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Words to live by from Saint John Henry Newman

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

On 13 October, John Henry Newman, a distinguished and distinctive Englishman, was officially declared a Saint. A well-known saying of his is: ‘To live is to change; to be perfect is to change often.’ How did that work in his life and, to a lesser extent, how has it worked in mine?

In 1833, Newman was desperate to get back to England from a trip to Italy, including to Rome, for which he acquired a deep dislike. He had his plans ready, among them a determination to lead the Church of England in a profound renewal. But he fell ill and then, heading for Marseilles, his ship was becalmed in the Strait of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia. His frustration deepened. But then a change. He wrote the hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, which includes the line: ‘I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead thou me on!’


When he arrived home, he continued with his plans, but they led him back to Rome on a journey which involved isolation, rejection and suffering.

I often ponder his words, especially on the many occasions on which my bright plans come to naught, or to just a modest outcome. And as the years go by, this conviction in me deepens. The dream of being a self-determining and self-contained person evaporates and I bow to a greater reality: the One who gave me life, talents and sensibilities, the One who called me to this way of life, the One whose vision is all-encompassing and who, astonishingly, can use even evil to bring us to lasting fulfilment.

The words of Newman’s hymn have been sung by miners trapped in the 1909 Durham pit disaster; on the deck of the Titanic; and by women being led by the SS into Ravensbrück concentration camp. They speak deeply of our capacity to change, to reach out to a larger and more compelling horizon.

More prosaically, they are words by which I change every day. I set out each morning, choosing and seeing my path as clearly as I can. At the end of the day, with its toils and troubles, I pray: ‘But lead thou me on!’ For one step is now enough for me.


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