Monday, July 12, 2010

A Spiritual Aeneid

Review of A Spiritual Aeneid by Ronald Knox (first published 1917)

“The Broad Church-men were to be made happy, above all, by the excision of those passages of the Psalms in which King David curses his enemies, together with their widows and orphans, in the language of justifiable irritation. This, too, was passed, but it was in the air-raid season, and the Daily Express came out with the whole-page headline, BISHOPS BOYCOTT DAVID’S REPRISAL PSALMS.”

Difficult to imagine the Daily Express, or any other newspaper, devoting a whole-page headline to such an item of religious news today; but the extract is from A Spiritual Aeneid by Ronald Knox, a book written at a time when Church of England doctrine was still a matter of public concern, and the conversion of an Anglican to Catholicism was cause for much tut-tutting, and even monocle-dropping, over the nation’s breakfast tables.

Ronald Knox, of course, was Chesterton’s friend and confidant, an Anglican priest who became a Catholic in 1917 and achieved fame for his detective novels. Chesterton himself is only mentioned twice in A Spiritual Aeneid, but we are left in no doubt of GKC’s importance to the author:

"In regard to orthodoxy, my views when I left Eton were orthodox above the average; my oracle was G.K. Chesterton; he is so still. (I did not acquit him of paradox; but after all, what was a paradox but a statement of the obvious so as to make it sound untrue?)"

A good point; and perhaps Chesterton would add that, the more you think about the “obvious”, the more it seems to good to be true, or to strange to be true—rather like the rhinoceros, of whom Chesterton said he existed, but looked as though he shouldn’t.

In the preface to Orthodoxy, Chesterton explains: “These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation of that creed.”

A Spirtual Aeneid addresses that “very fascinating but quite different question”, and despite Monsignor Knox’s light tone, there is no doubting how seriously he took that question, or how much anguish it caused him: “I hope I have made it clear that my tendency is to mistrust those accesses of religious feeling which Protestant jargon describes as “spiritual experiences”—mistrust them, I mean, as evidences of religious truth; it is different, of course, with the saints, and with those who are near perfection, but in the case of ordinary people, though I have no doubt God gives us them for our comfort, I would never plead them as evidence of religious truth…emotion plays too large a part in such feelings to make them sure grounds for argument.”

The author’s conversion occurred during World War One—the struggle inside him mirrored the European upheavel. “I despair of being able to convey any impression of the next fourteen months, up to the Christmas of 1916…give me half an hour by myself, with no work pressing, and I would plunge at once into self-questioning, brooding, and something not unlike despair”.

It would be impossible to summarise here Monsignor Knox’s reasons, as outlined in A Spiritual Aeneid, for eventually accepting the authority of the Catholic Church; indeed, I have to admit that he assumes a knowledge of ecclesiastical history which was beyond this reader. But the author is such a genial host, and the portrait of English life—religious, academic and general—is so fascinating that you can enjoy this book even if you don’t know your ecumenical councils as well as you should.

Although this book is nothing less than the story of a soul in its search for truth, the entire thing is tinged with a dry, and deliciously English, irony. The book is a perfect illustration of Chesterton’s dictum that the opposite of funny is not serious-- the opposite of funny is not funny.

Take for example Monsignor Knox’s description of his eventual reception into the Catholic Church: “I came into the church in a white heat of orthodoxy, Manning’s disciple rather than Newman’s; and when I took the anti-modernist oath, it was something of a disappointment that the Vicar-General was not there to witness the fervour I put into it—he had gone out to order tea”.


  1. This book has been on my "To Read" list for years, but I have not yet found the time for it. Your review here has encouraged me to make amends.

  2. I really hope you track it down and read it! It's a rather piquant treat!