Newman: One step enough for me

Posted in Blog, Christianity, Devon

Last month I wrote about John Henry Newman’s love of the colours and scents of Devon. In December 1832, with his Devon friends Robert and Hurrell Froude, Newman set off from Falmouth on board the packet ship Hermes bound for the Mediterranean.

In Rome, he attended High Mass in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva when the Pope and what Newman described as his ‘court’ were present. Here Newman, the man who twelve years later was to become a Roman Catholic, was troubled at the sight of the Pope’s feet being kissed and then him ‘being carried on high’. However, on leaving Rome after some weeks, he was sorry to leave ‘a delightful place, so calm and quiet, so dignified and beautiful that I know nothing like it but Oxford’.

After Rome, he separated from his Devon friends who returned to England. Newman, now alone for the first time in a foreign country, travelled south by land to Naples before boarding a two-masted English sailing ship bound for Messina in NE Sicily. He took with him as a servant a Neapolitan called Gennaro who had served as a sailor on board the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

On 1 May, in Sicily, Newman began to suffer from a high fever. In a delirious state, he tried to calm his racing mind by attempting to count the stars in the sky. There was no doctor and no medicine. Gennaro made him some camomile tea which helped a little. Moving on to Castro Giovanni (now known as Enna), in the centre of Sicily, a doctor attempted, with limited success, to bleed Newman. It seems that he had fallen victim to an epidemic of either gastric or typhoid fever which was often accompanied by cholera. Gennaro, heroically, exposed himself to infection by sleeping in the same room as Newman.

After a week, Newman’s condition improved somewhat and he took a walk outside becoming overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside. He and Gennaro reached Palermo and found an English hotel where Newman recorded that he ‘sat some time by the bedside, crying bitterly and all I could say was, that I was sure God had some work for me to do in England’. For nearly three weeks he waited for a ship which would sail to England, and on 13 June boarded an orange boat which was bound for Marseilles. Gennaro, who had saved his life, left to rejoin his family in Naples. Newman was convinced that no Englishman could have nursed him as Gennaro had done.

On 16 June, becalmed in the Straits of Bonaficio between Corsica and Sardinia, Newman wrote the poem which is now sung as the hymn ‘Lead, kindly Light’.

Edward Bickersteth, Bishop of my own diocese of Exeter from 1885 to 1900, attempted to improve on Newman’s hymn. He appended a verse with a note saying that ‘it was added … from a sense of need, and from a deep conviction that the heart of the belated pilgrim can only find rest in the Light of Light.’ Bishop Bickersteth’s verse was:

Meantime along the narrow rugged path,

Thyself hast trod,

Lead, Saviour, lead me home in Child‐like faith

Home to my God,

To rest for ever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life.

Personally, I don’t like Bickersteth’s attempt to improve on Newman. I think that the bishop turned what was written as poetry into something too dogmatic and lost Newman’s sense of mystery.

The words which are surely most characteristic of Newman come at the end of his own first verse:

… I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me.

This was a thought which was always to be at the heart of Newman’s spirituality: that light is only given to us gradually bit by bit, but that we are always given enough to see what we have to do next, and that when we have taken that step which has been lit up for us, we shall see the next, but only the next, step illuminated – while to attempt to see several steps ahead or the end of the path is not only futile but also self-defeating.

Later Victorians, though often disappointed that Newman left the Church of England for the Church of Rome, found that his verses perfectly represented their hesitant acts of faith and sung them thoughtfully and prayerfully as many of us still do today.

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead thou me on;

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead thou me on.

Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me.


I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou

Should’st lead me on;

I loved to choose and see my path; but now

Lead thou me on.

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.


So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still

Will lead me on,

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till

The night is gone,

And with the morn those angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.