‘Lead, Kindly Light’
Every beatification, every canonization is a moment of great joy for faithful Catholics; yet the canonization of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman has lifted my spirits in a way that, previously, only the beatification of Father Solanus Casey has.
On the surface, the two men are quite different. (True diversity, Chesterton noted, exists only among the saints; in our sins, we are all very much the same.) Father Solanus was ordained a simplex priest, never allowed to preach or to hear confessions because he struggled in his theological studies; Cardinal Newman is (or at least should be) on a path to becoming a Doctor of the Church for his theological insight and his ability to draw laypeople without any theological training into a deeper understanding of Christ and his Church.
Yet in their relationship to the men and women in the pews, we find a common bond between Blessed Solanus and St. John Henry. Father Solanus counseled tens of thousands of people on their day-to-day struggles in the course of his vocation as doorkeeper of the various friaries where he resided (including 10 years at Saint Felix Friary, here in Huntington, Indiana); and Cardinal Newman, even in the richest of his theological meditations, captured the imagination of ordinary Catholics by always returning to the stuff of everyday life as a metaphor for the divine.
That Newman was a poet surely helped; “The Pillar of the Cloud,” better known as the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light,” has enchanted generations of Catholics and other Christians by striking the perfect balance between the melancholy of separation from our Creator in a world that we nonetheless love, and the hope of someday being reunited with that Creator in a world reborn: “Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling 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.”
Yet, which came first for Newman: the poetic sense, or the deep, intuitive apprehension of a perfect world corrupted by the rebellion of original sin, which was redeemed, not in a single, momentary act but in a continuous one, by the Incarnation of Christ and his sacrifice on Calvary, re-presented at every Mass offered in the 2,000 years since? Newman saw that all of reality is also a sign, not only of the Creator but of the corruption introduced by Adam and Eve and perpetuated by us, and of the salvation freely offered to us through no merit of our own.
Blessed Solanus urged those who sought his intercession to “thank God ahead of time”; Cardinal Newman reminded us that true gratitude entails recognizing that every choice is a moral decision, and that no act of rebellion, no matter how seemingly small, can ever be justified, because we owe our very existence to the God who knows us, loves us and wants us to be with him forever:
“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse” (Apologia pro Vita Sua).
Truth is not an abstraction; it is the essence of God and of his Son, who declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). Loving that Son, knowing the Father through him, means embracing the truth and wanting never to separate ourselves from it by our actions.
Father Solanus, others have said, is a saint for our time, because he helps us to see the depths of God’s mercy and our need for spiritual, even more than physical, healing. Newman, too, is a saint for our time, when the world seems to have abandoned the way, lost sight of the truth and rejected the life offered through Christ’s death on the cross.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.