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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsHugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 9. Kemsing And Mirfield
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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 9. Kemsing And Mirfield Post by :dan7530 Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :2745

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Hugh: Memoirs Of A Brother - Chapter 9. Kemsing And Mirfield


The change proved very beneficial to Hugh; but it was then, with returning health and leisure for reflection, that he began to consider the whole question of Anglicanism and Catholicism. He describes some of the little experiences which turned his mind in this direction. He became aware of the isolation and what he calls the "provincialism" of the Anglican Church. He saw many kinds of churches and varieties of worship. He went on through the Holy Land, and at Jerusalem celebrated the Communion in the Chapel of Abraham; at Damascus he heard with a sort of horror of the submission of Father Maturin to Rome. In all this his scheme of a religious community revived. The ceremonial was to be Caroline. "We were to wear no eucharistic vestments, but full surplices and black scarves, and were to do nothing in particular."

When he returned, he went as curate to Kemsing, a village in Kent. It was decided that for the sake of his health his work must be light. The Rector, Mr. Skarratt, was a wealthy man; he had restored the church beautifully, and had organised a very dignified and careful musical service. Hugh lived with him at the vicarage, a big, comfortable house, with a succession of interesting guests. He had a very happy year, devoting much attention to preaching, and doing a great deal of work among the children, for which he had a quite singular gift. He had a simple and direct way with them, equally removed from both petting and authoritativeness. His own natural childlikeness came out--and indeed all his life he preserved the innocence, the impulsiveness, the mingled impatience and docility of a child more than any man I ever saw.

I remember a conversation I had with Hugh about this time. An offer had been made to him, through me, of an important country living. He said that he was extraordinarily happy at Kemsing but that he was too comfortable--he needed more discipline. He said further that he was beginning to find that he had the power of preaching, and that it was in this direction rather than in the direction of pastoral activity that his life was going to lie.

It was rather a pettish conversation. I asked him whether he might not perhaps find the discipline he needed in doing the pastoral work which did not interest him, rather than in developing his life on lines which he preferred. I confess that it was rather a priggish line to take; and in any case it did not come well from me because as a schoolmaster I think I always pursued an individualistic line, and worked hard on my own private basis of preferences rather than on the established system of the school. But I did not understand Hugh at this date. It is always a strain to find one whom one has always regarded as a boy, almost as a child, holding strong and definitely matured views. I thought him self-absorbed and wilful--as indeed he was--but he was pursuing a true instinct and finding his real life.

He then received an invitation to become a mission preacher, and went to consult Archbishop Temple about it. The Archbishop told him, bluffly and decisively, that he was far too young, and that before he took it upon himself to preach to men and women he ought to have more experience of their ways and hearts.

But Hugh with his usual independence was not in the least daunted. He had an interview with Dr. Gore, now Bishop of Oxford, who was then Head of the House of the Resurrection at Mirfield, and was accepted by him as a probationer in the Community. Hugh went to ask leave of Archbishop Maclagan, and having failed with one Primate succeeded with another.

The Community of the Resurrection was established by Bishop Gore as an Anglican house more or less on Benedictine lines. It acquired a big house among gardens, built, I believe, by a wealthy manufacturer. It has since been altered and enlarged, but Hugh drew an amusing set of sketches to illustrate the life there, in which it appears a rueful and rather tawdry building, of yellow stone and blue slate, of a shallow and falsetto Gothic, or with what maybe called Gothic sympathies. It is at Mirfield, near Bradford, in the Calder valley; the country round full of high chimneys, and the sky much blurred with smoke, but the grounds and gardens were large, and suited to a spacious sort of retirement. From the same pictures I gather that the house was very bare within and decidedly unpleasing, with no atmosphere except that of a denuded Victorian domesticity.

Some of the Brothers were occupied in definitely erudite work, editing liturgical, expository, and devotional works; and for these there was a large and learned library. The rest were engaged in evangelistic mission work with long spaces of study and devotion, six months roughly being assigned to outside activities, and six to Community life. The day began early, the Hours were duly recited. There was work in the morning and after tea, with exercise in the afternoon. On Saturday a chapter was held, with public confession, made kneeling, of external breaches of the rule. Silence was kept from Compline, at ten o'clock, until the next day's midday meal; there was manual work, wood-chopping, coal-breaking, boot-cleaning and room-dusting. For a long time Hugh worked at step-cutting in the quarry near the house, which was being made into a garden. The members wore cassocks with a leather belt. They were called "Father" and the head of the house was "Senior" or "Superior."

The vows were simple, of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but were renewed annually for a period of thirteen months, accompanied by an expression of an intention, only, to remain in the community for life. As far as I remember, if a Brother had private means, he was bound to hand over his income but not his capital, while he was a member, and the copyright of all books written during membership belonged absolutely to the Community. Hugh wrote the book of mystical stories, _The Light Invisible_, at this time; it had a continuous sale, and he used humorously to lament the necessity of handing over the profits to the Order, long after he had left it and joined the Church of Rome. The Brothers were not allowed, I think, to possess any personal property, and received clothing and small luxuries either as gifts, or purchased them through orders from the Bursar. Our dear old family nurse, Beth, to whom Hugh was as the apple of her eye, used to make him little presents of things that he needed--his wardrobe was always scanty and threadbare--and would at intervals lament his state of destitution. "I can't bear to think of the greedy creatures taking away all the gentlemen's things!"

There was a chapel in the house, of a High Anglican kind, where vestments and incense were used, and plainsong sung. There were about fourteen Brothers.

Hugh was obviously and delightfully happy at Mirfield. I remember well how he used to describe the pleasure of returning to it from a Mission, the silence, the simplicity of the life, the liberty underlying the order and discipline. The tone of the house was admirably friendly and kindly, without gossip, bickering or bitterness, and Hugh found himself among cheerful and sympathetic companions, with the almost childlike mirthfulness which comes of a life, strict, ascetic, united, and free from worldly cares. He spent his first two years in study mainly, and extended his probation. It illustrates the fact that he was acquainting himself strangely little with current theological thought that the cause of his delay was that he was entirely taken aback by a sermon of Dr. Gore's on the Higher Criticism. The whole idea of it was completely novel to Hugh, and upset him terribly, so that he thought he could hardly recover his balance. Neither then nor later had he the smallest sympathy with or interest in Modernism. Finally he took the vows in 1901; my mother was present. He was installed, his hand kissed by the Brethren, and he received the Communion in entire hopefulness and happiness. I was always conscious, in those days, that Hugh radiated an atmosphere of intense rapture and ecstasy about him: the only drawback was that, in his rare visits to home, he was obviously pining to be back at Mirfield.

Then his work began; and he says that refreshed and reinvigorated as they were before going on a Mission, by long, quiet, and careful preparation, they used to plunge into their work with ardent and eager enthusiasm. The actual mission work was hard. Hugh records that once after a Mission in London they spent four days in interviewing people and hearing confessions for eleven hours a day, with occasional sermons interspersed.

At times some of the Brothers went into residence at Westminster, in Dr. Gore's house--he was a Canon of the Abbey--and there Hugh preached his only sermon in the Abbey. But he was now devoting himself to Mission preaching, and perfecting his system. He never thought very highly of his gift of exposition. "I have a certain facility in preaching, but not much," he once said, adding, "I have far more in writing." And I have heard him say often that, if he let himself go in preaching, his tendency was to become vulgar. I have in my possession hundreds of his skeleton notes. They consist of the main points of his argument, written out clearly and underlined, with a certain amount of the texture indicated, sentence-summaries, epigrammatic statements, dicta, emphatic conclusions. He attained his remarkable facility by persistent, continuous, and patient toil; and a glance at his notebooks and fly-leaves would be the best of lessons for anyone who was tempted to depend upon fluid and easy volubility. He used to say that, after long practice, a sermon would fall into shape in a very few moments; and I remember his once taking carefully written address of my own, summarising and denuding it, and presenting me with a little skeleton of its essence, which he implored me to use; though I had not the courage to do so. He said, too, that he believed that he could teach anyone of ordinary brain-power and choice of language to preach extempore on these lines in six months, if only he would rigidly follow his method. His arguments, in the course of his sermons, did not always seem to me very cogent; but his application of them was always most clear and effective. You always knew exactly what he was driving at, and what point he had reached; if it was not good logic, it was extremely effective logic, and you seemed to run hand in hand with him. I remember a quite admirable sermon he preached at Eton at this date--it was most simple and moving. But at the same time the effect largely depended upon a grace of which he was unconscious--quaint, naive, and beautiful phrasing, a fine poetical imagination, tiny word-pictures, and a youthful and impetuous charm. His gestures at that time were free and unconstrained, his voice resonant, appealing, and clear.

He used to tell innumerable stories of his sermon adventures. There was a story of a Harvest Festival sermon near Kemsing, in the days when he used a manuscript; he found on arriving at the church that he had left it behind him, and was allowed to remain in the vestry during the service, writing out notes on the inside of envelopes torn open, with the stump of a pencil which would only make marks at a certain angle. The service proceeded with a shocking rapidity, and when he got to the pulpit, spread out his envelopes, and addressed himself to the consideration of the blessings of the Harvest, he found on drawing to an end that he had only consumed about four minutes. He went through the whole again, slightly varying the phraseology, and yet again repeated the performance; only to find, on putting on his coat, that the manuscript was in his pocket all the time.

He used to say that the most nervous experience in the world was to go into a street or market-place of a town where he was to hold a Mission with open-air sermons, and there, without accompaniment, and with such scanty adherents as he could muster, strike up a hymn. By-standers would shrug their shoulders and go away smiling. Windows would be opened, figures would lean out, and presently withdraw again, slamming the casement.

Hugh was always extremely nervous before a sermon. He told me that when he was about to preach, he did not generally go in for the service, but remained in the vestry until the sermon; and that he would lie on a sofa or sit in a chair, in agonies of nervousness, with actual attacks of nausea, and even sickness at times, until he was summoned, feeling that he could not possibly get through. This left him after speaking a few words: but he also maintained that on the rare occasions when he felt quite confident and free from nervousness, the result was a failure: he said that a real anxiety as to the effect of the sermon was a necessary stimulus, and evoked a mental power which confidence was apt to leave dormant.

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