Sunday, February 28, 2010
Confessions of a Convert
I recently finished reading Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson's CONFESSIONS OF A CONVERT. Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and his conversion to Rome caused great scandal in the Church of England in the early 20th century.
According to Joseph Pearce, "Besides Chesterton and Belloc, the writer most responsible for carrying the mantle of the Catholic literary revival in the early years of the twentieth century was Robert Hugh Benson. In some respects, Benson's life paralleled that of Newman. His conversion to Catholicism in 1903 and his subsequent ordination caused a sensation on a scale similar to that which greeted Newman's reception into the Church almost sixty years earlier. In Benson's case the sensation was linked to the fact that he was the son of E.W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1882 until 1896. Like Newman, Benson followed a literary as well as a priestly vocation, and before his untimely death in 1914 at the age of forty three, he had published fifteen highly successful novels. The other obvious parallel with Newman was Benson's writing of a lucid and candid autobiographical apologia describing the circumstances leading up to his conversion. Benson's Confessions of a Convert warrants a position alongside Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua as one of the great expositions of the spiritual and psychological background to religious conversion."
Confessions of a Convert is not very long, but one finishes the book feeling as if you have known Benson for years. Benson's description of his upbringing is fascinating. On Sunday afternoons, it was the habit of Benson's father to take the children for a walk and read from some spiritual book while walking. Benson recounts that one Sunday, his father read the account of the martyrdom of Saint Perpetua in Latin and flawlessly translated the Latin into English while walking.
Archbishop Benson was a "broad churchman," in other words, he was one that straddled the middle between the extreme Anglo-Catholic party and the extreme Evangelical party. After becoming an Anglican priest, Benson became a devout adherent of the Anglo-Catholic or High Church party in the Church of England.
Benson recounts the usual Anglo-Catholic vs. Evangelical turmoil in the Anglican Church. Benson recounts how after making a trip to the middle east, he realized how insignificant the Church of England really was. Benson comments, "A national church seemed a poor affair abroad." Benson quips that the Anglican Church is something that the English carry with them abroad "carried about (like an India rubber bath), for the sake of personal comfort and the sense of familiarity."
After returning to England, Benson joined an Anglican religious order and for a while this satisfied his Catholic longings. Ultimately, Benson resolved that the Church of England was not truly a part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and was received into the Catholic Church.
Although it may be Victorian sentimentalism, there is much beautiful writing in Confessions of a Convert. Having come to Rome from the Episcopal Church myself, I am very sympathetic to what Benson says about his experience as an Anglican: "It was not that she (the Church of England) had become unlovable. I love her even now as one may love an unsatisfactory human friend. She had a hundred virtues, a delicate speech, a romantic mind; a pleasant aroma hung about her; she was infinitely pathetic and appealing; she had the advantage of dwelling in the shadowed twilight of her own vagueness, in glorious houses, even though not of her building; she had certain gracious ways, pretty modes of expression; her music and her language still seem to me extraordinarily beautiful; and above all, she is the nursing mother of many of my best friends, and for over thirty years educated and nursed me, too, with indulgent kindness. Indeed I was not ungrateful for all this, but it had become entirely impossible for me ever to reverence her again as the divine mistress of my soul."
Father Benson says that in searching the scriptures he found 29 passages of scripture in the New Testament which support the Petrine office. In Benson's words about Holy Mother Church written 100 years ago, I could not help but think how true his words are today, when the Church is rocked by the scandal of pedophile priests, liturgical turmoil, and the cancer of extreme liberal theology.
"She (the Church), too, was betrayed and crucified; 'dying daily,' like her great Lord; denied, mocked, and despised; a child of sorrows and acquainted with grief; misrepresented, agonizing; stripped of her garments, yet, like the King's daughter that she is, 'all glorious within'; dead even, it seemed at times, yet, like her natural Prototype, still united to the Godhead; laid in the sepulchre, fenced in by secular powers, yet ever rising again on Easter Days, spiritual and transcendent; passing through doors that men thought closed for ever, spreading her mystical banquets in upper rooms and by sea shores; and, above all, ascending for ever beyond the skies and dwelling in heavenly places with Him who is her Bridegroom and her God."