Tuesday, August 26, 2008


"Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth"

On November 19 & 20 this year, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will perform Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a work Elgar saw as the best of himself, the music set to the poem of the same name by Cardinal John Newman. It will be led by the incoming chief conductor and artistic advisor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, features the very fabulous mezzo Lilli Passikivi (“warm voice from cold Finland”), English tenor Mark Tucker, English baritone David Wilson-Johnson, and the great Sydney Philharmonia Choir.

Newman’s poem tells of the fear of impending death of the dying Gerontius, the primal fear of loss of self, the end of ego, the realisation that the self isn’t any more, let alone wasn’t ever, and then the ascent of the soul, with its guardian angel, to Heaven...well nearly. It is a very Catholic view of death and the thereafter.

That I am going, that I am no more.
As though my very being had given way,
As though I was no more a substance now,
And drop from out the universal frame
Into that shapeless, slopeless, black abyss,
That utter nothingness, of which I came.

Released from the body, the soul ascends, "my fear is fled", past Demons, Angelicals, “my soul is in my hand: I have no fear”, escorted up the Sacred Stairs, to catch a glimpse of the Divine, only to then stay awhile in Purgatory:

Farewell, but not forever! Brother dear,
Be brave and patient in thy bed of sorrow
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

About the time of this performance, the Vatican is expected to complete the canonisation, the elevation to sainthood, of Cardinal Newman. Sainthood is the declared belief that Heaven has been reached, one is in the presence of the Divine and enjoying a direct relationship with God.

Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman was the great Catholic thinker and writer of the 19th Century and a strong and literate champion of the Catholic cause , particularly against Anglicanism, (most manifest in Henry Manning and his works), a cause to which Newman was especially valuable having switched his allegiance from the latter to the former. Cardinal Newman was inspired as early as the age of 15 to a higher calling, including the belief that a single life, a life of celibacy, was a worthy goal in a life of devotion, a goal which few could meet. His experience of God was inspirational and experiential, not rational. He wrestled with the issue of the authority of the Church, especially where it might lead to conflict with conscience, although his public stance was that it would never come to the irreconcilable. Fr. Frank Brennan SJ, a man I see as our major voice of social conscience, in his Melbourne Newman Lecture in March this year, highlighted the issue of conscience versus Vatican as he called the attendants to a toast:

Newman's confidence that there would be no prospect of an overlap, let alone a conflict, between the matters on which the Pope would speak infallibly and the matters on which the citizen would have to decide political and moral questions accounts for his notorious declaration:
"Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink — to the Pope if you please, — still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards
. “

Pope vs Newman is not finished yet. As a prelude to canonisation, the Vatican is in the process of moving Newman’s remains, after the necessary changes to the law forbidding tampering with the dead, to a place worthy of such a person, a place appropriate for people to visit, venerate, and seek inspiration. What’s wrong with where he’s been buried for the last 120 years?
He is buried where he lived, at Rednal, Worchestershire, a residence with chapel and cemetery. Interestingly, Rednal was bought with surplus funds from moneys raised to pay the 100 pound fine, and 14,000 pound expenses, from a successful libel suit which had arisen from his accusations of immorality in the process of his defence against another’s anti-Catholic preachings.

Newman lived at Rednal with Ambrose St John, his lifetime male companion, for 32 years, from 1843 till St John’s death in 1875, at which time Newman wrote: "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone's sorrow greater, than mine."

He stayed there till his own death on August 11 1890, declaring “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John's grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will". He later added "This I confirm and insist on." The character of the guardian angel, Newman’s (Gerontius) escort to heaven, is considered by many to be Ambrose St John

For 118 years his body has lain in the same tomb as his beloved, and under the one headstone, with the one inscription:

Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth

The truth, the uncomfortable turth, would be there for all who should come to see, reflect, and venerate. There lies not one man, but two men, in love in life and joined thereafter.

It is his remains, and only his, that are to be moved.

John Henry Cardinal Newman

Fr Ambrose St John

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