Thursday, November 12, 2020

Young Ronald Knox "Comes Home"

The young man who would one day be known as Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote his own account of his very moving conversion and entrance into the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 29. 

I have written an article for my monthly published column, in which I attempt to present the broad outlines of a story that has many facets. You can read that article in the June 2021 issue of Magnificat (click HERE to subscribe). 

On the blog, I wish to present a few segments from his beautifully written book, A Spiritual Aeneid (notwithstanding the fact that the more mature Monsignor Knox — who was a prolific author and translated the entire Bible — found this, his first Catholic book, inadequate and even embarrassing). 

Nevertheless here he endeavors to explain the step he has just taken, with what is still the candor of youth and with the savor of the religious controversies (he had been an Oxford fellow, Anglican priest, and leader of the Anglo-Catholic movement) and the historical anguish of Europe in the midst of war in 1917. Knox's quoted text from A Spiritual Aeneid is in BOLD type. I interject a few contextual and/or explanatory notes in regular type which should appear as a medium shade of blue. Most of these notes are also contained within brackets.


I suppose it is inevitable that, after the question “Why did you become a Roman Catholic?” Anglicans and others should proceed to the question “What does it feel like?”

In answer to this, I can register one impression at once, curiously inconsistent with my preconceived notions on the subject. I had been encouraged to suppose, and fully prepared to find, that the immediate result of submission to Rome would be the sense of having one’s liberty cramped and restricted in a number of ways, necessary no doubt to the welfare of the Church at large, but galling to the individual. The discouragement of criticism would make theology uninteresting, and even one’s devotions would become a feverish hunt after indulgences (this latter bogey is one sedulously presented to the would-be convert by Anglican controversialists). 

As I say, I was quite prepared for all this: the curious thing is that my experience has been exactly the opposite. I have been overwhelmed with the feeling of liberty — the glorious liberty of the sons of God. I am speaking for myself, but I fancy not only for myself, when I say that as an Anglican I was for ever bothering about this and that detail of correctness — was this doctrine one that an Anglican could assert as of faith? Was this scruple of conscience one to be encouraged or to be fought? And, above all, was I right? Were we all doing God’s Will? or merely playing at it? 

Now, this perpetual "is-my-hat-straight" sort of feeling is one that had become so inveterate with me as an Anglican that I had ceased to be fully conscious of it; just in the same way you can carry a weight so long that you cease to feel it; instead, you feel an outburst of positive relief when it is withdrawn...

[Knox felt as he had found his home in the Catholic Church.] I used once to define “home” as “a place where you can put your feet on the mantelpiece,” and I am not sure it is a bad description. That is the sense in which, especially, I felt that I had “come home.” Anglicanism (or some part of it) had, like a kind hostess, invited me to “make myself at home;” it was “Liberty Hall” [a literary reference to a place that welcomes people without imposing alien conventions]... and it was not till I became a Catholic that I became conscious of my former homelessness, my exile from the place that was my own. 

It was not that, as an Anglican, I had been overscrupulous about other people’s disapproval: I always rather enjoyed being disapproved of. It was simply that I now found ease and naturalness, and stretched myself like a man who has been sitting in a cramped position. 

“But,” I shall be asked, “what do you now make of Anglicanism, and of your Anglican career?” 

It is not a particularly easy question to answer, but at least some misrepresentations may be worth the avoiding. I do think that I was called by God to minister to Him in the office of a priest; that I went about it the best way I knew, and was solemnly set apart as a religious person by a Body which had every human authority to do so, but lacked the spiritual qualification which is to me all-important, the direct inheritance of the Apostolic mission. The simplest way to put it is that, so far as orders go, I feel about the Church of England exactly what the Rev. R. J. Campbell (in his Spiritual Pilgrimage) says about his earlier ordination.

[Reginald John Campbell (1867-1956) was an ordained Protestant minister and notable preacher who then joined the Church of England. Campbell was "reordained" by what he believed to be valid sacramental bishops with apostolic succession in the Anglican Church (in reality, the succession had been broken in the 16th century, but he didn't know or acknowledge that fact). Campbell viewed his prior Protestant ministry as having a "charismatic" value for the leadership of the Congregationalist Christians he served, but not as possessing an objective sacramental status linked to the apostolic ministry instituted by Christ. Knox seems to be pointing to Campbell's description of his Protestant ministry as a "charismatic" gift of leadership and service ('grace-given' by the Holy Spirit, within the limits of the circumstances) for the sake of Christians entrusted to him who were honestly mistaken and in good faith in their dedication to following Christ. Ironically, Knox uses this distinction to illustrate the value of his own ministry as an Anglican priest, which he now realized was not truly linked to the apostolic succession. Nevertheless, it was "charismatic" and therefore a worthwhile service, and perhaps even — through the good-faith presumption of a validity that in fact did not exist — a ritual context that de facto provided occasions for "spiritual communion" (through intention and desire) with the Eucharistic Jesus who was really present, not at their Anglo-Catholic "Masses" but in the validly offered Masses by (validly ordained) Catholic priests all over the world. Knox himself was "reordained" (i.e. validly ordained) as a Catholic priest in 1918.]

As to the Sacraments I received, I feel as if I had in the past made a large number of spiritual Communions in circumstances where, for practical purposes, I was debarred from communicating sacramentally; that, consequently, if and in so far as I was in a position to receive grace at all, such grace was then given to me as is given in Spiritual Communion — I might have done the same if I had passed fourteen years of my life on a desert island. I have no sense of spiritual poverty — except such as we must all have. 

For the Church of England as an institution, my chief feeling is one of unbounded gratitude to God for having been born in circumstances where I had a schoolmaster to bring me to Christ. Or rather (for “schoolmaster” is too cold a term) I feel as if I had been left in charge of a foster-mother, who reared me as her own child. 

Was it her fault if, in her affection for me, she let me think I was her own child, and hid from me my true birth and princely destiny? I have no word of complaint to make of any rough usage: rather, if anything, she gave me too much liberty, and let me put on airs when I had no right to. And if at last I have found my true parentage, as I now think it, can I forget the kindnesses she showered on me, her care and my happiness in her arms? Such is not my intention; God forgive me if through any fault of mine it should become my act.

“And so,” they go on, “you have found peace?” 

Certainly I have found harbourage, the resting-place which God has allowed to His people on earth... despising the winds, not because no breath of air ever comes there, but because God himself has entrusted the command of those winds to his own Delegate, regemque dedit, qui foedere certo / Et premere, et laxas sciret dare jussus habenas

I do not expect to escape temptations against the faith, such as the imperfect soul is bound to encounter and I have often encountered in the past. Nor do I feel cabined and cramped because intellectual speculation is now guided and limited for me by actual authority, as it has been hitherto by my own desire for orthodoxy. I find in the Church pacem veri nominis, quam mundus dare non potest, tranquillitatem scilicet ordinis; I do not see how it can be unchristian to desire that. 

But if by “finding peace” you mean being laid up on a shelf and, like the housemaid of the epitaph, “doing nothing for ever and ever,” if you mean a sort of senile decay of the faculties, and a fatuous complacency in the existing order of things, then I no longer assent: then, like the irritated gentleman when a complete stranger asked him if he had found peace, I must answer “No! I’ve found War!” 

Did I find, as the days of my hesitation drew to an end, the Church of Rome a smug, respectable institution much lauded by men of the world? Did I, in my morning paper, find fulsome paragraphs telling me of the debt we all owed to the Vatican for its admirable broad-mindedness? 

Rather, if there was a wrong motive (for all political motives to religious action are wrong) which then encouraged me to join the Church, it was that I found the Church, as in the days of the Apostles, “a sect that is everywhere spoken against.” I found that Catholicism in Italy was condemned as denationalized, Catholicism in Germany for its nationalism, Catholicism in Switzerland because it was pacificist, Catholicism in France because it was chauvinist, Catholicism in Spain as a pillar of reaction, Catholicism in Ireland as a hotbed of revolution. 

I found that the imperialist Press, both in England and in Germany, anathematized the Holy Father’s interference [i.e. Benedict XV's various efforts to mediate and help bring peace], now because he was trying to secure the winning side in its ill-gotten gains, now because he was trying to save the losing side from defeat. That [Rome's] influence should react differently in different environments was what I should have expected of the City which was built to be the world’s centre, but what did it all mean, this chorus of dissatisfaction? 

In the first place, it must mean that the Church was something big, something significant — divine or diabolical, it must have some importance in the world, to evoke such antipathy. And in the second place, it had resolute and sworn enemies. The manifestations of its activity might differ, and the limits within which its influence could be traced might be narrower than many people thought, but still it had some effect, and the effect roused the world to fury. 

Disagreements there might be between various sections of the Church — and its critics, heaven knows, have made the most of them — but at least it had one thing in common everywhere, common enemies.
They might respect it for the moment, but in the years to come they would not be slow to join in assailing it, the indifferent, the baffled seekers after a sign, the fanatical opponents — as once before, Pilate and Herod and Caiaphas — sinking their differences in a joint attack upon this defenceless but never insignificant foe. Surely such a cause was worthy of being championed.... 

Now, as I say, if such motives swayed me, they were wrong. It is cowardly to join the Church just because the Church is large, or influential: I had often had the argument put to me, and rejected it. They are slaves, who dare not be "in the right" with two or three. And it is wrong to join the Church because the Church seems to you to lack support which you can give. You must come, not as a partisan or as a champion, but as a suppliant for the needs in your own life which only the Church can supply — the ordinary, daily needs, litus innocuum, ei cunctis auramque undamque patentem.

You must join the Church as a religion, not as a party or as a clan.

[This was the religion — the fullness of the way of surrendering his will to Christ — that Knox encountered with an open heart, after much struggle and inner turmoil in the stretch of time immediately prior to the completion of his conversion: for him it was the decisive step on a road that passed from his Evangelical childhood, to his Ritualist Anglican school days, to his zealous convictions as an Anglo-Catholic priest who wanted to help liberate and bring about the (future) "corporate reunion" of the whole English Church with Rome, to — at last — his personal entrance into the fullness of faith and communion with the Catholic Church in obedience to Christ, and the successor of Peter. In the end, after all his seeking, he went on retreat to a Benedictine monastery and prayed to be able to make his decision. Soon] I knew that grace had triumphed. I neither expected nor received any sensible supernatural illumination: I did not have to take my spiritual temperature, “evaluate” my “experiences,” or proceed in any such quasi-scientific manner. I turned away from the emotional as far as possible, and devoted myself singly to the resignation of my will to God’s Will. Attulit et nobis aliquando optantibus aetas Adventum auxiliumque Dei; in the mere practice of religion, in the mere performance of these (very informal) exercises, I knew that it was all right. 

I am not trying to explain it, but I must try to illustrate it by an example. It was as if I had been a man homeless and needing shelter, who first of all had taken refuge under a shed at the back of an empty house. Then he had found an outhouse unlocked, and felt more cheerfulness and comfort there. Then he had tried a door in the building itself, and, by some art, found a secret spring which let you in at the back door; nightly thenceforward he had visited this back part of the house, more roomy than anything he had yet experienced, and giving, through a little crack, a view into the wide spaces of the house itself beyond. Then, one night, he had tried the spring, and the door had refused to open. The button could still be pushed, but it was followed by no sound of groaning hinges. Baffled, and unable now to content himself with shed or outhouse, he had wandered round and round the house, looking enviously at its frowning fastnesses. And then he tried the front door, and found that it had been open all the time.