A sermon preached on the Ninety-ninth Anniversary of the Death of Father Richard Meux Benson.
A little, crumpled old man, in a threadbare cassock and cloak, leaning against the wall of a house in the Iffley road, reading a newspaper, so blind that he was obliged to hold the paper close to his eyes, entirely absorbed in what he was reading, and evidently unconscious of all that was going on around him. He looked very poor, as poor as many a begger you might meet in the streets – emaciated, worn, and hungry and very lonely. He made you feel as if you would like to get him over to some kindly person to look after him and take care of him. He wore a shovel hat with a limp and frayed rim, green with age, and underneath there was a very white face deeply lined and seamed and furrowed, giving the impression of one who had seen a good deal of suffering and hardship, and his eyes were dimmed by very thick glasses – a figure altogether unnoticeable, almost insignificant, except for its poverty and general appearance of shabbiness.(1)
So wrote Father Basil Maturin, a former member of our community, of the last time he saw Father Benson some four or five years before Benson’s death. Today marks the ninety-ninth year since Father Benson died at the Mission House in Oxford. Over the course of the coming year, we brothers who count ourselves as sons of Father Benson will be marking that event in a number of ways. Keep tuned as we remember and celebrate our founder and his lasting influence.
But that was the last time Father Maturin encountered Father Benson. What of an earlier time?
One of my first memories of him, about forty years ago, is in the Mission House Chapel giving a retreat to clergy.
It was the same figure, only less bent and not so shriveled up with age, but thin and wiry and ascetic, though full of energy. Yet it always gave the impression of enduring a great deal of physical suffering, which he did his best to conceal, the face was much the same, though of course, that of a much younger man, not in any way remarkable, except for the deep furrows with which it was lined. He wore an old-fashioned neckcloth, which had the appearance of being worn for several days, stockingless feet, and his girdle, very tightly drawn around his waist.
He was giving an address in the little chapel at the top of the old Mission House which is exposed to three out of the four winds of Heaven. The chapel, like the preacher, was stern, unadorned, and uncompromising, no adornment except a Byzantine mosaic of our Lord over the altar. It was the embodiment of the poverty and detachment which was the keynote of his teaching. There was certainly nothing inspiring in the surroundings. Yet the speaker was inspiring beyond anyone I ever heard before or since. In ordinary conversation his voice was harsh and his speech hesitating almost to the point of a stammer. But as he spoke on that day, over forty years ago, there was neither harshness nor hesitancy. The modulations of his voice were like music, and his language and diction were perfect. The effect of what he said was heightened by the curious sense of detachment with which at such times he always impressed his hearers. Those of us who lived with him knew really very little about him, except that he lived a very hard and secluded life. There was a general belief in the House but no food passed his lips from Maundy Thursday Eve till dinner on Easter Sunday; and occasionally it got out that he had not been in bed all night, and his teaching was uncompromising in the sternness of its demands.
Sitting there in the chapel, pouring forth a torrent of eloquence, if one can use such a word, untouched by the least trace of worldliness, indifferent to the judgments of others, and to all appearances above the ordinary weakness of mankind, his words gained an added force from his personality. He sat perfectly still, with an occasional uplifting of his hands and eyes, but otherwise without a motion. I had heard little of that kind of preaching before, and it took me and, I believe most of those who heard him, by storm. There in the chapel of the mission house, he was at his best. He never raised his voice and he used it with a natural art that was captivating. All he said and the way he said it seemed perfectly spontaneous and free from any appearance of preparation or aiming at effect.
I heard many of his address is in that chapel, spread over a period of many years, and for fertility and originality of thought and the abundant gift of expression and illustration I have never heard his equal. Sometimes he would give an illustration at the beginning of an address, which he would unfold as he went on weaving it in and out of the substance of his discourse with extraordinary skill and the most perfect artistic effect for the hour or more in which he was speaking.(2)
It is this Benson whom we remember today: someone who had the power to draw people into the very heart of God. He wasn’t always easy to understand, then or now, but he had the power to draw people into heaven. Once when asked if she could understand his sermons, an old woman replied: that gentleman just opens heaven to me and I can look right in.(3)
One of the reasons for this is that heaven was not a foreign place to Benson. It wasn’t some imaginary abode of a distant deity. Rather it was an ever present lived reality. It was where in fact he lived, and he had the power to convey that to others and invite them to dwell there as well.
Do I realize to myself that as I pray, I am truly in heaven, and that I ought to be experiencing the joys of heaven? If we would but look to heaven with more consciousness of present joy therein, we would find its power to set us free from earthly difficulty.(4)
It was his singular passion for God that was infectious, and which took Father Maturin, and others, by storm. It is his singular passion for God which continues to reverberate in this community today. We are a very different community now, and thankfully so, than the one Father Benson founded in 1866. Yet some things have not changed. One story told of Father Benson to each succeeding generation of novices puts in a few sentences his whole theology of the religious life. It is about a walk that he and Father Congreve took, shortly after the latter arrived to test his vocation in 1872. When asked by Father Congreve what the object of founding the Society was, Benson replied: I do not think the object of our association in a Religious Community is to equip us to go out as missionaries. We do not come into our Community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire, first of all, to be converted ourselves. Then, if by God’s grace, we are converted to Him, He may use us in missionary work, or in any other way that He pleases. (5) In another place Benson says, we cannot bring any souls to God. But His peace shining though us can draw others to Himself, if there is nothing in ourselves to hinder it.(6)
It was this that Father Benson lived for: to be converted by the loving power of God. It was to this process that he surrendered his whole life, reminding others that it is not what we do for God that counts, but that what God has done for us. (7)
Throughout his whole long life, Father Benson’s one aim was union with God. Today we might regard some of his methods as unhealthy and extreme. His practice of mortification many found off-putting. Yet the underlying truth was his passion for God. It was clear to the many who came to hear him preach, attend a retreat, or join him to test their vocation at the Mission House that he lived upon a truth and loved it, and thereby caught the vision (8) of God’s love for them
Father Benson would probably be uncomfortable having a feast in his honour, or being regarded as one of the worthies of the Church. Instead he would point away from himself, and instead point us to the glory of the ascended Christ and see in him our own glory,
[Christ] is not glorified in His own Person only. His Apostles had fed upon Him, had His body within them, by virtue of the Holy Eucharist, although they have not yet come to live thereby. He was in them, but they were not yet in Him. Now, upon His Ascension, His body in them is glorified instantaneously with the glorifying of His body at the right hand of God. Like an electric flash the glory of the Spirit shines out in the fires of Pentecost. The body of Christ, however veiled in our flesh, in our sinful persons, nevertheless cannot but have the glory of the Spirit of holy fire burning and resting upon it. We do not, I think, dwell as we ought to dwell on the present glorification of our nature in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ. (9)
It is this that we celebrate today, not so much a person, but a vision: a vision of the glory that is ours, not one day, or someday, but today. We do not, I think, dwell as we ought to dwell on the present glorification of our nature in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ.
Such is Father Benson’s legacy: to us, to you and to the Church.
1 A Pen Portrait: Father Basil W. Maturin, Church Times, 22 January 1915, page 93, 94
3 Benson of Cowley, M.V. Woodgate, page 54, 1953
4 Spiritual Readings: Christmas; Richard Meux Benson, page 36, 1880
5 Father Congreve of Cowley; M. V. Woodgate, 1956, page 20
6 Father Benson of Cowley; Woodgate, page 81
7 Source uncertain
8 Letters of Richard Meux Benson, volume 1, page 33
9 Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, page 268
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