Like other volumes in the Vintage Spiritual Classics series, John Henry Newman's Selected Sermons, Prayers, and Devotions, with a preface by Peter J. Gomes, is an accessible, portable, important introduction to the work of a major religious figure. Newman is one of the few orators of the Victorian era whose sermons still offer themselves to readers as fresh, focused, timely meditations. As Gomes notes in his introduction, "Newman's prose has good bones." Although this volume contains many of Newman's poems and meditations (many of which record the spiritual transformations wrought in him by a trip to Italy in 1832-33), most of the material collected here is sermons.
Newman was preacher to the University Church at Oxford, so his sermons address the "big questions" that eternally vex undergraduates--Who is God? How am I to live? Who was Jesus? Newman's answers are straightforward yet sophisticated, and very often grounded in ethics. "Outward acts, done on principle, create inward habits. I repeat, the separate acts of obedience to the will of God, good works as they are called, are of service to us, as gradually severing us from this world of sense, and impressing our hearts with a heavenly character," he writes, in a sermon called "Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness." Newman's preoccupation with ethics intensified after his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1843, along with his growing conviction that life in this world is best understood as preparation for life in the next one. Gomes observes that, "For Newman the only security in this world of tribulation is the unseen reality of the spiritual world, a world which (sic) is ruled by Christ, and for which Christ gave himself up for our redemption, which act is recapitulated in the sacramental life of the believer." Newman's sermons, with their astringent ethical focus, were in part a reaction to the increasing secularism and materialism of the 19th century. (He lived from 1801-1890.) In this regard, our fin de siècle echoes his and makes a contemporary reader's attention to his sermons all the more urgent and rewarding. --Michael Joseph Gross