Last time around, we looked at the phenomenon of being ‘spiritually shipwrecked’ – moments where we realize that our pride and worldly desires have cut us off from God and left us spiritually desolate. I ended off that article with a quote by John Henry, Cardinal Newman, reflecting on how our struggles on Earth require us to change often in order to live an authentic Christian life.
As I reflected more on this idea however, I realized that Newman’s life and writings constitute a good reference on how to cling to God throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of life. With that in mind, I hope to provide a very brief introduction to this important Catholic thinker, as well as provide an analysis of his short poem, St. Paul at Melita, which describes the saint’s own shipwrecking and his response to that situation.
John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was an Anglican (and later Catholic) priest who distinguished himself as a thinker and academic at Oxford University. He was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, an intellectual movement that sought to re-introduce Catholic elements back into Anglican theology, a movement that resulted in the Anglo-Catholicism branch of the Anglican Communion. In 1845, Newman was received into the Catholic Church, an extremely controversial decision that alienated many, but at the same time, led to him and many of his followers to set up the Birmingham Oratory. Newman wrote multiple influential works defending Catholic thought and tradition, and was eventually made a Cardinal.
St. Paul at Melita was written in 1833, before Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, while he was touring Italy with a friend. This trip seemed to have been a productive time for him – many of his poems were written during this time, and also around this time he wrote his famous hymn, Lead, Kindly Light, about trusting God through darkness and fear. In many ways, it is easy to see this period as a foreshadowing of Newman’s later spiritual journey, one of trusting God through difficult times.
The poem is a reflection on the events of Acts 27:9-28:6, the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck on the island of Malta (Melita). Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Paul knows that the voyage is a bad idea. He attempts to warn the others, but they ‘took more notice of the captain and the ship’s owner than of what Paul was saying’ (Acts 27:12), leading to their shipwreck. Paul comforts the crew, and they eventually end up on the island of Malta. Newman in particular calls attention to Paul’s actions on the island – “Paul had collected a bundle of sticks and was putting them on the fire when a viper brought out by the heat attached itself to his hand” (Acts 28:3).
“SECURE in his prophetic strength,
The water peril o’er,
The many-gifted man at length
Stepp’d on the promised shore.”
Paul here is described as a figure of authority. He has ‘prophetic strength’, and is described as ‘many-gifted’. The impression he gives off is one of supreme confidence and trust in God. Despite the trials that he is undergoing – Paul at this point is heading to Rome as a prisoner to testify before Caesar – Paul surrenders everything to God, trusting in His will and His providence, something that Robinson Crusoe eventually learns to do as well.
“He trod the shore; but not to rest,
Nor wait till Angels came;
Lo! humblest pains the Saint attest,
The firebrands and the flame.”
Newman here draws attention to Paul’s actions on the island, namely his commitment to gathering sticks for the fire. Paul does not give in to despair or remain idle during his shipwreck. He does not even wait for divine help, but rather resolves to do his part. I think that last point is a poignant one, too often, I find the temptation to say that I will ‘leave something to God’ even though I know that there are more, possibly God-given opportunities for me to do something about the situation, and my holy language becomes a mask for my own resignation. No matter how little our actions can be, perhaps even just putting sticks to keep a fire going, if they bring warmth and cheer to those around us, they are surely pleasing to God.
But, when he felt the viper’s smart,
Then instant aid was given;
Christian! hence learn to do thy part,
And leave the rest to Heaven.
These last few lines are ones that I find especially piercing, as it really speaks to me and my experience of service in Christian ministries. People are people, and in ministry and community there will certainly come moments of pain and disappointment. To choose to continue to serve means to sometimes be reminded of such moments of pain, I find the thought of facing such ‘vipers’ unbearable. However, Newman here reminds us that God is still with us in our tribulations, ready to be with us in these moments of pain.
© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng