Confessions of a Convert – Chapter 2

cover of the ebook 'Confessions of a Convert' by Father Robert Hugh BensonUp to the time of my father’s death I do not think that a doubt had ever crossed my mind as to the claims of Catholicism. Once, I remember, in Birdcage Walk, as my father and I were riding back to Lambeth, I said to him suddenly that I did not really understand the phrase of the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.” “For instance,” I said, “are the Roman Catholics a part of the Church of Christ?”

My father was silent for a moment. Then he said that God only knew for certain who were or were not within the Church: it might be perhaps that the Roman Catholics had so far erred in their doctrinal beliefs as to have forfeited their place in the Body of Christ. I suppose I was satisfied with his answer; for I do not remember having considered the subject any farther at the time.

But within six weeks of my father’s death, matters began to appear to me in a new light, and it was during the five months that I spent in the East that for the first time the claims of the Catholic Church showed themselves to me. It came about in this way.

§ 1. First, I believe, my contentment with the Church of England suffered a certain shock by my perceiving what a very small and unimportant affair the Anglican communion really was. There we were, travelling through France and Italy down to Venice, seeing in passing church after church whose worshippers knew nothing of us, or of our claims. I had often been abroad before, but never since I had formally identified myself with the official side of the Church of England. Now I looked at things through more professional eyes, and, behold! we were nowhere. Here was this vast continent apparently ignorant of our existence! I believed myself a priest, yet I could not say so to strangers without qualifying clauses. We arrived at Luxor at last, and found the usual hotel chaplain in possession; and I occasionally assisted him in the services. But it was all terribly isolated and provincial. Besides, he happened to be a strong Evangelical, and I had very little sense of having much in common with him. He would not have dreamed of describing himself as a “priest.” (He was ultimately killed, by the way, with his whole family in the earthquake at Messina where he was acting as English chaplain.)

§ 2. This growing discomfort was brought to a point one day when I was riding in the village by myself and went, purely by a caprice, into the little Catholic church there. It stood among the mudhouses; there was no atmosphere of any European protection about it, and it had a singularly uninviting interior. There was in it a quantity of muslin and crimped paper and spangles. But I believe now that it was in there that for the first time anything resembling explicit Catholic faith stirred itself within me. The church was so obviously a part of the village life; it was on a level with the Arab houses; it was open; it was exactly like every other Catholic church, apart from its artistic shortcomings. It was not in the least an appendage to European life, carried about (like an India rubber bath), for the sake of personal comfort and the sense of familiarity. Even if it did not possess one convert, it was at least looking in the right direction. I cannot say that I explicitly recognized all this at the time, but I am aware that here for the first time it occurred to me as seriously conceivable that Rome was right and we wrong; and my contempt for the Catholic Church began to take upon it a tinge of respectful fear. For my reassurance I made great friends with the Coptic priest and even, after my return to England, sent him a pair of brass candlesticks for his altar.

I began also to reason with myself a little and to fortify myself deliberately in my Anglican position. While in Cairo I had had two audiences of the schismatic Coptic Patriarch, and I now wrote to him, asking that I might be admitted to communion in the Coptic churches, desiring in some way to assure myself that we were not so much isolated as appeared. I did not care in the slightest whether the Copts were tainted by heresy or not (for there was a proverb about glass houses), but I did care that we Anglicans seemed so lonely and provincial. I began, in other words, for the first time to be aware of an instinct for Catholic communion. A national church seemed a poor affair abroad. The Patriarch did not answer, and I was left shivering.

§ 3. As I came back alone through Jerusalem and the Holy Land, my discomfort increased. Here again, in the birthplace of Christendom, we were less than nothing. It is true that the Anglican Bishop was extremely kind, asked me to preach in his chapel, gave me a tiny gold cross (now hanging on an image of Our Lady), and obtained permission for me to celebrate the Communion in the Chapel of Abraham. Yet even this was not particularly reassuring. We were not allowed to use the Greek altar; a table was wheeled in, with the vestments provided by the Anglican “Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament”; and there, distracted and unhappy, watched from the doorway by politely curious Greeks, I celebrated what I believed to be the divine mysteries, weighted down by a sense of loneliness.

In all the churches it was the same. Every Eastern heretical and schismatical sect imaginable took its turn at the altar of the Holy Sepulchre, for each had at least the respectability of some centuries behind it, some sort of historical continuity. I saw strange, uncouth rites in Bethlehem. But the Anglican Church, which I had been accustomed to think of as the sound core of a rotten tree, this had no privileges anywhere; it was as if it did not exist; or, rather, it was recognised and treated by the rest of Christendom purely as a Protestant sect of recent origin. In a kind of self-assertion I began to wear my cassock publicly in the streets, to the consternation of some Irish Protestants whose acquaintance I had made, and with whom, by the way, I was distressed to think that I was in full communion. I even had a kind of disputation with a shopkeeper who said, in spite of my cassock, that he supposed I was not a priest, but a clergyman.

There were other clergymen in the party with whom I went up to Damascus, and two or three of us, every morning before starting, celebrated the Communion service in one of the tents. One of them, an American, a very devout and earnest man, not only said his Office publicly on horseback, but had actually brought with him vestments, vessels, candlesticks, and wafers. These I used with a secret joy. I am happy to add that he, too, has been received into the Catholic Church and ordained to the priesthood.

§ 4. At Damascus I received one more blow. I read in the “Guardian” that the preacher to whom I owed all my knowledge of distinctively Catholic doctrine, who had been the means of bringing me to my first confession, had made his submission to Rome. It is impossible to describe the horror and the shock that this was to me. I wrote to him from Damascus, – seeing even at the moment a kind of half-superstitious omen in the thought of what other conversion was associated with that place – a letter which, I am happy to think now, contained not a word of bitterness; but I received no answer. He has told me since that the unreproachful tone of the letter astonished him.

It was here, too, that once more my scheme for a Religious House revived; and, in a kind of defiance of the feelings that were beginning to trouble me, I arranged with a friend that its constitution and ceremonial were to be distinctively “English,” by which I meant Caroline. We were to wear no eucharistic vestments, but full surplices and black scarfs, and were to do nothing in particular. In this kind of mood I came back to England as to a haven of peace. There, I knew very well, I should not be troubled daily and hourly by evidences of my isolation, and I should find, moreover, exactly the atmosphere of peace and beauty for which I longed. I had been appointed assistant curate at Kemsing, the village where I had been initiated for the first time into the idea of orderly dogma; for it was necessary for me still to have but light work, owing to the state of my health.

§ 5. It was an extraordinarily happy life there for about a year. The old church had been restored with exquisite taste, the music was really beautiful, the ceremonial dignified and “Catholic”; the vicarage where I lived with my friend was a charming house and always full of charming people; and in this entirely congenial atmosphere my troubles disappeared.

It was here that for the first time, after a second retreat preached by Father Maturin, my vicar regularly introduced linen vestments in which we celebrated the early Communion service every Sunday. We did not, however, use these or the lights and wafer bread at the midday celebrations out of consideration to the very Low Church views of the squire, who, though himself a most charming and courteous old man, was something very like a fanatic on the side of ultra-Protestantism. I often admired his extraordinary restraint as he entertained my vicar and myself in his beautiful old house – men whom he believed in his heart to be enemies of the Cross of Christ and unconscious co-operators with the Scarlet Woman of Rome. I did not much like this plan of presenting one form of worship on one occasion and another on another, for I grew daily in High Church principles and was congratulated by the clergyman in London to whom I went regularly to Confession about four times in the year, on my instincts for “Catholicism.” I think it was at this period too that I joined three Ritualistic societies – the “English Church Union,” the “Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament,” and the “Guild of All Souls.” Meantime I was very happy at Kemsing.

It was quite possible, so long as one resolutely focused one’s eyes to the proper objects, to believe that the Church of England was what she claimed to be, the spiritual mother of the English and a member of the Bride of Christ. I made several friends, whom, I am thankful to say, I retain to this day; I began to take pains with preaching: I did a good deal of work with children. The only reminders that ever came to me of external facts were occasional clerical meetings, at which one was reminded that all the world was not as Kemsing, and occasional and piercing little paragraphs in the newspapers to the effect that this man or that had been “received into the Roman Catholic Church.”

§ 6. It was not for about a year, however, that troubles reappeared, and I cannot remember what it was exactly which caused them. I used to have uncomfortable moments now and then, particularly after singing the choral celebration, when I wondered whether, after all, it was possible that I was wrong and that the ceremony in which I had taken part, rendered so beautiful by art and devotion, was no more than a subjective effort to assert our claim to what we did not possess. There was a brass in the chancel to the memory of one “Thomas de Hoppe,” a pre-Reformation priest, and I used to ask myself sometimes what, honestly, Sir Thomas would think of it all. But all thoughts such as these I treated as temptations; I confessed them as sins; I read books on the Anglican side; I did my utmost in one or two cases to retain waverers; I thought to establish myself by contemptuous language against the “Italian Mission” – a phrase, I believe, originally coined by my father.

I remember especially one incident which shows how much these thoughts were in my mind at this time. I was present on the west front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral on the occasion of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but I think I was as much interested in the papal representative as in anyone else. I watched him eagerly and tried to make myself believe that he was impressed by the spectacle of the Church of England in her full glory. It was really an inspiriting sight, and I looked down with great enthusiasm at the Archbishops and Bishops, assembled on the steps, in positive copes. A rumour that they very nearly had consented to wear mitres as well caused great excitement in “Church Times” circles, and at least it was pleasant to see their shining head-gear of various descriptions. The Bishop of London, I remember, wore a superb gold skull-cap which was very nearly as good as a mitre, and I exulted to think of the tales the Papist would have to tell when he returned to his own arrogant friends. I was pleased also, a day or two later, on being told by a clergyman that he had actually been taken for a Roman priest in the crowd.

Strangely enough, however, I was not greatly affected by the papal decision on Anglican Orders that had appeared shortly before my leaving England. It had certainly been a blow, especially as I had been assured by one of the Anglican clergy who had gone to proffer information to the Commission sitting in Rome, that the decision would be in our favour; but I was never greatly moved by it. I was conscious of a certain bruised sensation in my soul whenever I thought of it, but never in all my Anglican days was I acutely affected either way by the condemnation.

It was during this time that I received my first confession – that of an Eton boy who was staying near and who became a Catholic a few months later. I remember my alarm at the thought of being disturbed during the ceremony, for, although confession was occasionally preached in the place, it was very seldom practised. So I locked the church door, trembling with excitement, heard the confession, and then went back to the house with a sense of awful and splendid guilt.

§ 7. I began at last to be really restless. But even this restlessness, I perceived at the time, lay rather in the intuitive than the intellectual region. Though I read controversial books and comforted myself with Dr. Littledale’s collection of sneers, I knew that this did not really touch the seat of my trouble: it lay deeper than that. It arose, I think, chiefly from two things: first, the sense of Anglican isolation that had been forced upon my notice abroad, and secondly from the strong case for Roman continuity with the pre-Reformation Church and the respective weakness of our own. I was reminded again of these things during a month in which I acted as Anglican chaplain at Cadenabbia. There was one other circumstance, besides those I have mentioned, which tended to increase my restlessness.

A few miles away from us was a convent of Anglican nuns whose outward practice was simply indistinguishable from that of a Catholic nunnery. On feasts unprovided for in the Prayer Book, such as Corpus Christi and the Assumption, it became the habit of certain clergy, both from London and in the country round, to attend the sacred festivities at this convent, and on half a dozen occasions I also took part. The Roman Missal was used with all its ceremonies; and on the Feast of Corpus Christi a procession was formed according to the precise directions of Baldeschi in every detail. An altar of repose was set up in the beautiful garden and the Pange Lingua sung. Now, these nuns were not playing at the Religious Life: they recited the night Office at night, according to the strictest observance – using of course the monastic Breviary – and lived a life of prayer in complete seclusion. But it was impossible to persuade myself, though of course I attempted to do so, that the atmosphere bore any resemblance at all to that of the Church of England in general. The public was not admitted to these functions. I used to argue occasionally with the chaplain, who, as well as his successor, preceded me into the Catholic Church, criticizing certain details; but his answers, given with considerable learning – to the effect that, since the Church of England was Catholic, she had a right to all Catholic privileges – did not satisfy me; rather, the fact that Catholic privileges were obviously alien to her character seemed to imply that she was not Catholic; and I am sure that these visits, almost more than anything else, began to emphasize to my mind the real gulf that separated me from Catholic Christendom. I presented a silver lamp to the statue of Our Lady in this convent (it still hangs there), in a kind of endeavour to assert my Catholic aspirations.

§ 8. So time went on and my restlessness with it. I began to diagnose my own case. I told myself that the life was too happy to be wholesome, and I set about future plans. I had learned by this time a certain effectiveness in preaching; I took part in a parochial mission, and at last was invited by the Canon Missioner of the diocese to join him definitely in mission work. But I had begun to have thoughts of the Religious Life, and was further dismayed to learn that, in the chapel of the house in Canterbury which we proposed to take, there must be no such ceremonial as that to which I had become accustomed. Honestly, I do not think that I was a mere “Ritualist,” but it seemed to me evident that faith and its expression should go together, and that it would be an undue strain to preach a religion whose obvious and inseparable adjuncts were wanting. However, I decided to accept the invitation and went to see Archbishop Temple on the subject. He was quite kind and, after half an hour’s conversation, quite peremptory. I was declared to be too young for such work, and I went back to Kemsing resolved to offer myself to the Community of the Resurrection, of whose fame I had heard again and again.

Within a few weeks I had an interview with Dr. Gore (now Bishop of Oxford) in his canon’s house at Westminster, and was definitely accepted as a probationer. Dr. Gore was extremely kind and sympathetic; he seemed to understand my aspirations, and I was deeply impressed both by his own bearing and by the quiet religious atmosphere of the house. It seemed to me now that all my troubles were at an end. I was intensely excited and pleased at the thought of the new life that was opening before me, and it became easier than ever to treat all Roman difficulties as diabolical temptations. I see now that my attention was distracted and my imagination filled with other visions; I was not really settled. But when I went up to Birkenhead for the annual retreat of the community with which my probation was to begin, I can sincerely say that no thought of henceforth ever leaving the Anglican communion appeared conceivable. I was to be launched in a new sea altogether; I was to live as the friars had lived five hundred years ago; I was to realize, though in an unexpected fashion, my old dreams of Llandaff and Damascus; I was to dedicate myself to God once and for all in the highest vocation open to man.