Confessions of a Convert – Chapter 7

cover of the ebook 'Confessions of a Convert' by Father Robert Hugh Benson§ 1. I do not suppose that anyone ever entered the City of God with less emotion than mine. It seemed to me that I was utterly without feeling; I had neither joy nor sorrow, nor dread nor excitement. There was the Truth, as aloof as an ice-peak, and I had to embrace it. Never for one single instant did I doubt that, nor, perhaps it is unnecessary to say, have I ever doubted it since. I tried to reproach myself with my coldness, but all fell quite flat. I was as one coming out of the glare of artificial light, out of warmth and brightness and friendliness, into a pale daylight of cold and dreary certainty. I was uninterested and quite positive.

§ 2. I arrived at Stroud towards evening, saying my Anglican Office for the last time on the way, and, after waiting about for a while, entered the omnibus for Woodchester, which is a few miles distant. The drive was as dreary as everything else, though it should not have been, for the country is really beautiful and romantic. There is a long twisting valley between hills that rise on either side in a manner not unlike some parts of Italy. We drove on and on; I listened unintelligently to the conversation of an old man with a rosy face, and noticed one or two children who were troublesome. But nothing seemed to me to matter at all or to be of the slightest significance.

A lay-brother was waiting for me at the foot of the little steep stony path that leads from the road to the Priory, and together we climbed it. Near the gate of the church, in the darkening evening light, there was standing a figure in white, who, when he saw us, came down the hill and took my hands in his; and, almost in silence, we went on and into the house. But even then I was utterly dull and stupid.

I do not propose to describe in detail the three days that followed. After all, I do not know why anyone should be interested in them. Nor do I propose to describe the endless kindness, courtesy, and patience that I found in Father Reginald and the Prior, and, in fact, in everyone with whom I had to do. My instructor and I walked together on the three afternoons and talked of this and that, and in my spare time I studied the Penny Catechism. One detail, however, I must mention, at the risk even of annoying that dear Dominican Father. He asked me on the Thursday whether I had any difficulties. I told him “No.” “But, surely, indulgences!” he said. Again I told him that these were not the slightest difficulty. I was not sure that I perfectly understood them, but I was quite sure that I perfectly believed them, as indeed everything else which the Church proposed to my faith. But he was not quite satisfied, and gave me a full and detailed instruction on the point.

On these evenings, too, he always came in for an hour or two in my room, on the first floor. Each morning I heard Mass and attempted a sort of meditation. I attended other Offices now and then and was always at Compline and the exquisite Dominican ceremony of the Salve Regina afterwards. I noticed also with mild interest the resemblance of the Dominican to the Sarum rite in various points.

On the Friday, the day fixed for my reception, I took a long, lonely walk, still entirely uninterested, and visited the church of Minchinhampton, on the opposite side of the valley. I was caught in the rain, I remember, and had tea in a small public-house parlour, where there was a rather witty list of instructions to visitors as to the personal prowess of the landlord and his intentions of enforcing order. Then I came back to the Priory about six o’clock.

I cannot imagine why I am writing down all this, except that it seems impossible to think of the events of those days under any other images than those of the small external details which happened. Even if I had glowing spiritual experiences to record, I should not do so; but the truth is that I had none. There seemed nothing within me at all except an absolute certainty that I was doing God’s will and was entering the doors of His Church. I had no elevations of spirit and no temptations against faith or anything else; and this, I must confess, lasted not only through my reception and First Communion, but for some months afterwards. Even Rome itself, though I learned strange and astounding lessons there, sent very few emotions through me.

In fact, I was experiencing at this time the natural reaction of the very real and appalling struggle that I had been engaged in previously for nearly a year. During that time, in various forms, I had gone through the whole gamut of such spiritual life as I possessed, and the result was that my faculties had sunk into a kind of lethargy. Even this I only mention now, as I have known more than one convert utterly dismayed and astonished at similar experiences. The soul had expected the visible opening of heaven, the pouring out of floods of sensible grace, torrents of pleasure, dazzling glory and super-terrestrial sounds, and instead there had descended a pall of heaviness with but one light to pierce it, and that the Star of Divine Faith, as steady and certain as God upon His throne.

Of course those souls are very happy who find it otherwise. One such friend of mine, now a priest also, told me that his supreme difficulty in making his submission was the thought that he must repudiate his own Orders. Up to that time he had been a Ritualistic clergyman, doing a devoted work among the poor in one of the great English towns and celebrating every day for years what he believed to be the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He told me that he almost dreaded his First Communion, because he was afraid that, since it was inconceivable that Our Lord could be more gracious to him than He had been at Anglican altars, he himself might be tempted to doubt the reality of the change. But the moment that the Sacred Host touched his tongue he knew the difference. He told me that never again after that moment did he doubt for a single second that hitherto he had received nothing but bread and wine, accompanied by unsacramental grace, and that this new gift was indeed nothing else than the Immaculate Body of Christ. He is, moreover, a middle-aged, unemotional man.

§ 3. At about half-past six Father Reginald took me into the Chapter House, and there, kneeling down by the Prior’s seat, I made my confession, together with acts of faith, hope, charity, and contrition, and received absolution. I did not receive conditional baptism – although of course I was perfectly willing to do so – since two witnesses at my previous baptism had given independent testimony that the ceremony had been undoubtedly performed according to Catholic requirements. Then, like a father with his son, he kissed me, and I went through into church to make my thanksgiving.

On the following morning I received Holy Communion in the beautiful little church, from the hands of the Prior. I stayed over the Sunday, with a curious, passionless kind of contentment growing in my heart almost every moment, and on the Monday journeyed up to the north to stay with my priest-friend, who was then acting as chaplain to a Catholic household.

Rather a strange surprise awaited me here. A few weeks previously I had had one of those vivid dreams that leave, during all the day that follows them, an inexplicable, incommunicable joy. I had dreamed that I was walking alone over high hills towards the sea, feeling rather lonely and desolate. The ground was bare all about me, but as I went on I began to see woods in front, and then suddenly I came out on a hilltop and saw below me a great sweep of woods and beyond them the sea. But set right in the middle of the woods was the roof of a large house, and the moment I saw this I was conscious of a sudden overwhelming joy, as of a child coming home. Then I awoke, still extraordinarily happy.

Now I had never before been to see my friend, nor had he ever given me the least outline of a description of the place in which he lived. I did not even know that it was near the sea. When, therefore, I arrived and saw that the sea was not far off, I was interested, and told my friend the dream, remarking that in other points there was no resemblance between the dream and this place. But on the next morning he took me up a hill behind the house, and there, strangely enough, in all their main features the two things corresponded. There were the roofs and chimneys of the Catholic house, the sweep of the woods, and the long horizon of the sea beyond. Yet there were one or two small details, which I now forget, which appeared to me different; neither was there any emotional sense of joy.

§ 4. And now began the inevitable consequences of what I had done. I do not know how many letters I received in the few days following the announcement in the papers of my conversion; but I had at least two heavy posts every day. These had to be answered, and what made it harder was that among them all there were not more than two or three from Catholics. This was perfectly natural, as I hardly knew more than that number of Catholics. One telegram indeed warmed my heart; for it was from that priest to whom I owed so much and of whose conversion I had heard with such sorrow in Damascus six years before. The rest were from Anglicans – clergy, men, women, and even children – most of whom regarded me either as a deliberate traitor (but of these there were very few) or as an infatuated fool, or as an impatient, headstrong, ungrateful bigot. Many of these kindly concealed their sentiments as well as they could, but it was for the most part plain enough what they thought. From one clergyman, still an Anglican, I received an enthusiastic letter of congratulation on having been happy enough to have found my way into the City of Peace. Eight years later he also entered that city.

I think that I answered them all, even down to one from a sincere woman who besought me to remember a sermon I had once preached upon the Prodigal Son, and to make haste to come back to the Father’s house. I answered this, very naturally, by observing that, on the contrary, I had just done so, pointing out to her that no conceivable motive except the conviction to that effect would have brought me out of the Church of England. I also expressed a hope that one day she would come too. She handed my letter to her clergyman, who replied to me instantly with a violent accusation of treachery, telling me that when he had asked me to preach a mission in his parish he had thought me to be trustworthy; he was sorry now that my “perversion” had so quickly degraded my character. Again I answered by quoting his parishioner’s remarks to me and observing that I could scarcely answer her otherwise than the way in which I had done. He replied once more with a half-apology, saying that the woman had given him to understand that I had written to her first, and that he regretting having used such strong expressions.

Another letter which I received caused me considerable pain as well as astonishment. It was from a middle-aged woman whom I had thought sincerely my friend – the wife of an eminent dignitary in the Church of England. The letter was short, bitter, and fierce, reproaching me for the dishonour I had done to my father’s name and memory. It seemed to me then – and it seems to me still – incomprehensible that a person of true and deep religion, such as she undoubtedly was, should utter this particular reproach; just as if the thought of this dishonour to my father had not been so evidently a Satanic temptation that I had not dared even to hesitate over its rejection. Very different from this was the deep and generous phrase of a certain Anglican Bishop, who, in speaking to my mother after my departure for Rome, said to her, “Remember that he has followed his conscience after all, and what else could his father wish for him than that?” I can only conclude that the letter was written in a mood of blind anger.

But such controversies were very rare. Once again, later, I was informed by a clergyman that such an act of schism as I had committed always bore “bitter fruit,” and that apparently in my case, as in so many others, “honour had taken to itself wings.” All this was apropos of the fact that after my ordination in Rome I had come harmlessly to live in the same town as himself, though not engaged at that time in any evangelistic works, and that nearly two years previously, against my own will, I had been sent to preach an Anglican mission in his parish. I answered by hinting that unless he withdrew those expressions, which I knew very well he would repeat in private conversations, I should consider myself at liberty to send his letter to the newspapers. He withdrew them.

Yet, with a very few exceptions of this kind, I must acknowledge with the greatest gratitude that the charity with which I was treated by members of the Anglican communion in general simply astonished me. I did not know that there was so much generosity in the world.

A few days later I went to stay at Erdington Abbey, with the Benedictines, and here again I began to find more and more evidences of the welcome that was waiting for me in my true home. Two of the Fathers, themselves convert-clergymen, took all pains to set me at my ease and to show me kindness and sympathy in every conceivable way. It was reassuring to me also at this time to meet here another well-known clergyman, of whom previously I had known nothing except by reputation, and who had preceded me by a few months into the Catholic Church. I need not say that we talked a great deal.

A day or two later, once more I went back to my mother’s house, where I had the satisfaction of finishing the last pages of “By What Authority?” before leaving England, on All Souls’ Day, to take up my residence in Rome with a view to studying for the priesthood.

One more instance of Anglican charity occurred two minutes after my train had left Victoria station. As my mother was turning away, she saw coming towards her a prelate of the Episcopalian Scottish Church, a High Churchman and an old friend of her own. He had come to say good-bye to me and to wish me God-speed. I have not forgotten that and, please God, I never shall.