Confessions of a Convert

ROBERT HUGH BENSON

Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was lauded in his own day as one of the leading figures in English literature, yet today he is almost completely forgotten. Few stars of the literary firmament have ever shone quite so brightly in their own time before being eclipsed quite so inexplicably in posterity. This excerpt is from his book "Confessions of a Convert", published the year before his death.

Robert Hugh Benson
(1871-1914)

§ 1. I was in a very curious and unsatisfactory state when I came home. I do not propose to discuss these symptoms in public, but, to sum it up in a word, I was entirely exhausted on the spiritual side. Yet it was now absolutely clear to me, so far as I could see intellectually, that my submission was a duty. I made this clear also to my mother, from whom I had had no secrets from the beginning; and I settled down, as she desired me, towards, I think, the end of May, to allow myself time and energy for a reaction, if such should come. Occasionally I celebrated the Communion still in the little chapel of the house, for the reasons that I have already explained; but, with the consent of my Superior, I refused all invitations to preach, saying that my plans were at present undecided. This, of course, was absolutely true, as I sufficiently trusted my Superior’s and my mother’s judgment to allow of the possibility of a change of mind. I was still technically a member of the Community of the Resurrection, said my Office regularly, and observed the other details of the rule that were binding upon me. I had told, however, a few intimate friends of what I thought would happen.


§ 2.
I have mentioned before a certain MS. book upon the Elizabethan days of the Church of England. This had aroused my interest, and I began to consider whether, as a kind of safety-valve, I could not make some sort of historical novel upon the subject. The result was that I was soon hard at work upon a book, afterwards published under the title, “By What Authority?” It was extraordinary how excited I became. I worked for about eight or ten hours every day, either writing, or reading and annotating every historical book and pamphlet I could lay my hands upon. I found paragraphs in magazines, single sentences in certain essays, and all of these I somehow worked into the material from which my book grew. By the beginning of September the novel was three-quarters finished. I have formed a great many criticisms upon that book now. It is far too long; it is rather sentimental; it is too full of historical detail; above all, the mental atmosphere there depicted is at least a century before its time; men did not, until almost Caroline days, think and feel as I have represented them thinking and feeling in Elizabeth’s reign. In two points only am I satisfied with it: there is, I think, a certain pleasant freshness about it, and I have not as yet detected in it any historical errors. I was absurdly careful in details that were wholly negligible with regard to general historical truth. This work, I think, was an exceptionally good safety-valve, for my spirits, and if I had not found it I do not quite know what would have happened.

Now, more than ever, my resolution began to run clear. In book after book that I read I found the old lines of the Church of England burning themselves upwards, like the lines of buried foundations showing through the grass in a hot summer. I began to marvel more than ever how in the world I could have even imagined that the Anglican Communion possessed an identity of life with the ancient Church in England. For years past I had claimed to be saying Mass, and that the Sacrifice of the Mass was held as a doctrine by the Church of England; and here in Elizabethan days were priests hunted to death for the crime of doing that which I had claimed to do. I had supposed that our wooden Communion tables were altars, and here in Tudor times were the old stones of the altars defiled and insulted deliberately by the officials of the Church to which I still nominally belonged, and wooden tables substituted instead. Things which were dear to me at Mirfield — vestments, crucifixes, rosaries — in Elizabethan days were denounced as “trinkets” and “muniments of superstition.” I began to wonder at myself, and a little while later gave up celebrating the Communion service.


§ 3.
Sometime in the course of the summer, at my mother’s wish, I went to consult three eminent members of the Church of England — a well-known parish clergyman, an eminent dignitary, and a no less eminent layman. They were all three as kind as possible. Above all, not one of them reproached me with disloyalty to my father’s memory. They understood, as all with chivalrous instincts must have understood, that such an argument as that was wholly unworthy.

The parish clergyman did not affect me at all. He hardly argued, and he said very little that I can remember, except to call attention to the revival of spiritual life in the Church of England during the last century. I did not see that this proved anything except that God rewarded an increase of zeal by an increase of blessing. He himself was an excellent example of both. Neither could I see the force of his further argument that, since this spiritual revival showed itself along sacramental lines, therefore here was an evidence for the validity of Anglican Sacraments. For, first, precisely the same revival has been at work with regard to sacramental views among the Presbyterians, and high-church Anglicans do not for that reason accept the validity of Presbyterian Orders; and, second, it is natural that among Anglicans the revival should have taken that form, since the Prayer Book itself affords scope in this direction.

The dignitary with whom I stayed a day or two, and who was also extremely forbearing, did not, I think, understand my position. He asked me whether there were not devotions in the Roman Church to which I felt a repugnance. I told him that there were — notably the popular devotions to Our Blessed Lady. He then expressed great surprise that I could seriously contemplate submitting to a communion in which I should have to use methods of worship of which I disapproved. I tried in vain to make it clear that I proposed becoming a Roman 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; that I had better, in fact, correct my notions as soon as possible, for I should go to Rome not as a critic or a teacher, but as a child and a learner. I think he thought this an immoral point of view. Religion seemed to him to be a matter more or less of individual choice and tastes.

This interview afforded me one more illustration of the conviction which I had formed to the effect that as a Teaching Body — as fulfilling, that is, the principal function for which Christ instituted a Church — the Church of England was hopeless. Here was one of her chief rulers assuming, almost as an axiom, that I must accept only those dogmas that individually happened to recommend themselves to my reason or my temperament. Tacitly, then, he allowed no authoritative power on the part of the Church to demand an intellectual submission; tacitly, again, then, he made no real distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion: Christ had not revealed positive truths to which, so soon as we accepted Christ as a Divine Teacher, we instantly submitted without hesitation. Or, if this seem too strong, it may be said that the prelate in question at any rate denied the existence anywhere on earth of an authority capable of proposing the truths of Revelation in an authoritative manner, and hence, indirectly evacuated Revelation of any claim to demand man’s submission.

The layman, with whom also I stayed, had showed me many kindnesses before, and now crowned them all by his charity and sympathy. He emphasized the issues with extreme clearness, telling me that if I believed the Pope to be the necessary centre of Christian unity, of course I must submit to him at once; but he asked me to be quite certain that this was so, and not to submit merely because I thought the Pope an extremely useful aid to unity. The layman further told me that he himself believed that the Pope was the natural outcome of ecclesiastical development; that he was Vicar of Christ jure ecclesiastico, but not jure divino; and he pointed out to me that, unless I was absolutely certain of the latter point, I should be far happier in the Church of England and far more useful in the work of promoting Christian unity. With all this I heartily agreed. A further curious circumstance was that, at this time, a prelate was staying in the house with me who had had a great influence upon my previous life. He knew why I was there, but I do not think we spoke of it at all. After my return home again, my late host sent me a quantity of extraordinarily interesting private documents, which I read and returned. But they did not affect me. They are documents that have since been published.

Towards the end of July I was once more tired out in mind and soul, and was in further misery because an ultimatum had come from Mirfield, perfectly kind and perfectly firm, telling me that I must now either return to the annual assembling of the community or consider myself no longer a member. The Brother who was commissioned to write this had been a fellow-probationer of mine, with whom I had been on terms of great intimacy. He wrote in obvious distress, and after my answer, written in equal distress, telling him that I could not come back, I never since received any communication from him until one day when I met him by chance in the train. We took up then, I hoped at the time, our old friendship; but even more recently he has again refused my acquaintance, on the ground that I showed too much “bitterness” in public controversy.

Further, about this time I was engaged in another rather painful correspondence. A dignitary of the Church of England, the occupant of an historic see and an old friend of my family, hearing somehow that I was in distress of mind as to my spiritual allegiance, wrote to me an extremely kind letter, asking me to come and stay with him. I answered that I was indeed in trouble, but had already looked into the matter so far as I was capable. But I suppose that I must have seemed to hint that I was still open to conviction, for he wrote again, still more affectionately, and then somehow the correspondence became the retraversing of the old ground I had passed months before. Finally I told him plainly that I was already intellectually decided, and received in answer a very sharp letter or two, telling me that if I would only go and work hard in some slum parish all my difficulties would disappear. He might equally well have told me to go and teach Buddhism. In his last letter he prophesied that one of three things would happen to me: either (which he hoped) I should return quickly to the Church of England with my sanity regained, or (which he feared) I should lose my Christian belief altogether, or (which he seemed to fear still more, and in which he was perfectly right) I should become an obstinate, hardened Romanist. It appeared to him impossible that faith and open-mindedness should survive conversion. I hope I have not wronged him in this representation of his views. I destroyed his letter immediately.


§ 4.
In order to distract myself from all this, I then went for a few days’ bicycling tour alone in the south of England, dressed as a layman, calling first at the Carthusian Monastery of St. Hugh, Parkminster, with an introduction to one of the Fathers, himself a convert clergyman. He received me very courteously, but the visit depressed me even further, if that were possible. He seemed to me not to understand that I really asked nothing but to be taught; that I was not coming as a critic, but as a child. I do not think that I resented this, because my whole soul told me it was not quite just; if it had been just, I think I should have assumed a kind of internal indignation as a salve to wounded vanity. I went on in despair and stayed a Sunday in lodgings at Chichester, where for the last time, in a little church opposite the Cathedral, I made my Anglican Confession, telling the clergyman plainly that I was practically certain I should become a Roman Catholic. He very kindly gave me his absolution and told me to cheer up.

Then for the last time I attended, as an Anglican, cathedral services and received Communion; for I still thought it my duty to use every conceivable means of grace within my reach. On the Monday I rode on to Lewes, thence to Rye, where, at supper in the “George Inn,” I had a long conversation with a man whom I took to be a certain distinguished actor, talking to him for the most part about the Catholic Church, which he also loved from a distance, but not saying anything about my intentions. As a matter of fact, he did nearly all the talking. On the following day I rode home by Mayfield, all through a blazing summer’s day, looking with a kind of gnawing envy at the convent walls as I passed them, and staying for a few minutes in a beautiful little dark Catholic Church that I ran across unexpectediy in a valley.


§ 5.
Now it seems very difficult to say why I had not submitted before this. The reasons, I think, were as follows. First, there was the wish of my mother and family that I should allow myself every possible opportunity for a change of mind under new surroundings, and this, even, by itself, would have been sufficient to hold me back for a while. I was trying to be docile, it must be remembered, and to take every hint that could possibly come from God. Secondly, there was my own state of mind, which, though intellectually convinced, was still in an extraordinary condition. I entirely refuse to describe it elaborately — it would not be decent; but the sum of it was a sense of a huge, soulless, spiritual wilderness, in which, as clear as a view before rain, towered up the City of God. It was there before me, as vivid and overwhelming as a revelation, and I stood there and eyed it, watching for the least wavering if it were a mirage, or the least hint of evil if it were of the devil’s building. Cardinal Newman’s phrase describes best, I think, my mental condition. I knew that the Catholic Church was the true Church, but I did not absolutely know that I knew it.

I had no kind of emotional attraction towards it, no illusions of any kind about it. I knew perfectly well that it was human as well as divine, that crimes had been committed within its walls; that the ways and customs and language of its citizens would be other than those of the dear homely town which I had left; that I should find hardness there, unfamiliar manners, even suspicion and blame. But for all that it was divine; it was built upon the Rock of rocks; its foundations were jewelled even if its streets were as hard as gold; and the Lamb was the light of it.

But the setting out towards its gates was a hard task. I had no energy, no sense of welcome or exultation; I knew hardly more than three or four of its inmates. I was deadly sick and tired of the whole thing.

But God was merciful very soon. Even now I do not exactly know what precipitated the final step; the whole world seemed to me poised in a kind of paralysis. . . . I could not move; there was no other to suggest it to me. . . . But at the beginning of September, with my mother’s knowledge, I wrote a letter to a priest I knew personally, putting myself in his hands. This friend of mine, also a convert, was now contemplating entering the Dominican Order, and recommended me, therefore, to Father Reginald Buckier, O.P., then living at Woodchester. Two or three days later I received notice that I was expected at the Priory, and on Monday, September 7, in lay clothes, I set out on my journey. My mother said good-bye to me at the station.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert Hugh Benson. "Confessions of a Convert." Catholic Dossier 8 no. 2 (March-April, 2002): 20-23.

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier.

THE AUTHOR

Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, became a Roman Catholic priest, a novelist, and a prominent writer of apologetics. Benson was the youngest son of E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, as head of the Anglican Church, was the upholder of the Protestant establishment in England. As such, his son's conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1903, and his subsequent ordination, caused a sensation. Not since Newman's conversion almost 60 years earlier had the reception of a convert into the Church caused such a commotion. Shudders of shock shook the Anglican establishment, whereas many Catholics rejoiced at the news of such a high-profile coup with unrestrained triumphalism. Hugh Benson was lauded in his own day as one of the leading figures in English literature, yet today he is almost completely forgotten outside Catholic circles and is sadly neglected even among Catholics. Few stars of the literary firmament, either before or since, have shone quite so brightly in their own time before being eclipsed quite so inexplicably in posterity. Almost a century after his conversion, Benson has become the unsung genius of the Catholic Literary Revival.

Benson was a prolific author. His works include theological writings, such as Christ in the Church, The Religion of the Plain Man, and The Friendship of Christ, as well as novels, among the most famous of which are Lord of the World and Come Rack! Come Rope! This excerpt is from his book Confessions of a Convert, published the year before his death.

Copyright © 2002 Catholic Dossier




Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.