Project Canterbury

Father Benson, the Pioneer.

By Spence Burton, S.S.J.E.

No place: no publisher, 1937.

“Jesus answered them saying, The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”—St. John xii. 23-25.

THE PIONEER must be lost, if he is to find. Columbus had to be lost over the horizon of an unknown ocean, if he were to discover a new world. Livingston had to be lost in darkest Africa. The pioneers of our own country had to be lost in the forests, on the plains and in the mountains, in order to discover, claim, settle and make fruitful a new country. Lindbergh had to be lost in the clouds to find a new route back to Europe.

The Son of Man, when His hour was come that He should be glorified, had to be crucified before He could rise again. He, the corn of wheat from which should be produced the living Bread that came down from heaven, must fall into the ground and die that He might bring forth much fruit. This is the law of the Head and of the members of the Body of Christ.

Father Benson’s function, in the economy of the heavenly harvest, was to produce a new crop for the nourishment of the children of God. Consequently, he had to be hidden.

The first time I ever saw our Father Founder, he had to be sought, and he was difficult to find. After a High Mass at St. Matthew’s Church, Westminster, in behalf of the Cowley-Wantage Missionary Association, Father Waggett took me to receive the Father’s blessing. Everyone else was visible and chatty in the guild hall. The Mass was over, and, for most of us, prayer was over, too. Not so for Father Benson. We found him sitting alone at the end of a passage with his eyes lifted in prayer. This was in 1904, when he was eighty years old. He looked a mere crumpled little heap of black, sitting in the shadow. By contact with this seemingly inert body one experienced a spiritual shock. If he were dead and his life hid with Christ in God, it was that when Christ, who was his life, should appear, then he, also, should appear with Him in glory. His blessing was a prayer that “I might die to the world with Christ crucified, so that I might rise up to the fulness of the divine Life in the power of the Resurrection.”

Such, it seems to me, was the keynote of his life—death for the sake of life, crucifixion for resurrection, sacrifice for glory, loss of self for union with God. For our Father Founder, God was central and supreme.

His passion that his life be hid with Christ in God made him determine, nay, demand, that no biography of him should be written. I could not do this if I would, and certainly I shall not attempt it. I knew him for only the last ten years of his life, but I had the privilege of living with him for four of those years, of seeing him as often and as intimately as anyone during that time and of being blessed by his love. There was a theory at Cowley that the Father Founder would put up with more care from “the young American priest” than from anyone else, and I did everything I could to foster that myth.

Father Grafton, who, with Father Prescott, had sought for a means of fulfilling his vocation to the Religious Life in this country (but in vain, as there were no communities in the Episcopal Church at that time for either men or women), went to England. Of that trip Bishop Grafton writes:

“In 1865, on my arrival in England, I was received and entertained by Dr. Pusey. He and the late Bishop of Brechin were much impressed with the fact of this American’s call to the Religious Life. He called together, along with the Bishop, a meeting of about ten of the leading Catholics at All Saints’, Margaret Street, to consider the matter. I got to know the Rev. S. W. O’Neil, a curate at Wantage, who had been thinking of the Religious Life, and some others. Among them was the Hon. Charles Wood, now Lord Halifax. He honestly desired to unite with us. The question of his vocation and duty was submitted to the Bishop of Oxford and one other, who decided that, for the good of the church, he ought to remain in the world. How wise this was, how well and nobly he has laboured for the Catholic cause, the Church well knows. At this time someone asked O’Neil and myself if we knew the Rev. R. M. Benson. He was a student of Christ Church, Oxford, of high academic degree, of cultured scholarship and marked ability. We were led to go to him and ask if he would lead the enterprise of founding a religious order. He said he would if I would remain with him for some years in England. This hindered my plan of returning to America, but, believing it was the providential drawing of God, I threw my lot in with the learned and saintly man.”

Father Grafton, Father O’Neil and, soon after, Father Prescott, found Father Benson hidden away in the inconspicuous parish of Cowley, just outside Oxford. In order to remain hidden there, Father Benson had made a great sacrifice. The corn of wheat had fallen into the ground and died; soon it was to bring forth much fruit.

Bishop Hall writes of these days: “The founding of Cowley Society was itself a development, to which previous years of devotion and self-discipline had led. Trained by a pious mother, to whom he was deeply attached, Richard Benson from childhood accustomed himself to bear hardness as well as to engage in severe study. At Oxford he gained a double second in classics and mathematics in 1847, and the Kennicott Hebrew Scholarship the following year, when he was ordained and began his ministry at Surbiton, where he afterwards contributed largely to the building of a new church. Benson was from the first and always a true disciple of the Tractarians, in life as in doctrine, and exemplified their characteristics of devotipn, reserve, austerity and self-effacement. In 1850, he was appointed Vicar of Cowley, the old parish adjoining Little-more, with its village and church (which he restored) two or three miles from Magdalen Bridge, up to which its parochial limits extended. As Vicar of the old parish, Mr. Benson, in a life of retirement, study and devotion, was preparing himself for whatever God might call him to do. The call came, as it seemed, to missionary work in India, and he was on the point of leaving England, when, in deference to Bishop Wilberforce’s urging, he gave up the plan and devoted himself to providing for the spiritual needs of the new suburb of Oxford which was beginning to spring up within the territorial limits of Cowley, though quite distinct from the old village. Here the Iron Church was built and named in honour of St. John the Evangelist, the old church being St. James. In both churches Mr. Benson ministered, establishing himself in lodgings on the Iffley Road. Here we may recognize a great act of obedience in the surrender—of cherished plans for the fulfillment of immediate duties and in deference to the voice of authority. And richly was the surrender rewarded. The hundredfold in this world was given. Instead of going himself a solitary missionary, Benson was enabled later on to establish two houses of his Order in India, at Bombay and Poona, as centres of manifold missionary influence, as well as branches of the Community in America and South Africa. No wonder Bishop Wilberforce was prepared later to regard as favourable the establishment of the Brotherhood, having witnessed the absence of self-will in the plans and life of its founder.

“On St. John the Evangelist’s Day, 1866, after a year or more of preparation, Father Benson, Father Grafton and Father O’Neil made their vows and the Society was formed.”

About four years later, Father Field first met Father Benson. At the time of the Father Founder’s death, January 14, 1915, Father Field wrote:

“When the writer first met the Founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, he was in the prime of life and full of that extraordinary energy which enabled him to travel and fast and pray and preach more, perhaps, than any man of the time in the Church of England. He was then Vicar of Cowley St. John, having lately resigned the vicarage of Cowley, a village about three miles from Oxford. Cowley St. John was a large district, separated from the City of Oxford only by Magdalen Bridge and already thickly populated, but without church or schools. Here Father Benson established the Iron Church and began the construction of the Church of St. Mary and St. John and also the Church of St. Alban. He also built a hospital for incurables, several schools for boys and girls, and, established a Community of Sisters.

“All this work had been done almost single-handed, and at the same time, he was well-known as an extraordinary preacher in London and other cities. He was the friend of Dr. Pusey and of Mr. Keble and others of the early Tractarian school, but, while they were chiefly busy in the University and in their parishes, Father Benson was known as the mission preacher and conductor of retreats and spiritual exercises for clergy and religious and devout people living in the world.

“In Cowley St. John he offered the Holy Sacrifice daily in the Iron Church, a building of corrugated iron which was filled every Sunday by people of all kinds, from the University and from the poorest cottages, who wanted to hear and who tried to understand the long and deep spiritual discourses for which he was famous. These sermons were, as it was often said, far above the heads of the people; but, as St. Francis de Sales said on one occasion in answer to an intellectual who wondered why a poor old woman so regularly attended his conferences, ‘Perhaps while you think that you are understanding it with your head, the Holy Ghost is speaking to her heart,’ so the congregation of the Iron Church loved to hear Father Benson as often as he, in an ecstasy, poured forth words hard to be understood. He often seemed to lose the thought of time and even of people in the contemplation of the subject. He was sometimes very long and, as one poor woman expressed it, ‘When the Father do get wound up, I think he is never going to stop.’

“One old lady in the Iron Church knew Father Benson better than anyone there. She made her Communion every day and tried to be in church whenever he was likely to preach or give an address. She was Father Benson’s old governess and it was beautiful to see how gently and tenderly he would provide for all her wants. He would often give her his arm and support her on her way to the church and arrange her chair and kneeler where she could most conveniently approach the altar. She could tell many stories of his early life, and there is one which gives the keynote to all his life afterwards. When he was a little boy, he used regularly to read a text every night in a little testament his mother had given him, and one night he was found by his nurse lying on the floor in his night clothes, with the little book clasped in his hand. His nurse and the governess both told him to get into bed, but he lay silently there, and at last they brought up his father, who called him to sit on his knee and tell him what was the matter. The little boy pointed to his text for the night and his father read, ‘Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’ (2 Timothy, ii, 3). Then he said, ‘The floor is hard, so I must sleep on it.’ ‘Yes, Richard,’ said his father, ‘but there is one thing harder than that which the soldier has to learn, and that is obedience; so you go and get into bed.’ It was this hardness and obedience to suffering which Father Benson tried to carry out all his life.”

This astounding life of priestly work all day and of prayer, study and writing letters and books during most of the night, continued almost without a break for forty years. No wonder that Dr. Littledale described Father Benson as “compounded of catgut and wrought iron.” The ‘Fathers and Brothers who lived with him have many stories to tell of his hardness on himself, and the countless people whom he helped as confessor tell as many stories of his patience and tenderness with them. In him was truly exemplified the saying, “a heart of steel towards self, a heart of flesh towards man, a heart of flame towards God.”

All three of those traits were conspicuous when, in 1908, at Cowley, I began to know him well. He was then eighty-four. He was hidden away in the Mission House, almost blind and so crippled with arthritis that he could just manage to hobble around between his cell, the library, the refectory, the chapel and the church. His heart of steel towards self never softened. Every Friday was for him a black fast. He ate nothing from Maundy Thursday evening until Easter morning. He never spoke of the pain he suffered or complained of his blindness. To illustrate, let me quote from a letter I wrote on January 15, 1909:

“Two day ago, Father Benson slipped out to visit an invalid. He fell, was picked up, came home and said nothing of his accident. At Evensong, we saw he was in pain. Coming out of the choir, he did not use his stick and almost fell. Then, for the first time, he could not take off his surplice and let me take it off. How did he get it on? (On the way back to the house, and especially in going up the steps, I saw from his face that the pain was excruciating. He held on to me tightly, as never before. I merely thought his rheumatism was worse. After Compline, he let Father Congreve, who was ‘in charge,’ help him from the chapel to his cell, and was persuaded to have a physician. His shoulder was dislocated! That old war horse had had his shoulder out for eight hours, without letting it disturb his devotions. Some say, ‘How foolish of him not to tell!’ The doctor says he must be in great pain; but the rest of us are in peace, knowing that he cannot get out of bed. But each morning I expect him to give us ‘the slip,’ and be at Mass. Secretly, I hope he will!”

And on January 19, I wrote: “Father Benson is up and around the house again. He looks aged by the pain. He said the final word in reply to Father Gerald’s inquiry if he had not realized that he was badly hurt. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said, ‘I thought something was broken, but I knew the doctor would be around in the morning.’”

His heart of flesh towards men did not harden. I imagine that he let himself manifest tenderness and affection more in these last years than he had earlier in his life. The older Fathers seemed to venerate him from afar, and in writing of him they speak of his reserve, his aloofness, his lack of intimacy with anyone. I can only say that I never saw this aspect of his character; on the contrary, I have never known a more demonstrative Christian.

On the day, in 1908, when I received the habit, I wrote: “My silence was broken only by the Father Superior coming to my cell to wish me Godspeed, and to give me a blessing. He told me I might go to the Father Founder for a blessing. I found the Saint sitting in the cloister garth, bathed in bright sunshine from a cloudless blue sky. And there on the turf I knelt down beside him, and he blessed me. Then he leaned over, put his arms around me and kissed me. How I loved him! I cannot picture anyone else in the house doing that. I wonder what they think St. Paul meant when he wrote, ‘Greet the brethren with an holy kiss’? I wonder if they think he was French. Well, when any one lives as near the Sacred Heart as Father Benson does, national limitations cease to exist; he becomes apostolic. Or I wonder if it is his French blood asserting itself. I always rejoice that he is Richard Meux Benson.

“From his lips, or, rather, from his whole being, poured forth words of love of God as radiant and mellowing as the noonday sunshine.”

On the day of my profession, in January, 1912, I wrote: “Going directly from Father Congreve to Father Benson, I had a striking contrast. In him there was no modest grace or voice broken by tears, but a great, violent eruption of love. Never in my life have I had more love shown to me. One of the first things he said was, ‘What have you heard from across the Atlantic?’ I believe he holds you all continually in his prayers. Then he spoke beautifully of our family love. From that he went on to show that only love sacrificed, sacrificial love, can unite, can make an atonement; that only sacrificial love, not brilliant controversy, can unite the family of God, His Son’s Precious Body, the Church. And, as I looked at his broken body and considered how his great intellect, affections and will were shunted off from the high-road of ecclesiastical life to the obscurity of the library fire, I knew the truth and the power of his lesson, the uniting power of sacrificial love.”

Of his heart of flame towards God there is too much to say, even for this long sermon. His love of God focused in his daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice and Holy Communion. All day long he fed on Christ in his heart, by faith, with thanksgiving. Through the Sacred Humanity of Christ as the way, he rose up by the power of the Holy Spirit to contemplate the majesty of God the Father. He was lost for long periods of time in the very Being of the Holy Trinity.

The last Masses he celebrated were terrifying to serve. He was so lame that he could not walk without a stick or stand without holding fast to the altar. He was so blind that we were afraid he would accidentally knock over the chalice and spill the Precious Blood. The novices used to take turns at serving him in the private chapel of the Mission House. I shall always be happy that I had the privilege of serving his last Mass. Neither he nor I knew it was to be bis last. The Father Superior had for a long time thought that the Father Founder should no longer celebrate. He and all of us feared a fall or some distressing accident. The Father Superior, however, did not feel he could ask the Father Founder to stop saying Mass. But on the last morning on which Father Benson celebrated, the Father Superior happened to attend that Mass before saying his own. Apparently, he decided that such risks must not be taken again. That evening, Father Benson asked me to look at the notice board and tell him at what hour he was to celebrate the next morning. I had to tell him that his name did not appear dn the Mass list for the morrow. He seemed surprised, but made no comment. Every evening for a week he asked me the same question, and to my reply he made no query or complaint. He never asked again. In silence and under holy obedience, he surrendered the great prerogative, the privilege and duty of his priesthood and the great joy of his life. Then, as long as he was able to do so, he came to two or three Masses every day and made his communion daily. During the many months he was in-bed, suffering from arthritis, neuritis and a gangrenous condition of his feet due to bad circulation, he had Mass said daily at his bedside so that he might assist at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.

He got back to church for Mass at midnight of Christmas of 1909. The next day I wrote: “Before the Night Office on Christmas Eve, to my delight, I found Father Benson in the sanctuary. I had expected it. For days I had suspected that he had it in his mind to be there. That afternoon, when I was putting up the Christmas greens in the library, I heard Father Strong, who has charge of any who are ill, say to the Father Founder, ‘Father, you are not thinking of going to the Midnight Mass, are you?’ ‘I am going,’ he replied. ‘If you will please give me my tea early this afternoon, and ask the Father Superior if he will be so good as to hear my confession, I shall make my Christmas Communion at midnight.’ The emphasis he put into his words made even Father Strong wilt. How Brother Herbert got him up and down steps I don’t know, but there he was. It was the first time he had been in church since I took him to London for his operation; and how he did enjoy being back ‘home.’ He could not hear well enough to follow, nocturns, but when Te Deum came, how he did ‘let out’! And at Mass, in the Creed, in the Adeste fideles and in the Gloria in excelsis, he made the cantors in their copes seem like twittering canaries. All the love of public worship, that has been pent up in his heart these many months, found an outlet in his Christmas worship. His presence there, the adoration with which he received the Body and Blood of his God, the abandon with which he lifted up his broken voice in praise, was a benediction.”

Of his Christmas Communion two years later, I wrote: “I found excitement and scruples fermenting in the sacristy. Father Benson had announced that he was going to make his Communion again, having made it at midnight. I knew as well as any of the rest of them that the rule of the Church is that one may not communicate more than once a day. But I knew also that Father Benson would have said his three Christmas Masses if his legs would have held him up; and I knew also that St. John of the Cross had in his old age made his Communion eight times in one day, in an abandon of love and devotion. So when Howard came into the sacristy with a message from Father Benson to the celebrant that it was quite right to communicate three times on Christmas day, I answered the message sent to me by telling Howard that I should communicate the Father a dozen times if he wished me to. Howard went off with a broad grin, and no one made any more remarks.

“I was to carry the Blessed Sacrament to Father Benson to where he was sitting, directly in front of the pulpit. But before I could reach him, he had pulled himself along by the chairs and had dropped down among the acolytes. He seemed to cuddle among them as if to take their warm young life into his cold dying frame. There he crouched, a heap of black surrounded by our spotless albs. But as I looked into his drawn face, I saw a life such as we knew nothing of, a Life transcending the life and death of this world, the Life of God. ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee,’ coming from my lips, was engulfed in his all-embracing ‘Amen.’ I rejoiced to place the Host in his hands, for I knew the Christ Child would be safe in his heart. God grant that I may never lose the inspiration of that Christmas Mass.

“After the High Mass, I went to him in the library to wish him a Merry Christmas and have his blessing. When I said, ‘Father, it was a great blessing to communicate you at the children’s Mass,’ he broke down completely and said, with tears in his voice, ‘Oh, it was good to be with the children at the Christ Child’s service.’ Then he gave me a blessing. His hand still rested on my head, so I could not have gotten up if I would, and he, leaning over my head in his lap, began kissing me on the only exposed spot—the back of my neck! Throughout the festival he has been like that, and so gay with all his love! He hardly ate anything in Advent; and now, at every chance, he comes to the refectory for regular ‘tuck-outs.’

“On St. John’s Day, when I had helped him from his place to the door of the refectory, as Howard had not arrived with the wheel-chair, he said to me with a priceless opera-box manner, ‘It’s a great nuisance having to wait for one’s carriage.’ When I got him to his place by the library fire, I said, ‘There you are, Father. That perilous journey is accomplished again.’ In answer, he squeezed my hand and chuckled, ‘Oh, the happy Christmastide!’”

For many years he had longed to “depart and be with Christ.” We used to hear him pray aloud as he sat alone in the blackness of blindness and the helplessness of lameness, “How long, O Lord, how long?” and, again, in the words of our patron, St. John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus,” which is St. John’s reply to the promise of the risen Christ, “Behold I come quickly.”

The corn of wheat had long before fallen into the ground and died, and it was bringing forth much fruit. It seemed as if the crucified, buried and risen Saviour willed that the strong roots of the Society of St. John the Evangelist were to strike even deeper and grow greater, that they might bear the many branches that were to produce much fruit. At last our Father Founder’s earthly work was finished, and the hour was come that the Son of Man in his hidden servant should be glorified. On January 14, 1915, he entered into that rest that remaineth for the people of God.

What, then, is the meaning of the holy life of Father Benson, the pioneer saint of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, for us| his spiritual sons, and for you to whom we minister? “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”

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