards perfect submission to God’s will for him. It may still just elude him because he says, ‘Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile:

A love song

`Lead Kindly Light’ touches the very depths of the Christian heart. It speaks of a deep desire to respond to God’s call and yet is starkly realistic about how the human heart struggles in that response. It is also a love song, because in our struggle there is never a point in which God’s love for each human being ever wavers.

There is never a time when God does not ‘Lead thou me on ‘God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. `He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work.

`I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. `Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.’ 1ND