ND   Essays / by Robert Hugh Benson

Monsignor Hugh Benson

by Allan Ross
(Priest of the London Oratory)

"Being made perfect in a short space, he fulfilled a long time."
WISDOM iv. 13.


IT would be impossible in the limited space available to do justice to the subject of this brief biography. He managed to accomplish so much in so short a time, he was so many-sided in his activities, he was so well known among the men of this generation, there is so much that might be said about him and which must perforce be left unsaid, that it will only be possible to give a brief outline of his life, and then describe some of its outstanding features. The object, therefore, of this brief appreciation of one who passed meteor-like across the horizon of the Church, will be to interest its readers in Hugh Benson, priest of the Catholic Church, in the hope that it will draw them to study his interesting personality more fully in the official biography{1} which will be issued in due course, and above all in the many writings which his versatile genius has bequeathed to posterity.

The reader will find the personality of the writer stamped upon their pages -- his sincerity, his dislike of cant and conventionalism, his mistrust of the feelings as a reliable guide of human conduct, his marvellous imaginative power and dramatic instinct, his keen powers of observation, his hatred of display, his zeal for souls. And he will find, too, in these books the impress of the man of prayer, who recognizes that union with God is the supreme work of man in this life -- whether that union be obtained by the faithful discharge of the duties of one's state of life, with its background of prayer, or whether it be obtained -- as in the case of those who have the call -- by a life of contemplation. Hugh Benson was a man of prayer, inasmuch as prayer formed the background to his life of strenuous activity, and helped him to go forth with the heart of an apostle, and proclaim the Catholic Church as the authentic interpreter of God's revelation to men and as the divinely appointed means of healing the breach between God and His creatures.

Perhaps it may not be out of place to make here a few remarks on mysticism, because it is very conspicuous, in Hugh Benson's writings, and also because it is a subject concerning which there is a good deal of misapprehension.

It is a commonly received opinion that a mystic is a useless dreamer, ever wrapped away from earth, and incapable of taking any practical interest in earthly things. But such is not the Catholic Church's view. She recognizes in mysticism a motive power which impels to real activities, as in the case of such typical mystics as St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa, and St. Catherine of Siena, whose lives were so very strenuous because of their conscious perception of the Divine presence. She does not teach that all mystics are saints; for it may well be that true mystical experience, although supernatural, may be compatible with lives of holiness which do not reach the lofty heights of heroic virtue, in which true sanctity consists but she recognizes in mysticism a potent factor in the active life of individuals.

If we use mystical experience to denote conscious personal touch with God,"{2} then a mystic is one who has passed through the lower degrees of prayer and attained to that degree which is called the prayer of contemplation. There is no need here to give a description of the generally accepted divisions of prayer, as classified by recognized teachers in the Catholic Church, for there are many classical treatises on prayer, among which St. Teresa's The Interior Castle is one of the best known, with its seven different mansions. But perhaps it may be permissible to draw attention to the view upheld by teachers of authority that contemplative prayer is within the reach of all. This view, which certainly has much to recommend it, has been clearly set forth in a recent work,{3} where the writer supports his conclusions by the teaching of four of the greatest teachers on prayer in the Church, all four canonized saints, two of them being at the same time great theologians and doctors of the Church -- St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis de Sales. According to this view, "those who pray in earnest and are desirous of giving themselves up to God entirely by all-round detachment usually go on to the contemplative way."{4}

If it be asked why so comparatively few attain to contemplation, the answer may be given in the words of St. John of the Cross: "because only a few are ready to enter into the void and into complete detachment of spirit."{5} To obtain from God the graces necessary for contemplation, one must be faithful to the different practices of the spiritual life, meditation, mortification, and self-renunciation, but if this preparation "be faithfully made, God, unless some quite exceptional purpose intervene, will never fail at the proper time to grant special graces enabling one to contemplate."{6}

There are different degrees of contemplative prayer, and if comparatively few attain even to the lowest degree, far fewer are they who are sufficiently heroic to reach the higher. But contemplation is essentially "no other thing than a loving, simple, and permanent attention of the spirit to divine things,"{7} comprising a certain consciousness of God's presence." Oh ! how happy is the soul who, in the tranquillity of her heart, lovingly preserves the sacred feeling of God's presence. . . . Now when I speak here of the sacred sentiment of God's presence, I do not mean to speak of a sensible feeling, but of that which resides in the summit and supreme point of the spirit, where heavenly love reigns and conducts its principal exercises."{8}

The soul, then, which reaches contemplation attains in prayer to a certain consciousness of God's presence, and according to the teaching here emphasized," contemplation is the normal goal of the spiritual life,"{9} though it can only be attained at the cost of labour and self-renunciation, in other words, by a faithful putting into practice of the exercises of the spiritual life, for "if we had to describe the preparation to be undergone by the soul for contemplation, a whole treatise on asceticism would be needed."{10}

But the soul which has passed through the lower degrees of prayer and reached the state of contemplation, is permeated by a supernatural source of energy, which manifests itself in active works for God. If such a soul lives in the world, it feels impelled to labour generously for God's sake, and I take it that such was the case with Hugh Benson. That meditation, in his case, had passed into a prayer of greater simplicity, is, I think, to be gathered from his own writings, and that he was an ardent advocate of prayer seems to be one of the characteristics of his life. It can be gathered from his books, and is formally expressed in the Preface which he wrote to a work on prayer{11}: "There is one supreme mode of sanctification which . . . is accessible practically everywhere to souls that desire it, and that is the Way of Prayer. . . . If one thing is absolutely clear from the dogmatic as well as from the ascetic teaching of the Church, it is that a life of Prayer, tending to perfection, is within the reach of every devout Christian."


Robert Hugh Benson was born at Wellington College on November 16, 1871, his father, who ultimately became Archbishop of Canterbury, being at the time head master there. He was the youngest of six children, two of whom, Arthur and Frederick, subsequently attained, like himself, to literary distinction. Some interesting details of his childhood have been given us by the former in a very sympathetic memoir, Hugh, and certainly he seems to have given no promise in those early days of any exceptional powers. "Speaking generally," his brother writes, " I should call him in those days a quick, inventive, active-minded child, entirely unsentimental; he was fond of trying his hand at various things, but he was impatient and volatile, would never take any trouble, and as a consequence never did anything well."

In 1885 he won a scholarship at Eton, and joined the school in September, his elder brother Arthur being at the time a master there. After three or four years, he decided that he wished to compete for the Indian Civil Service, and in order to give him a better opportunity of success, he was removed from Eton to Wren's coaching establishment in London. It is not stated whether Hugh took up the work of preparation for the Indian Civil Service seriously. Anyhow, when he went up in the summer of 1890 he failed to pass, and it was decided that he should go up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study for classical honours. He does not appear to have worked very hard, nor to have shown any intellectual promise. Having eventually decided to take Orders, he went in 1892 to study with Dean Vaughan, at Llandaff, and was ordained deacon by his father in Croydon parish church in 1894. He began his clerical work at the Eton mission, and was fully ordained in 1895, but at the end of 1896 his health broke down, and he went to Egypt for the winter with his mother and sister.

It was now that Hugh began to have doubts about the Anglican Church. He realized how very little that Church counted for abroad: it seemed to be something carried about with Englishmen wherever they went, like an Indiarubber bath -- to use his own somewhat irreverent simile; it seemed quite foreign to the country where it was planted. Entering the Catholic church in a village in Egypt, he was struck by the contrast. It was a poor little mud building, but it seemed so obviously part of the place that for the first time it occurred to him, seriously, that Rome might after all be right. These uncomfortable feelings deepened as he journeyed home through Palestine, but a year at Kemsing as curate somewhat soothed his anxieties. He then conceived the wish to practise the religious life, and was accepted as a probationer in the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. His first two years were spent mainly in study, and finally in July, 1901, he took the vows.

Hugh was destined to spend two more years at Mirfield; the first of which passed happily enough, but then the old difficulties returned, and in such an intensified form that he left the Community in the early summer of 1903, and was received into the Catholic Church in September of the same year.

He has left us an account{12} of the steps which led to his conversion, and it may be well to summarize them briefly. He had gradually come to see "the need of a Teaching Church to preserve and interpret the truths of Christianity to each succeeding generation," and he saw too that this same Teaching Church must know her own mind with regard to the treasure committed to her charge. But when he considered the Anglican Church, he realized that it did not correspond to his expectations. Diverse views were allowed on certain vital points, such as the Sacrament of Penance. He himself was convinced that it was essential to the forgiveness of mortal sins and that it formed an integral part of the sacramental system instituted by Jesus Christ; but although this view was tolerated, "practically all the Bishops denied this, and a few of them the power of absolution altogether." In other words, he was simply teaching his own private opinion on a matter which was indefinite, so far as the Anglican Church was concerned. He saw the fallacy of relying on written formularies which can be interpreted in more senses than one, without a living voice to declare their real meaning, and that a Church which "appeals merely to ancient written words can be no more at the best than an antiquarian society." In this particular instance, the question of the Sacrament of Penance, he wished to know whether he might or might not teach penitents that they were bound to confess their mortal sins before Communion, but he could get no satisfactory answer. But this was only one case out of many, for there were many other questions which troubled him, and upon which he could get no definite teaching from the Anglican Church. To use his own words " I saw round me a Church, which, even if tolerable in theory was intolerable in practice." On the other hand, he beheld the Catholic Church, which certainly knew its own mind, and which taught with the most refreshing clearness upon the subjects which troubled him but there were difficulties in the way of accepting its claims, such as the definition of the Immaculate Conception in the nineteenth century, and the Papal claims.

There seemed to Hugh to be nothing for it but to plunge blindly into the bewildering maze of controversy and read what the Catholic Church's partisans and opponents had to say upon the matter. Gradually he began to realize things which he had never realized before. One of these things was to find that the true Church of Christ could not be an affair of intellect alone, otherwise the unlearned and slow-witted would be at an obvious disadvantage in the matter of salvation. "Humility and singleness of motive I saw now were far more important than patristic learning." Our Lord's words acquired in this light a new and unsuspected depth of meaning: "Unless you be converted and become as little children you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."{13} He began to pray more earnestly than ever for light, and at this stage of his journey certain books helped especially to "break down on one side the definite difficulties that stood between me and Rome, and on the other the last remnants of theory that held me to the Church of England." These books were Mallock's Doctrine and Doctrinal Disruption, Spencer Jones's England and the Holy See, and Newman's The Development of Doctrine, the last named of which "like a magician, waved away the floating mists, and let me see the City of God in her strength and beauty. He saw the Catholic Church as the true Church of the ages. standing "upon the unshakeable foundation of the Gospel." He recognized her as the mystical Bride of Christ, and difficulty after difficulty melted as he looked upon her face. And then he turned and looked again at the Church of England and behold, there was an extraordinary change. "It was not that she had become unlovable. . . . She had a hundred virtues, a delicate speech, a romantic mind; a pleasant aroma hung about her; she was infinitely pathetic and appealing; she had the advantage of dwelling in the shadowed twilight of her own vagueness, in glorious houses, even though not of her building; she had certain gracious ways, pretty modes of expression; her music and her language still seem to me extraordinarily beautiful; and above all, she is the nursing mother of many of my best friends, and for over thirty years educated and nursed me too with indulgent kindness. There, then, she stood, my old mistress, pathetic and loving, claiming me as her servant by every human tie; and there on the other side, in a blaze of fierce light, stood the Bride of Christ, dominant and imperious but with a look in her eyes, and a smile on her lips, that could only rise from a heavenly vision, claiming me, not because she had as yet done anything for me, not because I was an Englishman who loved English ways or even an Italian, for the matter of that -- but simply and solely because I was a child of God, and because to her He had said: 'Take away this child for Me and I will give thee thy wages'; because, first and last, she was His Bride, and I was His son." In other words, he had now become convinced of the truth of the Catholic Church's claims, and so felt it his duty to sever his connection with the Community at Mirfield. The months which elapsed after Hugh left Mirfield and before he was received into the Catholic Church were spent at "Tremans," his mother's secluded house at Horsted Keynes in Sussex. He had made up his mind that it was his duty to become a Catholic and had made this clear to his mother, from whom he had no secrets, but at her request, he waited in order to allow time for a reaction, if such should come. He passed the time in writing an historical novel, By What Authority? an occupation which not only proved to be a safety-valve for his sorely tried spirits, but also enabled him to see more clearly than ever that the Anglican Communion possessed no identity of life with the ancient Church in England. By the beginning of September the novel was three-quarters finished, and on September 11th its author was received into the Catholic Church at Woodchester by Father Reginald Buckler, 0.P.

Hugh Benson left England for Rome on All Saints' Day, 1903, and before leaving had the satisfaction of putting the finishing touches to his first novel, By What Authority? A year later he returned to England, a duly ordained priest of the Catholic Church, and ere long settled down at Cambridge, where he took up his residence with Monsignor Barnes at Llandaff House. He passed two or three years at Cambridge, but began to realize that his work lay more in the direction of writing and preaching than in purely pastoral duties. Moreover, he was now beginning to make an income from his books, and so was able to give effect to the project which had shaped itself in his mind. He proposed to make for himself a home in some secluded spot, where he would be freed from interruptions, and where he might read and write and from time to time go forth to preach as occasion presented itself. "A small Perpendicular chapel and a whitewashed cottage next door is what I want just now," he wrote about this time: "it must be in a sweet and secret place -- preferably in Cornwall."{14} The result was the purchase of a house in the hamlet of Hare Street, near Buntingford, where he spent the last seven years of his life.

Hare Street House 15 is an old-fashioned house standing a little way back from the main road which passes through the village. The front is a later addition, but the building itself dates back to Tudor times. When Hugh Benson bought it, it had not been occupied for a long while, and so the property was practically a wilderness. When he died it had been transformed, and stamped with his own peculiar individuality. He laid out the grounds to suit his fancy, and one of his last acts in this direction was to plan a rose-garden at the back of the house -- an idea which was to have been put into execution on his return from the visit to Salford which proved his last. He found an old brew-house and a bake-house behind the house: the former he turned into a chapel, the latter he pulled down and re-built on a much smaller scale as a sacristy. A rood screen was formed out of one of the heavy brew-house beams, the figure on the top being carved by himself and a friend out of one of the lime-trees in the garden. So, too, with the other accessories of the little chapel, either the owner himself had a direct hand in them, or they were the outcome of his suggestions. It is the same with the house -- turn where you will you find reminiscences of the owner. If you go into the delightful study where he used to write, you will find all round the walls above the panelling an elaborate tapestry representing various personages, including himself, in quest of the Holy Grail. The figures, which were cut out by an artist friend, were sewn on to the background and all the tapestry-work done by the owner. If you pass from the study into the library, you will find similar traces of his activity in the choice and arrangement of the books which line the walls. Or if you go upstairs, you will find in the central bedroom another piece of tapestry representing a somewhat gruesome subject, "Death," once again in conception and execution the work of Hugh Benson. Whenever you ask the history of any object that strikes you, you receive almost invariably the same reply, that the owner of the house made it himself or had a hand in its production, or had some particular idea in connection with it. Surely never was a place more stamped with the individuality of a man than Hare Street House and grounds are stamped with the individuality of Hugh Benson.

It was thus that a hamlet in Hertfordshire became the home of this gifted man, and that Hare Street House became the centre of an influence which not only made itself felt throughout the length and breadth of England but even in distant parts. He went to Rome on three different occasions to preach courses of sermons, and three times visited America to lecture and preach; but, naturally enough, his most strenuous activities were confined to England. He was always doing something -- preaching here, or lecturing there, or giving a Retreat at some convent, and yet he found time on his return to Hare Street House to write book after book, and to deal with an enormous correspondence. It is difficult to conceive how any man could accomplish so much work, but there was a motive force in Monsignor Hugh Benson which impelled him on and sustained him, and enabled him to work unceasingly at the highest pressure.

About a year before his death he wrote: "I am being obliged to draw in my horns and economize time, and everything else just now, as I am on the very edge of my capacities." It was thus that he worked -- on the very edge of his capacities -- and he maintained this tremendous rate of speed up to the end, when the overdriven machine broke down completely, and Hugh Benson died at an age when most men reach the maturity of their powers, worn out by his own untiring and indomitable energy. He seems to have considered that his best work would be done before the age of forty, and that he must work himself out by then, like a runner who knows that he has a certain distance to go and must run himself out by the time he breasts the tape. He succeeded in accomplishing his aim, and when he died, at the age of forty-two, he had, to use the metaphor of the athlete, run himself to a standstill. "Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, do it earnestly";{16} and certainly this was true of Hugh Benson. We have it on the authority of those who knew him, that whatever he did, he did with a certain concentrated energy which showed that he was heart and soul in it. Whether it was a book, or a letter, or a game, or a conversation, he gave his whole attention to it; and no one who has ever heard him preach could fail to be struck by this characteristic.

The hand of death struck him down in the very midst of his strenuous activities, and he died as he had lived, clear-minded to the last. This feature of his death seems to have impressed itself upon his brother, who was present, and who has recorded his impressions in the following expressive words: "It was wonderful indeed! It seemed to me then, in that moment, strange rather than sad. He had been himself to the very end, no diminution of vigour, no yielding, no humiliation, with all his old courtesy and thoughtfulness, and collectedness -- that is the only word I can use. I recognized that we were only the spectators, and that he was in command of the scene. He had made haste to die, and he had gone as he was always used to do, straight from one finished task to another that waited for him. It was not like an end; it was as though he had turned a corner and was passing on, out of sight but still unquestionably there. It seemed to me like the death of a soldier or a knight in its calmness of courage, its splendid facing of the last extremity, its magnificent determination to experience, open-eyed and vigilant, the dark crossing."{17}

Hugh Benson died at Bishop's House, Salford, on October 19, 1914, aged forty-two years and eleven months. He had gone there on Saturday, October 10th, to deliver the second of a course of sermons which he was preaching at Salford Cathedral during the month of October. On Monday the 12th he was so ill that he could not leave Salford, and all immediate engagements were cancelled. A few days later pneumonia supervened, and as his heart was not sufficiently strong to stand the strain, he passed away in the early hours of the following Monday.

A paper of directions was found stating that he wished to be interred at Hare Street House. Thither accordingly his body was conveyed, and there on Friday the 23rd October, after a solemn Requiem in the little chapel, he was laid to rest in his own orchard, close to the Calvary which he had himself erected. There seems a certain appropriateness in the fact that he who had been the living soul of Hare Street House should be buried in the very spot which he had loved so well and upon which he had contrived to stamp so wonderfully the impress of his own marked individuality.


And now comes the task of appraising the man himself. He was so many-sided that it is difficult to know where to begin; but perhaps it will be simpler to lay special stress on that aspect of his life by which he was able to reach the greatest number of persons. A man may have great eloquence, and may be able to draw great congregations, but the power of the spoken word is limited in extent, though doubtless more potent in its immediate efficacy. The human voice cannot carry beyond a certain range, it is circumscribed by the holding capacity of buildings; it cannot stand very much prolonged strain, and though its immediate efficacy is sometimes astonishing, yet, as regards diffusion and ability to reach all classes and conditions of men, it cannot compare with the written word. Let us therefore begin with Hugh Benson as a man of letters, and say something about the numerous books which were the offspring of his ever-active pen.

The first thing that strikes one is his amazing. fertility. He began writing books about ten years before he died, but before his hand was stilled by death he had written more than a score, most of them novels of considerable length, many of which must have entailed no small amount of reading. He wrote some half-dozen historical romances, for example, which must have involved a good deal of serious study. Indeed, he has himself given us an insight into his painstaking efforts when he wrote his first historical romance, By What Authority? for in Confessions of a Convert we find the following allusion to it: "I worked for about eight or ten hours every day, either writing or reading or annotating every historical book and pamphlet I could lay my hands upon. I found paragraphs in magazines, single sentences in certain essays, and all of these I somehow worked into the material from which my book grew."

It was the same, too, with the historical romances which he wrote later on in life. If any one imagines that these romances are the effervescences of a brilliant imagination, let him turn for example to the Preface of Come Rack! Come Rope! (published in 1912) and he will find himself disillusioned. The writer states that nearly the whole book is sober historical fact, and acknowledges his indebtedness to "a pile of some twenty or thirty books" which were on his table as he wrote.

It would seem, then, that he was a painstaking writer, although his books give one the idea that writing came quite naturally to him, and that he dashed them off at full speed, with scarcely a pause for reflection.

Most readers of his books would probably be of the opinion that Hugh Benson's peculiar gifts as a writer were displayed to best advantage in works of pure fiction. When chained down to definite facts in history, his imaginative powers were not given full scope; but he revelled in analysis of character, and was seen at his very best in the creations of his own vivid imagination. For this reason if we would seek for any self-revelation in his writings it is to these books that we must turn, and we have a goodly number to draw material from. We have Mr. Arthur Benson's authority for the statement that his brother's books "are all projections of his own personality into his characters. He is behind them all, and writing with Hugh was like so many things that he did, a game which he played with all his might."{18} With this statement I am quite ready to agree, though I must confess that I do not share his admiration for The Light Invisible. The tales have not a genuine ring about them; they seem rather like the creations of one groping after something, and yet not knowing exactly what it is that he wishes to express, and so, as a consequence, they are unsatisfying. The explanation of this is given in Confessions of a Convert: "For myself, I dislike, quite intensely, The Light Invisible from the spiritual point of view. I wrote it in moods of great feverishness and in what I now recognize as a very subtle state of sentimentality; I was striving to reassure myself of the truths of religion, and assume, therefore, a positive and assertive tone that was largely insincere."

However, apart from The Light Invisible, we have over a dozen works of pure fiction to draw upon, and in these we find certain elements which are constantly recurring, and so we may safely conclude that these are projections of the writer himself. One of the things which impresses itself upon the reader is, what may be called the mystical element. By this is meant the writer's realization of things unseen, and his conviction that it is these which really matter, and that union with God by prayer is the true work of earthly life. He has found in the Catholic Church's teaching the solution of his difficulties, and in the teaching of her great mystics the explanation of the mysteries of prayer -- that wonderful power which can unlock as it were the very gates of heaven, and influence earthly destinies in a way unsuspected by the majority of men. As Tennyson so well expresses it

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats,
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God. {19}

And so, as we might expect, Hugh Benson's admiration for members of the contemplative orders is unbounded, for they draw from the very fountain-head of power, and their influence is diffused far and wide. By contemplatives he does not mean only those who withdraw from the world and devote their lives to prayer, but those also who, whilst living in the world, have passed through the lower degrees of prayer, and attained to the prayer of contemplation. Such we might call mystics, meaning by the word those who in prayer have attained to a certain conscious realization of the unseen -- that conscious realization which comes to the soul which has reached the stage of contemplation.

As has been stated at the commencement of this pamphlet, there are some who claim that this state of soul is within the reach of all. The grace of contemplation according to this view is not something reserved for certain favoured souls, and denied to others, no matter how much they may strive after it. No soul can attain to this state without God's grace, but this grace is not denied to those who are sufficiently generous in the path of self-renunciation. The fact that contemplatives in the world are rare is because comparatively few are sufficiently generous in their efforts after perfection. But when the soul has reached this stage of prayer, and attained to contemplation, then it must have reached a state of detachment from earthly things and union with God which give it a wonderful power, and which is a source of ceaseless activities. These activities may manifest themselves in a life of prayer, if the soul has the vocation; or they may manifest themselves in active exterior works and an untiring energy in carrying out God's work in whatever state of life the contemplative may be. To imagine that a mystic is a dreamy person who has no relations with this world, but who is ever wrapped apart in ecstasy, is to belie true mysticism, and to give it a reputation which it does not deserve. The truth is that the true mystic is very actively employed, for the source of his activities is found in prayer, and it would be easy to bring forward examples of the wonderful capacity for work possessed by men and women who have reached the higher degrees of prayer.

This seems to have been the case with Hugh Benson. There is scarcely a book of his which does not touch on prayer, and in some we find attempts to describe in words the actual experiences of contemplation -- in fact, we might almost call prayer and its influence the underlying motif of his books. We can trace it right through from the very first book which he wrote to the last. The Light Invisible was written before he became a Catholic, but one of the stories contained in it, "In the Convent Chapel," deals with this subject, and emphasizes the activity of a life of prayer; whilst in his very last book, Loneliness, which was not published till after he died, the heroine, after worldly disappointments, finds in prayer before the Tabernacle that "so far from being mere emptiness, all else seemed empty beside it."

One of his books, Richard Raynal, is devoted entirely to the history of a solitary, and though the book is purposely archaic in style, and so not very characteristic of the writer, one can not help feeling that the man who wrote it must have had some experience in contemplative prayer, or at all events must have been extraordinarily interested in the subject. This impression is deepened as one reads others of the author's books: though the writer is professedly writing romances, there are many passages regarding prayer, and more than one attempt to describe the experience of contemplation. Take, for example, the following passage from Lord of the World{20}

"He began, as his custom was in mental prayer, by a deliberate act of self-exclusion from the world of sense. Under the image of sinking beneath a surface he forced himself downwards and inwards, till the peal of the organ, the shuffle of footsteps, the rigidity of the chair-back beneath his wrists -- all seemed apart and external, and he was left a single person with a beating heart, an intellect that suggested image after image, and emotions that were too languid to stir themselves. Then he made his second descent, renounced all that he possessed and was, and became conscious that even the body was left behind, and that his mind and heart, awed by the Presence in which they found themselves, clung close and obedient to the will, which was their lord and protector. He drew another long breath, or two, as he felt that Presence surge about him; he repeated a few mechanical words and sank to that peace which follows the relinquishment of thought. There he rested for awhile. Far above him sounded the ecstatic music, the cry of trumpets and the shrilling of the flutes, but they were as insignificant street noises to one who was falling asleep. He was within the veil of things now, beyond the barriers of sense and reflection, in that secret place to which he had learnt the road by endless effort, in that strange region where realities are evident, where perceptions go to and fro with the swiftness of light, where the swaying will catches now this now that act, moulds it and speeds it; where all things meet, where truth is handled and known and tasted, where God Immanent is one with God Transcendent, where the meaning of the external world is evident through its inner side, and the Church and its mysteries are seen from within a haze of glory."

I have transcribed this passage at length because I think it is characteristic of the writer. It would seem that the man who wrote this passage must have had some experience of what he is attempting to describe; and this view is confirmed by other passages in the author's works. The processes of the spiritual life are evidently realities to him. Witness how in more than one of his books we come across a certain type of man -- the man who has passed through the different stages of the spiritual life and attained apparently to the "Unitive " way. The author evidently looks upon these as ideal types,{21} fitted to be the guides and counsellors of others, whether they make contemplation the great object of their lives, or whether they are living in the world. Such, for example, are Mr. Rolls in The Sentimentalists, Christopher Dell in The Conventionalists, and Mr. Morpeth in Initiation -- men who have been purified by trials and who have found in prayer the secret of peace of soul. Again in The Dawn of All, where he tries to depict the world from the standpoint of futurity, on the supposition that the Catholic Church grows powerful, the writer depicts Ireland as the contemplative Monastery of Europe, and at the same time as a great mental hospital. The contemplative becomes a physician competent to treat all cases of strain and mental breakdown, for he has the faculty of imparting in a certain degree to others the peace to which he himself has attained.

Other examples such as this might be quoted in which Hugh Benson speaks of prayer and of its influence. There is a story told in classical mythology of a man who unravelled the mystery of a certain labyrinth by means of a golden thread. Hugh Benson found in prayer the key to unlock the mysteries of God's world, and one sees it like a golden thread running through his different works and linking them together. He even tries to express in popular terms the intricacies of the spiritual life, with its three broad divisions of purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways, and he chooses as the subject of such experiences, not, as one might expect, a member of a contemplative order, but a man who is tramping the roads,{22} as though to show that in his opinion these experiences are within the reach of all who are sufficiently generous, and who correspond faithfully with grace. Those who are interested will be able to read a more devotional treatment of the same subject in his The Friendship of Christ.{23}

I have heard it said, I know not upon what authority, that Hugh Benson felt strongly drawn to the Carthusians, and would willingly have exchanged the cassock and the active life for the Carthusian habit and the life of contemplation. It may be true, but there is many a man to whom the Carthusian life appeals, and who, nevertheless, has not the necessary vocation. There is, for example, the well-known instance of Blessed Thomas More, and any Carthusian monastery could tell a tale regarding those who come, but do not stay; for as a Carthusian writer observes "There are vocations which come from God, and others which come from the imagination."{24} Be that as it may, Hugh Benson never even tried his vocation, and one cannot help thinking that his peculiar talents displayed themselves to best advantage in the active life. But that he had leanings towards the contemplative life is evident from his writings.

He was passionately convinced of the truth of the Catholic Church's claims, and under her influence his fine talents were developed as the sun expands the petals of a flower and exposes its beauty to the eye. He had never shown any great promise before he became a Catholic, and although he was over thirty when received into the Church, he had only made one incursion into the domain of literature. His book The Light Invisible, written when he was an Anglican, has merits from the literary point of view, but the tales fail to grip the reader as his later works do. This is particularly noticeable if one compares it with A Mirror of Shalott, in which tales of the same character are handled with far greater certainty and power. Indeed, the Catholic Church seems to have fully satisfied his aspirations and he discovered in her the ideal which he had been seeking. In the light which her teaching shed across his life, his dormant powers awoke, and he was able to express himself in a way that had never been possible to him before. His whole-hearted acceptance of her claims generated in him -- to use an expression of his own -- a certain fixity of devotion{25} that became the driving force in his life. It was his passionate conviction that she is the divinely appointed teacher of mankind, that she is the true guide in the union of the soul with God, and that in the teaching of her saints and mystics is contained the secret of those mysterious experiences of the soul in prayer, a certain measure of which had fallen to his lot, which produced in him the "fixity of devotion" that urged him to spend himself utterly in the Church's service, with such concentrated energy that his over-taxed constitution gave way beneath the strain, and he died when he had lived but little more than half man's normal span of mortal life.

Those who had the privilege of knowing him personally speak of a certain charm of manner and conversation, and of an engaging simplicity. He could speak about his own doings with an entire absence of affectation, and was always ready to listen to criticisms of his writings. Surely this is a sign of true humility, for it must be remembered that he was a preacher with a brilliant reputation, a writer whose books had an immense circulation, and one who was much sought after as a spiritual guide. But none of these things spoilt his simplicity -- nay rather, we have his brother's testimony{26} to the fact that his modesty seemed to increase with years.

Those who have heard Hugh Benson preach will not easily forget the impression. The boyish face with the shock of untidy-looking hair, the slight figure, and the somewhat awkward poise, did not augur well; but when he had warmed to his work, he held his hearers almost spellbound, and this too in spite of defects of speech and manner; for he had not a good speaking voice, and it sounded strained at times almost to breaking point. He made use of scarcely any gestures, and such as he employed might well have been dispensed with; but as one listened to the flood of eloquence, and saw the slight form swaying hither and thither in its impassioned energy, one forgot all defects of utterance and delivery, and felt carried away by the intensity of the preacher's conviction. This, I take it, was the secret of his success as a preacher -- his overwhelming earnestness. Here was a man who, in spite of certain obvious oratorical defects, said what he had to say with such a fire of passionate conviction, and with such concentrated energy of purpose, that one could not help listening to his burning worlds. Hence it was that wherever he went his success as a preacher was remarkable, and it is said that sometimes he was engaged for as much as two years in advance. Of his powers as a spiritual guide I cannot speak, from want of matter. One book{27} has appeared since his death on this subject, but it is not comprehensive enough to enable one to form an estimate. However, it conveys the impression that he himself was partly right when he said to his brother,{28} "I am not the man to prop; I can kindle sometimes, but not support." His gifts lay rather in other directions, and although no doubt he was capable as a spiritual guide, at all events to those whose natures he understood, yet his very impulsiveness, curbed as it was by grace, must have been somewhat opposed to the calmness and maturity of judgement and ripeness of experience demanded of one who is to be conspicuous as a guide to souls.

It would seem, then, that one of the lessons of Hugh Benson's life is the value of prayer. The spiritual world is the great world of realities, and it is by prayer that the soul comes in contact with these realities. The measure of the soul's union with God in prayer is the measure of the soul's whole-hearted devotion to God's service, and in the Catholic Church he found the ideal which he had been seeking. Here was the Bride of Christ, Christ's mystical Body, in whom he had been incorporated and in whose life he shared, so that his whole being became permeated by her spirit and his pulses beat with supernatural energy. In her he found a safe guide in the path of prayer -- one who, with the experience of nineteen centuries behind her, could guide his soul to an ever closer union with Almighty God, and so help him to interpret life's difficulties aright. It was because he realized this so intensely that he worked with such concentrated energy, and did so much work in so amazingly short a time.

In recognition of his services to the Catholic cause, the late Holy Father Pius X in 1911 made him one of his supernumerary private chamberlains, a dignity carrying with it the title of Monsignor, and it was under the title of Monsignor Benson that he was best known to the world at large. But no ecclesiastical dignities could enhance the reputation which his own sterling qualities had won for him. It was not because he could prefix Monsignor to his name that he became so well known and exercised so wide an influence, but because he was Hugh Benson, priest of the Catholic Church, who utilized to such good purpose the brilliant gifts with which God had endowed him. CONCLUSION

And now this well-known figure has passed away and we shall see him no more, but he has left a gracious memory behind him, and the far reaching influence of a stimulating example. We cannot emulate his work, for we have not his gifts, but we can all do our best to imitate him, and to cultivate to the best such gifts as God has given us.

Hugh Benson was one to whom five talents had been committed, and who "gained other five." He cultivated the good gifts which God had given him and consecrated them entirely to His service. Fearless in his convictions, he embraced the Catholic religion as soon as he was satisfied as to the Church's claims, and although the members of his family were very sympathetic in their treatment of him, it needed no small courage for the son of an Anglican Archbishop to abjure his father's faith. But the sacrifice was rewarded by a passionate conviction which called out all his powers, to be used in the Church's service with a whole-hearted devotion which has not often been surpassed.

It is but a few short years since he became a Catholic, went to Rome, was ordained a priest, and came back to England, and now he is gone for ever. But in that short span of life what wonderful activities were crowded! Whilst he was among us, we could scarcely open a Catholic paper without finding some traces of his busy life. He was preaching here, or lecturing there, or giving a retreat, or he was present at some public function, or at some social gathering. And then from time to time, at wonderfully short intervals, some book or other would appear, a silent tribute to his tireless pen. "How can he do it all? How does he find the time?" Such were the questions we asked ourselves as we were confronted by his bewildering activities. But now that he is dead, we know at what cost to himself that tremendous activity was kept up. He lived, to use his own phrase, "on the very edge of his capacities," and any one who has ever tried to do this can best understand what heroism such a life involved. He had wonderful gifts and he determined that they should not be wasted, but that they should be cultivated and wholly consecrated to His Master's glory. Therefore he did not spare himself, but gave of his very best in the Church's service, working until the pen fell from his tired fingers, and his tireless energy was stilled by death.

And so he passes away from our midst, leaving behind him the record of great achievements. Like a meteor he flashed across the sky; like a meteor he burnt himself out by the very rapidity of his motion, leaving behind him a trail of light. He has bequeathed to us the memory of a powerful preacher, of a brilliant writer, and of a skilled controversialist. But above all we like to think of him as a priest whose priesthood meant everything to him, and who was determined to tread as closely as he could in the footsteps of his Master. He realized intensely the part which suffering plays in a world which has been wrecked by sin, and the book in which he expresses himself upon this subject, Initiation, is, in the opinion of some, the very best he ever wrote. One of the reasons for his unbounded admiration of members of the contemplative orders is to be found in the fact that they expiate for sin. "Why, they're the princes of the world! They are models of the Crucified. So long as there is sin in the world, so long must there be Penance. The instant Christianity was accepted, the Cross stood up dominant once more. . . And then people understood. Why, they're the Holy Ones of the universe -- higher than angels; for they suffer."{29}

Let those who would know something of his inner life turn to his book The Friendship of Christ, where they will find an illuminating description of the different phases of the spiritual life. They will learn how friendship with Christ is the very secret of the saints, how this process of friendship is evolved in the triple way of purgation, illumination, and union, and how "the most sacred experiences of life are barren unless His friendship sanctifies them."{30} They will realize better that "the Church is the Body in which Christ dwells and energizes, that the Blessed Sacrament is Himself in the very human nature in which He lived on earth, and now triumphs in Heaven, that the sanctity of the saints is His own, that sacerdotal words and actions are the words and actions of the Eternal Priest, and that the supreme claim of sinners or other persons lies in the presence of Christ outraged and crucified or neglected within them." They will learn too that Christ in the Tabernacle meant to him the living Presence of a Friend, and this is a lesson which every Catholic can strive to lay to heart. Let us take farewell of him, then, before the Tabernacle, in the Presence of his Friend and ours, and close this all-imperfect sketch with a verse from one of his poems

Nay! but with faith I sought my Lord last night,
    And found Him shining where the lamp was dim;
The shadowy altar glimmered height on height,
    A throne for Him:
Seen as through lattice-work, His gracious Face
Looked forth on me, and filled the dark with grace.


{1} This biography is in the competent hands of the Rev. C. C. Martindale, S.J.

{2} Mysticism, by Rev. A. B. Sharpe, M.A. (C.T.S., Id.), p. 3.

{3} Mystical Contemplation, by E. Lamballe (Washbourne). 4. Ibid. p. 51. 5. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book I. cb. vii. 6. Mystical Contemplation, p. 90.

{7} The Love of God, by St. Francis de Sales, Book VI. ch. iii.

{8} Ibid. Book VII. ch. i.

{9} Mystical Contemplation, p. 98.

{10} Ibid. p. 100.

{11} Thesaurus Fidelium (Longmans), p. vii.

{12} Confessions of a Convert (Longmans), from which the quotations on pp. 7-10 are taken. See also A City Set on a Hill (C.T.S., Id.).

{13} Matt. xviii. 3.

{14} Hugh, p. 153.

{15} There is a description of this house in Oddsfish!

{16} Eccles. ix. 10.

{17} Hugh, p. 591.

{18} Ibid. p. 169.

{19} Morte d'Arthur.

{20} Cf. also Fr. Girdlestone's tale in A Mirror of Shalott.

{21} He calls them "mystics." See The Conventionalists, p. 526.

{22} None Other Gods, Part ii. ch. vi.

{23} Pp. 22-42.

{24} La Grande Chartreuse, par un Chartreux, p. 306.

{25} None Other Gods, p. 204.

{26} Hugh , p.229.

{27} Spiritual Letters of Monsignor Benson to one of his Converts.

{28} Hugh, p. 152.

{29} The Dawn of All, p. 83.

{30} The Friendship of Christ, p. 52.

U. -- July, 1915.

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