Confessions of a Convert – Chapter 5

cover of the ebook 'Confessions of a Convert' by Father Robert Hugh Benson§ 1. Gradually, however, three things drew out of the clamouring mob of ideas and authors. The first was a thought. It had been put to me by my Superior that I was surely incurring the guilt of pride in venturing to set up my opinion against the views of men, such as Dr. Pusey or Mr. Keble – men infinitely my superiors in goodness, learning, and experience. They had been into all these questions far more profoundly than I could ever hope to go, and had come to the conclusion that the claims of Rome were unjustified, and that the Church of England was, at any rate, a part of Christ’s Church. And then 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; otherwise salvation would be easier for the clever and leisured than for the dull and busy. As for the holiness of men like Dr. Pusey – after all, “Christ came into this world to save sinners.” Two or three texts of Scripture began to burn before me. “A highway shall be there,” wrote Isaias; “. . . the redeemed shall walk there. . . . The wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.” “A city set on a hill,” said our Saviour, “cannot be hid.” Again: “Unless you . . . become as little children, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.” And again: “I thank Thee, Father, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones.”

I cannot describe the relief that this thought gave to me. I saw now that my intellectual difficulties were not the real heart of the matter, and that I had no right to be discouraged because I knew myself to be immeasurably the inferior of others who had decided against the cause that was beginning to show itself to me as true. Humility and singleness of motive, I saw now, were far more important than patristic learning. I began, therefore, more than ever to aspire towards these and to throw myself upon God. I used, day after day, one of the acts of humility in Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. In fact, I think that, owing to the violence of the reaction, I was in a certain danger of relapsing into Quietism.

But two books came to my rescue, and these were respectively Newman’s “Development” and Mallock’s “Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption.” Besides these, one of Father Carson’s essays helped me in the last stage – that dealing with the growth of the Church from an embryonic condition to that of manhood; for it was, perhaps, this line of thought as much as any that especially solved my difficulties. Finally, there was Mr. Spencer Jones’s “England and the Holy Sees” – a remarkable book, written by a man who is still a clergyman of the Church of England. These books, each in its way, helped me, not indeed directly forward towards Faith – for that was forming as independently of intellectual effort as of emotional attraction – but by way of breaking down on one side the definite difficulties that stood between me and Rome, and on the other the last remnants of theory that held me to the Church of England. I now began to see dawning clearly, like mountains through a mist, the outlines of what I have called in the previous chapter the general or ideal views of the two Communions that claimed my allegiance.

§ 2. First, there was the general view of the Church of England and her relations to Christendom, and this, as I have already said, rested now entirely upon the theory of the “Church Diffusive.” Now Mr. Mallock’s book first stated this theory with complete fairness and then demolished it utterly. As soon as I had finished his treatment of the question, I laid down the book and gasped. I knew, and told others that I knew, that I had no more to say on the Anglican side. There was but one hope left, and that, I thought, was impossible for me now; namely, a relapse into that kind of devout agnosticism on the subject of the Church, which is the refuge of so many Anglican clergy at the present day. But I think now that if the other books I have mentioned had not, simultaneously, disclosed to me the outline of the Catholic Church, I should in all probability have fallen back upon that agnosticism and remained where I was, reassuring myself, as so many do, by reflections upon the tangled state of Church history and the positive evidences that God was, after all, undoubtedly working in the Anglican communion.

I need not describe at length Mr. Mallock’s argument, but, in a word, it was this: the theory of the “Church Diffusive” is made by Ritualists the foundation of their belief, but the “Church Diffusive” rejects that theory; Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury, though they may agree upon other points, do not agree upon this. Therefore the authority to which the appeal is made implicitly denies that it is an authority at all. Therefore the whole thing is illusive.

I have asked, both before and since my submission to Rome, an answer to this argument and I have never yet received one of any kind. One learned and zealous Anglican could only say that it was too logical to be true, and that the heart has reasons which the head knows nothing of.

I began to turn now with more hope to the constructive books. In Mr. Spencer Jones’s work I found an orderly systematization of the argument that greatly helped me to clear my thoughts; in Father Carson’s essay I found a kind of brilliant variation upon Newman’s great theme. But it was “The Development of Doctrine” that, like a magician, waved away the last floating mists and let me see the City of God in her strength and beauty.

§ 3. Finally and supremely, it was the reading of the Scriptures that satisfied me as to the positive claims of Rome. On all sides my friends told me to study the Written Word of God, and, indeed, it was the best advice that could have been given. For both I and they accepted the Scriptures as the inspired Work of God; they, in those Scriptures, interpreted by what they believed to be the Church, found the support of their own views; I, since I had lost belief in the Church to which I belonged, or rather since I failed to hear from that Church any positive interpretation at all, had nothing left but Scripture. I might read controversy for ever and fail to detect the human fallacies that might lie on either side; at least I had better turn to those writings in which confessedly there were none. So, once more I turned to the New Testament, seeking to find some thread that would hold all together, some living authority to which the Scriptures themselves might point, testing, above all, the claims of that authority which on logical and human grounds seemed to me the most consistent of all claims made in Christendom – the claim of the occupier of Peter’s Chair to be the Teacher and Lord of all Christians.

I have been told, of course, that I found that in the New Testament which I had hoped to find; that I had already accepted interiorly the claims of Rome, and therefore forced myself to the conclusion that the Scriptures must support them too. I was bidden to turn again to the theologians for the interpretation of the Scripture – back again, in fact, to that very tangle of witnesses who, on the whole, seemed to me to support the Petrine position, and whom I had, a little while ago, been advised to leave for God’s own Word. Yet what else could I do except honestly to attempt to test by that divine authority the sole claim that, alone in the whole of Christendom, seemed to me consistent, reasonable, historical, practical, satisfactory, and, from the very nature of the case, intrinsically necessary?

Well, I need not say that I found that claim there more evidently and easily than I could find many other doctrines which none the less I readily accepted on Scriptural authority. 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. The “One Foundation” declares that on “Cephas” He will build His Church: the Good Shepherd bids the same Cephas, even after he has forfeited, it might seem, all claims on his Lord, to “feed his sheep”; the “Door” gives to Peter the “Keys.” In all I found twenty-nine passages of Scripture – since then I have found a few more – in which the Petrine prerogative is at any rate implied, and I found not one contrary to or incompatible with its commission. I published these in a small pamphlet soon after my submission.*

It is, of course, utterly impossible to lay my finger upon this or that argument as the one that finally convinced me. Besides, it was not argument that did convince me, any more than it was emotion that impelled me. It was rather my being drawn by the Spirit of God towards a vantage ground whence I could look out and see the facts as they were; but it was Newman’s book that pointed me to the facts, led my eye from this point to that, and showed me how the whole glorious erection stood upon the unshakeable foundation of the Gospel and soared to heaven.

§ 4. There, then, to change the metaphor, I saw the mystical Bride of Christ, growing through the ages from the state of childhood to adolescence, increasing in wisdom and stature, not adding to but developing her knowledge, strengthening her limbs, stretching out her hands; changing, indeed, her aspect and her language – using now this set of human terms, now that, to express better and better her mind; bringing out of her treasures things new and old, which yet had been hers from the beginning, indwelt by the Spirit of her Spouse, and even suffering as He had done.

She, too, was betrayed and crucified; “dying daily,” like her great Lord; denied, mocked, and despised; a child of sorrows and acquainted with grief; misrepresented, misconstrued, agonizing; stripped of her garments, yet, like the King’s daughter that she is, “all glorious within”; dead even, it seemed at times, yet, like her natural Prototype, still united to the Godhead; laid in the sepulchre, fenced in by secular powers, yet ever rising again on Easter Days, spiritual and transcendent; passing through doors that men thought closed for ever, spreading her mystical banquets in upper rooms and by sea shores; and, above all, ascending for ever beyond the skies and dwelling in heavenly places with Him who is her Bridegroom and her God.

Difficulty after difficulty melted as I looked on her face. I saw now how it must be that outward aspects should change, and that the swathed child in the Catacombs should seem very different from the reigning mother and mistress of churches, the queen of the world. I saw, too, how even her constitution must appear to change: how the limbs, that at first move spasmodically and clumsily, should, as she increased in strength, become more and more controlled by the visible Head; how the great childish gestures of the early Councils should pass little by little into the serene voice issuing from the lips; how the unordered implicit knowledge of the first centuries should express itself more and more precisely as she learned how to speak to men that which she knew from the beginning; how gradually she would announce even in our own days that principle on which she had acted from the beginning – namely, that in matters that concerned the vital contents of her message, she was protected, in the utterances of her Head, by the Spirit of Truth that had first formed her body in the womb of the human race. For this is, in the long run, the inevitable claim that a Church must make which professes to stand for Revelation.

I do not say that all difficulties went at once. They did not. In fact, I do not suppose that there is any Catholic alive who would dare to say that he has no difficulties even now; but “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” There remain always the old eternal problems of sin and free will; but to one who has once looked full into the eyes of this great Mother, these problems are as nothing. She knows, if we do not; she knows, even if she does not say that she knows; for within her somewhere, far down in her great heart, there lies hid the very wisdom of God Himself.

And all this great vision I saw now for the first time fulfilled in what I had been accustomed to call the Church of Rome. I turned and looked again at the Church of England and there was an extraordinary change. It was not that she had become unlovable. I love her even now as one may love an unsatisfactory human friend. She had a hundred virtues, a delicate speech, a romantic mind; a pleasant aroma hung about her; she was infinitely pathetic and appealing; she had the advantage of dwelling in the shadowed twilight of her own vagueness, in glorious houses, even though not of her building; she had certain gracious ways, pretty modes of expression; her music and her language still seem to me extraordinarily beautiful; and above all, she is the nursing mother of many of my best friends, and for over thirty years educated and nursed me, too, with indulgent kindness. Indeed, I was not ungrateful for all this, but it had become entirely impossible for me ever to reverence her again as the divine mistress of my soul.

It is true that she had fed me with the best food she had, and that Our Lord had accompanied those gifts with better gifts of His own; she had, indeed, pointed me to Him rather than to herself. But all this did not make her my queen or even my mother; and, in fact, even in other matters she had failed me, through no fault of her own, but rather because of the misfortune of her own birth and nature. When I had asked her questions that really concerned the very life I was leading under her protection, she had given me no answer. She had told me only to lie still and love her, and that was not enough. A soul cannot be eternally satisfied with kindness and a soothing murmur and the singing of hymns, and there is a liberty which is a more intolerable slavery than the heaviest of chains. I did not want to go this way and that at my own will: I wanted to know the way in which God wished me to walk. I did not want to be free to change my grasp on truth: I needed rather a truth that itself should make me free. I did not want broad ways of pleasantness, but the narrow Way that is Truth and Life. And for all these things she was helpless.

There, then, she stood, my old mistress, pathetic and loving, claiming me as her servant by every human tie; and there, on the other side, in a blaze of fierce light, stood the Bride of Christ, dominant and imperious, but with a look in her eyes and a smile on her lips that could rise only from a heavenly vision, claiming me, not because she had as yet done anything for me, not because I was an Englishman who loved English ways – or even Italian, for the matter of that – but simply and solely because I was a child of God and because to her He had said, “Take this child away and nurse it for Me and I will give thee thy wages”; because, first and last, she was His Bride and I was His son.

If at that choice I had hesitated and turned back to her whom I knew and loved, in preference to her whom as yet I saw and feared only at a distance, I know that I should have fallen, without even the shadow of a doubt, under that condemnation uttered by my Lord: “Unless a man leave his father and mother and all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple.” I went to my Superior, therefore, in the early summer, told him once more of my state of mind, and obtained leave from him to go home to my mother’s house for a few months’ rest and reflection.