RICHARD MEUX BENSON
"O God, Thou art my God, early will I seek Thee, my soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh also longeth after Thee in a barren and dry land where no water is."-Psalm lxiii. 1.
I have been speaking of the morale of the Anglo-Catholic movement. We have seen that it must be inspired by a thirst for souls as Charles Lowder was; that it must wage war against oppression and wrong as Robert Dolling did; that it must see and love the best in all men after the example of Edward King; that it must consecrate in sacrifice all natural gifts with the simplicity and completeness of an Arthur Stanton.
I now ask you to realize that it must see the highest vision of life known to men, and must furnish men and women who pursue that life-the life of the Evangelical Counsels of Perfection.
Perhaps the clearest proof of all that the Anglo-Catholic movement really deserves the name of Catholic is that it has produced such a life as that of Richard Benson, the Founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, popularly known as the Cowley Fathers.
I have to try to speak now about that ideal of life which is technically called the Religious Life.
By the Religious Life we mean a life seeking personal perfection through a completeness of union with God. We all possess this inclination, although it is hindered and can be destroyed by many things, but all over the world in all the great religions there is a strain of people in whom it overmasters all other inclinations. The technically religious life appears in all the great religions. But the Catholic religious life is superior to all others in truth, in sanctity, and in fruitfulness. It is based upon Holy Scripture.
If we ask Holy Scripture in what perfection consists, it tells us that it consists in a charity which finds its source and motive in God and its opportunities amongst our neighbours.
The obstacle, says the New Testament, to the attainment of perfect charity, is a disordered desire for created things, and the New Testament counsels us to be detached from all hindrances to perfect charity. It counsels the renunciation of riches; it counsels the renunciation of carnal pleasures; it counsels the renunciation of self-seeking in a voluntary submission to, and a generous devotion to, the service of God and man.
Now all Christians are bound to live in this spirit, but a literal fulfilment of these counsels is not intended for all men, is not possible for all men. A certain handling of wealth, a certain use of the instincts of the body, a certain use of rank and power are necessary to a continuance of the human society which our Lord came to redeem and sanctify, and not only are these tolerated by Christianity, but in the Sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Order they are made instruments of God Himself.
But as one among a variety of Christian careers, there stands first and highest the profession and practice of the Evangelical counsels in their literal sense.
The men and women who profess and practise the Evangelical counsels are not ipso facto more perfect men and women than others, but they have adopted the best method of perfection. The final object of their lives, their final destiny, are the same as those of others, but they are charged with a particular duty, the duty of reminding others of that destiny and of the means of fulfilling it, and in the scheme of justice they pay for this honour with the sacrifices it entails.
The two prominent counsels of perfection in the New Testament are poverty-"Sell all that thou hast," and chastity-"There are eunuchs that have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it let him receive it." But these are negative and there remains the positive pursuit of the charity of Christ in a life wholly devoted to god and one's neighbour, either in prayer and contemplation or in active works of mercy. Such a life must be lived under obedience to religious authority.
In the highest life of all the will of religious authority must override the personal will, because there would be no completeness in the sacrifice if the goodwill itself were not sacrificed with all else.
And so we get our vision of what the Catholic Church calls the life of the counsels or the religious life. It has three elements:
First-the three Evangelical counsels, Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
Secondly-since it exists to be a light to the world and not for the spiritual satisfaction of its possessors, the External Profession of the counsels.
Thirdly-since its value lie in perseverance, in its being a fixed and permanent state, not only an internal profession of the counsels, but a vow to their perpetual profession.
I am now going to speak to you about the man who stands before the Church as the leading embodiment of the life of the counsels in the Anglo-Catholic Movement, the founder of the first order of Clerks Regular (for that is the proper technical description of the Society of St. John the Evangelist) in the Church of England since the Reformation.
Richard Benson was not the pioneer in order of time. When we remember that there stood by the Cross of Jesus His Mother, we are not surprised that it was a daughter of Mary who first took the vows of Holy Religion among us. Marian Hughes, afterwards Mother Superior of the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, made her religious profession on Trinity Sunday, 1841, and between that date and the profession of Father Benson, Father Grafton and Father O'Neill in 1866, very many of our great order of women religious arose-St. Thomas; Wantage; All Saints'; Clewer; East Grinstead; Holy Cross; St. Peter's, Horbury; St. Peter's, Kilburn; the Holy Name; the Sisters of Bethany; and many others. But when a strong and growing body of Regular Priests appeared, obviously possessed by the true motive and spirit of the religious life, it was natural for the other communities to turn to them for example and help, and so inevitably Cowley has found itself inspiring and guiding the growth of the religious life amongst us, and pointing the way for the communities of men which have arisen since, the Order of the Holy Cross in America, the Community of the Resurrection, the Oxford Mission to Calcutta, the Society of the Sacred Mission, and the revivals of the Franciscan and Benedictine Rules.
Richard Benson was the son of wealthy parents, and in spirit and desire was, like St. John the Baptist, a religious from the beginnings of his life. When he was a small boy his governess, going into the nursery one night, found Richard's cot empty and the child fast asleep on the ground. She put him back into his cot and told him he must not do such a thing again. "But how am I to learn to be hard if I may not sleep on the floor?" said the little boy.
After a period of foreign travel in which the youth saw much interesting society, and had a private audience of Pope Gregory XVI, he went to Christ Church. He took a double second in Greats and Mathematics, and in the year after he obtained the Kennicott Hebrew Scholarship and was appointed a Senior Student, what other colleges call a Fellow, of Christ Church. After his degree in 1847 he was ordained curate of Surbiton, where he gave very large sums of money to the new church. Three years later, Christ Church gave him the country living of Cowley, a small village two and a half miles from Oxford, with a parish which extended to Magdalen Bridge. No Vicar had resided at Cowley for a long time; one of the Senior Students of Christ Church used to ride out on Sundays and take two services there.
For nine years Benson-who was an embodiment of the devotion, reserve, austerity and self-effacement of the Tractarians-lived there unobserved, in prayer and labour among the poor. He felt towards the close of the time a call to missionary work, and set his heart on India. All his plans were made and he was on the point of leaving England, when the Bishop of Oxford intervened. He begged Benson to remain and deal with the large new suburb of Oxford which was growing up on the Cowley side of Magdalen Bridge. This was the great act of renunciation of Benson's life. When he gave up India for Cowley St. John, he gave to God all he was and all he cared for, and by doing so found a point of entrance for the religious life into the modern Church of England. Bishop Wilberforce was able to countenance it, because he saw that there was a complete absence of self-will in the life and plans of the founder.
Benson built an iron church in the new suburb, and settled into lodgings in the Iffley Road.
Anything more drab and humdrum after his high Indian hopes cannot be imagined. But he had his reward. From that spot he afterwards planted two branches of his Order in India, with two others in America and South Africa. For gradually his call to the Religious Life became became clear to Benson. A priest named Grafton came over from America to consult Dr. Pusey, with the same hope in his heart. Pusey sent him to Benson. And in 1866, Benson, Grafton, and a priest called O'Neill, after a year of spiritual preparation, and having obtained the sanction and benediction of the bishop of the diocese, took the vows and formed the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Son after Oliver Prescott joined them. It was all most simple and most real. They lived crowded together in a little suburban brick house in the Iffley Road. They said the Day Hours in a tiny oratory, and Mass and the Prayer Book Offices in the parish church. In 1868 the old red-brick mission-house was opened with its bare, bleak chapel perched up on the roof; the chapel had ugly brown-painted deal-fittings, and a sever Byzantine mosaic over the altar. There was nothing naturally attractive about it, it was an embodiment in brick and wood of poverty and detachment, like San Damiano and the Carceri, but planted in an ugly English midland suburb with none of the Italian charm.
In 1870, four novices joined the first group, one of whom became the second Superior-General, Father Page. From this time the activities of the Society became many and great. Priest were gathered into the chapel for Retreats, and every effort was made to deepened the spiritual life of the clergy. The Fathers went out on Missions in all direction. For many years the Society slowly shaped its constitution, testing it by the experience of time, and in 1884 Bishop Mackarness, of Oxford, confirmed it, and the Society became an order of clerks regular, in the manner prescribed by Catholic precedent.
At last we come to the man and his life. Benson's mission was to embody the spirit of the religious life in such a way that men might understand, and that those who were called might follow. To do this he had to be without natural attractiveness, there had to be as little of him beyond the spirit as possible.
Benson had no form or comeliness apart from the tranquil shining spirit which shone through his dim short-sighted eyes, and in the strong, benevolent line of his mouth. A little shrivelled, bent, thin, wiry, ascetic figure, full of energy, often looking as though he were concealing physical suffering but at fitting times brimming over with laughter and humour, a shabby, faded cassock, a neck-cloth renewed not very often, stockingless feet thrust into old shoes, the cassock girded very tightly-that is the figure people remember, a harsh, rather hesitating voice, no power of popular preaching, nothing to attract you short of the highest characteristics of all.
But then those! The motive of Father Benson's life was union with the most Holy Trinity in Unity. That was his passion. His thirst for souls, his battle against wrong, his love of all men, his consecration of the material were all elements, necessary elements in his passion for God.
God with him was indeed central and supreme, and the external he valued, the letter of Holy Scripture, the precise use of prayer, the practice of the Sacraments, had their value strictly and only to him as means to the knowledge of God, means to union with God.
In this also lay to him the whole meaning of the vows of the Religious Life. Through them the soul is dedicated with the greatest possible completeness. Father Benson was vowed to poverty and chastity because these were instruments for a clear vision of God and a closer conformity to His Will; humility and obedience were to him the necessary consequence of the attitude the creature must hold towards the Creator.
You see then that this was the man raised up to gain entrance again for the religious life into the English world. We often hear of the utility of the religious life and its economy, but such notions of it wholly misunderstand it. Father Benson was raised up to make it clear that the religious life is a response to a divine vocation; that its motive is a simple and absolute surrender of self with all one has or is to God, to live in close and undisturbed fellowship with Him after the example and in obedience to the counsels of His Incarnation.
"He always seemed to me," said Bishop Churton, "more full of the supernatural holiness and power which come from divine grace acting on a wholly surrendered life than anyone I ever saw." And this being so we are not surprised to hear of the supernatural power which shone through his meditations in the month's retreat of the Society in its early days.
Father Maturin, writing years after he became a Roman Catholic, said that these addresses were inspiring beyond anything he ever heard before or since, that all harshness and hesitation disappeared, the modulations of the father's voice became like music, and his language and diction perfect, while the words came with a curious air of detachment. "For fertility, originality of thought and the abundant gift of expression and illustration I have never," says Father Maturin "heard the equal of those addresses."
"It was," says another father, "the most intimate outpouring of a soul in communion with God, an inspired word indeed, and I suppose what St. Paul meant by the gift of prophecy."
In fact, that austere little upper chamber at Cowley witnessed scenes of the apostolic power of the first days.
Father Congreve, speaking of his Superior with that subtle discernment of which he was master, says that Father Benson's austerity was so much part of himself that it became a hardy soldier's indifference rather than a virtue consciously acquired. He was untouched by self-consideration, self-pity, self-indulgence.
Few people since the days of the Patriarchs can have had so long a conscious life as Father Benson, for he lived to ninety-one, and was awake eighteen or twenty hours our of the twenty-four during most of his life. He worked all day, except during the prescribed half-hours of recreation, and the greater part of every night. He often went to bed at four, and not infrequently he did not go to bed at all. His power of fasting was extraordinary. Up to nearly the end of his life he did not eat or drink between Maundy Thursday and dinner-time on Easter Day. Bishop Hall says that once Benson was suffering from a bad carbuncle, and his head and one eye had to be bandaged up. In this condition he preached the University sermon at Oxford fasting, and then returned to Cowley and sang High Mass.
"Extraordinary," you say. Yes, I am afraid so, in the service of Christ, but not at all extraordinary in the service of England, France and Germany during the Great War.
Father Benson insisted that great self-sacrifice belongs to ordinary Christianity. We give ourselves to god in every sacrament, in every prayer, and we live the rest of our lives to carry out the sacrificial gift of ourselves to God to completeness. What can be simpler?
A terrible deal, you think? I have just been reading The Great Days of Versailles, by Mr. Bradby. Poor Louis the Fourteenth! Father Benson enjoyed earthly life far more than he did. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" should be carved upon the portals of Versailles.
Listen to this for an ending. It is written on the Atlantic to one of the fathers; "we are just off Sandy Hook, the voyage has been beautiful. Several times I have been able to say the office with porthole open and my face towards the great expanse of waters, the waters below the firmament, the waters of the mid-heavens, and high, unseen, the glorious water of the bow like unto an emerald and the solid glassy sea like unto crystal, no longer moving like the wide waste below, but established in the accomplished truth and perfected in the bright purity of the throne of God. Since St. Simon and St. Jude's day I have been keeping the voyage in active company with king David, and learning some little more of the delight of that inexhaustible treasury.
"How strange it is to think that one can have such an intense secret of happiness! It makes one wonder why God should have been pleased to reveal such a delight to oneself. One ought to be very thankful."