Saint John Henry Newman

When the Pharisees and Sadducees decide to put Jesus to the test they ask him a question that goes right to the heart of their faith, “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Jesus avoids their trap with a clear, precise and orthodox answer, saying:

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind… You must love your neighbour as yourself.

He goes on to remind his hearers that these two commandments are the underpinning of all of the Law and the Prophets. His answer is so clear and straightforward that it would seem impossible to mistake his meaning. We all know it’s true, we all believe it, but it doesn’t always make it past being a fine principle into the nitty-gritty practice of daily life. It is easy and comfortable to spiritualise the scriptural commandment to love, so that it has little effect on how we live our daily lives. We don’t have to reflect for very long to realise that that is not what Jesus meant. The love he talks of is practical, costly and life changing.

St John Henry Newman has never been one of my favourite writers. I mostly encounter his work as readings in the Divine Office. In that situation I confess that I often lose the sense of his words in the Victorian flourishes of his style. So I was surprised when one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons stressed the practical implication of the Gospels’ message of love in a way that shone through the restraints of language and style with a clarity I couldn’t ignore:

By trying to love our relations and friends, by submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own, by bearing with their infirmities, by overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness, by dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them, thus it is that we form in our hearts that root of charity, which, though small at first, may, like the mustard seed, at last even overshadow the earth.

His words reminded me of another Victorian writer, George Eliot. In her novel, “Adam Bede” she writes:

It is these people – amongst whom your life is passed – that it is needful that you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should admire – for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience.

She doesn’t shirk from acknowledging that the call to love requires real effort and real engagement with the people we live among regardless of how we might feel about them. She knows the power we have over one another to build up or destroy. She knows that to practice this costly love can be enabling and life enhancing, and that to withhold it can be withering:

[And it is these] real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.

The words of these two Victorian writers took me back not only to the heart of the gospel, but to the heart of the Rule of St Benedict. Despite coming at the end of the Rule Chapter 72, “On the good zeal that monastics ought to have” , is its centre and the filter through which the whole Rule is interpreted. In it St Benedict writes:

Bear with one another’s weakness of body or behaviour with the utmost patience. No one is to pursue what they judge better for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else.

St Benedict, St John Henry Newman and George Eliot all call us back to the centre of the gospel message, the call to love. The love they speak of is a call to action. It’s a call to put ourselves aside for the good of others, especially in the small, ordinary and apparently mundane interactions of daily life. We are called to be patient with weakness, kind and nonjudgemental, accepting people as they are, not expecting perfection or even necessarily any noticeable change.

We are facing challenging times, full of fear, uncertainty and mistrust. In such circumstances it is tempting to withdraw from one another, to focus our attention on ourselves and our own needs. It seems to me that, now more than ever, we need to practice this gospel message of practical, costly and particular love. So let us face our times looking for ways to share those mustard seeds of love that can grow to “overshadow the whole earth”.

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