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The light in John Henry Newman's darkness

  • 15 November 2019


One blink and I am there, decades away and in another world: the hot Wimmera day gasps to a close, moving into evening as twilight begins to fall. Dad is out watering the garden, but all the front windows are open on to the veranda, so he can hear the piano and his wife and two daughters singing.

He often hums along to our repertoire, which is a mixture of Anglo-Celtic songs such as 'On the Banks of Allan Water', and Australian numbers like 'The Road to Gundagai'. And then there are the hymns. We have our favourites: 'Onward, Christian Soldiers', 'To Be A Pilgrim', and 'Lead, Kindly Light'.

This last has recently been brought to my attention again, and I realised I knew nothing about the writing of it, and certainly wouldn't have known, as a Protestant child, who the author of the hymn was, that it had been written by the recently canonised St John Henry Newman.

Nor would I have known that the hymn takes its inspiration from the biblical Old Testament book of Exodus 13, verses 21 and 22: the Israelites have left Egypt, and are wandering in the wilderness, but away from the darkness of exile in Egypt to the dawn and promise of a new, free life. God guides them all the way: a pillar of cloud leads them by day, and a pillar of fire lights their path at night.

The hymn was written in 1833, when Newman appears to have been in great need of inspiration and distraction. He had toured Italy with his Anglican priest friend Hurrell Froude, who suffered from tuberculosis, and was travelling in the Mediterranean for the sake of his health.

Froude and his father returned home, but Newman stayed on in Sicily, and in the event he was the one who became dangerously ill in Palermo, probably with typhoid fever. This was the third time he had fallen gravely ill, with his life in danger, and each time he attributed his recovery to his belief that God still had work for him to do.

But pity the traveller in 19th century Europe. I think it is still a trial to fall ill in a foreign land, for it is then that one most longs for home. So once even partially recovered, Newman was desperate to return to England, in order to keep on doing God's work. To his great frustration, however, he was