Today we commence the Catholic letters from Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s Spiritual Letters of Monsignor R. Hugh Benson to One of his Converts (1915).
First of all, as a preface to these letters, note Benson’s regard for St John Henry Newman: recommending his Development of Doctrine, Benson said: “To me he is the Prophet …” On another occasion, he wrote:
“… the writer that will help you most is Newman. … In slow, patient, building up of the image of Truth he is unequalled. He puts his stones slowly together, showing you each before he lays it, and you don’t see what he is doing; and then on a sudden he stands aside, and shows you that what has seemed an ideal dream is a sober reality in the Catholic Church.” (41)
Speaking of the saint’s careful consideration of what we know, and how we obtain certainty, Benson comments: “Newman says somewhere that he ‘knew’ that the Catholic Church was in the right for a long while before he made his submission, but he did not ‘know that he knew.’ Is not that a very ingenious way of describing a very complicated psychological fact?” (44)
Next, part of the interest of these letters is how they reflect Benson’s own development. He had been the editor’s spiritual director when they were both Anglicans. Then they both converted. When he travelled to Rome on his conversion, Benson wrote to his friend that he had heard Low Mass in the catacombs, at the altar of St Cecilia: “It was, I think, in some ways the most extraordinary experience of my life. … The sense of continuity and of the Communion of the Saints and the Catholic Church was indescribable.” (57-58) If a person has an acute sense of history, this will send shivers up their spine.
This is, for me, one of the deepest of Benson’s insights: “Things like human affection … are really only shadows of Divine Love; but they are true so far as they go, and have the nature of Eternity in them.” (80) This is a central point: people often think that because something is relative or has any uncertainty about it, it is therefore unreal, and therefore entirely subjective. This is not entirely true: in fact it is more false than it is correct. As Benson states, even human feelings have the “nature” of Eternity about them. While they are “only” shadows of Divine Love, yet they are shadows – and that is extraordinary, even miraculous. Imagine that, the shadow divine falls into human lives. Incidentally, this is insight is entirely parallel with the Syriac theology and spirituality of typology.
Hence, too, Benson can write: “Please do not think for a second … that Love is primarily an affair of the emotions. It is not: it never ought to be. It is an affair of the will: it is an act of choice. You can love a person deeply and sincerely whom you do not like. You can like a person passionately whom you do not love.” (82) It is because love is an affair of the will that it is a shadow of the divine, because He wills to love all, whoever they may be.
Passing on, Benson advises his charge: “Don’t ‘sit with the pain’ too much. It is doing its own work.” In other words, do not obsess over the pain: think, rather, of God. As he explains: “… our Lord has every single thread of your life in His Hands; and that He is going to weave something out of it that you do not know.” (81) Sometimes He uses pain for that purpose. He then discerningly identifies one such purpose or by-product of pain: “Let me tell you too that pain of this kind gives one a tenderness that nothing else can possibly give.” (82)
Later, Benson will comment: “Please don’t allow yourself to say, even to yourself, that you are uncomfortable. To do that means to make an atmosphere around you which makes things inevitably go wrong. One’s tendency is always to think that one’s discomforts are exactly those which are peculiarly intolerable. Rouse your sense of humour and see that!” (88) This dwelling on our discomfort is another aspect of “sitting with” our pain. Such attitudes produce problems, they surround us with a cloud of darkness.
We can be too close to our own problems; hence his advice to have a sense of humour about it. So, too, Benson advises: “Leave all things like Death to God. Nothing Eternal can possibly depend on an accident; and nothing except the Eternal matters.” (83) Likewise, “You know one’s feelings really are unimportant. As soon as you see that you will be so happy. I believe it is the keystone to your arch, and that it isn’t yet in its place.” (92) It is strange to think that one’s feelings are unimportant, and yet there are times when that is exactly the hard truth we need to hear.
So what does count? Surely, it is to raise our sights and look up to God and His eternal will: “When one once begins to meditate on the will, and to try it, like a key, on every locked mystery, more and more doors fly open, and one sees all kind of things that were invisible before. Faith, Hope, Love, Sorrow, Sin, Worship – all are ultimately solved by the will. That is one side; and on the other the will has to hold to God’s and be identified with it. And the one completely perfect instance is the Incarnation up to the Passion.” (83-84)
So, human affections are important. We have them for a reason. But we come to believe in them, when we should stand back and see them as engines given to us so that we may love and serve God. When we understand who God is and the role of His will in our lives, we see ourselves in a truer perspective, and we come out of a fog of self-concern and self-involvement.