The Way of the Cross and Real Apprehension of Sin


One of the purposes of devotions such as the Way of the Cross seems to be that they make us realize things which we already know. Or, to put it in Bl. J. H. Newman’s terms, they give us real apprehension of truths which we tend to apprehend only notionally. Take for example mortal sin: we apprehend at least notionally that with mortal sin we oppose God. Bl. Columba Marmion states this with great force:

Sin is […] the negation by the creature of the existence of God, of His truth, His sovereignty, His holiness, His goodness. […] In voluntarily performing an action contrary to God’s will [the soul] practically denies that God is sovereign wisdom and has the power to establish laws; it practically denies the holiness of God and refuses to give Him the adoration due to Him; it practically denies that God is omnipotent and has the right of claiming the obedience of beings that receive their life from Him; it denies that God is supreme goodness worthy of being preferred to all that is not Himself; it puts God beneath the creature. Non serviam: “I know Thee not, I will not serve Thee”, says this soul, repeating the words of Satan on the day of his revolt. Does it say them with the lips? No, at least not always; perhaps it would not like to do so, but it says them in act. Sin is the practical negation of the Divine perfections […] practically, if such a thing were not rendered impossible by the nature of the Divinity, this soul would work evil to the Infinite Majesty and Goodness; it would destroy God.

He then immediately proceeds to show how this infinite malice is revealed in the passion:

And was not this what happened? When God took to Himself a human form, did not sin slay him? (Christ the Life of the Soul)

But the problem is that we tend that revelation tends in turn to be only notionally apprehended. And this is where the Way of the Cross can help us, since the contemplation of the concrete circumstances of the Passion leads to real apprehension. Thus many meditations on the Stations begin by contemplating the malice of sin. Here is Bl. Cardinal Newman’s own meditation on the first station:

Jesus is condemned to death. His death-warrant is signed, and who signed it but I, when I committed my first mortal sins? My first mortal sins, when I fell away from the state of grace into which Thou didst place me by baptism; these it was that were Thy death-warrant, O Lord. The Innocent suffered for the guilty. Those sins of mine were the voices which cried out, “Let Him be crucified.” That willingness and delight of heart with which I committed them was the consent which Pilate gave to this clamorous multitude. And the hardness of heart which followed upon them, my disgust, my despair, my proud impatience, my obstinate resolve to sin on, the love of sin which took possession of me—what were these contrary and impetuous feelings but the blows and the blasphemies with which the fierce soldiers and the populace received Thee, thus carrying out the sentence which Pilate had pronounced?

Swaddling Clothes

Velazquez Magi

“Mary brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.” It is the custom in those southern parts to treat the new-born babe in a way strange to this age and country. The infant is swathed around with cloths much resembling the winding-sheet, the bandages and ligaments of the dead. You may recollect, my Brethren, the account of Lazarus’s revival; how that, when miracle had lifted him up out of the tomb, there he lay motionless, till his fastenings were cut off from him. “He that had been dead came forth, bound foot and hand with winding-bands; and Jesus said to them: Loose him, and let him go.” So was it with that wonder-working Lord Himself in His own infancy. He submitted to the customs, as well as to the ritual, of His nation; and, as He had lain so long in Mary’s womb, so now again He left that sacred prison, only that her loving hands might manacle and fetter Him once more, inflicting on Him the special penance which He had chosen. And so, like some inanimate image of wood or stone, the All-powerful lies in the manger, or on her bosom, doubly helpless, both because His infancy is feeble, and because His bonds are strong. (Blessed John Henry Newman, Omnipotence in Bonds)

According to Herders Neue Bibel Lexikon swaddling clothes were about 6m long!

In the first draft of the American Lectionary for Masses with Children Luke 2:7 reads: “She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him in a feedbox”. The bishops later had “feedbox” changed to “manger”. I think they should have gone after “baby clothes” instead: “feedbox” may sound silly, but it is at least an accurate rendering of φάτνῃ, whereas “baby clothes” completely misses the point: the Almighty God is bound, He who “moves the sun and other stars” cannot even move His little hands and feet.

The Opalescent Parrot on Francis Bacon

Among the pilgrims here for the Exaltation of the Cross on Sunday I was surprised to see Aelianus of Laodicea. I have been discussing the most abstract kind of armchair politics with Aelianus recently, but I thought that he was in far away Britain. We spoke after Mass, and he asked whether my classifying Laodicea under the Opalescent Parrot is some sort of elaborate insult. On the contrary, it is a complement. Alfred Noyes’s brilliant literary-criticism giving parrot is, one might say, the Platonic form of Catholic blogger; at least, if there were a Platonic form of Catholic blogger the Opalescent Parrot would participate in it to the highest degree (except that he didn’t have a blog…). The Parrot is the master of the sort dismissive, aphoristic take down of the children of this world that Catholic bloggers specialize in. Consider the son of the Orinoco on Francis Bacon:

‘The Worst thing of all,’ said Francis Bacon, ‘is the apotheosis of error’ It is on of those ‘apothegms’ which have been acclaimed as among the most glorious jewels in the crown of Philosophy; and whether the acclaim be deserved or not, the ‘apothegm’ has a special applicability to the tercentenary of Francis Bacon himself. […] For Francis Bacon is the supreme instance in English history of a figure crowned with error. Errors of every kind (from the hard, bright, shallow judgments of Macaulay to the pathetic futilities of those who believe that Bacon wrote the Faërie Queene and Hamlet), follies of every kind, fly to him like iron filings to a magnet.

Incidentally, I have used the “pathetic futilities of those who believe that Bacon wrote the Faërie Queene and Hamlet” to illustrate a point that Newman makes in the Grammar of Assent. A man who has read Spenser, Shakespeare, and Bacon closely for many years, and has attained a real apprehension of their literary style and color of mind, is absolutely certain that the author of the Faërie Queene did not write Hamlet, and that the author of the New Atlantis wrote neither. But, if he is asked to produce arguments he can only bring a number of probabilities, none of which justifies his absolute certitude. Why? The problem is that when he produces arguments he must abstract and enter the realm of what Newman calls the “notional,” but the concrete fact does not admit of universal demonstration. His certitude is based on the myriad complexity of a concrete fact really apprehended, and he cannot translate it into notions that do full justice to the reality. Thus the “accumulated probabilities” that Newman speaks of as giving him the certitude arrived at in his religious inquiry, are not a collection of probable, notional arguments added up till all together they prove what none of them separately can, but rather the quasi-infinity of probabilities following from the real apprehension of the concrete.

Bl. John Henry Newman’s Apologia as a Spiritual Aeneid


Ronald Knox called the account of his conversion A Spiritual Aeneid. In an Aeneid you are coming home, but coming home to a place you have never been in before.  You must throw yourself upon the guidance of the gods. Nor are there the memories of home to spur you on when you are tempted to turn aside, Knox writes, “it is a mere sense of mission, imperiously insistent, that inflames your discontent: cunctus ob Italiam terrarum clauditur orbis.” And of course, the home to which you are returning is Rome. In a recent paper I have argued that everything about the relation of his book to the Aeneid could be applied to Bl. John Henry Newman’s Apologia. But the Apologia can be called a spiritual Aeneid for a deeper reason than those listed by Knox.

At the beginning of the key chapter of the Apologia Newman refers to Aeneid and thereby shows what is his own intention in writing:

And now that I am about to trace, as far as I can, the course of that great revolution of mind, which led me to leave my own home, to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties, I feel overcome with the difficulty of satisfying myself in my account of it, and have recoiled from the attempt, till the near approach of the day, on which these lines must be given to the world, forces me to set about the task. For who can know himself, and the multitude of subtle influences which act upon him? And who can recollect, at the distance of twenty-five years, all that he once knew about his thoughts and his deeds, and that, during a portion of his life, when, even at the time his observation, whether of himself or of the external world, was less than before or after, by very reason of the perplexity and dismay which weighed upon him,—when, in spite of the light given to him according to his need amid his darkness, yet a darkness it emphatically was? And who can suddenly gird himself to a new and anxious undertaking, which he might be able indeed to perform well, were full and calm leisure allowed him to look through every thing that he had written, whether in published works or private letters? yet again, granting that calm contemplation of the past, in itself so desirable, who can afford to be leisurely and deliberate, while he practises on himself a cruel operation, the ripping up of old griefs, and the venturing again upon the ‘infandum dolorem’ of years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out? I could not in cool blood, nor except upon the imperious call of duty, attempt what I have set myself to do. It is both to head and heart an extreme trial, thus to analyze what has so long gone by, and to bring out the results of that examination. I have done various bold things in my life: this is the boldest: and, were I not sure I should after all succeed in my object, it would be madness to set about it. (Bl. John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua)

“Infandum dolorem” is a quote from the oppening of Book II of the Aeneid:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai; quaeque ipse miserrima vidi,
et quorum pars magna fui. Quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? Et iam nox umida caelo
praecipitat, suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
Sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret, luctuque refugit,

Too deep for words, O queen, is the grief you bid me renew, how the Greeks overthrew Troy’s wealth and woeful realm – the sights most piteous that I saw myself and wherein I played no small role. What Myrmidon or Dolopian, or soldier of the stern Ulysses, could refrain from tears in telling such a tale? And now dewy night is speeding from the sky and the setting stars counsel sleep. Yet if such is your desire to learn of our disasters, and in few words to hear of Troy’s last agony, though my mind shudders to remember and has recoiled in pain, I will begin.

Newman mirrors Virgil’s passage closely even to chillingly transforming Virgil’s musical line “suadentque cadentia sidera somnos” into “years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out.” But the echo in imagery points to what this passage most of all shows is that Newman was following Virgil at a deeper level; he was trying to convey the same vision of the deep sadness in greatness of mortal life in its relation to the divine.

Virgil’s sadness is deeper than that of the other great classical authors because of his hope. Compare the famous line which Aeneas speaks on seeing the images of Troy, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” (1.462) with Lucretius on the pain of birth, “cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum” (De Rerum Natura 5.227). Lucretius does not see any meaning in the pains of birth; his sadness is simply despair at the meaninglessness of life. Virgil sees great meaning in the fall of Troy – it is ordered to the rise of Rome – and this gives his sadness a different quality. There is a paradox here. Lucretius’s sadness is shallow, because he is hopeless, and thus lacks a sense of the nobility of mortal life. Virgil’s sadness is deep because he sees human life as playing out a meaningful and divinely guided destiny, his sadness sees the nobility of mortal existence in its very pain and weariness.

For Virgil mortal things touch the heart because of a nobility which comes from their being ordered to something greater than themselves. The Christian Middle Ages saw Virgil as a prophet because he is practically unique among the pagans in having a linear, teleological view of history. For Virgil the god’s have destined Rome to great things, and the role of the hero is to contribute to that destiny. It is this grand hope that makes Virgil so different from Homer. Homer has an essentially cyclical view of history; the endless quarrels of the gods go round and round.* The role of the hero for Homer is simply to win great honor in a harsh world, to achieve lasting fame. There is no possibility of contributing toward some final goal.

It is Virgil’s view, transformed of course by a far greater hope, that Newman is trying to express. Newman is trying to “touch the heart” by the portrayal of the nobility and sadness of mortal existence played out in the attempt to reach for the divine and strive for the eternal goal. That is where the greatest fascination of the Apologia comes from – the pathos and nobility of the relation to divine Providence.

Those whose hearts have been touched by the Apologia can say to Newman what Dante says to Virgil: “Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ’l mio autore:” “thou art my master, and my author thou!” (Inferno 1.87)

*Some argue that Homer is actually lamenting the end of the Heroic age and showing how it’s demise was necessary for the beginning of the age of the political city-state, thus finding a note of linear teleology in his epics. But, at any rate, that note is much less prominent than in Virgil.



In Heiligenkreuz we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross twice every year. On the Feast itself we have a monastic celebration, in which practically only the community itself takes part. On the Sunday following there is a more exoteric celebration to which lots of pilgrims come, with a solemn procession in the afternoon with our relic of the True Cross. Among the pilgrims on “Kreuzerhöhungssonntag” are always a group of ladies from the so-called “Sternkreuzorden” (Order of the the Starry Cross). The Sternkreuzorden comes in the morning and listens to some spiritual conferences (i.e. talks), before taking part in the celebrations of the afternoon. As I have been asked to give the conferences this year, I have done a little research on what the Sternkreuzorden is. The secretariat of the Order sent me a summary of its history and the latest version of its statutes, and I have also checked a few reference works. Here is what I have discovered.

The Sternkreuzorden is what is called in German a “Damenorden,” that is a chivalric order for ladies. In his rather curious book The Orders of Knighthood, British and Foreign, Rajah Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore (ah, British India…) describes its founding as follows:

The Imperial House of Austria is said to have been in possession of a small piece of the Cross of Christ. The Emperors Maximilian and Ferdinand were accustomed to bear with them constantly in war and peace this relic inserted in a Cross of Gold. After the death of Ferdinand, his successor Leopold, presented it to the widowed Empress Eleanora, a daughter of Duke Charles of Mantua in order by its means to soften the sorrows of Her widowhood. She kept it very carefully locked in a small box, adorned with crystal and enamel and covered with silk. It happened that in the night of the 2nd February 1668, a fire suddenly broke out in the Imperial Castle at Vienna, just below the apartments of the Empress Eleanora, and it soon reached the Imperial apartments, from which she escaped with considerable difficulty before they were entirely consumed. On the following day search was made for the relic, and it was discovered amongst the ruins, fortunately untouched by the conflagration, with the exception of the metal The Empress was so rejoiced at the incident, that She ordered a solemn procession, and resolved to found a Female Order, not only, as the Statutes say, to commemorate the miraculous events but also to induce the Members to devote themselves to the service and worship of the Holy Cross, and lead a virtuous life in the exercise of religion and works of charity.


The relic in question is now kept in the Schatzkammer in Vienna. According to the Kurzgeschichte sent me by the Order, the empress had canonical court examine the preservation of the relic, and it came to the conclusion that the preservation of the wood, while the metal casing melted was miraculous. The Order’s statutes were approved by Pope Clement IX in the Bull Redemptoris et Domini Nostri (August 2, 1668).


The badge, [Rajah Sir Sourindro writes] which has undergone four alterations since the time of Maria Theresa, is an oval medallion, with a broad blue enamelled border, inclosing a black enamelled Eagle with two heads, and claws, both of gold, on which lies a Gold Cross, enamelled green, and bordered with brown wood. Over this, on an intwined wreath in black letters, on a white ground, is the motto of the Order, “Salus et Gloria”— (Hail and glory.) It is worn, pendent to a strip of black riband, on the left breast.

Originally members of the order had to prove sixteen noble great-great-grand parents (and if they were married they had to prove the same for their husbands), but the current statutes (approved by the Archbishop of Vienna in 2007) only stipulate that the members be Catholics and not living in invalid marriages, though in the first article it does say that the order is a association of “hochadelige Damen,” that is, they have to be duchesses, princesses or countesses.


The members are appointed by the guardian, who is always a member of the House of Austria. Since the death of Princess Regina the guardian has been  Archduchess Gabriela. Her Imperial and Royal Highness recently gave an interview to the Tagespost in which she says the following about the Order:

At the centre of the order is the orientation toward the cross of Christ. We also support some great works of mercy, for example in Albania, but the most important [part of our mission] is the contemplative [part].

Sunday, being the long-awaited day of Card. Newman’s beatification, I shall be using two of Newman’s sermons for my conferences: Order, the Witness and Instrument of Unityand Omnipotence in Bonds, I shall use them, and the beggining of S. Ignatius’s Excercises to talk about the epistle of the Exaltation (Phil 2:6-11), but more on that later.

Scruton on Disordered and Ordered Places

In his lecture “The Face of the Earth,” Roger Scruton compares the following two photographs:

What is it that makes the picture of the canal so different from the one of urban sprawl? The canal is, as Scruton says, “just as jumbled up,” with “just as many things competing for our attention.” Scruton’s explanation for why the canal is beautiful and the urban sprawl is not, is that if one looks at the details of the canal one sees what Wallace Stevens called the “blessed rage for order.” But Scruton doesn’t explain exactly what he means. How does the “jumbled” canal manifest rage for order? I think the key is Scruton’s statement that there are “just as many things competing for our attention.” That’s not quite right. In the picture of the automobile wasteland things are competing for attention—especially the commercial signs, each one seems to be saying “look at me!” But the details of the canal are not competing for attention. Newman once said “the very idea of order implies the idea of the subordinate,” and that is what one sees in the canal; each detail subordinates itself, it does not try to pull attention away from the whole, and therefore the jumble is ordered and beautiful. So it really isn’t what Wallace Stevens was talking about. It’s not a rage for order, it’s a love of order; it’s not the imposition of meaning on meaningless jumble, but the courteous subordination of each detail which allows the whole to emerge.

Kingsley on Froude’s History of England


A scan of the entire January 1864 number of Macmillan’s Magazine, with Kingsley’s famous review of Froude’s History of England, Vols. vii. – viii. (211-224) is available from The slander of Newman that lead to the writing of the Apologia is on page 217.

It is remarkably fitting that Kingsley’s controversy with Newman began with his review of a History of Tudor England. Oddly enough, the history in question was by J. A. Froude, the violently anti-Catholic younger brother of Newman’s friend Richard Hurrell Froude. Kingsley begins his review with fulsome praise for the newly awakened historical consciousness of his generation. He even praises the Oxford Movement for contributing to knowledge of history. (212) But the effect of the praise is short lived as the rest of the review is concerned with attacking the view of British history which the Oxford Movement – and especially converts from it to “Romanism” – had developed. He analyzes the reign of Queen Elisabeth, which he reads as the story of the shaking off of the evil influence of Catholicism. He closes with an appeal to remember that Elisabeth’s cause was “the cause of freedom and of truth, which has led these realms to glory,” and a warning against the anti-English attitude of “those who have lately joined, or are inclined to join, the Church of Rome,” and are teaching the young to prefer “the cause of tyranny and of lies,” which Elisabeth opposed. “After all,” he closes, “Victrix Causa Diis placuit. ” It was a thought dear to his heart: the successful cause is right! (224)

Victorian Optimism

I have been working on a chapter on “historical context” in my paper on Newman’s Apologia. Victorian England was not an easy audience for Newman. The Baconian project of domination over nature reached a high-point of confidence in the Victorians.  The tremendous technological and commercial achievements of the time had not yet been clouded by the shock to the faith in progress that WWI was to give – nor by the ideological critique of capitalism and imperialism through Marxism etc. The religion that appealed most to the Victorian Zeitgeist was the liberal Christianity of Newman’s opponent Charles Kingsley, which substituted the optimism of progress for Christian hope, to the point of practically identifying the scientific, technological and commercial success of British society with the coming of the kingdom of God. Kingsley is (no surprise) a huge fan of Bacon:

Remember that while England is, and ever will be, behindhand in metaphysical and scholastic science, she is the nation which above all others has conquered nature by obeying her; that as it pleased God that the author of that proverb, the father of inductive science, Bacon Lord Verulam, should have been an Englishman, so it has pleased Him that we, Lord Bacon’s countrymen, should improve that precious heirloom of science, inventing, producing, exporting, importing, till it seems as if the whole human race, and every land from the equator to the pole must henceforth bear the indelible impress and sign-manual of English science. And bear in mind, as I said just now, that this study of natural history is the grammar of that very physical science which has enabled England thus to replenish the earth and subdue it. Do you not see, then, that by following these studies you are walking in the very path to which England owes her wealth ; that you are training in yourself that habit of mind which God has approved as the one which He has ordained for Englishmen, and are doing what in you lies toward carrying out, in after life, the glorious work which God seems to have laid on the English race, to replenish the earth and subdue it? (“On the Study of Natural History,” available through the magic of google books)

The incredible English chauvinism that he shows here is wholly typical of his age. Ronald Knox thinking back about his Victorian childhood expresses it like this:

Only those of us, I think, who were born under Queen Victoria know what it feels like to assume, without questioning, that England is permanently top nation; that foreigners do not matter, and if the worst comes to the worst, Lord Salisbury will send a gun-boat. (Ronald Knox, God and the Atom (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945) 53-54.)

Victorian Liberal Christianity was impatient of what it saw as the irrelevant subtlety of speculative doctrine; it was a very practical religion. For Newman to make a history of the theological investigations that lead him to abandon the religion of England for the “superstitions of Rome” palatable to Victorian England was a challenge indeed.

Strachey on Newman’s Apologia

If anyone might have been expected to be dismissive of Newman it was Bloomsbury Group critic Lytton Strachey, who was not only vociferously opposed to Newman’s theology, but was also famous for pouring scorn on much of Victorian literature. And yet, this is how he writes of the Apologia:

Lytton StracheyIf Newman had died at the age of sixty, today he would have been already forgotten, save by a few ecclesiastical historians; but he lived to write his Apologia, and to reach immortality, neither as a thinker nor as a theologian, but as an artist who has embalmed the poignant history of an intensely human spirit in the magical spices of words. (Eminent Victorians)