Tuesday, 25 March 2014


This is one of several "Annunciation' works by Fra Angelico, others follow.

As we celebrate the Annunciation of our Lord to Blessed Mary this ‘Lady Day’ (March 25 – exactly nine months before Christmas) we contemplate her assent to become the mother of Jesus, the Christ. In doing so, we are drawn to consider her assent to God’s proposal along with our own assent of faith. 

Full of grace, Our Lady Mary said her “yes” to God and so to the incarnation of God’s beloved Son for us and for our salvation. Mary’s affirmation and Jesus' self-sacrifice for us are both revelation and gift, calling us to faith.

Fra Angelico

Mary lived in a pre-scientific age and in a traditional Jewish society. It is difficult for us to imagine what her thoughts would have been at the Annunciation but what is clear to faith is that in her humility Mary found the fullness of human dignity completed in her through her co-operation with the Holy Spirit. 
How do we come to this faith?
Blessed John Henry Newman, though one of the greatest intellectuals of the 19th century, was also one who did much to communicate with the average person striving to live the Christian faith in an increasingly hostile secular society. 

Traditional Byzantine Icon: The Annunciation 

As an Anglican, Newman was both a tutor and professor at Oriel College, Oxford and pastor of the Church of St. Mary-the Virgin, the university parish church in Oxford. In his parish sermons (published as Parochial and Plain Sermons) he regularly addressed his parishioners, students and average people on matters of faith and doctrine.
One of the major themes in his sermons was faith and our response to God. Newman urged his listeners to simplicity and trust in God, a trust that enables us to receive or assent to the revealed truths of the Catholic Church.

This faith, however, did not mean, he insisted, that we should give up reason, science or any other way of understanding. Rather, faith is to be the complement of reason and science. One does not make sense without the others.

Newman comments on how a child’s mind gives us a striking pattern. Children distinguish right from wrong yet are not in bondage to an over-weaning individualism or what Newman called “private judgment”.

Newman advocated an expansive reason along with a reasoned faith. He criticized the Enlightenment understanding of reason as being a reduced notion of reason and one that sets itself as the judge of all truth, demanding exclusively scientific evidence. He argued that assent in faith to God is possible by means of more than just formal evidence.

Newman points out that many truths are received implicitly. People cannot explain what they know to be true in many cases and yet this does not diminish the truth of their claims. Someone in Alberta may never have traveled to the seashore, but he is absolutely certain the Pacific Ocean is to the West. He knows this both from the observation of rains falling on the mountains and, particularly, by trusting the word of those who have ‘seen and heard’. We might equate this with the oral and written tradition of revelation in the Church.

In fact, Newman asserted, and experience shows, that knowledge held implicitly is often held strongly and correctly. He criticized what he called “paper arguments” about God’s existence. He wrote: “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion . . . . No one, I say, will die for his calculations: he dies for realities.” 

Newman gave a lot of thought to the question of faith and the assent of the mind to what God reveals through Scripture and Tradition as interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church.
Cardinal Newman advocated for an educated laity
and though never a bishop, he was finally made
a cardinal in his 80s by Pope Leo X.
In correspondence with William Froude, a younger brother of his great friend and late colleague Hurrell Froude, Newman developed his understanding of faith. Their correspondence over many years became the foundation for one of Newman’s major works, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. 

In Grammar of Assent Newman explained that for a child, God is a real being. A child perceives the existence of God as a Sovereign Law-giver and Judge, a personal reality outside of himself. God is not a notion or a conclusion.

By means of moral conscience a child has an image of God; it is basic and must grow. Conscience can be dimmed or obliterated, but it is real. As Newman put it, the image of God is: “an image of the good God, good in Himself, good relatively to the child, with whatever incompleteness; an image, before it has been reflected on, and before it is recognized as a notion. Though he cannot explain or define the word ‘God’, when told to use it, a child’s acts show that to him it is far more than a word.”

Many adults: "cannot explain religious truths, but they know them because they have a moral conscience that speaks to them of right and wrong, and of a Law Giver and Judge. 

In the same way, all can have this real knowledge of God and ‘faith’ in that he creates, judges, rewards and punishes. The certainty of this faith, however, is soon questioned."

Over the years, Newman and William Froude discussed the subject of certainty and certitude. Froude claimed the right to skepticism of any truth: “Our doubts in fact, appear to me as sacred, and I think deserve to be cherished as sacredly as our beliefs.”

In a reply to Froude, Newman distinguished between religion and science: “Much lies in the meaning of the words ‘certainty’ and ‘doubt’ much again in our duties to a person, as e.g. a friend.  Religion is not merely a science, but a devotion.” 

Newman argued that evidence is not the foundation of faith though it plays an important part in our understanding of God’s created world. In Newman’s defense of the rationality of “simple faith” he tried to find an adequate answer to the problem of the certitude in what he called “the assent of faith”.

Newman dedicated part two of the Grammar of Assent to explain how a person reaches certitude. He coined the term “the illative faculty” or “illative sense’. The root of the word ‘illative’ comes from ilium the Latin root term for the liver – an essential internal organ. We might say that his allusion is to what we would call a “gut instinct” for truth.

Newman describes in this section of “The Assent of Faith” a natural mode of reasoning which is unconscious and implicit; it goes from concrete things to other things, not from propositions to propositions as formal inference or logic does. 

One reaches certitude through this illative sense. A skeptic might reply that this is no more than a leap of faith, but there is no such leap because the assent of faith is a cumulative process.  We grow into a conviction, rather than leap into it.

Newman used the example of a polygon inscribed in a circle. As its sides become smaller it appears to become the circle. It never becomes the circle but the mind closes the gap. 

Faith is a personal act by which a person apprehends religious truths from others not simply a subjective feeling .

Newman references the humility of a child-like spirit as being a necessary condition for belief, not one to be denigrated but rather one to be accepted as a gift. Without humility one is incapable of believing in God.

Those without child-like openness establish their own universe and close themselves off from any supernatural reality. Pride closes a person in the limited sphere of rationality. 

The Annunciation 1425 - 1430, Masolino da Panicale, Italy

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA

The challenging doctrines of the Church e.g. the nature of marriage between man and woman, it’s indissolubility, the Pope’s authority, the Real Presence, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady and other doctrines are not simply matters of fact but are based upon physical realities in the light of revelation.

After a long Mediterranean journey, while still an Anglican, Newman suffered a life-threatening illness in Sicily. He composed the hymn “Lead Kindly Light” humbly asking God to guide him.  The text of the hymn remarks that once “pride ruled my will.” Newman prays: “Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see / The distant scene, one step enough for me.” 

The assent of faith holds a claim to the believer’s mind, which can integrate the physical with the notional (world of ideas). God reveals himself and speaks through the Church to both the physical and spiritual realities of life. 

Unlike theological propositions, faith is not simply a set of logical conclusions. Faith is a higher knowledge, along with the other forms of knowledge and experience we have an illative sense of what is true. 

This illative sense, Newman argued vehemently, is not contrary to reason but works in harmony with what science can prove. Again, faith speaks to the ‘why’ not the ‘how’ of reality.

Fra Angelico

God is revealed both by nature and by revelation as Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, knew intuitively and so responded to God's revelation herself becoming an agent of revelation. 

Humans act on God’s terms, accepting with humility what God reveals. Together, reason and experience help us come to the assent of faith. 

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman did just that in his life, making him an example not only for the most highly intellectual and academic, but for all Christians.

Quotations from: M. Aquilina and J. R. Velez, Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, available from Amazon.ca or on E-Bay.

Blessed John Henry Newman

Praise to the Holiest in the height,

And in the depth be praise;

In all His words most wonderful,

Most sure in all His ways.

Words:  John H. Newman, “The Dream of Gerontius,” 1865.
Published as a poem in “The Month: An Illustrated Magazine of Literature, Science and Art.   These lyrics appeared in hymnals shortly thereafter.

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