Confessions of a Convert – Chapter 3

cover of the ebook 'Confessions of a Convert' by Father Robert Hugh Benson§ 1. It will be impossible for me ever to acknowledge adequately the debt of gratitude which I owe to the Community of the Resurrection, or the admiration which I always felt, and still feel, toward their method and spirit. All that it is possible to describe is the external aspect of their life and to hint only at the deep Christian charity and brotherliness and devotion that existed beneath it. It is true that they will not allow me to go and stay with them again as I should like to do, but individually, they are all most friendly, and, indeed such a visit might perhaps be really painful to them. At the same time one must reflect that for an Anglican to become a Catholic is, even from the point of view of his old friends, a very different thing from the opposite process. For when a Catholic leaves the Church, those from whom he separates himself regard him as one who has left the Fold of Christ for the wilderness. It does not at all signify to what other body he may attach himself: he has left what his friends hold to be the One Body of Christ. But when a High Churchman becomes a Catholic, on the Anglican theory all that he has done is to have transferred himself from one part of the Church to another; on the “Branch” theory, he has only shifted from one bough to the other; on the “Province” theory, to use yet more recent phraseology, he has only detached himself from Canterbury, not from the Church of Christ, as Anglicans understand it. It is true that he has, to their mind, become “schismatic”; worse, he has denied the validity of the Orders he once accepted; but it is impossible for his friends to regard him as an apostate in the simple sense of the word, and, to do them justice; they very seldom ever pretend do so. Certainly the Mirfield Brethren have never manifested to me in any way at all such an unjust discourtesy.

Next, before proceeding to give some account of the life we lived there, I must remark that I shall describe no more of the Life and Rule than could be observed by any visitor who stayed in the house. Every family has its “secrets,” its little intimate ways and methods of life – I mean no more than that – and it would not be decent or loyal of me to treat of these. This inner domestic life, our relations with one another, our tone and atmosphere, were, I presume to think, singularly sweet and Christian. I suppose there must have been difficulties now and again, inseparable from the mutual intimacy of so many and various temperaments; but of those I have no remembrance at all. I remember only the extraordinary kindness and generosity that I always received.

§ 2. We lived in a great house standing in its own gardens, at the top of a hill above the valley of the Calder. It was a somewhat smoky country; there were tall chimneys visible all round us, but the land that belonged to the house prevented any sensation of being pressed upon or crowded. Our external life was a modification of the old Religious Rules and resembled, so far as I understand, a kind of combination of the Redemptorist and the Benedictine. Some of the Brethren were engaged almost entirely in scholars’ work – the editing of liturgical, hymnal, expository, and devotional works, and for the use of these there was a large library of about fifteen thousand volumes. The rest, who were the majority, spent about half the year in prayer and study at home, and the rest of it in evangelistic and mission work.

Our life ran on very simple and practical lines. We rose about a quarter past six and went at once to the chapel for Morning Prayer with the psalms of Prime, and the Communion service; at eight we breakfasted; at a quarter to nine we said Terce and made a meditation. Until ten minutes past one we worked in the library or our own rooms; then, after Sext and intercessions, we dined. In the afternoon we took exercise — walking or gardening; at half-past four we said None and had tea. We worked again until seven, when we sang Evensong; we supped at the half hour, and, after a little recreation and work for an hour or two, we said Compline at a quarter to ten and went to our rooms. On Saturday mornings a chapter was held, at which, all kneeling, made a public confession of external breaches of the rule.

The community life was, when I first went there, in a somewhat transitional state: the Brethren were feeling their way in the direction of greater strictness; and by the time that I left them, four years later, a considerable development had taken place toward a more completely Religious character. Silence, for example, was extended gradually, until at last we did not speak from Compline in the evening until dinner the next day; manual work for so many hours a week was made an absolute rule; we broke up and carried coal, cleaned our own boots, and made our beds. My last manual task at Mirfield was the cutting and building of steps in the quarry that adjoined the house. Here I worked each afternoon and revolved meanwhile my interior difficulties. The dress of the community, which was at first rather nondescript, developed more or less steadily in the direction of a habit, consisting of a double-breasted cassock girded with a leather belt. Originally, too, the head of the community was commonly addressed as “Senior,” but when Dr. Gore was appointed Bishop of Birmingham and a new principal was elected, this title was supplanted by that of “Superior.” The title “Father,” which was at first somewhat discouraged, became later almost universal, although one or two members still disliked its significance. These changes, which the majority, including myself, ardently desired, were not carried out without protest on the part of three or four members; and, although nothing resembling bitterness ever made its appearance, one Brother at any rate found himself compelled to withdraw at last at the time of the annual renewal of vows.

It is more difficult to explain these vows. Mr. George Russell delivered more than one genial blow at them in the “Cornhill Magazine” and elsewhere. We were supposed to pledge ourselves to celibacy only until such time as we wanted to marry. Roughly speaking, the probation lasted normally for one full year – from July to July – after which, if the probationer received the votes of the community, he made his profession. This consisted of an absolute promise to observe the rule of the community for thirteen months, and an expression of his deliberate intention to remain in it for life. Profession, therefore, was not in the least of the nature of a mere experiment: it meant practically a life intention, though an escape was provided if the life for any reason became intolerable. The Rule itself was built upon the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all three of which were integrally woven into it. The life was less rigid, therefore, than that of the ordinary Catholic Orders, but more rigid than that of such Congregations as the Oratorian.

We numbered at that time about fourteen members, all of whom were in the full Orders of the Church of England, and all of whom had had experience of parish work. We had no lay-brothers, but the necessary household duties which we did not do ourselves were done by three or four servants. Now, however, the numbers of the community have risen to between twenty and thirty; a large College of the Resurrection has been built in the grounds for the education of poor men for the ministry; a hostel has been opened in Leeds and a community house in Johannesburg; lay-brothers also, I understand, have been tried as an experiment. A chapel also, I believe, is in course of erection; but while I was there we used a large room in the house, very skillfully and beautifully adapted for worship. Our worship was really dignified and devotional, but did not in its ritual rise above the ordinary level of the Anglo-Catholic party in general. We used vestments, at first of linen, but later, first by means of a gift made through me to the community, we began to substitute coloured vestments. We used incense unceremonially, in accordance with the Lambeth “opinions,” and for our music sang, for the most part, unaccompanied plain-song adapted to the Book of Common Prayer. Frankly, we did not sing well, but we did our best; and I shall not easily forget the sense of beauty and mystery at our sung celebrations early on Sunday mornings. The altar was on the approved English type with “riddels”; two candles stood upon the altar, two more upon the posts of the curtains, and two more in standards. We had a sanctuary lamp, which I always disliked, since it did not signify anything in particular.

§ 3. It is impossible to describe the happiness which I enjoyed at Mirfield. For about one year I did very little external preaching and busied myself almost entirely in theological study and prayer. My “novice master” was a sympathetic and competent guide of souls and, although I did not go to Confession to him, I always felt that he was able and willing to help me. For a while there was only one other probationer besides myself – an Irishman of great eloquence and fervour, who developed into an extremely capable mission-preacher, but who, later, left the community and married. We were thrown together a great deal, and I found in him an open enthusiasm of faith and confidence in the Church of England (alternating with depressions, however) which did much to reassure my own.

When the time of my profession drew near, however, I began somewhat to distrust my suitability for the life. It was not that I was troubled with Roman difficulties, for these had practically vanished; but, owing to a certain resolution passed by the community in view of a crisis in the Church of England, I began to think that my position was too “advanced” for my contentment in the house. By this time I had learned to hold practically all the dogmas of the Catholic Church except that of the Pope’s Infallibility. I studied and analyzed Lehmkuhl’s “Moral Theology,” omitting as irrelevant all sections dealing with the Supreme Pontiff. I said my Rosary regularly; I invoked the saints; I thought that the word “Transubstantiation” best expressed the reality of Our Lord’s presence in the Sacrament; I held that Penance was the normal means by which post-baptismal mortal sin was remitted; I used the word “Mass” freely at home. These doctrines, too, I preached in veiled language, and found that by them, and them alone, could I arouse the enthusiasm of congregations – these doctrines, at least, set forth round the adorable Person of Christ, which, remembering the lessons of “John Inglesant,” I endeavoured to make the centre of my teaching. I remember, for example, being told once by an indignant curate that my doctrine seemed “a mixture of Romanism and Wesleyanism” – an accusation that brought me the greatest satisfaction. The community in general, on the other hand, seemed to me at that time to be over-cautious, to desire to dissociate themselves from the extreme party in the Church of England; and it was to this party that I now belonged.

The end was that I postponed my profession for one year, in order to test myself yet further. But that year removed my difficulties. I began to be more and more encouraged in mission-work and to find that my quiet life at Mirfield gave me a power that I could obtain in no other way. It is hard for Catholics to believe it, but it is a fact that as an Anglican I had far longer hours in the confessional than I have ever had in the Catholic Church, though, of course, this is to be accounted for by the fact that since becoming a Catholic I have never preached a regular mission. In one London parish, for instance, for about four days at the end of a mission, my brother-missioner and I interviewed people, hearing confessions and recommending resolutions and rules of life, for over eleven hours each day; two more hours were occupied in delivering sermons to vast congregations.

This, however, was after my profession. Yet everywhere it seemed as if an immense work was waiting to be done. We came from our quiet life red-hot with zeal and found everywhere men and women who seemed to have been waiting for us in an extraordinary manner. We saw conversions everywhere; we saw sinners changed by the power of God, children enkindled and taught, the lukewarm set on fire, and the obstinate broken down. It was impossible to doubt that the grace of God was at work here; and if the Church of England was capable of being used as a vessel of so much honour, why any longer need one doubt of her divine mission? And since that was so, and since also I had found such extreme happiness and inspiration in the life at Mirfield, why should I any longer hesitate to commit myself to it?

§ 4. Before my profession I was asked by Dr. Gore, greatly to my surprise, whether I was in any danger of lapsing to Rome. I honestly told him “No, so far as I could see,” and in July, 1901, I took the step without alarm. It was an extraordinarily happy day. I obtained a new cassock for the purpose, which, strangely enough, I am wearing at this moment, adapted to the Roman cut. My mother came up and was present in the tiny ante-chapel. I was formally installed; my hand was kissed by the brethren; I pronounced my vows and received Communion as a seal and pledge of stability. In the afternoon I drove out with my mother in a kind of ecstasy of contentment.

Then once more I set to work. I think the most trying part of my external work lay in the strange varieties of doctrine and ceremonial with which I became acquainted. As a rule, of course, we were asked to conduct missions only in parishes where our standard of belief and preaching was accepted. (We were not, I believe, however, regarded as quite satisfactory by the extreme party of Ritualists, and this, no doubt, was partly owing to Dr. Gore’s position. He was identified, rightly or wrongly, with the High Liberal School; he was supposed to be unsound on the doctrine of the Incarnation; his views on Higher Criticism were considered dangerous; he was thought a little extravagant on the subject of Christian Socialism. And all this, of course, was a certain distress to me, since on those three points I was not at all one of his disciples.) But what was far more trying was my experience of less advanced churches where I gave an occasional sermon, and where the clergyman did not feel that the merely passing presence of a “Brother” would compromise him irreparably. Here, as well as in the three churches of Mirfield, which we attended as we liked on Sunday evenings, I found all kinds of teaching and ceremonial. In one church they would wear elaborate stoles but no vestments, with doctrine to correspond; in another, vestments would be used at services to which the important Protestants did not come; teaching on the Real Presence would be skillfully veiled, and Penance would be referred to in a hasty aside as the “Sacrament of reconciliation,” or taught explicitly only to a favoured few at some small guild service. And, of course, it must be remembered that even so we did not experience a tenth of the further divisions and schools of thought in the Church of England – divisions of which, however, it was impossible to be ignorant.

It was easy after a little experience to diagnose, almost at a glance at the clergyman or his church, the exact doctrinal level of the teaching given; and in less advanced places it was my custom to preach the love of Jesus Christ or the joy of penitence or the Fatherhood of God with all the fervour I had, in the hope that these truths would find their normal outcome some day in those who heard me. On the only occasion on which I preached in Westminster Abbey I put all my energies into attempting to set forth the Person of Jesus Christ as the centre of all religion, leaving all other doctrines to take care of themselves. I was not as courageous as another member of the community, who, in the same circumstances, denounced the “dead altars” of that place of worship! But this was all very unsatisfactory, and gradually, no doubt, though I did not realize it at the time, began to shake my confidence once more in the Church of England as a Divine Teacher. I used to hurry back to Mirfield as to a refuge; for there at least there was peace and tolerable unanimity. My intellectual escape from the difficulty seemed to me, however, quite convincing. It was as follows.

§ 5. Originally, as a “Moderate High Churchman,” I had held that the Church of England, in her appeal and in her supposed resemblance to the “Primitive” Church, was the most orthodox body in Christendom; that Rome and the East on the one side had erred through excess; and the Non-conformist bodies on the other through defect, and these, further, through their loss of episcopal succession, had forfeited any corporate place in the Visible Body of Christ. But this doctrinal position had long ago broken down under me. First, I had seen the impossibility of believing that for about a thousand years the promises of Christ had failed – between, that is, the fifth or sixth century and the Reformation period – and that corruption during all this space of time had marred the original purity of the Gospel. Next, I had begun to perceive that in the Church of Christ there must be some Living Voice which, if not actually infallible, must at least be taken to be such – some authoritative person or Council who could pass judgment upon new theories and answer new questions. I had attempted, strangely enough, to find this Living Voice in the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles – to seek in them, that is to say, a final immediate interpreter of remote Primitive and Apostolic Faith. But now I had learned the fallacy of such an attempt, since even these formularies could be, and were, taken in completely divergent senses: the Ritualist, for instance, finds that the Prayer Book Catechism teaches the Objective and Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, and the Low Churchman claims it as teaching Receptionism. Then, when I had looked despairingly to the only elements in the Church of England which bear any resemblance at all to a Living Voice – the decisions of Convocation, the resolutions of Pan-Anglican Conferences, and the utterances of Bishops – I found, either that these were divided amongst themselves, or that they refused to answer, or, at the worst, that they answered in a manner which I could not reconcile with what I was convinced was the Christian Faith. The “Moderate High Church” theory, then, had broken down so far as I was concerned, and I had been forced, it seemed to me, both by logic and the pressure of circumstances, to seek some other theory as the foundation of my faith. This I found, for the time, in the Ritualistic School. It was as follows.

The Catholic Church, I now premised, consisted of those bodies of Christians retaining the Catholic Creeds and the Apostolic ministry. Roughly speaking, these comprised Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury, together with a few detached bodies, such as the “Old Catholics,” of whom I knew very little. This “Catholic Church,” therefore, did have a speaking voice of a kind: she spoke through her silent consensus. Where Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury agreed, there was the explicit voice of the Holy Spirit; where they dogmatically disagreed, there was the field for private opinion. Now Canterbury occasionally faltered in her witness, but it was at least arguable, I thought, that she had never spoken positive heresy. (I explained away the statements of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the manner familiar to Anglican controversialists.) Therefore, where Canterbury was silent, her sense must be taken to be that of the rest of “Catholic Christendom.” This was a very convenient theory, for by it I was able to embrace practically all the doctrines of the Catholic Church proper, except that of Papal Infallibility and the concurrent necessity of external communion with Rome; and I was able to feel that I had behind me the silent toleration, though not necessarily the explicit authority, of my own communion; and, what was far weightier, the authority of Christ’s Church as a whole.

It will be seen, then, that I had travelled far from the old Tractarian position of the appeal to the Ancient Undivided Church. On the contrary, divisions made no difference to me; schism was practically impossible so long as the Apostolic ministry and Creeds were maintained; and I had travelled even farther from my old East London position of believing that the Church of England was the sound core of a rotten tree. When, therefore, again in the course of these papers I shall have occasion to refer to this theory of mine – which, as a matter of fact, held me altogether now until it broke beneath me suddenly — I shall call it by the name of the “Diffusive Theory.” In its shadow I invoked saints, having little pictures of them, drawn by myself, with a statue of Our Lady; adored Christ in His Sacrament, and, indeed, began to learn for the first time a real spirit of Catholic submission. If once a doctrine could be proposed to me with the authority of the Church Diffusive behind it, I should set aside all my predispositions and accept it wholeheartedly.

For a while I was puzzled somewhat to interpret to myself the manner by which this authority actually did speak to the unlearned who were incapable of research into what was or was not covered by the theory; but gradually I evolved an idea. As the unlearned Roman Catholic layman applies to a clergyman who acknowledges the authority of the Roman Pontiff and is in communion with him, so the unlearned layman of the Church Diffusive should apply to a clergyman who acknowledged the authority of the Church Diffusive; and it is perfectly true that if such laymen actually did so, they would, as a matter of fact, find a very tolerable unanimity. In one of my last struggles in 1903 I did propose this view, as a possible escape, to my Superior; but I was told that it was impossible. Neither then nor now do I understand why; for, granted the first theory, the application of it seems the only logical or practical conclusion.

§ 6. There, then, I settled down for nearly two years as a professed member of the community, during about one year extremely happy and confident – except once or twice when my old difficulties suddenly recurred for a while and then left me again – finding, as I have said before, a brotherliness and companionship that is beyond appreciation. Still, in my dreams sometimes I am back at Mirfield, though never, thank God, as an Anglican! Once, I remember, Cardinal Merry del Val had been appointed Superior and had received the submission of the community, and I, too, was back there, happy and exultant, standing in the library and laughing with pure joy. Once I was there, I thought, as a Catholic priest, and found that, although there should have been a barrier of shyness between the community and myself, there was none. We stood together in the hall and talked as four years ago. Yet I never have been back there, although I should like to go for a visit, even without the Cardinal but the community judges otherwise. It was here, too, that I first began to systematize my devotion and to attempt the art of meditation, and it was here that God rewarded me abundantly for my poor efforts. He was preparing me, as I see now very well, for the great decision that He was to set before me so soon.