It has been a goodly time since I last posted on pontifex minimus. I have been out of the country for 14 months and am now fully returned and eager to resume where I left off. With a change in title and responsibilities—some old and some new—this blog very much reflects my private opinions on matters Catholic and does not represent the official position of either the Office of Mission and Catholic Identity or of the University proper.
Ash Wednesday is an ideal entry point for the return of pontifex minimus. After all, we are collectively drawn to new beginnings. Think of New Year's resolutions—not the subsequent failures, but the operating faith and early fervor—and you can see that it is natural for us to want to start over, turn a new leaf, begin anew.
Ash Wednesday is a sacral time to renew, cleanse and start afresh in the spiritual life. There will be many earnest “sacrifices,” as in the controlled reduction of dispensable pleasures (coffee, alcohol, fattening foods) and, ideally, there might be a disciplined commitment to a deepening prayer experience (allocated time, lectio divina, attention to the interior life). It is really about conversion, metanoia, the big stuff always partially, tentatively, timidly, ploddingly, taking you in a direction suffused with possibility, grace and growth.
I have been thinking a great deal about the very nature of conversions—not just individual turnarounds in the spiritual life rooted in a specific tradition of life and thought—but the conversions that take us out of one mansion and into another. Such conversions are wrenching, often entailing an upheaval of mind and heart. They bring some kind of peace, but also regret and the torment that accompanies leaving a household one was nurtured in for a new household that can be suspicious of your motives, indifferent to your fervor and even hostile to your presence.
Think of John Henry Newman’s complex, fraught and controverted reception by the Church of Rome. And now, of course, we celebrate him, beatify him and, very possibly and rightly, conceive of him as a doctor of the church. But it was not smooth sailing for decades.
The recent republication of a conversion story by a near contemporary of Newman’s, Robert Hugh Benson, reminds us of the costs of change, the perils of switching sides in a time of deep denominational divisions. Confessions of a Convert is a work of its time—late Victorian and early Edwardian England—and it is the product of a searching mind but unencumbered by the theologcial complexities that occupied Newman. The prose is overly rich, almost Firbankian at times, undisclosing of the emotional layers of struggle, occasionally triumphalist in its tone, but fascinating withal.
Benson was the Andrew Greeley of his age—a popular clerical novelist—in fact, his novels were bestsellers. He was an ecclesiastic with a visible profile, a man of connections. And such connections!! The Benson family, the recent subject of a collective biography, was eccentric, an assembly of outliers—literary, ecclesiastical and sexual—and Robert Hugh was not the most prominent of the lot as that exalted status was reserved for his father, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Robert Hugh's crossing of the Tiber created not a few waves, but the family weathered it well in the end.
Conversion demands a heavy price to be paid at the outset—the disruption, the disappointment, the dismay—but to the degree that it speaks to the authentic questing of the spirit, it is worth it. Benson’s is only one telling.