When Christopher Dawson passed away in the late spring of 1970, he did so not only as one of the most important Catholic thinkers of his century, but he also did so as a loyal citizen of the City of God, having always resisted the myriad of temptations of this City of Man.
As noted in a previous essay, Dawson had his reservations about the past, the present, and the future of the Roman Catholic Church. He especially feared that the Catholic Church had failed to keep Christians united, not just because of the wiles of the Evil One, but because of its own ignorance and pride.
Yet Dawson loved the Roman Catholic Church dearly. It was the source of all consolation and all intellectual goodness in this world of sorrows. Much of the goodness came from its history and its sacraments, but much came through more personal avenues, such as from his beloved cradle-Catholic wife, Valerie.
Born to a Welsh mother and a Yorkshire father, Dawson came into the world baptized in the highest of Anglo-Catholicisms within the Church of England. From his mother, he learned mystery, imagination, and majesty, while from his father, he learned rationality, duty, and patriotism. The shrines of saints, the stained glass of churches, and the stories of the old Celtic gods, demigods, and heroes combined to give Dawson a profound love of all that is humane and cannot be explained by the sciences or logic or philosophy or by any “ism.”
In 1909 Dawson stood at the Ari Coeli in Rome on Easter Day. As he did, he experienced what he considered nothing less than a divine vision. In one brief moment, God showed him the sum of all human existence prior to 1909. In that instant, Dawson surveyed every culture, every people, every history, and every language. Dawson held that God commanded him to record it all.
At age nineteen, Dawson accepted this challenge as a divine gift. He would read and study, he would learn, and he would write and innovate. He would surrender his entire will to God’s.
Four years later, in 1913, Dawson consented to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, inspired directly by his wife, Valerie, and his best friend, E.I. Watkin. In January, 1914, he was confirmed in St. Aloysius Church in Oxford. Dawson’s mother never forgave him, but his father, a life-long lover of Dante and a professional Army explorer, saw no real difference between Anglicanism and Catholicism and readily gave his consent. Regardless, it was done. Christopher Dawson was Roman Catholic, and he would remain so during the entirety of his adult life.
Aside from the mystical vision, as well as the personal connections to the Church, what compelled the young Anglo-Welshman to accept the teachings of an institution that had been restricted and discriminated against, often with immense bloodshed, on his own soil since 1534?
First, and quite understandably, Dawson loved the stories of the saints. Each saint, he believed, was a sort of spiritual aristocrat, a uniquely powerful reflection of the love of Christ in this world through self-surrender. What higher thing could a person desire in this world than the use of free will to become a servant of Love?
A saint, he wrote, is “the perfect manifestation of the supernatural life which exists in every individual Christian, the first fruits of that new humanity which is the world of the Church to create.”
That bizarre stories surrounded the saints only further attracted Dawson. How could someone touched by the unadulterated love of Christ not be bizarre? But, of course, no saint would conform to the patterns of the world. Even as a young boy, Dawson had devoured every story of every Celtic saint, finding in each a meaning. The soil on which every martyr died has become, he believed, in some way sacred and mysteriously palpable.
Second, Dawson, as he admitted in a number of articles, found the Catholic intellectual tradition one of intense beauty and one that answered the most important questions that needed answering. After an inheritance from the Jews as well as the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Catholic Church had spent much of its history wrestling with the deepest of questions. Being dogmatic rather than systematic, it also embraced humility, knowing that not all questions can or should be answered. Instead, the Church taught that one must recognize the limits of one’s knowledge and potential for knowledge. Within the Church, though, Dawson found a sacred and compelling unity. “[I] realised that the Incarnation, the Sacraments, the external order of the Church and the internal working of Sanctifying Grace were all parts of one organic unity, a living tree, whose roots are in the Divine Nature and whose fruit is the perfection of the saints.”
Third, while each person reflected uniquely the divine, bearing the Imago Dei, each person—even the greatest among men—was so limited in time, knowledge, and abilities allotted that he must become a part of a community that transcended all immediate limitations. That community came only through the divine creation of the Church, the rock that could weather the ravages, the storms, and the tides of time.
The Church, then, served as the embryonic seed of the Kingdom of God. After the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Word, God created the Church with the power of the Holy Spirit, thus continuing the organic unity—and beginning the healing of the disunity caused by the institutions of man—of all Creation. “For the possession of the Holy Spirit was the essential characteristic of the new society,” Dawson wrote, and its creation, the Church, “enjoyed supernatural powers and authority.” Ultimately then, within the organic unity of existence, the “Church was itself the future kingdom in embryo.”
Thus, whatever problems the Church experienced, they came from the limitations of man. His pride, always the source of all temptations, allowed him to crave what he should not crave, to ignore what he should not ignore, and to look around that which he should not look around. Sins of omission and sins of commission. Yet, through all the wickedness wrought by the human person, the person still bared the Imago Dei, the love of the Creator, and the energy of the Holy Spirit. “In Him, God is not only manifested to man, but vitally participated,” Dawson wrote, elaborating on St. John 1:9. “He is the Divine Light, which illuminates men’s minds, and the Divine Life, which transforms human nature and makes it the partaker of Its Own supernatural activity.”
In every word Christopher Dawson wrote and in every word he spoke, he prayed, he reflected the truth, the beauty, and the goodness of the Word.
Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, and books by Christopher Dawson, may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.