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St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
The Pillar of Cloud (“Lead, Kindly Light”)
Lead, Kindly Light, amid th'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.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
(Written at sea, 1833)
John Henry Newman was born in London in 1801 into an upper middle class family with strong Protestant roots: his mother was from a family of French Huguenot refugees. He dated his spiritual awakening to the age of fifteen, when he felt an “inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet).”
For Newman, the way to God was always through books. His autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua – the “apology for his life”—is as much about what Newman read as what he did. He writes in intricate detail of the thinkers and ideas that fascinated and shaped him.
Newman was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825 and became a curate in Oxford, where he was also a fellow at Oriel College. His specialty was Patristics—the study of the Fathers of the early Church—and what he read slowly led him towards the Roman Catholic Church.
For Newman, becoming Catholic was not a quick or easy decision. He knew that if he became a Catholic it would cost him friends as well as his livelihood, since he would not be able to function as a member of the Anglican clergy nor retain his Oxford fellowship. But for Newman, simply setting aside difficult questions was never an option. Newman wrote, “The one question was, what was I to do? I had to make up my mind for myself, and others could not help me. I determined to be guided, not by my imagination, but by my reason.” Newman wrote in a diary in 1829, “I am now in my rooms in Oriel College, slowly advancing and led on by God's hand blindly, not knowing whither He is taking me.”
It was during this time of uncertainty and exploration—two steps forward, one step back—which lasted more than ten years—that Newman wrote the poem we just heard, which he entitled “The Pillar of Cloud,” but which is known more familiarly as “Lead, Kindly Light.”
In the book of Exodus, the pillar of cloud leads the Israelite people in their wanderings through the desert. It is the very presence of God in their midst, both showing the way and protecting them in their wanderings. In this poem, Newman invokes God as the “kindly light,” the one thing shining in the midst of the darkness. There is no view of the “distant scene,” nor is the path clear—there is just enough light to take one step at a time.
Newman acknowledges how difficult this is, this taking one step at a time. “I loved to choose and see my path,” he says. But that sense that he could direct his own course was an illusion, rooted in “pride.” Now, he says, “Lead thou me on.”  He has to yield his own will and trust in God’s guidance, trust that the God who has blessed him in the past will be with him in the future. The poem ends with a glimpse of the end of this journey – “with the morn, those angel faces smile, / Which I have loved long since and lost awhile.” The sense of loneliness, darkness, and uncertainty we feel in the first two stanzas ends with a wonderful sense of recognition and light.
In 1845, Newman entered the Catholic Church. He became an Oratorian priest, and was named a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. He made many contributions to theology, which have had an enormous impact, especially at the time of the Second Vatican Council—hence Newman is sometimes called “the absent Council Father.” Newman’s concept of the “development of doctrine” is one of those contributions—he argued that Church doctrine, while unchanging, does get developed and refined through the ages as human reason engages with divine revelation.
It’s no surprise that the same man who wrote “Lead, kindly Light” would argue that the Church’s understanding, too, can advance step by step, in pursuit of the “Kindly Light” that is the living presence of God in our midst. As Newman said in a homily, “Let us beg and pray Him day by day to reveal Himself to our souls more fully, to quicken our senses, to give us sight and hearing, taste and touch of the world to come; so to work within us, that we may sincerely say, 'Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and after that receive me with glory."





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