Thursday, May 14, 2015

Robert Hugh Benson and Me

Sunday, for Mother’s Day, I double-dipped. After attending a Catholic mass with my wife, she and I accompanied my mother to a service at the Episcopal Church where Mom worships, where Dad is buried, and where I briefly felt the call of the priesthood as a fourteen-year-old acolyte.

Monday I finished Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir Confessions of a Convert. The two experiences are related.

Like me, Benson (1871–1914) was a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Unlike my father, Benson’s dad was the Archbishop of Canterbury. So while my conversion in 2008 rattled nary a teacup, Benson’s in 1903 was a scandal on the order of John Henry Newman’s defection in the 1840s. Formerly an Anglican priest himself, Benson was ordained a Catholic priest in 1904.

His book is a clear-headed, easy-to-follow account of his path to Rome. There are experiences in Benson’s memoir with which I identify deeply, others I never shared. Here are a few points of comparison:

Benson’s father was the key formative influence in his early spiritual life, as my father was in mine. I could easily say with Benson, “My father’s influence upon me was always so great that I despair of describing it.”

Archbishop Benson’s sudden death in 1896 and the son’s subsequent trip through France and Italy triggered in the younger Benson a lengthy reconsideration of his religious affiliation. While his father’s disappearance opened him to new possibilities, it was the trip to continental Europe that began tipping the balance. Away from England, Benson perceived “what a very small and unimportant affair the Anglican communion really was. We were nowhere. Here was this vast continent apparently ignorant of our existence!”

Visiting a small, “singularly uninviting” little Catholic church, something “resembling explicit Catholic faith stirred itself within me,” he writes. Benson began “for the first time to be aware of an instinct for Catholic communion. A national church seemed a poor affair abroad.”

I had similar experiences in my twenties. Travel through Europe showed me Catholic culture. I began to realize that what we know as Western civilization was built on a Catholic foundation (as Christopher Dawson taught). I felt the first stirrings of desire to unite my own spiritual journey with as large a sampling of humanity as possible. I realized that this could happen uniquely in the Catholic Church.

The Anglican church I had known and loved—the Church to which I took my mother last Sunday—served a wealthy community of largely English descent. As such, it was as insular—as WASP-ish—as England. Like Benson, I wondered if this was really the one holy catholic and apostolic church of which we Episcopalians spoke in the Nicene Creed (yes, catholic with a small c).

After several years of struggle, Benson converted and laid out his logic. His was the perspective of a clergyman who had seen the many doctrinal divisions in the Church of England:

1. “I accepted Christianity as the Revelation of God . . . [This is] my axiom.”

2. “I accepted the Bible as an inspired and a divinely safeguarded record of the facts of this Revelation.

3. [But] “I had come to see . . . the need of a Teaching Church to preserve and to interpret the truths of Christianity to each succeeding generation . . . A living religion must be able to adapt itself to changing environment without losing its own identity.

4. “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. . . . 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.”

5. “A church that appeals merely to ancient written words can be no more at the best than an antiquarian society.”

While his logic is clear to me, Benson makes a further point that is closer to the heart of my own conversion. 
“If the Church of Christ was, as I believed it to be, God’s way of salvation,” Benson writes, “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.”

Unlike Benson, I had spent many years in an “esoteric” “school” of “spirituality” that professed hard-to-fathom knowledge and methods. My head and heart both hurt by the time I was done with that “work.” I wanted to swim in the main current of Western religious experience.

“Humility and singleness of motive [are] more important than patristic learning,” Benson writes. That made sense to me—still does.

Benson writes that after his conversion not all difficulties vanished: “I do not suppose that there is any Catholic alive who would dare to say that he has no difficulties even now, but [quoting Newman] ‘ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.’”

“I proposed becoming a Catholic not because I was necessarily attracted by her customs, but because I believed that Church to be the Church of God, and that therefore if my opinions on minor details differed from hers, it was all the worse for me . . . ”

I agree with Benson. To me all the details are minor. 

Becoming Catholic, as I have written, was like falling in love with my wife. When you fall in love, you don’t question every last detail, not at the outset. You are in love. If you are lucky in love, as I have been, you find that all the questions that inevitably arise about your spouse never mount high enough to topple the love itself.

Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt. I have never regretted my own conversion a single moment in seven years.

Benson puts his certainty this way: “The idea of returning to the Church of England is as inconceivable as the idea of seeking to enter the Choctaw fold. . . . It would be the exchange of certitude for doubt, of faith for agnosticism, of substance for shadow, of brilliant light for somber gloom, of historical, world-wide fact for unhistorical, provincial theory.”

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