The interpretation of Oratorian life developed by Saint John Henry Newman has shaped the Toronto Oratory in many ways. Above all, perhaps, Newman’s interpretation emphasizes the dialectic of person and community.
“It was St Philip’s object,” Newman wrote, “instead of imposing laws on his disciples, to mould them, as far as might be, into living laws, or, in the words of Scripture, to write the law on their hearts.” Imposing a law creates uniformity; but if the law unfolds from within, no two people will live it in precisely the same way.
Taking up the words of another Oratorian (Fr Sozzini, Provost of the Roman Oratory two generations after St Philip’s death), Newman stressed how, since our Congregation is not bound by religious vows, a “holy liberty of spirit should shine among us.” This liberty of spirit requires a principle of regulation which is irreducibly personal: the dependence of each, as Newman put it, upon his own resources.
Developing the point (in his reflections on the challenges of writing hagiography – specifically, a life of St Philip himself), Newman spoke of the need to see the saints, not as abstract compendia of virtues and edifying examples, but “as living and breathing men, as persons invested with personal attributes and a character of their own, and peculiarities of habit and feeling and opinion such as belong to [one] and not to another…The lights and shades of the saintly character, of the individual saint are necessary for understanding what a Saint is.” This attunement to individuality, to difference, is an essential aspect of the Oratorian vocation.
As a consequence, an Oratorian has to learn the arts of solitude: not as the mere deprivation of company or obligation, but as something creative and fertile. Aside from the domestic rhythms of the life and our pastoral work, our time can often be undetermined except by ourselves. There is always much to do, but no rule or plan designed to “keep us busy.” Temperaments, and responsibilities, vary of course, but each member of the community needs to know, or to learn, how to be with himself in the pursuit of his own interests and affinities. As Newman expressed it, St Philip wished his children, individually and in private, to cultivate all their gifts to the full.
At the same time, not individuality or difference as such but charity is the perfecting principle of Oratorian life. It is in community life that the Oratorian encounters his most characteristic and healing ascesis. Oratorians, according to Newman, “do not seek sanctification through poverty, fasting, external observances, and vows, or through stipulations, or rights, or engagements, but in the real and inward love of member for member, and a watchful and prompt observance and evasion of all the small hindrances which are likely to interrupt the equable course of the day.”
What does this love concretely consist in? Newman mentions such qualities as “consideration, delicacy, elasticity of mind … knowledge of character [and] tact.” For the Oratorian, then, it is in trying to allow his individuality (Fr Sozzini’s liberty of spirit) to be informed with virtues such as these that charity – the love of God and of one another – is expressed and developed.
Each member, Newman says, “should give his confidence to the community itself, and to each other individually, with a direct act of will and … consciousness of what we are doing.” This personal act of will and consciousness, for Newman, is the daily “consecration” in which Oratorian life, and Oratorian perfection, consists.