Newman on St. Andrew and Tolkein on Frodo

Newman on St. Andrew and Tolkein on Frodo

A friend asked me to post a comment on St. Andrew even if it is a day or two late. Again I turn to John Henry Newman, for his sermon on St. Andrew is a fitting one for the Advent season. Newman’s sermon is the first one in the second volume of Parochial and Plain Sermons and it is entitled “The World’s Benefactors” (found here)

St. Andrew introduced his brother, Peter, to Christ. About Andrew we hear little; about Peter, so much. Blessed John Newman reviews the scriptural references to St. Andrew and concludes: 

Little as Scripture tells us concerning him, it affords us enough for a lesson, and that an important one. These are the facts before us. St. Andrew was the first convert among the Apostles; he was especially in our Lord’s confidence; thrice is he described as introducing others to Him; lastly, he is little known in history, while the place of dignity and the name of highest renown have been allotted to his brother Simon, whom he was the means of bringing to the knowledge of his Savior.

 Why the great devotion? (Three nations have a special devotion to St Andrew — Russia, Greece and Scotland). Here is the lesson Newman finds:

Those men are not necessarily the most useful men in their generation, not the most favored by God, who make the most noise in the world, and who seem to be principals in the great changes and events recorded in history; on the contrary, that even when we are able to point to a certain number of men as the real instruments of any great blessings vouchsafed to mankind, our relative estimate of them, one with another, is often very erroneous: so that, on the whole, if we would trace truly the hand of God in human affairs, and pursue His bounty as displayed in the world to its original sources, we must unlearn our admiration of the powerful and distinguished, our reliance on the opinion of society, our respect for the decisions of the learned or the multitude, and turn our eyes to private life, watching in all we read or witness for the true signs of God’s presence, the graces of personal holiness manifested in His elect; which, weak as they may seem to mankind, are mighty through God, and have an influence upon the course of His Providence, and bring about great events in the world at large, when the wisdom and strength of the natural man are of no avail.

Andrew is a great benefactor because he introduced people to Jesus Christ, including his brother. We look to the movers and shakers; Newman would have look to the quiet personal influence such as was Andrew’s.

This may be a great leap, but Tolkein made a strikingly similar point in Lord of the Rings. Frodo and his companions are told that they were chosen for the task because they are small; “such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” Frodo carries the ring but he does not wield it; he does not have the great powers of wealth and political influence, and great stature among the worldly and the wise. In a letter from 1950 Tolkien echoes this conviction about the “wheels of the world” – they are “turned not by Lords and Governors but by the seemingly unknown and weak” and this because of a “secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the drama.”

And now back to Newman on St. Andrew. He points out that Christ himself was such a one — “the world knew him not.” Yes we would add not only an “unknown,” but a poor man, a son of carpenter, from a small town — scoffed at by many for this apparent smallness. And Newman elaborates — the angels and the Holy Spirit are hidden. Thus St. Andrew is a prototype of Christian action in the world, I take him to be saying and thus justly revered by us.

Andrew is scarcely known except by name; while Peter has ever held the place of honor all over the Church; yet Andrew brought Peter to Christ. And are not the blessed Angels unknown to the world? and is not God Himself, the Author of all good, hid from mankind at large, partially manifested and poorly glorified, in a few scattered servants here and there? and His Spirit, do we know whence It cometh, and whither It goeth? and though He has taught men whatever there has been of wisdom among them from the beginning, yet when He came on earth in visible form, even then it was said of Him, “The world knew Him not.” His marvelous providence works beneath a veil, which speaks but an untrue language; and to see Him who is the Truth and the Life, we must stoop underneath it, and so in our turn hide ourselves from the world. They who present themselves at kings’ courts, pass on to the inner chambers, where the gaze of the rude multitude cannot pierce; and we, if we would see the King of kings in His glory, must be content to disappear from the things that are seen. Hid are the saints of God.

 Andrew followed John the Baptist, who pointed out Christ to Andrew, who in turn pointed him out to Peter. The chain of personal influence is the Church. And do we not have now a greater appreciation of Newman’s famous prayer: “Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.” I had often wondered what Newman meant in this prayer when he said “I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.” How could this be? St. Andrew makes it clear. Pass someone that loaf of bread (it may be the occasion of a miracle, truly) or point out to that one there who is the Redeemer of Man (he may be another Peter).

The Little Flower is also like St Andrew and Newman; she went through a consideration of the various vocations, larger than her circumstances permitted or to which she was called — warrior, priest or crusader for example. But she learns that love encompasses all vocations. “I am the smallest of creatures; I know my misery and my feebleness, but I know also how much noble and generous souls love to do good.” My vocation is to love. The little way. The loaf of bread, the introductions, and so on.

The old Adam in each of us desires to have our name in lights, sole billing if possible. Didn’t the wife of Zebedee seek such for her sons? And it matters not to the sons of Adam who is elbowed out of the way. But for the world’s benefactors, as Newman calls them,  it is enough to be hidden and about a quiet work. He ends the sermon thus — “They are near Him, as His confidential servants, and are the real agents in the various providences which occur in the history of nations, though overlooked by their annalists and sages. They bring before Him the temporal wants of men, witnessing His marvelous doings with the barley loaves and fishes; they, too, lead strangers before Him for His favorable notice, and for His teaching. . . . Thus they live; and when they die, the world knows nothing of its loss, and soon lets slip what it might have retained of their history; but the Church of Christ does what she can, gathering together their relics, and honoring their name, even when their works cannot be found. But those works have followed them; and, at the appearing of their Lord in judgment, will be at length displayed before all the world, and for His merits eternally rewarded in His heavenly kingdom.”

This a fitting Advent meditation from the Blessed Newman. The entrance antiphon from the Wednesday of the first week of Advent confirms Newman’s deepest insight about the worlds benefactors:  “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Cor 4:5).

Join us!

* indicates required