ecently, a friend and I realized over a beer that we did not know what a good confession looked like. We had seen good (and bad) Masses; we had witnessed the efficacious baptism and confirmation. The corporal and spiritual works of others, animated by charity, sprang easily to mind. But confession? If, as Plato had it, our most formative education comes from imitation, where were we to find a public model for this most private of sacraments? Even Christ, our example in all things, never needed to confess a sin.
Providentially, only a day or so after that conversation, NINS’s own Elizabeth Huddleston reminded me that I had agreed to review Peter Conley’s A Human Harp of Many Chords (Alive Publishing, 2019) for the NINS blog. Conley’s recently published volume has attempted the “life of a saint” Newman himself most prized. In a letter to his Oratorian brothers from 1853, Newman admitted that rather than a typical portrait of a saint, where the life itself was lost amid the division into a series of stereotyped virtues:
“To find a saint sitting down to cards, or reading a heathen author, or listening to music or taking snuff, is often a relief and an encouragement to the reader, as convincing him that grace does not supersede nature, . . . he is reading of a child of Adam and his own brother, and he is drawn up to his pattern and guide while he sees that pattern can descend to him” (14–15).
Conley has undertaken to present “the lights and shades of a saintly character” (14–15) by way of Newman’s own letters, which he systematically read “over a few years” (17). In a little volume of twelve short chapters, selections from Newman’s private correspondence have been grouped under different themes or aspects (e.g., “Being Kindly Lights,” “Contemplating the Snails’ Shell,” “Hurrying Slowly to Resurrection’s Rays.”). Twelve ways of looking at a saint, if you will.
It was a delight in its own way to learn that Newman enjoyed billiards, drank both beer and wine, and packed cumin on his journey to Italy. But above all, what emanated from the correspondence was Newman’s gift as a confessor. Advice about contrition (82), continual prayer (47ff, 57, 64–65, 95), the proper mode of eucharistic adoration (84), the power of the Rosary (as a “gospel in miniature” and the “creed in a prayer,” 100–101 ), the need for one’s spiritual life to be supported by concrete habits of action (21, 30–31, 95), reliance on Providence (54–55): here was a book in which one could imagine what Newman, were he on the other side of the screen, might say.
Conley’s rare missteps still redounded to Newman’s benefit. An unexpected block quotation from the youth catechism (YouCat, 52) threw into relief Newman’s melodious and balanced prose. And the use of a satellite navigation system to illustrate how the conscience develops (“God’s Kaleidoscope and Sat Nav,” esp. 50–57) undersored how rare and appropriate were Newman’s own mechanical analogies (cf. the iron rod vs. the cable on converging probabilities in the Grammar).
In reading Newman’s careful and patient responses to interlocutors high and low, learned and simple, it slowly dawned on this reader that the imitatio Christi in the confessional referred not foremost to the penitent but to the confessor. Newman’s very narration of the rhythms and vicissitudes of the spiritual life, recounted with pellucid simplicity, compelled a kind of self-realization and contrition inaccessible to the mere naval gazer. It resembled nothing so much as the famous account in Newman’s sermon on personal influence, where the pupil after spending much time with his master would “at length, with astonishment and fear . . . become aware that Christ’s presence was before [him]” (“Personal Influence,” 96) and that he himself was being transformed into the image on which he gazed. Deus meus, ex toto corde. . . .