Newman on the special love of our Lord for St John

Newman draws out some very fine lessons for the feast of St John the apostle and evangelist, entitled “Love of Relations and Friends.” (II.5, found here).

As usual, he reviews the facts and texts about the life of St John. He was the special beloved of Jesus, sitting next to him at the last supper, head on his breast; he was entrusted with the care of Mary, the Mother of Jesus; he was granted a revelation of the mystery of heaven. St John was favored, apparently, more than Andrew, Peter or James, also special friends of our Lord.

Newman calls this a remarkable truth, because we may tend to think that God must love all equally, and that true social reformers would act only out of a pure love of humanity, above any particular attachment or love. Of course, Chesterton would later excoriate the man who loves humanity and hates concrete human beings. Newman puts this truth forward in a most exquisite manner, and with some profound if understated challenges to the prevalent philosophy of public life today, namely why should one be concerned about a politician’s family life? Or we downplay the “charities of private life, while busy in schemes of an expansive benevolence.” These schemes of “expansive benevolence” have wreaked their havoc throughout the twentieth century, and they gain their persuasion in liberal society today. We neglect what counts, Newman will caution us, real love. One must read and relish the long cadences of his prose. But here are a few of the finer passages.

After discussing why it is impossible to love all men and on a large scale, he says this:

The real love of man must depend on practice, and therefore, must begin by exercising itself on our friends around us, otherwise it will have no existence. 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. The vain talkers about philanthropy, just spoken of, usually show the emptiness of their profession, by being morose and cruel in the private relations of life, which they seem to account as subjects beneath their notice.

Newman elaborates on this notion with a variation of the principle that grace builds upon nature, it does not destroy it. If we are to love, we must begin to love our family and friends, as they are right next to us. They are the ones who may annoy or irritate; they are the ones whose excellence we see and we may envy rather than praise. They are the ones who will reveal the tender mercies of God.

And again he exposes the fraudulent claims of the reformer or socialist:

A man, who would fain begin by a general love of all men, necessarily puts them all on a level, and, instead of being cautious, prudent, and sympathising in his benevolence, is hasty and rude; does harm, perhaps, when he means to do good, discourages the virtuous and well-meaning, and wounds the feelings of the gentle. Men of ambitious and ardent minds, for example, desirous of doing good on a large scale, are especially exposed to the temptation of sacrificing individual to  general good in their plans of charity. Ill-instructed men, who have strong abstract notions about the necessity of showing generosity and candour towards opponents, often forget to take any thought of those who are associated with themselves; and commence their (so-called) liberal treatment of their enemies by an unkind desertion of their friends. This can hardly be the case, when men cultivate the private charities, as an introduction to more enlarged ones.

Newman then would have us see the truth that is now denied across our society and which contradicts a fundamental of liberalism : “private virtue is the only sure foundation of public virtue; and that no national good is to be expected (though it may now and then accrue), from men who have not the fear of God before their eyes.”And so we mock the evangelical voter not just for his excess or hypocrisy, but for the very true principle that calls him forth. But it is not the point of Newman’s sermon to vindicate or underwrite a political agenda , but to call his listener to holiness. So his fitting ending includes the following:

how large a portion of our duties lies at home. Should God call upon us to preach to the world, surely we must obey His call; but at present, let us do what lies before us. Little children, let us love one another. Let us be meek and gentle; let us think before we speak; let us try to improve our talents in private life; let us do good, not hoping for a return, and avoiding all display before men.

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