God’s Courtier: A Memoir of Dom Gregory Dix, OSB
October 4th, 1901-May 11th, 1952
By John Gregory Mabry
Brooklyn: Privately Printed, 1952.
A Letter to Dom Gregory’s Legatees
Dear Friends in Christ,
Dom Gregory died just yesterday, so I ask you kindly to make some allowances for the defects of my composition, for I am not possessed of the pen of a ready writer but compose laboriously.
Too, you may wonder if any man could be as perfect as I seem to have depicted Dom Gregory, just as we sometimes wonder about some of the biographies of the Saints. Maybe I have idealized him, for I love my heroes, and I would not write of them at all if I could not say rather what they meant to be than what they seemed. To me what is inside a man is what counts. I am not pragmatist, and have little use for stark realism. Certainly I believe in being objective about fundamentals, such as the Creed and all the things which pertain to the Faith, but I think our generation has bent so far toward realism that it has made life ugly. I do not think life ugly. Physically a house may be a tumbledown hut or a breathtaking palace, but after I have come to know the family who lives in one or the other the shack may become beautiful and the palace derelict. Dom Gregory to me was a richly furnished palace. Anyway, what I have written of him is the way I saw him, and what he means to me.
In the past seven years it has been my privilege to read Dom Gregory’s books much and to hear him more. I heard him give several courses of lectures, and some single ones, deliver many sermons, give a mission, and I had the supreme privilege of having him lead me in retreat, and, most treasured of all, he several times counselled me in the confessional, answering questions which I had despaired of ever getting replies to in this life, experiences which cleared my mind and he intended should purify my soul. And I passed many hours with him in conversation, some of it as merry as he knew well how to make it.
 So, of course, I know Dom Gregory was no perfect man, just as no one, except our Lord and His Blessed Mother, who has ever passed through our life was or is perfect. But I try to judge a man by his ideals, his intentions, and his motives. I am well aware of Dom Gregory’s defects, but they were trivial compared with his ideals, what he intended, and even what he actually did. I sense I saw the true Dom Gregory in retreat and in the confessional.
I presume to present privately this brief memoir to some of you his friends because you love him as I do, and now that he is beyond our sight we have a void. He, of course, needs no praise of me, for he has written in his works his own epitaph for men to read, and the Good Shepherd is his Judge, but you may in your grief appreciate my inadequate gesture of sympathy, and that is really what my tribute is, a letter to the bereaved.
Something of what I have written will appear in The Living Church, but I dare say it will not have space for all, for my instructions from the editor were for a thousand words “to be quite objective.” That is not enough for us who mourn.
Besides, I know that just as biographies of the Saints are one of the best means to edify the spiritual life, so knowledge of God-centered men is too. Dom Gregory was a great imitator of the Saints, sometimes just a little amusingly so. But he got some distance on the way to sanctity by his imitation. After all, do we not get most of what we know and what we are by imitation? We can imitate Dom Gregory’s ideals and intentions with profit, for they are a rich legacy he has left to us.
May 12, 1952.
“Monk of Nashdom Abbey”
That is the sole description Dom Gregory Dix used of himself on the title-leaf of his books, although Oxford University bestowed on him its rarely granted degree of Doctor in Divinity, for his scholarship. While Dom Gregory appreciated the high honor he asked no other distinction than to be known as a monk, and that was indicative of both his humility and devotion to his primary vocation.
However, Dom Gregory’s books, which began to appear early in the last decade, were a fresh breeze through the Church, and, although the world was enveloped in the flames of war, and his books highly technical, they achieved extraordinary popularity not alone among scholars and clergy, for whom they were written, but among laymen. He opened an entire new vista of theology, and many are the books written since based on his, a sure test of their greatness. He presented a fresh knowledge of the Eucharist, which was avidly accepted, and so enriched the devotion of both clergy and laity, serving to unify thinking on that subject like few have. He has made the Eucharist to live to many, many people who were either indifferent or bewildered before. He has thrown much light too on both Confirmation and the Apostolic Ministry, an undeniable contribution on both subjects which undoubtedly has and will advance the cause of unity. In a sense he simplified Catholic Christianity for people, so that they could better understand and enter into it. He was a man and scholar of glistening integrity who succeeded in lifting his readers and hearers up to his own high level, and although Catholic to the core was a Catholic without trimmings, neither Anglo, nor Roman, as are all Benedictines of whatever Obedience.
 Humanly speaking there would not be a Benedictine Community in the Episcopal Church today had Dom Gregory not given St. Gregory’s Priory at Three Rivers, Michigan, his interest, and ultimately his life, as I now reveal for the first time in my tribute to him, for he not only inspired and worked for the funds which built the new church and monastery, but came to its rescue in 1946 when but one able monk was left. And he has imprinted on the minds of the young monks there preparing for ordination his theology through his lectures to them. Nor is it likely the Episcopal Church would have heard this great theologian had it not been for the necessity of the Priory, but its needs drove him to our pulpits and platforms the length and breadth of the Church, and thousands of our people heard the most fascinating theologian of our day. He left countless better Christians among us, and the end is not yet. For what more could a man lay down his life at the relatively early age of fifty-one? We praise God for a “Monk of Nashdom Abbey,” and pray for his soul.
God’s Courtier: A Tribute to Dom Gregory Dix, OSB
Two DPs wept today in Brooklyn. They had just heard a cablegram from the Abbot of Nashdom, “Dom Gregory died peacefully and triumphantly at noon.” A host around the globe will mourn with them.
He died Sunday, May 11, at a nursing home hard by his monastery, Nashdom Abbey, in Burnham, on Buckinghamshire, England, just a year to the day of his return mortally ill from America, after a close packed seven months’ schedule of missions, lectures, sermons, and retreats, which had taken him from Boston to Dallas. His obsequies were held at Nashdom Abbey on Friday, May 16, no doubt presided over by his intimate friend, the Bishop of Oxford, and attended by a concourse of dignitaries, friends, and admirers from all over England, so great was his fame. A Solemn Mass of Requiem was offered at St. Gregory’s Priory, Three Rivers, Michigan, on the same day, in the presence of nearby bishops and clergy, neighbors, and friends of Dom Gregory and the Community.
Dom Gregory Dix, baptized George Eglinton Alston, was born October 4, 1901, the son of Dr. G. H. Dix, principal (president) of the College of St. Mark and St. John, Chelsea, London, a training college for teachers in the Church of England parochial schools. He made his preparation for Oxford at Westminster School, and while there would have been capable of scrounging a Stone of Scone from the Abbey for a lark. He was a hilarious but hard student at Merton College, and the University granted him its B.A. in 1923, M.A. in 1948, B.D. in 1949, and conferred its D.D. on him in 1949, in recognition of his extraordinary scholarly attainments.
Beneath Dom Gregory’s youthful exuberance always [6/7] lay the priest and mystic. He read for Orders at Wells Theological College, and was ordained deacon in 1924 and priest the following year. He returned to Oxford as lecturer on the History of Military Diplomacy in the Nineteenth Century, and became a favorite son, beloved both for his learning and his wit, as shown by the high distinction the University gave him, electing him proctor (representative) to the Convocation of Canterbury, and re-electing him on each change of Government, a position he held at the time of his death.
A LIFE FOR A CHURCH
Dom Gregory was prodigal—toward God. He aimed to give his all, and he did, whether as a monk, scholar, preacher, or confessor, for he saw Jesus Christ in every man, and served him accordingly, not only with courtesy, but with courtliness. Dom Gregory knowingly and joyfully gave his life for a church, a church for St. Gregory’s Priory at Three Rivers, Michigan, for the worship of the American Benedictine Community there, its neighbors and its guests. To provide that was the purpose of his prodigious progress through America in the closing quarter of 1950 and the first third of 1951. He built the church, and although even then desperately ill, he happily assisted at its consecration on May 9, 1951, giving toward its construction all the offerings he had received for his labors, $9,500, and his zeal attracted the remainder of the cost. But more, it was his inspiration which indirectly lifted the mortgage from the Priory property and brought the anonymous and munificent gift of the new monastery, recently completed. In 1946 by lectures he raised $10,000 to purchase the Quonset huts which temporarily served the Priory for dormitory and chapel. He had just finished the first engagement of his last tour, a mission at St. Ignatius’, New York, and his memorable liturgical demonstration at St. George’s in the same [7/8] city, when he confided the state of his health to one person alone, but decided that he must go through with the seven months’ engagements ahead to build the church. Though ill through his entire tour he never missed an appointment, much less an engagement, and gave himself without stint to the unknown numbers who sought him out individually for spiritual counsel and God’s absolution.
Although Dom Gregory made his reputation in the field of liturgiology he was essentially a historian, liturgiology was but a by-product; and his manuscripts now ready for publication take him back to history. Perhaps it is too facile to say that while Arnold Toynbee discovered God through history, Dom Gregory discovered the meaning of history through God, yet something like that is true. Dom Gregory came of a family of educators. He had an insatiable literary curiosity, and so acquired colossal learning. He was blessed with a photographic and almost infallible memory, and an enormous vocabulary which he used as a painter does pigment. One did not have to look at him twice to conclude that he was of Norman descent. He was, only three generations away from France, and he possessed the keen Gallic analytical mind which enabled him to penetrate in rare degree the significance of his knowledge and correlate it. However, he never rested on his natural gifts, but was at all times an unremitting and meticulous student and writer. No matter how often he preached a sermon he carefully rewrote it before he gave it again. It has been frequently observed that some of the finest sentences in English literature are to be found in his 765-page The Shape of the Liturgy. But he rewrote that book twelve times!—not only checking and re-weighing every statement but polishing each sentence to crystal clarity. He has been known to sweat every spare moment for a fortnight [8/9] to penetrate the meaning of a single New Testament phrase.
But no one really knew Dom Gregory who never attended one of his retreats, for great as his acquired learning and wisdom his infused wisdom was greater. In retreat the conductor disappeared and only “the still small Voice” of God was heard. With an individual soul he was a piercing diagnostician, as sagacious as a physician, as expert as a surgeon, as tender as a nurse, a veritable Lucan doctor of souls. It is doubtful if he was aware of the words he spoke to his penitents. But in choir he consciously lifted up his heart in the Divine Office, and at the altar alter-Christus sacrificed. He aimed to do all things well for God’s sake, and so gave God a chance to reveal Himself.
LOST AND FOUND
The diocese of Accra on the African Gold Coast was stripped in the mid-’twenties of all its white missionaries by tropical disease, leaving only two native deacons to carry on. The new bishop appealed to the old Abbot Denis for help. The Abbot promised to send a coterie of his monks for five years to establish a seminary and train a native ministry—then wondered how he could make good his promise. The brilliant Oxford tutor heard of the Abbot’s predicament, offered himself to teach New Testament and history, blithely sacrificed his promising career in the University, and went merrily off to the fever-ridden jungles of Accra a-missionarying. Converted ex-savages wrote him to the end, thankful for the gay Gospel he taught them. In Africa Dom Gregory found both his vocation to the Religious State and theological scholarship—and contracted the obscure germ which ultimately took his life.
Invalided home he joined the Benedictine Community as an internal Oblate, and began the research which produced, among other treatises, A Detection [9/10] of Aumbries, The Question of Anglican Orders, The Theology of Confirmation in Relation to Baptism, culminating in what has been acclaimed a book of a hundred years, The Shape of the Liturgy, and a tremendous contribution to The Apostolic Ministry, edited by Bishop Kirk.
He entered the novitiate of Nashdom in 1936, taking temporary vows in 1937, making his solemn profession in 1940. He became Prior of Nashdom in 1948, and died as such. Besides his research and writing he lectured through the years to the monks at Nashdom and St. Gregory’s preparing for ordination. He served on many of the Archbishops’ committees, was Select Preacher at Cambridge in 1946, was a frequent lecturer at Oxford and Continental universities—and, when in England, heard confessions in London one day a week. How did he do it? Well, he gave a minimum of time to sleep. Yes, he burned himself out—but for God.
While the clergy in America will remember him as a lecturer, the laity will think of him in the pulpit or in the retreat conductor’s chair. He was enormously popular, yet he defied the misconception that people do not like to hear sermons on dogma. His sermons were pure dogma, and he never raised his voice, and rarely used a gesture. His deep understanding of both men and the Church’s theology, his absolutely accurate language, and his complete devotion and God-centered intention caused people to hear him gladly. He made every pulpit an altar as near as he could, and his sermons were a sacrifice to God. Last autumn in a series of articles in the English Church Times on current religious leaders he was described as “making religion exhilarating.” Exhilarating is the word for Dom Gregory.
The great Volume of prayer which went up around the world for Dom Gregory the last three months of [10/11] his illness was accompanied by many protests to God that the Church Militant could not spare him just yet. God has thought otherwise. After all Dom Gregory’s greatest contribution to the Church is not his books and profound wisdom. He rediscovered to higher critics, and theological scholars in general, an approach which only could have been found by a combined historian, theologian and Benedictine, for he blazed out a trail lost to view for ten centuries, long overgrown by the jungle of medievalism, Protestant individualism, and post-Tridentine fiats, and has led the way back to the verities of the Early Church. There is a considerable group of young scholars in England following in his train, and at least two in America. It is significant that more of his books are bought by Roman Catholics (and without official protest) and Protestant clergy than even by Anglicans, as popular as they are in our Communion. It may be that his method will revolutionize the approach to the New Testament and help lead all Christians back to unity. At least that was Dom Gregory’s basic desire.
There have been many sons of St. Benedict who wrote their names high on the walls of scholarship in the fourteen centuries of his “school of the Lord’s service,” as he calls his monasteries in his Rule. Maybe the Anglican Communion has added another. Time will tell. But this generation at least is grateful to God for Dom Gregory Dix, who said about the resurrection body in the Three Hours he preached in the Church of the Resurrection, New York, on Good Friday, 1951:
“We are made a unity of soul and body, not an immortal soul weighed down by a material body, but a body animated by a soul. That is man. . . . That is why our Lord took again His Body at the resurrection. He did not merely survive dead as a sort of [11/12] ghost. He reversed it, in a Risen Body. That is why we proclaim ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.’ ‘We shall all be changed, and made like unto His Own Glorious Body.’ The Christian doctrine of the resurrection is not merely the immortality of the soul, but reunion of soul and body. That is man.”
Please God, the many friends and admirers of Dom Gregory have not seen the last of him yet. Maybe in God’s good time Dom Gregory will introduce us to his convert and sagacious friend, the giant African chief, and we shall all sit down together, with the DPs, under the chief’s enormous ceremonial umbrella, or something better.
In the meanwhile we can with our prayers and Christ’s Holy Sacrifice speed Dom Gregory on through the House of Many Mansions to the Beatific Vision.
Blessed be the Name of the Lord. Thanks be to God.