By B. E. Kenworthy-Browne
FATHER BENSON OF COWLEY, by M. V. Woodgate (Geoffrey Bless, 10s. 6d.).
AT long last the story of this remarkable life has been written. though nearly 40 years late, and even now running to only 183 pages.
Richard Meux Benson (not related to Mgr. Hugh Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury) was the founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, or, more shortly, "the Cowley Fathers." He was born in 1824, and at the age.of 17 was converted by Newman on hearing him preach only once, not of course to Catholicism, for Newman in 1841 was still an Anglican, but to a life of complete dedication to God as they both saw it. "Cor ad cor loquitur."
It was the eve of Newman's retirement to Littlemore, where he was founding the first monastery, we may say. in the Church of England.
The story of how this "conversion" worked itself out in the years that followed is well nigh incredible.
In 1865 Benson was himself preaching from the university pulpit and seems to have repeated Newman's sermon to him of 1841, it being now the eve of his own retirement from the world and the founding of the Society at Cowley.
He wrote the Rule himself. making adaptations from that of the Benedictines. of the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians. The Rule then included (1) a day's retreat every month. (2) an eight-day retreat every Christmas as well as (3) a 30day retreat in the summer, while he, incidentally. the conductor, kept up his full complement of services in the parish. visiting also the sick and whole.
He often seems to have reduced his hours of sleep to about four or less. the rest of the night being spent in prayer and spiritual writing. His fasts were rigorous: he never let food or drink pass his lips between Maundy Thursday and midday on Easter 'Sunday. and when in 1914 a day of prayer was ordered for the
first World War he refused, in his 91st year, any food or drink till nightfall.
Fr. Maturin, once one of his community, wrote of his retreats many years afterwards. after he had become a Catholic priest : "The Father wore an old-fashioned neckcloth. his feet were stockingless and his girdle drawn very tightly round his waist. . . There was certainly nothing inspiring in the surroundings. Yet the speaker was inspiring beyond anyone I have ever heard before or since. . . . The modulations of his voice were like music, and his language and diction perfect. The effect of what he said was heightened by the curious sense of detachment with which at such times he always impressed his bearers. Sitting there in the chapel. pouring forth a torrent of eloquence, untouched by the least trace of worldliness, indifferent to the judgment of others, and to all appearance above the ordinary weaknesses of mankind, his words gained an added force from his personality. . . . 1 have heard many of his addresses in that chapel spread over a period of many years, and for fertility and originality of thought and the abundant gift of expression and illumination, I have never heard his equal." Others wrote of him : "It seemed as if the voice issued from the depths of Eternity, the tremendous reality of his own life and teaching surpassed anything i had read." "God asked of him all that he was, and his answer was the entire gift of himself; he lived only in this world to complete the surrender." "He seemed to have risen superior to the ordinary necessities of food and sleep, and to have become indifferent to pain and discomfort." "He lived apparently untouched by self-consideration, self-pity, self-indulgence."
Lives of this sort are not unusual reading in the Catholic Church, but they are rare indeed in other Christian bodies, that of Fr. Benson being probably unique in the Church of England. The book is beautifully written, and we could wish it contained more quotations from his many letters and writings than its small compass allows. Chapters VIII, IX and X describe the founding of branch houses of Cowley in America, India and South Africa.