Confessions of a Convert – Chapter 8

cover of the ebook 'Confessions of a Convert' by Father Robert Hugh BensonAnd now I do not know whether it is respectful to my holy mother the Church to attempt to say what she has been to me ever since the day that I walked blind and dumb and miserable into her arms. But I have said so much of others that I will venture even this. She, too, needs no charity of mine, for she is the fount and river of it.

§ 1. It seems very remarkable to be obliged to say that the idea of returning to the Church of England is as inconceivable as the idea of seeking to enter the Choctaw fold. Yet, humanly speaking, and looking at it from the Anglican side, so far as that is possible, I quite understand why it is that Anglicans are always accustomed to say of every convert that “he is certain to come back.” First of all, they naturally desire that all persons, however obscure, who are not likely to disgrace themselves, should be under the same allegiance as that to which they pay their own homage. Why, Catholics have a similar wish on their side! Secondly, in a word, they do not understand the situation. They are so accustomed to division and disunion on the deepest matters of faith in their own body, that they can scarcely conceive its being otherwise elsewhere. Either, they say, these divisions must be in Catholicism too, though beneath the surface, or, if they are not, it must mean that intellectual activity is suppressed by the “iron uniformity” of the system. They do not at all understand how “the truth can make (us) free.” It is a complete begging of the question, I allow, but it appears to me more true every day that I live, that those few persons who do return do so either by the road of complete unbelief, or through some grave sin in their lives, or through a species of insanity, or through the fact that they never really grasped the Catholic position at all.

It is of no use to pile up asseverations, but, in a word, it may be said that to return from the Catholic Church to the Anglican would be the exchange of certitude for doubt, of faith for agnosticism, of substance for shadow, of brilliant light for sombre gloom, of historical, world-wide fact for unhistorical, provincial theory. I do not know how to express myself more mildly than that; though even this, no doubt, will appear a monstrous extravagance, at the least, to the sincere and whole-hearted members of the Anglican communion. Only yesterday, in fact, an educated young High Churchman looked me unblenchingly in the face and said that the “Roman idea is all very well in theory; but as a practical system it does not work – it does not square with history; whereas the Anglican communion – !” Well, well!

§ 2. Are there, then, no defects or disappointments that await the convert to Catholicism? There are as many defects awaiting his discovery as reside in human nature; the number of his disappointments will vary according to the number of his expectations.

First, then, there is a very singular attitude assumed by many Catholics, whose own faith is beyond doubt, with regard to the conversion of non-Catholics, and of the English in particular. I omit as irrelevant, of course, the lukewarmness of the lukewarm, or the actual religious spite of the very few persons who are actually jealous of others possessing what they themselves find so precious. It is rather of the strange mentality of persons who, themselves practising their faith fervently, seem entirely indifferent to the missionary duties of the Church. “I hear that A. B. has become a Catholic,” said a good Catholic woman once. “What in the world has she done that for?”

Now such an attitude of mind as this is not only a defect – to use a very mild word – but it was, for me at any rate, a very real disappointment. It had never even entered my head to expect that such a position could be conceivable in one who valued his faith. And, to tell the truth, it is not so uncommon as one might think. Now this is nothing else than sheer Sectarianism; for unless the Catholic Religion is intended for the whole world, it is false. It is literally Catholic, or nothing. Well, this was completely bewildering to me. I had been taught to believe that Catholics had at least the grace of Proselytism; that they possessed, at any rate, that passion for converting others which is usually one of the signs of strong conviction. And here I found, not only indifference in many cases, but even a kind of veiled opposition towards every form of activity in this direction. “Converts have so much zeal,” it is said; “they are indiscreet and impetuous. The steady old ways are preferable; let us keep our faith to ourselves, and let others keep theirs.”

I have come lately to understand that this Sectarianism is perhaps in some cases the result of the centuries of penal law under which Catholics in England have lived. They have been for so long accustomed to shroud their sacred mysteries, in order to protect both the mysteries and themselves, that a kind of formless tradition has grown up to the effect that it is best to leave well alone and to risk as little as possible. If that is so, Sectarianism is at least an honourable scar; yet it is none the less a defect. Curiously enough, however, it is not usually among the really old Catholic families that it makes its appearance; these are, generally, as ardent missionaries as the convert himself: it is rather among the spiritually nouveaux riches – among the Catholics of one or two generations only – that this spiritual snobbishness is the more frequent.

A second defect, akin to the first, is that of jealousy against converts. Now I should not have ventured to draw particular attention to this if I myself had suffered from it to any marked degree, since in that case I should distrust my own judgment in dealing with it. The fact is that I have not. I have received extraordinary generosity on all sides, even in such matters as my very early ordination in Rome after only nine months of Catholic life. Of course there were many who disapproved of the rapidity with which I was promoted to the priesthood, but in practically all these cases it would be ludicrously impossible to suspect in them the presence of jealousy or of that subtle form of it which manifests itself in a desire to snub the neophyte. On the whole I am astonished at the kindness which Catholics have always shown to me.

But I have come across case after case, have heard sentences and fragments of conversation which leave no possibility for doubting but that many converts do find jealousy and suspicion on the part of second-rate Catholics as among the greatest trials of their life. Such an attitude is, indeed, exceedingly human and natural. “Thou hast made them equal unto us,” cries the man in the parable, “who have borne the burden and heat of the day!” And this attitude is, of course, often apparently justified by the ill-behaviour and the arrogance of a convert or two now and then — of persons who march into the Church, so to speak, with banners flying and drums playing, as if they themselves were the conquerors instead of the conquered. But, honestly, I think that arrogance amongst converts is extremely rare. The course of instruction through which they have to pass, the vast sacrifices which many of them have had to make – these things, to say nothing of the amazing Grace of God that has brought them into the Church at all, usually purge and chasten the soul in an extraordinary degree. After all, ceteris paribus, the convert has been called upon by God to give a greater witness of sincerity than can any man, who, as a Catholic from the cradle, has found his main duty merely in the keeping of the Faith. Celeris paribus, it is a more heroic act to break with the past than to be loyal to it.

Here, again, however, it is not amongst the genuine “old Catholics” – the aristocrats of the Faith, so to speak – that jealousy or suspicion towards converts usually manifest themselves, but, once more, amongst those who desire to be thought so – amongst those who, in a determination to mark their aloofness from the “convert-spirit,” think to advertise the fact by fault-finding and ill-mannered contempt. They have come into their fortune comparatively recently, and they think to hide their spiritual origins by snubbing those who make no claim to such spiritual aristocracy. It is among this class, too, that that other kind of jealousy on behalf of favourite churches or priests usually manifests itself – a jealousy – that is not content with plaguing the life out of the unhappy clergy, who, they think, alone can understand them, but proceeds further by slander and spite and gossip to attack the good name of everyone else.

There are, then, defects amongst Catholics – I have named two – and it is entirely useless to deny them. Only they are not, in the very least, of the kind which non-Catholics suspect or pretend. These defects are such as are common to human nature everywhere – to individuals, that is, who fail to live up to the standards of their religion. But the faults supposed by Anglicans to be most characteristic of those who pay their allegiance to Rome are simply not characteristic at all. First, there is absolutely none of that diversity on matters of faith which the Anglican, in his own case, apparently accepts as his “cross”; there are no “schools of thought” in this sense, at all; there is not the faintest dogmatic difference between these two groups of temperaments into which the whole human race may more or less be divided – the maximizers and the minimizers — or, as they are labelled by Anglicans in the case of the Catholic Church – the Ultramontanes and the Gallicans. So far as these camps exist at all, though, frankly, I must confess my entire inability so to classify Catholics, they are concerned, I imagine, merely with the prudence or imprudence of a proposed action, with a like or dislike of “Roman” methods and such like secondary affairs. Again, there is no “seething discontent,” so far as I am aware, within the walls of the Church. Certainly I continually am hearing of it, but always from non-Catholics. There is no intellectual revolt on the part of the stronger minds of the Roman communion that I have ever heard of – except from non-Catholics. There is no “alienation of the men”; on the contrary, in this country, as also in Italy and France, I am continually astonished by the extraordinary predominance of the male sex over the female in attendance at Mass and in the practice of private prayer in our churches. At a recent casual occasion, upon my remarking to the parish-priest of a suburban church that I have always been struck by this phenomenon, he told me that on the previous evening he had happened to count the congregation from the west gallery and that the proportion of men to women had been about as two to one. This, of course, was something of an exceptional illustration of my point. All these charges, therefore, so freely levelled against us, are, it appears to me, entirely void of substance. Of course there are hot temperaments and cold, apostolic and diplomatic natures, among Catholics, as elsewhere. Of course occasionally a little revolt breaks out, as it will break out in every human society; of course self-willed persons – women as well as men – will occasionally dissociate themselves from Catholic life, or, worse still, attempt to remain Catholic in name while wholly un-Catholic in spirit. But what I mean to deny is that these incidents even approximate to tendencies – still less that, as tendencies, they are in the faintest degree characteristic of Catholicism – or that the astonishing calm on the surface of the Church is, as a matter of fact, undermined by fierce internal struggles. It is simply not true.

Again, I must emphatically deny that formalism is characteristic of Catholicism in a way that it is not characteristic of Protestantism. There is, however, just this shadow of truth in the charge; viz., that amongst Catholics emotionalism and even strong sentiment is considerably discouraged, and that the heart of religion is thought rather to reside in the adherence and obedience of the will. The result is, of course, that persons of a comparatively undevout nature will, as Catholics, continue to practise their religion, and sometimes, in ungenerous characters, only the barest minimum of their obligations; whereas as Anglicans they would give it up altogether. It follows that perhaps it may be true to say that the average emotional level of a Catholic congregation is lower than the corresponding level of a Protestant congregation, but it is not at all a consequence that therefore Catholics are more formalistic than Protestants. These cold, undevout souls – or rather these souls of a naturally undevout temperament – adhere to their religion through the sheer motive of obedience, and it is surely remarkable to condemn them on that account! Obedience to the will of God – or even what is merely believed to be the will of God – is actually more meritorious, not less, when it is unaccompanied by emotional consolations and sensible fervour.

In a word, then, I would say this: that, judging from an experience of nine years as an Anglican clergyman and eight years as a Catholic priest, there are defects in both the Catholic and the Anglican communions; that in the case of the Anglican these defects are vital and radical, since they are flaws in what ought to be divinely intact – flaws, that is to say, in such things as the certitude of faith, the unity of believers, and the authority of those who should be teachers in the Name of God; and that in the case of the Catholic Church the flaws are merely those of flawed humanity, inseparable from the state of imperfection in which all men are placed. The flaws of Anglicanism, and indeed in Protestantism generally, are evidences that the system is not divine; the flaws in the Catholic system show no more than that it has a human side as well as a divine, and this no Catholic has ever dreamed of denying.

§ 3. In Rome I learned one supremely large lesson, among a hundred others. It has been very well said that Gothic architecture represents the soul aspiring to God, and that Renaissance or Romanesque architecture represents God tabernacling with men. Both sides are true, yet neither, in the religion of the Incarnation, is complete without the other. On the one side, it is true that the soul must always be seeking, always gazing up through the darkness to a God who hides Himself, always remembering that the Infinite transcends the finite and that an immense agnosticism must be an element in every creed; the lines of this world, as it were, run up into gloom; the light that glimmers through carved tracery and heavy stains is enough to walk by, but little more. It is in silence that God is known, and through mysteries that He declares Himself. “God is a spirit,” formless, infinite, invisible, and eternal, and “they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” Here, then, is mysticism and the darkness of spiritual experience.

Then, on the other side, God became man – “the Word was made flesh.” The divine, unknowable Nature struck itself into flesh and “tabernacled amongst us, and we beheld His glory.” What was hidden was made known. It is not only we who thirst and knock: it is God Who, thirsting for our love, died upon the cross that He might open the kingdom of heaven to all believers, Who rent the veil of the Temple by His death-groan, and Who still stands knocking at every human heart, that He may come in and sup with man. The round dome of heaven is brought down to earth; the walls of the world are plain to the sight; its limitations are seen in the light of God; the broad sunshine of Revelation streams on all sides through clear windows upon a gorgeous pavement; angels and gods and men riot together in an intoxication of divine love; the high altar stands plain to view in a blaze of gilding and candles; and above it the round brazen and silken tent of God-made-man stands that all alike may see and adore.

Now, this side of the religion of the Incarnation had hitherto meant almost nothing to me. I was a Northerner pure and simple, educated in Northern ways. I loved twilight and mysterious music and the shadow of deep woods; I hated open spaces of sun and trumpets in unison and the round and square in architecture. I preferred meditation to vocal prayer, Mme. Guyon to Mother Julian, “John Inglesant” to St. Thomas, the thirteenth century – as I imagined it – to the sixteenth. Until towards the end of my Anglican life I should frankly have acknowledged this; then I should have resented the accusation, for I was beginning to understand – and, therefore, thought that I entirely understood – that the world was as material as it was spiritual, and that creeds were as necessary as aspirations. But when I came to Rome I acknowledged to myself once more how little I had understood.

Here was this city, Renaissance from end to end, set under clear skies and a burning sun; and the religion in it was the soul dwelling in the body. It was the assertion of the reality of the human principle as embodying the divine. Even the exclusive tenets of Christianity were expressed under pagan images. Revelation spoke through forms of natural religion; God dwelt unashamed in the light of day; priests were priests, not aspiring clergymen; they sacrificed, sprinkled lustral water, went in long, rolling processions with incense and lights, and called heaven Olympus. Sacrum Divo Sebastiano, I saw inscribed on a granite altar. I sat under priest-professors who shouted, laughed, and joyously demonstrated before six nations in one lecture room. I saw the picture of the “Father of princes and kings and Lord of the world” exposed in the streets on his name-day, surrounded by flowers and oil lamps, in the manner in which, two centuries ago, other lords of the world were honoured. I went down into the Catacombs on Saint Cecilia’s Day and Saint Valentine’s, and smelled the box and the myrtle underfoot that did reverence to the fragrance of their memories, as centuries ago they had done reverence to victors in another kind of contest. In one sentence, I began to understand that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”; that as He took the created substance of a Virgin to fashion for Himself a natural body, so still He takes the created substance of men – their thoughts, their expressions, and their methods – to make for Himself that mystical body by which He is with us always; in short, I perceived that “there is nothing secular but sin.” Catholicism, then, is “materialistic?” Certainly; it is as materialistic as the Creation and the Incarnation, neither more nor less.

It is impossible to describe what this discovery means to a Northern soul. Certainly it means the obscuring of some of the old lights that had once seemed so beautiful in the half-gloom of individual experience, or rather, their drowning in the strong sunshine. Set beside some Roman pomp an exquisite Anglican service: how provincial, domestic, and individualistic becomes the latter! Set beside a Gregorian professor lecturing to Greeks, Roumanians, and Frenchmen, on the principles of restitution or the duty of citizens to the State, an Anglican divine expounding St. Paul’s Epistles to theological students; a friar in S. Carlo beside the most passionate mission preacher in the Church of England; the olive-laden peasants shouting hymns in S. Giovanne in Laterano beside a devout company of Anglicans gathered for Evensong; an hieratic sacrificer in S. Maria Maggiore beside the most perfectly drilled Ritualist in Mass vestments! Oh! Set any section of Catholic faith and worship seen in holy Rome beside the corresponding section of Anglican faith and worship! Yet Anglicans are shocked in Rome, and Dissenters exclaim at the paganism, and Free-thinkers smile at the narrowness of it all. Of course they are shocked and exclaim and smile. How should they not?

Thus, in truth, a sojourn in Rome means an expansion of view that is beyond words. Whereas up to that time I had been accustomed to image Christianity to myself as a delicate flower, divine because of its supernatural fragility, now I saw that it was a tree in whose branches the fowls of the air, once the enemies of its tender growth, can lodge in security – divine since the wideness of its reach and the strength of its mighty roots can be accounted for by nothing else. Before I had thought of it as of a fine, sweet aroma, to be appreciated apart; now I saw that it was the leaven, hid in the heavy measures of the world, expressing itself in terms incalculably coarser than itself, until the whole is leavened.

§ 4. So day after day the teaching went on. I was as a boy introduced for the first time to some great engine shed: the wheels roared round me; huge, remorseless movements went on; the noise and the power were bewildering; yet little by little the lesson was dinned into my head that here was something other than I had ever known, something I could never have learned in my quiet Northern twilight. Here were the business-offices of the spiritual world; here grace was dispensed, dogma defined, and provision made for souls across the world. Here God had taken His seat to rule His people, where once Domitian – Dominus et Deus noster – God’s Ape, had ruled in His despite, yet shadowing God’s Vicar. On Good Friday, below the ruins of the Palatine, I stood in “S. Toto’s” church and heard, “If thou let this Man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend.” Now “This Man” is King and Caesar is nothing. Here, indeed, if ever anywhere, has the leaven, plunged nineteen centuries ago by God’s hand into the heaving soddenness of the Empire of Rome, gradually expressed itself in law and dogma under images of secular thought; here was the blood of Peter, that soaked into the ground below the obelisk, pulsing once more in the veins of Pius – Pontifex Maximus et Pater Patrum – scarcely a hundred yards away.

That at least I learned in Rome, and it was a lesson worth the conflict ten thousand times over. I had come out from a warm fire-lit room, full of shadows, into the shouting wind and great air spaces of human history. I understood at last that nothing human was alien to God, that the gropings of pre-Christian nations had brought them very near to the Gate of Truth; that their little systems and efforts and images had not been despised by Him who permitted them; and that “God, having spoken on divers occasions, and many ways, in times past, to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days hath spoken to us by His Son, Whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by Whom also He made the world; Who, being the splendour of His glory and the figure of His substance, and upholding all things by the word of His power, making purgation of sins, sitteth on the right Hand of the Majesty on high.”

§ 5. And if I learned that in Rome, I have learned once more in England that the Church of God is as tender as she is strong. She, like her Spouse and her type, His Mother, views all things, sees all men, controls giant forces; yet in her divinity does not despise “one of these little ones.” To the world she is a Queen, rigid, arrogant, and imperious, robed in stiff gold and jewels, looking superbly out upon crime and revolt; but to her own children she is Mother even more than Queen. She fingers the hurts of her tiniest sons, listens to their infinitesimal sorrows, teaches them patiently their lessons, desires passionately that they should grow up as princes should. And, supremely above all, she knows how to speak to them of their Father and Lord, how to interpret His will to them, how to tell them the story of His exploits; she breathes into them something of her own love and reverence; she encourages them to be open and unafraid with both her and Him; she takes them apart by a secret way to introduce them to His presence.

All that I ever found in my old home, of guidance and rebuke and encouragement, I have found again at the hands of her priests, endowed, too, with knowledge as well as love. All the freedom of individual worship and thought that some think to be the glory of non-Catholic bodies I have found expressly secured to me in her temples, and have used it with far more confidence, since I know that her searching eye is upon me and that she will first call and at last strike swiftly if I wander too far. Her arms are as open to those who would serve God in silence and seclusion as to. those who “dance before Him with all their might.” For, like Charity, of which she is the embodiment, she is patient, she is kind; . . . she beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things; she never faileth. In her “we know in part, and we prophesy in part”; we are secure of what we have received, we are expectant of that which is yet to come. No one better than she recognizes that “we see now through a glass in an obscure manner,” yet some day “face to face”; that now we “know in part, but then we shall know even as we are known.” In her supremely I understand that “when I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.”

All, then, that is to be found in every other system, however eclectic, however adapted to the individual, is to be found here — all the mysticism of the North, the patience of the East, the joyful confidence of the South, and the fearless enterprise of the West. She understands and kindles the heart as well as she guides and informs the head. She alone holds up virginity as the most honourable state and matrimony as an indissoluble and holy Sacrament. She alone recognizes explicitly the vocation of the individual as perfectly as the ideals of the race; is reverent towards subjective faith as well as faithful to objective truth. She alone, in fact, is perfectly familiar and tender with the separate soul, understands its wants, supplies its deficiencies, deals carefully with its weaknesses and sins; simply because she is as wide as the world, as old as the ages, and as great-hearted as God.

§ 6. As, then, I look back from this present moment, reading again the first page of these Confessions and sitting here in the house which once I visited years ago as a suspicious, timid, complacent boy, I see God’s plan with me lying like a golden thread through all the tumbled country through which I have come, up from the pleasant meadows of home and school, the broken slopes of ministerial work, the caverns and cliffs of the shadow of death, up to this walled and battlemented plateau, from which for the first time the world is visible as it really is, not as I had thought it to be. I understand now that there is coherence in all that God has made — that He has made of one blood all the nations of the earth; that there is not one aspiration out of the darkness that does not find its way to Him; not one broken or distorted system of thought that does not flash back at least one ray of eternal glory; not one soul but has her place in His economy. On the one side there is thirst and desire and restlessness; on the other, satisfaction and peace; there is no instinct but has its object, no pool but it reflects the sun, no spot of disfigured earth but has the sky above it. And through all this ruined wilderness He has brought me, of His infinite goodness, to that place where Jerusalem has descended from on high, which is the mother of us all; He has brought me out of the mire and clay and set my feet upon the rock; He has lifted me from those straying paths that lead nowhere, on to the broad road that leads to Him.

What yet lies beyond I do not know: the towers of this City of God rise immediately into the clouds that are about His Throne; the City is too vast, its streets too glorious, its houses too stupendous for any soul to dream that she knows them all or understands their secret. In this world, at least, not even the saint or the theologian, or the old man who has lived all his days within her walls, can dare to think that he has advanced more than a few steps within her heavenly gates. He stands within her, and, thank God, I stand there with him, as does every soul to whom God has shown this great mercy. But all of us together are but a party of children wandering in from the country, travel-stained, tired, and bewildered with glory. About us are the great palaces, where the princes dwell; behind us that gate of pearl which, somehow, we have passed; the streets before us are crowded with heavenly forms too bright to look upon; and supremely high above us rises that great curtained stairway that leads to the King.

It is there that we must go presently, after a few more steps across the market square. Yet there is nothing to fear for those who stand where we stand; there are no precipices to be climbed any more and no torrents to be crossed; God has made all easy for those He has admitted through the Gate of Heaven that He has built upon the earth; the very River of Death itself is no more than a dwindled stream, bridged and protected on every side; the shadow of death is little mere than twilight for those who look on it in the light of the Lamb.

“Behold, the tabernacle of God with men; and He will dwell with them. . . . and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and death shall be no more . . . And the City needeth not sun or moon to shine in it; for the glory of God hath enlightened it, and the Lamb is the lamp thereof.”