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John Henry Newman, Friendship, and the Small Steps to Heaven

One step enough for me: John Henry Newman, Friendship, and the Small Steps to Heaven

Do you have a best friend? Perhaps you have a group of two or three best friends who you tend to spend most of your time with. And why are these people your friends?  I suspect it’s because you share similar tastes – perhaps in music, or clothes – and you share interests, such as sport, music, literature or film. Perhaps you come from similar backgrounds or places. Perhaps you share a sense of humour – you tend to laugh at the same things. You just “get” each other. All of this said, however, I’m sure you know that often people become good friends who are completely different from each other – just like opposites attracting when we think of romantic relationships – and that these different personalities, tastes and interests complement each other. There’s no rule book for friendship, but I hope that you have experienced just how brilliant it is to have great friends. There’s nothing like it.

As you will know, one of the things I do as part of my job is to meet a lot of Old Oratorians at various events. Just in the past few weeks we have had a lunch for former School Captains, the annual Old Oratorians’ dinner and, last Saturday, a reunion for some of the small number of Oratory Old Girls: women who came to the school when their fathers taught here.

The most powerful thing that comes through from my conversations with your predecessors is the life-long friends they made here. On Friday at the dinner, for example, I was on a table with half a dozen men who were here together in the 1970s, and it was a privilege to see them pick up where they left off. There was much laughter.

As you know, by this time next week, our school’s founder, John Henry Newman, will be a saint, a fact the enormity and significance of which I confess I still haven’t quite got my head round.

Newman had a deep affection for friendship, and for his friends, of whom he had many. It must have been heartbreaking for him to have had to leave some of them behind when he left Oxford after his conversion to the Catholic faith. Newman writes wonderfully about friendship in his sermon “Love of Relations and Friends” for the feast of St John the Evangelist.

One of the things we are often told we must do is to love all of humanity and to love everyone equally. Contrary to this idea, however – which Newman typically finds vague and wishy-washy – he argues that the best way to practise loving everyone is by loving those closest to us – our friends and relations – and that there is nothing shameful about doing that, or about loving those closest to us best. As he says about St John and his love for Jesus: “Thus he was taught to love others: first his affection was concentrated, then it was expanded.”

Time prevents me from going into too much depth on this topic, but here lies a key Newman concept, I think: that in order to achieve great things you should start with small, practical things, rather than grand, abstract notions or concepts. We often talk to you about focussing on small, incremental steps, whether it be in academic work, learning musical instruments or achieving peak sporting performance - the next lesson, the next rehearsal, the next practice - and I’m sure that Newman would agree, and the fact that he understands this is perhaps one of the reasons why he is such a great educationalist and still totally relevant for the modern educational world. As he wrote in one of his most famous hymns: “I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”

To return briefly to the idea of friendship. Newman says the following:

“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 least even overshadow the earth.”

Notice that he says “By trying to love”: he realises that it’s not always easy, and that our friends and relations can be infuriating at times. But by putting up with their funny ways and concentrating on the things we love about them we can help create a better world, and, maybe, get to Heaven.

So Newman is attracted to small things, rather than big things, to practical examples rather than grand theories or philosophies, to individual friends rather than crowds of people. And this too is a typically Oratorian mindset: practical, unfussy and intimate. Here is Newman in the same sermon:

“I cannot fancy any state of life more favourable for the exercise of high Christian principle, and the matured and refined Christian spirit…than that of persons who differ in tastes and general character, being obliged to live together, and mutually to accommodate to each other their respective wishes and pursuits.”

Can you see how he could almost be talking about a small boarding school here, nearly 30 years before The Oratory School was founded? As I have said to you before, one Old Oratorian reflected to me that his theory as to why so many OOs have been so successful in later life, particularly in smaller companies, start-ups and entrepreneurship is because at The Oratory you had to learn to get on with people, it being a small school where you couldn’t really avoid those whom you didn’t naturally get on well with, which might be easier in a bigger school with hundreds of acres and 20 boarding houses.

Enjoy your schooldays with your friends, and make sure you keep in touch when you leave: it may well be that the best-man for your wedding is sitting near you (although just a tip: if you have a brother, ask him).

I know that you are proud of your school, and I hope too that you are proud of John Henry, who I know to this day looks down on his school and on your friendships and blesses them.

I wonder what quality or virtue Saint John Henry Newman will be associated with: it may well be Saint of Conscience (a topic for another day, perhaps) but here I make my bid for Saint John Henry Newman: Saint of Friendship.