Monday, January 05, 2004

January 5, 1828
was a terrible day in the life of Venerable John Henry Newman. His beloved youngest sister, Mary, who had suddenly become ill the previous evening, died. She was nineteen years old. As I have previously written, the Venerable attributed this grief, along with an illness of his own slightly earlier, with shaking him out of the tendency to drift in the direction of the liberalism that was becoming common among the Fellows of Oriel College. An old family friend, Maria Giberne, who became Catholic somewhat later than the Venerable, wrote a letter to him about fifty years later, in which she recalled this event.


… But I do not want to talk of myself. I want to tell you of my entire sympathy with you in what you say and feel about the anniversary of our dear Mary's death. This season never comes round without my repassing in my heart of hearts all the circumstances of those few days—my first visit to your dear family. Who could ever behold that dear sweet face for any length of time and forget it again? And again, who could ever have been acquainted with the soul and heart that lent their expression to that face and not love her?

My sister Fanny and I arrived at your house on the 3rd [of January], and sweet Mary, who had drawn figures under my advice when she was staying with us at Wanstead, leant over me at a table in the drawing-room, and in that sweet voice said, 'I am so glad you are come; I hope you will help me in my drawing.' I forget about the dinner and evening on that day, for I was doubtless under considerable awe of you in those first days; but the next day Mr. Woodgate and Mr. Williams dined there, and dear Mary sat next you, and I was on the other side; and while eating a bit of turkey she turned her face towards me, her hand on her heart, so pale, and a dark ring round her eyes, and she said she felt ill, and should she go away? I asked you, and she went: I longed to accompany her, but dared not for fear of making a stir. It was the last time I saw her alive. Soon after Jemima (ed. one of Newman's other sisters) went after her; and then your Mother, looking so distressed; and she said, 'John, I never saw Mary so ill before; I think we must send for a doctor.' You answered as if to cheer her, 'Ah, yes, Mother, and don't forget the fee.' How little I thought what the end would be! Next morning Harriett (ed. the eldest Newman sister) came to walk with us about one o'clock—after the doctor had been, I think—but though she said Mary had had a very bad night, she did not seem to apprehend danger. We went to dine with a friend, and only returned to your house about nine. I felt a shock in entering the house, seeing no one but you—so pale and so calm, and yet so inwardly moved; and how, when I asked you to pray with us for her, you made a great effort to quiet your voice, sitting against the table, your eyes on the fire, and you answered, 'I must tell you the truth: she is dead already.' Then you went to fetch vinegar, which I did not need, for I felt turned to stone. Fanny cried—I envied her her tears. "
Venerable Newman wrote several verses dealing with this painful blow. Here is one of them:

Consolations in Bereavement

"Death was full urgent with thee, Sister dear,
And startling in his speed;—
Brief pain, then languor till thy end came near—
Such was the path decreed,
The hurried road
To lead thy soul from earth to thine own God's

Death wrought with thee, sweet maid, impatiently:—
Yet merciful the haste
That baffles sickness;—dearest, thou didst die,
Thou wast not made to taste
Death's bitterness,
Decline's slow-wasting charm, or fever's fierce

Death came unheralded:—but it was well;
For so thy Saviour bore
Kind witness, thou wast meet at once to dwell
On His eternal shore;
All warning spared,
For none He gives where hearts are for prompt change

Death wrought in mystery; both complaint and cure
To human skill unknown:—
God put aside all means, to make us sure
It was His deed alone;
Lest we should lay
Reproach on our poor selves, that thou wast caught

Death urged as scant of time:—lest, Sister dear,
We many a lingering day
Had sicken'd with alternate hope and fear,
The ague of delay;
Watching each spark
Of promise quench'd in turn, till all our sky was

Death came and went:—that so thy image might
Our yearning hearts possess,
Associate with all pleasant thoughts and bright,
With youth and loveliness;
Sorrow can claim,
Mary, nor lot nor part in thy soft soothing name.

Joy of sad hearts, and light of downcast eyes!
Dearest thou art enshrined
In all thy fragrance in our memories;
For we must ever find
Bare thought of thee
Freshen this weary life, while weary life shall be. "

April, 1828.


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