Papers of a Pariah (Benson)

Papers of a Pariah (Benson)

The Cenacle Press at Silverstream Priory

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“Even to me, Protestant as I am, it did seem completely suitable that an event so stupendous could scarcely be approached by any other process than that of a sacred dramatic dance, with an accompaniment of rigid and minute Court etiquette. To leave the conduct of such a thing to the individual personality and the private taste of a simple clergyman in a surplice, would be nothing else than bathos of the worst description; human outlines must be obliterated by some overpowering uniform, personal tastes and methods of behaving must be rigidly supplanted by set movements and gestures. In fact, for such a drama as this we need not clericalism, but the most emphatic sacerdotalism. Originality in the sanctuary, as has been well observed, is the grossest vulgarity known to men.”

In this work of imaginative fiction, Catholic priest and writer Robert Hugh Benson “edits the notes” of a non-Catholic actor who is attempting to understand the belief and worship of Catholics. Only moderately successful in his career, the author of these “papers” finds himself quite alone in the world, his wife having died within a year of their marriage. His own health beginning to fail, he pays serious attention to the subject of religion for the first time. After a brief dalliance with the Anglican Church, he is drawn to the local Catholic church, where he attends various liturgies—a Requiem, a Low Mass, Benediction, and the ceremonies of Holy Week. He struggles with “a great deal of inchoate agnosticism” while writing about the powerful impressions these ceremonies make on him. Finally, the actor is received into the Church shortly before he dies. Benson, himself a convert from Anglicanism, creatively weaves surprising, poignant, and profound insights into the traditional beliefs and customs of Catholics by viewing them through the eyes of “a pariah”—a lonely outcast.

Robert Hugh Benson (1871–1914), the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, was educated at Eton and Trinity College. Drawn toward the High-Church tradition, Benson was ordained an Anglican priest by his father, but began to investigate the claims of the Catholic Church during a trip to the Middle East in 1896. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1903 and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood the following year. Amid his various ecclesial duties, he was a well-known preacher and a prolific writer, and his works span many genres, including science and historical fiction, contemporary novels, children’s books, apologetics, plays, poetry, and devotional material.