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Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson
Student of Christ Church; Founder and First Superior of
the Society of S. John the Evangelist, Cowley

Edited by W.H. Longridge
of the Same Society

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1920.


THIS second volume of Father Benson's Letters is divided, like the first, into two parts. The first consists almost entirely of letters written to Father O'Neill during the few years of his life as a missionary in India; the second is of a more miscellaneous character.

The letters to Father O'Neill have a special interest as revealing Father Benson's mind about mission work in India, and also as indicating the methods he would probably have adopted if, as he had so earnestly desired, he had been able to go himself as a missionary to that country. They disclose at the same time something of the sort of life Father O'Neill was living at the time--a life of great poverty and simplicity among the native population of Indore. The editor ventures to think they are even more remarkable than the letters published in 1916.

Father O'Neill was one of the first Fathers of the Society of S. John the Evangelist. He was born in 1837, made deacon in 1861, and ordained priest in 1864. After serving as a mathematical master at Eton and assistant-curate to Mr. Carter at Clewer, and subsequently to Mr. Butler at Wantage, he came to Cowley early in 1865, and made his profession, along with Father Benson and Father Grafton, on the Feast of S. John the Evangelist, Dec. 27, 1866. The next few years were occupied in preaching missions and retreats in England, and for some months in the Bahamas, the United States of America, and Canada, after which he sailed for India early in 1874.

On his arrival in that country he went at once to Calcutta, spending the last ten days of February with Bishop Milman, and it was then arranged between them that he should endeavour to settle at Patna. In the autumn, however, circumstances necessitated a move, and at the bishop's wish he set out for Indore, in the Holkar's territory, and it was mainly here that he spent the few remaining years of his life. The mission at Indore was entirely to the heathen, and was carried on in one of the native states not directly subject to the Viceroy.

Referring to Father O'Neill's life at this time the Rev. Nehemiah Goreh says in some reminiscences of his own life: "Father O'Neill felt himself called to a life of greater poverty than the Cowley Fathers generally lived, and asked me to join him. [Nilakanthra Sastri Goreh, a converted Brahman, afterwards a novice of the Society of S. John the Evangelist.] We went to Indore, where we lived with the natives. Father O'Neill could not sit cross-legged as we do, for English people never can, and so he used to recline when we sat at meal times. At last he was persuaded to buy himself a chair and table, but it was a miserable place for him; and even of the scanty food we had he scarcely took much, but gave away his breakfast generally to lepers and sick people." And again, in a paper on Missionary Brotherhoods read at Oxford a few years later, Father Goreh said: "Some of you know, I suppose, that Father O'Neill has gone out to India as a missionary, and that he has adopted the Religious life. I had the privilege of living with him. He and I went to a small village near Indore, in Central India, and stayed there in a poor man's house, which you would hardly call a house. It consisted of three small mud rooms and a narrow verandah running all along these rooms. One of these rooms was occupied by the man and his family, and in the other two rooms he kept his cattle. Part of this verandah, again, was for his own and his friends' sitting, and a corner of it he gave to us to live in. There Father O'Neill and I lived in a most simple and thoroughly native fashion. Mats, made of leaves of date-trees, served for our chairs, tables, and bedsteads. We used plates and cups made of leaves to eat our food in, and our fingers served for spoons, knives, and forks; and we lived on food which our friend gave us, which consisted of cakes made of meal and rice and other vegetable substances. Do not think that there was any asceticism to me in all this, for that is very much the way we naturally live. But it was, I suppose, great asceticism to Father O'Neill. Well, there we lived, and there we used to preach to the people who came to us. Among them was one who was an overseer of a neighbouring village and a man of high caste. In the course of my speaking to him I said to him, pointing to Father O'Neill, 'You see this gentleman, he has left his country, friends, and all comforts, and without any hope of worldly gain (for he gets no salary at all), and adopting the life of poverty, has come to this country to preach to you the gospel. Now what could have brought him here but pure love? The government officials, and many other Englishmen, come to make money, but only love for your souls could have brought this gentleman here.' Upon my saying this he smiled, and quoted a well-known proverb in answering me. The proverb was, 'Elephants have two sets of teeth: one to show and another to chew with.' Now I have told you this story only to enable you to know what the ideas of natives are about the English people."

Father Goreh went on to contrast the mode of living of ordinary missionaries, simple as it might appear in the eyes of an Englishman at home, with the much simpler lives of the natives; the small outward observance of the Englishman's religion with the constant devotions of the Indians, Hindu and Muslims, and the want of intercourse between Indian and English, which alone can remove prejudices.

"Natives," he said, "are afraid of Englishmen, nor do they care to go near them. The Muhammadan rulers, when they conquered the country, mingled themselves among the people and became one with them. But Englishmen have not done so. But the case would be very different with missionaries adopting the life of poverty, and living among the natives. This I have already seen with my own eyes. While I lived with Father O'Neill and Father Greatheed at Indore, our native neighbours used to come and sit with us and talk with these gentlemen with as great ease and familiarity as they do with each other among themselves. Such familiar intercourse cannot fail, in time, to make people know the missionaries, and to make the missionaries also understand the people; and when this thing is gained, a very great thing is gained indeed. Oh, how I should like to see India covered with missionaries living the Religious life! Sons of the English Church, I appeal to you. Know this, and let these words sink down deep into your ears and into your hearts, that God has laid the duty of evangelizing India upon the English Church. Are there not many among the sons of the English Church who would be ready to give up all for Christ's sake, and to do any act of self-denial which may be required in order to fit them for doing the work of God in the most effectual way? I know that by God's grace there are now hundreds of young men in the English Church who have embraced true Catholic principles. But when these principles are truly and earnestly embraced, they ought surely to bear the fruits of high degrees of holiness and devotion, and of heroic acts of self-sacrifice."

Father Goreh is here speaking of the earliest days at Indore, before Father O'Neill had been able to obtain a house of his own. But later on, when he was able to move into somewhat better quarters, and to add a chapel, which was built on at the back, he still practised the same poverty and simplicity of life. This house, afterwards called S. John's Mission House, and the manner of life of its inmates, are well described by the Rev. Samuel Gopal, who, before his ordination, lived with Father O'Neill as pupil and catechist.

"Father O'Neill lived," he writes, "in a native house in a part of the city of Indore called Kaga-dipura. The house was of the commonest type, and consisted of two rooms, with a low verandah in front and back. There being sufficient room at the back of this house, the owner was asked to build another house, a simple two-storied building, consisting of two long rooms, one above the other. The upper floor was fitted up as a chapel, and the lower one, partitioned off in the middle, formed two 'cells' for the use of other members of the brotherhood. [This room is still called by the people of Indore the Padre Sahib's church.] Father O'Neill had no special room for himself. The smaller room (in the other house), which was about 18 ft. by 6 ft., was the one in which he spent the greater part of the day, reading or writing. All his work was done in this room. His Notes on the Apocalypse, [Printed, but not published, at the Educational Society's Press, Byculla, Bombay, 1881.] his beautiful translation of the Psalter into Urdu, his published lectures and sermons, were accomplished and written in this room. This was in the front part of the house along the main road. People passing by could see the familiar figure of the Father sitting with his back towards them, engaged in his work. Sir Henry Daly, who was at that time agent to the Governor-General, often passed by this road on his way to Lalbagh, and would stop his carriage to look at the Father (for, as I said, the house was a low one), and exchange a friendly nod. This was the room in which he spent the day; at nights he used to retire into the chapel upstairs and sleep behind the altar, where there was just room enough to spread his shatranji (carpet) on the floor and lie down. There was no furniture in the house, except a small table and a chair in the front room, and a rickety old table, two chairs, a trunk containing his clothes, and a book-shelf holding some select and standard works in theology, in the larger room, which served as a common-room and lecture-hall.

"Adjoining this house, separated by a narrow lane, is another house, a little smaller, in which I lived with my wife and children. Here all the members of the mission messed with me in right native fashion, squatting on the ground cross-legged and eating with their fingers, with the exception of Father O'Neill, who used a fork, which he held in his right hand, and took up a few grains of rice at a time, while with his left he used to hold a chapati (native bread) rolled up, and supplemented the rice and dal with a bite at the chapati. He used to have two meals with us--breakfast at 11 a.m., consisting of rice, cha-patis, dal, and vegetables; dinner at 7 p.m., composed of rice, chapatis, and curry of mutton and vegetables. These were our ordinary meals, but during Lent our breakfast consisted of chapatis and rab (Indian treacle, obtained from a neighbouring village) only; at dinner we had no meat except on Sundays. Besides these two meals, Father O'Neill had his simple tea and biscuits in the common-room with the other members of the brotherhood twice a day, at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. We used to wonder how he could live and work on such scanty food, for he was very sparing in his meals, and ate but little." [See a paper in the Nagpur Quarterly Magazine, July, 1905, reprinted in the Cowley Evangelist, December, 1905.]

This short account of the manner of life led by Father O'Neill at Indore, will enable the reader to understand in some measure what it was that appealed so strongly to Father Benson's sympathy, and drew from him this long series of letters, characterised throughout by a combination of wonderfully sustained spiritual exaltation and complete detachment from the world. Father Benson was writing to one who was living just such a life as he would have desired to live himself, if he had been able to devote himself to missionary work in India--a life of absolute self-surrender, poverty, and patient waiting upon God in prayer. He felt, no doubt, that he could say things to Father O'Neill that he could not say to every one. More than any other of his letters, these disclose his inmost mind and soul, his strong grasp of the supernatural character of the Christian religion, his intense belief in the power of faith and of prayer, and his entire reliance upon the wisdom and love of God; and for this reason they seem to demand to be kept apart by themselves as a unique revelation of the spirit of the Father Founder of the Society of S. John the Evangelist.

The existence of these letters to Father O'Neill was not known when the former volume of Father Benson's letters was published in 1916. It was not till the early part of 1918 that a large notebook, into which Father O'Neill had copied them, in whole or in part, was discovered by our Fathers at Poona and sent home to the mother house at Oxford. On examination it was found that three of the letters in this note-book, together with fragments of several others, had been preserved in some other way, and had been already printed in the earlier volume (see pp. 134-8, 141-8, 167-72). They are therefore omitted here, with the exception of a few fragments which it seemed well to reprint in their proper context. Eleven other letters, ten of them of later date than the last in Father O'Neill's note-book, will also be found in the former volume (pp. 148-67). These bring down the correspondence to July 14., 1882, within a few weeks of Father O'Neill's death, which occurred on August 28th of that year. A few letters addressed to Fathers Rivington and Greatheed, who from time to time lived with Father O'Neill at Indore, and took part in his work, were also copied out by Father O'Neill in the same note-book, and are printed in this volume under their respective dates. The analytical headings are for the most part Father O'Neill's.

The remaining letters which form the second part of this volume are of a miscellaneous character. They are a selection from those for which it was not possible to find room in the volume published in 1916, and will be found in no way inferior to them in interest. The last of them, addressed to Miss Crawley, of Littlemore, and dated January 10, 1914, brings down the Father's correspondence to almost exactly one year before his death. By this time his eyesight, long failing, was almost entirely gone, and writing had become of extreme difficulty. Probably this is the latest, or almost the latest, date at which he put pen to paper. He died at the Mission House, Marston Street, Oxford, on January 14, 1915, in the ninety-first year of his age.

W. H. L.
May 12, 1920.

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