Most people are acquainted with the second half of our Lord’s great commandment, which is to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” The very familiarity of these words has the potential to strip away the profound purpose of this commandment. This is the topic of Blessed John Henry Newman’s Sermon 5 in Parochial and Plain Sermons, entitled: “Love of Relations and Friends.” Blessed Newman uses some verses of 1 John 4 as his text: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected in us. God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”
Friendship and love is an appropriate topic for Blessed John Henry, for throughout his long life he nurtured many close friendships. He was openly affectionate in his letters to his friends and in speaking of them in his other writings, as in the Apologia. For Newman, friendship was the source of extending Christian love to one’s neighbor, and hence to all mankind.
In this sermon, he articulates well his understanding of the necessity of Christian friendship. He begins by musing upon the fascinating fact that John was known as “the beloved disciple,” reminding us that our Lord had one disciple whom He favored. Newman writes:
“Much might be said on this remarkable circumstance … it might be supposed that the Son of God Most High could not have loved one man more than another …Yet we find our Saviour had a private friend; and this shows us, first, how entirely He was a man, as much as any of us, in His wants and feelings; and next, that there is nothing contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, nothing inconsistent with the fulness of Christian love, in having our affections directed in an especial way towards certain objects, towards those whom the circumstances of our past life, or some peculiarities of character, have endeared to us.”
The English priest notes that many may profess to love mankind, yet, when they meet with certain individuals, they illustrate the exact opposite. The best preparation for loving the world at large, he explains, is to follow our Lord and foster friendly relations with those in our midst. “ … the love of our private friends is the only preparatory exercise for the love of all men … the love of mankind in general should be in the main the same habit as the love of our friends, only exercised towards different objects.”
Blessed John Henry teaches us the proper attitude for attaining this goal of loving one’s neighbors, which is to view them in Christ as “objects of His Atonement.” Loving in this way can become a habit, perfected by practice. This is done by submitting to their wishes, understanding their faults, treating them with kindness, and considering their good qualities. By doing so, we “form in our hearts that root of charity” which is like mustard seed that will later grow “to overshadow the earth.”
Newman ends by calling us to become as little children and to “do what lies before us … 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.”
For further reading on this subject, there is a good chapter on Newman and friendship in Fr. Juan Vélez’s recent book: Holiness in the Secular Age, and in Edward Short’s excellent work: Newman and His Contemporaries.
With Blessed Newman’s reflection in mind, one must ask himself: How do I treat those whom I see daily, those who live beneath the same roof? Do memories of past hurts keep me from loving those who most deserve my affection? Newman teaches us a valuable lesson: loving one’s neighbor as oneself begins at home.