Following the Rule

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On February 21, 2014, Fr Jonathan Robinson, the Provost, made the following chapter address to the community.

My dear fathers and brothers:

Fr Newman said that to live is to change. While Fr Faber said that all change is for the worse, even when it is change for the better. I suppose we could say that the two statements are not really contradictory: Newman is stating a fact of nature, while Faber is making a judgement on this fact. That is probably right, but it does require some dotting of I‘s and crossing of T‘s. The comments of both of these great Oratorians are in fact both helpful and interesting, if we understand them as applying to life in the Oratory.

A talk about life in the Oratory has to deal both with the Idea of the Oratory, the sort of discussion we find in the Excellences, and, at the same time it has to try to see how the Idea is being realized, or not realized, in the here and now of our daily existence. To use different language, but language which points to the same two-fold thrust, a Chapter Address has to remind its hearers of some aspect of our ways of doing things, and how we, in fact, measure up to this, sometimes, elusive standard. Faber’s words express the ideal, our way of doing things; Newman’s remind us that the here and now of the flow of existence is never still.

One of the purposes of having a definite way of life is to provide us with patterns of behaviour we don’t have to think about all the time. Such patterns save time and energy and leave us with the time and energy for activities which require a focused attention; activities for which there does not always seem to be an appropriate habitual response. I take it this way of looking at things is familiar to you all from Aristotle’s discussion of practical reason and the moral virtues.

The difficulty of applying Aristotle’s discussion to our life together is that this life together is just that: a life together. That is, a common live is not achieved only by a number of men living together who exercise, in a responsible way, the virtue of practical reason. This is so because the our way of doing things aspect of our lives is in some way a more codified, or has more aspects of positive law about it, then appears to be the case of the phronomos who, in a way, is a law unto himself.

Community life begins to go wrong, or one of the ways it begins to go wrong, is when, as individuals, we exercise practical reason about the Rule itself. Aristotle held that the standard for correct behaviour in a particular case is what the phronomos would do. Well, we might sometime be tempted to say, I am a man of practical reason and this or that aspect of our way of doing things, I judge not to be applicable to me in this particular set of circumstances. So, I don’t do it. This attitude leads, maybe gradually, but it still leads, to the virtual abolition of the Rule: of ever doing what the Rule enjoins; or else doing on a regular basis what it forbids. The larger we become, the more important it is to practice a human, but very real respect for the Rule; for what it enjoins and for what it forbids. Self-interest alone, as I tend to repeat, ought to make us responsible custodians of our way of life – even when no one else is looking. So, Fr Faber is onto something important.

Newman’s words, on the other hand, should remind us that people and situations do change, and we have to try to adapt to that. But that means making changes together, as we did about Days of Recollection. It certainly does not mean picking and choosing what you like about what is required for our common life, and dispensing yourself from what you don’t like, or are too bored to observe, on the grounds you are exercising a more mature, or more up-to-date take on the common life, than your less intelligent, or less with-it brethren, may be able to see their way to adopting. We are members one of another – that is our strength. We are not a groups of autonomous self-legislating moral fortresses – when we act as though we were we no longer show that we are at least trying to be members of St Philip’s House.