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.
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.