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Christian humanist

A forgotten book is always a tragedy, but a found book is always a treasure. Well, something like this. (It is probably a good thing I never worked for Hallmark!) Yet, I hope you take my intended sentiment. There exist exceptions, of course. A book of dark magic or of fascism is best left forgotten. But the books that contain truth, beauty, and goodness—these are the books we should never lose.

I have had a book sitting on my shelves for well over a dozen years that until recently I had yet to open. Sadly, I am not alone in treating this book so shabbily. It is a 1933 book that spent most of its life in the Kolbe Memorial Library in Granby, Massachusetts. From what I can tell of the book, no one ever checked out this book. And, so, here it resides, in Hillsdale, Michigan, in perfect shape.

Needless to write (but, I have anyway), I finally picked up this book that has so patiently waited for me for more than a decade. And, what a pleasure. Though eighty-two years old, the quality of the book could readily be described as near fine. Its only flaw are the two stamps marking the previous ownership by Kolbe Memorial Library.

It is the content, however, that matters most. Edited by Maisie Ward and published by the once glorious exemplar of Christian humanist publishing, Sheed and Ward, The English Way looks at the lives, ideas, and deaths of the great Roman Catholic Anglo-Saxons. Most were saints, but not all. And, some who had not yet been recognized as saints soon would be. All, however, served the church with verve. Fathers Gervase Mathew, David Mathew, David Knowles, Bede Jarrett, C.C. Martindale, and Martin D’Arcy, as well as Maisie Ward, Christopher Dawson, E.I. Watkin, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Douglas Woodruff each contribute to this work, sometimes twice. The subjects: Bede; Boniface; Alcuin; Alfred the Great; Wulstan; Aelred; Thomas Becket; Julian of Norwich; John Fisher; Thomas More; Edmund Campion; Richard Crenshaw; and Cardinal Newman.

In her brief but deep introduction to the book, Ward offers a succinct and satisfying explanation of the Christian humanism behind, above, below, and through the work. As Christianity “is universal, it is in every country, but because it is sacramental it is intensely local, found in each country in a special and unique fashion, not a spirit only but a spirit clothed in material form.”

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc

The English Way, therefore, is not the same as the French Way or the German Way. And, with the exception of the contribution from Hilaire Belloc, who lauds the Norman invasion, the authors tend to play up the specifically Anglo-Saxon spirit of English Roman Catholicism. In this vein, the book seems downright Tolkienian, though this great mythmaker makes no appearance here.

Taking Christian humanism even further, however, the book focuses on the contributions of individual human persons, each a unique reflection of the Imago Dei. And, of course, each writer brings his own personality to the study of personalities.

Though the book appears to be a hagiography, it is far from it. The writers sympathize with the plight of each of the individuals discussed, but they do so in such a poetic fashion that the reader simply delights in the immersion into deep Catholicism and the meshing of various personalities.

Again, it is hard not to think of Tolkien. As he wrote his great student, W.H. Auden, each person is an “allegory… each embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”

My bias probably comes through pretty clearly in the following part of this review, but I found the best pieces in the book—all of which are excellent—to be those on Alcuin, Alfred, John Fisher, and Thomas More.

In his piece on Alcuin, Douglas Woodruff, always a profound defender of the Western tradition, writes: “Yet there should be a keener sense of filial piety toward the men to whose labours we owe the preservation of Virgil and Cicero, and nearly all the poets and prose writers of ancient Rome.” Yet, Woodruff laments, the modern scholar so rarely gives any time or attention to so great a man as Alcuin.

Unquestionably, the best piece is the first of the two by G.K. Chesterton. The great twentieth-century man so capably understood the souls of those who came before him. At his best, he notes, King Alfred

clarified and codified the best laws of the West Saxon tradition; but he became a more important sort of legislator in the moral sphere when he translated Boethius for his people, with very characteristic additions of his own; and so brought into England the full tradition of Europe; the tradition of the Christian creed resting upon the Pagan culture. He had been troubled all his life with a recurrent and rather mysterious disease; and he died at the early age of fifty-two, in the first year of the new century. The night of the barbarian peril was already over, and he died in the dawn.—The English Way, pg. 57.

Alfred, too, gave us the term “Christendom.”

John Fisher, Father David Mathews argues, carried with him a certain innocence and holy naivete throughout his life, despite the company he kept of royalty and humanists. “The piety and old-fashioned scholarship, the careful fine calligraphy, the controlled appreciation of good letters, would all seem to have marked out Dr. Fisher for a life of learning and quiet pastoral care; the stole, the doctor’s cap; hardly the mitre.”

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

It is, once again, Chesterton who emerges so successfully in this book. In his second contribution to The English Way, the grand Christian humanist writes about his predecessor, Thomas More. He presents More as a man of integrity and honor, a man equally capable of mirth, a “man who died laughing.” Whereas scholars divided More into the old and the young, the persecution-er and the persecuted, the writer of Utopia and the chancellor, Chesterton presents him as the complete man, a man of God. “The difference is that England exists, unlike Utopia; and this somewhat eminent Englishman wanted England to continue to exist; and especially the England that he loved.”

Why my eye and hand spotted and rediscovered The English Way just when they did, I have no idea. But, I am very glad to have been so blessed.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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3 replies to this post
  1. The Imageo Dei argument is the best arguement for “Christian” Humanism. But I think St. John Chrysostom’s paradoxes that God is knowable through prayer but completely unknowable to us as a race is a better way of putting it.

  2. The pleasures of old books. I have bought many used books still with the library card in them, and it is always enjoyable to find a good old book, but disappointing when one finds it was hardly if it all read according to the library card. Pity I always say. The editor of this book, Maisie Ward, is an interesting person herself having founded Sheed & Ward with her husband. A search at any online bookseller brings up some interesting titles, including a biography of her. I’ve several Sheed & Ward books in my library, mostly first editions of works by Christopher Dawson and Ross J. S. Hoffman. Perhaps I’ll find a good copy of this one, thanks for the review Mr. Birzer.

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