Confessions of a Convert – Chapter 4

cover of the ebook 'Confessions of a Convert' by Father Robert Hugh Benson§ 1. I think that it was in the summer and autumn of 1902 that I began to write a book called “The Light Invisible.” Some stories of my eldest brother’s had put the idea into my mind, and I began to write these little by little, as I had time. The stories, which are of a semi-mystical and imaginative nature, centre round a man whom I call a “Catholic priest,” and I have been asked again and again whether I intended this man to be a Catholic or an Anglican. My only answer is that I intended him to be neither in particular. My theory of the Church Diffusive more and more drove me to obliterate, in my thoughts as well as in my preaching, any distinction between what I believed to be merely various parts of Christ’s mystical Body, and in the “Light Invisible,” accordingly, I aimed deliberately at the water-line. For by this time, too, my difficulties were once more recurring, so I tried not to indicate by the slightest hint the communion to which my hero belonged. This I see now to have been more significant than I realized at the time: I did not have that supreme confidence in the Church of England which would naturally have made me content to call him an Anglican and have done with it.

Before, during, and after the writing of this book I was more and more becoming interested in mystical lines of thought. I put away from me the contemplation of cold-cut dogma and endeavoured to clothe it with the warm realities of spiritual experience; and in the book itself I attempted to embody dogma rather than to express it explicitly. I have been asked whether any of the stories were “true,” and to that I have no answer except that the book itself does not claim to be anything other than fiction. I think that to some extent I must have been successful in hitting the water-line between Catholicism and Anglicanism, since the book still sells well both among Catholics and Anglicans. Yet I was undoubtedly still deeply affected by Anglicanism; for when I wrote a story in the book about a nun’s praying before the Blessed Sacrament, I had in my mind an Anglican convent which I knew, and was staying at the time in the clergy house of Saint Cuthbert’s, Kensington, where the Sacrament is reserved. Yet at the same time I remember dissociating myself internally from any actual self-committing as to what I intended; it was not that I at all disbelieved, in Anglican Orders at that time, yet I never felt that the repudiation of them would be a serious obstacle to my submission to the Church.

§ 2. The popularity of the book – or rather, the classes of persons who, respectively, like and dislike the book – appears to me rather significant. It still sells very considerably amongst Anglicans; and, to a very much lesser degree, among Catholics. It is, of course, also perfectly natural that a certain type of Anglican should enjoy shaking his head over my sad deterioration, both literary and spiritual, since I left the Church of England; but, even apart from this controversial device, it is quite true that Anglicans, as a class, prefer it infinitely to anything else that I have ever written; while most Catholics, and myself amongst them, think that “Richard Raynal, Solitary” is very much better written and very much more religious. In fact, for myself, I dislike, quite intensely, “The Light Invisible,” from the spiritual point of view. I wrote it in moods of great feverishness and in what I now recognize as a very subtle state of sentimentality; I was striving to reassure myself of the truths of religion, and assume, therefore, a positive and assertive tone that was largely insincere; the very careful, trimmed style of the book is an evidence of this. Further, it is, I think, rather a mischievous book in very distinct ways, since it implies that what I then strove to believe was spiritual intuition – and what is really nothing but imagination – must be an integral element in religious experience; and that “sight” – or rather personal realization – must be the mode of spiritual belief rather than the simple faith of a soul that receives divine truth from, a divine authority. The Catholic atmosphere is, on the other hand, something quite apart from all this. For Catholics it is almost a matter of indifference as to whether or no the soul realizes, in such a manner as to be able to visualize, the facts of revelation and the principles of the spiritual world: the point is that the Will should adhere and the Reason assert. But for Anglicans, whose theology is fundamentally unreasonable, and amongst whom Authority is, really, non-existent, it becomes natural to place the centre of gravity rather in the Emotions, and to “mistake,” therefore, as Mrs. Craigie says somewhere, “the imagination for the soul.” The Reason, for them, must be continually suppressed even in its own legitimate sphere; the Will must be largely self-centred. There remains then, for them, the experience of feeling, only, as the realm in which spirituality operates. My own rather exaggerated dislike of the book, arises, I suppose, from a reaction against these unrealities amongst which I lived for so long.

§ 3. Here, although it is something of an anachronism, I should like to explain how I managed to hold the apparently unsatisfactory position of believing in Anglican Orders and yet contemplating with equanimity the time when I might have to repudiate them. Later on, when matters were serious, my Superior told me that he could not understand it; that I appeared to be indifferent to spiritual experience; that it was a terrible thing for me to contemplate repudiating all the graces which I had received and bestowed through the Sacraments of the Church of England. Yet, honestly, I did not find it a burden.

The way I expressed it to myself was this. There are two things in the reception of grace – the fact and the mode. The fact is a matter of spiritual intuition; the mode, of intellectual apprehension. As regarded the former – the actual communications between Our Lord and my soul – granted above all at moments of great solemnity, I neither had nor have the slightest doubt. Without any sort of hesitation I still say that the times of Communion in the chapel at Mirfield and elsewhere, and of Anglican Confession, will always be among the most sacred of my life; to deny reality to them would be indeed to betray Our Lord and repudiate His love. But the mode is quite another matter. While I was in the Church of England I accepted, practically to the very end, her authoritative statement that I was a priest, and the consequent deduction that the grace of her ordinances was actually sacramental. But when I submitted to Rome, I accepted with far greater security, with an internal as well as an external consent, her authoritative statement that I never was a priest at all. She has never asked me to repudiate anything else on the subject or to assert anything so entirely blasphemous and absurd as that which Anglicans occasionally pretend of her – namely, the diabolical or even illusive nature of the grace that God bestows on those who are in good faith. In my Confessions in the Church of England I, at any rate, made acts of contrition and did my best to comply with the Sacrament of Penance; in my Communions I lifted up my heart toward the Bread of Life; and, therefore, Our Lord could not be the Rewarder of those that seek Him if He had not visited me in response.

All this, I think, I saw quite plainly long before my submission was imminent; and the fact that I was told, upon explaining, that I was splitting hairs, did not trouble me. I understood that a hair’s breadth is sometimes a great distance. About Jurisdiction I neither knew nor cared anything.

§ 4. In the summer of 1902 I told my mother, in a walk, that I had had Roman difficulties, but that they were gone again; and at the same time I promised her that, should they recur, I would tell her at once. Sometime between that and Christmas I had to redeem my promise. I can never feel enough gratitude that I did so, and that she received my confidence in the way that she did. I kept both her and my Superior informed of every step of the process through which I went, and carried out their recommendations to the letter; I read all the books I was given on the Anglican side, and consulted all the living authorities proposed to me. Both my mother and my Superior treated me throughout with the utmost kindness and consideration. Even from secondary motives I am thankful that I acted as I did; for both of them, when my submission had taken place and, as usually happens in such cases, a flood of accusations as regarded underhandedness and deceit poured in, informed their correspondents that such accusations were entirely untrue.

§ 5. I think it must have been in the October of this year that I reached such a pitch of distress that, with my Superior’s permission, I wrote to a distinguished priest an account of all my difficulties. (I will presently try to indicate what they were.) His answer was very surprising to me then. It is less surprising to me now, since the priest in question has, finally, died out of Catholic communion. He defined for me very carefully the doctrine of Papal Infallibility and the exact sense put upon it by the general feeling of the Church and advised me to wait. He told me – what I have since found to be not the case – that while the “minimizers” seemed to have been victorious as regards the wording of the Vatican decree upon Papal Infallibility, it was the “maximizers” who had been winning ever since; and he added that although he himself, as a “minimizer,” felt himself individually justified in remaining where he was, he would not feel himself justified in officially receiving anyone into the Church except on the terms that now prevailed, viz., on “maximizing” principles: he added that “maximizing” views were impossible to persons of reason. The conclusion, therefore, practically, was that I had better remain where I was. One sentence in his letter gave me, I think, an inkling into the objective disloyalty of his position: I had asked him to remember me in his Mass and, in return, he begged to be remembered in mine. After my reception into the Church he wrote to me again, asking how I had surmounted the difficulty which he had indicated. I answered by saying that I could not be deterred by such elaborate distinctions from uniting myself to what I was convinced was the divinely appointed centre of Unity and that I had simply accepted the Decree in the sense in which the Church herself had uttered and accepted it.

For a little while, however, his first letter quieted and reassured me, and I was only too willing to be reassured. My Superior, too, remarked that I could not very well have a plainer indication of God’s Will that I should remain in the communion where He had placed me. The very fact that I had written to a priest and received an answer of discouragement seemed to me then – and to him still, I imagine – an evident sign of where my duty lay. It seemed to show too that even within the Roman Church wide divergences of opinion prevailed, and that there was not there that Unity for which I had looked. The ultimate history of the priest in question, his excommunication, and his death outside the Church showed, of course, that such is not the case, and that men are not allowed to represent the Church who misrepresent, even in good faith, her teaching.

I was reassured, then, for only a very little while. Almost immediately my doubts recurred. I had preaching engagements that would naturally occupy me most of the winter, and these were now imminent. I asked leave to withdraw from them, but my Superior thought it better not; and, looking back upon it, it seems to me now that the best chance of silencing the clamour of my ideas did indeed lie in active work.

I preached a mission or two and returned to Mirfield; I went home for Christmas and once more came back to the Community. By this time I was really in sore distress. I had even asked a recent convert, lately ordained priest, and a great friend of mine, who came to stay at my mother’s house in November, to pray for me, and I had put one or two difficulties to him to see what he would answer. But my distress quieted again ever so little in the atmosphere of Mirfield, and once more I was sent out, very unwillingly, to preach a mission or two and conduct Holy Week services and discourses in a church in the south of England. On Good Friday I preached the “Three Hours,” and on Easter Day evening for the last time I stood in an Anglican pulpit and preached on the appearance of Our Lord to the penitent Magdalene. As I came down the steps at the end, I think I knew what would happen. I then returned to Mirfield, exhausted physically, mentally, and spiritually.

§ 6. It does not seem to me that Catholic controversialists as a body in the least realize what Anglicans have to go through before they can make their submission. I am not speaking of external sufferings – of the loss of friends, income, position, and even the barest comforts of life. From such losses as these I was spared, though it is true that the leaving of the Community was about the most severe external trial I have ever undergone – I kissed, in Greek fashion, the doorposts of my room as I left it for the last time; yet I did not, I think, lose the personal friendship of the individual members; I still see them occasionally and hear from them. I mean rather the purely internal conflict. One is drawn every way at once; the soul aches as in intolerable pain; the only relief is found in a kind of passionless Quietism. To submit to the Church seems, in prospect, to be going out from the familiar and the beloved and the understood into a huge, heartless wilderness, where one will be eyed and doubted and snubbed. Certainly that is largely an illusion; yet it is, I think, the last emotional snare spread by Satan; and I think that he is occasionally aided in spreading it by the carelessness of Catholic controversialists.

Two incidents of the kind very nearly put out the dawning light of faith in me altogether. I will not describe them, but in both cases it was a careless sentence snapped out by a good, sincere priest in a public discourse. When a soul reaches a certain pitch of conflict, it ceases to be absolutely logical; it is rather a very tender, raw thing, with all its fibres stretched to agony, shrinking from the lightest touch, desiring to be dealt with only by Hands that have been pierced. Then it is handled roughly, pushed this way and that by a man who understands nothing, who lives in a bright light toward which the sensitive soul of the convert is reaching out with unutterable pain. Is it any wonder that again and again the miserable thing creeps back into the twilight sooner than bear any more, believing that a half-light with charity must be nearer to God’s Heart than the glare of a desert?

§ 7. Now, intellectually considered, the outline of my difficulties was as follows – I have written out the arguments that especially prevailed with me in a little pamphlet which I published soon after my submission – and it was on these subjects in particular that, ever since the October of the previous year, I had read steadily and swiftly whenever I had an opportunity. Now once more I gave myself up entirely to reading and prayer.

First, there was the general, and what I may call the ideal, conception of God’s plan. Secondly, there were the actual realistic facts about me in the world. Let me take the second first, since the second was prior in time, though not in importance to my mind. The facts were as follows:

I accepted Christianity as the Revelation of God. This was my axiom which I am not concerned now to defend. I accepted, too, the Bible as an inspired and a divinely safeguarded record of the facts of this Revelation. But I had come to see, as I have already explained, the need of a Teaching Church to preserve and to interpret the truths of Christianity to each succeeding generation. It is only a dead religion to which written records are sufficient; a living religion must be able to adapt itself to changing environment without losing its own identity. One thing, therefore, is absolutely certain – that if Christianity is, as I believe it, a real Revelation, the Teaching Church must at any rate know her own mind with regard to the treasure committed to her care, and supremely on those points on which the salvation of her children depends. She may be undecided and permit divergent views on purely speculative points; she may allow her theologians, for instance, to argue, unchecked, for centuries as to the modes by which God acts, or as to the best philosophical terms for the elucidation of mysteries, or as to the precise limits of certain of her own powers and the manners of their exercise. But in things that directly and practically affect souls – with regard to the fact of grace, its channels, the things necessary for salvation, and the rest – 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.

Now this was not at all the case with the Communion in which I found myself.

I was an official of a church that did not seem to know her own mind even on matters directly connected with the salvation of the soul. It was my duty to preach and practise the system of redemption which God had given through the life and death of Jesus Christ, and that system I knew very well to be a sacramental one. Yet when I looked about me for a clear statement as to that system I did not find it. It was true that many individuals taught and accepted what I did; there were societies to which I belonged – the “English Church Union” and the “Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament” – that were practically unfaltering in these respects; but it was impossible to say that the authorities of my Church were equally clear. To take one single vital point – the doctrine of Penance. I was really ignorant as to whether or not it was permissible to teach that this was, normally, essential to the forgiveness of mortal sin. Practically all the Bishops denied this, and a few of them denied the power of absolution altogether. But, even granting that my views were tolerated – which really they were not in any authoritative way – the fact that mutually exclusive views were also tolerated was an evidence that mine were not enjoined. I was teaching, at the best, my private opinion upon a point that was still officially indefinite. I was teaching as a certainty what was officially uncertain. It was becoming, then, the clearer I saw this, more and more impossible to say that the Church of England required sacramental confession.

The way in which many clergy escape from this dilemma is very simple. They appeal not to the living voice of the Church of England, but to her written formularies, and they explain those formularies in accordance with their own views. But I was finding it hard to do this sincerely, because I had begun to see that a written formulary can never be decisive in a church where that formulary can be taken in more than one sense – as it undoubtedly is – and the authorities not only will not decide as to which is the true sense, but actually tolerate senses that are mutually exclusive. More and more I was beginning to see the absolute need of a living authority who can continue to speak as new interpretations of her former words contend for the mastery. A church that appeals merely to ancient written words can be no more at the best than an antiquarian society.

Of course I was told to be content with my own interpretation; but that was impossible. My point was that, since my interpretation was disputed, I could not teach it as authoritative. Dr. Pusey was held up to me, also Mr. Keble, and others. But I said that I could not rest on the authority of individuals however eminent, for there were other individuals equally eminent who held opposing views. By one or two advisers I was told that those points were unessential; that the main facts of the Christian Creed were all that were absolutely necessary, and that upon these the Anglican witness was clear enough. My answer was that those points were the most practical of all, that they concerned not remote theological propositions, but the actual details of Christian life. Might I or might I not tell penitents that they were bound to confess their mortal sins before Communion? This is only one instance out of many, for on all sides were the same questions. I saw round me a Church which, even if tolerable in theory, was intolerable in practice. Her children lived and died by tens of thousands actually ignorant of what I believed to be the Catholic Gospel – ignorant not merely through neglect, but through the deliberate instruction of men who were as fully accredited ministers as myself – children of hers, too, who desired nothing more than to learn and obey her precepts and who might have had every opportunity of doing so.

Then on the other side there was the Church of Rome. Now, I think I had heard at various times all the theoretical or historical arguments that could possibly be brought against her claims; but, regarded practically, there was no question. Her system worked. It might be that it worked mechanically and superstitiously, but it was there. I remember in a private conversation comparing the rival systems to two differently laid fires. The Anglican system was as a man applying a match to a tumbled heap of fuel: where there was personal zeal and sincerity, a flame certainly shot up, souls were warmed and lighted; but when the personal influence or the private “Catholic” views of the individual clergymen were removed, all was left as before. In the Roman system, however, it was very different; there might be slackness and lack of piety, but, at any rate, the fire burned quite apart from the individual influence, because the fuel was laid in order. Whether or no a priest was careless or slothful or even lax in his private views made no essential difference; his flock knew what was necessary for salvation and how to obtain it. The smallest Roman Catholic child knew precisely how to be reconciled to God and to receive His grace.

§ 8. Secondly, there was the question of Catholicity itself. The Anglican theory was simply bewildering, as I looked at it from a less provincial standpoint. I had no notion as to who was the rightful Bishop, say, of Zanzibar; it would depend, I thought, chiefly on the question as to which Communion, the Roman or the Anglican, happened to have landed first on the African coast! In fact, Jurisdiction was represented to me as a kind of pious race-game. In Ireland I knew very well that I was in communion with persons who, according to my personal views, were simply heretics, and out of communion with persons who believed, so far as practical religion went, exactly what I myself believed. On the other hand, the Roman theory was simplicity itself. “I am in communion,” the Romanist could say with Saint Jerome, “with Thy Blessedness – that is, with the Chair of Peter. On this rock I know that the Church is built.” The Roman theory worked, the Anglican did not.

Yet, of course, these considerations did not settle the question. Our Lord, I was told, spoke often in mysteries; He refused to cut knots by direct and simple answers. It might very well be that the golden thread of His divine plan ran in these days through tangled woods and undergrowth, and that the plain highway was but the monument of man’s impatience and lack of faith.

On these points, then, though they predisposed me toward the Catholic Church, it was necessary to read a great deal. There were, besides, other points flowing from them that needed elucidation. How, for example, was it possible that dogmas binding now should not have been binding a hundred years ago? How about the Immaculate Conception – which, as a matter of private opinion, I was perfectly ready to accept – and Papal Infallibility? And then, finally, after innumerable gropings, there always remained the old vexed business of the Petrine Texts and the patristic comments upon them.

§ 9. This, then, I began to see more and more overwhelmingly: that it is possible, from the huge complications of history, philosophy, exegesis, natural law, and the rest – and, in fact, every single method of God’s indications of His Will – to make out a case for almost any theory under the sun. The materials from which I was obliged, all incompetent, to judge, were as a vast kaleidoscope of colours. I might say that the main scheme was red and that the rest were accidental, or that it was blue or green or white. Each man, I perceived, had a natural inclination to one theory and tended to select it. It was certainly possible to make out a claim for Anglicanism or the Papacy or Judaism or the system of the Quakers. And on this, almost despairing, I had to set to work. One thing, however, began to emerge ever so slowly; namely, that intellect alone could prove very little. 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 was impossible to escape wholly from natural prejudice, but I must do my best. I must step back a little from the canvas and regard the affair as a whole, not bend over it with a measuring-rod and seek to test the elusive ethereal whole by but one faculty of my nature. Yet at the beginning I only half-realized this and plunged, therefore, blindly into the bewildering maze of controversy.

I should be sorry to have to make a complete list of all the controversial works which I read during the last eight months of my Anglican days. I devoured everything I could find, on both sides. I read Dr. Gore’s books, Salmon on Infallibility, Richardson, Pusey, Ryder, Littledale, Puller, Darwell Stone, Percival, Mortimer, Mallock, Rivington. I studied with care a brilliant manuscript book on Elizabethan history; I made profuse notes; and, supremely, I read Newman’s “Development” and Mozley’s answer. I also looked up various points in the Fathers, but with a kind of despair, since I knew I was wholly incompetent to decide where great scholars disagreed. I must confess that I became bewildered and hopeless. Was it not better for me to relinquish this dusty search and remain peacefully where God’s Providence had placed me? After all, there had been an extraordinary revival of Catholic life in the Church of England and I had, from the nature of my mission work, been peculiarly privileged to see its effects. Would it not be a kind of sin against the Holy Ghost to turn my back on the visibly solid work of grace, in search for what might be no more than a brilliant phantom?