Richard Meux Benson (1824-1915)
Principal Founder of SSJE
by Curtis Almquist SSJE
“Beloved, it is a loyal thing when you render any service to the brethren,
especially strangers, who have testified to your love before the church.”
3 John 5-8
The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, had a litmus test for ascertaining the brothers’ integrity and faithfulness to the vows we take: poverty, celibacy and obedience. Brotherly love is the evidence that we are grounded in the vows, that the vows have taken root, and that they are bearing fruit. Brotherly love. Father Benson doesn’t measure our faithfulness to the vows based on some external standard – not whether we’ve prayed the Divine Office or celebrated the Holy Eucharist so many times in a week, nor whether we’ve gone on mission to a certain number of places, nor whether we’ve shared pastoral conversations with a certain number of people. Father Benson doesn’t base the evidence of our faithfulness and fecundity on the number of brothers in community, the number of retreatants in the house, the number of books we publish. He doesn’t see the signs of integrity on any external standard but rather he measures it from the heart. Is love present? When it’s all done and said, the question we will be asked on the Day of Judgment is: Did you love? Were you a lover after Christ? Did you have room in your heart for those for whom Christ has room?
And so for us who actually live under the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, Father Benson is constantly challenging us to open the generosity of our hearts. He writes that “it is a miserable poverty which holds back any of its affections from any companion.”1 It’s because we are not entering into marriage or partnership that we are more freely able to love more people more. In our vows, it’s not that we’ve said no to love. To the contrary, we’ve said yes to more love for more. “True poverty,” Father Benson writes, “opens all its doors; welcomes all, serves all.” We meet Jesus in our baptism where, we believe, Jesus comes to live in our heart, to make his home with us, to abide with us. But this is also true for others. They, too, are a dwelling place for Jesus. We, individually and corporately, embody Jesus. Yes, Jesus lives in me, but Jesus also lives in you. “How can we,” he writes,” possibly love Jesus Christ if we do not love the members of his body?”
Father Benson draws the same conclusion from the vow of obedience. He summarizes the vow of obedience as a call to love. He readily acknowledges that we will be called to take on many things, not all necessarily our first choices. True, we will be asked to rise up to the demands of the moment with each passing day. But ultimately what is behind these various requests and our various responses is not our being legalistically being bound to a decree but rather an invitation to love. That we do it all for love. What we’ve been asked to do, we do it all out of love. Whatever it is that we are being called to be and do, it is ultimately not the satisfaction of some juridical rule or code, but rather a response of love. Father Benson writes, “Is he obedient who has forgotten to fulfill the very first commandment of all: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another?’”2
Father Benson can be a bit difficult to read. Part of that is cultural; part of that is generational; part of it is theological. Father Benson practiced the presence of God moment by moment, seeing God’s glory being manifest in everything. He lived his life presuming that every moment was filled with the presence of God, and that we are invited to live our lives conscious of that love which “streams down upon us.” 3 That is a very high calling, a very challenging and humbling invitation. We have been loved into life, by the love of God, for the love of God, to share that love of God with others: those who are far off and those who are near (sometimes even harder with those who are near). Love is the reason for our being. Love is the reason for their being.
Fr. Herbert Edwin William Slade, SSJE
Father Herbert Edwin William Slade, a priest of our English Congregation, died on 23 December 1999 at Haywards Heath, West Sussex in the eighty-seventh year of his life and the fifty-seventh year of his religious profession.
Born in Wiltshire in 1912, Father Slade graduated from London University and Dorchester Missionary College. He was ordained in 1935 and served a curacy in Gloucestershire. He came to our community at the Mission House in Oxford in 1939 and made his profession on 1 August 1942 together with Father Francis Dalby. Almost immediately after his profession he volunteered to serve as an army chaplain during the Second World War. He served in England, France, Holland and later India. He was discharged from the army in 1946 and returned to the Mission House in Oxford. In 1948 he returned to India where he was for a year at Poona and then after 1949 was Vicar of St Peter’s Mazagon, Bombay and then as Principal of St Peter’s School. While in India he gained many insights into eastern spirituality. He returned to England in 1955 but ten years later returned to India where he assisted in closing down our work there. He is best known for his time at the Anchorhold at Haywards Heath, Sussex. In 1969 the Anchorhold was given to the Society and Father Slade and a number of companions established there a small self-sufficient community committed to blending Christian and eastern techniques of yoga, prayer and meditation. During this time he wrote a history of the Society in India entitled A Work Begun as well as several books on meditation and contemplative prayer. He frequently led retreats and workshops which introduced the principles of yoga and eastern meditation to a Christian audience. He is buried along with other members of our community, at Rose Hill Cemetery, Oxford.
Fr. George Congreve, SSJE
Father George Congreve, a priest of our Society, died on 18 April 1918 at Oxford in the eighty-third year of his life and the forty-third year of his religious profession.
Father Congreve was born in Cork, Ireland in 1835 and came from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family, a nephew was awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. A graduate of Eton School and Exeter College, Oxford, Father Congreve was ordained in 1859. For two years he served as the assistant curate at St. Denys, Warminster in Wiltshire and was then appointed the Vicar of St. John the Divine, Frankby in Cheshire. He came to our community at the Mission House in Oxford in 1873 and was professed 30 December 1875. He served as the Master of the Lay Brothers and as the Assistant Superior to both Father Benson and Father Page. He made a short visit to South Africa in 1893, returning there to live in 1899. He was the Superior of our house in Cape Town from 1899 until 1904. He took great delight in the scenery, the marvelously rich vegetation and the botanical treasures of South Africa. His letters during this time are full of wonderful descriptions of all that he saw. He took great pains in his teaching and preaching as well as in his parochial visiting and would often visit the leper colony on Robben Island or the girls’ penitentiary at Leliebloem. Speaking of the girls’ penitentiary he commented: It is the congregation I like best to preach to. I feel most at home with them. In addition he was in charge of our church in Cape Town, St. Philip’s. In 1898 he began to write. His first book was called: Christian Life, A Response. His final work, Treasures of Hope for the Evening of Life, was completed only a month before his death. He also assisted Father Longridge in editing Father Benson’s letters. An early retreat given by him is among our published treasures. He returned to Oxford in 1904 and remained there for the rest of his life. As a counterpoint to Father Benson’s mystical theology, Father Congreve’s theology is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation. He had the ability to see God revealed in the people and creation around him. He is the subject of a biography, Father Congreve of Cowley, by M. V. Woodgate. He is buried along with other members of our community, in the churchyard of St. Mary and St. John, Oxford.
Christopher Bryant, SSJE (1905-1985)
FATHER CHRISTOPHER REX BRYANT, SSJE
died June 8, 1985
Father Christopher Rex Bryant, a priest of our English Congregation, died on 8 June 1985 at Tunbridge Wells, Kent in the eightieth year of his life and the fiftieth year of his religious profession.
Born in 1906 in Woolwich, a district of London, where his father worked at the Greenwich Observatory, Father Bryant was educated at Kings School, Canterbury, Pembroke College, Cambridge and St. Augustine’s Theological College, Canterbury. He was ordained in 1929 and served a curacy at St. Paul’s, Clapham, in the Diocese of Southwark. He came to our community at the Mission House in Oxford in 1932 and was professed in 1935. He then spent the first ten years of his professed based at the Mission House in Oxford. From 1945 he lived at our house in Doune, Scotland, and then Joppa, just outside Edinburgh, returning to the Mission House in 1949 where he served first as the Novice Master and then as the Assistant Superior. In 1955 he became the Superior of St. Edward’s House, London. There he began to be widely known as a retreat conductor and spiritual director. From 1968 until 1971 he was on the staff at St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, which at that time was the place where ordinands from King’s College, London spent their final year. He returned to the Mission House in Oxford in 1971 and remained there until he went again to St. Edward’s House in 1980. It was during the last fifteen years of his life that he became widely known as an author of books on spirituality and the relationship between psychology and prayer. His most influential book, The River Within was published in 1978. His last book Jung and the Christian Way appeared in 1984. One of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge novels draws heavily on Father Bryant’s writings. At the same time he edited a popular theological journal called New Fire which had a wide circulation. Once when asked to define prayer he replied that prayer was not about saying prayers, but rather what happened when the mystery that was God encountered the mystery that was the individual. He died suddenly and very quietly one day when he and some friends were out exploring the Kentish countryside. He is buried along with other members of the community, at Rose Hill Cemetery, Oxford.