The Way of Renunciation

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson is best known today for his apocalyptic novel Lord of the World, an early twentieth-century work that gave the reader a foretaste of coming technology such as air travel and mass communications. It also forecast a dominant radical secular humanism opposing a greatly reduced and confined Church. The story’s details – including an anti-Christ in the form of a charismatic American senator who ultimately brings on the end of time – give it a contemporary poignancy. That may be one reason why it’s a favorite of Pope Francis’s as well.

It’s much less known that Benson also wrote two collections of short fiction “from the other side,” The Light Invisible and A Mirror of Shalott, published together in The Supernatural Stories of Monsignor Robert H. Benson. Most are tales told by priests and their friends who have had some fleeting glimpse of another world, such as an appearance of a ghost. Benson – via his characters – reminds us that, though worthy of attention, we can conclude very little from such inexplicable events.

Other stories offer vivid illustrations of various religious phenomena. “The Light Invisible” testifies to the power of contemplative life, for the contemplatives themselves and for the world they carry in their prayers.

In “The Father Rector’s Tale,” a priest recounts his encounter with a very talented and popular painter-musician whose work, the priest recalls, struck him as brilliant yet somehow corrupt and tainted, even when the themes were religious and otherwise beautifully rendered. The artist, a Mr. Farquharson, turns out to be a lapsed Catholic who, partly in response to the visit of the priest storyteller, later returns to the Church while the priest is traveling abroad. The priest hears that Farquharson is suffering terribly after his reversion.

Months later, the priest visits Farquharson again. The artist now looks fifty years older. His latest attempts at painting are crude and primitive, showing no signs of the earlier technique that had earned widespread admiration. His musical talent is likewise lost. In the salons of the art world, he is now a nothing.

Msgr. Benson

Farquharson’s artistic success had been sustained entirely by the corruption the priest had intuitively detected. Without that corruption, what seemed to the world like artistic genius was rubble. He dies shortly after, a “tolerably happy” man despite having lost the acclaim of the public. He had gained his soul at the price of his apparent success.

It’s easy enough to look at particular artists and imagine what deals with the devil they may have cut to advance their careers. But it’s a useful exercise for all of us, especially during Lent, to think hard about whatever successes we ourselves have enjoyed, and at what cost.

The corruption that the priest sees in Benson’s story is more than just the kind of bribery or abuse of power that we usually think of as corruption. It is what St. Augustine might call wrongly ordered love, love of a false good, of success in the earthly city and the triumph of the self at the expense of what we know to be just and true. A state of being in the world, and very much of it.

That’s a corruption that extends far beyond the art dealerships of Manhattan and the movie studios of Hollywood. Many of us who have to “get along,” especially when we’re trying to “get ahead,” also have to juggle the demands of a world that insists that we love it more than we love God or our neighbor.

When we look beyond our own compromises to the larger culture, the exercise can become overwhelming and depressing. Imagine what might disappear if we suddenly awoke in a world of rightly ordered loves.

Given original sin, this is unlikely. But what would be left if we suddenly and collectively reordered our loves from our longing for material ease and comfort, worldly power and reputation – you know the list – to the true good, even in part?

What engines of the growth economy would no longer be around, or would be operating on a much smaller scale? Amazon, Apple, banks and investment firms, law firms, defense firms, oil and automobile companies? Those may be obvious candidates to wonder about, but the problem of loving shareholder value or personal bonuses more than other goods afflicts every industry from health care to agriculture. Not a new phenomenon, though our age takes it to new lows.

What about government? Foundations and non-government, “non-profit” do-good organizations? Charities, especially the largest of them? Universities?

And of the Church’s human institutions, what would we find still standing?

Like Benson’s reformed and sanctified artist, in this abruptly reordered world, we would suffer. Our new pains and ills might range from fewer electronics and entertainment options, to less abundant and worse food, to shorter life spans. We might suddenly look and feel fifty years older.

In Benson’s Lord of the World, with the dictatorship of secular relativism in control, the Catholics in their remaining enclaves enjoy a notably lower standard of living than those in the progressive mainstream world. Their condition is not grinding, but their relative poverty and the absence of modern conveniences is striking.

Benson’s story of the artist who trades his corruption for his soul, a “tolerably happy” exchange in the end, reminds us that there is a cost to be paid for the compromises that seem so necessary for the lesser or false goods we seek.

An examination of conscience about what renunciation it would take to rid ourselves of corruption could be of great spiritual value – and quite a Lenten sacrifice.

Pangur Bán is a pseudonym, from a 9th century poem by an Irish monk living in old Swabia. The poem can be read here, or here, and heard in English and Gaelic here.