"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Chain Gang, from Les Misérables

I’m finally getting back to reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.  As I’ve mentioned in past years, I’m treating each Volume of the opus as a novel.  There are five volumes and I’m up to the fourth, titled, “Eponine.”  Most readers here have heard of the Les Misérables story line, either from the Broadway play, the various movies, or from the novel itself.  So I won’t summarize in any way.  In Volume Four, Jean Valjean has taken Cossette out of her education with the Nuns and secretly moved to a remote part of Paris.  Cossette is now nearly an adult and Valjean has aged.  They do go on walks together, and on an early morning walk the two come upon a chain gang being driven through.  Recall that Jean Valjean was once a criminal himself and part of this very chain gang many years before when he was a very young man.  Hugo’s writing here is spellbinding.  I’m going to quote the entire chapter, Chapter VIII (“The Chain Gang”) of Book III.

Jean Valjean was the more unhappy of the two. Youth, even in its sorrows, always possesses its own peculiar radiance.

At times, Jean Valjean suffered so greatly that he became puerile. It is the property of grief to cause the childish side of man to reappear. He had an unconquerable conviction that Cosette was escaping from him. He would have liked to resist, to retain her, to arouse her enthusiasm by some external and brilliant matter. These ideas, puerile, as we have just said, and at the same time senile, conveyed to him, by their very childishness, a tolerably just notion of the influence of gold lace on the imaginations of young girls. He once chanced to see a general on horseback, in full uniform, pass along the street, Comte Coutard, the commandant of Paris. He envied that gilded man; what happiness it would be, he said to himself, if he could put on that suit which was an incontestable thing; and if Cosette could behold him thus, she would be dazzled, and when he had Cosette on his arm and passed the gates of the Tuileries, the guard would present arms to him, and that would suffice for Cosette, and would dispel her idea of looking at young men.

An unforeseen shock was added to these sad reflections.

In the isolated life which they led, and since they had come to dwell in the Rue Plumet, they had contracted one habit. They sometimes took a pleasure trip to see the sun rise, a mild species of enjoyment which befits those who are entering life and those who are quitting it.

For those who love solitude, a walk in the early morning is equivalent to a stroll by night, with the cheerfulness of nature added. The streets are deserted and the birds are singing. Cosette, a bird herself, liked to rise early. These matutinal excursions were planned on the preceding evening. He proposed, and she agreed. It was arranged like a plot, they set out before daybreak, and these trips were so many small delights for Cosette. These innocent eccentricities please young people.

Jean Valjean's inclination led him, as we have seen, to the least frequented spots, to solitary nooks, to forgotten places. There then existed, in the vicinity of the barriers of Paris, a sort of poor meadows, which were almost confounded with the city, where grew in summer sickly grain, and which, in autumn, after the harvest had been gathered, presented the appearance, not of having been reaped, but peeled. Jean Valjean loved to haunt these fields. Cosette was not bored there. It meant solitude to him and liberty to her. There, she became a little girl once more, she could run and almost play; she took off her hat, laid it on Jean Valjean's knees, and gathered bunches of flowers. She gazed at the butterflies on the flowers, but did not catch them; gentleness and tenderness are born with love, and the young girl who cherishes within her breast a trembling and fragile ideal has mercy on the wing of a butterfly. She wove garlands of poppies, which she placed on her head, and which, crossed and penetrated with sunlight, glowing until they flamed, formed for her rosy face a crown of burning embers.

Even after their life had grown sad, they kept up their custom of early strolls.

One morning in October, therefore, tempted by the serene perfection of the autumn of 1831, they set out, and found themselves at break of day near the Barriere du Maine. It was not dawn, it was daybreak; a delightful and stern moment. A few constellations here and there in the deep, pale azure, the earth all black, the heavens all white, a quiver amid the blades of grass, everywhere the mysterious chill of twilight. A lark, which seemed mingled with the stars, was carolling at a prodigious height, and one would have declared that that hymn of pettiness calmed immensity. In the East, the Valde-Grace projected its dark mass on the clear horizon with the sharpness of steel; Venus dazzlingly brilliant was rising behind that dome and had the air of a soul making its escape from a gloomy edifice.

All was peace and silence; there was no one on the road; a few stray laborers, of whom they caught barely a glimpse, were on their way to their work along the side-paths.

Jean Valjean was sitting in a cross-walk on some planks deposited at the gate of a timber-yard. His face was turned towards the highway, his back towards the light; he had forgotten the sun which was on the point of rising; he had sunk into one of those profound absorptions in which the mind becomes concentrated, which imprison even the eye, and which are equivalent to four walls. There are meditations which may be called vertical; when one is at the bottom of them, time is required to return to earth. Jean Valjean had plunged into one of these reveries. He was thinking of Cosette, of the happiness that was possible if nothing came between him and her, of the light with which she filled his life, a light which was but the emanation of her soul. He was almost happy in his revery. Cosette, who was standing beside him, was gazing at the clouds as they turned rosy.

All at once Cosette exclaimed: "Father, I should think some one was coming yonder." Jean Valjean raised his eyes.

Cosette was right. The causeway which leads to the ancient Barriere du Maine is a prolongation, as the reader knows, of the Rue de Sevres, and is cut at right angles by the inner boulevard. At the elbow of the causeway and the boulevard, at the spot where it branches, they heard a noise which it was difficult to account for at that hour, and a sort of confused pile made its appearance. Some shapeless thing which was coming from the boulevard was turning into the road.

It grew larger, it seemed to move in an orderly manner, though it was bristling and quivering; it seemed to be a vehicle, but its load could not be distinctly made out. There were horses, wheels, shouts; whips were cracking. By degrees the outlines became fixed, although bathed in shadows. It was a vehicle, in fact, which had just turned from the boulevard into the highway, and which was directing its course towards the barrier near which sat Jean Valjean; a second, of the same aspect, followed, then a third, then a fourth; seven chariots made their appearance in succession, the heads of the horses touching the rear of the wagon in front. Figures were moving on these vehicles, flashes were visible through the dusk as though there were naked swords there, a clanking became audible which resembled the rattling of chains, and as this something advanced, the sound of voices waxed louder, and it turned into a terrible thing such as emerges from the cave of dreams.

As it drew nearer, it assumed a form, and was outlined behind the trees with the pallid hue of an apparition; the mass grew white; the day, which was slowly dawning, cast a wan light on this swarming heap which was at once both sepulchral and living, the heads of the figures turned into the faces of corpses, and this is what it proved to be:--

Seven wagons were driving in a file along the road. The first six were singularly constructed. They resembled coopers' drays; they consisted of long ladders placed on two wheels and forming barrows at their rear extremities. Each dray, or rather let us say, each ladder, was attached to four horses harnessed tandem. On these ladders strange clusters of men were being drawn. In the faint light, these men were to be divined rather than seen. Twenty-four on each vehicle, twelve on a side, back to back, facing the passers-by, their legs dangling in the air,--this was the manner in which these men were travelling, and behind their backs they had something which clanked, and which was a chain, and on their necks something which shone, and which was an iron collar. Each man had his collar, but the chain was for all; so that if these four and twenty men had occasion to alight from the dray and walk, they were seized with a sort of inexorable unity, and were obliged to wind over the ground with the chain for a backbone, somewhat after the fashion of millepeds. In the back and front of each vehicle, two men armed with muskets stood erect, each holding one end of the chain under his foot. The iron necklets were square. The seventh vehicle, a huge rack-sided baggage wagon, without a hood, had four wheels and six horses, and carried a sonorous pile of iron boilers, cast-iron pots, braziers, and chains, among which were mingled several men who were pinioned and stretched at full length, and who seemed to be ill. This wagon, all lattice-work, was garnished with dilapidated hurdles which appeared to have served for former punishments. These vehicles kept to the middle of the road. On each side marched a double hedge of guards of infamous aspect, wearing three-cornered hats, like the soldiers under the Directory, shabby, covered with spots and holes, muffled in uniforms of veterans and the trousers of undertakers' men, half gray, half blue, which were almost hanging in rags, with red epaulets, yellow shoulder belts, short sabres, muskets, and cudgels; they were a species of soldier-blackguards. These myrmidons seemed composed of the abjectness of the beggar and the authority of the executioner. The one who appeared to be their chief held a postilion's whip in his hand. All these details, blurred by the dimness of dawn, became more and more clearly outlined as the light increased. At the head and in the rear of the convoy rode mounted gendarmes, serious and with sword in fist.

This procession was so long that when the first vehicle reached the barrier, the last was barely debauching from the boulevard. A throng, sprung, it is impossible to say whence, and formed in a twinkling, as is frequently the case in Paris, pressed forward from both sides of the road and looked on. In the neighboring lanes the shouts of people calling to each other and the wooden shoes of market-gardeners hastening up to gaze were audible.

The men massed upon the drays allowed themselves to be jolted along in silence. They were livid with the chill of morning. They all wore linen trousers, and their bare feet were thrust into wooden shoes. The rest of their costume was a fantasy of wretchedness. Their accoutrements were horribly incongruous; nothing is more funereal than the harlequin in rags. Battered felt hats, tarpaulin caps, hideous woollen nightcaps, and, side by side with a short blouse, a black coat broken at the elbow; many wore women's headgear, others had baskets on their heads; hairy breasts were visible, and through the rent in their garments tattooed designs could be descried; temples of Love, flaming hearts, Cupids; eruptions and unhealthy red blotches could also be seen. Two or three had a straw rope attached to the cross-bar of the dray, and suspended under them like a stirrup, which supported their feet. One of them held in his hand and raised to his mouth something which had the appearance of a black stone and which he seemed to be gnawing; it was bread which he was eating. There were no eyes there which were not either dry, dulled, or flaming with an evil light. The escort troop cursed, the men in chains did not utter a syllable; from time to time the sound of a blow became audible as the cudgels descended on shoulder-blades or skulls; some of these men were yawning; their rags were terrible; their feet hung down, their shoulders oscillated, their heads clashed together, their fetters clanked, their eyes glared ferociously, their fists clenched or fell open inertly like the hands of corpses; in the rear of the convoy ran a band of children screaming with laughter.

This file of vehicles, whatever its nature was, was mournful. It was evident that to-morrow, that an hour hence, a pouring rain might descend, that it might be followed by another and another, and that their dilapidated garments would be drenched, that once soaked, these men would not get dry again, that once chilled, they would not again get warm, that their linen trousers would be glued to their bones by the downpour, that the water would fill their shoes, that no lashes from the whips would be able to prevent their jaws from chattering, that the chain would continue to bind them by the neck, that their legs would continue to dangle, and it was impossible not to shudder at the sight of these human beings thus bound and passive beneath the cold clouds of autumn, and delivered over to the rain, to the blast, to all the furies of the air, like trees and stones.

Blows from the cudgel were not omitted even in the case of the sick men, who lay there knotted with ropes and motionless on the seventh wagon, and who appeared to have been tossed there like sacks filled with misery.

Suddenly, the sun made its appearance; the immense light of the Orient burst forth, and one would have said that it had set fire to all those ferocious heads. Their tongues were unloosed; a conflagration of grins, oaths, and songs exploded. The broad horizontal sheet of light severed the file in two parts, illuminating heads and bodies, leaving feet and wheels in the obscurity. Thoughts made their appearance on these faces; it was a terrible moment; visible demons with their masks removed, fierce souls laid bare. Though lighted up, this wild throng remained in gloom. Some, who were gay, had in their mouths quills through which they blew vermin over the crowd, picking out the women; the dawn accentuated these lamentable profiles with the blackness of its shadows; there was not one of these creatures who was not deformed by reason of wretchedness; and the whole was so monstrous that one would have said that the sun's brilliancy had been changed into the glare of the lightning. The wagon-load which headed the line had struck up a song, and were shouting at the top of their voices with a haggard joviality, a potpourri by Desaugiers, then famous, called The Vestal; the trees shivered mournfully; in the cross-lanes, countenances of bourgeois listened in an idiotic delight to these coarse strains droned by spectres.

All sorts of distress met in this procession as in chaos; here were to be found the facial angles of every sort of beast, old men, youths, bald heads, gray beards, cynical monstrosities, sour resignation, savage grins, senseless attitudes, snouts surmounted by caps, heads like those of young girls with corkscrew curls on the temples, infantile visages, and by reason of that, horrible thin skeleton faces, to which death alone was lacking. On the first cart was a negro, who had been a slave, in all probability, and who could make a comparison of his chains. The frightful leveller from below, shame, had passed over these brows; at that degree of abasement, the last transformations were suffered by all in their extremest depths, and ignorance, converted into dulness, was the equal of intelligence converted into despair. There was no choice possible between these men who appeared to the eye as the flower of the mud. It was evident that the person who had had the ordering of that unclean procession had not classified them. These beings had been fettered and coupled pell-mell, in alphabetical disorder, probably, and loaded hap-hazard on those carts. Nevertheless, horrors, when grouped together, always end by evolving a result; all additions of wretched men give a sum total, each chain exhaled a common soul, and each dray-load had its own physiognomy. By the side of the one where they were singing, there was one where they were howling; a third where they were begging; one could be seen in which they were gnashing their teeth; another load menaced the spectators, another blasphemed God; the last was as silent as the tomb. Dante would have thought that he beheld his seven circles of hell on the march. The march of the damned to their tortures, performed in sinister wise, not on the formidable and flaming chariot of the Apocalypse, but, what was more mournful than that, on the gibbet cart.

One of the guards, who had a hook on the end of his cudgel, made a pretence from time to time, of stirring up this mass of human filth. An old woman in the crowd pointed them out to her little boy five years old, and said to him: "Rascal, let that be a warning to you!"

As the songs and blasphemies increased, the man who appeared to be the captain of the escort cracked his whip, and at that signal a fearful dull and blind flogging, which produced the sound of hail, fell upon the seven dray-loads; many roared and foamed at the mouth; which redoubled the delight of the street urchins who had hastened up, a swarm of flies on these wounds.

Jean Valjean's eyes had assumed a frightful expression. They were no longer eyes; they were those deep and glassy objects which replace the glance in the case of certain wretched men, which seem unconscious of reality, and in which flames the reflection of terrors and of catastrophes. He was not looking at a spectacle, he was seeing a vision. He tried to rise, to flee, to make his escape; he could not move his feet. Sometimes, the things that you see seize upon you and hold you fast. He remained nailed to the spot, petrified, stupid, asking himself, athwart confused and inexpressible anguish, what this sepulchral persecution signified, and whence had come that pandemonium which was pursuing him. All at once, he raised his hand to his brow, a gesture habitual to those whose memory suddenly returns; he remembered that this was, in fact, the usual itinerary, that it was customary to make this detour in order to avoid all possibility of encountering royalty on the road to Fontainebleau, and that, five and thirty years before, he had himself passed through that barrier.

Cosette was no less terrified, but in a different way. She did not understand; what she beheld did not seem to her to be possible; at length she cried:--

"Father! What are those men in those carts?"

Jean Valjean replied: "Convicts."

"Whither are they going?"

"To the galleys."

At that moment, the cudgelling, multiplied by a hundred hands, became zealous, blows with the flat of the sword were mingled with it, it was a perfect storm of whips and clubs; the convicts bent before it, a hideous obedience was evoked by the torture, and all held their peace, darting glances like chained wolves.

Cosette trembled in every limb; she resumed:--

"Father, are they still men?"

"Sometimes," answered the unhappy man.

It was the chain-gang, in fact, which had set out before daybreak from Bicetre, and had taken the road to Mans in order to avoid Fontainebleau, where the King then was. This caused the horrible journey to last three or four days longer; but torture may surely be prolonged with the object of sparing the royal personage a sight of it.

Jean Valjean returned home utterly overwhelmed. Such encounters are shocks, and the memory that they leave behind them resembles a thorough shaking up.

Nevertheless, Jean Valjean did not observe that, on his way back to the Rue de Babylone with Cosette, the latter was plying him with other questions on the subject of what they had just seen; perhaps he was too much absorbed in his own dejection to notice her words and reply to them. But when Cosette was leaving him in the evening, to betake herself to bed, he heard her say in a low voice, and as though talking to herself: "It seems to me, that if I were to find one of those men in my pathway, oh, my God, I should die merely from the sight of him close at hand."

Fortunately, chance ordained that on the morrow of that tragic day, there was some official solemnity apropos of I know not what,-- fetes in Paris, a review in the Champ de Mars, jousts on the Seine, theatrical performances in the Champs-Elysees, fireworks at the Arc de l'Etoile, illuminations everywhere. Jean Valjean did violence to his habits, and took Cosette to see these rejoicings, for the purpose of diverting her from the memory of the day before, and of effacing, beneath the smiling tumult of all Paris, the abominable thing which had passed before her. The review with which the festival was spiced made the presence of uniforms perfectly natural; Jean Valjean donned his uniform of a national guard with the vague inward feeling of a man who is betaking himself to shelter. However, this trip seemed to attain its object. Cosette, who made it her law to please her father, and to whom, moreover, all spectacles were a novelty, accepted this diversion with the light and easy good grace of youth, and did not pout too disdainfully at that flutter of enjoyment called a public fete; so that Jean Valjean was able to believe that he had succeeded, and that no trace of that hideous vision remained.

Some days later, one morning, when the sun was shining brightly, and they were both on the steps leading to the garden, another infraction of the rules which Jean Valjean seemed to have imposed upon himself, and to the custom of remaining in her chamber which melancholy had caused Cosette to adopt, Cosette, in a wrapper, was standing erect in that negligent attire of early morning which envelops young girls in an adorable way and which produces the effect of a cloud drawn over a star; and, with her head bathed in light, rosy after a good sleep, submitting to the gentle glances of the tender old man, she was picking a daisy to pieces. Cosette did not know the delightful legend, I love a little, passionately, etc.--who was there who could have taught her? She was handling the flower instinctively, innocently, without a suspicion that to pluck a daisy apart is to do the same by a heart. If there were a fourth, and smiling Grace called Melancholy, she would have worn the air of that Grace. Jean Valjean was fascinated by the contemplation of those tiny fingers on that flower, and forgetful of everything in the radiance emitted by that child. A red-breast was warbling in the thicket, on one side. White cloudlets floated across the sky, so gayly, that one would have said that they had just been set at liberty. Cosette went on attentively tearing the leaves from her flower; she seemed to be thinking about something; but whatever it was, it must be something charming; all at once she turned her head over her shoulder with the delicate languor of a swan, and said to Jean Valjean: "Father, what are the galleys like?"

Excerpt taken from The Literature Network.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Confessions of a Convert by Robert Hugh Benson, Part 3

This is my final post on Robert Hugh Benson’s wonderful confessional memoir of his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith.  You can find Part 1, where I give an introduction and overview, here and Part 2 here.  I posted this handy little guide to the chapters I put together before, but I will post it one more time.

Chapter I: Describes his upbringing and spiritual development.
Chapter II: His first doubts about the Church of England.
Chapter III: His four years at the Community of the Resurrection gave him an appreciation for Roman Catholic type of devotions.
Chapter IV: In 1902, while writing one of his books, “The Light Invisible” he began to realize the inherent contradictions within Anglican theology and began realizing the harmonious integration within the Roman Catholic Church.
Chapter V: While reading various theological treatises, and then especially finding the claims of Rome as having primacy among churches in the New Testament itself, Benson was satisfied that the Church of Rome had full authority concerning doctrine.
Chapter VI: Having come to that realization, Benson is now thrown into a state of uneasiness and tries to give the Church of England another chance at resolving his intellectual and spiritual crises. 
Chapter VII: He makes a final decision to renounce the Church of England and enters the Roman Catholic Church.
Chapter VIII: His full expression of joy in joining the Church Christ instituted and what it has meant to him.

In Chapter VIII Benson attempts to delineate what “the Holy Mother Church” has been to him “ever since the day [he] walked blind and dumb and miserable in her arms.”  It has been eight or nine years since he converted at the time of this writing.  I found chapter VIII one of the most beautiful, sublime defense of the Roman Catholic Church, especially sections four, five, and six.  I wish I could quote it all, but a smattering will have to do.

Chapter VIII

So after spending a considerable amount of time in Rome, he began to realize that the Church embodied both the humanity of God—“the Word made Flesh”—which his Anglican seemed to lack and the spiritual. 

It was 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….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 strength of its mighty roots can be accounted for by nothing else.  Before I had thought of it as of a fine 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.

The longer he stayed in Rome, the more it shaped his understanding.

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 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 firelit 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,

But the Church’s majesty and strength was not all he learned

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.

And finally Benson gets to the culmination of his learning, and that is that the Roman Catholic Church is the fullness of Christianity.

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.

At reaching this understanding of the Church and then reflecting on his own journey, Benson then gets an insight into the totality of God’s plan.

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.

The lyricism of that paragraph, the vision of God’s plan, and the vision of the unity between nations and people, all linked into the mothering Church, is stunning in its beauty.  And finally he concludes with a look forward.

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.


What is sad is that Benson would die about a year after this was published at the young age of forty-two.  But he wrote so many books.  So much came out of his experience and journey that his books continue to speak to our faith.  I hope to read some more.


Friday, November 23, 2018

Confessions of a Convert by Robert Hugh Benson, Part 2

You can find Part 1 of my posts on  Robert Hugh Benson’s confessional memoir, Confessions of a Convert, here.  I presented this little chapter by chapter summary on that post but I think it’s a handy enough guide to post again.

Chapter I: Describes his upbringing and spiritual development.
Chapter II: His first doubts about the Church of England.
Chapter III: His four years at the Community of the Resurrection gave him an appreciation for Roman Catholic type of devotions.
Chapter IV: In 1902, while writing one of his books, “The Light Invisible” he began to realize the inherent contradictions within Anglican theology and began realizing the harmonious integration within the Roman Catholic Church.
Chapter V: While reading various theological treatises, and then especially finding the claims of Rome as having primacy among churches in the New Testament itself, Benson was satisfied that the Church of Rome had full authority concerning doctrine.
Chapter VI: Having come to that realization, Benson is now thrown into a state of uneasiness and tries to give the Church of England another chance at resolving his intellectual and spiritual crises. 
Chapter VII: He makes a final decision to renounce the Church of England and enters the Roman Catholic Church.
Chapter VIII: His full expression of joy in joining the Church Christ instituted and what it has meant to him.

Here are my comments from chapters three through seven.  Chapter Eight is such a magnificent piece of writing that I will dedicate an entire final post to it.  So stay tuned.

On Chapter III.

(1)
"Benson spends four happy years with the community of Mirfield Brethren, a religious community whose “external life was a modification of the old Religious Rules and resembled, so far as I understand, a kind of combination of the Redemptorist and the Benedictine.”

It's hard to imagine what a "combination of Redemptorist and the Benedictine" community would be like. Redemptorist are missionary while Benedictine are monastic.

(2)
It was his time in Mirfield that set him into doubt about the Church of England. This passage I think is very important:

Originally, as a "Moderate High Churchman," I had held that the Church of England, in her appeal and in her supposed resemblance to the "Primitive" Church, was the most orthodox body in Christendom; that Rome and the East on the one side had erred through excess; and the Non-conformist bodies on the other through defect, and these, further, through their loss of episcopal succession, had forfeited any corporate place in the Visible Body of Christ. But this doctrinal position had long ago broken down under me. First, I had seen the impossibility of believing that for about a thousand years the promises of Christ had failed—between, that is, the fifth or sixth century and the Reformation period—and that corruption during all this space of time had marred the original purity of the Gospel. Next, I had begun to perceive that in the Church of Christ there must be some Living Voice which, if not actually infallible, must at least be taken to be such—some authoritative person or Council who could pass judgment upon new theories and answer new questions. I had attempted, strangely enough, to find this Living Voice in the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles—to seek in them, that is to say, a final immediate interpreter of remote Primitive and Apostolic Faith. But now I had learned the fallacy of such an attempt, since even these formularies could be, and were, taken in completely divergent senses: the Ritualist, for instance, finds that the Prayer Book Catechism teaches the Objective and Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, and the Low Churchman claims it as teaching Receptionism. Then, when I had looked despairingly to the only elements in the Church of England which bear any resemblance at all to a Living Voice—the decisions of Convocation, the resolutions of Pan-Anglican Conferences, and the utterances of Bishops—I found, either that these were divided amongst themselves, or that they refused to answer, or, at the worst, that they answered in a manner which I could not reconcile with what I was convinced was the Christian Faith. The "Moderate High Church" theory, then, had broken down so far as I was concerned, and I had been forced, it seemed to me, both by logic and the pressure of circumstances, to seek some other theory as the foundation of my faith. This I found, for the time, in the Ritualistic School. It was as follows.

It's probably hard for us to understand what a "moderate High Church" is, but the fact of such a fine categorizations existed I think shows the turmoil that the CofE was undergoing. There was an incredible tension within its theology. If it became too Papist, the congregants saw the error of its ways; if it became too Calvinist, it didn't feel theologically sound. So it tried to create fine distinctions.

On Chapter IV:

(1)
“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.”

Yes, that is what I was referring to when I gave that outline of Anglicanism. The inherent contradiction between the low church (Evangelical from Calvin) with the high Church Catholic.

Joseph Pearce, who has written many books and is a great scholar and I believe a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism has often talked about how deeply Roman Catholic England was before Henry VIII. It wasn't just Catholic, it was as devout as any country. Even Henry VIII was supposed to be "defender of the faith" before he became completely egotistical. Somehow I suspect he lost his sanity. But it caused an incredible convulsion in English life from which it could only stabilize with an theologically flawed religion.

One of the great old Catholic shrines in England is that of Our Lady of Walsingham. You can read about it here.  

I still hold out hope that the land of Catholic William Shakespeare will one day return to its proper faith. OLofW, pray for us and pray for the British people.

(2)
Well, my two cents on whether or Protestants or Catholics are more emotional is this. It depends what you're looking at. I've seen Catholics get pretty emotional in practicing their faith too. It depends on what angle you are looking at, if that makes sense.

Perhaps Benson is referring to Protestants not really having a St. Augustine or a St. Thomas Aquinas, and so not having the intellectual rigor. Or he could be referring to Martin Luther, who was pretty emotional in his breaking with the church, or even Henry VIII in his.

I've seen Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a fairly intellectual contemporary Catholic make the case that Catholicism of the last couple of hundred years has drifted into sentimentalism. He talks about it here but he's got other articles where he details it as well and perhaps more fully. 

My point being, there are elements of emotionalism to almost everything.


On Chapter V

I think this section should be quoted:

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.


Yes, that is the justification for Rome as being the central authority of Christianity.


On Chapter VI

In this chapter Benson has a discussion with a “dignitary” from the Church of England in the hopes that he can persuaded him from conversion.  But just the very opposite happens:

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 method 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.

Benson was so clear headed.  The customs are only an outward form.  The Church’s authority and validity of the doctrine is what one must weigh.  And in the next paragraph Benson spells it out.

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.
Chapter six seems to be where Benson gave one last chance for the Church of England to make a case for him not to convert, and the Church of England couldn’t do it. 


On Chapter VII

(1)
Finally chapter VII we get his conversion.  I particularly liked how he described his conversion

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 think this paragraph captures the reactions from his conversion.



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 chil- dren — 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.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Faith Filled Friday: The Church Scandals and St. Catherine of Siena, Part 2

Last week I posted my comments on a discussion we had at Catholic Thought book club at Goodreads on the Church abuse scandals and I promised to write on how St. Catherine of Siena, the patron saint of blog, has been mentioned in several articles should be a model for we laity in forcing the issue on our Church leaders.

First let me finish with my comments.

Comment 6
I've commented on categories (a), (b), and (c) I think the last thing I have to comment on is the recent Cardinal Vigano letter (it's 11 pages by the way, not 13) accusing Pope Francis of knowing that Cardinal McCarrick was an abuser and active homosexual and not only not following up with reprimands but undoing the restrictions Pope Benedict XVI had put in place while McCarrick was under investigation.

Technically this falls under criteria (b) of a bishop - this time the Bishop of Rome - knowing about an abuse by an underling. If true, Pope Francis technically should be relieve of his office, but as Pope there is no person that can relieve him of his office or method of relieving him of his office. You cannot force a sitting Pope to abdicate. That is what led to the schism of the 1340s.

I can't seem to find the letter itself in any search. So I have not read it. All I get are articles that reference the letter and quote from it. If anyone knows of a link to the actual letter I would love to see it.

What to do? The allegations seem credible to me. We know for a fact (I think it's a fact) that Pope Francis eased the restrictions on McCarrick, so the dispute is whether the Holy Father knew of McCarrick's abuse.

So there are two possibilities, either he knew or he didn't know. If he didn't know, then no harm done, it was an innocent mistake. If he knew, we have a problem. Pope Francis has refused to answer the allegation. This leads us to suspect he did know.

So here's my opinion on it all. If he didn't know he should come out and say it and put it to rest. If he knew, then I would just let sleeping dogs lie and move on and never address the issue. Pope Francis was not overseeing McCarrick in that kind of detail. It amounts to more administrative bungling. The harm to the Church of having a Pope forced out and perhaps create a schism just when the church has been weakened would be huge and would not justify the maladministration. Pope Francis is 81 years old. He's not going to be there much longer, either from passing away or reaching a point where he can't keep up with the job and feels it's best to retire. Whatever political points some are trying to strike against Pope Francis (and I'm a conservative) are wrongheaded and counter productive.

Comment 7
This is a fascinating read. The author of this takes the Pennsylvania report, crunches the statics, compares it with the historical dat, and draws some insightful conclusions. "The Pennsylvania Report; By the Numbers": 

That last paragraph in my comment six, starting with “So here's my opinion on it all,” took some criticism.  It was written at the end of August with the crises fresh in people’s minds, and it looked for sure that Pope Francis would be compelled to do something or a revolution would take place to force him out.  Well, Pope Francis has done nothing and a revolution hasn’t taken place.  It’s amazing how a leader can change the subject and a raging issue can be mollified.  Pope Francis will not be forced to resign over this as some thought.  However the Church keeps puttering along, never seeming to resolve the issue.

With that, I want to bring in St. Catherine of Siena. 

During the scandal, I came across three separate articles on why we need another St. Catherine of Siena to come along to push the Pope and Bishops toward true reform. 

Over at The Catholic World Report Mary Rezac wrote, “The Siena Option: What one saint did in the face of a troubled Church.”  Rezac gives the background to the situation in Catherine’s day.  It too was filled with corruption and amazingly, homosexuality, and the height of the problem was the Avignon relocation of the papacy.  Rezac quotes Catherine scholar, Fr. Thomas McDermont, O.P..

When St. Catherine talked about the Church, she often referred to it as the Body of Christ, in the tradition of St. Paul, McDermott noted.

“She says the face of the Church is a beautiful face, but we’re pelting it with filth,” he said. “It has a beautiful face, that’s the divine side of the Church, but we human beings are pelting it; we’re disfiguring the body of Christ through our sins.”

Catherine, who was essentially a mystic and a local doer of good deeds, somehow decided to get involved on a global scale.

Catherine was drawn into the Church politics of her time not because of a misplaced sense of ambition, McDermott said, but because she loved the Church as she loved God.

“It wasn’t her motive to be involved in the politics of the Church, but what was best for everyone and for the church led her into politics,” he said. “But it’s not like she was interested in politics itself.”

As part of her attempts at solving the problems of the Church, Catherine joined the call of many other Catholics of the time for the Pope to return to Rome.

After some correspondence, Catherine set out on foot with her followers to go meet with the pope in person.

“It was a remarkable thing for Catherine who was a homebody to take off on foot for France with her disciples, but she was prepared to do anything for the Church because the Church was the Body of Christ,” McDermott said.

After scores of people pleading with the pope to return to Rome between 1309 and 1377, St. Catherine seemed to prove most persuasive.

During her visit, Catherine referenced parts of the pope’s dream, about which he had told no one.

“It was astounding to him (that she knew about the dream) and he took that as a clear sign from God that he was speaking to him through this woman,” McDermott said. So after decades of exile, within a few weeks of Catherine’s visit, the pope packed up his things and headed back to Rome.

Rezac then goes on to speculate how Catherine would handle today’s crises.  She quotes Dr. Karen Scott, a historian of Catholic studies at DePaul University.

“What would she say today? I think that’s a dangerous question,” Scott said, “because we can’t say how she would relate to the current issues and complex questions, except that she would know very well what the moral stance is, that bishops and priests and lay people should all follow.”

Catherine would set the highest of standards for honesty and integrity and pastoral concern for the laity, Scott said, as well as the highest standards “for avoiding schism and being close to the papacy.”

“Beyond that I think she would advise people to take the time to pray and discern and not have knee-jerk reactions to things,” she added.

Another article comes from Msgr Charles Pope’s blog, Community in Mission, titled ‘“This Is All I Can Do Now” – Applying a Practice of St. Catherine of Siena to Our Current Crisis.’ 


Msrg Pope gives a similar background to Catherine’s times, and concludes that with this:

She loved the Church but remained gravely concerned with the condition of the beloved Bride of Christ. Particularly egregious to her was the condition of so many clergy, right on up the ranks. Even the popes of her time, whom she acknowledged as the sweet Vicars of Christ, and her beloved father could not escape her expressions of grave disappointment and her calls to conversion.

The monsignor quotes extensively from St. Catherine’s Letter 74, to [Pope] Gregory XI at Avignon.  Here are a couple of excerpts of the excerpt.  She starts off as she starts a number of her letters:

In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of gentle Mary, mother of God’s Son.

Very loved and reverend father in Christ Jesus,

I Caterina, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ and your poor wretched unworthy daughter, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you the sort of true gentle shepherd who takes an example from the shepherd Christ, whose place you hold. He laid down his life for his little sheep in spite of our ingratitude …

And she gets to the heart of the issue.

You know that the devil is not cast out by the devil, but by virtue. [Mt. 12, 26-27] … You hold the keys, and to whomever you open it is opened, and to whomever you close it is closed. This is what the good gentle Jesus said to Peter …

So take a lesson from the true Father and Shepherd. For you see that now is the time to give your life for the little sheep who have left the flock. You must seek and win them back by using patience and war—by war I mean by raising the standard of the sweet blazing cross and setting out against the unbelievers. So, you must sleep no longer, but wake up and raise that standard courageously. I am confident that by God’s measureless goodness you will win back the unbelievers and [at the same time] correct the wrongdoing of Christians, because everyone will come running to the fragrance of the cross …

And then comes to her passionate exhortation.

Ah, my dear Babbo (Father), see that you attend to these things! Look for good virtuous men and put them in charge of the little sheep. …

Up, father! Put into effect the resolution you have made concerning your return and this crusade. You can see that the unbelievers are challenging you to this by coming as close as they can to take what is yours. Up, to give your life for Christ! Isn’t our body the only thing we have? Why not give your life a thousand times, if necessary, for God’s honor and the salvation of his creatures? That is what he did, and you, his vicar, ought to be carrying on his work. It is to be expected that as long as you are his vicar you will follow your Lord’s ways and example.

And finally Msgr Pope calls for us lay to follow her example:

Such words still ring true today! We must exhort Pope Francis to hear our cries for investigation and reform. We must speak in love and with respect, but we must also speak insistently and with clarity.

Finally the third article is by Kathryn Jean Lopez writing in Angelus News, titled, “What St. Catherine of Siena would say to today’s bishops.”

Lopez focuses mostly on Catherine’s letters where she finds exhortations to the religious of her day to reform the Church. 

If you’ve ever dipped into the letters of St. Catherine of Siena, you know she is forever encouraging holiness.

She wants people inflamed with “blazing charity” and bathing “in the blood of Christ crucified.” She wants to see people be who God made them to be and she wants his Church seeking to be worthy of her identity as the bride of Christ.

So, she would urge sisters and cardinals and the pope and lay people alike to “keep living in God’s holy and tender love” and go on in some detail about how that might look in their specific lives.

Her letters were written during a time when the Church was in serious trouble. While the Black Death ravaged Europe, the papacy had relocated to Avignon, France, and several of the republics and principalities of Italy, including the Papal States, were at war with one another. Many clergy had fallen into corruption.

Lopez quotes from a letter to Pope Urban VI, who’s election after Pope Gregory XI caused a schism in the church.

“You cannot with a single stroke wipe out all of the sins people in general are committing within the Christian religion, especially within the clerical order, over whom you should be even more watchful. But you certainly can and are obligated to do it, and if you don’t, you would have it on your conscience. At least do what you can. You must cleanse the Church’s womb — that is, see to it that those who surround you closely are wiped clean of filth, and put people there who are attentive to God’s honor and your welfare and the good of holy Church. …”

And she warns:

“Do you know what will happen to you if you don’t set things right by doing what you can? God wants you to reform his bride completely; he doesn’t want her to be leprous any longer. If your holiness does not do all you can about this — because God has appointed you and given you such dignity for no other purposes — God will do it himself by using all sorts of troubles.”

And she quotes from a 1376 letter to an apparently wayward priest.


“Where is the purity of the ministers of God’s Son? Reflect that just as you demand that the chalice you carry to the altar be clean and would reject it if it were dirty, so God, supreme eternal Truth, demands that your soul be pure and clean, without stain of deadly sin, especially the sin of impurity. ... These days we are seeing the exact opposite of the purity God requires! Not only are they not God’s temples carrying the fire of God’s word, but they have become stalls, lodging for pigs and other animals! They carry within the house of their souls the fire of anger, hatred, animosity, and ill will. For they harbor pigs, a filthiness that is incessantly rolling about within them like a pig in the mud. ... How bewildering to see Christ’s anointed ones giving themselves over to such wretchedness and immorality!”

Wow, I can see St. Catherine in writing that in fury.  And she was not shy about speaking similarly to a Cardinal. 

“Shame, shame, on our human pride, our self-complacency, our self-centeredness, when we see how good God has been to us, how many gifts and graces he has given us — and not because he has to but because he wants to! Obtuse as we are, we seem not to see or feel this love so hot that, if we were made of stone, it would long ago have burst us open! ... I can see no other reason except that the eye of our understanding is not on the tree of the cross. For there is revealed such warm love, such gently persuasive teaching filled with life-giving fruits, such generosity that he has torn open his very body, has shed his life’s blood, and with that blood has baptized and bathed us. We can and should make use of that baptism every day with continual remembrance and great love.”

And Lopez concludes her survey of Catherine’s letters by returning to thecurrent scandal.

Reading Catherine’s letters we are reminded we are in this journey — which is about eternity — together.

Reading testimony and accusations against a former cardinal archbishop of one of the most prominent episcopal sees in the United States — one of which involves the first child he ever baptized as a priest — we are all called to urgent duty to prayer and service, including encouraging and insisting on Christ in our daily lives and Church leadership. Anything short of it is not of God.


I’ve only given you the gist of these articles.  Go read them in their entirety.  They show what a pillar of strength St. Catherine of Siena was, and how she would be appalled at today’s crises, and how she is a model for us to force our Church leaders to the right direction.