Project Canterbury

Richard Meux Benson

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.


RELIGIOUS Houses, and Religious men and women under vows, had been unknown in the English Church 1 for four centuries, when the Catholic Revival brought them back again, in the middle of the nineteenth century, as one of its most astonishing successes. The first in this restoration of the Religious Life were the founders of Sisterhoods. Then, under the same impulse, some communities of men were attempted, such as that of Father Ignatius, but sooner or later they failed. Father Benson's special contribution to the Catholic Movement was the creation of a Religious Society of men which has not failed. Happily there have been others since; there were none before.

He could do it because he was a man of God. He was a peculiarly prayerful and self-disciplined priest, with the requisite love and wisdom. His faith hung simply on the Divine Will, and it may be added that his sense of fun and humour stood him in good stead.

He was born in London in 1824, had a good mother, and as a child was remarkably like the after-man in some unusual ways. One night little Richard's governess found him sleeping on the floor, and when picked up and put to bed properly, he complained how was he to learn to endure hardness, if he might not sleep on the floor.

He was taught at home by a private tutor, and went up to Christ Church, Oxford. He had been growing up while the Tracts for the Times were being published. Dr. Pusey, the bulwark of the Movement after Newman's recent secession, was at Christ Church as Hebrew Professor. Benson studied that language, and afterwards took a scholarship in it, and the Hebrew Psalms remained his lifelong delight. He was made a student of Christ Church, together with his college friend, H. P. Liddon, the future preacher in St. Paul's.


After his degree and ordination and a curacy at Surbiton, he became vicar, in 1850, of the college living of Cowley, on the east of Oxford, and adjoining Littlemore, where Newman had been. The young vicar was a man of means and of culture, had travelled on the Continent with his sister, and had a taste for nice things such as music and Italian literature. But one thing alone was allowed to dominate his life, for of him it could be said 'The love of Christ constraineth us.'

He used to walk out to Cowley village from his college rooms, until he took up his residence amongst his flock. He was known as a High Churchman, and Stanley, the future Broad-church Dean of Westminster, is reported to have spoken of Benson and Liddon as the only two young men left to the Movement in Oxford, outside Dr. Pusey's house. It seems that his future great work in conducting Retreats began in 1858, and that these were the first real Retreats, with silence and meditations. Earlier ones, such as that in Dr. Pusey's house two years before, had been only half retreat, half conference. In 1858 Benson conducted the first Retreat for Priests at the Theological College which Bishop Wilberforce had opened at Cuddes-don a few years before, and where Liddon was Vice-Principal. In a letter to his mother he gives the subjects of his addresses, evidently taken in part from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. But where the Ignatian scheme stops short with our Lord's Ascension, Benson with greater completeness goes on to the gift of the Holy Ghost and to Christ in glory amidst the redeemed.

Next year he was doing fresh pastoral work in the other end of his parish, towards Magdalen Bridge, where a populous district was being built up. He erected an iron church, dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, and moved there himself in order to cope with the work. But other thoughts, derived perhaps from the Cuddesdon Retreat, now possessed his mind. He would go to India, and there gather a community of missionaries to live with him in poverty. Even while the iron church was being built, in 1859, he wrote of this Indian project to a correspondent that he would like to see ' a body of men gathered together, whose life of what the world would call self-denial and poverty should be cheered with a greater joy than the world can ever give, by the sympathy of kindred hearts and the spiritual strength of abundant means of grace.'

Then when he had actually packed up to leave, at his bishop's wish he stayed, abandoned his project, and carried on his home work. It was a surrender of the will, and it led to his forming a community at home, which in due time took up the Indian work from which he himself was withheld.


The 'sixties' were a stirring time, when the Movement which had been begun in Oxford was springing up in London and elsewhere in new forms of vigorous life. Catholic ceremonial was giving alarm in high places, and, what was more, Catholic life was being lived. There was a strong and able literature. As regards the Religious Life, there were convents of women, and in 1865 a private meeting to promote a community for men was held in London. It was attended, among others, by the Hon. Charles Wood, afterwards Lord Halifax, and his cousin, George Lane Fox. They consulted Dr. Pusey and Canon Carter of Clewer, and the outcome was that Father Benson was given support in making a beginning. He already had with him C. C. Graft on from the United States, and was in touch with S. W. O'Neill, who had been a master at Eton and a curate to Butler at Wantage. At the end of September Father Benson wrote to Mr. Wood: ' I cannot doubt that the movement for the establishment of a Religious House amongst us is of God, and therefore we may be quite sure that the men will be forthcoming in due time. Waiting times always seem long, but it is good for us, and strengthens our spiritual life if we are kept waiting on God's Holy Will, to whom a few months, nay, many years, are as a day.'

Here indeed spoke a man whom God could use. Father O'Neill joined the other two, and together they began community life in the house where Father Benson was living, near the iron church in Cowley St. John. One of their advisers at this formative stage was the holy and learned Bishop Forbes of Brechin, a friend of the Benedictines of Monte Cassino. His counsel, however, was to form a modern rather than a monkish Order; nor had Father Benson probably any other intention. They chose the name of Mission Priests of St. John the Evangelist, and on St. John's Day at the end of 1866 the three brethren pronounced their life-vows, thus definitely constituting the Society, with Father Benson as Superior.


The present group of buildings in Marston Street, with the square-towered conventual church looking out of its grounds on to the Iffley Road, is mostly of the time of the second Superior-General, Father Page. But it includes Father Benson's historic old Mission House, a high brick building, with a chapel on top rising above the roofs of the newer house. A large stone Rood, with its Mary and John, looks down from the recessed gable of the chapel on the community garden and the streets beyond. Father Benson built this house for his community in 1868, and opened it with a crowded Retreat for priests, conducted by Canon Carter, followed by one for laymen in the next week.

There was much work like this to do for souls, but in a Religious Community the life itself stands first in importance. It is thought of as a special following of our Lord's earthly life of poverty and sacrifice. The Master is felt to be still calling disciples to leave all, take up the Cross, and follow him. Those who are called become finders of the Gospel pearl of great price, for which all else is joyfully sold.

The form of Religious Life instituted by Father Benson is what theologians call the ' Mixed ' life--not purely contemplative, for its members engage in active external ministry, yet reciting the Divine Office together daily in choir, instead of each one privately, as in some modern Roman Orders of priests. Entire Church of England man that he was, he held to the Prayer Book services as a matter of course; but he added to them the daily use of the seven ancient Hours of Prayer. He was thoroughly monastic in loving Psalms, and plenty of them. He gave careful rules for their manner of recitation in choir, and illuminating expositions of the spiritual meanings of the Psalter.

The brethren were called at 5.30 a.m. and said Lauds and Prime at 6. The other Hours followed at intervals through the day. The concluding office of Compline at first was at 10 p.m., doubtless to give time for parochial evening duties. It has since been placed half an hour earlier, as the Fathers at Oxford have ceased to be parish priests.

Father Benson was a great contemplative, and fostered that spirit in his community. The Fathers were to get an hour's meditation daily, if possible, a rule which very few Religious Orders have. His rule for Retreats was ' silence and three meditations,' and he used to give the community a summer Retreat of four weeks, broken only by the Sundays. Later he consented with regret to its being reduced to a fortnight. He prescribed other retreat days, and silence days and hours. There was reading aloud at meals, with a partial exception for talking on Sundays and feast-days.

With prayer goes fasting. Each Holy Week the community kept a sacred watch, in turn, from Maundy Thursday night till Easter. But it was only their Superior who touched neither food nor drink from the Thursday night till Easter midday, doing meanwhile all that the season required and ending with singing the late Mass of Easter. Of more ordinary and constant abstinence he used to say that if one did not eat much, one did not need much sleep; and that fasting Communion was made easy by habitual light breakfast. He never obtruded his self-denying habits, and on occasion he could cheerfully suspend them and eat a good meal.

Men fast for their sins or those of others; for reparation to God; or for self-mastery; or because Christ and his saints fasted. Father Benson never talked of his fasts or the reasons for them, but doubtless he would have acknowledged motives such as these.

As a religious founder, he concentrated on essentials, among which he reckoned life-vows, taken with wise precautions as to probation and sufficient maturity of age; regular confession; choir office, prayer and meditation; and priestly ministry. The 'habit' was only a black cassock, grey for lay brothers, white if a hot climate demanded it, with a knotted black girdle. The plain title of Mission House was preferred for the community houses.

He was no great ceremonialist, but the coloured eucharistic vestments were worn from the Christmas of 1867 onward, and he was firm on the rightfulness of doing this. He showed little desire to keep up with further ritual developments in the Movement; incense, for example, was not used in the iron church.

He fully recognized the bishop's authority over the priests of the community, as clergy of the diocese, but not as extending to their private life together. Bishop Wilberforce approved his foundation, and gave diocesan preachers' licenses to the Fathers. Bishop Mackarness, who succeeded him in 1869, was in his turn a friend, and ordained a Novice on the title of Poverty.

He and his brethren were strenuous preachers of missions, constant conductors of all kinds of Retreats, or missionaries in foreign lands. Yet, though by title mission priests, the only real qualifications for being admitted to their body were a proved vocation and fitness for the Religious Life, simply as such. One might be a Father without ever taking part in a mission or ever going abroad. There was work and a full life for all.

Father Benson was small in person, and perhaps not remarkable-looking. But in speaking of God or to him, he had a way of raising his face towards heaven, with a bright and holy look that was like a light upon it. In his later life one of his Bible Class of old negro women in Boston said, 'He is always looking up.'

He was tireless in work, and could go on all the day and half the night or more, and often did. He was sociable and pleasant, and his repartees are famous. He could say a sharp but not an unchristian thing. He had prejudices, political and ecclesiastical. Strong characters have such.

His boundless faith in God and dependence on him explain how he was able to accomplish what he did for the Religious Life and for souls. To the like-spirited Father O'Neill in India he wrote: ' What was Xavier but a man working with God? And we know that God is willing and ready to work with all who seek him truly. And if God be the same to all, it can matter little what the man is who is joined with him. God and any man will make a Xavier.'

He had been speaking on the Religious Life as a following of Christ, at a meeting in an Oxford College. One present rose and somewhat needlessly defended marriage and family life. Father Benson's only reply was that he hoped he need not say how entirely he agreed with every word that had just been said.

In 1870 Mr. Bennett of Frome dedicated to the Evangelist Fathers (as they were often called at that time) a volume of mission sermons, with the words ' It is to you that the Church owes, under God, the revival of Parochial Missions/ He adds: 'And it is to you that, above all the other missions which you have so devotedly undertaken, the people of London owe the great work of November, 1869.' This was the first London General Mission, and it was organized and led by Father Benson and his first few brethren. They had held previous missions widely in other towns, and this special work became a standing thing with them. In 1874 they were engaged, with a host of other preachers, in the second London Mission. This was held before Lent in three hundred churches, and prepared for at Cowley by a Retreat attended by nearly forty of the missioners.

The happy way in which Father Benson used to enlist the aid of other priests in his evangelistic work is a striking testimony to his character. He got on well with the clergy, and gained in a singular degree their affection and co-operation. His humility, courtesy, and love made wellnigh impossible any jealousy or heartburnings of the old kind between 'regulars' and 'seculars.'

Another great branch of their work from the beginning was the conducting of Retreats. It has already been noticed how early Father Benson was in this field. Their Retreats for the clergy had their effect, through them, on the Church and on the whole Catholic Movement. Those they gave in Sisterhoods, and the other spiritual help given to them, had a great influence on the Religious Life for women. Laymen's retreats fostered a real contact with the laity. Oxford undergraduates were welcomed at the Mission House, which was in fact licensed by the Vice-Chancellor as Benson's Hall, in which undergraduates, especially those looking forward to Holy Orders, might and did reside. This supplied a want, before Oxford had Keble College or a St. Stephen's House.

In 1868 Father Benson outlined in his parish magazine the course followed in Retreats: The end of man's creation and the Creator's claim; the Fall and its consequences, considered as an incitement to penitence; the Illuminative Way, ' Christ and the Kingdom of his glorious Light,' his life and death and grace; his glorified life, the union of his redeemed, faith perfected in love, love rejoicing in the glory of our Divine inheritance.


From the years 1870 to 1883 the new Society of Mission Priests was spreading overseas to three continents, and taking root in the United States, India, and South Africa. Father Benson himself made an American mission tour, and Father O'Neill preached in the Bahama Islands. The Metropolitan of India and the Bishop of Bombay invited the Fathers to work in that country, and they went. Father Page was at Bombay, and Father O'Neill went up-country and after some years gave up his gallant soul at Indore.

The year 1884 is historic in the Society for the granting of a Constitution and Rule by the founder, thus establishing his institute on a firm foundation for the future. He did this after careful study of precedents in monastic history and in consultation with the community. The Society prizes its holy Rule as a legacy from the Father Founder instinct with his piety and wisdom.

Besides Father Benson's duties as a Religious Superior, he had been vicar of the whole parish of Cowley until it was divided in 1870, and then had remained the incumbent of the daughter parish of Cowley St. John. In 1886 he resigned this charge in favour of an appointed vicar, who should work the parish from the new church further up Cowley Road. Thus the iron church ceased to be parochial, and the Superior and other Fathers were relieved of parish ties, and could give themselves with greater freedom to their own way of life and to external calls.

Some words may here be added on Father Benson as a teacher and writer. In his preaching he did not argue or quote authorities, but spoke as a messenger of God. And he could do this the more assuredly, because being ' mighty in the Scriptures ' he said substantially what they say. He made much of holy baptism and its significance, and of the indwelling Christ. Like the Tractarians before him, he was reticent on anything so intimate as confession or so mysterious as the Eucharistic Presence. He held to the old form of belief in the Inspiration of Scripture, and had a faith, not shared by many, in hidden meanings of Bible numbers. His writings are chiefly meditations and devotional commentaries, the latter including a treatment of the whole Psalter and a special volume on that great Psalm 119, which is recited daily at the Hours. Quite a different work, his little Manual of Intercessory Prayer is used by many devout people. His talented mother had a taste for versifying, which her son shared. He contributed to Hymns Ancient and Modern the Michaelmas hymn 'Praise to God who reigns above' and 'O Thou whose all-redeeming might,' from the Latin hymn for the feast of a bishop saint.


The Society was firmly founded, with a tradition of a quarter of a century behind it, and a working Constitution to fix its character, when the founder stepped aside for another to be elected Superior in his place. Father Page was recalled from India for the task in 1890, and the Father Founder left Cowley in his hands, and himself went out to India, the land of his early purpose. There he spent a year in the company of the brethren or in visits and spiritual work up and down the country.

Proceeding by Japan to Canada and Boston, he abode for eight years in the American house, endearing himself to the American clergy and other friends, and going a good deal among the people of the Fathers' coloured mission in Boston. He taught a small Bible Class of ex-slaves and other old negro women in a church home. He esteemed their gentle manners, and used to declare that they were real ladies; and it was one of them who made the remark that he was 'always looking up.' He appeared old by now, and had a beard (not afterwards retained). Sometimes he had to be subdeacon at High Mass, with his notes of what to do on a slip of paper in his sleeve.


The last sixteen years of Father Benson's long life were lived at home again. The brethren desired to have their Father amongst them, and he came back, unchanged save by the imprint of nine years of time. He returned to a family circle in the Mission House with new faces in it, and to a good deal of new surroundings. The conventual church built and dedicated during his absence was the fulfilment of hopes which he had cherished in the old days of the iron church. And presently the new house was opened, and his old one made a Guest House. For some developments he personally did not care, but that seemed only to bring out his obedience and charity. He wrote, and sometimes preached, and gently grew old but not self-indulgent, for he kept his old great fasts in their season. Nor did he lose his old sharpness of wits. A brother with a theosophical book in his hand said to him, where he sat in the library, 'Father, here is a book called In Tune with the Infinite.' 'Humph! Out of tune with the Creed.'

He read the second lesson at daily Evensong in the church as long as he could. The last time was the last day of the year, and the lesson concluded with the final words of the Bible: 'The Spirit and the bride say, Come. . . . Even so come, Lord Jesus.' Towards the end his decrepitude was extreme and his bodily pain unceasing. He celebrated the Holy Sacrifice as long as he could stand at the altar, and then was wheeled in a chair to his Communion every morning. He allowed no fatigue or indisposition to prevent this, up to the day before he passed. January 14, 1915, saw his entrance into rest.

In the London church in which he was baptized, on the centenary of his baptism, Bishop Gore said that 'in the circle of the Church, and particularly in that part of it which adhered to the Tractarian Movement, he exercised a profound influence, I believe without parallel in that generation which has not yet wholly passed away.' The preacher added that what you would chiefly associate with his name is the constant proclamation of the life of renunciation--living through dying.

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