Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s Spiritual Letters (Part III)

This is the third part of my review of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s Spiritual Letters of Monsignor R. Hugh Benson to One of his Converts, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1915.

Benson while an Anglican (Third and Final Part)

Even as an Anglican priest, Monsignor Benson was recommending that his spiritual charges read not only Mother Julian of Norwich, but also the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius, and Blosius’ A Short Rule and Daily Exercise. He seems to have found the Blosian method better suited for regular use through the year than the Ignatian, which he seems to have recommended chiefly for intense study not more than once a year. But, whatever they were reading, he advised that they should make “spiritual reading a kind of continual mental prayer” (p. 10).

When his charge raised the objection that the Ignatian method required rather concrete imagination of certain things, such as hell, Benson replied: “.. it may be a help to remember that our senses are merely one set of instruments for receiving spiritual truth. To say that hell ‘smells of brimstone’ is a sort of ‘sacramental’ way of conveying to oneself some mysterious spiritual quality of hell: just as to look at a rose is to see the Beauty of God. And after all, this method of presentment is that used by our Blessed Lord in the [Book of] Revelation. It cannot therefore be merely conventional. To exercise the senses is to obtain a truth about hell, &c., which is probably unobtainable by any other means.” (p.11)

I would like to dwell on the above for a moment. Benson understood the need to have books and ideas. They educate us, they guide us into a certain field. They give us valuable information without which the intellect would be lost. But they are no enough. If I wish to go somewhere I have never been before, I will use a map. That tells me the direction, and allows me to identify the various places I arrive at, and to be reassured: am I on the way, or have I lost the path?

But the map is never enough: I have to move, and for that I need to make my body move. I have to use my eyes to read, as it were, the street. I need to have my senses about me in case a road is blocked, or there is some danger. And most of all – I have to get up and go. This applies equally in the spiritual life: dangers can suddenly arise, and often no book can help me, because my problem may prevent me making use of even the greatest and holiest of scriptures. There are certain things I cannot find in books, or at least cannot find so readily. Most of all, I can daydream while reading, and imagine that I already possess as my own permanent possession whatever is described: virtues, voices, visions.

The state I am in is absolutely critical. A person with their head in a mess needs, first of all, some measure of calm and health. The use of the senses is, as Benson says, very good for this, because our senses bring us into direct contact with reality. A person who takes no drugs, and is not drunk, but who is healthy and strong, and outside in nature often enough to receive her influence, is very rarely unbalanced. Such a person can go into a church and pray, or can retire to their room with a good book of spiritual devotion and find something to help them. Too often, we have neglected the body and its fundamental importance. The body is a cradle, the husk which protects the tender seed inside. This is part of the reason why mortification is so important, especially the mortification of fasting – it gives me a real and solid platform to work from.

Quietist Theology

The great danger of the contemplative life tends to be that people will think nothing else matters. In his letter of 16 April 1903, Monsignor Benson warned against the form of devotion of the people called “Quietists.” The problem, he said, was that they valued the inner and spiritual life so much that “their disciples gradually came to despise all external religion, such as sacraments, relics, rosary, preaching, and vocal prayer” (p. 12)

Further, said Benson, quite accurately, too: “They even went so far as to discourage specific petition, saying that a state of prayer was higher. It is quite easy to see how all this came about, and how their very grasp of truth made them one-sided.”

At the end of May 1903, he wrote his last letter of spiritual direction as an Anglican. It had relevance to this question of despising the things of life, in order to seek something more “totally spiritual.” Benson said:

Now it appears to me that we must allow that EVERYTHING, even the smallest details, is sacramental; and both represents and conveys some spiritual detail necessary for one’s entire spiritual satisfaction; and therefore that there must be some provision whereby these details form part of one’s ‘treasure in heaven.’ … It is exactly because He is Infinite, and not only very great, that those very details MUST be included under His Infinite Care.

So, we should be conscious and aware of the value of the small things. These, too, are parts of the contemplative life, and we can achieve everything while remaining content with our ordinary lives, without seeking extraordinary voices and visions – but we must seek the virtues, the ordinary and the extraordinary alike, when they are needed to discharge our duties.

Finally, as a sort of footnote to his Anglican period, Benson quotes a Catholic convert who said that it is useful to compare a child with a doll to a mother with a baby: “… it is the same sort of joy, and full of the same sort of familiar details, but of a higher order altogether.” In other words, whatever details are the matter and content of our life, let us love God and the life He has given us – the details are the same in any station and age of life, only the order of the life changes – and that is not necessarily in our hands.

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