Loss and Gain: Another Journey of the Mind to God
St. John Henry Newman, photo provided by Pixabay.com.
This submission is for the Spring 2022 Semester at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, CHH 300: Church History.
The greatest journey a man will ever endeavor to make is that one which leads him to Almighty God. Already by the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine has written his now-famous Confessions, in which he writes with eloquence about his journey through life to his Catholic faith, and, ultimately, to his Divine Master. His autobiographical treatise was part confession, part history, part theology; it serves even now as a path along which other wayward souls might find their path in the darkness of this world. However, for all the good Augustine does for one’s spiritual journey, and despite it’s inherent beauty in prose, one might find his experience to be rather ancient and outmoded at times. Whoever, after all, can relate to a bout with the Manichees?
St. Bonaventure, writing some 850 years later, contributes to the treasury of Christian spiritual wealth his own masterpiece: The Journey of the Mind to God. In it, he seeks to arrive to his Creator in another way, an intellectual way. Whereas Augustine speaks with emotion about matters of his reason, Bonaventure—you could say—speaks with reason about matters of the heart (and soul). Thus, Bonaventure says,
Since happiness is nothing else than the enjoyment of the Supreme Good, and the Supreme Good is above us, no one can enjoy happiness unless he rise above himself. But we cannot rise above ourselves unless a superior power raise us.
This “superior power” being none other than God Himself, illustrates the importance first of all in breaking down that foolish assumption that we know “best” what is true of the world—and indeed of divine things.
Enter the work of the inestimable St. John Henry Newman, a relatively modern champion of Catholic apologetics in his own right. Newman (1801-1890) is a prime example of the fruits of that “journey of the mind to God” that St. Bonaventure urges each of us to embark on. For his journey started from a place of faith at Trinity College in Oxford, training as he was to become an Anglican clergyman. His own history is well-known: serving the people of his Anglican Church and unable to reconcile what he witnessed within his Church: a “break in [its] development, both in doctrine and in devotion.” Thus he found himself convinced that the Roman Catholic Church possessed not merely the fullness of the Truth, but also that “doctrine and devotion” to back it up.
Although the first Catholic work to his name is On the Development of Christian Doctrine, his first Catholic novel is none other than Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert. This work is an amalgamation of both the spiritual work of St. Bonaventure’s Journey, and St. Augustine’s Confession. It is considered an autobiographical novel for the simple fact that it reflects many of the elements one finds in Newman’s own life, while narrating the story of a wholly fictional young man: Charles Reding.
The story follows young reding through his adolescence, and his time at Oxford. He attends school and engages with numerous interlocutors, mainly to the point of religion. On the outset, it is clear that Reding is content to “[take] everyone for what his is, and not for what he is not.” Such seems to be the sentiment for the first several chapters of the book. All the while, Reding pays close attention to the disagreements, speeches, and lectures of his tutors, colleagues, and professors.
The intellectual honest of Redding’s character shines through, however, as the story progresses. At one point, we read of an encounter he has with Reverend Dr. Brownside, who preaches a strange (although not altogether foreign to a modern reader’s mind, perhaps) doctrine of Unitarianism, exclaiming that “churches, creeds, rights, persons were naught in religion, and that the inward spirit, faith…was all in all.” Strange doctrines, taught by eccentric men, begin to sow doubt Robert’s mind.
Reding goes on, constantly meeting and interacting with various people; typically, he is met with hostility at the suggestion that the “papists” might have a place in Oxford. A theme that follows him into early adulthood. To be sure, he meets a far amount of what one might call “roman sympathizers;” However, even these sorts are, by-and-large, confounded by Charles’ interest in it. This is confirmed (although hundreds of examples must exist in so large a volume) by his interaction with Carlton, as they discuss the notion of celibacy. In this exchange, Charles vocalizes his appreciation for the beauty of the practice, even as a personal devotion. Carlton, on the other hand, acknowledges that “in the Church of Rome, great good…comes of celibacy,” but he continues later to scoff at the notion that it could benefit an Anglican: “Celibacy has no place in our idea or our system of religion,” he frustratedly exclaims.
Met along his journey by both enemies of the Church, and sensitive types who take offense at the ideal of adopting Catholic principles and practices, it is clear to see how Charles becomes disillusioned of his Anglican sentiments. Likewise, in exercising his mind against these opponents and debaters, he comes to the understanding that one must go deeper than the surface to find truth; this renders his original axiom, that is, that one ought to be taken as his is, rather bereft of meaning.
Although this story contains elements that whole volumes could be written on, there is one other tragic element that must be acknowledged. As Charles comes to the realization that the Catholic Church is the true Church, he is forced by his integrity to inform those dearest to him. That dreadful, classic, familial guilt. Here, Charles’ sister, Mary, and his dear friend, Campbell, petition him one last time to reconsider converting: “I shall have to break it to your poor mother,” he says, “Mary thinks it will be her death.” But to pursue the truth despite what even our closest, most dearly beloved friends and family might say, is what it means to suffer for one’s faith—for Christ himself, who, came to divide the household as the wheat from the chaff (Lk. 12:49-53).
This personal element plays epitomizes what it means to be a Christian, especially in the 21st century; here, it is easy for one to relate to such feelings of betrayal and fear. Indeed, even when a loved one tends away from the faith, we wince in emotional pain at the loss we fear they will incur. Newman illustrates here the validity in Charles' family's concerns: if we are correct, then you stand to lose your very soul! On the contrary -- and the only ones privy to this is us and Charles -- Charles has employed his reason, and has listened to the call of the Spirit to discern the truth of his claim.
Charles goes on to embrace the call of the Spirit by converting to the Catholic faith, disappointing whomever it may, in recognition of its truth, devotion and beauty. Such is the story of St. Augustine, too, who comes to encounter the true faith by way of reason and a heartfelt desire to achieve that rest that comes only when we rest in Him. Newman’s story sheds a light on the importance that reason plays in coercing our heart into action; for it was by the power of reason that Charles saw the truth of the Catholic Religion, but it was by his hunger for Christ that he jumped headlong into the wellspring that is His Body, the Church.
 St. Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind to God, trans. Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., ed. Stephen F. Brown (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Group, 1993), 5.  Chadwick, W. Owen, "St. John Henry Newman," Encyclopedia Britannica, February 17, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-Henry-Newman.  Ibid.  John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain, ed. Trevor Lipscombe (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 17.  Ibid., 66.  Ibid., 165.  Ibid., 283.