Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Robert Hugh Benson, a Biographical Sketch

Erin of Bearing Blog and I will be hosting a reading of The Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson starting with reading Chapter 1 on Monday, January 4, with the first reflection post on Tuesday. We'd like to invite everyone to read with us here on the blogs, and in The Friendship of Christ Reading Group on Facebook.  As a preliminary, I've written a brief bio of Benson, and Erin is taking a look at the table of contents of The Friendship of Christ.

Although you can use any version of the book, here are the links to the clean new version I edited and typeset.



There's also an audio version which seems to be nicely narrated.

Here's the Google Books scan of the original 1912 edition.


Robert Hugh Benson was born on November 18, 1871, the youngest son of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bensons were a large and literary family. A a young man, Robert's father, Edward White Benson, was the founder of the Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry (also known as the Ghostlie Guild) at Trinity College. Edward seems to have had a deep lifelong interest in the supernatural. More than forty years after the founding of the Ghostlie Guild, he had novelist Henry James over for tea and told him a tale that became the source for James's haunting novella The Turn of the Screw.

The 30-year-old Edward married 18-year-old Mary Sidgwick, his cousin (or second cousin), the sister of the Utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick. Mary, described by the British prime minister Gladstone as "the cleverest woman in Europe", was, despite her six offspring, of a Sapphic disposition, mirroring her brother Henry's homosexual inclinations. This Sidgwick disposition, along with a pronounced literary bent and a Benson tendency to mental illness, passed down to the Benson children. Of the four who survived to adulthood, none married and all wrote. Margaret (Maggie) was one of Oxford's first female students and became a notable Egyptologist. A.C. Benson became headmaster of Magdalene College, turned out a number of ghost stories, and wrote the lyrics to "Land of Hope and Glory". E.F. Benson, the fifth child and probably most famous of the Bensons, is best known for his frothily satirical Mapp and Lucia series, but also wrote, of course, ghost stories.

Of the children, only Robert Hugh seemed to have a serious religious bent. Benson was a man of strict and faithful chastity who knew his vocation early in life. Marriage was "quite inconceivable" to him, he later wrote.  After studying theology and classics at Trinity Collgee, he was ordained at age 23 to the Anglican priesthood in 1895, by his own father. Ever High Church, his turn toward Rome seems to begun after his father's death the year after his ordination, when he went to the Middle East for his own health. Seeking a deeper spiritual life, he entered the Anglican men's foundation The Community of the Resurrection in 1901, but by 1903 he was convinced of the claims of the Roman Catholic church and converted, and, a year later, was ordained a Catholic priest. In 1911 he was appointed supernumerary private chaplain to Pope Pius XII and so received the title Monsignor.

Carrying on the literary Benson tradition, Benson wrote. And wrote. Poetry, novels, sermons, and reams of correspondence. He was a notable and generous correspondent, with a gift for fervent friendship. His closest friendships, naturally, were with men, including Lord Alfred Douglas (best known to history as "Bosie", the young lover who was the downfall of Oscar Wilde), to whom Benson was always loyal. (Another close friend, for a time, was the novelist Frederick Rolfe, a flamboyant convert whose longing for the priesthood did not translate into temperance. For a time after Benson's ordination to the Catholic priesthood, they exchanged busy letters, but Benson eventually lost his temper at Rolfe's spiritual hypocrisy, and the two went on to satirize each other in novels.)

With a great tradition of supernatural stories in his blood, it's not surprising that his most enduring work is his apocalyptic novel The Lord of the World (1907), about the Anti-Christ and the forces of secularism waging a war of total destruction against the last Pope (an Englishman, in Benson's telling). Benson often felt out of place in his world: not always trusted by English Catholics (and their hierarchy) as a convert; as a sensitive, educated man urging his beloved but unappreciative Anglican brethren back to the barque of Peter.

Benson took his missionary duties seriously, devoting hours to preparing and preaching sermons. He was a methodical, systematic thinker who prized structure as a means to clarity, and clarity as a means to opening hearts and minds to conversion. The Friendship of Christ, born of this evangelical fervor, was first delivered as a sermon series preached in Rome. His biographer and priest friend, Reginald Watt, says of Benson's spiritual writings: 

In Christ and the Church, in The Friendship of Christ, in the Paradoxes, and in The Religion of the Plain Man, we have R.H.B. at his very best. It is the man as he was. Each sermon, for they are all sermons (in the first three mentioned this is acknowledged), the reader can see again the eager face of the preacher, as he stretched out over the front of the pulpit, pouring out the love of God, and spitting conviction at his ever-present antagonist. They are not great theological works, and are, mercifully, completely lacking in theological terminology.

...But it is the very fact that his spiritual books are different from everybody else's that makes them so valuable. The great body of the reading laity do not read the ordinary spiritual book, but they do read Benson. They do not read most spiritual books, because they do not understand the technical terminology which seems to be inseparable from spiritual writings, and it is because such terminology is absent from R.H.B.'s books, because those books are so eminently readable, because to read them is a real pleasure and not a necessary duty, that Christ in the Church and the rest of them are the most popular and consequently the most beneficial spiritual books of the present day.

...As we work upwards, from the Child's Rule of Life to The Friendship of Christ, we see in each book the tendency to write giving way to the desire to preach, and the more he preaches the more natural he becomes. He was a man of parts, and each part we see separately in his various books; but in his sermons, written or preached, we have the whole man, every part in its proper place, the product of the education he had provided for others, a maker of graduated text-books, and the outcome of their study. He was a man of the people, he wrote for the people, he preached for them, and it is to the people you must go, and not to their professors, if you are to get a true, adequate, and real appreciation of Hugh Benson.

Benson died in 1914 at age 42, having worn himself out with his ceaseless labors. Father Watt, writing four years after Benson's death, sums up his life's work: 

He began his life's work for God as an Anglican clergyman, his work was for his brethren in the Church of England, it was undoubtedly his vocation, and that vocation never underwent any change until the end of his days. He started by working for Anglicans, and he finished still working for Anglicans: the only thing that changed was the character of his work. At a certain period he became convinced that he was working for the wrong cause, and characteristically he changed at once and began working for the right; temporal advantages never affected him for a moment, he apparently burnt all his boats behind him when he left Anglicanism; by sheer merit he became a much greater force through Catholicism. It is true he never attained to any great dignity in the Church, he was only an inferior type of Chamberlain. "But," as he said, "there is one grade below mine." And, after a pause: "At least, I think there is." But he did become a power, a man to be quoted, and consulted.

He loomed big in Catholic life in two continents because he was a man of single purpose. His objects were the conversion of Anglicans and the salvation of Catholics; he wrote for them, he worked for them, he preached for them, and he died for them. He had hardly any natural advantages; for the most part, as he repeatedly declared, his talents were acquired. He was little, insignificant, stammering, untidy, and odd, and yet he "arrived." For his "arrival" there was one reason, and only one: He was a Big Man for God.

1 comment:

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