To read the biography of Monsignor Ronald Knox is to risk sinking into despair. The great English Catholic convert, biblical translator, and writer lived such an outstanding life that one can’t but feel the utter inadequacy of one’s own next to its record.
Knox (1888-1957) was composing decent Latin poetry by age ten. He attended Eton and Oxford, where he was counted among the most promising young scholars of his generation. His gift for friendship made him the toast of many circles. He staked out strong liturgical, ecclesiastic, and theological positions without making enemies in the process—though he certainly had critics, not least in his own family.
As a Church of England clergyman, he was seen as the great hope of Anglo-Catholicism. After he “went pope” (in the expression of his time), his influence as a Catholic convert rivaled that of Newman in the previous century. He was a writer of strikingly warm and precise prose, qualities rarely found together. His books sold out. He was a spiritual confidant of Chesterton, a creative and beloved teacher, a hot-in-demand homilist, an eminently good man.
His only shortcoming, it seems, was his unfortunate physical appearance and the strange vanity associated with it. As Evelyn Waugh tells us in his gorgeous life of Knox, when the would-be churchman first arrived at Oxford he was “a frail, slightly drooping figure with a prominent nose, a heavy underlip which his pipe accentuated, unobtrusive chin, large eyes.” He was eighteen years old. Yet despite these features, Knox harbored a “whimsical hope that he might be thought of as good-looking.”
As I say, it’s hard to read the biography without envy tinging one’s admiration. Hard for me anyways, knowing, at age thirty-five, that I won’t achieve the ten-year-old Knox’s facility with ancient Italian, no matter how much I apply myself to Mr. Gwynne’s instruction books. Like Knox, I’ve staked out strong positions, but have made oodles of enemies in the process. And I fall far short of the man’s well-attested goodness and holiness.
And yet, as I spent the summer days with Waugh’s biography, I felt constantly as if Knox was inviting me to lift myself up to the level of his natural virtues—and as if he was somehow dispensing his supernatural gifts from Waugh’s pages into my mind and soul. Such a man was Knox; such a biographer, Waugh.
The details of Ronald Arbuthnott Knox’s life are familiar to fans of English-Catholic lore. He was born in Leicestershire to Anglican evangelical royalty. His paternal grandfather, the Rev. George Knox, was a missionary of austere Calvinist practice; his father, Edmund Knox, the Anglican bishop of Manchester, was a scourge of Tractarians and all things Romish and incensed. His maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was much more the small-c catholic: a mystic, “a Protestant Charles de Foucauld,” as Waugh puts it. He died emaciated, tilling the missionary field in Oman.
One of the most delightful aspects of Ronald Knox the adult convert was how he consciously upheld his English and Anglican patrimony even as he discovered the fullness of catholicity in the Roman church. Thus, at the height of the Blitz, he urged the refugee Catholic schoolgirls entrusted to his spiritual care in the countryside to resist any nationalism that might pinch their loyalty to the universal church and put them at odds with the Communion of the Saints. At the same time, as he confided to a friend:
I’m not going to decide whether the average Catholic Mexican is what you call a ‘better man’ than the average Protestant Englishman. I do not know—I know which I would rather go for a walking tour with, but that is not the same thing. I prefer Englishmen to the natives of any other country in the world, but that is not going to do them much good, poor dears, at the Day of Judgment.
Knox traced his conversion to his teenaged reading of Robert Hugh Benson’s The Light Invisible, written while the author himself was still an Anglican—a book packed, as Waugh says, with “aesthetic and emotional appeal of a kind most Catholics would condemn as second-rate” (Waugh, it seems, never had a kind thing to say about one of Pope Francis’s favorite authors!). Yet The Light Invisible implanted in the young Knox a love for the Virgin and an awareness of the priesthood “as a peculiar state” with a primarily sacramental role, as opposed to the primarily exhortatory role of his own evangelical father.
The road from that early brush with the sacramental priesthood to being received into the Catholic Church was straightforward but by no means easy; Knox was one of those Anglicans whose crossing of the Tiber appears inevitable to all but themselves until the deed is done.
Along the way, he dabbled in Christian socialism and described himself as a “Tory socialist.” But he was “no economist,” as Waugh gently puts it, and more than that, Knox wasn’t a party man or a full-ticket intellectual (the kind whose views line up just perfectly). He could make lighthearted fun of fellow Oxford Anglo-Catholics who took things a little too seriously, especially given their reluctance to surrender their, er, privilege in the bargain of Christian socialism. Knox ribbed one such friend with a Gilbert-style send-up:
A fight-the-police young man,
A don’t-go-to-war young man;
Dine-at-the-Ritz young man
Who wouldn’t have been charmed by these lines? Or who could have held them against Knox?
But if he converted to Catholicism without hurting many feelings—except his father’s, that is—it wasn’t because “going pope” had lost its transgressive dimension. No, it was because he was already mostly friendless by the time he was received. Many of his dearest Anglo-Catholic bosom buddies had died in the trenches of World War I; others had preceded him across the Tiber; and still others had gone pope—and then died fighting.
It is the war-wounded Knox that arouses the most tender sympathy and offers us a model amid our own moment of national crisis. How did Knox handle losing so many friends?
With prayer, is the short answer. Knox didn’t see coming, Waugh notes, “the monstrous physical catastrophe that impended, but while his countrymen were singing and waving flags [in the early days of the war], he stood back aghast at the gross dislocation in the moral order, which kept him on his knees, alone, six hours a day for the last three weeks of the month.”
By my calculation, that’s 126 hours spent on the prie-dieu. Was every minute filled with ecstatic prayer? No. As he wrote to a friend seeking advice on prayer, “it is only by [God’s] mercy, I think, that religious practices ever become easy for us. We must expect always to have to set our teeth.” In another context: “To be dry in Lent when our Lord fasted, to be feeling irreligious on Good Friday, when our Lord suffered dereliction—all this is quite correct and liturgical.” These words, Waugh speculates, “suggest that Ronald’s prayer throughout most of his life, was very often dry and laborious.”
And yet he spent 126 hours in a month kneeling for the English boys in the trenches, praying that God might use English arms as an instrument of his peace and justice. An observer who had seen him on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament wrote: “I have seen people in love with God”—namely, Knox. And what’s more admirably English than to struggle at praying but to keep at it for 126 hours in a month for love of God and one’s friends?
A reassuring thought for lesser men: Monsignor Knox wasn't good at everything!
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos, which will be published next spring.
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