MICHAEL de la BEDOYERE
EVERY year sees a flow of new Catholic books —books of theology, books of devotion, apologetic books, lives of great Catholics of the past, historical books, even critical books. Many of these are excellent, though the great majority are overpraised by reviewers. But all, or nearly all, have one thing in common. They are at one remove from "the heart of the matter." And very few of them succeed in enriching the reader through the communication of a fresh and vital experience. Only two things can do that: either really great writing or a writer with something unique and immediate to write about.
It seems to us that Dom Bede Griffiths in "The Golden String" (Harvill Press; 12s. 6d.) has given to our generation a book of Christian and Catholic autobiography that stands altogether apart from most other books for the revelation it contains of a spiritual experience, as old as Christianity, as up to date in its setting and, orientations as the newspaper or television. Inevitably, as it seems, given the experience to be related and the writer's utter submission to that experience, the story is told in language of classical and mystical beauty.
One recognises the difficulty of saying such things about a contemporary book by a living writer (who happens to be known to this reviewer); yet the reader of the book will not feel that these are words of vulgar adulation, since neither the author nor his story is somehow subject to categories of this kind.
' For the overwhelming sense one gets in reading the account is of the author's own detachment from the pilgrimage and experiences he underwent. It is like the journey of a man into an unknown country, a hard and difficult journey where the way is easily lost, though the final goal is kept in sight, a journey of immense beauty and undreamt-of reward.
NO one would praise such a traveller for the things he saw and experienced. Nor does one feel more inclined to praise the journeyer into the depths of the detached self, where the Supreme Reality is to he found, for his adventures and his discoveries: one only wants to praise God for thus leading a pilgrim of our darkened days into the Light from which the modern world has cut off so many of us.
Still more does one want to praise Him for inspiring this pilgrim of His ways to help us to share to some little degree in the pilgrimage and to learn how to advance a few steps farther out of the mists into the "dazzling darkness."
For the young Griffiths—he never gives his own Christian name—at Christ's Hospital was already a boy apart. He had already learned from Shakespeare and Hardy that "tragedy alone can reveal the deepest human values." Without personal religion, he had learned from Papini to be "filled with a love of Christ as a man which was never to leave me." Already, he was a socialist and a pacifist. But as with not a few boys of such an age, he was drunk with romantic poetry and the poetry of nature. He left school feeling "like Abraham turning his back on Babylon, going out in search of a country." OOXFORD meant the Socialism of G. D. H. Cole, It meant Eliot, Joyce, Middietou Murry, Lawrence, Tolstoy; it even meant the cabarets of Montmartre. No one can say that he escaped any of the formative influences of our generation ! But it also meant the friendship of C. S. Lewis, not then a Christian, and the friendship of kindred souls seeking in nature and the wilds escape from the ugliness of the industrial revolution.
After Oxford "we began to discard our romanticism and to give ourselves to more serious study and thought." The setting was a life of the utmost asceticism in a bare little Cotswold cottage at the rate 1100 a year for three people, including books. Fasting and selfdenial, he discovered, had a wonderful effect in clearing the brain.
Much later, Dom Bede was to find difficulties in the luxuries of a strict Benedictine monastery 1 In the Cotswolds, often in freezing cold, he read the philosophers and mystics of the East and the West, discovering Aristotle, who brought the sharp knife of reason into the Platonic vision, and he discovered the Old Testament, which told of life and values, already in some measure being realised in their own simple, peasant life.
The New Testament was to bring them "to kneel on the bare stone floor, not in the kitchen but out in the cold at the back of the house, and the words seem to pierce the soul."
I, ANTE had already not
'only revealed the greatness of the Middle Ages, then unknown at Oxford, but also the discipline of love and morality that contrasted with the conventional morality and respectability that he had revolted against.
Aquinas and the Venerable Bede were now revealing to him for the first time the Catholic Church, though his natural Christian orientation was Anglicanism, especially in terms of the great 17th century divines and poets.
It is worth drawing a lesson from his first visit of curiosity to a Catholic church—the Church that still filled him "with fear," He went to see the priest after the Strange ceremonies, but the priest "made a fatal mistake by speaking contemptuously of Hooker and his doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ." One never knows what will be the fruit of ignorance and lack of love and insight. Be decided to prepare to take orders in the Church of England.
Then, while living in the London slums, a terrible conflict was set up within him—a conflict with his own reason which so far had gone hand in hand with his instinct and feelings. "Something had arisen in the depths of my own nature which my reason was powerless to control. I was being called to surrender the very citadel of my self. I was completely in the dark."
The call was to something new : repentance and surrender into the hands of a power above. The only recourse he had was meditation on the Passion. All night he prayed.
Next morning as he was leaving his room, exhausted, he heard a
voice say : "You must go to a retreat"—and the author explains: "When I say that I heard a voice, I do not mean that I heard any sound. It was simply that this was signified to me interiorly, but in such a way that it did not appear to come from myself."
Nor did he know the meaning of the word "retreat," and the very name he had heard only once.
VHF. Anglican retreat enabled him to come "through the darkness into a world of light." He realised that hitherto it had only been himself seeking God. Now he understood that it was God Who had been seeking him and had brought him to his knees.
The next step after the surrender of reason was the surrender of the will.
"There was something terrifying in this power which had entered into my life and which would not be refused. It had revealed itself to me as love, but I knew now that it was a love which demanded everything, and which was a torment if it was resisted." He realised that "only when we had broken with the illusion of this world and faced the reality which was hidden in the depths of our being could we find peace."
And his peace came in the end through the study of Newman's "Development of Christian Doctrine."
In Winchcombe he found a Catholic church and Fr. Palmer, "the son of an old English Catholic family," who lent him R. H. Benson and took him to see Prinknash Abbey.
Soon he was received and within a month he had entered the monastery to try his vocation. After a moment's doubt, and the temptation to seek a more austere order, a temptation which finally taught him not to seek his own desires, "to adapt myself to those circumstances in which by divine providence I actually found myself," he was professed.
IN a sense this is an
'"escapist" book—at least, the path which Dorn Bede trod spared him from having ever to face up directly to the modern industrialism, which he hated for both resthetic and spiritual reasons, and seek Christ's place within it. But this is not to say that the author's present range must cut out this all-important problem. The man who at the end of his book can study with sympathy the great religions of the world, and can so well transcend the particularisms and accidents of history, certainly has a message, reached through self-dedication, applicable to all problems.
"Where then," he writes, is the clue to the centre? Where is the Golden String to be found? The Golden String is Christ; He is the clue to the centre. The sacrifice of Christ is the central event of human history; it is the event which alone gives meaning to life. It was in the Resurrection of Christ that the illusion of the world was shattered and mankind was set free from the bondage of space and time. If we have lost the way and become enslaved again by the appearance of this world, it is because we have deliberately turned our backs on the truth. We have denied the validity of sacrifice and therefore we have become haunted with a sense of guilt." .
THE impact of Dorn Bede's
unique journey towards Christ in the Church is tremendous. I should sax that in present times this outstanding experience of so religiously sensitive a person is worth many books of apologetics. It is so, first, because it must drive others to seek the truth elsewhere to be studied. It Is so, secondly, because it makes the Catholic himself realise that religion becomes real only when it inspires us to the habit of seeing, however feebly, that the explanation of the things of the world which repel and yet attract us, of the stupidity, sin and good intentions of mankind, is to be sought only in terms of a fierce hold on eternal values, on Christ, Who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Apart from that, life is a banality or a tragedy, or, most likely, both together.