Monday, May 15, 2023

The Carthusian’s Story of John Smith and the King: “Begin low, and go slow, rise high and take fire”

Sculpture in Sainte-Chapelle (photo by author)
Longtime readers of NLM will be aware of the numerous times we have revisited the famous “Benedictine-Jesuit” debate over the liturgy (see here and here, for two examples). I have discovered more material worth sharing along these lines.

I am grateful to a long-time correspondent for pointing me to this fascinating section of Robert Speaight’s 1966 biography of Eric Gill (taken from pp. 98–102). More recent biographies of Gill have, of course, brought to light some very unedifying and unsavory facts about his life, but anyone who reads this will see why I am sharing it with NLM readers. It’s a passage deeply relevant to a complete apologia for the old Mass, which is so much a fruit—indeed the choicest fruit—of the pre-Reformation approach to God.

“Eric’s intuition, which never conflicted with his logic, suggested that the rise of capitalism at the time of the Reformation—he would have agreed with Tawney, of course, in connecting the one with the other—had been reflected by a change in spirituality to match the change in economics.

“He put, therefore, a number of questions to a monk of the Parkminster Charterhouse, where a way of life and prayer had been established long before the Reformation was thought of. Was there, he inquired, any marked change of direction observable in writers on mysticism and the contemplative life since the Reformation?

“The answer (given in writing) was that of course such a change was discernible, and it was due principally to the Jesuits who were the spearhead of the Church in a period of crisis. The Jesuits had divided the spiritual life into two distinct compartments—one for ordinary folk who were to content themselves with discursive meditation to a set plan, the other for extraordinary folk who might be led by God by extraordinary ways about which the less said the better. This ideal had been enjoined on all members of the Society, and with certain exceptions—notably Pere Grou in modern times—it had been invariably followed.

“The monk summarized the difference as ‘the difference between the individual handiwork of a craftsman, who really made his own tools and used them in producing the articles of his craft, often enough from his own designs, and the modern, uniform, correct to an inch-in-fractions article as turned out by machinery from a factory.’…

“This, it hardly needs to be emphasized, was grist to Eric’s mill. He went on to ask whether the difference was fundamental, or whether it was no more than a difference of approach. The monk replied that the difference was indeed fundamental, and that it stemmed from the ancient Thomist and Molinist debate concerning predestination and free-will—the Thomist laying greater stress on God’s action aiding and attracting the soul, the Molinist emphasizing human liberty and responsibility in the pursuit of holiness. Hence the ‘minutely introspective character’ of post-Reformation spirituality ‘with its multiplied methods of self-examination, particular examination of predominant faults, and discursive meditation.’ The Molinist method might be described as exercising the powers of the soul in such a way as to draw down the Spirit of God upon us; the older method as waiting in peace for the Spirit of God to draw us up to Him. The first method, pushed to an extreme, would lead to a sterile activism, the second to an enervating quietism. But there was no doubt which method had prevailed during the later centuries of the Church…

“He next went on to ask whether there was an analogy between men shaking hands as a sign of friendship and the soul coming to God. The monk reminded him that the shaking of hands was not a necessary sign of friendship—it might signify no more than casual acquaintance—but if the question implied that ‘spiritual exercises’ had once been the fruit of Union rather than a preparation for it, then—if one wanted to revert to older methods—it would be legitimate to dispense with them until one had achieved union with God.

“He put the matter in the form of a parable.

“John Smith’s earliest recollection was of a certain sunshiny day when he was taken to a Coronation Fete in the local park; he remembered something of the tea and the buns; but the tangible memory of it all was a ‘Coronation Mug’ with bright-hued portraits of their Majesties in all the glory of Coronation garb. He was fascinated by it; and the dream of childhood was to go to London to see the King in his golden crown.

“As he grew older, a good deal of the glamour wore off his day-dreams, but a curious and out-of-date reverence for kingship as such kept its place in his youthful mind. So, when he reached the age of discretion, he ‘sold all he had’ and left his father’s house and set out for London. As he was a perfect stranger there he sought counsel of one Ignatius Farm, who had been recommended to him as knowing all about everything in London. Presently to him he unfolded his wondrous plans. He wanted to get to know the King in person; no more and no less; to get inside Buckingham Palace; to become, perhaps, one of the royal family.

“Now Ignatius Farm, who dwelt near a mews [the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, London, adjoins a mews] thought that he had met that kind of case before. ‘My dear good fellow,’ he said, ‘do please be practical; that sort of thing may have been all very well for the Middle Ages; but all that is past and gone now. If you really have such reverence for the person and office of the King, and wish to know everything about him, read the Court Circular, which tells you of his movements; but better still, if you wish to serve him, join the army, where you may have a chance of doing something of practical use in his service.’

“Poor John Smith was disheartened. He crossed Green Park and looked wistfully at the windows of the Palace. It seemed so easy to get in. Just then a dear old gentleman, evidently of Italian origin (indeed his name proved to be Benedict Cassino) spoke to him and asked him what he was doing there. After John had told him all his hopes and fears, the old man said: ‘Cheer up; of course you can get inside, even if it is only as a fourth-class royal shoeblack. But you must catch his Majesty’s eye.’ ‘How can I do that?’ said John. ‘It is a long task for many; it just depends. But you will have to stand here all day long, admiring the beauties of the Victoria Memorial and the front of the Palace. The King will come out, and you must take off your hat and bow; that’s all. He may notice you the first day, or it may be weeks, yes, years, before he will turn your way. But he will if you only stand here long enough.’

“Thus it was that John Smith began his long vigil before the Palace. The very first day, out came his Majesty punctually at eleven o’clock and on foot. Off went John’s hat, and his back was bent nearly double. True, the King did not look like the pictures; it is true that the morning coat was immaculate and that the gloss on the hat was as if it had been japaned; but what was that to an ermine-turned scarlet cloak and a golden crown? But never mind, it was HE! And it looked to John, who was standing quite alone, as if he acknowledged his salute! There was something to go on with.

“It were tiresome (as it was to John) to follow him all the weeks he was there but he never failed; always he was there when the King came out and always he showed the same respectful salute. It must be said that one day, tiring of waiting, he went forward a few paces to speak to his Majesty but he had scarcely moved when two well-dressed gentlemen came from nowhere, as he afterwards said (it is possible they were from Scotland Yard) and told him to be off.

“But skipping the rest, THE day at last arrived. Out came the King just as usual, John bowed and lifted his hat just as usual, and then the unusual thing occurred. His Majesty stopped in his walk, and coming up to John, said: ‘Good day, John Smith,’ as he held out his hand and shook John warmly by the hand. ‘I have watched you these many months and have at last found someone whom I can trust as a faithful servant. I want you to come right away now, into the Palace; there is a very small job waiting for you and it shall be the beginning of great things if you are equally faithful inside as you were outside.’

“All the world knows how John Smith rose from one position to another until at length, after an incredible series of events, he was made heir to the Kingdom! And he used to say ‘it was all that waiting, waiting outside in the rain, the wind and the heat and with the jeers of the by-passers, and contrary to the advice of so many who told me to get at “something useful”, that brought me to where I am now on the steps of the throne.

“It was a fallacy, the monk concluded, to imagine that the ancient spiritual writers did not employ methods of spiritual exercise; but they did not tabulate, dissect, and discuss—‘just as a composer, who presents his symphony for the first time, does not distribute amongst the audience copies of his themes; he gives the result.’ The time-honoured advice to men who wanted to preach was equally applicable to men who wanted to pray: ‘Begin low, and go slow, rise high and take fire.’ But also ‘aim high.’

“Union is the normal term of the spiritual life [continued the Carthusian] but many are held back by the fancy that Union necessarily means Rapts, Revelations and Ecstasy, and alas! still more fail because they will not wait long enough in front of the Palace waiting for the King to take them by the hand.”

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