How I Became a Catholic
By Philip Trower
There can be few if any men or women who became Catholics as adults and have not been asked at some time or other why they did. Many have written excellent even compelling accounts of the reasons for their decision either in full length books, like Arnold Lunn, the tireless Catholic apologist of the first half of the twentieth century, or in contributions to collections of similar accounts. But as these accounts always vary to some degree for reasons I will go into shortly it is not unreasonable, I hope, to add to them.
There is always a chance that one’s personal story will touch some individual, whose life has not been dissimilar, in a way that those of others might not in the same way or to the same degree.
It is also surely a fitting manner of thanking God for what any convert can only see as an incomparable gift, as well as of fulfilling the duty laid on us by St Paul of giving an account of the “faith that is in us.”
In addition, whenever I have been asked this question I have seldom been satisfied with my response. Only too often the question has been put in anything but favourable circumstances, in a train or a restaurant or at a party, where it is difficult to collect one’s thoughts or the situation is in some way uncongenial. St Francis de Sales, who as everyone knows was far from harsh or censorious, warns somewhere against engaging in what he called “bottle” religion i.e. discussion of religious subjects at meals where the general atmosphere is one of hilarity. I also once tentatively began to explain to a good lady why I had become a Catholic, without preparing the ground properly, only to provoke the riposte “My mother always said there were two things she would never do --- become a Catholic or keep chickens.”
So this is also in part an attempt to make up for past failures.
As I hope this may be read by non-Christians as well as Christians, I apologise to my Christian readers for having at times to state or explain what for them will be obvious.
The first thing which it seems to me should be said about the conversion process is that ultimately all converts become Catholics for the same reason. At the end of their journey of inquiry they come to realize that the Church is what it claims to be; the sole authorized guardian and disseminator of the one true revelation of God to men through which they can know with certainty the purpose of their existence and their final destiny. This is why I have called this account of my conversion ‘How I became a Catholic’ rather than ‘Why I Became a Catholic.’
The paths by which they reach this conclusion can vary widely, which is what makes their different stories so interesting. Things that may be an obstacle to belief for one person will not necessarily be so for another. Much will depend on what they have heard or been told about the Church as children or later heard and experienced as adults. One could compare the situation to a unique kind of race course in which there is only one entrant for each event, and success depends not on getting past the goal post first, but in jumping a series of fences and hurdles specially designed for each competitor.
Victory comes with the final fence when the soul assents to the totality of Catholic teaching and recognition of the Church’s magisterium as its authorised guardian. (For those unfamiliar with the word ‘magisterium’ it means the Catholic bishops of the world, as successors of the apostles, united with and under the Pope, as successor of St Peter, in their role as teachers, sanctifiers and rulers of the people of God.
The process by which one arrives at the conclusion is more like the slow unveiling of a masterpiece than the end point of a logical inquiry
The final conclusion --- “the Catholic Church is, after all is said and done, what it claims to be” --- may be differently formulated in the mind of each particular convert or not explicitly formulated at all, beyond a deep conviction that here in some ineffable manner is “the way, the truth and the life,” and that God is calling them to embrace it. Nevertheless at the heart of this assent is always the above-mentioned affirmation about the Church’s authority to rule and teach in Our Saviour’s name. That one is in need of salvation can be an important first step on the way to belief.
The second point I want to make about the conversion process is that the part played by God is more fundamental than that played by man. Man can know of God’s existence by reason alone. But the power to believe that the Church is what it claims to be and that its teachings are therefore from God, is in the first place a gift. As the old English Penny catechism puts it, “Faith is a supernatural gift from God which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.”
We can’t reach this point of arrival by our own efforts alone. Nor without prayer and at least some degree of humility. We must be willing to learn and be taught.
Also, apart from a few exceptional cases like the conversion of St Paul, the gift is not normally given all at once, but at the end of a more or less extended preparatory process in which God draws the attention of the chosen recipient step by step to this or that aspect of Catholic belief, history or practice in a series of small parcels or packets like chocolates wrapped in silver paper. If the packet is accepted and the contents are consumed another packet will be offered, and so it goes on until the gift of the faith in its totality is offered.
I make these points to show that the path to belief is not just a matter of intellectual inquiry, like the attempt to solve a philosophical or scientific problem, as it can perhaps seem to be when looked at from our side of the fence. God, it is true, wants us to use our reason. He doesn’t ask us to believe anything if there aren’t good grounds for believing that the authority proposing the article of belief is trustworthy or that the individual beliefs are compatible with each other and the sources from which they are derived. But without violating our free will, God is at each stage leading the way, providing the grace to find the right answer to what we are thinking about.
In other words, the whole conversion process is a matter of responding, or at moments may be not responding, to a series of invitations. Theologians call these separate invitations “actual graces” to distinguish them from the habitual state of grace we are lifted to when we are baptised, or if already baptised, in a state of friendship with God. This they call “sanctifying grace”.
Only if a man obstinately and persistently refuses invitation after invitation, or grace after grace, will the process come to a halt, at any rate for the time being. God is wonderfully patient.
The beginning of the process can often be quite small, even seemingly insignificant. A man is passing a Catholic church which he has often done before but without ever having gone inside. However this time he thinks “I wonder what it’s like. Why not have a look?” and in he goes. If the results are positive, i.e. what he sees sets him wondering what this or that object signifies or why Catholics believe some of the things they do, then thoughts of this kind will continue and multiply after he has left the church. If the results are negative, i.e., after looking round for a while the visitor leaves the church without giving the matter much further thought, God will try another tactic.
This time we will imagine that our friend is in a pub where another man at the bar suddenly launches into an attack on the Catholic Church or Catholics in general. Something about the man annoys him or what he is saying strikes him as exaggerated and unfair and he launches into a defense of Catholics or what he knows of the Catholic position. Later he buys a little book to check that what he said was right, and becomes further interested.
Let me now use another analogy. This time I will take it from fishing, the metaphor Our Lord himself used. It’s not exactly the kind of fishing the apostles went in for or, so far as I know, any modern fisherman. But as far as it goes it will serve my purpose.
When God decides to offer the faith to someone we can picture him as like a man standing on the bank of a pond or stream throwing bits of bread or bait of different kinds to attract the attention of a fish. Then when the fish has acquired a taste for the separate bits of bait (individual points of Catholic belief), he plunges in a net full almost to the brim with bait (the faith in its fulness) the fish jumps in and he lifts it ashore. But in this case the end is not death as it would be if the fisherman were a human being trying to catch something for his dinner. As a member now of God’s church, one of his new chosen priestly people, our seeker is transformed from being a little fish into one of a vast crowd of mini-fishermen.
In none of this does God over-ride free will. At any point the inquirer can reject one of his offers.
I would like to make one final point about the conversion process before coming to my own story.
At some time or other, every convert must have asked himself or herself: “Why me? Why have I been offered the gift of the faith, or the gift of faith in its fullness, and not some other much more worth while person?” This particularly applies to Christians of other denominations. In spite of what, from the Catholic standpoint, are the deficencies in their beliefs, their practice of the Christian virtues often puts one to shame.
We are confronted here with a mystery of God’s designs which it is not given us fully to understand. That other Christians are in good faith, that they are not knowingly resisting the offer of the gift of faith in its fullness, is something which has to be assumed unless in a particular case there are clear indications to the contrary. For some reason, it seems, God is for the time being allowing cultural, sociological or psychological factors to keep them from seeing the totality of the truth. That this is now the view of the magisterium including the papal magisterium, as expressed in its handling of ecumenism, seems indisputable. There are clearly many people who not only know of the existence of the Church but know a lot about it, of whom we cannot say that they are deliberately and consciously resisting God’s gift in not entering it.
The good press the Samaritans get in the Gospels helps us to understand the situation a bit. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, Our Lord makes it plain that the Samaritan religion is deficient. “Salvation is from the Jews”, he tells her, he himself being that salvation in its fullness and finality.
Yet we not only have the parable of the Good Samaritan to show us that a man or woman with less than the whole truth can be spiritually worth more than those who do happen to have it. I think every other reference to the Samaritans in the Gospels except one shows them behaving more generously or gratefully than their Jewish counterparts. And the same can be said of the Roman centurion whose servant Our Lord cured, or the Syro-Phoenician woman with the daughter possessed by a devil.
To be called to the fullness of belief and membership of the Church, or Christ’s Mystical Body as St Paul was the first to describe it, is a wonderful awe-inspiring vocation, but, except in the case of Our Lady and some of the saints, it is not due to our natural gifts or virtues. The explanation is less flattering. Here is St Paul again to set things straight.
“Consider your call, brothers; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and depised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
It is not exactly flattering or complimentary, but it is marvellously designed to help us not to become uppity or conceited when we read in Scripture: “I have chosen you. You have not chosen me.” Or, even more awe-inspiring, that God “chose us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world”, so that as members of his priestly people, called to be the yeast which will leaven the dough of the particular society we have been appointed to live in, “ we may be holy and blameless before him.”
This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been geniuses in the Church like St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, St Bonaventura or Bl John Henry Newman, or swathes of able and intelligent men and women of lesser stature, whom God needs to carry out the day to day running of his Church. It merely refers to the great majority of us. As the passage I have just quoted from St Paul makes plain, God for the most part likes to work with what is little and weak to highlight the emptiness and vanity of most of what the world prizes and show that the success of any undertaking on his behalf is mainly of divine rather than human origin.
I hope what I have said so far hasn’t been too theological. But it was necessary if you are seriously interested in knowing why people become Catholics, including possibly some of your friends.
Looked at theologically, such is the Why and How of all men and women becoming Catholics.
In my own case, when I look back on the beginnings of my life, it seems to me I can detect three stages in the process whereby God got me to become one too.
The first stage, from my birth in 1923 up to the year 1941 when I went briefly to Oxford for a year and a half before joining the army in World War II, I see as having been preparatory. During this time I don’t believe God was at any point actually offering me the gift of faith. But in retrospect I can see what seem to me countless little indications that one day He was going to. I will give some examples of what I mean shortly.
The second stage I see as having begun while I was at Oxford and lasting from 1941 to 1945. During this time he repeatedly confronted me with people or situations which should have led me to consider seriously the claims of the Catholic Church. In other words he had embarked on the fishing process described earlier. Again I will give some examples shortly. For the moment it is enough to say that although I was interested, I shilly-shallied. I failed to confront head on the issue “is the Catholic Church what it claims to be ---ought I therefore to become a Catholic?”
At this point, getting fed up with my weakness and indecisiveness God in his goodness intervened in a way that I can only compare to the way he treated the prophet Habbakuk, or had an angel treat the prophet Habbakuk at the end of the book of Daniel. He picked me up so to speak by the hair or scruff of the neck and dumped me in circumstances where the claims of the Catholic Church were presented to me with such force and clarity that it was next to impossible not to come to a final decision. In the words of psalm 17, “from on high he reached down and siezed me; he drew me forth from the mighty waters. He snatched me from my powerful foe, from my enemies whose strength I could not match,” my enemies, after the evil one and his cohorts, being my personal weaknesses and short-comings.
However, before speaking about specifically Catholic influences during stage one or the preparatory stage I should perhaps first say something about my religious background and upbringing as an Anglican since that was an important part of the preparation.
Stage One --- Religious Background and Upbringing
I came from a family of four, or six counting my parents. I had an elder brother and two younger sisters and we were very much a legal family with, for the children, all the attendant this-worldly advantages. My father was senior partner of a firm of London solicitors started by his father, and my mother, whose maiden name was Tomlin,was a daughter of a high court judge who later became a lord of appeal.
As for religion, we were all baptised and brought up as members of the Church of England which, for readers unfamiliar with it, is in belief and practice is like three churches in one --- middle, low and high. I do not say this to sneer. The priest who received me into the Catholic Church told me never to kick the ladder which had helped me to reach it. I am simply stating what for those who are familiar with the Church of England is a well recognised historical fact. My family belonged to the great middle ground as it had been established by Elizabeth I and her governments early in the 1560s and only slightly modified by later events and influences. We didn’t in those days think of ourselves or call ourselves Anglicans. Nor did we think of ourselves as branches of a universal Catholic church embracing all Christian denominations. We were Church of England Protestants and content with and proud of it.
Anglican or Anglo-Catholic in those days meant an adherent of the 19th century Oxford Movement which copied “Roman” practices and in varying degrees embraced “Roman” beliefs. Low Church meant the opposite extreme. I suppose one could say its distinguishing marks were a minimum of ceremony in worship and total reliance on the Bible. What was not explicitly in the Bible did not come from God.
However, during my boyhood we were not regular church-goers. My parents, who had been touched by late-Victorian and Edwardian agnosticism, only took us to church and went themselves at Christmas and Easter, when my father sat in a different pew and read the Bible to himself throughout the service. My mother had also been influenced by Anglican modernism, particularly by a well-known novel of the time, The Brook Kerith, by the Irish writer George Moore which cast doubts on the reality of the Resurrection.
Only just before the outbreak of World War II did my parents return to regular Church of England belief and practice. In my father’s case, such are the wonderful ways of God, this was partly through reading the Marx-Engels correspondence which a colleague had persuaded him to do. At the end he said to himself: “Only Christianity can confront this.” He subsequently set up a trust fund for increasing the salaries of Church of England clergy.
However this did not mean that our early upbringing was religionless. We were taught to say night prayers starting with the Our Father, or as we would have called it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, and going on to thank God for the good things of the day and asking him to bless our parents and whoever else happened to be uppermost in our minds.
On Sunday mornings my Mother read us Bible stories and we were not allowed to play games until after lunch, a relic of low-church Sabbatarianism, from which we learned to think of Sunday as special. We knew too that we had been baptised. We had godfathers and godmothers to prove it, not to mention the silver “christening mugs” which they had given us. We were also taught regular habits and good manners which can be the equivalent of a course in the ‘natural virtues’, to use the technical term in Catholic theology.
There were also framed reproductions in different parts of the house, my little bedroom included, of trecento and quatrocento Italian religious pictures which my parents had bought on their honeymoon.
Above all we had the blessing of affectionate parents who gave us a lot of their time --- more than was usual in the 1920s and ‘30s among couples who could afford servants.
My first experience of regular Anglican belief and practice came when I was sent to to a prep school called Durnford close to the sea on the south coast which closed in World War II never to be reopened,. Prep school in England at that time meant a private boarding school for boys between the ages of 8 and 12 or 13. It was in that particularly beautiful part of Dorset called the Isle of Purbeck.
Here every Sunday morning we attended matins with the masters and other boys at the local village Church and later in the day the headmaster conducted an evening service in the school dining-room. From this I chiefly remember the long passages from the Old Testament which he obviously enjoyed reading. He was a great character with a taste for dramatics. He personally wrote the yearly school play which was performed every November.
I’m sure there must also have been lessons about the New Testament with no doubt tests at the end of term. What I don’t remember is having any systematic religious instruction at this point. Nor do I remember what I did learn having kindled any special religious fervour in me.
I don’t say this by way of criticism. Most of the time, I think, the majority of children of that period accepted what their parents or teachers decreed as they did the natural order of things. If that was what the grown-ups had decided so be it, and one could trust what they told one was true. It was as trustworthy as the accuracy of train time-tables or the change of the seasons. It was the same with what God had decided and decreed. If one was good one would, after the improbable far-off thing death, go to heaven. If not? I must have heard about hell, but not in any way that alienated me from God.
The only thing I can remember about my time at prep school which in any way anticipated what was to happen when I reached the age of 30 was the curiosity I felt about a church we used to pass on our Sunday or weekday walks when I learned it was a Catholic church. Instead of being in a village or town it was just inside the park gates of a country house called Encombe belonging to the Earls of Eldon. Somehow its unusual position made Catholicism seem intriguingly and mysteriously different and un-English. With my highly patriotic brother this would have been a black mark against it With me it had the opposite effect. When it came into my mind, which was not often, it invested Catholicism with some of the magic of a distant country one has heard about and would one day like to visit, not because one wanted to settle there but just because it was distant and different the way another boy might have looked forward to one day to exploring China or Ethopia after hearing stories about them.
At public school being a Christian began to play a bigger role in my life. It became something personal, attractive and beautiful. This was partly due to the setting which enshrined it. Eton College chapel is one of the architectural masterpieces of the late middle ages and the services were conducted with a dignity and ceremony I had not hitherto experienced. The singing was to match. Like a cathedral, the college chapel had a professional choir in those days. There was a special choir school for the boy choristers, with professional tenors and baritones for the adult parts.
Actually there were two chapels. The great college chapel was for the senior boys --- from about 15 upwards. Junior boys attended Lower Chapel, architecturally a good example of 19th century perpendicular Gothic. On Sundays there were morning and evening services in both chapels and on weekdays much shorter services after early school and breakfast. Every boy had to attend these services. Night prayers were in the separate houses conducted by each housemaster. In spite of all this, I don’t remember any boy ever complaining that there was too much religion.
As I was musical and had an adequate treble voice I became a member of the Lower Chapel choir from the beginning of my first term or “half”, as terms were called at Eton. This further advanced the association of religion with beauty.
To begin with, religious instruction was mainly through New Testament studies which were part of the curriculum. During one of these lessons I had my first meeting with radical biblical scholarship. I remember a master explaining that according to some people when Our Lord appeared to be walking on the water, he was actually walking on a sandbank just under the surface of the Sea of Galilee . But this is the only incident of the kind I can recall.
Formal and serious religious instruction began six months or a year before confirmation and made a powerful impression on me. Religion became a much more personal thing and less a matter of conformity to what was expected of one.
We met out of ordinary school time in small groups mostly in the evening. The master in charge of the group I was in and to whom I shall ever be grateful, later took Anglican orders.
This was the first time I had fully taken in the idea of Christianity as an integrated body of beliefs taught by a central religious authority which were to be believed and, in so far as they involved commandments, obeyed as coming from God. I also began to appreciate its more serious dimensions.
With the other boys in my group I remember discussing what we had been told about not going to Holy Communion if we had done something seriously wrong until we had told God we were sorry and made a resolution to do our best not to repeat the sin. I can still recall the sense of awe we felt and how it was reflected in our voices. In those days Anglican children didn’t receive Holy Communion until they had been confirmed.
In spite of this, I came to love going to Holy Communion both at school and at home in Hertfordshire. The main Anglican Sunday morning service throughout the country was Matins, modelled to a large extent on the Matins in the Catholic breviary, with the communion service before breakfast, or, for elderly or late risers, after Matins. My belief about the bread and wine was like that of most mainstream Church of Englanders at that time. At the consecration the bread and wine remained bread and wine, but with them or through them Our Lord came into one’s soul and body spiritually --- a process technically called consubstantiation.
From this point on I became a fairly regular church-goer for three or four years until I left school and went to Oxford in 1941. It was a period in which praying, thinking about God and reading religious books became a special pleasure. Among my favourite books were Helen Wadell’s translations of The Desert Fathers and Evelyn Underhill’s books about Christian mystics. I can’t but be grateful to these gifted Anglican ladies. However, after confirmation I don’t remember ever going to anyone for spiritual advice or guidance, nor did my reading include any theology or Church history.
During this period I developed a personal relationship with Our Lord to which, alas, after about 1941 I did not remain consistently faithful, returning to it only when I felt unhappy or in need of his help.
Such more or less was my state of mind or soul when, as it now seems to me, God began his serious fishing i.e. starting, stage two, the process which would end in his offering me the gift of faith in its fulness. However before I embark on that I must say something about the main directly Catholic influences on my childhood, boyhood and early youth.
The main directly Catholic influences during this time were the four Catholic women whom, after my Anglican mother, I specially loved and who were specially good to me from my boyhood upwards.
The first was the ‘nanny’ or childrens’ nurse who looked after us as children, and whom we all loved equally. Her name was Gwen Butcher, but we never called or thought of her as anything but ‘Nanny’. The English nanny of those days, for people who could afford one for their children, had for something like a hundred years or more been something like a national institution. Here is a bit of evidence to prove I am not exaggerating. I was once listening to a radio interview with one of our foreign ministers, Lord Carrington. In the course of it the interviewer asked him what his first reaction was when confronted with an unusually tricky situation.” The answer came without a flicker in the voice. “What would Nanny have said?”
If I remember rightly, our Nanny had been brought up in a Catholic orphanage. When old enough she had trained as a nurse for very young babies, and one of her first jobs had been with a member of the von Hugel family. How closely related they were to the famous Baron v. Hugel who was involved in the first modernist movement, I don’t know. But I couldn’t help being fascinated when she told me this years later seeing that I had by then written quite a lot about the baron in articles and a book, Turmoil and Truth, in which I dealt with the first modernist crisis.
Modernism was the movement affecting Anglicans as well as Catholics, and running, in its first manifestations, from about 1880 to 1915, which undermined the historical roots of Christianity and attempted to refound it on personal religious experience. Its origins lay for the most part in radical German biblical scholarship and various forms of subjective German philosophy. Pope St Pius X condemned it in 1910. But it resurfaced in the 1960s at the time of the Second Vatican Council and still in various ways exerts an influence on Christian thinking everywhere.
My mother had engaged Nanny on the understanding that she didn’t try to make us Catholics. She agreed and kept her promise in the sense that she didn’t speak about her beliefs or try to change ours. However, what my good mother hadn’t taken into account was the power of prayer and that dangerous weapon Nanny’s rosary which she kept hanging from a brass knob on the head of her bed. On top of that was the example of her sweet, cheerful, loveable nature. She didn’t spoil us. But we knew that, in her own way, she cared for us and mattered to her as much as we did to our mother.
After she left us and married, she settled in the same village. Here she used to nurse the sick poor both by day and at night even when they couldn’t afford to pay her, although her husband only had a working man’s wage. She was one of those people you are always happy to be with and never have had enough of, or want to get away from. Unfortunately she and her husband were unable to have children of their own.
During our holidays from school we were always visiting her either just for the pleasure of it or to ask her advice about something. Her house was a five or six minutes walk away from ours across a field.. It was almost as though she were still living with us. I only remember one remark from her bordering on the uncharitable. There was another Catholic woman in the village with a rather gushing way of greeting you and showering you with compliments. “Darling”, was Nan’s comment on one occasion, after she had gone, “She’s too sweet to be wholesome.” But one could perhaps better describe it as ‘holy common sense’. It perfectly described what one felt.
The only specifically religious idea or practice I remember getting from her was that of “offering things up” when something went wrong. “Offer it up darling,” she would say, “offer it up.” It is not of course a specifically Catholic idea. But I have never heard it referred to except among Catholics. It goes way beyond the more commonplace ‘these things are sent to try us.’ They are. But it showed how to put the trial to good use over and above its being an opportunity to exercise self-discipline. From a minus experience it could be turned into a plus experience. When, for instance, your bicycle had a puncture miles away from home and you had left the repair kit behind you offered it to God in return for the recovery of someone you knew who was ill, that you would pass an exam, or that there wouldn’t be a war.
As far as I can remember, it was the first time I had taken in the idea of sacrifice in the form of self-giving love as the heart of Christianity, which on our side can be offered in reparation for sin,in thanksgiving for a gift, or in intercession for some benefit for ourselves or our neighbours. Or as Pope John Paul II put it “Man achieves the fulfilment of his destiny through the sincere gift of self.”
I have sometimes tried to explain this aspect of Christianity by likening God’s situation to that of a princess in a fairy story. In many fairy stories the king’s daughter is besieged by suitors all saying they love her and want to marry her. But how is she to know which of the proposals are genuine and which are simply because the young man making it wants to get hold of her money or enjoy the status of being the king’s son-in-law. So she tests them by sending off one to kill a dragon guarding a magic sword on top of a mountain, another to recover a stash of gold guarded by a giant poison-spewing toad at the bottom of a lake, and so on.
However this dimension of the faith, I have come to realize, needs to be introduced to children in a wise and balanced way. I once knew a good Catholic French woman whose parents or school teachers had obviously over-used it. She couldn’t bear the idea of always making little sacrifices or “offering things up.” Her reactions were similar to those of young Protestants who have been put off their religion or some aspect of it by parents who made Sunday burdensome.
As so often with Christianity it is a matter of keeping complementary opposites in balance. God’s justice and mercy for example. For me part of the evidence for the truth of Catholicism has been the way that by and large it has always kept this balance. Like the eastern-rite churches it has always been a religion of feasts and celebrations as well as periods of penance and mortification.
Sir Humphrey Davy, the Scotch scientist who invented the famous miner’s lamp, commented on this when visiting southern Germany in the early 19th century. He says how wise the Jesuits were who ran the parishes he visited. Immediately after mass the people were allowed to enjoy themselves. They could eat, drink, dance or play games together before going home. He was no doubt contrasting what he saw with memories of Presbyterian Sundays he had experienced in Scotland as a boy.
In a similar way a convert friend of mine, now a priest, who was brought up in Australia in a low church form of Protestantism says only half-jokingly that one of his reasons for becoming a Catholic had been because you were allowed to enjoy yourself!
The book of Nehemias in the Old Testament makes the same point. The survivors of the Babylonian captivity who have returned from the Holy Land have been having a rough time.and getting down-hearted. The local people who have moved in during their absence and taken much of the best land hinder them from rebuilding the temple and the city walls. In spite of this the prophet Esdras tells them “This day is holy to the Lord: do not mourn or weep and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh: 8:9,10) and they all sit down for a picnic.
Coming back to Nan, it was also from her that I first learned about devotion to the Sacred Heart. Devotions are religious practices, authorised by the Church, to foster greater love of God, or one or other of his saints. They are supplementary to the official worship of the Church (the liturgy) and for that reason are left to the individual as a matter of personal choice.
On my reception into the Church, Nan gave me a little picture of the Sacred Heart which I have had pinned to my bed head ever since. I imagine most people have seen similar pictures or statues. They show Our Lord holding back the folds of his tunic to show his human heart surrounded with a crown of thorns as a symbol of his suffering and reminder of his love for us.
The devotion originated with the French nun, St.Margaret Mary Alacoque whom Our Lord appeared to in her convent at Paray le Monial in Burgundy in the 17th century asking her to tell her superiors that he wanted the devotion spread throughout the Church. The purpose was to counteract the influence of Jansenism. Jansenism was a form of Calvinized Catholic spirituality which overemphasised fear of God and his punishments at the expense of his love and mercy. It was just beginning to take off in France, but eventually influenced all of western Catholic spirituality down to the mid-20th century. Today the pendulum has temporarily swung in the opposite direction. But that is a different topic. The well-known church of the Sacre-Coeur on Montmartre in Paris is an expression of the devotion of French Catholics to the Sacred Heart in the 19th century.
The second of the four Catholic ladies whom I specially loved as a boy was the French governess who taught me between the ages of six and eight. We called her “Mel”, a contraction presumably of Mademoiselle Lambert, who without being indulgent in any way was full of French vivacity and fun. She came down from London to our house in the country every day by train. Why I was taken away from the infant school I had been at before and she was called in to teach me, I can’t now remember. I think I was backward in learning to read and write.
Mel had already taught two earlier generations of my family and used to tell me stories about them which I loved listening to. The poetess Stevie Smith once described the novels of the English convert novelist Maurice Baring as “like the gossip of great-aunts,” and Mel’s stories were like that. But the gossip of great-aunts is not to be despised. It can often convey the ethos of a vanished age in a way often lacking in serious works of history. I remember, for instance, Mel describing how my grandfather, the future judge, proposed to my grandmother while skating on one of the fishponds at my great-grandparents house just outside Canterbury, and there suddenly was the scene right before my eyes. I won’t say Mel’s stories initiated my love of history. It was already there. But they certainly stimulated it.
In London Mel lived with her three unmarried sisters in a small rather run-down regency house in Elgin Terrace Notting Hill, which at the back looked onto an oval garden for the use of all the houses surrounding it. In those days Notting Hill was not a part of London which attracted the well-heeled. But one of my special treats when I stayed with my Tomlin grandparents nearer the West End was to go and have tea with Mel and her sisters. They had very little money, but they always seemed to be happy, happier often than many of the people I knew who had plenty. I can best perhaps describe it as a holy light-heartedness which I have often since noticed in Catholics who have lived and loved their religion since early childhood. They wear it with an ease suggesting that their baptismal robes have been specially tailored to fit them personally rather than taken from a cupboard with robes of a few different sizes for all and sundry.
After Mel came ‘Cousin Curly’, always called by this nickname by everyone in the family because she had had such curly hair as a little girl. I forget her proper name. She was not a real cousin. She was a distant relation by marriage on my mother’s side of the family. But at that time the young never called an adult by their Christian name, so everyone your parents knew was called ‘cousin’, ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’.
She was one of the many unmarried women of that period who lived unselfish lives as companion to a widowed parent, in this case her mother whom we called ‘Aunt May’. But it would be a mistake to think of her as down-trodden. She had plenty of spirit and character of her own and she and her mother loved each other. Their life together was not just a matter of convenience or necessity. In winter they lived in Camden Hill, London and in summer in an apartment at La Tour de Pielz, a village on the north shore of the Lake of Geneva.
When I was first taken to see them in London I must have been about eight, Aunt May about seventy and Curly in her fifties. By this time Curly had already become a Catholic and a fervent one. Later I discovered she had a special devotion to St John the Baptist, which suggests that without it showing on the surface her love of God included a dimension of penance and mortification you would not otherwise have expected. You don’t, surely, chose the mighty Forerunner for your patron unless you have an inclination that way. She is the only person I have known to have such a devotion.
Why she and her mother showed me so much kindness and affection I don’t know. It may have had something to do with my interest in botany and wild flowers. They were keen botanists too. Or they may not at that time have had any relations with small boys of my age. Anyhow their affection was amply returned.
I think Aunt May only became a Catholic on her death-bed. After her death Curly lived permanently in Switzerland where I spent two memorable weeks with her in the summer of 1937. It was only then that I really came to appreciate how much her religion meant to her or the depths to be found in it. She had a devout Swiss Catholic friend who sometimes accompanied us when we went looking for rare flowers in the higher Alps. If we passed a crucifix they crossed themselves and from time to time stopped at a chapel or church to pray.
Going into a church to pray on a weekday was still a novelty for me. Churches were places you prayed in on Sundays. On weekdays you only entered them because they were historically or architecturally interesting. It’s true that at school, as I have already said, I had been acclimatised to morning prayer in chapel every day. But school was school. Going into a church or chapel to pray during the week wasn’t something any adults I knew did except for weddings and funerals. I also remember being impressed when we went into a chapel by a small lake at the foot of the Matterhorn. Two peasant women were reciting the rosary antiphonally on their knees in front of the altar. These experiences helped to “de-sabbatise” religion for me.
As a preparatory experience for my future life as a Catholic this Swiss holiday in a sense merely strengthened impressions about Catholicism which I had already acquired two years earlier in France where the fourth Catholic woman I loved as a boy came into my life.
For some reason my parents were persuaded by a friend to send each of us in turn to learn French for six months between private and public school at the house of a French friend of hers in Touraine.
This friend, a mademoiselle de Seze, whom we called Tante Odette, had inherited a small chateau or manor house where she took pensionaires of both sexes, mostly English, who wanted or needed to learn or improve their French.. Long before our time Anthony Eden, the future English foreign secretary and Prime Minister had been there. Tante Odette’s father, the Vicomte de Seze, had started the business and during his lifetime his daughter had helped him run it. They were descended from the lawyer who had defended Louis XVI at his trial during the revolution and been enobled as comte de Seze after the restoration .
My brother and sisters and I were I think the only 12-year-olds she had ever taken. Looking back I can only be impressed by how good-natured the other pensionaires were. They treated us as one of themselves; they chatted with us, played games with us, took us for bicycle rides. It was one of the happiest six months in my life.
Tante Odette was a more robust, outspoken character than the other three Catholic ladies I was so fond of. She didn’t hesitate to express her displeasure or annoyance if I did something I shouldn’t have done, or--- not always quite the same thing--- she didn’t like. But I loved her nevertheless, just as I came to love the whole place and its surroundings and most of the people I met. Happiness is a bit like sunshine. While it lasts, it irradiates nearly everything it touches not just the things which directly cause of it.
This was my first experience of Catholicism as the dominant religion of a national culture. Indeed more than that. For centuries it had been the main formative force of that national culture and I liked what I saw.
Of course by this time I knew enough history to realise that owing to the Revolution and Napoleonic period France was deeply divided and a large part of it irreligious when not actively hostile to religion. In spite of this, at least in country districts enough of the local population were still practicing Catholics to make their Catholicism a visibly noticeable feature of everyday public life. Indeed, with its many feasts, public processions and use of material images and symbols it is of the nature of Catholicism to be like that in a way that Protestantism has never been a visible feature of everyday public life in the countries where it has taken root
The village and neighbourhood were a living confirmation of all this. The family at the main chateau were royalists of the old line. Nearby another titled family supported the Orleanist branch. Yet another, untitled this time, was Bonapartist. Then came a whole spectrum of supporters of different political parties like the radical socialists, with communists at the bottom of the political scale. Tante Odette owned three little farms, mostly vineyards, and and at least two of the tenants were communists.
Having studied in England as a young woman, Tante Odette was in her own idiosyncratic way fairly broad-minded. For instance, she liked to shock her more conservative friends from time to time by expressing pro-republican sentiments. But underneath all this she remained in belief and practice solidly Catholic, as was the milieu she mostly moved in, and so, with its long Catholic past, was the predominating ethos of the whole area. Indeed you could probably have said the same of the bulk of the French countryside in the 1930s, and I liked it. It also taught me that useful lesson which is part of everyone’s growing up , though a lesson not always taken to heart; one’s national way of going about things is not necessarily the only or best one.
Two ways in whichTante Odette unknowingly influenced me as a Catholic stand out in my memory. She did not consciously try to proselytise me. But quite often she took me to Mass with her on Sunday in the local parish --- which I’m sure she only did with my parents’ permission.
These visits I came to enjoy, without consciously realising why. It was perhaps my first experience of worship embodied in quite so much colour and ceremony. Indeed I think it was probably the first time I had ever been to mass. Strangely enough the Catholic church of the Immaculate Conception and St Joseph in the town of Hertford where I now often worship reminds me of it.
The second episode took place back at the house in the fumoire or sitting-room where Tante Odette and her pensionaires mostly lived. The salon was only for “state occasions”.
Tante Odette and I were alone for some reason. She was pacing backwards and forwards, with her head half down at the end of the room near her desk. From time to time she muttered “I must go to confession. I must go to confession. I haven’t been for some time. But I can’t think of any sins I’ve committed since I last went.”
How careful one should be about what one says in front of the ever sharp-eared young. I can clearly remember thinking “I can”.
But that’s not the point of the incident. I knew about right and wrong, and the importance of avoiding the latter. I was also familiar with the word sin. My parents had sent me to France with a copy of the Authorized English version of the Bible, with instructions to read it regularly which I had been doing. But never before had the concept of sin come alive in my mind so forcefully as a serious ever-present possibility which , if surrendered to, one must do something about. It was also the first time I can remember hearing someone speak about going to confession. How astonished my dear Tante Odette would have been had she realised at the time the role she had just played in my religious development.
All this was happening, please remember, before I went to public school and had received religious instruction prior to confirmation.
The affection I felt for Nan, Mel, Cousin Curly and Tante Odette perhaps explains a curious thought which I remember coming into my mind from time to time during my early teens. “Catholics have something which gives them brighter more shining eyes than other people.”
Stage Two: The Fishing Begins
The second stage in my journey towards the Catholic Church and faith, you will remember, was the period when, on looking back, it seems to me God began his serious fishing. By this I mean that he confronted me with, or led me into a series of situations intended to make me think seriously about becoming a Catholic. In other words, from this time on, he was offering me the gift of faith rather than preparing the ground to make it easier for me to accept it.
It began when I went to Oxford in January 1941.
I had left school the previous summer just after I had turned 17. This was younger than was then customary. But I begged my father to let me leave after we had been standing one morning on Windsor bridge just below Windsor Castle watching boats of all shapes and sizes going down the Thames to help rescue the British army penned in by the Germans at Dunkirk.
I couldn’t, I pleaded, go on being a school boy in circumstances like these. After thinking things over my father agreed to let me leave, on the understanding that, as I was not be old enough to be called up for another two years, I would begin the law studies in London for which I was already destined. He was a man of great wisdom and understanding whom many of his clients admired as being in addition to a fine lawyer, a first rate natural psychologist as well.
However this plan was thwarted when the bombing of London began in the autumn of 1940 and all the law schools in London closed. We lived only 20 miles north of central London and I would have gone up by train. The best alternative in the circumstances, my father decided, was for me to do a short war time degree of five terms at either Oxford or Cambridge. This was a unique arrangement whereby degree courses were compressed in time because of the circumstances. So he took me to look at both universities and I chose Oxford with modern history as my subject.
As far as I remember this was in late September or early October and it was arranged that I should begin my studies in January of the coming year. Meanwhile I spent the rest of the autumn and early winter at home doing I can’t quite remember what, but some kind of war work, probably on a farm my father owned.
It was during these two or three months at home that I remember God giving me my first real dig in the ribs.
I was in my father’s study looking for something to read and for the first time I noticed a book called Trower on the Epistles. Ir was by an ancestor who had been Bishop of Gibralter in the early 19th century. In those days the Church of England had two bishops to look after the members of its flock living on the continent. One was Bishop of Gibraltar, the other Bishop of -----. Anyhow, on opening the book almost the first passage my eyes fell on read something like “as the Church of Rome so wrongly maintains…...”
With a suddenly intense feeling irritation I snapped the book shut and put it back on the shelf saying to myself; “if all you can talk about is what’s wrong with the Chusrch of Rome. I’m not interested in anything else you have to say.”
When I eventually reached Oxford it was a very different place from the 1920s-30s Oxford celebrated by Evelyn Waugh. Most of the younger dons or lecturers had gone into the army or wartime jobs and the city was crowded with refugees and the staff of evacuated London government departments.
Here, among the other friends I made, I met a youngish airforce officer doing a wartime course of some kind; I forget what, but connected with flying. Although an Anglo-Catholic, he introduced me to Catholic and Orthodox Christian thinkers like Jacques Maritain and Nicholas Berdyaev. He also introduced me to the main Catholic book shop and repository in London, Burns Oates & Washbourne opposite the Catholic Cathedral in Westminster.
Looking back, both these things, this introduction to Catholic-cum-Orthodox philosophy and theology together with the discovery I had made earlier while still at school of the history of mysticism and the desert fathers seem to me like two doors which God was asking me to open. The first, the introduction to philosophy and theology, I opened a crack, and then firmly shut. What I thought I saw didn’t yet have any appeal. It looked too much like a room full of men and women studying in a library at desks. I hadn’t been lazy at school. But study wasn’t at this point what I was looking for in religion.
The second door, the one into the history of mysticism and the desert fathers, I pushed open and eagerly passing through, found myself in a beautiful garden. This, when I wanted some spiritual uplift, I kept visiting for a number of years, without noticing a signpost saying “No permanent stopping place. Move on.” Today it would probably be “Short Stay Car Park.” I was still in search of spiritual thrills and uplift, not ultimate truth, i.e. pleasure rather than business.
In a way I was typical of the type of Englishman Blessed John Henry Newman seems to have had in mind when he wrote that it is difficult to “wind up an Englishman to a dogmatic level” Obviously he did not mean all Englishmen, otherwise there would have been no Anglican Thomists like Eric Mascall. But Luther’s hostility to scholasticism (the medieval blend of Graeco-Roman philosophy and Catholic theology which reached its apogee in St Thomas Aquinas), had filtered into post reformation English religious culture sufficiently to make Newman’s observation justifiable.
For introducing me to Maritain and Berdaeyev and other Catholic and Orthodox thinkers I owe my long dead RAF friend a big debt of gratitude even if I did not immediately make use of what he gave me in the way I should have.
Fortunately too, in spite of his religious affiliations , and those of a number of his other friends, Anglo-Catholicism did not attract me. It seemed to me un-Anglo or un-English. If you wanted that kind of thing, you became a proper Catholic. You couldn’t be Catholic and Protestant at one and the same time. This remained my standpoint until I entered the Church twelve years later. Before that, when reciting the Creed at evensong while staying with my parents I remember thinking: “How can we say we believe in the Catholic Church when we’re Protestants?”
This is justified and explained by modern Anglicans via what is known as the “branch theory” of the Church. The branch theory is the idea that the Church is like a tree. All the different Christian denominations are branches of this one tree, whose trunk is the totality of Christians taken all together. I must have heard my Anglo-Catholic Oxford friends talking about it or even had it explained to me. But if I did, it remained unconvinced by their arguments.
Subsequently I developed my own way of explaining the relationship of the separated Christian churches and communities to the Catholic church which seems to me to make more sense and fits the Catholic church’s teaching as developed at the 2nd Vatican Council in the decree on Christian Unity.
The Catholic Church is like the sun with the separated Christian communities held in orbit round it like planets by the attractive power of baptismal grace. They have all once been part of the sun, but at different times in the past they have been ripped out of it by a series of cosmic cataclysms. Because the eastern rite churches are so much closer in doctrine and spirituality, they could perhaps be allotted the place of the moon.
At this point, one could say, God’s first bits of bait had not produced any positive results. Some, as we have just seen, I had liked the taste of. Others I had ignored. Still others I had spat out. But I was still way down stream picking them up as they floated by without having the sense to look and see where they were coming from.
God’s next attempt to draw my attention to the source of his bait was of a markedly different kind. This too happened when I was at Oxford. I had fallen in love, and was all emotionally mixed up. It was my first experience of love of that kind. So I went to see a don I knew whom I liked and looked up to, who also happened to be a friend of my parents. I will call him Hilary. He was not a Catholic. But he had been brought up in southern Ireland and things I learned later suggested that if he had not had marital problems he would gladly have become one. He was a close friend of a well known Dominican of the time, Paul Foster, whom I used to see at parties in his rooms.
Anyhow, going back to 1941, after I had been talking to Hilary for some time about my problems, I explaining them, he giving advice, he paused for a few moments and then said quietly: “You will never find love until you find it in the tabernacle.”
As I now see things it was like a prophecy.
Looking back I am astonished that at the time his words, which I know see as a prophecy, made so little impression on me. I knew vaguely what a tabernacle was or the name implied, and from.time to time over the years the words came back into my mind. However I have no recollection of consciously recalling them and trying to understand why I should find love in such a special way in Catholic tabernacles. How could I understand them when I didn’t yet believe in the Real Presence? It wasn’t until long after I had become a Catholic that I realised the prophecy had come true. For decades Our Lord’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle on the altars of Catholic churches and chapels all over the world has been the mainstay of my life.
After I left Oxford I never saw Hilary him again until shortly before he died. I went with my brother to visit him in the west of England where he was living with and looking after an unmarried older brother. By this time there was a sweetness and gentleness about him, which my brother called “saintly”. The fact that my brother used such a word astonished me. It was quite uncharacteristic of him and the habit which has recently taken hold in England of calling everybody a “saint” if they happen to be no more than moderately kind and charitable hadn’t yet come into fashion. Whether Hilary was received into the Church before he died I never heard.
God’s next grace was of a more straightforward kind. I was now in the army in a holding unit shortly before being sent abroad. Here I briefly made friends with a young Catholic officer who had a truly apostolic spirit. He was not afraid to talk to me about the church and the faith and lent me a number of books of a more easily readable kind than those recommended by my Anglican airforce friend. Among them I remember Karl Adam’s Spirit of Catholicism, a book of Catholic apologetics well-known at the time. I did read this with interest, but again without its moving me to action or a decision.
The divine angling continued when in the autumn of 1943 I was drafed to the Mediterranean with a number of other young officers from my regiment to take part in the Italian campaign.
The first incident I recall occurred when my battalion was on a mountain side just north of the river Garigliano. By this time I was battalion signal’s officer and one of the companies was about to go into action. Suddenly I noticed an officer kneeling in front of the Catholic chaplain who was sitting on a rock hearing his confession. I don’t quite know why this made such an impression on me. We had Anglican chaplains. I had been to communion at our chaplain’s service only a few days before. Yet I distinctly remember thinking: “They have an advantage over us here. They can do something really practical in a situation like this, which ours can’t.”
Similar episodes followed in increasing numbers over the next two years. From the Garigliano we were moved to Anzio. Anzio was the bridgehead on the coast west of Rome from which the Allies had initially intended to make their assault on the city but were checked by the German advance.
One day, when I was standing outside battalion headquarters, a shell fell behind me blowing me into the dugout which served as the colonel’s office. I landed in his lap with shrapnel in my back and a partly shattered right elbow. I was not seriously wounded, but enough to put me out of action for the best part of the next six to nine months.
From Anzio I was shipped back with several hundred other wounded men on stretchers on the floor of a tank landing craft to Naples and a hospital at Caserta on the outskirts in what had once been a palace of the Neopolitan kings of the Two Sicilies.
Here I was put in a long ward with about 20 other patients and at one end an officer so seriously wounded that you could barely see him for all the drips and paraphernalia of a similar kind attached to him. Each morning, before the day staff came on duty, two peasant women swept and cleaned the ward. They moved quietly about for a half hour or so in order not to wake us if we happened to be still asleep, then left as gently as they had entered.
One morning after I had been in the hospital five or six days I was watching them sweeping the floor close to the seriously wounded officer’s bed when they suddenly stopped, peered at him, realised he was dead and came hurriedly tip-toeing down the ward to me. They had noticed I had a rosary on my bedside table. My high church friend at Oxford had given it to me. I didn’t use it but had it with me as a kind of keep-sake.
The cleaning ladies made some gestures. Could they borrow it? I nodded Yes. They took it, tiptoed back to the dead officer’s bed, knelt down and quietly started the first decade. I can’t remember how long they knelt there. Let’s say enough for two decades. Then they got up and went on with their work until it was time for them to leave.
About half an hour later the day staff appeared. Seeing what had happened, the nurse in charge sent for two orderlies who laid the dead body on a stretcher, covered it with a union jack and carried it out of the ward.
I don’t want to make invidious comparisons. The nurse and orderlies could well have said a prayer for the dead man or his wife and children as they carried him away. The wife and children is more likely seeing that the majority of English people either don’t or didn’t believe in praying for the dead or have never heard of it. There is also the example of the heroicAnglican Nurse Edith Cavell in the First World War who was shot by the Germans for helping Belgian and Allied fugitives. She believed in helping people in need no matter what side they were on.
Nevertheless I could not help being struck and touched by the two sets of reactions, or the orders of priority they seemed to symbolise. Which came first? Welfare of soul or welfare of body?
At the same time I was moved by the charity of these two poor peasant women towards a stranger as well as by the childlike naturalness and spontaneity with which they reacted.
I was touched in a similar way by the interiors of the village churches in the area around Naples where we were billeted before we went into the line. They were full of statues and pictures and gilded ornamentation. There were no great works of art in them such as I would later see in Rome and elsewhere . On the other hand there was nothing cheap or shoddy either. The best adjectives I can pick on to describe them are “pretty” and “homely”. Looking back I feel that Our Lord must have had, and continue to have, the same kind of pleasure residing in them in his sacred humanity that he had in the house of Martha and Mary at Bethany.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting we should have churches like this in Milton Keyens or the suburbs of New York. Many people think, and not infrequently complain about the Church being in some way monolithic i.e., insisting on uniformity everywhere and leaving no room for diversity, even if the history of Christian art, literature and practice everywhere belies it.
Later when I saw the great baroque churches of Rome they conveyed --- as was appropriate in the capital of Christianity --- a different message. But it was not unrelated.
The first was a church somewhere up on the via Venti Settembre. I forget the dedication. But as I opened the door my immediate response was “Here God meets his people, in a palace.” This was followed by a reflection of a rather different kind. “In England for centuries only the very rich have been able to see and enjoy beauty and splendour of this kind. It only exists in private houses or a few public buildings. Here great works of art, architecture, painting and sculpture are available to all, the poorest of the poor included. There was a populist dimension to Catholicism I had not previously associated it with. Even if these works of art and architecture had been created to give glory to God in the first place, in God’s designs their purpose must surely also have been to give the poor some idea of the glories they can look forward to in heaven.
I will end this passage about my time in Italy as a soldier with a little incident of a kind I only came to appreciate long afterwards, like Hilary’s ‘prophecy’. We call these unexpected conjunctions ‘coincidences’ as if they were purely accidental. But so often they are not.
When our draft landed in Italy things were going badly on the Garigliano – Monte Cassino front. So instead of being sent to our different regiments we were posted to whatever regiment at that moment most needed reinforcements. As a result I found myself fighting not with my regiment the Rifle Brigade, but with the Queens Royal Regiment whose badge is, or was, the Lamb and Flag, which in Catholic iconography represents Our Lord as lamb of God. The flag has a red cross on it.
So all the time I was in Italy, including the weeks in the front line, I had unknowingly been wearing this symbol of Our Lord’s sacrificial self-offering in my cap. Only when I was invalided back to England and had to rejoin the regiment I officially belonged to did I have to exchange it for the badge of that regiment. But by then I was no longer in the same danger of death. When years afterwards I realised this, I was moved in a way I can hardly describe.
If you are not a Christian, or even if you are, you many think this fanciful. But in my experience when you begin to try and serve God, however poorly, he loves, in his fatherly goodness, to give you hints of encouragement like this from time to time, especially when the going gets rough. The incident had nothing directly to do with my becoming a Catholic. It was for later use. Every time I remember it it is like his saying “You see. I was with you then just as much as I am with you now.” As so many of the great spiritual writers are fond of reminding us, God is not only interested in vast projects like making mountain ranges or designing the destinies of nations. Like any great artist he delights in the smallest details. In the 1890s he arranged for a snow fall just to please one little Carmelite nun on the anniversary of her reception into the convent or some similar occasion.
After the war ended I still had to do just under two more years in the army and in May 1945 was posted to an intelligence unit in Cairo where I remained until I was shipped back to England and demobilised in March 1947.
While in Egypt I had three or four spells of leave which enabled me to visit the Christian holy sites in Palestine and Syria. I particularly remember the sense of wonder I felt as I knelt before the silver star marking the site of Our Lord’s birth in the grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem. “ I am actually here where it happened” I kept thinking to myself. “How incredible”.
None of this necessarily pointed towards becoming a Catholic. Millions of Christians of other denominations visit the grotto every year without feeling drawn to make any religious change.
Nor do I think, at this point , was denominational change God’s immediate purpose in having me exposed to the message implicit in the grotto of the Nativity or any of the other sites associated with Our Lord’s life and death in the Holy Land. Rather was it intended, I believe, to draw me back into living in accord with my already existing Christian beliefs. Not only had my church-going become irregular and erratic. So had my moral life.
It was the same, I now think, with the sites bearing witness to the history of early Christianity that I was able to visit elsewhere in the Middle East. This was very much the case with the four Coptic monasteries dating from 4th century A.D. at Wadi Natrun in the desert half way between Cairo and Alexandria. They were built like small walled villages or fortresses to protect them from the roving Bedouins, whom they nevertheless fed when they rang a bell by lowering baskets of food from a hole in the walls.
One of the four, Deir Baramus,had recently been reformed by its abbot who before becoming a monk had been a lawyer in Alexandria. A member of the Coptic Boutros Ghali family, whom I had come to know in Cairo, kindly gave me a letter of introduction to him. During my time in Egypt I visited and spent a night at Deir Baramus two or three times, and I came to love it. It was all still redolent of the Lives of the Desert Fathers which I was already so fond of.
On arrival, for instance, you were made to sit down on a couch in the guest house while one of the monks brought in a large copper dish and washed your feet. In the church on a trestle table was the coffin of St Moses the Black wrapped in pink and white silk as if he had died a few days before rather than 1600 years ago.
The principal Christian holy place in Egypt is of course the Coptic church in Cairo covering the site of the house where the Holy Family is believed to have lived after fleeing from Herod. In those days of course there was no Cairo. What is now southern Cairo was part of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis.
However during my first autumn in Cairo God resumed his fishing and sent me a huge piece of bait. He arranged for me to have a semi-private audience with Pope Pius XII.
It came about this way. I had a friend in my office who had recently become engaged to the daughter of the British Air-Marshal in charge of the whole Middle East. One day the Air-Marshal asked me if I would like to go with him to Rome for a fortnight. He had business to do there, and was going with his wife and ADC, Charlie, with whom I had also recently made friends. Of course I said Yes and had a wonderful time, staying in the same hotel with the Air-Marshal and his wife, exploring the city by day with Charlie and being taken to grand parties in princely palaces in the evenings. Then at breakfast one morning the Air-Marshal said “Would you like to meet the Pope? I have an audience with him tomorrow morning and you can come along as an extra ADC.”
As far as I can remember, the Air Marshal’s audience lasted about 20 minutes. Meanwhile Charlie and I chatted in an ante-room with a papal gentleman-in- waiting. This was before the changes and reforms of the 1960s. In the 1940s, papal attendants when on duty of this sort still wore 16th century costume. At the end of the air marshal’s audience we were ushered into the papal presence to receive the Pope’s greetings and blessing.
Since the late 1960s, as the majority of my readers will know, Pius XII has been the subject of controversies stirred up by people with a variety of motives for wanting to discredit him. Here I will confine myself to the impressions I received during a meeting lasting about 10 or 12 minutes in 1945.
I have come across few men in my life of now 90 years whom I have so instantly warmed to and liked.
What I chiefly remember are his cheerfulness, jokes, and delightful vivacity, also his alabaster-like skin and the way he moved his beautiful hands. Most of his remarks were questions about our families and war experiences. Then at the end he asked whether we would like a blessed medal or rosary. Charlie, like the good young Protestant Englishman he was, blushed and opted for a medal. I --- perhaps just to be different or show I was less insular --- asked for a rosary. “Only one?” the Pope asked laughingly. He must have assumed I was a Catholic. “Oh Yes, Your Holiness, only one please.” This time it was my turn to blush. Asking for more than one seemed like taking more than one piece of cake at a time on one’s plate at a tea party. It never occurred to me that the extra rosaries were meant for members of my family or Catholic friends. The Pope went on teasing me for a time before he surrendered to my bashful English “good manners”.
However even this experience did not have the presumably anticipated results.
Stage Three --- Surrender at Last
It was at this point that God in his mercy, getting fed up with my weakness and pusillanimity, picked me up more or less bodily and dumped me in a situation where I could not avoid making a decision one way or the other about his one holy catholic and apostolic church. Was it that or wasn’t it ?
What is truly remarkable is the way he went about it. I cannot think of any spiritual writer in the long history of the Church, who --- if one can imagine God consulting him or her before taking action--- would have advised him to go ahead in the way he was planning. On the contrary. One can only imagine them saying “For heaven’s sake, Heavenly Father, don’t think of it. Can’t you foresee the dangers?”
But God, as we know, has a long experience of bringing good out of evil, an experience going back to the time evil first made its appearance.
Actually he had been preparing the ground since before I left England. My experiences in the Middle East and Rome were like a last chance to take the right path in a simple straightforward way, before he resorted to the more circuitous and drastic ;methods I am about to describe and which my weaknesses so to speak forced on him.
During my last months in London before leaving for Egypt he allowed me to meet a lapsed (I could say deeply lapsed) American Catholic poet called Dunstan Thompson, who had just made a name for himself by publishing a volume of, in the main, highly erotic homosexual love poems.
At the same time, honesty compels me to admit that about three years earlier I had embarked on a promiscuous homosexual life style myself. It was all hopelessly inconsistent. As I have already explained, I managed to combine an interest in religion and religious things with bouts of their antithesis --- though I never deceived myself into thinking the two ways of life were compatible. I just muddled along surrendering to whatever mood happened to be predominating at a particular time. Looking back I am astonished how much, without being aware of it, my religion up to this point had been a matter of mood and cultural habit rather than of solid conviction based on serious inquiry.
I can only feel shame and embarrassment at having to talk about all this. I only do so in so far as it can, I hope, help other people by demonstrating God’s amazing mercy, patience, kindness and love, not to mention his all but incredible ingenuity.
My first meeting with Dunstan took place in London in late January or early February 1945 three or four months before I was posted to Egypt. Dunstan was a GI working for the American army’s Office of War Information. We rapidly became friends, then lovers, and eventually decided to share our lives together as writers.
We were not of course able to carry out this plan immediately. But after I had been a year or so in Cairo, Dunstan, who had meanwhile been demobilised in the United States, joined me there. He had a contract from the publishers Dodd Mead to write a travel book about the Middle East, later published as The Phoenix in the Desert by John Lehmann.
When I returned to England in the spring of 1947 to be demobilised, Dunstan followed me, and after renting a small house in St John’s Wood in London for a year, we moved to a village on the North Norfolk coast called Cley next the sea.
Here Dunstan began his travel book. Poems he was always writing and working on, but they were beginning to change in content and character. Meanwhile, in addition to reviewing books for the Spectator and Times Literary Supplement , I began writing a novel, Tillotson, about an imaginery Mediterranean town --- part Florence, part Beirut --- where the local society was dominated by an internationally reknowned art critic Tillotson (in fact Bernard Berenson whom I was fascinated by at that time after reading his books on Florentine art.)
TIllotson was published in 1953, mostly got good reviews and was recommended by the Book Society. As a result I imagined myself heading for fame as a successful novelist. Mercifully God had other plans for me. I say mercifully because I am too naturally weak and vain to have survived such a test. The older I get the more I am impressed by the number of talented successful people who do remain sane and decent.under those conditions.
Our only reason for choosing this particular village was that I happened to have a cousin I was fond of living in the neighbourhood and she kindly found us a house there which we took for three years before moving to a smaller more attractive one with a large walled garden on the edge of the village, which remained our home until Dunstan died 27 years later in 1974, and where I continued to live until 2006.
At the time of our initial move we were quite unaware that the famous shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was only 9 miles away.
Such were the ‘Hound of Heaven’s first manouverings and it was not long before they began to take effect. After a year or two Dunstan started to recover his faith.
I first became aware of this in the summer of 1950. He suddenly suggested that we go to Rome. 1950 was a Holy Year and on the 1st Nov Pius XII was to proclaim the dogma of Our Lady’s Assumption as an article of Catholic Faith. Through the good offices of a monsignor friend of Dunstan’s mother we got places on the Bernini colonnade overlooking the piazza outside St Peter’s to watch the ceremony.
Soon afterwards he embarked on a course of reading avidly and widely in Catholic theology, philosophy and history, all of which we discussed in detail at meals and in the hours before and after supper in the evenings. He already had a wide and detailed knowledge of these subjects having been to excellent Catholic schools and had an intensely Catholic childhood, but he now set about expanding that knowledge to a point where he could well have taught in a seminary or university, if he had felt the call or had had the right temperament. But although highly imaginative, intelligent and witty as well as good at explaining things, he did not have the patience or practicality to make a good teacher or academic. He also believed his vocation was above all to be a poet , made possible by having moderate private means.
Our discussions about the faith, I should add, did not exclude objections to particular points of Catholic belief or practice, which were either still a problem for him or were raised by me. These things too we talked over, sometimes more, sometimes less heatedly. His difficulties were not always the same as mine.
As far as I was concerned it was as if, aged 28, I had been sent as the only student to a unique Catholic university with a staff of one, where I not only learned about Catholic belief and practice. I also learned to think logically and systematically.
Up to this point my education and tastes had been in the main literary and artistic. I loved music, painting, poetry and the great European novels first and foremost, and after that history. Although I had done 8 years of Latin and 4 of Greek at school I had never been taught anything about logic or philosophy. This omission too was now partially rectified.
An additional benefit was Dunstan’s unusual familiarity with Catholic life of every kind from the lowest to the highest levels.
This had come about through his Mother. On one side she came from an old Maryland Catholic family, on the other from a prominent Washington Catholic family. His mother’s mother was descended from Daniel Carrol of Carroltown, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Because his father was a naval officer and therefore often away at sea, he and his mother had also lived for much of his boyhood at the Washington house of his great-aunt , Mrs Edward White, widow of the only Catholic Chief Justice there had been at that time and would be for something like another sixty or seventy years.
As a result, not only was he familiar with ordinary parish life and the varying life styles of the four or five religious orders whose schools he had attended; from his earliest years he had been used to listening to the chit chat of the higher clergy, serving the masses of bishops and cardinals and even accompanying them on pilgrimage. Before he was thirteen he had been three times to Rome, on each occasion being part of a small group of pilgrims who had the privilege of a semi-private audience with the reigning pontiff, Pius XI.
All this gave him an exceptionally good insight into the way the human and divine components in the Church interact, which, when I eventually became a Catholic proved a great help to me. It made it much easier for me to feel at home in this new environment where there was so much that was unfamiliar.
At the end of two years, Dunstan said he wanted to return to the practice of his faith. This, if we continued to live together, he explained, would mean that our relationship would have to be platonic. What did I think?
To the change in relationship I readily agreed. The obvious unnaturalness and therefore wrongness of homosexual practice had been troubling me for some years. This does not mean that there cannot be a love of friendship between men. The difference is that in the designs of God it is not to have erotic expression any more than the love between parents and children is to. That does not make either of these kinds of love an inferior kind. On the contrary, it can lift them to a higher plane.
So Dunstan went to London to a Jesuit he knew of at “Farm Street church” in Mayfair called Fr.William Peers Smith and after making his confession was reconciled. This was in 1952 .
Fr. Peers Smith was a holy priest, wise, experienced and gentle who had been head of the English Jesuit novitiate for many years. Dunstan had come to know of him during the war. He had gone into Farm Street church one day out of curiosity when Fr. William happened to be preaching. Dunstan had sat and listened for a while and afterwards had said to himself: “If I ever want to return to the Church that’s the priest I’ll go to.” Fr. William remained his spiritual adviser until his death in the early sixties.
In line with his advice we did not cease to see ‘gay’ friends. But we distanced ourselves from what can best be described as ‘gay culture’ ---attending specifically gay parties or frequenting gay bars. It was a matter of common sense.
As for my becoming a Catholic, I soon said Yes to that too. If Christianity were true, as I already believed it was and Christ had founded a Church to be the bearer of his revelation and perpetuate his redemptive mission and activity to the end of time, this was obviously it. Every other Christian denomination looked incomplete or provincal by comparison. I don’t want to sound offensive. But if you have been interested enough even to begin reading this essay about how and why I became a Catholic, you must have expected it to include reasons for finding other Christian churches and communitites in some way defective or unsatisfactory.
The limitations of non-Catholic Christianity were not as conspicuous in the orthodox and other eastern rite churches as they were in those stemming from the reformation. Little if anything dogmatic separates most of the eastern rite churches from Catholicism apart from the non-acceptance of the authority of the successor of St Peter. But, as far as I was concerned, that now ruled them out as possibilities.
History, it seemed to me, could hardly have proved more clearly than it actually has done that if there is not a final authority to settle what is and is not revealed by God or made available by him through human reason there can only be Christian fragmentation and disunity, which it is the whole purpose of the present day movement for Christian unity to heal.
The rest of my life has only reinforced my belief that without recognition of such a final authority Christian unity must remain a pipe-dream. Better relations are possible and in so far as that has been achieved one can only be thankful. But as long as disagreement remains about what constitutes “The way, the Truth and the Life” in its fulness, talk of unity can, as I see it, only be a form of self-deception or wishful thinking.
So, if I remember rightly, some time in the spring of 1952, I too began to visit Fr. William at Farm Street at regular intervals to receive official Church-authorised instruction. This consisted of a monthly or two monthly session for the next 12 months. As our village was a 3 hours train journey from London, he trusted Dunstan to do the rest. At the end of a year, he received me into the Church at Farm Street on 15th March 1953. The following day I was confirmed in Westminster cathedral by one of the auxiliary bishops of the diocese, Bishop Craven.
At this point, if God were like us one can imagine him saying to the saints he had consulted:”What do you think of that? Had I followed your advice I’d only have caught one. By my method, I’ve netted two.” But of course we know God doesn’t talk like that. He doesn’t take pleasure in gloating or putting people down.
However, the beginning wasn’t all smooth sailing. I think most converts, immediately after their reception go through a kind of honeymoon period. But my honeymoon didn’t begin till later.
Shortly after my reception I went for a walk by myself in St James’s or Green Park near Buckingham Palace. I forget now which. Here I sat down on a bench and almost immediately my head was filled with a torrent of thoughts and ideas contradicting the faith I had just committed myself to. “You don’t really believe it all. You’ve been deceiving yourself. You know it. It can’t possibly all be true” and so on. I had never before experienced anything like it. It was as though another person was speaking inside my head, as was indeed the case.
Scared and appalled, I rushed back to Farm Street and asked to see Fr. William. I was shown into a waiting room where after a few minuts he joined me.
Gently but firmly he explained about temptations against faith and the way to deal with them. “In so far as possible ignore them. They come from the Devil. Above all don’t argue with them. If you do you will only lose the argument . The devil is much cleverer than you are.”
This went on for several months. It was worst when I tried to think about Our Lady or looked at pictures or statues of her. My mind would be besieged with filthy thoughts. The whole experience was appalling while it lasted, but in the end it worked to my advantage. It made the existence of the devil and the powers of evil real to me in a way nothing else could have. In that way he can be said to have overplayed his hand.
Another piece of advice I remember Fr. William giving was about how to tell the difference between the action of the devil on the soul and the action of the Holy Spirit. The action or suggestions of the devil is like water dripping on a stone. An aggravating drip, drip, drip, drip. The action of the Holy Spirit is like water gently falling on a sponge.
The rest of my story, were I to embark on it would, through God’s mercy, be about the gradual strengthening of my love of the Church and the faith over the following sixty years. Everything I had come to believe about them was confirmed by the experience of trying to live in, with and by them.
Obviously that doesn’t mean that life as a Catholic has been one long string of spiritual thrills and consolations. Nowhere has God promised that to his children. On the contrary. In the book of Ecclesiasticus ((2. v.5) he expressly says: “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.” But it has meant that the struggle for self-mastery and coping with the challenges of life have been made easier and rewarding, at least for me, to a degree I cannot conceive of any other chosen way of life doing.
To begin with I was greatly helped by our proximity to Walsingham. Once we became familiar with the priest in charge of the Catholic shrine there in the early 1950s we were swept into helping him with the pilgrimages and pilgrims whose faith and devotion were so often not only an impressive lesson in genuine Marian piety but in Catholic faith and practice as a whole. Most of them were poor and came from big industrial cities like Birminham, Manchester and Liverpool. All this was well before the economic take-off of the 1960s and their faith meant everything to them. More than that. I found they often had a better grasp of its elements or fundamentals, which their daily lives were constantly calling on them to put into practice, than those of us with easier lives and more education.
May God bless and give eternal rest to those who by their example and kindness helped me then, and the many who have helped me by word and example in the same way since.
Subsequently I realised that I was experiencing what theologians call the sensus fidelium. The sensus fidelium could be defined as a quasi- instinctive grasp of what is or is not compatible with the fundamentals of Catholic belief. The CCC ( 889) says of it “By a supernatural sense of faith the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, unfailingy adheres to this faith.” It is not confined to the poor. It is a characteristic of any Catholic, who loves God, his Church and his teaching above all things. But it is often at its strongest among the poor and ‘unimportant’. It is what Newman is talking about in his book on the Arian heresy in the 5th century A.D. The heresy was backed or promoted by many of the Christian Roman emperors of the time and equally by subservient members of the higher clergy, while very often it was the laity and the not so important laity who did most to uphold the true teaching.
I came to realise that there is a sense in which the Church on earth can be compared to an iceberg. The greater part, and I would say the part which gives it most stability and effectiveness is out of sight. It is made up of the billions of hidden lives devoted to the service of God in Christ which the world knows nothing about, while at the same time benefitting from spiritually from those lives in a way it could not possibly conceive of or understand no matter how much or how long one tried to explain it to them. To make my point I cannot, I think, do better than end with a quotation from Pope Benedict XVI.
“The Church is called on to do what God asked of Abraham, which is to see there are enough righteous
men to repress evil and destruction.” (Benedict XVI, Light of the World, Seewald p. 166). Obviously he does not mean it is the Church’s only role. The salvation
of souls comes first, and after that working to bring about his will on earth ‘as it is in heaven.’ Nevertheless
producing enough righteous men and women to hold the forces of evil and destruction at bay is a role from
which the whole world benefits incomparably already in this life.
This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reproduced with the publisher's kind permission. www.thewandererpress.com
Version: 14th May 2015