‘Let us praise God, then, for the martyrs who are our fellow Englishmen, in heaven. These are no distant figures from stained-glass windows; they are men of our blood, sharing our common speech and our national ways of thought. Blessed Thomas More, with his hearty good humour, and his jokes on the scaffold; John Kemble, asking leave to smoke a last pipe before his execution - could they be of any race but ours? And surely, if they have not forgotten among the delights of eternity the soft outlines and the close hedgerows and the little hills of the country that gave them birth, their prayers still rise especially, among all the needs of a distracted world, for our fellow countrymen and theirs, whom error blinds or sin separates from God. It is Mary’s month; she too, while a world lies prostrate at her feet, will not forget the land that was once called her dowry. May her intercession and theirs strengthen us and give us the confidence that never loses hope; and may our separated brethren, so long sought, so patiently wooed by the divine grace, return at last to their true allegiance, and make England a shrine of martyrs and a nursery of saints once more’.
from a sermon preached at English Martyrs, Sparkhill, Birmingham, May 1924
by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
O merciful God, who, when thy Church on earth was torn apart by the ravages of sin, didst raise up men and women in England who witnessed to their faith with courage and constancy: give unto thy Church that peace which is thy will, and grant that those who have been divided on earth may be reconciled in heaven and be partakers together in the vision of thy glory; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Collect for the Feast of the English Martyrs, Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘When Easter comes, the Church delights to remind herself of that newness which is in the risen Christ. On Holy Saturday morning, a new spark must be struck from the flint, to light a new set of candles and lamps; new holy water must be blessed, and a new font; fresh cloths are spread on the altars, and the tabernacle itself, on Easter morning, is full of freshly consecrated Hosts. We are beginning all over again, making all things new. And we have a right to do so, for in the order of grace there is perpetual novelty. In the order of nature there is perpetual affectation of novelty, which never comes to anything; there is nothing new, the wise man reminds us, under the sun, however much, at the moment, things look different. Whereas in the order of grace there is no change apparent, but in truth it is a perpetual spring, inexhaustible in its fecundity.
…[I]n the life of grace, ah, if we could only see it, there is a perpetual burgeoning of new life, nor merely from one Easter to another, from one retreat to another, but with every worthy reception of the sacraments. Perpetual spring, perpetual renovation of our natures, if we could only catch the hour of grace, utilise it, make it our own. Whatever you are, and at whatever time of life you are, that possibility of spiritual renewal is with you no less surely than if you were a boy at school again, or just leaving school to make your way in life. Christ is risen; those tidings can never lose their force with age, nor be staled by repetition; Christ is risen, and life, for the Christian, is always new’.
from an Easter meditation, 1939, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
We thank thee, heavenly Father, for that thou hast delivered as from the dominion of sin and death and hast brought us unto the kingdom of thy Son: and we pray thee that, as by his death he hath recalled us to life, so by his love he may raise us to joys eternal; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Collect for Saturday in the Easter Octave, Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘Rather less than eighty years ago, a little girl stood before the rock of Massabieille, in the township of Lourdes, on the slopes of the Pyrenees. No premonition of any divine event disturbed her thoughts; she was at play with her companions, and if she took off the shoes from her feet it was only to cross the stream that lay in their path. She heard a noise, like that of a strong wind; she turned, and saw that the trees in the valley were not bowed as a strong wind must bow them. She turned back towards the rock, and a rose-bush that grew in front of it. And now she saw the rose-bush flaming with something more bright, more pure, more beautiful than fire. She saw above it the figure of a Lady; what need to describe it in detail? Wherever Christendom reaches, the helpless aspirations of Christian artists have made that figure familiar to every human eye. The Lady said no word, but she made one sign, the sign of the cross; and the little girl, taking courage, said her rosary as if to defend her from harm. Then the Vision beckoned to her to come nearer; she drew back in alarm, and it vanished. She took off her other stocking, crossed the stream, and rejoined her companions, who had seen nothing. That was all; it was only in later visits that she realised what a grace had been bestowed upon her; that she, too, was to lead a world out of its captivity; draw it after her to worship God and celebrate the glories of his Mother on that mountain. It was only many days later that the gracious Lady revealed herself by name; lifted up her eyes to heaven and said, “I am the Immaculate Conception”’.
from a homily preached in 1934 by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary didst consecrate a dwelling-place meet for thy Son: we humbly beseech thee; that we, celebrating the apparition of the same Blessed Virgin, may obtain thy healing, both in body and soul; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘[W]e make a holiday of Christmas only if we have the strength of mind to creep up the nursery stairs again, and pretend that we never came down them. And that is what we are doing when we pay our visit to the Christmas crib. We are going back to the nursery where life, supernatural life, first dawned for us; trying to recapture some breath of our own first innocence, as we look at the girl Mother, and the divine Infant, and the manger which was all the cradle he had. It is difficult, at first, to get acclimatised to its atmosphere; everything is so quiet, so secret; the world is so remote; you feel as if there were a conspiracy afoot to keep you out of it. But this is where you belong; you, too, have been born into the family of grace, and this is the cradle of it. Unto us a Child is born, to restore something of childhood, year by year, even to the most jaded, even to the most sophisticated, even to the most disillusioned of us’.
Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
Almighty God, who hast given us thy Only Begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Collect for the Mass of Christmas Day, Divine Worship: The Missal
‘The feast of our Lady’s Immaculate Conception is the promise and the earnest of Christmas Day; our salvation is already in the bud. As the first green shoot heralds the approach of spring, in a world that is frost-bound and seems dead, so in a world of great sinfulness and of utter despair that spotless conception heralds the restoration of man’s innocence. As the shoot gives unfailing promise of the flower which is to spring from it, the Immaculate Conception gives unfailing promise of the Virgin Birth. Life had come into the world again. And it grew there unmarked by human eyes. No angels sang over the hills to celebrate it; no shepherds left their shepherding to come and see; no wise men were beckoned by the stars to witness that prodigy. And yet the first Advent had begun. Our Lady, you see, is the consummation of the Old Testament; with her, the cycle of history begins anew. When God created the first Adam, he made his preparations beforehand; he fashioned a paradise ready for him to dwell in. And when he restored our nature in the second Adam, once more there was a preparation to be made beforehand. He fashioned a Paradise for the second Adam to dwell in, and that Paradise was the body and soul of our blessed Lady, immune from the taint of sin which was the legacy of Adam’s curse. It was winter still in all the world around, but in the quiet home where St Anne gave birth to her daughter, spring had begun’.
from a meditation published in The Tablet, 1939, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
O God, who in the foreknowledge of thy Son’s most precious death didst consecrate for him a dwelling-place by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: mercifully grant that she who was preserved from all defilement, may evermore pray for us, until we attain unto thee in purity of heart; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘St Thérèse was simple, God knows she was simple; and on a hasty analysis we are tempted to say it was because she was just like a child – tell me, have you ever known a child like Thérèse? No, her simplicity, too, lay in the fact that she was, as near ordinary human nature can go, integrated; she knew what she was out for, and was determined to get it. Every moment of her day was built up conscientiously, laboriously if you will, into a pattern; every action of hers was a stitch in her divine needlework, her sampler, copied from the life of Jesus Christ. Her life, so short, was so businesslike; she cut out all the frills. And the reason why it makes you and me so ashamed of ourselves isn’t really that she was young and natural and impulsive, isn’t that she was French, and had the French knack of intimacy with the supernatural, but that she knew what she was about, subordinated her whole life to a plan. She was simple because to her there was only one thing that mattered; she wasn’t being distracted from her aim all the time by trifles and scruples as we are’.
Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
O Lord Jesus Christ, who hast said, except ye become as little children ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven: grant us, we beseech thee, in meekness and lowliness of heart to follow the footsteps of blessed Thérèse thy Virgin; and so at last to come unto thine everlasting kingdom; who livest and reignest with the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘You will still, occasionally, read of Protestant fellow countrymen of ours referring to the Catholic Church in England under the contemptuous title of “the Italian Mission”. The name is meant, of course, to twit us with being foreigners, because during the penal times our priests were educated abroad... Who was the first to make it? It was made first by Archbishop Benson, father of Mgr Hugh Benson. And what was he? Archbishop of Canterbury. And why Canterbury? Why that very one-horse, dead-and-alive place on the South-Eastern? Simply because St Augustine, not being able to go on as far as London, had to wait about there for a time and so set up his See there. St Augustine, a Roman envoy sent by the Pope to convert our country to the religion of the Church of Rome. And then an Archbishop of Canterbury describes the diocese of Westminster as an Italian Mission!
Well, we were founded from Rome, and all through the Middle Ages, in spite of the nuisance of living so far away from it, we were known for our loyalty to the Roman See. In St Gregory’s time men were looking to the Church as the one abiding institution; it seemed to them that the break-up of earthly dominions and the shifting of nations which was taking place throughout Europe pointed to mere chaos ahead, unless hope lay in the Papacy. Today there is the same break-up of great dominions; the same shifting of the limits of nationality. The world has altered in its look since we learned our geography, and it has not got to the end of its alteration yet. In this new world men still look to the Catholic Church, and to Rome as the divinely-appointed centre of the Catholic Church, as the one abiding institution which will survive the new chaos. And we, without ceasing to be Angles (those of us who are Angles), will have to rally more than ever around the Holy See as the centre of our true citizenship, that Angelic community which was St Gregory’s gift to us. We ought to be praying earnestly for the Holy Father. We ought to be praying for the conversion of those who, disheartened by the failure of civilisation, are turning to the Church for guidance.
May the King of Angels bring us all to the fellowship of the heavenly citizens; to him be glory for ever and ever. Amen’.
Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
Almighty and merciful God, who didst raise up thy servant Pope Gregory to be the servant of the servants of God, and didst inspire him to send missionaries to preach the Gospel to the English people: preserve in thy Church the Catholic and Apostolic Faith they taught; that thy people, being fruitful in every good work, may receive the crown of glory that fadeth not away; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘St Ignatius, who died on the last day of July, nearly 400 years ago, was described by John Wesley “as surely one of the greatest men that ever was engaged in the support of so bad a cause”. John Wesley was exactly wrong. He thought to defend the founder of the Jesuits from the charge of enthusiasm by representing him as a cool, long-headed businessman. But an enthusiast was just what St Ignatius was. He was full of that fire which never says, “It is enough”.
Read his early history, and you find nothing there of the great organiser. All his great schemes for going out and converting the Sultan (copied from St Francis) came to nothing. All his early disciples left him: thou could a people raise, but could not rule, seemed to be his destined epitaph. In a sense, it was the enormous vagueness of his plans that saved the situation; just because he had no blueprint ready formed in his mind of what the Company of Jesus was to be like, the Company of Jesus proved to be exactly what was wanted.
If, during the last years of his life, he became the ruler of a world-wide Society, that was because he was a good enough Jesuit to accept the uncongenial task. The real charter which he left to his Society was not any set of rules. It was a set of meditations, chiefly on the following of Christ, which he composed when he was living as a hermit in the cave of Manresa. All that mattered was seeing the love of God as insatiable.
We live in times when great importance is attached to planning, and Christian people are apt to catch the infection from their surroundings. We must revise, we must reorganise, we must have a plan or we are lost! But I don’t think St Ignatius would encourage us to echo that cry. Rather, he would find fault with our half-heartedness - ready to believe, to do, to spend just so much and no more. But the fire never has enough’.
Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest, to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward; except that of knowing that we do thy will. Amen. - St Ignatius of Loyola, 1491-1556
‘Today it is quite a common thing to be able to say, in literal fact, that you have given your blood for somebody else. As it is, we have grown accustomed to a more violent, and, some would say, a less gracious metaphor. St John, at the beginning of his Apocalypse, refers to our Lord as one “who has proved his love for us by washing us clean from our sins in his own blood”.
It is not surprising that the Christianity of the Reformation, with its strong insistence on the doctrine of the Atonement, should have fastened on that language and made it familiar to us. For us Catholics, the Precious Blood is proposed as a special subject of meditation during this month of July, and for us, too, the same symbolism does duty. Read a Catholic poet like Crashaw, and you will find him referring to “that blood, whose least drops sovereign be To wash my worlds of sin from me”. Read an Evangelical poet like Cowper, and you will find him preaching the same doctrine; “The dying thief rejoiced to see That fountain in his day, And there may I, as vile as he, Wash all my sins away”. St John’s metaphor has become a commonplace of Christian devotion.
Do you still find it crude, over-strained, unacceptable? Be it so, we are not tied to any particular form of imagery which the piety of a past age has bequeathed to us. Only, in this month of July, we do well to remember the bitter Passion of our Lord, and that giving of his life-blood which sealed it, and seals us through it. A price was paid to redeem you (St Paul says); and because the price paid was so high, because the world itself was not worthy of such a ransom, we must go on reiterating, blindly and uncomprehendingly, our gratitude. Moreover, because the price paid for us was so high, no price can be too high which is demanded of us by our loyalty to Christ, though it should be death itself. To be always generous with God, to go on and on giving him of our best in spite of weariness and disillusionment, to despise soft options, and interpret our duty in terms of love, not in terms of mere justice, to be ready if we might to give him more than he asks of us, ready if that were possible to give him more than he deserves of us - that is the meaning of our devotion to the Precious Blood; may his grace make us worthy of it’.
from a sermon preached at the Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Thomas More, Chelsea, 1956
Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
‘St Thomas More had no lack of plausible excuses if he had wanted to avoid the crown of martyrdom; no lack of sincere people who urged him to take refuge in them. Never, I suppose, was man so tempted both by friends and foes to abandon his purpose. His own wife, his own daughter took the part of his enemies, and entered into a loving conspiracy to save him from himself. But to friend and foe alike he opposed the impenetrable wall of his good-natured banter.
You see, he realised, long before other men of his time, that what stood before England was a complete parting of the ways. He saw that, in the conditions of his time, you must needs throw in your lot either with the old faith or with the heresies that were beginning to spring up all over Europe; that a nation which defied the authority of the Pope, although it might do so merely in the name of national independence, would be forced, sooner or later, into the camp of the heretic.
It is amazing to us, looking back upon all the intervening centuries have brought, that so many good men of that age – men who were afterwards confessors for the faith – were hoodwinked for the moment into following the King when he incurred the guilt of schism. But perhaps if were could think ourselves back rather more successfully into the conditions of the time, we should pardon them the more readily; and for that reason we should feel even greater admiration for the few men who, like our martyr, were wise enough to see what was happening. It was a time of national crisis, a time of intellectual ferment. There were only a few people who kept their heads, and those few who kept their heads lost their heads, like St Thomas More.
Let us thank God’s mercy for giving us the example and the protection of a great Saint, our own fellow-countryman, who knew how to absorb all that was best in the restless culture of his day, yet knew at once, when the time came, that he must make a stand here; that he must give no quarter to the modern world here. His remembrance has long been secure in the praise of posterity; it only remained for us to be assured by the infallible voice of the Church, what we could not doubt already, that he is with our Blessed Lady and the Saints in heaven. He knows our modern needs, let us turn to him in our modern troubles; his prayers will not be lacking for the great country he loved so, for the great city in which he lived and died.
Let us praise God, then, for our English martyrs, Thomas More and John Fisher and the Charterhouse monks, and, from Blessed Cuthbert Mayne onward, the long line of proscribed and hunted priests. Men of our blood, they have left sayings which ring more familiarly to us than the translated pieties of the Continent; men of our latter-day civilisation, they stand with more of human personality than the mist-wreathed heroes of the medieval world. And surely, if they have not forgotten among those delights of the eternity the soft outlines and the close hedgerows and the little hills of the island that gave them birth; if in contemplating the open face of God, they have not ceased to take thought for the well-loved kingdom that exiled and disowned them, the patiently evangelised people that condemned and hurried them to the gallows, their prayers still rise especially, among all the needs of a distracted world, for the souls we love whom error blinds or sin separates from God’.
from Captive Flames, 1940, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
‘The Church describes the heart of her Incarnate Lord as a treasure-house of all wisdom and knowledge. Most evidently, the popular devotion which tinges our prayer during the month of June is a devotion to the whole of our Lord's sacred humanity, not to one single part or aspect of it. That we should treat the Sacred Heart as the symbol of his emotional nature is not surprising. The language of lovers has claimed the heart for its symbol ever since the Middle Ages, and we have learned, in consequence, to treat it as the centre of the feelings, relegating the intellect to the head. The “heart-work” which John Wesley was for ever vindicating against its critics was precisely the enlistment of the emotions in the service of religion.
But from the beginning it was not so. To the Hebrews, as to the Romans, the heart was the seat of the intellect; “My son, give me thy heart” is only an appeal for the pupil’s attention, and the “largeness of heart” granted to King Solomon was wisdom, not sensibility. This habit of speech is found in the New Testament as in the Old; nor is the distinction between heart and head observed in the liturgy, where cor and mens seem be to almost interchangeable. Have we a right to limit the range of the Sacred Heart by making it a symbol of our Lord's human tenderness, nothing else?
It is well that the sinner should find pardon, the mourner comfort, in the source from which pardon came to the Magdalen, comfort to the widow of Naim. But there are other burdens that may be cast, if we will, on those patient shoulders. There is (for example) a kind of intellectual fatigue which overtakes us when we are introduced to the daring speculations of modern science; we cannot understand the very terms of them. Well, here is the effigy of that Heart which is the treasure-house of all wisdom and all knowledge. We have found a fresh avenue of approach; “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee”’.
from Lightning Meditations, 1959, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
‘The word “Comforter”, used in earlier versions of the Bible to describe the office of the Holy Spirit, has changes its meaning. In doing so, it has given us a false picture, at the back of our minds, about the switch-over from Ascension Day to Whitsunday. We think of the Apostles as bereaved of their Master and needing consolation; we almost think of it, heaven help us, a pis aller. That is not what our Lord says. “It is better for you that I should go away; he who is to befriend you will not come to you unless I do go; but if only I make my way there, I will send him to you”. The Ascension is represented as a means to an end; the end, eminently desirable, is the comforting or strengthening of the Apostles to fulfil their world-mission. Consolation does not enter into the picture at all.
In reality, we ought not to think of Ascension Day and Whitsunday as two separate feasts celebrating two separate events. Only one event is in question, the sending of a Divine embassy and its successful accomplishment, with an interval of nine days' prayer, the first and greatest of all novenas.
Why must our Lord be taken up before the Holy Spirit can come down? It is not for us to ask: we only know it was part of the Divine plan. Was? Or is? In this world of probation, God does not want things to be made too easy for us; we are not to be spoon-fed. The disciples must be weaned away from their dependence upon the visible, tangible presence of their Master, must learn to stand, Spirit-filled, on their own feet. And we, when prayer seems difficult, are not to conclude that God has taken away his Holy Spirit from us. Rather, our Lord has gone away so as to send the Holy Spirit to us, insensibly present, yet life-giving. And even, on a more human plane, when we lose those we loved - is it possible we are being comforted?'
from Lightning Meditations, 1959, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
O God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts of thy people by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit:
grant to us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
6th Century, translated by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
‘Every year... there is a happy coincidence between nature and grace. The resurrection of the year silently makes itself felt just when our minds are full of Resurrection; new life springs from the dead stock of an earlier growth, and when St Augustine salutes the newly baptised as the “fresh buds” of Christendom, you picture him as looking out of the window and pointing to the trees. And then the scruple assails us: Can it really be a coincidence, this harnessing of April and May to the symbolism of Easter-tide? Or did the whole Christian tradition spring out of some nature-myth, and was the story of the Resurrection, like the story of Adonis, only the reflection of a human mood, transposed into a divine setting?
A doubt which might be plausible, if it were to be imagined that the Resurrection took place in England. But the synchronisation is all wrong; in Palestine the fig-trees were so fully in leaf by Holy Week that you might affect to look for fruit on them; in Palestine they celebrated their harvest-home at Pentecost, just when we are beginning to despair of the hay. No, whatever theories the anthropologists may propose to us, they cannot rob us of this comforting illusion about spring-tide and Easter-tide; it was, after all, a coincidence. Or perhaps a special providence, designed for the benefit of unimaginative Northerners like ourselves.
No, in the spiritual as in the natural world there is recurrence, there is revival. The fields which looked as if they must for ever remain dingy and browned-off, the trees that seemed to be all dead wood, were the fitting symbols of our unjustified despair. When we renewed our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil, it was not mere make-believe, we were catching at a fresh opportunity of grace, just when nature itself echoed the conviction we were trying to capture, “Behold, I make all things new”. For the elderly, for the disillusioned, there is something auspicious about the slow coming of spring, and its sudden recovery’.
from Lightning Meditations, 1959, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
‘It has become a tradition with many of us to give up something during Lent. That, surely, is what “fasting” means? And if, for one reason or another, the holy season finds our breakfast-tables no less generously spread than they were wont to be, we make compensation for it by doing without some little daily luxury. The effect of this is to produce a gratifying sense of irritation; such is our human make-up that the grasshopper can become a burden, and a deliberate abstention, though it be only from sweets or the cinema, pricks like a hairshirt. Which is why the forty days of Lent seem to pass so slowly; will it never be Easter Day? And no doubt it is good for us.
Only, in a curious way, this impression Lent makes on us is the exact opposite of what the Church intends. Lent ought to pass like a flash, with a sense of desperate hurry. Good Heavens! The second Sunday already and so little to show for it! Lent is the sacramental expression of the brief life we spend here, a life of probation, without a moment in it we can afford to waste. That is why it begins with St Paul's metaphor of an ambassador delivering an ultimatum; we have only a few “days of grace” to make our peace with God. Ash Wednesday recalls our ignominious, earthy origins, Easter looks forward to our eternity. The space between is not, if we look at it properly, a sluggish declension; it is a mill-race.
Which is why, saving the better judgement of the Church, I always encourage my friends, when Lent comes round, not to do without something but to get something done. For many of us, it would be something if that pile of unanswered letters on the writing-table - with all the background of disappointment, distress and inconvenience - could disappear by the time Easter comes. The manuscript we promised to read, the aunts we promised to visit - if only we could cheat ourselves into the feeling that these forty days were our last chance, how quickly they would run their course!’
from Lightning Meditations, 1959, by Mgr Ronald Knox, 1888-1957
Fr Lee Kenyon
A Treasure to be Shared
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