Confessions of a Convert / by Robert Hugh Benson


WHEN one stands at last upon high ground, it is extraordinarily difficult to trace the road behind by which one has approached: it winds, rises, falls, broadens, and narrows, until the mind is bewildered. Nor indeed do the comments of friends and critics shouted from below tend to clear the situation.

§ 1. I have been told that I became a Catholic because I was dispirited at failure and because I was elated at success; because I was imaginative and because I was imperceptive; because I was not hopeful enough and because I was too hopeful, faithless and too trusting, too ardent and too despairing, proud and pusillanimous. I have even been told, since the first publication of these papers, that I have never truly understood the Church of England. Of course that is possible; but, if so, it is certainly not for lack of opportunity. I was brought up, as will be seen presently, in an ecclesiastical household for twenty-five years; I was a clergyman for nine years, in town and country and a Religious House. My father was the spiritual head of the Anglican communion; my mother, brothers, and sister are still members of it, as well as a large number of my friends. I was prepared for orders by the most eminent Evangelical of his day. I ended by becoming a convinced High Churchman. It seems, further, now that I have my pen in my hand, that I never before really attempted to disentangle the strands, and that it is rash of me to attempt it now. It is full of danger. It is extremely easy to deceive oneself, and it is extremely hard not to be self-conscious and complacent, not to see only what one would wish to see; and, above everything, one is afraid that, after all, it is bound to be very unconvincing to other people. For you cannot trace the guidance of the Spirit of God or diagnose His operations in the secret rooms of the soul: He seems at times to let good go and to bring instead good out of evil, and light into voluntary darkness. . .

At the best, therefore, all that is possible is to describe the external features of the country through which the soul has passed -- the crossroads, the obstacles, the ravines -- and to give some sort of account of the consultations held by the way. Faith, after all, is a divine operation wrought in the dark, even though it may seem to be embodied in intellectual arguments and historical facts; for it is necessary to remember that two equally sincere and intelligent souls may encounter the same external evidences and draw mutually exclusive conclusions from them. The real heart of the matter lies somewhere else. . . . Catechumens, therefore, must remember that while on the one side they must of course clear the ground by the action of the intellect, on the other side it is far more vital that they should pray, purify motives, and yield themselves to God.

§ 2. First, I think, it will be as well to describe, so far as possible, my original religious education and position.

I was brought up in the moderate High Church school of thought, and naturally accepted that position as the one most truly representative of the Anglican communion. I learned -- that is to say, so far as I could understand them -- the tenets of the Caroline divines; I was taught to be reverent, sober-minded, anti-Roman; to believe in the Real Presence without defining it; to appreciate stateliness, dignity, and beauty in worship; to study first the Bible in general and later the Greek Testament. It seems to me, if I may say it without impertinence, that my religious education was excellently wise. I was interested in religion; I worshipped in dignified cathedrals and churches; I was allowed to go out before the sermon; I was told the stories of Dr. Neale and the allegories of Dr. Wilberforce and the histories of the early Christian martyrs; and the virtues held up to me as the most admirable were those of truthfulness, courage, honour, obedience, and reverence. I do not think that I loved God consciously, but at least I was never frightened at the presentation of Him or terrified by the threat of hell. I think I accepted Him quite unemotionally as a universal Parental Presence and Authority. The Person of Our Lord I apprehended more from the Gospels than from spiritual experience; I thought of Him in the past and the future tenses, seldom in the present.

My father's influence upon me was always so great that I despair of describing it. I do not think that he understood me very well; but his personality was so dominant and insistent that the lack of this understanding made very little difference; he formed and moulded my views on religious matters in such a manner that it would have seemed to me, while he lived, a kind of blasphemy to have held other opinions than his. Certain points in his system of belief puzzled me then, and they puzzle me still; yet these no more produced in my mind any serious question as to the soundness and truth of his faith than intellectual difficulties in God's Revelation produce doubts in my mind at the present time. He was, in the main, a High Churchman of the old school; he had an intense love of dignity and splendour in divine worship, a great sense of Church authority, and a firm orthodoxy with regard to the main foundations of the Christian Creed. Yet while he would say, partly humorously, yet with a great deal of seriousness too, that he ought really to have been a canon in a French cathedral, while he would recite scrupulously every day the morning and evening prayer of the Church of England, while he had an intense love of Church history and a deep knowledge both of that and of Christian liturgies and the writings of the Fathers, yet, in quite unexpected points he would fail, as it seemed to me, in carrying out his principles. For example, there is no custom more deeply rooted in antiquity or more explicitly enjoined in the Book of Common Prayer than that of the Friday fast; there is scarcely any ecclesiastical discipline more primitive than that which forbids the marriage of a man who has already received Major Orders; there is nothing more clear, I should have thought, among the disputed questions of matrimony, than that the release of one partner, with leave to marry again, simultaneously releases the other partner from the bond. Yet I am still wholly unable to understand, remembering his enthusiastic love of what I may call Church principles, how my father justified -- as I am convinced he did justify -- his attitude to those three points, for I never remember his abstaining from meat on a Friday or any other day, though I know that he denied himself instead in other ways; he raised no objections, except on purely private grounds, to Anglican clergy or bishops contracting marriage; and he held, I know, that while the guilty party, when a divorce had been pronounced by the law of the land, must not seek the blessing of the Church upon a subsequent union, the "innocent party" was perfectly at liberty to do so. Again, I never understood, and do not understand now, how my father interpreted the words "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church." He would rule out, I know, from external unity those bodies of Christians that do not even claim to possess episcopal succession; he hesitated, as I shall relate presently, as to whether or no the Church of Rome had forfeited, through her profession of what he believed to be heretical doctrines, her place in the body of Christ; yet he showed the greatest sympathy with and care for certain groups of Eastern Christians whose tenets have been explicitly condemned by Councils which he himself would acknowledge as ecumenical.

Again, I have never really understood his attitude towards such doctrines as those of the Sacrament of Penance. He held firmly in theory that Jesus Christ has given authority to His ministers to "declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins"; and, as a matter of practice, he himself, at a certain crisis in my life, recommended to me, when I told him that I wished to go to Confession, a "discreet and learned" clergyman to whom I had better apply; yet he never urged the practice, so far as I am aware, upon anyone, and never went to Confession himself. He believed, then, in the Power of the Keys; yet he seemed to hold simultaneously that this relief was to be sought only if peace of mind could not be obtained by other means, unless, indeed, he held, as I think possible, that the Power was effectively exercised in the public "absolutions" uttered the course of the Church services. He appears, therefore, on the surface, to have held that the authority given with such extraordinary solemnity by Christ to His Apostles, was not in the least even normally necessary to the forgiveness of post-baptismal mortal sin.

Now I am perfectly convinced that my father did not believe himself inconsistent -- that he had, in fact, principles which reconciled to his own mind these apparent contradictions. Yet I never knew, and do not now know, what they were. For, though he loved nothing better than to be consulted by his children on religious matters, as a matter of fact he was not very approachable by timid minds. I used always to be a little afraid of showing ignorance, and still more of shocking him. Never once, in a genuine difficulty, did I find him anything but utterly tender and considerate; yet his intense personality and his almost fierce faith continually produced in me the illusion that he would think it unfilial for me to do anything except acquiesce instantly in his judgment; the result was that I was often completely at a loss as to what that judgment was.

Religion at home, then, was always coloured and vivified by my father's individuality. I remember even now the sense of finality and completeness which it conveyed. The morning and evening services, first in the tiny prayer room at Lincoln, where my father was Chancellor from my first to my fifth year, then in the beautiful minute chapel at Lis Escop, Truro, where he was Bishop until after. my thirteenth birthday, and finally in the lovely chapels at Lambeth and Addington after his elevation to the see of Canterbury -- these services, every detail of which was thought out by my father and carried out liturgically and reverently, still have a strange aroma to my mind that I suppose my memory will never lose.

Other ways in which my father influenced my religion were as follows.

On Sunday afternoons in the country we would walk with him, rather slowly and recollectedly, for about an hour and a half; and during these expeditions one of us would usually read aloud, or sometimes my father himself would read aloud from some religious book. I do not think that these books were very well selected for a boy's point of view. The poems of George Herbert were frequently read on these occasions, and these very peculiar, scholarly, and ingenious meditations used to produce in me, occasionally, a sudden thrill of pleasure, but far more commonly a kind of despairing impatience. Or, again, some interminable life of a saint or a volume of Church history would be read; or a book of Dean Stanley's on the Holy Land. Once only can I remember, with real delight, so far back as early in the eighties, how my father fascinated me for half an hour or so by reading aloud, as we walked, the martyrdom of St. Perpetua and her companions. I remember, too, the irrepressible awe with which I discovered presently that he had been translating aloud and at sight, in perfect English and without hesitation, from the Latin "Acta Martyrum."

At the close of these Sunday walks, and sometimes also on weekdays after breakfast, we would go to my father's study for Bible-reading or Greek Testament. It is difficult to describe these lessons. For the most part my father would comment continuously and brilliantly, though often far above my capacity to understand, putting questions occasionally, showing great pleasure when we answered intelligently, or, still more, when we put reasonable questions of our own, and a rather oppressive disappointment when we were listless or stupid. It was all extremely stimulating to the intellect; it was, also, always somewhat of a strain; but I think now that its lack consisted in the predominance of the mind element over the soul. I do not remember that these lessons made it easier to love God; they were often interesting, and sometimes absorbing; but I do not, with all reverence to my father's memory, even now believe that in myself they developed the spiritual side of religion. For himself, with his own great spirituality, it was natural enough that his soul should find pleasurable activity in the intellectual scholarly plane; for myself there was a considerable tendency to think that intellectualism and Greek Testament ought to be the very heart of religion. For a child, I believe, there are other moulds more natural than that of the intellect in which spiritual life may shape itself: little pieces of ceremonial, connected, for example, with the saying of his prayers, actions of reverence, such as the sign of the cross or the fingering of beads, symbolic objects of worship, such as crucifixes or statues, and, for instruction, an almost endless use of attractive and well-drawn pictures -- these, I believe, are a better machinery for the shaping and development of a child's spiritual life than the methods of the intellect. I remember, for instance, that while George Herbert's poems usually bored and irritated me, I found a real attraction in the quaint devices of "Easter wings" or the "altar" -- the outlines, that is to say, in which once or twice he prints his verses on the page.

As regards morality, I was also a little puzzled by my father's attitude. He had a very great sense of the duty of obedience, and this sense, I think, rather overpowering in its sternness, tended to obscure to some extent in my own mind the various grades of objective wrongdoing. Two or three sins stood out to me in my childhood, as extremely wicked -- such things as lying, thieving, and cruelty. But beyond these practically all other sins seemed to me about the same; to climb over the wire fences that bounded the drive at Lis Escop by putting one's feet anywhere except at the point where the wire pierced the upright railings -- (my father bade me always do this to avoid stretching the wire) -- seemed to me about as wicked as to lose my temper, to sulk, or to be guilty of meanness. In this way, to some degree, one's appreciation of morality was, I think, a little dulled: since to forget an order, or to disregard it in a moment of blinding excitement, was visited by my father with what appeared to be as much anger as if it had been a deliberate moral fault. Once, later, at Eton, I was accused of grave cruelty to another boy and was very nearly flogged for it. I happened to be innocent and, ultimately, cleared myself entirely of the charge after a very searching examination by the head master; but for the time, after the news of the charge had come to my father in the holidays while I was at home, I was very nearly paralyzed in mind by the appalling atmosphere of my father's indignation and wholly failed to defend myself except by tears and silent despair. Yet all the time I was conscious of a faint relief in the knowledge that even if I were guilty -- and at the time so confused was I that I really scarcely knew whether I were guilty or not -- my father could not possibly be angrier with me than he had been, for instance, when I threw stones at the goldfish in the pond or played with my fingers during prayers.

Such, more or less, was my father's influence upon my religious life. I do not, as I have said, think that he made it easy to love God; but he did, undoubtedly, establish in my mind an ineradicable sense of a Moral Government in the universe, of a tremendous Power behind phenomena, of an austere and orderly dignity with which this Moral Power presented itself. He himself was wonderfully tender-hearted and loving, intensely desirous of my good, and, if I had but known it, touchingly covetous of my love and confidence; yet his very anxiety on my behalf to some degree obscured the fire of his love, or, rather, caused it to affect me as heat rather than as light. He dominated me completely by his own forcefulness, and I felt when he died, as a man said to me of his own parallel experience, as if the roof were lifted off the world.

§ 3. At my private school in Clevedon we attended a church rather more "high" than those to which I had been accustomed. It contained a dark, mystical-looking sanctuary, with iron and brass gates; the clergy wore coloured stoles, and Gregorian chants were in use. But I have not the slightest recollection of being astonished at any difference of doctrine from that which I had learned; though I was, I think, a little awed and curious at the minute variations of ritual, and certainly depressed by the species of plain-song we employed.

At Eton, however, I found myself back again in the familiar academic atmosphere of plain dignity, beautiful singing, and indefiniteness of dogma; and it was here, I suppose, that I should have received deep impressions of religion. But I did not, nor did any other boy of my acquaintance, so far as I am aware. My Confirmation was postponed a year or two, because I was supposed to be indifferent to it, as indeed I was. I regarded it as a seemly ceremony, to be undergone with gravity, and to represent a kind of spiritual coming of age; and I was really surprised when, upon at last inquiring of my father as to when I was to be confirmed, since most of my friends already were so, I was told that I ought to have been confirmed a year before, but that the rite had been postponed because I had not seemed to desire it. However, since I had taken the initiative at last, it should be as I suggested. I heard this with a faint sense of injustice; for I had become so accustomed to follow my father's lead in matters of religion that it had never even occurred to me that in any matter I ought to take the initiative myself.

But even Confirmation, combined with very loving and impressive talks from my father, made no difference to me. For my preparation I went to "m'tutor," who talked to me about half a dozen times alone, chiefly on morality and the need of being strenuous. I cannot remember that much was said about doctrine; it was, rather, taken for granted. For example, a kind of informal confession was suggested to me tentatively, though no word was said of absolution, and indeed the idea of such a thing was completely unfamiliar to me. I answered that I had nothing I wished to reveal. Finally, Dr. Goulburn's "Personal Religion," a stout, unattractive book, was presented to me. A year or two ago I found it again, and noticed that the leaves were still uncut. So little impression, in fact, did the whole affair make on me that I cannot remember even what Bishop it was that performed the ceremony; though I think it must have been the famous historian, Dr. Stubbs, of Oxford.

The only incident connected with my confirmation that is really clear to my mind is an anxious consultation held afterwards with three friends as to whether it would be decent to play fives in the afternoon, or whether it would be more proper to spend the time in decorous silence. We were not, I believe, in the least hypocritical or contemptuous; we wished to do what was right in the matter; and if fives could be reconciled with it, so much the better. We decided to play, and did so with a slightly chastened air. My mother also, soon after, gave me a little silver Maltese cross, engraved with the date of my confirmation -- March 26, 1887. I wore it on my watch chain for a while -- for at Eton at that time there was as little opposition as enthusiasm towards religion -- and presently lost it.

On the day of Communion I think I was rather more impressed. It was all unusual and mysterious; for only once before in my life had I even attended the service. I vaguely believed that I entered into a closer relationship with my Divine Ruler than ever before; and, although I was slightly depressed at the thought that in future I must behave myself better, I believed that I sincerely intended to do so.

Two other incidents I also remember connected with religion about this time. The first was my discovery, in a deserted tower-room at Lambeth, of a copy of Dr. Ken's Prayers for Winchester scholars, which somehow appealed to my imagination, and in which my father with great pleasure wrote my name when I asked him if I might have the book. I used this assiduously for a few months, liking, I think, the English and a certain gracious formality about the book. Then I dropped my prayers altogether and only went to Communion -- though each time, I think, with tolerably good intentions -- so often as it was necessary to avoid attention.

The second incident was one entirely uncharacteristic of Eton. The son of an Evangelical dignitary underwent some sort of a religious crisis at home and set to work with praiseworthy zeal upon his acquaintances. I was one of them, and was persuaded by him, with a friend of mine, to attend a Bible-reading, with prayer, held in his room. About four other boys assembled, and we sat there in horror, exchanging furtive glances while our leader expounded. At the sound of a footstep outside, Bibles vanished as if in conjuring tricks, and the exercises, I remember, were brought to an end after two meetings by a sudden irrepressible explosion of laughter from my own particular friend. He sat there, scarlet-faced, with the tears streaming down his cheeks and laughter bursting from him in successive explosions, while the rest of us giggled and eyed our instructor alternately. I think that the whole affair would have been extremely unhealthy if it had affected us in the slightest. Fortunately it did not, and we came away with our opinion unchanged that such zeal was all rather bad form and of no value.

Our evangelizer, however, was not discouraged, and his next attempt was more serious. He managed somehow to persuade an "old boy" to come down to Eton and address the house, which he did, I regret to say, in the presence of the house-master. It was very terrible. He delivered an emotional speech that was practically an open confession of his own evil living at school. I do not think I have ever seen boys more sincerely horrified -- not indeed at the substance of his story, but at the appalling "bad form" of alluding to it in a public manner.

This same attitude towards morality manifested itself in other ways. Chapel services at Eton counted for very little indeed usually in a religious direction; they were rather artistic, very academic, and represented, I think, the same kind of official homage to Almighty God as cheering the Queen when she came to see us, or when we, as on the occasion of her first Jubilee, went to the Castle to see her, represented our loyalty towards Victoria. You might or might not be personally enthusiastic, but at least you must pay a seemly deference. Now and again, however, one clerical master in particular would make an honest attempt to appeal personally in a sermon to the consciences of his hearers, especially on the subject of purity. Now his hearers, in the main, had no common code on the matter at all. A boy might be fantastically evil in that regard or scrupulously fastidious, without in the least forfeiting the respect of his fellows; it was, according to the Eton code of that time, simply a matter of personal taste. Some things you must not be: you must not be personally dirty, or a coward, or a bully, or a thief; but in this other matter you could choose for yourself without being thought either a blackguard or a prude, if you made the one choice, or if you made the other. These appeals, therefore, from the pulpit, made usually with a great deal of sincere ardour, were merely looked upon as slightly absurd. The authorities had their view on the subject, of course -- we knew that -- and we had the other. No kind of impression, therefore, was ever made by these fervent discourses -- since the preacher was nothing of a real orator -- and no comment ever uttered upon them except an observation, perhaps, that "A ----- seemed very excited to-day." In a word, such warmth of feeling upon a subject on which our minds were completely made up, one way or the other, seemed to us to be slightly bad form. In any case, too, it was not a subject for public discussion.

It was the lack of individual dealing with the soul, then, that was accountable for so much evil. Efforts have been recently made, I believe, to remedy this in some degree; and yet the true and only remedy is, as a matter of fact, practically impossible. Until something resembling the business-like system of Catholic schools in the encouragement of private devotion, the regularity of Confession, or at least the recognition of some such practice as a reasonable mode of relief -- until these things in some form or another find their places in the great Protestant public schools, I do not understand how the public formalities of religion can be anything more than formalities. And yet nothing but the peculiar safeguards of the Catholic Confessional can really meet the case, and these, from the very nature of the case, are out of the question. A purely voluntary system of Confession, such as they practised at the Woodard schools, though better than nothing, yet has unavoidable drawbacks.

§ 4. It was after leaving Eton, and before going up to Cambridge, that I received what was really the first touch of personal religion. I was in London for a year or so, and for a short time I was vaguely interested by Theosophy; then suddenly I became entirely absorbed and fascinated by the music and dignity of worship in St. Paul's Cathedral. The high celebration there is, indeed, as Gounod is supposed to have said, one of the most impressive religious functions in Europe. I began to go to Communion every week and to attend every other service that I could possibly manage -- sometimes in the organ loft, watching the mysteries of the keys and stops, sometimes sitting in the stalls. I did not in the least appreciate the sermons, though I was vaguely affected by Canon Liddon. It was the music, first and last, and it was through that opening that I first began to catch glimpses of the spiritual world; and my sense of worship was further developed and directed by an absolute passion that I conceived for Mr. Shorthouse's book, "John Inglesant." I read it again and again, as I read it still, though aware of its tendency to Pantheism; and even now I know passages of it by heart, particularly those dealing with the Person of Our Lord. It seemed that I had found at last the secret of those vague religious ceremonies to which I had always conformed with uninterested equanimity. A very warm friendship or two, also formed at this time, helped me in the same direction.

§ 5. At Cambridge everything receded once more, with the exception of a sudden short and intense interest in Swedenborgianism. Then I lost all interest. I neglected my prayers, except for a while when my father gave me a beautiful edition of Bishop Andrews' "Preces Privatae" in Greek and Latin; I almost gave up Communion; and the sole thread that was left to attach me in any sense to the supernatural was, once more, music. I very seldom attended my own chapel, but went instead continually to the evening service at King's, which, in another way from that of St. Paul's Cathedral, was, and is, quite incomparable. About half a dozen times, too, I attended -- with a recent convert, also an old Etonian -- High Mass at the Catholic church, where I worked later as a priest; but it made no impression on me, except one of vaguely mingled contempt and awe. But I remember distinctly an agreeable sense of shock and elation when at the Asperges one day I felt a drop of holy water on my face. My friend lent to me a "Garden of the Soul," which I never returned to him. Twelve years later, when I was myself a Catholic, I wrote to remind him of this, observing that now the book was more mine than ever.

Of course what religion I had was very little more than artistic; it made no sort of difference to my actions, but it kept me just in touch with things that were not wholly of this world.

My relations with regard to religion are very aptly illustrated by a little adventure I passed through in Switzerland about this time.

One of my brothers and I were ascending the Piz Palù, a peak of the Bernina range in the Engadine, and upon reaching the summit after a very laborious climb from a little after midnight until eight o'clock in the morning through very heavy snow, my heart suddenly collapsed. I was dosed with neat brandy, but owing, to very severe training recently undergone at Cambridge to reduce my steering weight, this failed properly to restore me, and for about two hours I was carried along the arête of the mountain apparently unconscious: my brother, indeed, for the greater part of that time thought me actually dead. Now although I appeared unconscious, and for a while was so, I was perfectly aware, even when my senses failed to act, that I was dying; I even began to speculate what would be the first phenomenon of the supernatural world that would disclose itself to me; and I fancied, owing no doubt to the suggestion conveyed to me by the vast icy peaks on which I had closed my eyes, that this would be a vision of the Great White Throne. Yet never for one instant was I conscious of the least touch of apprehensiveness at the thought of meeting God, nor of the least impulse to make an acts contrition for my past life. My religion, such as it was, was of so impersonal and unvital a nature that, while I never doubted the objective truth of what I had been taught, I neither feared God nor loved Him: I felt no sense of responsibility towards Him, nor was I even moved at the prospect of seeing Him. I acquiesced passively in my belief that He was present, but neither shrank from Him in fear nor aspired towards Him with affection.

And this, I think, was typical of my whole attitude towards religion in ordinary life. Intellectually I accepted the Christian Creed; but with my will and with my emotion. Except in moments, or for short periods of superficial excitement, I was wholly uninterested. My religion had no spark in it of real vitality.

In fact, my closest friend at this time was an explicitly dogmatic atheist -- I think the only one I have met -- and I was conscious of no particularly alarming gulf between us. One other friend of mine also was a Catholic, and with him I used to argue sometimes. But I do not think it ever occurred to me as even conceivable that his tenets could be anything but obviously absurd, though I remember being extremely annoyed one day when my atheist friend, being appealed to as an arbitrator, declared that, granted Christianity, Catholicism was its only possible interpretation. For the most part, however, I was really indifferent, spending a good deal of time in hypnotism in which I was tolerably proficient. No person in authority ever, so far as I can remember, made the slightest effort to approach me on matters of religion.

§ 6. And then -- even to this day I do not know why -- I decided to become a clergyman. I think the death of one of my sisters about this time helped me to the decision. But, for the rest, I suspect that my motives rose largely from the fact that a clerical life seemed to me to offer the line of least resistance. I am sure that I was not calculating enough to argue to myself that being my father's son would bring me emoluments or promotion; for, honestly, these were no temptation to me at all; but I think that, on the natural side at any rate, a life spent in an ecclesiastical household, and the absence of any other particular interest, seemed to indicate the following of my father's profession as, on the whole, the simplest solution of the problems of my future. I knew, too, that my decision would give him extraordinary pleasure, and I valued his approval very highly indeed.

But I think I was fairly conscientious about it all. I still had, from time to. time, romantic experiences in spiritual matters and loved, spasmodically and sentimentally, or thought I loved, the Person of Our Divine Lord, as suggested to me by "John Inglesant"; and I intended, sincerely enough, to embrace the clerical life with my heart and will, and to live it as little unworthily as possible. These intentions too were, as I have said, clinched and brought to a point by the very keen emotions I experienced at the death of my sister, and by a little message she sent to me from her deathbed.

Things were changed a little then; I began to read theology and became interested in it, especially in dogma, such as it was, and Church history. But it did not even enter my head for an instant that there was anything but the Church of England to represent Christ's original institution. I did not in the least hold, as I tried to hold later, that the Anglican communion was the "Catholic Church" in England, and the Roman communion the Church of the Continent. In fact I remember once in Switzerland remonstrating with a High Church lady who held such views and acted upon them by hearing Mass in a Catholic chapel. The Roman Catholics, I thought, were obviously corrupt and decayed, the Ritualists were tainted, and the extreme Protestants were noisy, extravagant, and vulgar. Plainly there was only one religious life possible, that of a quiet country clergyman, with a beautiful garden, an exquisite choir, and a sober bachelor existence. Marriage seemed to me then, as always, quite inconceivable.

§ 7. I read for Orders for a year and a half with Dean Vaughan at Llandaff. He was a very unique and exceptional man, and it was owing no doubt to his extraordinary charm of personality and his high spirituality that my father, in spite of the divergence of his views from those of the Dean, decided to place me under his charge. I think that he was in some respects the most remarkable preacher I have ever heard. He wrote out his sermons with infinite pains, word for word, destroying, I believe, the entire manuscript and beginning it all over again if he were interrupted during his composition of it; and then delivering it word for word from his paper with scarcely a gesture except quick, slight glances and almost timid movements of his head. But the English was simply perfect, comparable only, I think, to that of Ruskin and Newman; his voice was as smooth and pointed and pliable as the blade a rapier; and above all, he possessed that magnetic kind of personality that affected his educated hearers, any rate, like a strain of music. He was a pronounced Evangelical in his views: I still possess somewhere a couple of sets of notes that I wrote for him, under his influence, on the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, in which anything approachlng to sacramental doctrine is explicitly denied. Yet his faith was so radiantly strong, his love of the Person of our Lord so intense, that his pupils, I think, whatever their predispositions, were almost unconscious of the lack of other things. When we were under his spell it appeared as if no more could be necessary than the love and devotion of our master to God.

His wife too, a sister of Dean Stanley, was another great feature in our life. She was a strange old lady, resembling in face Queen Victoria, and one of the cleverest women I have ever met. She talked and wrote letters brilliantly and wittily, and it was a real delight to be in her company. When three or four of us were bidden to dinner at the Deanery, we used to compare our notes of invitation in order to triumph in her variety of expression. Each note was quite different from all the rest, yet each was vivid. I remember the Dean's gentle pleasure when he discovered that, during a grave illness of his, his wife had, in despair of his recovery, actually engaged a house to retire to for her widowhood. He told us the facts in her presence, while she jerked her features about in humorous protest. "No, my dear," said the Dean at last, with his eyes twinkling like stars, "you see I'm not dead yet, after all, and I'm afraid you won't get to your new house just yet."

We led a very harmless life, reading Greek Testament with the Dean every morning, composing a sermon for him once a week, playing a great deal of football, and attending the cathedral services every day. It was one of the proudest days of my life when I was selected by a club to play half-back against Cardiff. But here, in spite of the Dean's strong Evangelicalism, commended though it was by his charming and spiritual personality, I began to have a glimmer of more Catholic views, and, for the first time in my life, began to prefer Communion before breakfast. This was partly through the influence of a particular man with whom I made great friends. "John Inglesant" also began again to reassert his power, and I even made a journey or two here and there to see houses where I might set up, I imagined, an institution resembling that of Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding, where, however, women were to be strictly excluded. We were to lead a very recondite life, I remember, in a kind of scholarly solitude; but I do not remember that self-denial in any form was to play a part in it. Yet the intention was certainly good, for the chief object of the life, so far as I contemplated it, was to increase the union of our souls with the Person of Our Blessed Lord.

§ 8. I was ordained deacon in 1894, after a very strange, solitary retreat, in which for about a week all religious sense deserted me. My retreat was made near Lincoln, where years ago I had lived as a child. I engaged a couple of rooms in the lodge of an old park about four or five miles out of the city and arranged my day in what I thought a suitable manner, giving certain hours to prayer and meditation, to the recitation of the Little Hours, in English, and to exercise. Of course it was an impossibly mad thing to do. I was in a state of tense excitement at the prospect of my ordination to the ministry; I knew nothing whatever about my own soul and the dangers of introspection, and still less about the science of prayer. The result was such mental agony as I cannot even now remember without an ache of mind. It seemed to me, after a day or two, that there was no truth in religion, that Jesus Christ was not God, that the whole of life was an empty sham, and that I was, if not the chiefest of sinners, at any rate the most monumental of fools. I still remember the torment of Advent Sunday. I walked in the dark of the morning, fasting, into Lincoln, went to Communion in the Cathedral, and attended the services later in the day, sitting in the dusky nave, like a soul in hell. I still cannot read the magnificent collect for Advent Sunday, as appointed in the Book of Common Prayer -- the rolling phrases about the "works of darkness" and the "armour of light," -- or the tramping hymn, "Lo! He comes with clouds descending," without an echo of the horror coming back to me. It was on this day that for the first time I set eyes on Bishop King -- even then a bent old man with a wonderfully spiritual face, walking swiftly and swayingly at the end of the procession -- the Bishop who later was tried in my father's Court at Lambeth on charges of Ritualism.

Matters got a little better with me towards the end of my retreat; a kind of dull luminousness of faith came back, and at last I went back to Addington for my ordination to the diaconate, though still shaken and, so to speak, still spiritually hysterical.

The ordination itself distracted and helped me. It was held by my father in Croydon parish church. I was selected as "Gospeller"; and Canon Mason, the late master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, preached an exceedingly fine and enkindling sermon. I remember one extremely subtle and witty sentence of it. He was speaking of the doctrinal divisions in the Church of England; and, seeking to reassure us on the point, combined geographical and dogmatic dissension, together with a fine alliterativeness, in one sweeping phrase. "For all our divisions," he said, "we are yet united in objective truth. One form of words, and one only, is being uttered to-day in every diocese -- from Carlisle to Canterbury, from Lincoln to Liverpool."

On the following Christmas Day I assisted my father in the administration of Communion in Addington church, and then went at once to work in East London, at the Eton mission; and here, for the first time, High Church ideas began to take definite gradual possession of me. The occasion of it was as follows.

I received an invitation, a month after my ordination, to be present at a retreat at Kemsing, near Sevenoaks, given by one of the Cowley "Fathers." I went, in high collars and a white tie, and was completely taken by storm. For the first time Christian Doctrine, as Father Maturin preached it, displayed itself to me as an orderly scheme. I saw now how things fitted on one to the other, how the sacraments followed inevitably from the Incarnation, how body and spirit were alike met in the mercy of God. The preacher was extraordinarily eloquent and deep; he preached hour after hour; he caught up my fragments of thought, my glimpses of spiritual experience, my gropings in the twilight, and showed me the whole, glowing and transfigured in an immense scheme whose existence I had not suspected. He touched my heart also, profoundly, as well as my head, revealing to me the springs and motives of my own nature m a completely new manner. Especially he preached Confession, showing its place in the divine economy; but this, very naturally, I strenuously resisted. It was not a strict retreat, and I talked freely in the afternoon with two friends, endeavouring to persuade myself that Confession was no more than an occasional medicine for those who felt they needed it. But the work was done, though I did not know it until a year later. This, however, I took away, explicit, from the retreat -- a desire to make my own that religion which I had heard preached. But there were certain difficulties before me.

The parish to which my father was sending me was not run on at all extreme lines. Confession was distinctly discouraged and the Communion was celebrated on Sundays and Thursdays only. It was an extremely beautiful church, built by Bodley on High Church lines, with Latin inscriptions quite incomprehensible to the congregation. The previous vicar, who had now become Bishop of Zululand, and was a distinct High Churchman, had been recently succeeded by a chaplain of my father's -- the Rev. St. Clair Donaldson, now Archbishop of Brisbane, whose views were much more Evangelical. Mr. Donaldson was a magnificent worker; great men's clubs were in full swing, and activities of every kind -- Bands of Hope, Temperance Meetings, a ladies' settlement, children's plays, and, above all, systematic house to house visiting -- occupied our time. But the original High Church methods of Bishop Carter had been largely modified, the daily celebration had been abolished, and the Anglican sisters, who had previously worked in the parish, had, thereupon, withdrawn. I believe that the Vicar did occasionally hear confessions in the vestry from two or three adherents of the old system, but he certainly neither preached nor encouraged the practice in any way.

In spite of his influence, however, the ideas sown in my mind by Father Maturin began to sprout. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me still, even looking at it from the Anglican point of view, as if the only hope of really touching and holding the lives of those who live under the stress of East London sordidness and pressure, lies in what may be called the materialisation of religion -- I mean the supplying of acts and images on which religious emotion may concentrate itself. Extreme definiteness seems necessary, and that, not only in the bright and impressive adjuncts of worship, but in the modes in which individual approach to God is made. Men's clubs, where religious and political conversation is against the rules (as was the case in ours), furious visiting, children's pantomimes, and general activity and fervour certainly have their place and function; but unless the individual understands where and how he may discharge his penitence or adoration, not merely as a member of a congregation, but as an unique soul which God has made and redeemed, piety can never be more than vague and diffusive. I dimly felt this, even then, and, since a man's soul is nearer to himself than any other can be, I began to see that I must begin with myself.

The end of it was that just before my ordination as "priest" I made, with my father's consent, for the first time, a full confession of my whole life before a clergyman. He was extraordinarily kind and skilful, though he gave me a penance which would occupy me half an hour every day until I came to him again, three months after. And the joy that followed that confession was simply indescribable. I went home in a kind of ecstasy.

My ordination also was an immense happiness, though I see now that there was a considerable feverishness in my emotions. I went into the Addington woods alone, telling myself that I was now a priest, that I could do for others what had been recently done for me; and I went back to East London full of enthusiasm.

§ 9. About this time, too, I began to take up again my acquaintance with the Cambridge friend with whom I had had many arguments -- now an Oratorian novice -- and went to see him several times; but I do not think it ever seriously entered my head that his intellectual position could possibly be anything but ridiculous. Still, he was a charming man, and, I have no doubt, did much to break down the wall of misunderstanding that separated my mind from his. I was perfectly confident, perfectly content, and perfectly obstinate. So fearless was I of his influence that I even went to stay with him on the coast of Cornwall, and while there, having no cassock of my own, borrowed and, in a sort of joyful excitement, wore his Religious habit in the pulpit of the little parish church.

In October, 1896, my father suddenly died on his knees in church during a visit to Mr. Gladstone at Hawarden. I was superintending the Sunday school at the Eton Mission when a telegram was put into my hands announcing the fact. On my way up to Hawarden that night I recited as usual the Evening Prayer appointed for the day, and in the Second Lesson read the words: "Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father and then I will follow Thee."

The days that followed were full of dignity and sorrow. It seemed incredible that my father was dead. He had just returned from Ireland, where he had paid a kind of semi-official visit to the Irish Protestant Church; he had seemed full of vitality. His last written words, found on his dressing-room table, were a draft of a letter to the "Times" on the subject of the Pope's Bull, just issued, condemning Anglican Orders as null and void. I celebrated the Communion service in Hawarden church before we left with the coffin for Canterbury, and gave Communion to Mr. Gladstone. My father's body lay in its coffin before the altar, covered with the same pall which afterwards, I believe, lay on the coffin of Mr. Gladstone himself. The funeral was wonderfully impressive. A great storm of wind, rain, and thunder raged outside while we laid within the Cathedral, near the west doors, the body of the first Archbishop to be buried there since the Reformation. It still seemed incredible, as we went home, that we should not find that same vital and eager personality to greet us as we came back to Addington.

A week later my health suddenly and completely broke down and I was ordered to Egypt for the winter, at a week's notice. My last request to my Vicar, I remember, before hearing this news, had been to the effect that we might have a daily celebration in future in the church, in place of the two weekly ones that had been in use previously. But it was thought better not.

<< Confessions of a Convert >>