God, saints, and sinners, according to Robert Hugh Benson – Catholic World Report

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Benson’s historical novels about the English reformation, By What Authority? and The King’s Achievement, recently republished by Cenacle Press, are excellent portrayals of a wide variety of saints, as well as people who might become saints, commonly known as sinners.

God, saints, and sinners, according to Robert Hugh Benson – Catholic World Report
Monsignor R. H. Benson in an October 1912 photograph, age 40. (Image: Wikipedia)

What is God like? Let us look at His creation and actions. He could have created just “tree,” but instead He created countless kinds of trees: palm, spruce, balsam fir, zelkova. And He could have sent His Son just to straighten us out by good example, but instead, He gave every drop of His Blood, from the Circumcision to the spear-wound on the Cross.

In short, God is not a minimalist.

He created many kinds of saints, too, and many ways for these unique souls to imitate His own generosity in giving their lives back to Him. Some will burn away slowly and steadily, like a candle in a church, while others will blaze up in an instant and perhaps be literally burnt at the stake. Some will be given intelligence, education, and position, that they might explain doctrine or improve the conditions of the world; others will pour out their love unnoticed, like the heart that beats even when no one thinks of it.

Robert Hugh Benson had a gift for portraying a wide variety of saints, as well as people who might become saints, commonly known as sinners. Two of his historical novels about the English reformation, By What Authority? and The King’s Achievement, recently republished by Cenacle Press, showcase this gift well. New forewords by Joseph Pearce, new illustrations by Jerzy Ozga, and a lovely new typesetting adorn works that were already great stories and deserve renewed attention.

By What Authority? takes place over approximately the same years as the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The story is told through the perspectives of several upper middle-class citizens of England. The Maxwell family are Catholics: the hasty but devoted Sir Nicholas, his tactful but no less courageous wife Mary, their son James who will soon leave for the continent to become an outlawed priest, and their lukewarm son Hubert, whose main loves are hawking and the girl next door.

The girl next door is Isabel Norris, a born-and-bred Puritan, but a deep and gentle soul who is drawn to contemplation—and to her dear brother Anthony. She returns Hubert’s affection, but knows that their difference in religion must divide them. As the novel progresses, her loves are divided further and wrenched in unexpected ways as she, Anthony, and Hubert each wrestle with themselves and make a choice: for Jesus Christ or a lesser love; for God or themselves.

The King’s Achievement jumps backward to the time of Henry VIII. This time, Lady Mary Maxwell’s sister Margaret and brothers Christoper and Ralph Torridon are the ones who must struggle and choose. Margaret and Chris have both entered religious life, but Ralph works for Thomas Cromwell and assists him in carrying out the King’s decision to despoil the monasteries of England. Meanwhile, Ralph falls in love with Beatrice, a close friend of Thomas More’s family. He, Beatrice, and the two siblings in religion each must make their own choices, stepping further from or closer to the God who loves them all.

Without spoiling the novels too much, I’ll point out that those who choose God receive joy besides—full measure, packed down, running over—although the joys are not always apparent to the earthly eye. God is not a minimalist, but He works with eternal joys in mind, beyond our notions of the romantic and the happy ending.

One or two points are worth dwelling on. Benson masterfully portrays the many shades of light and darkness through which a soul passes when undergoing a spiritual trial. He shows how important it is that his characters understand Church teaching and assent to it intellectually, but also that it matters from whom the explanations of doctrine come.

Anthony hears the Jesuit Edmund Campion defending the Catholic Faith in a public debate, and this plants a seed, but it is Campion’s courage that attracts him more powerfully than his arguments. Isabel asks the elderly Margaret why she uses rosary beads, and the answer is important, but Margaret’s deep piety and tender love for the younger woman are equally good windows into the mysteries of the Catholic religion.

Other characters—Hubert, for instance—fall or stay out of the one true Church because of the same influences: intellectual arguments and powerful personal relationships. The difference between the saints and sinners in these novels lies not in what books the character reads or how intelligent he is, but in whether he ultimately seeks Jesus Christ above all else. In this way, Benson leaves room for the action of Divine Grace on his characters. The main and most exciting tension in the novels is the fact that, up to the very moment of any character’s death, there is room for grace to work and transform him or her from sinner to saint.

(Incidentally, that might be the best definition of what makes a truly Christian novel: a story in which grace plays a definite role—in other words, the most realistic kind of story. But that discussion is for another time.)

Another point worth noticing. Several times in these novels, Benson describes the Mass. He describes it through different characters’ eyes, in different settings—from the monastery at Lewes to a secret cubby in the Maxwells’ house. Each time, the words of the description are different, yet the image is always profoundly moving. When Chris is a new-made priest, Benson describes part of his first Mass thus:

The muttering voice sank to a deliberate whisper… and Chris was delicately fingering the white linen before taking the Host into his hands.

There was a swift glance up, as to the great Sun that burned overhead, one more noiseless sign, and he sank forward in unutterable awe, with his arms on the altar, and the white disc, hovering on the brink of non-existence, beneath his eyes.

The first murmured words broke the silence; as if next to the Infinite Pity rose up the infinite need of man—Nobis quoque peccatoribus—and sank to silence again. (The King’s Achievement, p. 268)

This is the old Mass, of course. Father Christopher Torridon lives in the early sixteenth century, and Father Benson wrote in the early twentieth. “Nobis quoque peccatoribus” means “and for us sinners.” The priest says this part aloud so that all may join in praying that the sacrifice will obliterate their sins, and then he returns to the sacred silence in which God speaks to the soul.

This veil of murmured Latin was part of what the Protestants of the time so hated about the Mass and Catholicism in general. And, it is part of what the Catholic reformers after the Council sought to get rid of as a “stumbling block” for Protestants and a barrier to “full, conscious, active participation” by the laity. Yet when Benson’s puritan Isabel attends her first Mass, she is not repulsed by it, but drawn to it:

It was unlike anything that she had ever imagined worship to be. Public worship to her had meant hitherto one of two things—either sitting under a minister and having the word applied to her soul in the sacrament of the pulpit; or else the saying of prayers by the minister aloud and distinctly and with expression, so that the intellect could follow the words, and assent with a hearty Amen. …

But here was a worship unlike all this in almost every detail. The priest was addressing God, not man; therefore he did so in a low voice, and in a tongue as [St. Edmund] Campion had said on the scaffold ‘that they both understood.’ It was comparatively unimportant whether man followed it word for word, for (and here the second radical difference lay) the point of the worship for the people lay, not in an intellectual apprehension of the words, but in a voluntary assent to and participation in the supreme act to which the words were indeed necessary but subordinate.”(By What Authority, pp. 339-340)

Though Benson never heard of a new Mass, it would be hard to find a better answer to anyone who asks why the old Mass is in Latin, quiet, and spoken facing away from the people: “The priest [is] addressing God, not man.”

Is Isabel’s sudden grasp of this fact a little far-fetched? Perhaps, but her attraction to this mysterious liturgy is perfectly realistic. Just ask the countless young converts from Protestantism who flock to the traditional Latin Mass today.

The books are excellent. Some of the characters are drawn particularly well: Beatrice Atherton and Mary Corbet are both delightful people, the two monarchs (Henry VIII and Elizabeth I) are chillingly awful, St. Edmund Campion inspires loyalty in just a few paragraphs, and St. Thomas More practically steps off the page—one longs to be invited to his house for supper.

As for the Cenacle Press editions, I found them—particularly By What Authority?—a little large and heavy for easy reading, but this might say more about the weakness of my forearms than anything. Also, I wouldn’t have minded a few more footnotes, particularly for the phrases of classical Latin spoken by Thomas More, Beatrice, and Ralph in their witty banter. (The Latin phrases from the old Mass are at least easy to look up, but the classical Latin is more obscure. While not material to the plot, it is a little distracting without a translation ready to hand.)

But the new typesetting and illustrations in these sturdy hardbacks are lovely and remind me (in the best way) of reading illustrated children’s classics. There’s a distinct pleasure in reading, reading, reading, and then turning over a page to find a surprise picture. The one of St. John Fisher on the scaffold is particularly memorable.

In short, the books are very good. As the form of Mass that was so persecuted by the Protestant reformers faces renewed attention and controversy, and as life in general becomes more efficient and less abundant, it is a good time to re-read Benson. And, while one could take a minimalist approach—reading the novels for free on Project Gutenberg, for example—one ought not. Treat yourself to a hefty illustrated hardback. It’s a little more like God.

• Related at CWR: “The Fiction of Robert Hugh Benson” (July 10, 2015) by Ann Applegarth

By What Authority?

By Robert Hugh Benson
Cenacle Press, 2022
Hardback, 577 pages

The King’s Achievement

By Robert Hugh Benson
Cenacle Press, 2022
Hardback, 442 pages

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