Charlie Hegarty Notebook
It was a dark and stormy night. On second thoughts I will leave that opening to Bulwer Lytton who coined it, and simply say that the evening of October 8 this year was clear but with an autumnal chill in the air. I remember this detail as I spent it on the "Newman Walka prayerful pilgrimage from the Oratory in Woodstock Road all the way to Littlemore, to commemorate that same evening in October 1845 when Newman was received into the Church by Fr Dominic Barbed. Then it had rained heavily and Barbed, who was drenched. had to dry himself by the fire while he awaited Newman's confession. We were spared the rain but not the boisterous, rollicking life of Oxford which accompanied us from Trinity College, where Newman had been an undergraduate. to Iffley Road, where the roar of the crowd behind Greyfriars suggested that youthful successors to Roger Bannister were going through their paces.
On we wended, past the former home of Vivien Greene, long-suffering wife to Graham, he who loved to dwell on the delicious possibilities of Catholic moral disorder while dallying in his chosen imaginative world of Greeneland. Late-night revellers met us near the ring road, where we were holding lighted candles and praying the rosary, but forbore to join in when they realised we were not on our way to a carnival; and so to Benediction at Littlemore, a visit to Newman's sparse study/bedroom and welcome tea and buns in the library of the college, now hospitably maintained by the Sisters of "The Work".
Newman, a studious and high-minded youth. lamented that college life during his time at Trinity was "Drink drink drink"; not much has changed then. In one of those holy associations which the mind likes to ponder, I was reminded as we all walked along in companionable silence of another young man, born in 1888, the year before Newman's death and of similar brilliant intellectual gifts, who spent four years at Trinity, as chaplain, almost a century after his great predecessor. This was Ronald Knox. Knox, too, was a celebrated convert. Reading Fr Ashley Beck's sympathetic, brief Life in the CTS biography series, I meditated on other parallels.
Both men realised while still at school and before priesthood called them, that they were not to marry; Newman writes that "it was the will of God that I should lead a single life" while Knox, at Eton, reflected that it was "my obvious duty to deny myself that tenderest sympathy and support which a happy marriage would bring".
Both men found a somewhat awkward berth in the English Church; both men were famed for their preaching; both men possessed a characteristic simplicity and humility which endeared them to young people; and both men excelled at what has become in our contemporary culture a lost art, alas: the art of friendship. Newman's contemporaries testified to his affection and regard; his last sermon at St Mary's as an Anglican was entitled "On the Parting of Friends".
In the case of Knox, who died in 1957, I applied to several people who had known him either when he was Catholic chaplain at Oxford before the War or chaplain to a girls' school, Aldenham, during it; they all speak warmly of his charm, his holiness and his sense of fun.
Newman's body, to the disappointment of some, has returned to the elements; Knox lies at Mells, Somerset, where he spent his last years with the Asquith family. What survives is what alone matters: the spirit that imbued their writings.