Sense and Nonsense: In Grace, Perpetual Novelty

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Dennis Bartlett, in San Francisco, lent me his copy of A Spiritual Aeneid, which is Ronald Knox’s autobiography, first published in 1918. Dennis has a 1958 Sheed & Ward edition with a Preface by Evelyn Waugh. I actually intend to return this book someday. As I also have an edition of The Pastoral Sermons of Ronald A. Knox (Sheed & Ward, 1960), I wanted to see how these two different works might mesh.

In his autobiography, Knox talked of the atmosphere at University and Trinity Colleges in Oxford during the first two terms of World War I, both “so depleted in numbers,” words rather prophetic of the fate of so many young Englishmen of that era. Knox, however, was busy, and listed the places in which he had preached that year, a remarkable feat, really: “York, for the first evensong of Michaelmas, at Southampton, for the second; at All Saints’, Margaret Street, for their patronal octave, at St. Martin’s, Worcester, for theirs. I delivered the annual sermon to university students at St. Giles’, Reading.”

Knox then had to preach on short notice in place of some indisposed bishop at the University Church, Oxford. He continued, “Some Catholic friends who came to hear me noted with delight that as I climbed into Newman’s pulpit for the first (and only) time, the congregation was singing a hymn, and it was ‘Lead, Kindly Light.’ (I noticed the coincidence myself but only with amusement.)” He further preached at St. Silas, Kentish town and in Shrewsbury Chapel. With the aid of a taxi, he preached Holy Week and Easter services simultaneously at St. Mary’s on Graham Street and All Saints’ on Margaret Street.

Knox then told us just what he spoke about at these Holy Week sermons, namely “impetrative prayer.” His subjects were: (1) the goodness of God (Abba, Father); (2) the omnipotence of God (omnia tibi possibilia); (3) the propriety of interceding for spiritual and personal objects (transeat a me calix iste); and (4) acquiescence in the will of God as the highest form of prayer (fiat voluntas tua).” Knox even explained why he decided to give this series of talks as an “instruction” rather than an “apologetic.” He found that many people wanted to pray, but had serious doubts about the efficacy of prayer. I suspect, further, that a man who could name his autobiography after Virgil’s great poem would recall that this problem with the efficacy of prayer was also the very problem of Plato in both the Republic and the Laws, though for Plato the doubts led to philosophy, while for Knox, they led to Christian doctrine.

On April 8, 1939, The Tablet, in London, published a brief Easter Meditation by this same Ronald Knox, reflections which at the beginning of World War II recall those of the same Knox at the beginning of World War I. In this essay, Knox referred to recent events: “a proletarian revolution here, a national resurrection there, and a new deal somewhere else. . . .” The central theme of this wonderful discourse, however, contrasted the generally cyclical events in biological and political life (“nothing new under the sun”) with the fact that “in the order of grace, there is perpetual novelty.” And it is precisely in what this novelty consists that is the perennial burden of the Christian preacher to remind us.

Knox admitted some secular advancement, of course. Likewise, he recalled that the Church is considered by the world to be a thing of the past. By the common opinion of the presumably literate, the Church is thought to be “indifferent, when it is not hostile, to the feverish propaganda of innovation around it.” Yet, Knox told us that he had just witnessed the ancient Liturgical Rites of Holy Week. This reminded him that “the Catholic Church has survived one hundred crucifixions by one hundred resurrections.” Thus, there is a real newness in the order of grace. The Church’s vitality is profound, “witnessed from age to age not by revolutions or new deals, but by the fresh shoots of devotion and charity which she puts forth constantly, age after age.” And he added, in a marvelous phrase, “it is always Spring with her. . . .”

No doubt, we are tempted to suggest that this sense of spiritual newness can have some overtones in the economic concept of innovation, provided we remember the problem of identifying revolutions and new deals with what Christianity is about. Yet, what Knox sensed, both at the beginning of World War I and World War II, is the need for ultimate instruction, for truth, for the quiet location of spiritual renewal within our hearts before the repetitions of the world, which likes to think itself the only really new thing, which when tested, leaves no ultimate hope.

In 1952, finally, Knox preached on Easter Sunday at Ampleforth, the great Benedictine Abbey, itself founded some century and a half before by French Benedictines fleeing from the Revolution. This is what Knox said of the meaning of Easter on that day at Ampleforth:

When he rose on Easter Day, our Lord Jesus Christ achieved this threefold immortality [and in this, I might add, addressed both the philosophers and each of us in our depths that reach beyond new deals and revolutions]. As a matter of literal historical fact, he is alive and lives for evermore. He, more than any other man who passed through the world, is remembered; his image is so familiar to our sight, his praise so common in our mouths, that his memory suffers more from inadvertence than from oblivion. And his influence is not merely the inspiration which men derive from a life nobly lived, that makes them want to imitate it. That is true in the natural order, but there is more than that; in the supernatural order he is himself the fountain of every grace we receive….

The novelty of Easter, of Resurrection, then as Ronald Knox said at Ampleforth, is neither biological, nor political, nor rational, though, in its way, it has something to do with each of these.

Ultimately, the perpetual novelty of Easter, why there is nothing else like it, nothing else to be hoped for, is because it provides us with the only real answer to questions that lie in our very existence, in the heart of what is. Compared to this, all else is quite boring, quite “foolish,” a word, as St. Paul reminded us, the very philosophers, in Athens, used ironically to describe this same Resurrection.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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