To stand in the room of a saint is quite something. Such was my privilege the other day when the door to the room of John Henry Newman was unlocked and I was bid enter.
There, before me, was the desk at which Blessed John Henry had written letters, sermons and books, all of which are still pored over by scholars today, and no doubt shall be in the years and decades to come. There were his books and his papers; upon the walls his pictures, mostly religious, and, pasted on a wooden cupboard, there was still the trace of a Victorian newspaper. Newman was wont to decorate his cabinet doors with cuttings from newspapers and journals.
There was something else though.
The room is partitioned. Behind the thin wall that separates the two parts of the room there stands an altar. Upon it, there is the Crucifix and candles yet that Newman used when he offered Mass there. On the wall above the altar there also hangs a portrait of St. Francis de Sales, the French spiritual father of this most English of Englishmen. To the left, there is a built-in cupboard holding vestments. They all still hang there: green, red, white, rose, black. It is as if they are about to be lifted out and worn once more. It is as if, at any moment, a footstep will be heard, and before our eyes will come the man who lived and worked in this room: Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, Prince of the Church, but above all, a priest of God offering the Holy Sacrifice each day to the Glory of God and for forgiveness of sins. More than 100 years later, the room retains something of the air of the sanctity of its former occupant. No one else has lived or worked here since Newman, and no one else ever shall. It stands still as if John Henry Newman has just stepped out for a moment, and is due back very soon. Perhaps, in a way, that is how a Christian death should feel – a passing, not an ending, before a never-ending reunion.
There is another ‘death’ in this room though. It is the room itself. The Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory call this room of Newman’s “ the Dying Room.”
My guide pointed to the ceiling. In the corner of the room where two external walls join, there were large ominous cracks on display. Recent structural survey reports indicate that these cracks, far from being superficial, are the outward manifestation of serious interior decay. In the vernacular: Newman’s room is crumbling to dust.
Many will have seen Newman’s room, and the equally impressive library, at the Birmingham Oratory. Some may recall how Pope Benedict XVI, on his visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, visited this room and its adjacent library. There are many pictures online recording this occasion when one saintly scholar visited the room of another. One can only imagine what might have passed through the mind of Pope Benedict when he beheld the room of Blessed John Henry still as intact, at least superficially, as in the late 1800s. One can almost visualize Pope and Blessed sitting at the table in the center of the room lost in the enjoyment of discoursing upon weighty theological matters.
But the room is ‘dying.’
The Birmingham Oratory is seeking patrons able to help conserve that simple and remarkable space. K.V. Turley adds:
When men, whether in the world of science or theology, history or philosophy seemed intent on rejecting God, here was a man who dared to engage his reason so as to understand better his faith. In doing so, Newman created something in the world of ideas that has not only grown in significance since but also seen off many of his then contemporaries and their modish theories. …
A strange prayer perhaps, but a prayer nonetheless: let his rooms be preserved and, thereby, with them, his memory as a man as rational as he was holy.
When I was in London for the Olympics in 2012 we attended mass at Brompton Oratory, which has a small space of honor and devotion to John Henry Newman. Having first encountered his writing when I was still at Penn State, and then seeing his place of honor in this English church, was a special thing; one of those moments where so much experience that has been “in your head” suddenly came rushing into this particular place and in this particular moment. An experience of concrete reality.