Newman on Suffering: Reflections on His Illness in Sicily

 J.H. Newman
John Henry Newman

From his detailed written account of the event, it is evident that Newman's illness in Sicily was the result of an acute attack of typhoid fever (See H.B. Slavin, 'Newman's Illness in Sicily: A Review and an Interpretation', The Wiseman Review, 499 (1964), 35-54). Moreover, considering the seriousness of the illness, the absence of hospital treatment and the rather haphazard nature of the medical attention which he received, Newman was fortunate to have survived the experience. That he had serious doubts about recovery is confirmed by the fact that he gave directions to Gennaro, his Neapolitan servant, on how the news of his death should be conveyed to England (Autobiographical Writings, 117; see also 113, 118. The standard Newman abbreviations are used throughout this article).

Newman's illness occurred on a Mediterranean voyage, during which he reflected much on the grave political crisis that affected the Anglican Church at the time, and which some people thought threatened its very existence (See 0. Chadwick, The Victorian Church, I, London, 1971, 24ff).

But if the future of the Church seemed unsure so also did Newman's own future. Over two years earlier he had lost his post as tutor in Oriel College. Much of his time was then given to his first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century, which he had just completed. Hence there is a sense in which his Mediterranean voyage was a symbol of the searching that went on in his own heart as he sought to discern his future within the Church. When he left England in December 1832 he was in a state of perplexity; when he returned in July 1833 he was, in the words of Henry Tristram, 'as a man charged with a mission'(Autobiographical Writings, 120). On the Sunday after his return, 14th July, John Keble delivered the Assize Sermon at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford. He entitled it 'National Apostasy'. In Newman's account of events this sermon marked the commencement of the Tractarian Movement, even though historians nowadays see Newman as having been much more influential than Keble in launching and promoting Tractarianism. (See M. Trevor, Newman The Pillar of the Cloud, London, 1962, 147ff).

It is indicative of the importance which he attached to it that Newman wrote a detailed account of his illness in Sicily. He began the manuscript on 31st August 1834, and worked at it intermittently until it was complete on 25th March 1840. This document, entitled 'My Illness in Sicily', together with two letters written during convalescence (one to Frederic Rogers, 5th June 1833, and the other to Henry Wilberforce, 4th August 1833) provide us with a valuable primary source of information ('My Illness in Sicily' is published in Autobiographical Writings, London, 1956, 109-38). Newman clearly perceived his illness in Sicily as a turning point in his life. My concern however is not with the significance of his illness in his life story but rather with his understanding of the Christian meaning of human suffering. Admittedly Newman's own account of his illness in Sicily is mainly descriptive, avoiding speculation on human suffering in general. However, when read in conjunction with his sermons, letters and other writings of the period, it provides some valuable insights into Newman's thought on human suffering.

I would like to focus particularly on three points raised either directly or indirectly in Newman's writing on his illness in Sicily: (1) what is the intrinsic value of human suffering? (2) may suffering be understood as God's punishment for sin? and (3) what is Newman's particular insight into the significance of suffering for the Christian?

1.        What is the Intrinsic Value of Human Suffering?

The belief that suffering was intrinsically beneficial was common in the nineteenth century (The severe beatings which children received, often indeed for petty misdemeanours, were an expression of this belief. See D.W.F. Forrister, unpublished Oxford D. Phil. thesis (1967), entitled The Intellectual Development of E.B. Pusey 1800-185O; D. Newsome, Godliness and Good Learning, London, 1961, 39-49). Newman addresses human suffering as a topic in a sermon which he delivered two years after his illness in Sicily, 3rd May 1835. He entitled this sermon 'Bodily Suffering'. Here he states that suffering «has no sanctifying influence in itself. Bad men are made worse by it (Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 144). To illustrate this point Newman emphasises how ill-health tends to promote selfishness. He writes:
Weak health, for instance, instead of opening the heart, often makes a man supremely careful of his bodily ease and well-being. Men find an excuse in their infirmities for some extraordinary attention to their comforts; they consider they may fairly consult, on all occasions, their own convenience rather than that of another. They indulge their wayward wishes, allow themselves in indolence when they really might exert themselves, and think they may be fretful because they are weak. They become querulous, self-willed, fastidious, and egotistical (Ibid., 145).
Newman offers other examples, such as the behaviour of people in crowd situations, when they think their lives are at risk, and their natural instinct for survival leads them to behave with total disregard for others (Ibid., 146-47).

He also alludes to contemporary accounts of shipwrecked seamen who in conditions of starvation sometimes committed gruesome deeds (Ibid., 147). For, he says, the natural effect of pain and fear is 'to individualise us in our own minds, to fix our thoughts on ourselves, to make us selfish' (Ibid).

Newman points out however that while pain may lead to self-absorption, it may also lead to reflection on Christ, his redemptive suffering and the suffering of the saints (Ibid., 148). Thus Newman maintains that even though suffering has no intrinsically sanctifying value, it can nevertheless be an occasion for the deepening of Christian faith.

2.        May Suffering be understood as God's Punishment for Sin?

In 'My Illness in Sicily' Newman writes: 'As I lay in bed the first day many thoughts came over me. I felt God was fighting against me & felt at last I knew why - it was for self will' (Autobiographical Writings, 124). If God was 'fighting against' Newman because of self-will, then can we not say that God was punishing him for his sins? This issue needs to be carefully investigated. Newman now believed that his coming to Sicily had been a self-centred whim, and that he had done so against the wishes of the Froudes who had been his friends and travelling companions on the voyage. As Newman lay ill at Leonforte his conscience accused him of other instances of self-will, such as his stubbornness towards Hawkins in the tutorship affair (Ibid., 125-26). To make matters worse he recalled that his final sermon before leaving Oxford was entitled 'Wilfulness, the Sin of Saul' (Ibid., 126), and he experienced a keen sense of self-reproach. In the sermon Newman describes self-will as Saul's preference for his own rather than God's will (University Sermons, 164). The consequence for Saul was that God hid his countenance from him (Ibid., 175).

By implication God was now hiding his countenance from Newman. This raises the following question: did Newman interpret his illness as God's punishment for self-will? Newman states that during his illness he felt it was 'a judgement for profaning the Lord's Supper, in having cherished some resentment against the Provost' who had deprived him of his post as tutor at Oriel College (Autobiographical Writings, 121). He adds however that at the time of writing, 31st August, 1834 (This is the date on which Newman wrote the first part of 'My Illness in Sicily'; See Autobiographical Writings, 120) this impression had faded away. In the statement which follows, Newman explicitly associates his illness with punishment for wilfulness. He writes: 'I felt it was a punishment for my wilfulness in going to Sicily by myself'. Does this mean that, in Newman's view, suffering may be understood as God's punishment for sin? I think not.

Firstly, in his sermon 'Bodily Suffering' to which I have already referred, Newman points out that since bodily pain affects even young children (who are incapable of sin) and irrational animals (that do not have Adam's nature) it cannot be equated with punishment for sin, whereas when disappointment, anxiety and sorrow stem from a will that is out of harmony with the divine will they can indeed be spoken of as indirect forms of punishment for sin (Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 142-43).

Secondly, in the early part of 'My Illness in Sicily' Newman writes: 'In an unlooked for way I came to Sicily, and the devil thinks his time is come... I was given over into his hands' (Autobiographical Writings, 121; see also 122 and 123). At first sight Newman seems to be ascribing his illness here to the direct intervention of Satan. However when carefully examined within context it appears otherwise. Indeed in the following statement Newman adds some clarification. He claims that, from the time he came to Sicily, everything went wrong for him. As far as he was concerned God had indeed hidden his countenance from him since, as he understood it, his will was out of harmony with the divine will. This issue is further illuminated by Newman's writing on providence in Essays Critical and Historical, 11 (190ff). Here the law of providence for Newman is the order of the universe as intended by God (Ibid., 190-91). Newman points out that our world has its laws and principles which are normally sufficient to account for whatever occurs without direct reference to the Transcendent. Indeed he states that ordinarily speaking 'nothing happens, nothing goes on in the world, but may be satisfactorily traced to some other event or fact in it... without the necessity of our following in into a higher system of things in order to explain its existence, or to give it a meaning' (Ibid., 191). Newman asserts that all life, including human life, is subject to the laws of generation, growth, decay and death. Moreover Newman stresses that God's presence within his creation is through its ordinary system; he states that God «is acting through, with, and beneath» those laws of which our experience informs us (Ibid., 192). He does not however preclude the possibility of God acting by way of miracle as well as by way of nature, but he emphasises that, because of the manner in which the created universe is structured, strictly miraculous intervention must be a rare occurrence. Furthermore, even in the case of miracles, God's way is normally that of working through the natural order of things (Ibid., 194).

In the light of this understanding of providence, the idea of illness as direct punishment by God for sin contradicts the God-given laws of causality. Further, if then in the ordinary course of events it is not legitimate to attribute suffering directly to the intervention of the Almighty, much less is it admissible to ascribe it to Satan.

In parenthesis I should add that the above exposition of Newman's thought on providence refers only to what he describes as 'general providence'. But Newman also speaks of 'particular providence'. By this he means that not only is God present in this world as Creator and Sustainer but that He also dwells in each human being. Moreover Newman maintains that God loves each one of us on a person-to-person basis. Furthermore he emphasises that God influences us with 'that constraining power which the kindness of a human friend asserts over us' (Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 119). It should be noted however that while Newman refers to occasions of particular providence in his own life, still he implies that the identification of an instance of particular providence requires keen discernment. Indeed he describes the doctrine as a difficult one to master (Ibid., 115-16).

Thirdly, the assertion that Newman did not accept that suffering should be understood, as God's punishment for sin confirmed by a letter which he wrote to Pusey, 19th May 1839. Newman's letter was in reply to an earlier letter from Pusey. Pusey wrote to Newman 14th May 1839, at a time when his wife, Maria, was dying of tuberculosis. Pusey regarded his wife's impending death as God's punishment for his sins. He wrote: 'I would ask you when you remember me before God, to ask to forgive me those sins, for which, out of the usual course of His dealings He is taking from me, in the midst of her years, one once so strong' (Letter to Newman, 14 May 1839, Archives of the Oratory, Birmingham, B.A.O.P.C.102).

Newman replied:
But it seems to me you must not suffer yourself to suppose that any punishment is meant in what is now to be. Why should it? I mean, really it is nothing out of God's usual dealings. The young and strong fall all around us. How many whom we love are taken out of our sight by sudden death, however healthy - Whether slowly or suddenly, it comes on those in whose case we do not expect it. I do not think you must look on it as 'some strange thing'. Pray do not. (Letter to Pusey, 19 May 1839 (Archives of the Oratory, Birmingham, B.A.O.P.C. 102).
Here Newman emphasises that Maria Pusey's impending death should not be perceived as punishment for sin. In my view, Newman's insistence that 'it is nothing out of God's usual dealings' may be understood as a reference to general providence. This would imply that, for Newman, there must have been some natural explanation for Maria Pusey's tuberculosis (It should be noted that while Newman does not hold that suffering may be understood as God's punishment for sin, nevertheless he sees a certain congruity between being a follower of Christ and having to suffer. In this sense Newman understands suffering as a token of God's love. See Newman's consoling letter to Manning at the time that his wife, Caroline, was dying (C.J. Sugg, A Packet of Letters A Selection from the Correspondence of John Henry Newman, Oxford, 1983, 41). See also Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 140).

3.        What is Newman's particular insight into the Significance of Suffering for the Christian?

In describing a religious experience which he had during the early stages of his illness at Leonforte, Newman writes to Wilberforce:
It was a lonely situation at Leonforte, a miserable inn. I am not sure my mind was quite clear at all times, so as to be sensible to its desolateness; yet I had once, doubtless when I felt myself lonely, quite a revelation come upon me of God's love to His elect. (Letter to Wilberforce, 16 July 1833, Autobiographical Writings, 118).
The Evangelical tone of this statement is noteworthy. The vocabulary is that used by early nineteenth-century Evangelicals to express religious conversion - a description of desolation followed by a revelation of God's love (See M. Culhane, 'Conversion in Newman's Theology', Newman Studien, XII, G. Biemer und H. Fries (Hg)., Sigmaringdorf, 1988, 189-97). It should also be observed that in Newman's later account of the same experience the language is less explicitly Evangelical (See Autobiographical Writings, 125). In the above statement Newman uses the Evangelical language of predestination even though, as he states in the Apologia, he had shed the more extreme tenets of this Calvinistic doctrine more than ten years before (See Apologia, 4ff). However, while Newman had distanced himself from the Evangelical school of thought, he still retained certain residual characteristics from his years as an Evangelical. In the above quotation he describes religious experience in the language of early nineteenth-century Evangelicalism. But language used to articulate religious experience both expresses and interprets the experience at the same time. Moreover interpretation always implies modification. This fact needs to be borne in mind in reading Newman's writing on his illness in Sicily.

It should be noted that some of the more memorable expressions used by Newman in 'My Illness in Sicily' reflect his thinking before he became unwell. For instance, when he was gravely ill and not expected to survive, he was sustained by the feeling that God had some work for him to do in England (See Autobiographical Writings, 118, 122, 136). However the impression of being destined for some special work is discussed by him in a letter to Frederic Rogers, 25th July 1832 - almost twelve months earlier (Letters & Diaries, III, 72). The idea of 'having a work to do' is clearly allied to that of special election. Moreover during his Mediterranean voyage Newman expressed the view that great things are done by chosen individuals rather than by the multitude. In lines written off Gibraltar on 12th December 1832 he refers to the restricted number of 'the chosen' ('The chosen are few; few the deeds well done'. Letters & Diaries, III, 150). In addition he insists that God withdraws his special privileges from those of the chosen who do not respond generously.
I believe God often cuts off those He loves, and who really are His, as a judgement, not interfering with their ultimate safety, but as passing them by as if unworthy of being made instruments of His purposes. (Letters & Diaries, III, 50).
There are echoes of this statement in Newman's comments on self-will which we have already examined. Moreover Newman's decision to travel from Leonforte to Palermo, in spite of not having fully recovered from fever, was inspired by his resolve to be in harmony with God's will. Writing about this decision he states his belief that God meets those who strive to walk in his ways (Autobiographical Writings, 127).

Newman's illness in Sicily served as a very effective reminder to him of his own fragility and dependence; his religious experience at Leonforte brought past wilfulness to mind; his reflection on his experience developed into a determination to seek God's will. Hence it is not surprising that two years later Newman would state that the effect of suffering is that 'it arrests us' (Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 147), it halts us on our journey and causes us to reflect. Much later, in 1869, musing on past illnesses, Newman writes:
Another thought has come to me, that I have had three great illnesses in my life, and how they have turned out! The first keen, terrible one, when I was a boy of fifteen, and it made me a Christian - with experiences before and after, awful and known only to God. My second, not painful, but tedious and shattering, was that which I had in 1827, when I was one of the Examining Masters, and it too broke me off from an incipient liberalism, and determined my religious course. The third was in 1833, when I was in Sicily, before the commencement of the Oxford Movement (Autobiographical Writings., 119-20).
Newman is not suggesting here that in each instance God punished him because of sin, and that he responded in a Pavlovian fashion. Rather is he implying that on each of these three occasions, when illness made him deeply conscious of his own dependence, God inspired him to reflect on the direction his life was taking. This in turn enabled him to align his will with the will of God. Each was an occasion of conversion. Hence, in Newman's view, while suffering can be a temptation to egotism, it can at the same time provide us with an opportunity of transcending our own petty self-concern through reflection on Christ and on the suffering of Christ's Body on this earth. Indeed Newman understands his own suffering to be a participation in the suffering of Christ. Moreover, since Christ redeemed suffering through his love, followers of Christ can participate in that redemption through union with Christ (See Parochial and Plain Sermons, V, 300ff). In addition Newman sees Jesus as an example for the Christian of how suffering ought to be borne. In particular he emphasises the thoughtfulness of Jesus on Calvary, when, in spite of excruciating pain, he prayed for those who crucified him, pardoned the robber who suffered with him, and expressed solicitous care for his mother (Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, 149). As followers of Christ we are called to bear suffering 'by the cheerful and ready concurrence of our own will with the will of God'(Ibid., 150-51). Mutatis mutandis, in Newman's words, 'affliction when love is away, leads a man to wish others to be as he is, it leads to malevolence, hatred, rejoicing in evil' (Parochial and Plain Sermons, V, 304). In Newman's thought on suffering, union of the human will with the will of God is paramount.

On 13th June 1833 Newman embarked on a cargo boat bound for Marseilles. He was still recuperating from typhoid fever. Three days later while becalmed off Sardinia he wrote the well known lines Lead Kindly Light... Lead Thou me on! (Verses on Various Occasions, 156, emphasis mine) an expression of firm conviction that had ripened subconsciously. Thus Newman's realisation of the importance of aligning the human with the divine will had matured in the experience of suffering.

First published in Luce Nella Solitudine: Viaggio e crisi di Newman in Sicilia 1833, a cura di Rosario la Delfa e Alessandro Magno, Palermo: La Palma, 1989.

© Micheal Culhane 1989

Micheal Culhane is a lecturer in Religious Studies, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

Mail to: Dr. Micheal Culhane

Return to Minerva (Volume 1) Main Page   Return to List of Papers   Go to Top of This Page