Influence and Belonging

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On November 17, 2017, Fr Derek Cross made the following chapter address to the community.

My dear Fathers and Brothers:

We have been reading, once again, in refectory Sheridan Gilley’s Newman and His Age. Although I once read the book myself and also have heard it read aloud previously, this opportunity to revisit Newman’s life still supplies the unremembered anecdote, the unremarked connection. We have just been confronted again with the painful quarrel between Newman and the London Oratorians. At this late date and in this hemisphere there is nothing to be gained by taking sides in the matter, Newman vs Faber. We can learn from both The Spirit and Genius of St Philip (Faber) and The Mission of St Philip Neri (Newman). But I suspect that something might also be learned from dwelling with this paradigmatic example of “When Oratorians Quarrel.” Does it when probed touch any of our own contradictions and blindnesses, perplexities and struggles?

In a letter to Fr Dalgairns Newman made a distinction between different “views” about the Oratory and different “lines” within it: “We must not go out on different views as regards the Oratory, though as individuals we may, and must, if my view of the Oratory is right, go out on different lines.” A little later, Newman wrote to Fr Antony Hutchinson, explicitly applying his notion of “view” to the constitution of community: “There are three bonds of a community, carità, obedience, and intellectual agreement. St Paul speaks of this third, when he prays for his converts that their caritas abundet in scientia et omni sensu, and that they may be perfecti in eodem sensu et in eadem sententia. It is astonishing how much men get over who have the same views. It is the way in which good kind of people get on together, and is no mean support of the religious principles of love and obedience.”

Everything rides here on the substance of this intellectual harmony, sensus, or common “view,” which evidently cannot be a chance conjunction of opinions or a merely pragmatic alliance. But neither does Newman intend it to be a strait-jacket or a tightening noose. A “view” is, I would venture, related to what Newman calls an “idea,” a visible form expressed through a definite attitude. If this is so, Newman makes the particular application that interests us in his Chapter Addresses following on the Dalgairns dispute: “when once we have apprehended … the difference of living … to ourselves and living to St Philip, we shall see our duties in a new light. As Christians we have given ourselves to Christ; to make this more sure and definite, we have, as Oratorians, given ourselves to St Philip—we are not our own property, but his, and we must please, not ourselves, but him.” The “light” shed by the notion of “belonging”—whether to Christ, St Philip, or ourselves—thus seems a support to the notion of “duties” (which Newman had previously called “obedience”). As for love or charity, the other bond of community, it, too, would seem to be embraced by the horizon of “belonging.”

A philosopher or theologian will have a ready question to put to the categories of belonging, viz., how we can know that we belong to Christ or to St Philip. Important as that may be, another question is more immediate: how we can know whether we belong to ourselves? Can we ever not belong to ourselves? Or, can we not ever belong to ourselves? These questions were inextricably connected to the topic of “belonging to St Philip” during the English Oratorian quarrels. For it seems there is another category of belonging, “belonging to another.” Newman unabashedly writes to Faber: “Recollect, my dear F. Wilfrid, what I have already urged on you—your own words, that I am the bond of union among those who otherwise would not have come together. F. William says the same this morning ‘you know it is not to be Oratorians, but to be with Newman that we are met together—we came not seeking the Oratory but you’.”

What are we to make of that? It is meant to bring Faber up short, just as the swift reassurance of Dom Placid Murray’s commentary on the passage is intended to surprise us in turn. What does Murray say? “Such a preponderance of personal influence was in itself quite in the Oratorian tradition.” Newman could hardly quarrel with this judgment of Murray’s. Personal influence had been at the heart of Newman’s work as a tutor at Oxford, and it is one of his distinguishing marks of the Oratorian as opposed to the Jesuit vocation. “Influence … may be said to do for the Oratorian, what Rules do for the Jesuit; and if we wish for an example, we cannot have one more apposite than that of St Philip himself, of whom personal anecdotes abound whether in books or in the traditions of Rome, whereas though St Ignatius lived so long there, it is, I conceive just the portion of his life of which very little is preserved.”

The Oratorian pedigree of personal influence is, then, impeccable. And we do well to take that to heart. St Francis de Sales’ (and Newman’s) motto Cor ad cor loquitur is another name for personal influence, after all. But we would have to be much more naïve than most of us are not to recognize that personal influence has its shadow side—a shadow that often looms dark and overwhelming. It was said of some of Heidegger’s students that they were “moths who flew too close to the flame.” If someone belongs to us, at least significantly so, have we liberated his love or alienated his affections? Is his bond such that gives more freedom and integrity, or does it overshadow and reduce the scope for spontaneous thought and responsible action? Does our beneficence mask a needy thirst? The balance of “belonging” is the dilemma every teacher, preacher, spiritual director, and community member—whether novice or senior—must confront. Who would dare to point a finger? The ever-present possibility of self-deception, in the cor ad cor especially, renders the glaring light of self-righteousness especially unreliable.

Newman draws comprehensive parallels between our life and ministry: “What the Oratory is within among its own members, such is it in its intercourse with the faithful outside its walls. It exercises, not power but influence; it dislikes whatever savours of pomp, pretence, or violence. It has a hidden life; it doth not cry, nor strive, neither is its voice heard in the streets.” Personal influence, right belonging to self, other, St Philip, and God must eschew power, violence, and self-publication. Let us try to do the same, both within the Oratory and outside.