Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Read: Night’s Bright Darkness

December 7, 2017

Night’s Bright Darkness
Sally Read
(Ignatius, 2016)
152 p.

Not long ago I wrote about Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir of his conversion to Catholicism. As in most such stories, there was in that book a more-or-less clear thread that one could follow as he moved toward the Church: certain questions rankled, particular insights were had, specific errors were rejected or certain truths embraced. At the end, one could understand, largely if not entirely, how it came about that he became a Catholic.

Sally Read’s conversion memoir is, rather amazingly, not like that. She begins as a cradle atheist, brought up by parents who conscientiously inoculated her against any kind of religious faith, and she ends up a Catholic, almost an instinctive Catholic, and, having read the book, it’s very difficult to say how it came about. The drama of her conversion seems to have happened just below the level of apprehension, and I have the feeling that she’s nearly as mystified about it as we are. But the book is still wonderful to read, and strangely edifying.

If we’re looking for a particular moment, we have to look for something innocuous. Imagine, for instance, that she sits down one evening to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a book grown familiar over many previous readings, but this time something is different:

This time I put the book down when I read the vicar’s assessment of religion: “(Religion) is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all the other arts attempt.” The conversation goes on, by the fire, over Madeira, the rain beating down outside. God, says the vicar, is “merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

It wouldn’t pass muster in a catechism class, but from this humble beginning, so far as I can tell, the life of faith began to grow in her. She was particularly struck by the thought that a religion could be a form of art, to be appreciated and experienced like a work of art. She was (and is) herself a poet, and the sudden connection between art and religion, like a spark, suddenly altered her understanding of both her own relationship to faith and her own artistic ambitions:

Why, after so many years of reading, thinking, arguing, would this truth penetrate me now? It was as if the tin roof of the sky peeled away. My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand, who is already writing, and already written, the ultimate poem. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one word: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

It reminds me of that passage in Augustine (which, naturally, I cannot find) in which he says that each of us,  when we earnestly seek what is good, or true, or beautiful, when we long for that rich and true happiness that will come with the possession of whatever is the deepest and truest good that we pursue — then we are truly searching for God. Everything that rises, as the saying goes, must converge.

But at this point she knew next to nothing about any religion, and had no particular interest in Christianity. But she moved to Rome with her Italian (and agnostic) husband, and, when taking care of her young daughter, fell in with a group of Catholic mothers, and, through them (if memory serves) struck up a friendship with a Byzantine-rite Catholic priest, a good and intelligent man. Before long, she was reading Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, T.S. Eliot, St John of the Cross, and the Gospels, and she was well launched.

There are twists and turns in her story, but always one has the sense that her way has been prepared, that in her progress toward faith, as rapid as it is, she is nonetheless outpaced. Despite the rocky terrain she must cover — she begins as a well-catechized secularist and holds all the traditional pieties on matters like abortion, marriage, and sex — she seems not to stumble, never to find herself on the horns of a dilemma; her difficulties melt away, or are silently displaced. This, I think, is very unusual.

She returns often to her experience of Catholicism as having an aesthetic dimension. The Eucharist she sees as a kind of enfleshed poem:

…to get close to Christ I had to let him into me — not solely through mental prayer and actions, but by physically taking him into my body. There is nothing empty in God’s poetry; nothing is mere metaphor.

Even the hierarchical nature of the Church has for her a poetic effect, for it is “God’s poem — the transformative instrument of the chaos of the everyday.” That’s more suggestive than precise, but it gets one thinking, and this is true of much of her writing, which, true to her calling as a poet, is evocative, sometimes oblique, and often beautiful, just like the story she has to tell.

All this took place just a few years ago. “What do you want me to do?” was her persistent prayer through the whole process, and this memoir is, in part, part of the answer:

God’s revelation to me that spring was already a poem. I only needed to write it down and not attempt to explain its mystery. It is, in a sense, unfinished. It takes the unhesitating energy of that wave at its breaking point; it’s a love letter in response to love.

Alma Redemptoris Mater

December 3, 2017

During Advent this year I intend to learn this lovely hymn, which is sung at Compline during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

A happy Advent to all those observing it.

Old English Exodus

November 26, 2017

Exodus
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
19 p.

After reading Genesis it’s natural to move on to Exodus, and in the Junius Manuscript we do just that. This poem, which runs a brief 590 lines in the original Old English, begins with the terrible tenth plague striking Egypt and ends with the triumph of the children of Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers so much flotsam and jetsam. The poet has therefore focused his attention on the central episodes in the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage, though, as we’ll see, he had other things on his mind as well.

This is a particularly vivid poem, I found, with much striking imagery. Much of it is violent. I remarked in my notes on Genesis that the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons coloured their telling of the Biblical story, and the same is very much true in this poem.

When the angel of death descends on Egypt, for instance, the poet gives us a passage that reminded me of Grendel stalking toward Heorot in the black of night:

“The hall-joys were drained —
The last, lonely song was a cry of suffering,
Of peril and pain. In the middle of the night
God cruelly struck down the Egyptian oppressors,
The many first-born sons. Death stalked the land —
Terror and torment piled up corpses —
Killing was king of that ravaged realm.” (ll.33-9)

When once they have left Egypt, the miraculous guidance of the pillar of cloud and the column of fire excite the poet’s admiration for a lengthy stretch. He remembers, too, the life of Joseph, whose coming to Egypt as a slave was the remote cause of the enslavement from which the Israelites are now being delivered.

The approach of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit spreads fear through the people, and the description of the approaching forces is wonderfully evocative:

“Then the mood of the Israelites grew desperate;
Their hearts lost hope as they saw Pharaoh’s army
Surging from the south, sweeping over the land
With shields gleaming, battle-swords swinging,
Boar-spears thrusting, trumpets ringing,
Banners waving, the cavalry-storm coming.
Dark death-birds circled the strand,
Carrion crows hungry for corpses,
Screeching like hellions for a bloody meal.
Wild wolves sang a hideous evening-song,
Frantic for a feast of flesh and bone.
The beasts of battle held no pity
For any people, Egyptians or Israelites.
They howled for carnage, sang for slaughter.
Those bloodlust guardians of the border lands,
Wilderness-wanderers, bayed through the night,
Spooking the souls of the men of Moses,
Who hunkered down in despair and doom.” (ll.162-79)

I note with interest how the poet pivots from a description of the menace of the Egyptian soldiers — imagined very much after the manner of his contemporary warriors — to a description of the menace of the natural world: the wolves, and the hungry crows, all arrayed against the people of God. One could imagine him taking the opposite tack, depicting the animals, which are God’s creatures, as friends of the children of Israel, but instead he makes them amoral, prowling on the borders and circling overhead, awaiting their chance. There seems no reason for hope.

In response to this threat the Israelites arm for battle, but Moses gathers them together and delivers a stirring speech, reminding them to put their trust in God’s protection:

“They will no longer live to scourge us
With torment and terror, making our lives
A mesh of misery, a web of woe.
There’s no need to fear dead warriors,
Doomed bodies — their day is done.
God’s counsel has been lifted from your hearts.
Remember his covenant and keep it always.
Worship your God, pray for his grace,
His promise and protection, shield and salvation,
His gift of victory in a time of triumph.
He is the God of Abraham, the Lord of creation,
Our eternal Maker of unmeasured might.
He holds our army in his guardian hands. (ll. 280-92)

The staff is stretched out over the waters, and they part, making a way of escape. Interestingly, even as they march across, away from their foes, they do so as if to war, and the poet underlines their ferocity:

As the noblest of people walked through the water,
They raised a banner high over their shields
With a sacred sign, the gold lion of Judah,
The bravest of beasts. The loyal warriors
Would never suffer insult or injury
As long as their lord and leader lived
And they could lift swords, thrust spears
Bravely in conflict with any bold nation.
The soldiers of Judah would always respond
To the call of battle with hard hand-play,
Sword-swipe, spear-stab, shield-thrust,
Blood-wound, body-woe, the cruel crush
Of hard helmets, carnage and corpses.” (ll.338-50)

I wonder if in a warrior culture this crossing of the Red Sea, fleeing from danger rather than confronting it, would have been considered shameful. The poet seems to be taking great care to reassure us that they had lost none of their courage and capacity for destruction.

At this point, as it nears its finish, the poem begins to become more complicated. We leave the Israelites and return to Noah, and then to Abraham, and then jump ahead to Solomon. Perhaps the poet is here calling to mind God’s enduring covenant with the children of Israel, which is here, at the crossing of the Red Sea and the decisive deliverance from bondage, being honoured and fulfilled.

The crossing complete, the path through the waters collapses upon the pursuing Egyptian forces in a scene of carnage:

“The arrogant Egyptians could not hinder his hand
Or escape his doom, the sea’s fierce fury —
He destroyed them all in shrieking horror.
The seas slid up, the bodies slid down;
Dread fears rose, death-dreams plunged;
Fresh wounds wept, bloody tears tumbled
Into the ocean’s embrace. The Lord of the flood
Ravaged the ramparts with an ancient sword
Of storm-winds and wave-walls. Troops perished.
Hordes of the sinful headed toward the bottom,
Where they lost their souls in endless sleep.” (ll.518-28)

And here, at the climactic moment of the poem, before describing the victory song and the joyous dancing of the Israelites, the poet introduces another apparent digression, but one which, it seems to me, is a key to interpreting the whole poem. He inserts a meditation on the pilgrimage of each soul through this earthly life:

“It’s true that our present worldly pleasures
Are transient. Time unravels them all.
Desire and delight fade, touched and twisted
By inevitable sorrow — an exile’s inheritance.
We wander the world pursued by woe,
Our homeless hearts mired in misery.
[…]
The day of reckoning, the hour of doom,
Draws near, a moment of might and glory,
When all our deeds will be judged by God,
And he will lead the steadfast, righteous souls
From their exile on earth to a homeland in heaven,
The light and life of the Lord’s blessing,
Where everyone in that company of joy
Will sing hymns, glorious hosannas,
To the Kind of hosts for all eternity.” (ll.566-587)

The poet is therefore encouraging us to read the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the deliverance of each soul from the bondage of sin and death, “an allegory of the soul, or of the Church of militant souls, marching under the hand of God, pursued by the powers of darkness, until it attains to the promised land of Heaven”. (So says Tolkien.) This is a common theme in Christian theology, of course, but it is here expressed in a particularly artful and powerful way.

In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson highlights the poem’s “deliberate ambiguities and allusions, its concealed figurations and fulfillments, and its textual and narrative difficulties”, which initially made me think I was about to read an Old English Prufrock. It didn’t turn out that way, but, nonetheless, there is something to what Williamson says; this is a complex, and quite beautiful, poem. At least some of the textual difficulties may have been mitigated by Williamson’s thoughtful translation, which is about 10% longer than the original. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m looking forward to the next poem in the Junius Manuscript — which is, mercifully, not based on Leviticus, but on the story of Daniel.

Cecilia virgo

November 22, 2017

In honour of the feast of St Cecilia, patroness of music and musicians, here is a very fine performance of James MacMillan’s Cecilia virgo, sung by the National Youth Choir of Australia.

Virgin Cecilia, all musicians celebrate your praises,
and through your merits, supplicants can be heard by God.
With one voice and with one heart, they call upon your name,
that you may deign to change the mourning of the world into the glory of paradise;
and be willing, O protecting Virgin, to look upon your wards,
calling upon the pious Lady, and always saying:
Saint Cecilia, pray for us.

St Athanasius: On the Incarnation

October 22, 2017

On the Incarnation
St Athanasius
(Fig, 2012) [c.315]
72 p.

Christianity is distinctive first for claiming that God, the fount and origin of all things, entered human history as a man, and that this man suffered and died the death of a criminal before being resurrected. It is a story that has seemed messy and arbitrary to some, and manifestly unfitting, or even blasphemous, to others. In this important early work of Christian theology, St Athanasius mounts a series of arguments to convince his readers that the Incarnation was fitting, and that the death of Christ, both as to fact and to manner, was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable. His understanding of these events sets forth a powerfully attractive account of the meaning of Christianity.

He begins with an assessment of the state of humanity prior to the Incarnation, and specifically with the twin premises of, on one hand, sin, and, on the other, God’s promise that the wages of sin would be death. Together these two posed a dilemma:

It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.

It would not be fitting for a work of God to suffer destruction, for we, being made in his image and likeness, ought properly to enjoy the fulfillment of our nature as God Himself enjoys His own infinite fulfillment in Himself. The Incarnation then appears, says St Athanasius, as the solution to this dilemma, for by taking on human nature God healed it of the corruption and injury which sin had produced in it, and by his death he suffered the consequence of sin, and by his resurrection he overcame both sin and death: “through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.”

Athanasius illustrates this re-creation of human nature by means of an analogy:

You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

He also wants us to appreciate that when God the Son became part of the created order, this was not an act wholly alien to his nature, for, being the Logos by whom all things were made that have been made, he entered a world to which he had always been intimately related:

He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

Furthermore, granting God’s initiative to himself assume the nature of a thing he created, it was of all parts of Creation most fitting that he should take on human form, for the human being is made in God’s likeness and image. David Bentley Hart (on whose recommendation, incidentally, I undertook to read this book) has expressed the point in this way:

“The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act by which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, p.357.)

We have then, one motive for the Incarnation: by taking human nature into himself in a particularly intimate way, he healed it and even re-created it, thereby carrying on the creative activity that he always exercises with respect to the world in general, and our nature in particular. That the Incarnation corresponded so well with the nature of God — as saviour, creator, and Logos — made it fitting.

But of course God might have healed our nature by some means other than the Incarnation had he so wished. Athanasius therefore introduces another line of argument to show its fittingness: it provided it a particularly apt means for us to know God. Before Christ, the situation was this:

Three ways thus lay open to them, by which they might obtain the knowledge of God. They could look up into the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation come to know its Ruler, the Word of the Father, Whose all-ruling providence makes known the Father to all. Or, if this was beyond them, they could converse with holy men, and through them learn to know God, the Artificer of all things, the Father of Christ, and to recognize the worship of idols as the negation of the truth and full of all impiety. Or else, in the third place, they could cease from lukewarmness and lead a good life merely by knowing the law.

Yet even with these ways, many men did not seek God, and did not find him. What was God to do, for it was unworthy of man, made in God’s image, not to know God. By the Incarnation, therefore, God revealed himself in a new, clearer way, suitable to our way of knowing:

He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.

To summarize, two things were accomplished by the Incarnation:

He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.

or, restated in a more elaborate way:

We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

And added to this is a third reason for the Incarnation: so that Christ could die. But why did he have to die, and why in the way that he did?

Christ renewed and transformed sinful human nature by his Incarnation, but this alone was not enough to erase the calamity of sin. God had promised that the wages of sin would be death, and that promise created a debt that had to be paid, and so Christ, by dying, proceeded “to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression”.

I am not a theologian, but I believe that this understanding of Christ’s death is called “substitutionary atonement” — personal sin imputes guilt; guilt, in justice, requires restitution; and Christ, in love, offers his own life as restitution. But I confess that I am confused, for this seems to allow that God is not free in his dealings with us, but subject to some higher moral requirement. Why could God not “overrule” the punishment for sin by offering mercy out of his sovereign power? I can think of two possible responses to this. The first is that the requirement of justice which demands a punishment for sin is not actually independent of God but an expression of God’s own just nature. (But, troubling this possibility from within is the question of whether substitutionary punishment is consonant with justice in the first place.) The second is that although God, strictly speaking, was not compelled by anything to impose punishment for sin, he did so because this logic makes sense to us, and he wanted our salvation to make sense to us. And it is true, generally speaking, that our sense of justice does make such demands in the ordinary course of events, even though, in an ironic turn, Christianity itself has gradually undermined the absoluteness of these just demands.

But there is a further reason why Christ died: by doing so, he dramatically overcame death. In the Gospels he asked, “Is it easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”, and he said the latter so as to assure all that he had the power to say the former. In a similar way, it was one thing for him to restore and heal our nature, and another to demonstrate his power to do so by actually conquering our final enemy: “He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.” This is the drama of Holy Saturday, and it is a magnificent drama. Too often, I think, we get a genteel account of Christ’s death and Resurrection: by dying he showed his love, and by raising him God the Father gave us a kind of “endorsement” of Christ’s life and message. But here, instead, we find Christ descending to the depths in power, doing battle with all the powers of evil and decay and destruction, bursting the bonds that sin had laid upon us, and rising in triumph.

This dramatic, narrative approach to the meaning of Christ’s death strikes my own heart with greater power than does the more legalistic language of substitutionary atonement. Through Christ, the Word made flesh, God speaks our story again, and by so speaking he re-shapes and re-makes it, for it is always in his words that his creative power is manifest. Again, David Bentley Hart has put this point more eloquently than I can:

“It is because Christ’s life effects a narrative reversal, which unwinds the story of sin and death and reinaugurates the story that God tells from before the foundation of the world – the story of the creation he wills, freely, in his eternal counsels – that Christ’s life effects an ontological restoration in creation’s goodness; it is because the rhetoric of his form restores the order of divine rhetoric … that created being is redeemed in him.” The Beauty of the Infinite, p.325.)

Athanasius then proceeds through a quite interesting set of arguments in which he looks at the manner in which Christ died, and explains why it was an appropriate death. It was fitting that his death be public, for instance, because his triumph over death was fittingly public. His death was something he suffered at the hands of others so that he would not seem to have chosen one manner of death over another: “He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind.” It was fitting that the manner of his death did not divide his body (as in a beheading), for his body represented the Church: “even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”

In two final sections of the book he addresses two specific audiences in turn: Jews and Gentiles. To the former he argues his views on Incarnation, death, and Resurrection from the Hebrew Scriptures, and to the latter he argues from pagan philosophers. His arguments to the Gentiles include a well-known celebrations of the triumph of Christ over the pagan deities:

And here is another proof of the Godhead of the Savior, which is indeed utterly amazing. What mere man or magician or tyrant or king was ever able by himself to do so much? Did anyone ever fight against the whole system of idol-worship and the whole host of demons and all magic and all the wisdom of the Greeks, at a time when all of these were strong and flourishing and taking everybody in, as did our Lord, the very Word of God? Yet He is even now invisibly exposing every man’s error, and single-handed is carrying off all men from them all, so that those who used to worship idols now tread them under foot, reputed magicians burn their books and the wise prefer to all studies the interpretation of the gospels. They are deserting those whom formerly they worshipped, they worship and confess as Christ and God Him Whom they used to ridicule as crucified. Their so-called gods are routed by the sign of the cross, and the crucified Savior is proclaimed in all the world as God and Son of God. Moreover, the gods worshipped among the Greeks are now falling into disrepute among them on account of the disgraceful things they did, for those who receive the teaching of Christ are more chaste in life than they. If these, and the like of them, are human works, let anyone who will show us similar ones done by men in former time, and so convince us.

This routing of the imposter gods, which left the sacred groves and temples vacant, was one of the most momentous developments in the history of our civilization; it is one of the main burned bridges separating us from our Greco-Roman roots, and it was a necessary condition not only for the emergence of monotheism but also, I would think, for the materialist atheism of modernity. We are contending with its consequences still.

At the very end of the book he takes a pastoral turn. Much as did David Bentley Hart in the closing pages of The Experience of God, Athanasius tells us that Christianity is not a theory addressed solely to the intellect. It cannot be understood unless one undertakes to live according to its precepts:

One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so.

He invites us, therefore, to wipe our eyes with prayerful tears, and to make the journey to see the goodness of God made manifest in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. “For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit.”

Benson: Confessions of a Convert

September 10, 2017

Confessions of a Convert
Robert Hugh Benson
(Christian Classics, 2016) [1913]
128 p.

Robert Hugh Benson was one of the more notable of the English converts to Catholicism who flagged in eminence behind John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton. Not only was he a well-known clergyman of the Church of England, but his father had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and so he had grown up in the elite circles of English society and Anglican religion. He was in his early 30s when he abandoned his position to be received into the Catholic Church, and approximately a decade later he published this brief spiritual autobiography.

It is not a spiritual autobiography worthy to compare with the greatest, but for those who have followed something like a similar course, or for those contemplating something like a similar course, or just for Catholics suffering an acute case of Anglophilia there is much here to hold one’s interest.

Despite his upbringing in a highly-churched milieu, he professes to have had little religious inclination as a child. It was only when he went to university and encountered, surely not for the first time, but with new appreciation, the sacred music of the liturgy that his religious sense was awakened: “It was the music, first and last, and it was through that opening that I first began to catch glimpses of the spiritual world.” With hindsight he considers this aesthetic experience as, in itself, incomplete, but credits it with having turned him in the right direction and urged him forward, a twitch upon the thread.

It didn’t take long for him to take a professional turn toward religion. Perhaps because of the family upbringing he had had, and without any great fervency, he thought it fitting that he become a clergyman, and began to take steps in that direction. It is amusing to read of his general view of the landscape of the Christian world at that time, the exemplar of the parochial English parson:

“The Roman Catholics, I thought, were obviously corrupt and decayed, the Ritualists were tainted, and the extreme Protestants were noisy, extravagant, and vulgar. Plainly there was only one religious life possible, that of a quiet country clergyman, with a beautiful garden, an exquisite choir, and a sober bachelor existence.”

This all changed when, shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, he travelled to the Holy Land. It did not take long for him to perceive that there, at the center of it all, the Church of England was an oddity that meant not very much to not very many. He saw that others regarded him rather as he would have regarded someone from the national Church of Zembla who thought the Church of Zembla the natural via media to which all well-balanced, thoughtful Christians ought to belong: an object of gentle amusement and benign pity.

Upon his return, then, he saw Anglicanism in a new, less flattering light, and he began to think critically about it. He became troubled by the weakness of the Anglican case for continuity with the medieval and patristic Church, and he began to see, too, the need for a living, authoritative voice in the Church to interpret and Gospel in new situations and to answer new questions. He gravitated toward “High Church” Anglicanism, on the reasonable grounds that “faith and its expression should go together”, but he came to wonder if the Anglican service, “rendered so beautiful by art and devotion, was no more than a subjective effort to assert our claim to what we did not possess.” And this doubt, once raised, could not be resolved by backing off of High Church principles; it was prompted by Anglicanism itself.

Life moved on, of course. He joined an Anglican religious community modeled on the Benedictines. In time, his wrestling with questions of authority and continuity led him to adopt the theory of “the Church Diffusive”, as he called it. The Church Diffusive consisted of all churches faithful to the creeds and having apostolic authority — in practice, in his view at that time, Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury. Where these churches agreed, the Holy Spirit was speaking authoritatively; where they disagreed, private judgement prevailed.

The principal problem with the theory of the Church Diffusive, of course, was that the member churches of the Church Diffusive rejected it. If the theory was right, then those churches were religious authorities; but if they were religious authorities, then the theory must be false. It didn’t take Benson long to see this problem clearly.

Part of what he wanted to see in a Church was confidence and authority to speak boldly on matters of faith and morals, as one having not just a duty but also competence to do so:

“In things that directly and practically affect souls…she must not only know her mind, but must be constantly declaring it, and no less constantly silencing those who would obscure or misinterpret it.”

There are those, of course, who criticize the Catholic Church for speaking in just this way — though opportunities for such criticism seem not so plentiful of late as they once were — but for Benson it was a definite attraction; he understood that this confidence was a sign of a healthy authority.

He discussed these matters with friends, and they, in their concern that he might become a Catholic, sent him to a variety of distinguished Anglican theologians for counsel and instruction. He listened to them, and heard their learned explanations of the merits of Anglicanism, but was struck by an insight:

“I suddenly realized clearly what I had only suspected before; namely, that if the Church of Christ was, as I believed it to be, God’s way of salvation, it was impossible that the finding of it should be a matter of shrewdness or scholarship.”

And this applied also to the evidence of Scripture:

“Dogmas such as that of the Blessed Trinity, sacraments such as that of Confirmation, institutions such as that of Episcopacy — all these things can indeed, to the Anglican as well as the Catholic mind, be found in Scripture if a man will dig for them. But the Petrine claim needs no digging: it lies like a great jewel, blazing on the surface, when once one has rubbed one’s eyes clear of anti-Catholic predisposition.”

This insight — that too much subtlety was a defect — seems to have brought him up to the edge of the Tiber, and it was reading Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that convinced him to take the plunge: it “waved away the last floating mists and let me see the City of God in her strength and beauty”.

He was not, we may say, a happy convert. C.S. Lewis famously described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”, but Benson beat him to it:

“I had no kind of emotional attraction towards it, no illusions of any kind about it. I knew perfectly well that it was human as well as divine, that crimes had been committed within its walls; that the ways and customs and language of its citizens would be other than those of the dear homely town which I had left; that I should find hardness there, unfamiliar manners, even suspicion and blame. But for all that it was divine; it was built upon the Rock of rocks; its foundations were jewelled even if its streets were as hard as gold; and the Lamb was the light of it.

But the setting out towards its gates was a hard task. I had no energy, no sense of welcome or exultation; I knew hardly more than three or four of its inmates. I was deadly sick and tired of the whole thing.”

And so, in 1903, he was received into the Catholic Church. The interesting final act of the book details how people responded to his decision. He describes one Anglican dignitary who thought that approaching the Catholic Church “not as a critic or a teacher, but as a child and a learner” was immoral; he apparently considered religion rightly to be “a matter more or less of individual choices and tastes”, a view that has waxed greatly in prevalence in the interim years without becoming any less daft. In fact Benson was criticized roundly from all quarters, but the spectrum of opinion struck him as noteworthy:

“I have been told that I became a Catholic because I was dispirited at failure and because I was elated at success; because I was imaginative and because I was imperceptive; because I was not hopeful enough and because I was too hopeful, faithless and too trusting, too ardent and too despairing, proud and pusillanimous.”

But then again, somewhat to his surprise, many Anglicans, both of his acquaintance and in the general public, were also supportive of his decision. Even more surprising was the incomprehension he encountered among some Catholics who could not understand why he would abandon a perfectly respectable English church to adopt a “foreign” one. The tribal instinct is strong.

Benson has some sound things to say about the process of conversion. Though he had been largely motivated by fairly abstract questions about religious authority and about what the Church is, the resolution of his doubts involved more than abstractions:

“Catechumens, therefore, must remember that while on the one side they must of course clear the ground by the action of the intellect, on the other side it is far more vital that they should pray, purify motives, and yield themselves to God.”

And again, later:

“The puzzle which God had flung to me consisted of elements which needed for their solution not the head only, but the heart, the imagination, the intuitions; in fact, the entire human character had to deal with it.”

It could hardly be a conversion were it otherwise.

Benson died one year after publishing this book, at the age of just 42, whether from a lingering illness, or suddenly, I have not been able to discover. He accomplished a great deal in his short life, and this memoir of conversion, modest though it is, stands as a fine testament to a man who evidently loved truth, was devoted to God, and had the courage to put first things first.

**

[The spirituality of the city of Rome]
Here was this city, Renaissance from end to end, set under clear skies and a burning sun; and the religion in it was the soul dwelling in the body. It was the assertion of the reality of the human principle as embodying the divine. Even the exclusive tenets of Christianity were expressed under pagan images. Revelation spoke through forms of natural religion; God dwelt unashamed in the light of day; priests were priests, not aspiring clergymen; they sacrificed, sprinkled lustral water, went in long, rolling processions with incense and lights, and called heaven Olympus. Sacrum Divo Sebastiano, I saw inscribed on a granite altar. I sat under priest-professors who shouted, laughed, and joyously demonstrated before six nations in one lecture room. I saw the picture of the “Father of princes and kings and Lord of the world” exposed in the streets on his name-day, surrounded by flowers and oil lamps, in the manner in which, two centuries ago, other lords of the world were honoured. I went down into the Catacombs on St. Cecilia’s Day and St. Valentine’s, and smelled the box and the myrtle underfoot that did reverence to the fragrance of their memories, as centuries ago they had done reverence to victors in another kind of contest. In one sentence, I began to understand that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”; that as He took the created substance of a Virgin to fashion for Himself a natural body, so still He takes the created substance of men — their thoughts, their expressions, and their methods — to make for Himself that mystical body by which He is with us always; in short, I perceived that “there is nothing secular but sin.” Catholicism, then, is “materialistic?” Certainly; it is as materialistic as the Creation and the Incarnation, neither more nor less.

It is impossible to describe what this discovery means to a Northern soul. Certainly it means the obscuring of some of the old lights that had once seemed so beautiful in the half-gloom of individual experience, or rather, their drowning in the strong sunshine. Set beside some Roman pomp an exquisite Anglican service: how provincial, domestic, and individualistic becomes the latter! Set beside a Gregorian professor lecturing to Greeks, Roumanians, and Frenchmen, on the principles of restitution or the duty of citizens to the State, an Anglican divine expounding St. Paul’s Epistles to theological students; a friar in S. Carlo beside the most passionate mission preacher in the Church of England; the olive-laden peasants shouting hymns in S. Giovanne in Laterano beside a devout company of Anglicans gathered for Evensong; an hieratic sacrificer in S. Maria Maggiore beside the most perfectly drilled Ritualist in Mass vestments! Oh! Set any section of Catholic faith and worship seen in holy Rome beside the corresponding section of Anglican faith and worship! Yet Anglicans are shocked in Rome, and Dissenters exclaim at the paganism, and Free-thinkers smile at the narrowness of it all. Of course they are shocked and exclaim and smile. How should they not?

Thus, in truth, a sojourn in Rome means an expansion of view that is beyond words. Whereas up to that time I had been accustomed to image Christianity to myself as a delicate flower, divine because of its supernatural fragility, now I saw that it was a tree in whose branches the fowls of the air, once the enemies of its tender growth, can lodge in security — divine since the wideness of its reach and the strength of its mighty roots can be accounted for by nothing else. Before I had thought of it as of a fine, sweet aroma, to be appreciated apart; now I saw that it was the leaven, hid in the heavy measures of the world, expressing itself in terms incalculably coarser than itself, until the whole is leavened.

A hymn to the Virgin

September 8, 2017

It’s the birthday of Our Lady. Here is Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, in a wonderful performance from King’s College, Cambridge:

Way over yonder

June 16, 2017

A few interesting items I’ve stumbled upon in the last few weeks:

  • When Mother Teresa was canonized last year, I missed this superb reflection on her life by Fr George Rutler, who knew her personally. “The canonization of Teresa of Calcutta gives the kind of satisfaction that comes from having your mother declared Mother of the Year.” It’s a quite beautiful tribute to her and her significance for the rest of us.
  • Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture finally appeared, and it’s well worth a listen (or, if you must, a read). Fr Schall has interesting things to say about it, both for better and worse, although I think he underestimates the degree to which Dylan’s body of work has a transcendent dimension.
  • Speaking of Dylan, one of the best things I’ve read about him since he won the Nobel last year is this essay by Carl Eric Scott, published in Modern Age. Scott selects “To Ramona” as one of Dylan’s most underrated songs, a judgement with which I heartily agree.
  • At City Journal, John Tierney writes about something we don’t hear much about: the left-wing war on science.
  • Ben Blatt has written a book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, in which he subjects famous works of literature to statistical analyses. It prompted one of the most enjoyable scathing reviews that I’ve seen in a long while, from Matthew Walther: “Never, I think, has a purported piece of “literary criticism” been so disconnected from literature and non-suggestive of all the things that might, and very frequently do, induce people to read.” The review was so withering that I actually got the book, just to see how bad it was. It’s tremendously bad.
  • In the midst of a stew of troubles, Anthony Esolen wrote a graceful critique of illiberal habits of education. It was an elegant farewell note to Providence College.
  • And finally, from New Criterion, a very interesting biographical essay about Fr Reginald Foster, an American priest who was for many years the Vatican’s chief Latinist.

For an envoi, here is Bob Dylan singing “To Ramona”, live in Manchester in 1965:

Treasures of heaven

June 13, 2017

I recently watched this interesting BBC documentary on sacred relics and reliquaries. Like many such productions, it has the whiff of anthropology about it, as though this, our own still-living tradition, was that of an alien people (which, I know, is how it would seem to some significant section of the audience), but it’s worth persevering in order to see the wonderful relics they examine, including one of St Edmund Campion and another of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, both English martyrs. The reliquaries, especially a tiny one built to house one of the thorns of Christ’s crown, are breathtaking in their intricate beauty. I found it all both interesting and edifying. The duration is about 1 hour.

Lecture night: On Flannery O’Connor

May 10, 2017

Tonight’s lecture is on the life and work of Miss Flannery O’Connor. This is well-travelled territory, you might think, but the lecturer, Steve Ayers, speaks with such understanding and appreciation that I was enchanted throughout, and he does so in a down-to-earth manner that I think would have pleased her. The lecture is roughly one hour in duration. Excuse me, I have to go tend my pea-chickens.

Steve Ayers also has given a very good lecture on Gerard Manley Hopkins.