John Henry Cardinal Newman is arguably one of the best English prose writers of all time. He is also one of the best spiritual authors of all time. Though he does not have what we may consider to be a systematic approach to spirituality, his sermons are rich with spiritual insight. Steeped in Scripture, Newman possessed the wonderful gift of a translator, one who could relate Biblical stories, themes, and insights to his contemporaries.
I was introduced to Newman nearly a decade ago by an Anglophile priest friend. That gift–the introduction to Newman–was something I did not appreciate at the time. Newman, however, would have appreciated the way I was introduced to him: through a friend.
In Newman’s life and in the legacy he left through the Oxford Movement, one unappreciated theme running through his life is that of the importance of community. Newman’s priestly life was centered around a fraternity developed around a common goal–the priests of the Oratory were devoted to pursuing holiness and salvation, joined only by a bond of charity toward others. The ties that bind an Oratorian community are loose by design. People remain free to leave, unburdened by a series of promises or vows beyond that of charity.
The great work of charity in a man’s life is service to others. This applies to all of us equally, whether we be laymen, priests, married, or single. The Christian man–Newman’s gentleman–is at the same time a peacekeeper, comforter, enabler, philosopher, and many other things besides. In his thoughts and actions, he sees beyond himself to the needs of others and is able to provide for them.
As Catholics, we need to bolster our love for community, and seek specific ways to increase the depth and breadth of our communities. We can make great strides toward this goal by being gentlemen. We can encourage others gently and by remaining true to our principles to strengthen the bonds that link us together. Once we build this community, we too may bring about a revival in the United States as Newman and the Oxford Movement did years ago.
From Newman’s Idea of a University:
Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids what-ever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. Ile has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits. If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.
Not that he may not hold a religion too, in his own way, even when he is not a Christian. In that case his religion is one of imagination and sentiment; it is the embodiment of those ideas of the sublime, majestic, and beautiful, without which there can be no large philosophy. Sometimes he acknowledges the being of God, sometimes he invests an unknown principle or quality with the attributes of perfection. And this deduction of his reason, or creation of his fancy, he makes the occasion of such excellent thoughts, and the starting-point of so varied and systematic a teaching, that he even seems like a disciple of Christianity itself. From the very accuracy and steadiness of his logical powers, he is able to see what sentiments are consistent in those who hold any religious doctrine at all, and he appears to others to feel and to hold a whole circle of theological truths, which exist in his mind no otherwise than as a number of deductions.