The Catholic Church has sometimes been praised, and sometimes criticized, for the strength of its hold upon the lives of its members. Its vision of the human is so profound and its view of the destinies of collective humanity are so all-encompassing that it tends to create its own atmosphere wherever it takes root, and deeply influences the human cultures in which it finds itself. The very phrase “former Catholic” speaks to this truth. One can leave the Church, but one never escapes the all-pervasive influence it exerts on the imagination of its members. It is not the sort of thing one can put on and remove like a suit of clothes.
For those who are raised as Catholics, there is obviously a great benefit in this. A sacramental way of seeing things that reaches out to touch and transform the whole of life, an appreciation for the objective reality of God as found in the liturgy, the broad sweep of centuries of Catholic history that gives a sense of stability and of belonging, all come to be experienced as second nature. To say no more, the Catholic Church is a huge human fact. But for all one gains by this, there is a hidden danger as well. In the midst of admiring its impressive cultural accomplishments and noteworthy intellectual gravity, one can forget that the Church is at heart an apostolic movement that possesses a dynamism transcending merely human arrangements. No one enters the Kingdom on simply hereditary claims. Years of Catholic education and manifold expressions of Catholic culture cannot minimize the radical choice faced by every soul, whether to leave all and follow Christ as Lord, or to go the way of our first parents in pride and ignorance. Cradle Catholics can become so accustomed to their advantages that they begin to assume them as theirs by right, gifts to be seized without struggle and often without much gratitude, rather than spectacular graces to be received only through a stern battle with self and with the powers of darkness. One gets comfortable, in a comfort of the wrong kind, such that the call to repent and believe the Gospel can sound vague and even out of place. Like Uncle Peregrine in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, Catholics can fall into thinking that it isn’t really possible to become a Catholic. One is born that way for good or ill; that’s all.
The antidote to this temptation that subtly afflicts many Catholics raised in the heart of the Church is the perennial witness of the convert. It is both bracing and frightening to watch someone leave everything behind for a Church and a creed and a way of worship that we, if we were honest, are hardly ready to give up much of anything for. It forces upon us the great value of what we take for granted; it enables us to see with new and more discerning eyes what has become all too ordinary for us.
Robert Hugh Benson was a convert to the Catholic Church. An eminent man from an eminent late Victorian English family, his conversion in 1903 was a notorious event. His pedigree as an Anglican and an Englishman could hardly have been purer. His father, Edward White Benson, was Archbishop of Canterbury, lifted to that highest Anglican office through the influence of his good friend, the Prime Minister William Gladstone. His two brothers were firmly entrenched in the English cultural landscape: A.C. Benson was Master of Magdelene College in Cambridge, a noted author and essayist, and the author of the lyrics for the English patriotic song “Land of Hope and Glory”; E. F. Benson was yet more famous as a writer of novels and short stories. Their mother Mary was the sister of the famous utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgewick. Whether in politics, or in Church affairs, or in scholarship and literary attainments, the Bensons were superbly talented and very well-connected people in an England at the height of its world dominance and cultural ascendancy.
R. H., or “Hugh,” was as talented as the rest of his family. After studying at Cambridge, he took Anglican orders, and began to make a name for himself as a writer and a preacher. He was obviously a “coming man.” But it was not long before he began to ask searching questions about the bases of his faith. These came home to him in a forceful way during a visit he paid to the Holy Land. He saw then how universal was the Catholic Church, and how comparatively parochial the Anglican. At the age of 32 he embraced the Catholic faith.
We need to remember that to convert to Catholicism was a thing “not done” by an English gentleman of the time. Matters were not quite so bad as they had been sixty years earlier, when John Henry Newman shocked England and drew a current of anger and outrage upon himself by leaving the Anglican communion for the Catholic one. But it was still something of a scandal, all the more so for a son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, and for Benson it meant leaving behind friends, a rich social circle, much family sympathy, an almost certain bishopric and with it a seat in Parliament, and all for what? To join himself to what was perceived as an intellectually inferior and socially undesirable population.
Benson was ordained a Catholic priest, and lived for only another ten years; but they were fruitful years. He served as Catholic Chaplain at Cambridge, in this shadowing out the career of another famous convert son of an Anglican bishop, Ronald Knox, who would follow Benson into the Catholic Church some years later and take up similar duties at Oxford. Benson was a prolific author, and wrote in many different literary genres, from historical novels to ghost stories to futuristic dystopia to apologetics and poetry and autobiography. He was accounted in his day one of the finest writers in England. All the more surprising that he is so little known now. For those interested in getting to know Benson’s writing, one might start with his historical novel Come Rack! Come Rope! dealing with Catholic missions in Elizabethan England, or with what is perhaps his best known work, The Lord of the World, a futuristic apocalyptic thriller. His account of his approach to the Catholic Church, Confessions of a Convert, is a short gem of autobiographical literature.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” This is the joy of the convert, who even in the midst of many difficulties has found a treasure worth more than all he possesses. Robert Hugh Benson was a famous one such; there are many others, less famous, but no less important in the witness they give to preciousness of membership in the Church of Jesus Christ. They help us to heal our vision, to see things as they truly are. Writing later about his conversion, Benson said that to abandon what he had found would be “the exchange of certitude for doubt, of faith for agnosticism, of substance for shadow, of brilliant light for somber gloom, of historical, world-wide fact for unhistorical, provincial theory.” Let those of us who have come upon such treasure more easily and without having to give up so much, take heart and learn gratitude by such splendid examples.