Feast of Blessed Richard Meux Benson SSJE

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 27:5-11
1 John 4:7-12
John 15:9-17

It all happened so quickly. A letter arrived in early October and three weeks later, tickets had been purchased, luggage packed, work reassigned, a notice in the parish magazine placed, and an adventure begun.

It was October 1870 when a letter from the Wardens of the Church of the Advent arrived at the Mission House in Oxford, asking Father Benson if members of the Society would be available to assist the Rector of the Parish for a number of months. The invitation was so significant, and so unexpected, that Father Benson thought it best if he himself travelled to Boston to investigate. His departure was set for All Saints Day. The day before, he wrote to members of the Parish of Cowley St. John, encouraging them to be diligent in your attendance at all the means of grace, and in your prayers.[1]

It was not an easy crossing. Father Benson, and his companions, Father O’Neill and Father Puller, were not good sailors. Early in the voyage Father Benson wrote home saying: We do not feel well. The motion of the boat makes one so dizzy and stupid that it is difficult to read or write. Last night we went to bed feeling very bad, but we are now getting wonderfully used to the motion. The sea is what sailors call smooth.[2]

They arrived in Boston 12 days after leaving Liverpool, and their reception can only be described as mixed. On the one hand, after being enthusiastically greeted by members of the Parish of the Advent, Father Benson wrote: [one] must really come to Boston to know the heartiness of the welcome which the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers have for the Evangelist [Fathers][3] (as we were then known). However one of the local newspapers, in describing his arrival, announced in its headlines, rather snidely, that Father Benson has arrived with Forty Monks to convert the Heathen.[4]

The reception by the Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, Manton Eastburn[5] was worse. It was nothing less than hostile. Iciness, we are told, would be a mild word to use in describing the manner in which [Bishop Eastburn] greeted the arrival of the Fathers. He even went so far as to refuse to see them, in spite of the fact that they brought letters from the Bishops of Oxford, Winchester, and London.[6]

Eastburn’s refusal to receive Father Benson, or even to meet him, went further, as he refused Father Benson permission to function as a priest, leaving him to teach Sunday School, give and attend lectures, go sleighing, attend dinners and teas, and travel. He visited New York, The Bahamas, Chicago, Milwaukee, Nashotah, and Niagara Falls.

It was from Niagara Falls that he wrote on 7 March 1871: I am getting on, you see, towards the west. I left New York on Wednesday morning, reached Niagara about sunrise, and had a most delightful morning there. You know what a glorious chancel the waters have scooped out. I found a stone, from which I brushed away the snow, and made it the Superior’s stall for the occasion…. So I sang choral Matins, Lauds, Prime, and Terce, with the voice of many waters, and mighty thunderings, for an accompaniment, and felt the Society all round about. The mighty stream seemed to tell of the Great White Throne with the emerald waters around it descending in outpoured fullness on the earth, and rising in the vast clouds of spray, the countless individualities of quickened souls, which rise up around the altar, and are borne onward to God in heaven. Then, again, in the Thursday Canticle at Lauds there seemed to be a special call to read the teachings of the waters in light of the Exodus. The two great falls moving, as when the watery walls on either side fell down upon the Egyptians, and beneath where I stood the whole breadth of the stream covered over with thick blocks of ice and frozen snow, just as if it were the track of those who had passed by when “the waters were congealed in the depths of the sea.” There was before one at once the power of God in letting loose the waters, and the power of God in binding them beneath the unseen touch of the frost. Even so He lets loose the powers of the world, and even so He arrests them. It was delightful to stand in the mid-stream upon the ice and see the waters whirling down towards one’s feet and then quietly seeming to disappear. What a parable of the difficulties of life. A few hours of such a scene ought to do one good for the rest of one’s life.[7]

After more travel, and a prolonged visit to Canada, Father Benson and his party finally arrived home in September 1871, after being away for over 10 months. On their return a brilliant tea … in a room elegantly decorated with flowers and banners[8] was held by the parish to welcome home the world travelers.

Such was the introduction of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist to North America 150 years ago, this fall, and so began an adventure that continues to this day.

No one could have foreseen, least of all Father Benson and Bishop Eastburn, what the results of that visit would be, nor the future hold. Who would have known that 150 years later, it is the Society in North America which flourishes, and no longer exists in England? Who would have known that one of Bishop Eastburn’s successors[9] would himself be, a member of Father Benson’s dreaded community?

Yet the invitation today, as we give thanks for the life of Father Benson, is not to self-satisfied smugness, that history has somehow been on our side, but to the very thing Father Benson urged his parishioners on the eve of his departure for Boston, to be diligent in [our] attendance at all the means of grace, and in [our] prayers.

Father Benson wasn’t interested in winning, or losing, and while he rankled at not, at first, being welcomed in this Diocese, what he was really interested in, was diligence to a life rooted in the Sacraments, worship, and prayer. Nothing else really mattered, and this single-minded focus both sharpened his spiritual powers, and made him seem unapproachable and remote. On the one hand, he was one of the most influential spiritual forces in the Church of England in the nineteenth century; someone who just [opened] heaven … [so that people] could look right in.[10] On the other hand, he once admitted to an associate I never knew anyone intimately.[11] In Father Maturin’s[12] words: even amongst his own immediate associates he was not an easy person to talk to…. His natural shyness and reserve, intensified by his theory of detachment, held him aloof from those who could gladly have given and received from him more than he would allow. And yet he had a very tender heart, which on rare occasions showed how he thirsted for human friendship and sympathy.[13]

For Father Benson it was his friendship with God, rooted in the Gospel of John that was the most crucial thing in life. He would remind members of the Society that [we] must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God….[14] To live in union with God was the whole purpose of his life, and he called others to that same purpose. Writing about the Magi, and how they returned home by another way, he said: It is indeed a greater thing to return to the old world by a new way of heavenly life, and to live, therefore, in the world as those who have been with Jesus, than it is to enter upon new spheres of life but with the old heart. That would be to set about new things in the old way. The necessary thing for us is rather to set about old things in a new way.[15]

It is no wonder that someone who urges us to live in the world as those who have been with Jesus, is the same as the one who encouraged his parishioners to be diligent in your attendance at all the means of grace, and in your prayers, for it is through the Sacraments, and our life of worship, and prayer, that we can come to know Jesus. And knowing Jesus, we know the truth of his promise: I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.[16]

It is our friendship with Jesus, above all else, that Father Benson cared most passionately about, and it is that adventure, our friendship with Jesus, in which Father Benson continues to encourage us to be diligent. We say in our Rule of Life[as] we explore the spiritual legacy of our forbears we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.[17]

Tonight we rejoice that Father Benson, by his prayer and witness, is doing exactly that: spurring us on by his prayers, to be diligent in [our] attendance at all the means of grace, and in [our] prayers, and in that way grow in our friendship with Jesus. You are my friends,[18] Jesus tells us, and Father Benson reminds us, and the adventure begun when a letter arrived in Oxford 150 years ago this fall, continues as we in turn take up Father Benson’s challenge to be diligent in [our] attendance at all the means of grace, and in [our] prayers, and so become friends of Jesus.’

It is as friends of Jesus that we will discover the place that Father Benson knew so well, the heart of God, and knowing the heart of God, we will not simply catch glimpses of heaven, and be able to look right in, but we will come to live there, not as strangers and servants, but as friends, friends of one another, friends of Jesus, and friends of God.

Father Benson, pray for us, that we be diligent in [our] attendance at all the means of grace, and in [our] prayers and so truly become friends of Jesus.


[1] James, Serenhedd, The Cowley Fathers, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2019, page 59

[2] Woodgate, M. V., Father Benson of Cowley, Geoffrey Bless, London, 1953, page 106

[3] Ibid., page 107

[4] Ibid., page 107

[5] The Right Reverend Manton Eastburn (1801 – 1872) was fourth Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts from 1843 until his death in 1872.

[6] Op. cit., page 107

[7] Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson SSJE, A.R. Mowbray Co. Ltd., 1916, page 81 – 82

[8] Woodgate, page 111

[9] Marvil Thomas Shaw III SSJE (1945 – 2014), former Superior of the Society, was the fifteenth Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts (1994 – 2014).

[10]Woodgate, page 54

[11] Benson, Letters, page 359

[12] Basil William Maturin (1847 – 1915) was a member of SSJE from 1873 until 1897, when he became a Roman Catholic. He drowned when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off Ireland on 7 May 1915.

[13] Ibid, page 359

[14] Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation, Of the Objects of the Society, Mowbray, London, 1939, chapter 1, page 37

[15] Benson, Richard Meux, Spiritual ReadingsChristmas, page 260

[16] John 15: 15

[17] SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, 1997, chapter 3, page 6

[18] John 15: 14

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