The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson



MANY people when they read the the biographies of great men, cannot appreciate the high thoughts and emotions contained in them, until they have first grasped a mental picture of the man in his daily life. They wish to know at what time he rose in the morning, how he occupied his time, what he wore, ate and did. Not until then can they enter into his point of view.

Now many souls believe in Catholicism in an inchoate way: they apprehend its holiness, its beliefs, its aspirations; but they are held back from appreciating these things through their ignorance of its more concrete details. They might even make their submission to the Church, were it not that they were either ignorant, or, at any rate, mistaken, as to the actual process involved in that act. There is in them a kind of nebulous faith, but it is not yet solidified into a star.

In this last lecture, then, I propose to pass from generalities to particulars, from faith in general to acts of faith, from dogma to its shrine in the penny catechism, from John at the gate of pearl to John beside the presbytery fire.


For six weeks he attends the instructions of Father Brown; the two sit together informally, and go through the main points which a man should know before he binds himself and is bound irrevocably to the Catholic Creed. They discuss the great cardinal points of the Faith -- the Being of GOD, the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, the Sacraments; and they pass on to indulgences, relics, invocation of saints, purgatory and a rule of life.

They do not argue much; for, after all, John is convinced of the divine authority of the Catholic Church; and he is here not to criticize but to learn.

It is, of course, impossible to deal with the points individually; I propose rather to speak of the general impression on his mind.

i. Hitherto he has believed, because he understood; now he understands, because he believes; and there is a vast difference between the two positions.

As a High Churchman he has advanced step by step along the road of dogma; he came to believe in the Real Presence, because it was shown to him that the sacramental method was GOD's method in nature as well as in grace, that it was but natural that man's double nature should be sanctified by a gift that has an outward sensible form as well as an inner substance; he has come to believe in absolution when it was pointed out to him that what GOD does through another He does Himself, and that the divine pardon may well be conveyed through a human agency.

But now he believes these things, not because he understands, not even because he understands them better than ever before; but because an authority which he recognizes as divine proposes them unmistakably to his acceptance.

It was so, he perceives, long ago with the disciples of JESUS CHRIST. Our LORD had been saying words which must have appeared little less than shocking to many who heard them. He had declared that unless a man ate His Body and drank His Blood, he could have no life in him; and the amazing novelty of the words had caused consternation.

The enthusiastic crowds had dispersed, murmuring, "How can His Man give us His flesh to eat? . . . this saying is hard, and who can hear it?"

And our LORD looks round wistfully on the puzzled faces of His friends who believe Him better than they can understand Him.

"Will you also go away?"

There rings out the Catholic answer, piteous and faithful:

"LORD, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. We have believed and have known -- and we must still act upon that conviction -- we have believed and have known that Thou art the CHRIST, the Son of GOD."{1}

So John cries now in his heart:

"To whom else shall I go? I have tried all other teachers and they have failed me. Here is one whom I perceive to be divine. I may not understand yet one half of what I believe; there are matters to which I give my assent, to which I cannot give my intellect -- but to whom else shall I go? Never man spake like this man. Never was there a human institution that proclaims so convincingly, so searchingly, so competently the hidden mysteries of GOD. I have believed and known; and I am coming to believe and know more overwhelmingly every day that this is the body and bride of CHRIST. This man who sits here and talks may not be very clever, or very eloquent, or very learned; but he speaks not of himself but of another; and his words ring as true in my heart. . . I believe wholly and unreservedly."

2. There follows an extraordinary peace. Years ago John had learned his alphabet from his mother; then he went to school and afterwards to the University; but he never remembered later lessons as he remembered those. At home, A came first, then B, then C; and later on it appeared as if some thought that B should begin the alphabet, that T should follow, and that the list should end with Q. At school he found himself passed on from teacher to teacher, no two of whom taught by the same method; at the University it appeared that not only in methods but in substance the doctors differed. He had compared more than once these learned discussions with the simplicity, the inevitableness, the dogmatism of his mother's teaching; and there had been the sense too that his mother cared in a way that no other teacher ever cared; she wished him to learn his alphabet, but to learn it without tears or rebellion; she wished him to be sufficiently educated, but even more to be a good child, and to become a good boy and a good man.

So now, as he sits in the presbytery, under the eye of his Holy Mother, the same air of tenderness and love and sweet dogmatism seems to fill the room. He may ask questions, of course, but it must be with the desire of learning, not of answering again. What he hears is to be final; there is no appeal; A must be said before B; and F must follow E; and yet that is not all. His Mother wishes him to be a good son, and become a good Catholic rather than a theologian. He begins to understand as never before that the childlike mind is the best, and that without it he cannot enter upon his inheritance of heaven. He catches a breath of sweetness from the words said so long ago; he begins to finger lovingly CHRIST'S yoke, and to learn of Him who was meek and humble of Heart, and to find rest to his soul; for CHRIST'S yoke is sweet and His burden light.


Among the questions that he puts there is the following:

"What am I to think about Anglican sacraments? My friends tell me that I must be rebaptized, and that this is contradictory to the Church's teaching on the subject. She teaches, I understand, that even lay-baptism is valid. Now I was baptized by a clergyman when I was a child. Why then need I be rebaptized? Then there are the other sacraments ---"

"One moment," answers the priest, "let us settle baptism first. Can you tell me for certain that the clergyman baptized you properly? Of course if you can prove this, there will be no question of my baptizing you."

"What do you mean by 'properly,' father?"

"Well, our LORD said 'Water and the Spirit.' Some people are very careless about water. I remember once seeing a clergyman sprinkle water towards a boy and a girl who stood about two yards from the font, and I doubt very much whether it even touched them. You see some Church of England clergy honestly do not believe that it matters very much; so of course they are not very particular about it. Why should they be? But in that case the candidates did not have done to them what our LORD meant when He said 'Water.' Of course some people differ from us; but the Catholic Church does not pretend to be more spiritual than JESUS CHRIST; she says 'water' because He did."

"I see. Well, I can't prove that I was properly baptized. I have no witnesses, and the clergyman is dead."

"Then you must be baptized conditionally. I shall pour water on your head and say that if you are not baptized, I baptize you. If, after all, you were baptized, no harm is done; and if you were not, well, it will be true baptism. There is no question of repeating baptism. Do you understand?"

"Yes; I understand, father. And about the other sacraments?"

"Yes; put it as strongly as you like."

"Well," answers John, "my friends are at me for what they say is my repudiation of grace. It is perfectly true that I was very often very happy after receiving Anglican sacraments. When I made my confessions, I never doubted for a moment that I was properly absolved. When I came down again from communion, I was often full of holy thoughts and desires, and was quite sure that I had received JESUS CHRIST. Now, is it really true, father, that I have got to say that all that was nothing at all, or even that it was Satan who made me feel happy in order to keep me back from thinking of the Catholic Church?"

"No, no; nothing so ridiculous. Your friends do not know what they are talking about. The Church does not tell you to believe anything so absurd. When you went to confession and communion in the Church of England, you did your best, I am sure, to be in proper dispositions, to love GOD, and to be really sorry for your sins. Well, then, GOD rewarded you by giving you those holy feelings and thoughts. Every time you were truly contrite He forgave you your sins; and every time you went to communion, because you wished to please Him, He gave you grace. But it was not sacramental grace; the clergyman had no authority to bind or to loose, and no power to consecrate the Body of the LORD; but all that grace was real grace to help you. All that you have to repudiate is your ideas about it, your intellectual conception of it; not the grace itself. Is that any clearer?"

"It is perfectly clear; thank you very much."

"Tell your friends that, the next time they talk. Tell them that they have simply no idea of what the Church does teach. Why St Gertrude once said that a good spiritual communion often gave more grace than a lukewarm sacramental communion, and the Church expressly teaches that an act of perfect contrition wins forgiveness in the absence of a priest. Of course you have got to confess all your sins again -- to carry out your acts of contrition (an act of contrition includes the intention to fulfil all God's requirements); and now you are able to do that, you must, of course, do it. But your feelings of forgiveness after Anglican absolutions were perfectly true and genuine. God forgave you, because you loved Him and wished to conform to the Sacrament of Penance, not because you actually received it."

"I understand. . . Please tell me about my confession."

"There is very little to tell beyond what I have told you already. You must not be scrupulous and torment yourself. It is probably impossible for you to remember every mortal sin you have ever committed; and GOD only asks you to do your best. You must, as you know, tell anything that you can remember and then leave it. I advise you not to bring a paper with you; it is apt to breed scruples, and you can be as informal as you like. It is very simple."

John sighed.

"Yes," he said, "and very hard."

"No, not so hard, if you look beyond it. . . . I remember as a boy coming home from school I had a very long drive from the station in a dog-cart. I lived in the north, and the drive was terribly cold sometimes in winter. But, you know, I did not mind it much. Of course, it was not pleasant; but then there was the home-coming to look forward to -- the lights, the warmth, my mother -- in fact, home. Do you understand?"

"I understand, father."

"Well, then, shall we say next Thursday at 4 o'clock?"

As John kneels in the Church on the following Thursday a few minutes before four o'clock he is conscious of great excitement and great fear.

It is a dingy little place, wholly unimpressive in itself; yet it has the strange silence that he has so often noticed there before. From outside come the murmur of wheels, the patter of feet on the pavement, the rumour of a world that goes about its business; and he has the sensation of a swimmer who stands poised on the edge of a deep-flowing stream. He wishes he had not come, or that he had come sooner, or that the day had been fixed a week hence; and although he is physically free to get up and go out, it is a morally impossible act. The shock of the plunge is imminent; he will be presently among those mysteries half seen through the wrinkled swirl of the surface; and he knows they will look very differently then, but he is not certain whether they will be more or less inviting when he is amid the medium that half discloses, half conceals, their nature.

But the silence becomes vivid and alive as he stares disconsolately at the steady little red spark overhead above the tabernacle, and finds at last a supersensual voice.

"It is I: Be not afraid."{2} . . .

A figure looks out presently from the sacristy-door, beckons him up to the side-chapel, and John finds himself with the Ritual in his hands reading out, a little tremulously, the profession of faith. It has all come about with the swiftness of thought, and his voice steadies and his heart burns as the sounding proclamation streams from his lips.

Here are all the matters for which he has contended and argued so long, which have been denied and explained away and questioned by those who were of one communion with himself -- here they all are now, declared without fear or compromise. First comes the Nicene Creed, and then an elucidation of its challenged clauses, made necessary by those who accept the old words but deny the old sense of them.

He professes seven sacraments now, not two (generally necessary) and five doubtful ordinances; and he admits and receives the ceremonies customary in their administration. He professes likewise his faith in the sacrifice of the Mass, true, proper and propitiatory for the living and the dead; he declares that in the sacrament of the Eucharist there is truly, really and substantially the Body and Blood together with the Soul and Divinity of our LORD JESUS CHRIsT: and he names the conversion of the substance of the elements transubstantiation. He states the doctrines of Purgatory, prayers for the dead and indulgences; and declares that the saints reigning with CHRIST are to be honoured and invocated.

So it goes on, clause after clause, till at last he promises his own true and personal obedience to the Bishop of Rome, successor to St Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and Vicar of JESUS CHRIST. There it is, all printed in the book, declared by his lips, and witnessed by a Catholic priest.

He finds himself immediately afterwards in the confessional, and the sharpest point of his trial is before him.

Yet as he kneels there and asks a blessing, the sting seems already half drawn.

First, it is all so impersonal. There is a grill before his face through which he can see only the faint profile of the priest and the white of his cotta and the purple stripe of his stole; the human element is almost absent, and what there is of it is reassuring. He remembers the tremendous secret of the ordinance -- that not one of the ten thousand enemies of the Church has ever yet proved a single example of its violation; he remembers how discretion and tenderness -- those two most comfortable virtues -- have been drummed and drilled into every priest, until training has merged into character. Above all, between himself and the other, hangs a crucified Figure with arms outstretched in embrace, not lifted in rebuke or condemnation; every word that he himself utters passes through the fragrant air of Calvary, every word that he will hear presently must come through the same medium. That priest within is bound to think and speak as JESUS CHRIST Himself would think and speak; he is there, not to condemn or rebuke, but to welcome, forgive and reconcile. The dying brigand, the repentant adulteress, the cowardly friend -- Dismas, Magdalene and Peter -- representatives together of a whole world of sin, each found gentleness not wrath, welcome not disfranchisement. . . And so the tale flows out easily and sweetly till all is done, and the bar is passed, and all that remains is to moor the vessel in the haven where it would be.

After a word or two of encouragement and blessing, he follows the priest into the sacristy; and three minutes later he is back again, trembling a little, kneeling once more at the grill to hear the words that are to reward his efforts and give him peace.

Ah, this is the supreme moment; it is worth all the agony a hundred times repeated to receive this first Catholic absolution! To his eyes it appears as if the golden keys, given by CHRIST to Peter so long ago, are actually present; as if the gate of pearl visibly rolls back in response to his knock.

He is relieved first of all of excommunication and interdict unwittingly incurred; the burden of three hundred years of heresy is lifted from his shoulders -- this is indeed a going behind the Reformation to the days when no religion other than this was dreamed of in England; when Englishmen who loved CHRIST honoured His Vicar; when the Church which they served was Catholic in fact as well as in name; before Henry, mad with lust and ambition, rent the seamless tunic of CHRIST, hacked at the branches of the heavenly vine, and ravened in the flock purchased with the Blood of the Son of GOD. . . Then, as in a dream, he sees the hand lifted and moved in the sign of the cross, and hears the voice raised a little to press home the personal pardon.

"Absolvo te a peccatis tuis: in nomine + Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen." . . .

He is back again in his seat now, his hands clasped, and a great contentment in his heart. How often has he knelt here before, an outcast in spite of his corporal presence, trying to imitate out of reverence and good manners the gestures and attitudes of the true citizens of GOD, yet fearing all the while that he was not one of them! Hitherto, the confessional he has so often looked at with dread and envy, has been a sealed chamber to him, into which none but the children of the kingdom might enter; now he has entered himself:, received the mystery, and come back again. That little white curtain above the altar which he has seen drawn a hundred times has never yet been drawn for him; tomorrow he will receive the heavenly food that tabernacles there among man. From the mean little pulpit over him he has so often heard exposition and exhortation, but it was to judge or approve or demur as his private judgement preferred; next Sunday he will sit here to listen and be taught.

He is a true Catholic at last; others will give him the name that he has so often claimed in vain. He is a living stone at last, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, CHRIST Himself being the head corner-stone, in the vast edifice of glory where GOD has set His seat; he is a living tendril of the vine enkindled by GOD's Blood, watered by the tears of saints, brought out of Egypt long ago -- a tendril that will in time bring forth new and supernatural fruits of faith, penance and holiness; he is a child come home at last -- a child who has learned his A B C and passed his examination and pleased his mother; -- a child, bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh, mystically born, not adopted; a child at home with his brethren the saints -- at home in that place in which alone men's hearts can rest, the Sacred Heart of JESUS pierced for him. . .

What then does anything else matter? Sorrow can be no more than a prick, death no more than a passing swoon; for to live is CHRIST, and to die is gain. . .

{1} John vi, 55-70.

{2} John vi, 20.

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