Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was, in my view, one of the best writers of the 20th century. In fact, he is my favourite Catholic writer, of fiction until J.R.R. Tolkein emerged, and of non-fiction since St John Henry Newman.
The year after Benson’s tragically premature death, an anonymous friend, who had followed Benson from the Anglican into the Catholic faith, published Spiritual Letters of Monsignor R. Hugh Benson to One of his Converts, Longmans, Green and Co., London (1915). It is sad to see so fine and accessible a volume out of print when an endless number of lesser works are available.
Benson’s advice is specific to the individual addressed, but as he often relates his words to general principles, it is of wider value. Before his death, he had approved the publication on the sole condition that none of those mentioned in its pages were identified. Some of the letters were written when he was still an Anglican: these were November 1902 into the next year, when he converted. The balance of them are Catholic letters. Yet, even as an Anglican priest, he was recommending the method of Louis de Blois (1506-1566, also known as “Blosius”), and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius: two eminently Catholic bodies of contemplative thought.
In this post, I deal only with some of Benson’s Anglican letters. In future posts I shall come to the Catholic letters, and also to the contemplative method of Abbot du Bois, called “the Blosian method.”
Anglican Letters: An Act of the Will
The first aspect I shall examine from the Anglican letters is that of the related topics of an act of will, and of moral discipline. Benson wrote to his friend: “As regards the Blosian method – in a sense it makes one’s meditations alike, but one must partly expect that. After all, the object of all ‘intellectual’ meditation is to lead up to acts of the will: and acts of the will are bound to be like one another. But the result of continued acts is a habit: and monotony is a price well worth paying to obtain habits of contrition, adoration, and so on.” (p. 2)
This is an interesting take: he is saying that if a method of contemplation seems to be unvarying in its effects, then that is because it is aimed always at one and the same end, and that is an act of the will. This, Benson states, will induce a feeling of sameness, presumably because we ourselves and our will are the same, or at least aiming at the same virtues. He lists here habits of contrition (being truly sorry for our sins), and adoration (that is, being able to worship God with felt reverence), but we could add virtues such as gratitude, forgiveness, alms-giving, charity, and modesty.
Benson adds this enlightening thought: “… the cause of depression is subjectivity, always. The Eternal Facts of Religion remain exactly the same, always. Therefore in depression the escape lies in dwelling upon the external truths that are true anyhow, and not in self-examination, and attempts at ‘acts’ of the soul that one is incapable of making at such a time. … Therefore to your questions: ‘Is it any good to force oneself to pray?’ I would say that ‘subjective prayer’ and self-reproach and dwelling on one’s temporal and spiritual difficulties, is not good at such times; but that objective prayer, e.g. intercession, adoration, and thanksgiving for the Mysteries of Grace, is the right treatment for one’s soul. And of course the same applies to scruples of every kind.”
This, I think, is quite brilliant: when one is dry inside, one attends to one’s duties, and then the spiritual force works from the outside into the inside. We can take an analogy: people often become despondent because they feel they are not getting the results they want from their fitness regimes. That is the subjective side. We can guarantee that the only ones who have a chance of obtaining anything are those who keep to the regime, the objective side. Give up on the exercises and the diet, and you cannot improve. Obviously, to keep our minds on the objective pattern and not to become introspective and self-indulgent requires moral discipline, and that requires an act of will.
Now, people often become despondent because of mental distractions. Benson wrote:
As regards … distractions, it seems true that the way to meet them is not by effort, but by cessation of effort; not by wrestling with them, but by simply dropping them. … What is needed to get into the Presence of God is not a strong aspiration, but a letting all else drop, and falling into God. So too when the ordinary thoughts resume their activity, and distractions begin, the way to deal with them is to let them go again.
If we picture God as a vast still abyss in the depth of our soul, with cliffs round, and winding ways leading up to it, it is a help. The simplest way, if only we have faith, is to throw ourselves off the cliff into Him – (or of course we may climb by ‘acts’ laboriously down to Him). Then our restless self begins to climb up the cliffs again into the common day. Then repeat the process of letting go. It is much simpler and less tiring than climbing down. (p. 9)
Benson’s meaning seems to be this: we become despondent because thoughts (e.g. of our job) keep recurring when we try to pray. We tend to say to ourselves “do not think about the job.” But that does not work, because by saying to myself “I won’t think about my job,” I am introducing the topic of my job into my head. It is far, far better to turn my thoughts to something else, and make a deliberate decision to think of that alone and of nothing else. It is in fact possible to train one’s thoughts in this way. It is, once more, a discipline.
This image, throwing oneself into the depths of the abyss which is the mystery of God, seems to me to lead to exactly the same place. This is why he had been speaking of an act of will. We don’t have much will-power, but what we do, we have to use, and as we use it, we receive grace, and so find our will-power becomes stronger.