The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson


VI -- Intellect, Emotion and Faith


ANOTHER difficulty remains to be cleared away; and it is one that besets many souls as they approach the threshold of Catholicism. John states it to himself in this fashion.

"I have certainly arrived at the door of the Church, following a train of thought that seems to have been naturally suggested step by step through the peculiarities of my own circumstances. But how do I know whether I have not been deceiving myself throughout? There are certainly many hundreds of difficult questions that I have not dealt with: Anglican Orders, communion in one kind, indulgences, historical facts, the writings of the Fathers and other matters. I have not dealt with them because they do not seem to me relevant. But how can I possibly tell whether they are not so? Many people that I know are held back from Catholicism simply by such considerations as these; and they tell me that I have no right to take the important step of submission until I am completely satisfied on all these points.

"Or look at the question in another way.

"As I read the newspapers day by day, I see that all over the world souls are pouring into the Roman Catholic Church. From Russia they come by tens of thousands: I am told that, such is the movement in business-like America, New York will be practically a Catholic city in another fifty years. In France, while the bourgeois nation as a body is throwing off the faith, the keenest intellects are making haste to embrace it. I can scarcely take up an English newspaper without seeing that the Rev. Mr So-and-So or Mrs Somebody else has been received into the Church. And when I consider all this, and when I read the reasons on account of which my own acquaintances have taken this step, I perceive that no two of them give quite the same account of their conversion. One was first drawn by music, another by ceremonial, another by historical continuity, another by the example of friends, another by visible unity, another by the Petrine texts and their apparent fulfilment.

"Very well then. Pure reason has very little to do with it; the Catholic claims are not as logical as they appear; or at any rate it is not on account of logic that men make their submission. There is not one plain, undeniably intellectual path by which men approach the Catholic Church; for each gives a different account of his journey thither. And if they do not walk by pure reason, they can only walk by emotion; and emotion, as we know, is the most unsatisfactory path to follow. It has a way of suddenly ceasing and leaving one in the wilderness.

"When, therefore, I seem to myself to have come by intellect, I am deceiving myself; it is really emotion that has drawn me on; and what will happen, if, in five years' time my emotion runs dry, and I find myself bound to an institution in which I do not believe? I cannot trust myself after all!"

It would occupy us too long to follow John in all his struggles with this last difficulty. He prays, he thinks, he reads, he despairs, he hopes; and at last there takes shape in his imagination a kind of intellectual vision.

He sees a great city, the same as that which his patron saw long ago in Patmos.{1} It stands on a mountain, a city set on a hill; of the world, for its foundation rests on apostolic men; and of heaven, for its pinnacles reach to paradise. There is no temple in it, for GOD and the Lamb are in it, and every inch is sacred ground. It has no lamp or light of candle; for the LORD GOD is its light, and makes it to be a city of fire, a light that cannot be hid; so that even the nations that reject it walk in the splendour that flows from it.

Its foundations are encrusted with every jewel that GOD has made; there is not one virtue or grace that does not find a place there; and the heavenly glory from within shines through the purity of the diamond, the ardour of the ruby, the delicacy of the amethyst, the hope of the emerald.

Yet every gate is one pearl. While there is variety in its ornaments, there is none in its entrances. Men may come from afar, drawn by the light of this virtue or that, but they can only enter through a pearl -- a pearl of great price -- for which the sacrifice of all else is a cheap exchange.

These gates, all alike, stand three on each side, facing the four quarters of the earth; for the nations of north, south, east and west, are bringing their glory into it.

The Englishman brings his sturdy justice, the American his swift prudence, the Frenchman his delicate ardour, the German his solid learning, the Chinaman his incredible patience, the Indian his philosophic acumen, the Spaniard his smouldering passion. Each nation has his gift to make, each individual his contribution; but each passes in turn through the one and self-same gate to find his offering accepted and his poverty enriched.

There are ten thousand paths leading to this city; no two persons come the same way, for no two characters are alike. One follows the sound of an organ, one the scent of incense, one walks with the Scriptures in his hand; another is a historian, another a mystic, another a philanthropist; one is a sinner and seeks pardon; another is simple and needs illumination; another is a saint, and desires union with GOD; one is led by his mother's hand; another breaks loose from his friends to follow CHRIST. So they stream up by tens of thousands, each following his own path, each impelled by a power which he does not wholly understand; but, at the end, all meet at the same gate; each must enter by the pearl door.

"There is then," cries John, "but one thing demanded of each as he passes from the world into the city of GOD. I may be brought by intellect or emotion, by this train of thought or that, right up to the walls of the city, but I cannot enter except through one gate. I may be blind, or prejudiced, or stupid, or clever, or one-sided; I may approach the gate for the most inadequate and the most unconvincing reasons, but when I do get there, I have but to ask myself one question: do I or do I not believe that this pearl gate gives entrance to the city of GOD? Have or have I not conviction that this is CHRIST'S Catholic Church? I must not dare to turn back without answering: I must not venture to question the straightness of the path that has brought me here, or doubt whether I was justified in following it, or whether I should not have come more surely by another way. It does not matter in the least how I got here. The fact remains that here I am.

"Somehow I have been brought here; there stands a pearly vision. It may be an illusion of clouds and light; it may even be a disguised door to hell. But I dare not, for my own soul's sake, hesitate to answer. If I have conviction, I must go forward; if I have not conviction, I must turn back."


Next he wants to consider what is this faith or divine conviction by which alone he can enter.

Years ago he made acquaintance for the first time with his friend James. He was at college with him; and afterwards chance brought them together again in a provincial town. He observed James in many circumstances; he saw him in public and in private, when he was with strangers and when he was off his guard. He quarrelled with him, argued with him, was reconciled with him; he saw his faults, his weaknesses, his virtues and his possibilities; and at last he came to the conclusion that James was, at any rate, a perfectly honourable man. He did not pretend to infallibility, but only to certitude; he was perfectly certain that James was incapable of a dishonourable action.

Two years ago John received disquieting news. A friend called upon him to warn him against James; and to relate the fact that he had been undoubtedly guilty of meanness and fraudulence. The evidence seemed most convincing; it appeared impossible to explain it away; yet it had not the smallest effect upon John.

"I tell you," he answered, "James is simply incapable of this. I cannot disprove your evidence, but I do not believe it for an instant. I am perfectly certain that he could have done no such thing as you describe. I tell you I have complete faith in him."

"Now this," muses John, "is faith. I cannot say exactly how it came; how much my intellect had to do with it, or my emotions, or my intentions. It was a kind of gift that I received through my intercourse with James; it enabled me to believe in him in spite of all the black evidence against him. And it has been justified. I know now that although appearances were against him, he was innocent. It has all been explained away. That then is one kind of faith."

He passes on then very naturally to consider the kind of faith that the friends of JESUS CHRIST had in Him when He was upon earth.

They were very ignorant people for the most part; they had had no training in psychology; and yet they were capable of a virtue that the Pharisees and scribes did not possess. They must have been in great difficulties sometimes. Their friends no doubt would come to them and expostulate with them on their extraordinary folly.

"How can you believe that JESUS of Nazareth is GOD? It is simply unheard-of that GOD should be incarnate. Besides, have you not watched JESUS grow from infancy to boyhood, and boyhood to manhood? Have you not seen Him making tables and chairs in Joseph's shop? Don't you know Mary, His mother? Didn't He go to school like the other boys, say His prayers, eat, sleep, play, talk? How can you be so ridiculous as to say that He is almighty GOD?"

"And what in the world," asks John, "could the poor men answer? They couldn't argue about philosophy, and development, and the Blessed Trinity, and Cur Deus Homo, and all the rest of it. They couldn't po sibly explain in intelligible terms why they believed Him GOD. They could only shrug their shoulders and smile, and try to say that they knew perfectly well that JESUS CHRIST was human; but that somehow -- they couldn't say why -- they were under the firm impression that He was more than human as well -- that they were so certain, that they were willing to die for Him; to follow His lightest gesture; to leave their nets, and their friends, and their reputation for common-sense, and everything else that seemed worth having, at a whisper from JESUS, and to follow Him through the world."

"And, after all," cries John, "this inexplicable thing called Faith has turned the world upside down. Peter and James and Bartholomew are known and reverenced throughout the entire inhabited earth, while we don't even know the names of the clever men who argued with them, and laughed at them, and despised them. Does not this faith then seem to have justified its existence? and is it not possible that the faith that I have received -- for it is useless to pretend that I haven't -- this conviction that the vision of the city is not an illusion, but that the gate of pearl is a reality, and that the light that shines out streams from the face of GOD -- Wait! How did I receive it? When? By what particular argument? I don't know. GOD help me! I don't know. . .

"What is this that has happened to me? . . .

"I feel that a window has been thrown up behind me, sending a ray of light into the garden where I have been standing so long in the twilight. Six months ago everything was dim and undefined. Those dark shapes might have been bushes or bears or men -- kindly or malevolent or indifferent. Now a light has shined. I do not know who has thrown up the window; but I think that it can be only one Person. Perhaps He will shut the window again presently; but will that make any difference? Of course not; I know now perfectly well where I am and what is round me. I know that I am in a garden, not a menagerie; I know that that glimmering thing is a statue; and that streak of paleness is a gravel path, and that blot of black a cypress. I shall always know that, whatever happens, unless I wilfully shut my eyes and make myself think something else.

"Well, then, this is what has happened to my soul.

"I have been staring and puzzling and arguing about things, and straining my eyes, and listening to explanations, and doing my best to be in the right attitude for seeing what is true and what is not. I have done my best not to be bitter and sarcastic; I have tried to see everybody's point of view, and to make out what they mean and what I mean. I haven't bothered about things that did not seem to concern me. I haven't asked about minute details which I can't possibly know; or even about great and important things that did not seem to me to matter personally; and now the window has gone up, and I know.

"When people ask me exactly why I believe, I cannot exactly tell them. I cannot prove to them that the bush is a bush, and not a bear; they were not here when the window was opened. I can only say that I am perfectly certain; I can only say that I did have difficulties, and that I have them no longer; that some of the difficulties have actually become helps to my faith, and that others have melted. There are probably a great many other difficulties too; but, as Cardinal Newman said, 'Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.'

"When they tell me that the Catholic Church is a human institution; that its importance grew from the fact that Rome was the capital of the old world; that the faith has gradually developed; that ambition has played a great part, and all the rest of it; I shall answer that I am quite aware of all these facts, that I know that the Church is human, but that that does not prevent her from being also divine. When they bring forward yet more serious accusations, which I cannot answer explicitly, I shall fall back on faith, as I did in that affair of James's, and tell them that I am absolutely certain that she is incapable of such things; that I know she cannot tell a lie; and th at no amount of evidence could make me believe it.

"In other words I have received the Gift of Faith; which, as the penny catechism told me long ago, though I did not understand it then, "enables me to believe without doubting whatever GOD has revealed. . .

"And. . . and the best thing I can do at this moment is to put on my hat and go round to the presbytery."

{1} Cf. Rev. xxi.

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