Posts Tagged ‘Robert Hugh Benson’

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.

Benson: The Dawn of All

March 13, 2017

The Dawn of All
Robert Hugh Benson
(Aeterna, 2005) [1911]
226 p.

In Lord of the World, written a few years prior to the present novel, Benson had imagined a future confrontation between the Catholic Church and a global secular power, a conflict in which the Church was, in its capacity to assert strength at least, severely over-matched, and reduced to a scattered remnant. The Dawn of All is in many respects a companion piece, a thematic complement to the earlier book, for in it Benson again imagines a global future, but in this case the power balance is reversed: the Church is ascendant, nearly the whole population of the earth has been converted to Christianity, and its truths are taken for granted in all spheres of life.

One might think that for Benson, a Catholic writer, this would be an opportunity to paint an attractive portrait of a harmonious world informed by the truths of the Catholic faith, and one might think that such a portrait would appeal to Catholic readers. Strange to say, this isn’t the case. It is an odd, odd book, either too inept, or too cunningly sly, I’m not sure which.

Our central character is an English prelate, Monsignor Masterman, who, in the opening scene of the novel, finds himself in the middle of a public ceremony with no idea what is happening or what he is doing there. It turns out that he has suffered a sudden amnesia, and remembers nothing of what has happened for at least a half-century. Everything seems strange to him.

Everything seems strange because so much has changed. The wholesale conversion of the world’s peoples to Catholicism has taken place more or less entirely in the interim, so that he finds himself, psychologically at least, suddenly transported from a world like our own, in which Catholicism vies alongside other religions and is largely sidelined in halls of power, to a world transformed, in which Catholicism reigns supreme, occupying a place in culture, law, and government much like the place liberalism occupies in our own, “the centre and not merely a department of national life”.

This amnesia is a — well, I’ll stop short of saying it’s “effective”, but it is helpful — a helpful literary device, because of course the reader is in precisely Masterman’s position, transported suddenly to a world unlike that we know, and it gives Benson a plausible reason to dump a lot (a lot!) of exposition on the reader without being too tedious about it.

Benson has to give us some explanation of how Catholicism suddenly conquered the world, so to speak. This he does by annexing, more or less, the authority of the sciences, for he argues that the findings of maturing sciences, especially medicine and psychology, began to corroborate the claims of Catholicism. Illnesses, it is discovered, are almost all psychosomatic, and it is Catholicism’s cure of souls that is found to most effectively cure the body too. Miracles are confirmed by scientific observation. And so the Catholic faith comes to be generally accepted, but not really on spiritual grounds. It’s just due to an objective finding, rather than an interior conversion.

Is this a problem? I have to be careful here not to prejudge. The scenario Benson describes, for instance, is perhaps not so different from how things looked in medieval times, when the Church was powerful and generally acknowledged as a teacher of truth, and when there was harmony between faith and reason. People believed in the Church more as a brute fact, like we view the political sphere, yet weren’t always greatly devout in consequence. By contrast, a common line in Christian apologetics since at least Pascal has been that the claims of faith are possibly but not certainly true, and that this in-between status is important, indeed essential, to the Christian faith, for had they not that status the appropriate response would be something other than faith, other than trust in God; it would be knowledge or irrationality. But is it really the case that having faith is preferable to having knowledge? To claim so strikes me as, possibly, an instance of using lemons to make lemonade. Indeed, it is contradicted by Catholicism itself, which says (for instance) that the existence of God, at least, can be known by reason, or, to make the point more forcefully, that ultimately the articles of faith, which we see at present through a glass darkly, will become knowledge.

Benson anticipates this response in his readers, and Masterman himself wrestles with these questions, for he too is taken aback. He struggles to adjust to a world where religion is “concrete and effective”:

“somewhere in the back of his mind (why, he knew not) there lurked a sort of only half-perceived assumption that the Catholic religion was but one aspect of truth—one point of view from which, with sufficient though not absolute truth, facts could be discerned.”

And so I am wary of my own initial response to Benson’s setup — that the “conversion” it contemplates is superficial and disappointing. Perhaps then, at a deeper level, I find his scenario discouraging simply because this coincidence of science and religion that he imagines does not seem to be true. Not that I think there is irreconcilable disharmony between them, but we have witnessed nothing like the “hand in glove” relationship between them that he puts into his book.

Setting aside how the world came to be as it is, what does Benson imagine it is actually like? The best part is that Ireland has become an island inhabited almost exclusively by religious orders, full of monasteries and retreat houses. This is nice — although also rather depressing when compared with the contemporary reality. Family life is strong and healthy: divorces are rare, large families are common, and adultery and fornication are censured. But Benson’s picture of what Catholic society would look like is not wholly attractive: there are heresy trials, monarchic government (no more the “intoxicating nightmare of democratic government”), and an educational test for the vote (only 1 in 70 pass).

But the bigger problem for Masterman is that as the Church becomes authoritative for society, and as her power increases, she must exercise that power, and doing so seems to Masterman to be inconsistent with her nature. He believes that the Church, like Christ, must be always ready to suffer, not to inflict suffering. He witnesses a heresy trial, for instance, which greatly disturbs him, all the more so because the man condemned fully accepts the verdict and the authority from which it issues.

The principal action of the novel, insofar as there is action in the novel, addresses precisely this worry of Masterman’s. Has the Church forgotten how to suffer after all? There is a plotline involving the Holy Father and a small group of rebels holding out against the Church that speaks directly to this point, and does so fairly satisfyingly.

**

An oddity about The Dawn of All is that it spends a great deal of time fascinated by volors. These flying ships, sort of like airborne trains, I believe, appeared in Lord of the World too, but peripherally. Here they sometimes seem to be the main attraction, as Benson returns to them time and again, dilating on exactly how they work, how they dock at platforms to let passengers on and off, how it feels to ride on one, what can be seen from one, how quickly they travel, and so on. I grant that thinking about flying machines is interesting, but Benson’s interest in them, or the interest he presumes in his readers, begins to feel excessive.

**

In the end I found The Dawn of All to be disappointing, partly on account of its leaden plotting and long exposition, partly because its portrait of a Catholic society seemed unappealing, and also partly because I felt cheated by an eleventh-hour revelation that cast a different light on much of the novel, and in an extremely annoying way.

**

Some passages:

[Welfare, from Church and state]
The State can only give for economic reasons, however conscientious and individually charitable statesmen may be; while the Church gives for the Love of God, and the Love of God never yet destroyed any man’s self-respect.

[The family as the model of society]
The Socialist saw plainly the rights of the Society; the Anarchist saw the rights of the Individual. How therefore were these to be reconciled? The Church stepped in at that crucial point and answered, By the Family—whether domestic or Religious. For in the Family you have both claims recognized: there is authority and yet there is liberty. For the union of the Family lies in Love; and Love is the only reconciliation of authority and liberty.

[Two poles]
The Pope attended by princes—the Pope on his knees before a barefooted friar. These were the two magnetic points between which blazed Religion.

Benson: Lord of the World

December 6, 2016

Lord of the World
Robert Hugh Benson
(Martino Fine Books, 2015) [1907]
392 p.

A blessing of contemporary secularism is that in its flight from religious faith it has fled also religious rites and devotions. It is true that the French revolutionaries tried to institute secular rites with dignity sufficient to justify their occupation of French churches, but it didn’t last, and since then we’ve seen no sustained attempt to sacralize the City of Man. This is a blessing because it means that those who find within themselves a desire for these natural human things have had nowhere to go but home.

In Lord of the World Robert Hugh Benson imagines a future in which secularism has taken an alternate course, one in which it acknowledges worship as “the deepest instinct in man”, and accordingly adopts for itself the language and trappings of the sacred, while still forcefully setting itself against the transcendent. As one of the priests in the story says, “The world is beginning to range itself against us: it is an organized antagonism — a kind of Catholic anti-Church”, and a formidable one. It is a world in which “natural virtues had suddenly waxed luxuriant, and supernatural virtues were despised. Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith.” This quasi-religion, which advances under the banner of Humanitarianism, has ambitions to re-make all society in its own image, and it has a familiar ring:

“There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.”

Or, seen from the point of view of the Catholics in the story:

“It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency — a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being.”

The novel therefore presents to us a global confrontation between the City of God and the City of Man, the one “telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal”, and the other “self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient”. Representing the ideals and interests of the former is the Pope, John XXIV. (Other Christian groups have, by the time the story commences, either withered under the pressure of Humanitarianism or returned to the Roman flock from whence they first departed.) Representing the latter is Julian Felsenburgh, a politician of consummate artistry and diplomatic genius who has successfully united the world’s principal political powers and seems the embodiment of Humanitarianism’s highest aspirations.

**

That, then, is the set-up, but I’ll resist the temptation to say more. I knew nothing going in, and I was glad of that, because the surprising twists and devastating turns caught me off guard. (I really need to find someone with whom to discuss the ending!) Simply considered as a thriller, it is excellent, but it is also more than that, for there is a good deal of rich content in it, and the general conflict it dramatizes on a global scale is one which plays out in each Christian soul. Pope Francis has recommended on more than one occasion that people read it, and, for what it’s worth, I concur.

**

Part of the fun of reading futuristic novels from the past is to see how well the author foresaw the future. Benson did pretty well: he predicted routine air travel (conceived, rather quaintly, as being like travelling by train, but aloft), telephones, and frighteningly powerful military ordnances. More penetratingly, he foresaw euthanasia being a natural concomitant of secular individualism; in his world, “individualism was at least so far recognised as to secure to those weary of life the right of relinquishing it”. “Since men were but animals — the conclusion was inevitable.” But he misses the mark in some cases too: the onset of rapid global communications he does not foresee at all.

**

In summary, it’s a very good novel, highly recommended especially to Catholics. Benson subsequently wrote a companion novel, The Dawn of All, in which he imagined yet another alternative future for the Church. It’s not been as popular as this one, but I hope to read it soon.