Friday, July 28, 2017

A Thousand Years Is But A Day

By Robert Hugh Benson 
Kindle Edition. 

An historian friend told me that this is by far the best of Robert Hugh Benson's historical novels. I thoroughly believe it, and hope to read more of the author. Perhaps I should interject that reading his "Confessions of a Convert" was what got me started. I am so glad "By What Authority?" was at the top of my chart for vacation reading this year. I could hardly put it down and never found the book tedious in all its 466 Kindle pages, in book format over 560.

The setting is in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, against the background of her excommunication by the Pope, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the bitter persecution of English Catholics in those years. The tale is of two befriended families with neighboring estates just outside of London, the one Catholic, the other Puritan. Benson interjects a fair amount of historical data. His account of the trial and martyrdom of St. Edmund Campion alone would make the book worthwhile but there is so much more.  

If you love history and hagiography, this novel and the many issues of life and faith which it so deftly analyzes will not leave you disappointed. It has me thinking about all sorts of things and reveling in the high spiritual tension lived out by these noble figures of Catholic recusancy. Although Benson never takes his eye off his principal protagonists for long, he draws some beautiful word pictures of the faithful Catholics among the common folk of the period and is just descriptive enough of the pursuivants and protestant spies who lured priests and great Catholics to the rack and martyrdom. Time and again the bonds of friendship between the two families are stretched to the limit, but seem to come through nobly and in some of the most memorable chapters with undiminished respect for the other's religious convictions.

In the last year I had read two of Eamon Duffy's history books on the reformation period in England and John Gerard's, SJ, "Autobiography of a Hunted Priest" (Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition. 2012), which made the reading of Benson perhaps even more enjoyable. All in all, I am confronted here again, as I was with Gerard's accounts of the spiritual direction which he gave to lay people, with the very fundamental question about what it means to be a practicing Catholic in any time or place. I ask myself how much more I could be doing to inspire fellow Catholics to much more spiritual tension or dynamism in their lives and in mine.

Basically, Elizabethan England had no comprehension and less patience whether for Catholicism or for Puritanism, because neither fit the dull and decadent patriotic scheme of a state religion tailored to a country willing to sacrifice all for a chance to rule the waves. Benson seems respectful of sad Puritan attempts at devotion, but paints the established Church of England as little better than a charade. Although his primary focus in the novel is on a very real but definitely elite Catholicism in times of persecution, Benson makes the case for a very vibrant lay Catholic spirituality as the norm.

My quandary, as I say, has to do with Catholic dynamism. If there had ever been a time when being Catholic in the fullest sense of the term was something mainstream to society and flourishing in the parish and beyond, well it's not in my lifetime. This is not only in the U.S. Years back friends would joke about Italians being born Catholic; that baptism was a formality in a thoroughly Catholic world... not any more. The other day here at home I asked a very good Catholic layman where the vitality of the Church is to be found today and he said in the so-called movements and I completed his sentence saying, "and you mean not in ordinary parish life, which is losing quota even in the heartland..." 

In recusant England for every Catholic martyr for the faith there were scores of confessors: people who paid penalties, spent time in jail, lost position and property, were driven into exile because they refused to give up being privately and discreetly Catholic. They risked all to confess their sins and assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass when a priest could be found. They had vibrant devotional lives at home and did their utmost to raise their children in the faith. I fear that Catholic life today is rather marked by tepidity and the "penalties" for leading a life grounded in prayer and nourished by Scripture and spiritual reading would be less time on the net or on the course or missing a favorite TV show.

Maybe the heroes of Benson's novel were so devotedly Catholic because the authorities tried to take away from them all they loved and cherished in their relationship with the Lord and His Blessed Mother. "Not with a bang, but a whimper": Eamon Duffy maintains in "Reformation Divided" that in the Reformation in England all were losers and there was no real Christian substance of any sort as a result of the neglect. Perhaps in our day it may take some fines for being Catholic or banishment and prison to get people to react and resort to those spiritual means needed to resist Satan.

In Elizabethan England many folks were sold on a paltry substitute for the true faith and a sort of national pride. What is the "thirty pieces of silver" being offered today for estrangement from Mother Church? For betraying our loving Savior?

It is time for restoration and recovery. There is no other way.


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