Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson was and unlikely candidate for the Catholic priesthood. An Anglican priest and the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he converted to Catholicism on September 11, 1903. I first read about Msgr. Benson when Paul, who comments on this blog, sent me the book Literary Converts by Joseph Pearce.
This was the first time I had read about Msgr. Benson, but I had heard his name before, and, indeed, I owned one of his books, Come Rack! Come Rope! It was something I had picked up at a homeschool book sale because I had heard it recommended, but I had never opened it. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that because I had read the name of the book as Come Back! Come Rope!, I thought that it was about cowboys instead of what it is really about which is recusant Catholics in the time of Elizabeth I.
However, this is the main book I want to talk about today, Lord of the World. This novel was published in 1907. It is about the end of the world which, I am sorry to have to tell you, is, according to the book, upon us even now, indeed, it may have already happened,
Msgr. Benson writes in his preface:
I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others.
But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.The concerns that Msgr. Benson addresses in his book are very real even though his predictions are premature. He sees Communism as an immediate threat even though the novel was written ten years before the October Revolution. The fall of Europe to Communism in the book takes place in 1917-18. There is a Prologue which consists of a conversation between three men, one of whom is very old and who is explaining the history of the 20th century. The prologue is meant, no doubt to help us approach the novel with some understanding, but I found it rather confusing because I couldn't find a place of reference.
As Advent, the first section of the novel, begins, we find Oliver Brand looking out over the city of London. He is enamored in every way with the efficient Materialistic Communist world in which he lives. He holds an important position in the government and is, at the moment concerned that there will be war with the East. There are rumors, though, about a man who may be able to bring peace between East and West, Julian Felsenburgh. Felsenburgh is an enigma. He is an American, but that is the extent of anything that can be found out about him. He has appeared on the scene very recently, but seems to have access to all the powerful of the world. Wherever he goes, people, leaders, nations seem to fall quickly in with his plans. His mere appearance is enough to convert the masses. After successfully settling the crisis in the East, he comes to London in triumph and accepts the position of President of Europe, Europe consisting of all of Europe, Russia up to the Ural Mountains, and Africa.
The only obstacle to Felsenburgh's complete domination is the Catholic Church. The sole surviving Christian church, the Catholic Church, is beleaguered, barely surviving. As people become comfortable in the materialist society, they begin to see the Faith as something they have outgrown. Lay people, priests, even bishops are defecting to the Quietistic Humanism that is acceptable in the new society with it's core belief is that Man is god.
We see the story of the Church through the eyes of Fr. Percy Frankin, who is a physical clone of Felsenburgh. It is Franklin's job to keep the Cardinal Protectorate of England informed of all that he observes of the currents within and without the Church in England. As the book progresses, he moves to Rome where he is attached to the Vatican, and oversees a new religious order, The Order of Christ Crucified. This order without "badge, habit or insignia" has for it's rule the three Evangelical Counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience, and, "...a fourth intention, namely, that of a desire to receive the crown of martyrdom and a purpose of embracing it." They go throughout the world doing whatever needs to be done for the defense of the Faith.
In the beginning of Felsenburgh's reign, there is a toleration of Catholicism, although there is a fear of persecution and Catholics are treated with scorn. They are allowed to worship on Sundays but have no say in public affairs. Felsenburgh soon initiates a new order of Divine Worhip. Four festivals will be celebrated, "...Maternity, Life, Sustenance and Paternity, celebrated on the first day of each quarter." Attendance is mandatory, but the punishment for not attending is light--at least at first. The ritual, "...is based almost entirely upon that of the Masons," and presided over by an apostate Catholic priest. Soon Felsenburgh begins to acquire new titles: the Son of Man, Saviour of the World, Incarnate God. "Oh, to have a Saviour at last!" cries the Master of Ceremonies.
There is a great deal in Lord of the World that seems ominously familiar. We aren't living in a state of complete materialism, Christians aren't quite the pariahs that they have become in this novel, but we can definitely see a trend in these directions. I mentioned shortly after I had first begun to write this post that Maclin at Light on Dark Water had written, completely coincidentally, a post about the type of world into which the Anti-Christ might come, and as I was reading it, it seemed eerily like the world that Msgr. Benson describes.
Lord of the World isn't the world's greatest literature, but it is often compelling. The Church in the novel won't always be attractive to those of us who live in the real 21st century, but Msgr. Benson does convey the majesty of the Church and her identity as the Body of Christ and her true role in the world. The reigning pope in the novel,
...cared, it appeared, nothing whatever for the world's opinion; his policy, so far as it could be called one, consisted in a very simple thing: he had declared in Epistle after Epistle that the object of the Church was to do glory to God by producing supernatural virtues in man, and that nothing at all was of any significance or importance except so far as it effected this object.On a lighter note, it's interesting to see where Benson got it right and where he didn't. The characters in the book use a sort of airplane called a volor for travel, but there is no heating on the planes and the travelers must wear furs; however this inconvenience is offset by the fact that they have private compartments on the flight. The walls and floors of the homes are made from asbestos. He completely misses the feminist movement. Women seem to have no part in public life other than to accompany their husbands to events. In an interesting contrast, however, Fr. Franklin includes women in the Order of Christ Crucified. It is as though Msgr. Benson seems to think that only the Church values the contribution of women. And sadly, he sees that euthanasia will be an accepted practice.
I can't say that reading a novel in which that which we fear most has come upon us is enjoyable, but it is highly worth reading. For one thing, it helps me to get a bit of perspective about the duration of those currents in culture that seem to be coming to a head now. Long before I knew materialism existed, men were concerned about it's obvious outcomes. Our Catholic women's book club will be discussing it the week before the election. It ought to be a thought-provoking discussion.
P.S. An anonymous visitor commented that the end of Lord of the World was magnificent, and it truly is. I thought it was important enough to move that statement into the original post. I probably should have at least mention this, but I hesitate to say too much about it because I don't want to ruin it for people who might read the book.