Last Summer, I had the opportunity to pray in the private Oratory of Cardinal John Henry Newman, at Oriel College in Oxford.
The tiny Oratory is immediately behind the pipe organ of the College Chapel, out of sight of prying eyes. Very simple, it contains only a small table upon which sits a brass Crucifix and two candleticks, a wooden chair, and an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary hanging on the ancient stone wall.
The hidden Oratory offers a pleasing view across the main quad of Oriel College, but leaving the viewer hidden unless you look very carefully.Cardinal Newman is famous as having been part of the ‘Oxford Movement’ and because of his desire to re-Christianise England in the 1800s, and then for founding the Birmingham Oratory. Originally an Anglican Priest, he would later decide – following years of study – that the Catholic Church was the closest he could find to the original Christian community at the time of Jesus and in the years immediately following Him. Ever a man in search of Truth, he was conditionally baptised a Catholic, later becoming a Priest and eventually created a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.
In 1833, Newman wrote the hymn (originally as a poem) ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ and the words of the first verse are painted on one of the windows of his Oratory at Oriel College –
“Lead, kindly light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
lead Thou me on
the night is dark and I am far away from home
lead Thou me on
keep Thou my feet, I do not look to see
the distant scene, one step enough for me..”
Those words, sung thousands of times since they were first written, express a great sense of trust in the Lord – and for Newman, there were many occasions during his life where all he could do was trust the Lord, surrendering everything to Him and aware that everything is a part of His greater plan. Later in his life, in his work entitled ‘Purity And Love’, Newman wrote –
“Such are the means which God has provided for the creation of the saint out of the sinner; He takes him as he is, and uses him against himself; He turns his affections into another channel.. it is the very triumph of His grace, that He enters into the heart of man, and persuades it, and prevails with it, while He changes it.”
This little Oratory is the place where some of the first great and far-reaching decisions were made by Newman, which would culminate in his journey away from Oxford and many of his friends there – and also away from the Church of England, coming home to the Catholic Church. I wondered what thoughts went through his mind and entered into his prayers as he sat here, quietly and alone, and if he had any sense of where the journey which would begin there, would lead him.
Looking up at the icon of Mary on the wall facing him, I wonder if he asked Her help, and what relationship he had with Her. But I have no doubts about the graces She certainly obtained for him during his life.
On 13th October last year, Newman’s journey reached it’s culmination – on that day, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, declared Cardinal Newman a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
(Main image: stained glass window in the Oratory at Oriel College, depicting Cardinal Newman)