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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsHugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 11. The Decision
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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 11. The Decision Post by :67834 Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2115

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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 11. The Decision

CHAPTER XI. THE DECISION

By this time we all knew what was about to happen. "When a man's mind is made up," says the old Irish proverb, "his feet must set out on the way."

Just before my brother made his profession as a Brother of the Mirfield Community, he was asked by Bishop Gore whether he was in any danger of becoming a Roman Catholic. My brother said honestly, "Not so far as I can see." This was in July 1901. In September 1903 he was received into the Church of Rome. What was it which had caused the change? It is very difficult to say, and though I have carefully read my brother's book, the _Confessions of a Convert_, I find it hard to give a decisive answer. I have no intention of taking up a controversial attitude, and indeed I am little equipped for doing so. It is clear that my brother was, and had for some time been, searching for something, let us call it a certainty, which he did not find in the Church of England. The surprise to me is that one whose religion, I have always thought, ran upon such personal and individualistic lines, should not have found in Anglicanism the very liberty he most desired. The distinguishing feature of Anglicanism is that it allows the largest amount of personal liberty, both as regards opinion and also as regards the use of Catholic traditions, which is permitted by an ecclesiastical body in the world. The Anglican Church claims and exercises very little authority at all. Each individual Bishop has a considerable discretionary power, and some allow a far wider liberty of action than others. In all cases, divergences of doctrine and practice are dealt with by personal influence, tact, and compromise, and _force majeure is invoked as little as possible. In the last hundred years, during which there have been strong and active movements in various directions in the Church of England both towards Catholic doctrine and Latitudinarianism, such synodical and legal action as has been taken has generally proved to be a mistake. It is hard to justify the system logically and theoretically, but it may be said that the methods of the Church have at least been national, in the sense that they have suited the national temperament, which is independent and averse to coercive discipline. It may, I believe, be truly asserted that in England any Church which attempted any inquisition into the precise doctrine held by its lay members would lose adherents in large numbers. Of late the influence of the English Church has been mainly exerted in the cause of social reform, and her tendency is more and more to condone divergences of doctrine and opinion in the case of her ministers when they are accompanied by spiritual fervour and practical activity. The result has certainly been to pacify the intellectual revolt against religious opinion which was in full progress some forty years ago. When I myself was at the university some thirty years ago, the attitude of pronounced intellectuals against religious opinion was contemptuous and even derisive. That is not the case now. The instinct for religion is recognised as a vital part of the human mind, and though intellectual young men are apt at times to tilt against the travesty of orthodoxy which they propound for their own satisfaction, there is a far deeper and wider tolerance and even sympathy for every form of religious belief. Religion is recognised as a matter of personal preference, and the agnostic creed has lost much of its aggressive definiteness.

It appears to me that, so far as I can measure the movement of my brother's mind, when he decided first to take Orders his religion was of a mystical and aesthetic kind; and I do not think that there is any evidence that he really examined the scientific and agnostic position at all. His heart and his sense of beauty were already engaged, and life without religion would have scented an impossibility to him. When he took Orders, his experience was threefold. At the Eton Mission he was confronted by an Anglicanism of a devout and simple kind, which concentrated itself almost entirely on the social aspect of Christianity, on the love of God and the brotherhood of man. The object of the workers there was to create comradeship, and to meet the problems of conduct which arose by a faith in the cleansing and uplifting power of God. Brotherly love was its first aim.

I do not think that Hugh had ever any real interest in social reform, in politics, in causes, in the institutions which aim at the consolidation of human endeavour and sympathy. He had no philosophic grasp of history, nor was he a student of the psychology of religion. His instincts were all individualistic and personal; and indeed I believe that all his life he was an artist in the largest sense, in the fact that his work was the embodiment of dreams, the expression of the beauty which he constantly perceived. His ideal was in one sense a larger one than the technically artistic ideal, because it embraced the conception of moral beauty even more ardently than mere external beauty. The mystical element in him was for ever reaching out in search of some Divine essence in the world. He was not in search at any time of personal relations. He attracted more affection than he ever gave; he rejoiced its sympathy and kindred companionship as a flower rejoices in sunshine; but I think he had little taste of the baffled suffering which accompanies all deep human passion. He once wrote "God has preserved me extraordinarily from intimacies with others. He has done this, not I. I have longed for intimacies and failed to win them." He had little of the pastoral spirit; I do not think that he yearned over unshepherded souls, or primarily desired to seek and save the lost. On the other hand he responded eagerly to any claim made to himself for help and guidance, and he was always eager not to chill or disappoint people who seemed to need him. But he found little satisfaction in his work at the Eton Mission, and I do not think he would ever have been at home there.

At Kemsing, on the other hand, he had an experience of what I may fairly call the epicureanism of religion. The influences there were mainly aesthetic; the creation of a circle like that at Kemsing would have been impossible without wealth. Beautiful worship, refined enjoyment, cultivated companionship were all lavished upon him. But he soon tired of this, because it was an exotic thing. It was a little paradise of a very innocent kind, from which all harsh and contradictory elements had been excluded. But this mere sipping of exquisite flavours became to him a very objectless thing, because it corresponded to no real need. I believe that if at this time he had discovered his literary gifts, and had begun seriously to write, he might have been content to remain under such conditions, at all events for a time. But he had as yet no audience, and had not begun to exercise his creative imagination. Moreover, to a nature like Hugh's, naturally temperate and ardent, and with no gross or sensuous fibre of any kind, there was a real craving for the bareness and cleanness of self-discipline and asceticism. There is a high and noble pleasure in some natures towards the reduction and disregard of all material claims and limitations, by which a freedom and expansiveness of the spirit can be won. Such self-denial gives to the soul a freshness and buoyancy which, for those who can pursue it, is in itself an ecstasy of delight. And thus Hugh found it impossible to stay in an atmosphere which, though exquisitely refined and quiet, yet hampered the energy of aspiration and adventure.

And so he came to the Mirfield Community, and for a time found exactly what he wanted. The Brotherhood did not mainly concern itself with the organisation of social reform, while it reduced the complications of life to a spare and rigorous simplicity. The question is, why this life, which allowed him to apply all his gifts and powers to the work which still, I think, was the embodiment of his visions, did not completely satisfy him?

I think, in the first place, that it is probable that, though he was not conscious of it, the discipline and the subordination of the society did not really quite give him enough personal freedom. He continued for a time to hanker after community life; he used to say, when he first joined the Church of Rome, that he thought he might end as a Carthusian, or later on as a Benedictine. But he spoke less and less of this as the years went on, and latterly I believe that he ceased to contemplate it, except as a possibility in case his powers of speech and writing should fail him. I believe that he really, thought perhaps unconsciously, desired a freer hand, and that he found that the community life on the whole cramped his individuality. His later life was indeed a complete contrast to anything resembling community life; his constant restlessness of motion, his travels, his succession of engagements both in all parts of England as well as in Rome and America, were really, I do not doubt, more congenial to him; while his home life ultimately became only his opportunity for intense and concentrated literary work.

But beyond and above that lay the doctrinal question. He sums up what he came to believe in a few words, that the Church of Rome was "the divinely appointed centre of unity," and he felt the "absolute need of a Teaching Church to preserve and to interpret the truths of Christianity to each succeeding generation." Once convinced of this, argument mattered little. Hugh was entirely fearless, adventurous, and independent; he had no ambitions in the ordinary sense of the word; that is to say he made no frontal attack upon promotion or respect. He was not what is called a "safe" man; he had neither caution or prudence, nor any regard for average opinion. I do not think he ever gave allegiance to any personality, nor took any direct influence from anyone. The various attempts he made to consult people of different schools of thought, all carefully recorded in his _Confessions_, were made courteously and deferentially; but it seems to me that any opposition or argument that he encountered only added fuel to the fire, and aroused his reason only to combat the suggestions with which he did not instinctively agree. Indeed I believe that it was his very isolation, his independence, his lack of any real deference to personal authority, which carried him into the Church of Rome. One who knew Hugh well and indeed loved him said to me a little bitterly that he had become a Roman Catholic not because his faith was strong, but because it was weak. There was a touch of truth in this. Hugh did with all his heart desire to base his life upon some impersonal unquestionable certainty; and where a more submissive mind might have reposed, as a disciple, upon the strength of a master, Hugh required to repose upon something august, age-long, overpowering, a great moving force which could not be too closely or precisely interrogated, but which was a living and breathing reality, a mass of corporate experience, in spite of the inconsistencies and irrationalities which must beset any system which has built up a logical and scientific creed in eras when neither logic nor science were fully understood.

The fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism lies ultimately in the old conflict between liberty and discipline, or rather in the degree to which each is valued. The most ardent lover of liberty has to admit that his own personal inclinations cannot form a satisfactory standard of conduct. He must in certain matters subjugate his will and his inclination to the prevailing laws and principles and beliefs, and he must sacrifice his private aims and desires to the common interest, even when his reason and will may not be convinced. That is a simple matter of compromise, and the sacrifice is made as a matter of expediency and duty rather than as a matter of emotion. But there are other natures to whom it is essential to live by emotion, and to whom it is a relief and delight to submerge their private inclinations in some larger national or religious emotion. We have seen of late, in the case of Germany, what tremendous strength is generated in a nation which can adore a national ideal so passionately that they can only believe it to be a blessing to other nations to have the chance given them, through devastation and defeat, of contributing to the triumph of German ideals. I do not mean that Catholicism is prepared to adopt similarly aggressive methods. But what Hugh did not find in Anglicanism was a sense of united conviction, a world-policy, a faith in ultimate triumph, all of which he found in Catholicism. The Catholic believes that God is on his side; the Anglican hopes that he is on the side of God. Among Anglicans, Hugh was fretted by having to find out how much or how little each believed. Among Catholics, that can be taken for granted. They are indeed two different qualities and types of faith, and produce, or perhaps express, different types of character. Hugh found in the Roman Church the comfort of corporate ideals and corporate beliefs; and I frankly admit that the more we became acquainted with Catholicism the more did we recognise the strong and simple core of evangelicalism within it, the mutual help and counsel, the insistence on reparation as the proof of penitence, the insight into simple human needs, the paternal indulgence combined with gentle authoritativeness. All this is eminently and profoundly Christian. It is not necessary here to say what the Anglican does not find in it or at what point it seems to become inconsistent with reason and liberty. But I desire to make it clear that what Hugh needed was an emotional surrender and a sense of corporate activity, and that his conversion was not a logical one, but the discovery of a force with which his spirit was in unison, and of a system which gave him exactly the impetus and the discipline which he required.

It is curious to note that Father Tyrell, whom Hugh consulted, said to him that he could not receive officially any convert into the Church except on terms which were impossible to persons of reason; and this is so far true that I do not believe that Hugh's conversion was a process of either intellect or reason. I believe that it was a deep instinctive and emotional need for a basis of thought so strong and vivid that he need not question it. I believe he had long been seeking for such a basis, and that he was right to accept it, because he did so in entire simplicity and genuineness. My brother was not sceptical nor analytic; he needed the repose of a large submission, of obedience to an impersonal ideal. His work lay in the presentment of religious emotion, and for this he needed a definite and specific confidence. In no other Church, and least of all in Anglicanism, could this be obtained. I do not mean for a moment that Hugh accepted the Catholic faith simply as a conscious relief; he was convinced frankly and fully that the Church of Christ could not be a divided society, but must have a continuity of doctrine and tradition. He believed that to be the Divine plan and method. Having done this, his duty and his delight were one. He tasted the full joy of obedience, the relief of not having to test, to question, to decide; and thus his loyalty was complete, because his heart was satisfied, and it was easier to him to mistrust his reason rather than to mistrust his heart. He had been swayed to and fro by many interests and ardours and influences; he had wandered far afield, and had found no peace in symbolism uncertain of what it symbolised, or in reason struggling to reconcile infinite contradictions. Now he rowed no more against the stream; he had found no human master to serve, and now he had found a great ancient and living force which could bear him on. That was, I think, the history of his spiritual change; and of one I am sure, that no surrender was ever made so guilelessly, so disinterestedly, and in so pure and simple a mood.

He has told the story of his own reception very simply and impressively. He wrote to my mother, "It has happened," and I see that he wrote also just before it to me. I quote from my diary:

"_September 9_, 1903.--Also a note from Hugh, from the Woodchester Dominican Convent, saying that he thinks he will be received this week, very short but affectionate. He says he won't attempt to say all that is in his mind. I replied, saying that I could not wish, knowing how he felt, the he should do otherwise--and I blessed him in a form of words."

It, may be frankly said that however much we regretted his choice, we none of us had the slightest wish to fetter it, or to discourage Hugh from following his true and conscientious convictions. One must recognise that the sunshine and the rain of God fall in different ways and at different times upon those who desire to find Him. I do not wholly understand in my mind how Hugh came to make the change, but Carlyle speaks truly when he says that there is one moral and spiritual law for all, which is that whatever is honestly incredible to a man that he may only at his direst peril profess or pretend to believe. And I understand in my heart that Hugh had hitherto felt like one out on the hillside, with wind and mist about him, and with whispers and voices calling out of the mist; and that here he found a fold and a comradeship such as he desired to find, and was never in any doubt again. And I am sure that he soon began to feel the tranquillity which comes from having taken, after much restlessness and anxiety, a hard course and made a painful choice.

At first, however, he was deeply conscious of the strain through which he had passed. He wrote to me in answer to the letter mentioned above:


Sept. 23, '03.

... Thank you so very much for your letter. It was delightful to get it. I can't tell you what happiness it has been through everything to know that you, as well as the others, felt as you did: and now your letter comes to confirm it.

There is surprisingly little to say about myself; since you ask--

I have nothing more than the deepest possible conviction--no emotionalism or sense of relief or anything of the kind.

As regards my plans--they too are tolerably vague.... All the first week I was with the Dominicans--who, I imagine, will be my final destination after two or three years.

... I imagine that I shall begin to read Theology again, in view of future Ordination: and either I shall go to Rome at the beginning of November; or possibly to Prior Park, near Bath--a school, where I shall teach an hour a day, and read Theology.

* * * * *

Mamma and I are meeting in London next week. She really has been good to me beyond all words. Her patience and kindness have been unimaginable.

Well--this is a dreary and egotistical letter. But you asked me to write about myself.

* * * * *

Well--I must thank you again for your extreme kindness--I really am grateful: though I am always dumb about such things when I meet people.

* * * * *

I remember taking a walk with Provost Hornby at Eton at this date. My diary says:

"_October 1903.--We talked of Hugh. The Provost was very kind and wise. He said, 'Such a change is a testimony of sincerity and earnestness'; he went on to tell a story which Jowett told him of Dr. Johnson, who said, when a husband and wife of his acquaintance went over to Rome, 'God bless them both.' At the end of the walk he said to me, 'When you write to your brother, remember me very kindly to him, and give him, as a message from me, what Johnson said.' This I thought was beautiful--more than courteous."

I sent this message to Hugh, who was deeply touched by it, and wrote the Provost an affectionate and grateful letter.

Soon after this he went out to Rome to prepare himself for the Orders which he received nine months later. My mother went to see him off. As the train went out of the station, and Hugh was lost to view, my mother turned round and saw Bishop Wilkinson, one of our dearest friends, waiting for her. She had told him before that Hugh was leaving by that train, and had asked him to bear both herself and Hugh in mind. He had not intruded on the parting, but now he drew my mother's hand into his arm and said, "If Hugh's father, when he was here on earth, would--and he would--have always wished him to follow his conscience, how much more in Paradise!" and then he went away without another word.

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