Spiritual reading your cup of tea? Try the great Ronald Knox

Ronald Knox as Spiritual MasterBy David Deavel|October 4th, 2021|

He addresses us where we are in ordinary life.His sermons and pastoral writings have lived on quite well, for he was a master of profound but ordinary Christian spirituality. 

The Belief of Catholics, his comprehensive apologetic text, is published by Ignatius Press, as are a number of other classic works like The Hidden StreamIn Soft GarmentsA Retreat for Lay People, Knox’s wonderful translation of Thomas A Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, and a one-volume edition of Knox’s Pastoral and Occasional Sermons

The Belief of Catholics, in particular, is one volume that has played a large role in a number of contemporary conversions to Catholicism, including that of a friend who was a former Methodist minister.

 The Mass in Slow Motion and The Creed in Slow Motion, originally given as talks to schoolgirls, keep repaying examination. I know one director of religious education at a parish who uses pages from these books to teach both children and adults.

While some of Knox’s books are difficult to read because of the classical learning in them, the prose is clear as crystal and still readable today. His apologetics and sermons, moreover, are written without the heavy adornment of Latin and Greek.

Knox spoke to the ordinary Catholic in a way that informed him, but did not overwhelm him; spoke to him without speaking down to him; and aided him on the Christian pilgrimage as a friend who spoke of things he knew about from experience.

Rather than seeing Knox as a time-bound figure from an unrecoverable past, I see him as one who spoke of eternal things in a way that was perhaps more popular in his day, but no less profound in our own. . . . 

What is greatest about Knox, in my view, is his spiritual writing. It is here that the wisdom and the timelessness of Knox are to be found, a wisdom that I believe should be shared with Catholic parishes but also non-Catholic Christians who will recognize a preacher who is careful and sometimes clever, but who always puts the emphasis on substance over showiness. . . . 

Knox’s retreat addresses—in A Retreat for Beginners, A Retreat for Priests, and A Retreat for Lay People are indeed quiet and perhaps didactic, but they sparkle all the same if one gives them room. In “Alive to God,” one of the conferences given in A Retreat for Laypeople, Knox talks about practicing the “presence of God.”

The thought of God is not one which can satisfactorily occupy the central focus of the mind. When we try to think about him, our intellect beats about the bush, takes refuge in inferences and analogies; the thought itself escapes us.

Insofar as we try to make God the direct object of our attention we are always, aren’t we, in reality trying to substitute an inferior image in place of him. We think of him as a King, but he doesn’t really wear a gold crown; we think of him as up in the air, but he isn’t really up in the air more than anywhere else. 

Being alive to God means something a little more complicated; it means that the thought of God is at the very apex of our unconscious minds all the time, overflowing all the time into our conscious thoughts, our conscious acts.

It is like a taste in the mouth, a perfume in the nostrils, that conditions for the time being the whole of your experience, without your noticing that it is there.

Not God in the very center of the picture; that is not possible in this life, even for the Saints; but God only just out of the very center of the picture so that he dominates the grouping of the whole. Alive to God, every thought of yours haunted—let us not be afraid to use that word for it—haunted by the Divine Presence.

This is vintage Knox, dispelling the illusions and disappointments that will follow from believing that we can experience in our consciousness and our emotional lives the fullness of heaven here on earth. Knox is superb at dispelling the illusions we have about what seeking God is and how we experience it.

In his sermon “A Better Country,” he addresses very well the one who has been at faith for a while and feels at a standstill—how is it that we feel so dry and languishing, how is it that we don’t seem to make much progress?

It is natural, it is right that we should sometimes ask ourselves these questions, but I think it is a mistake to be always feeling one’s own pulse, always watching one’s own symptoms. Let us be content, instead, to think of the Blessed Sacrament not as the medicine but as the food of our souls; acting on us as material food does, without our knowing it, yet all the time sufficing for the day’s needs, carrying us along on our journey, though we seem to make such a weary business of it, dragging foot after foot. The invalid who refuses food because it has so little relish for him becomes a worse invalid yet.

That word “refuses” gets at the heart of what is so often wrong. “The trouble, you know, about you and me,” he writes, “is not that we aren’t saints, but that we don’t want to be saints.” The reason we don’t really want to be saints is so often because we don’t treat the unseen reality as more real than what we can see. Knox points out that Jesus’ analogies don’t say that the Church is like a vine or divine life is like water, but instead “treats all the earthly things with which we are familiar in this world of sense as if they were mere shadows, mere inferior copies of the reality which awaits us in heaven.” Knox consistently wants us to have faith in the unseen so that it may transform our behavior in the seen world.

The products that we want in ourselves are quantifiable things—tears, feelings, and other reactions. Yet, Knox reminds us:

All those feelings of ours are a mere echo, a mere by-product of divine grace; they are no more to be confused with grace itself than the humming of the wheels is to be confused with the work the machine is doing. The growth of grace in us through holy communion is something as secret, as silent, as the restoration of tissues which natural food brings to our bodies. Only over a long space of time, as a rule, can the effects of it be observed; and even then, probably, not by ourselves.

There is something gentle yet hard-edged here—Knox encourages us not to be taken in by desires to experience the effects of God’s grace; we should instead want to experience God. And as it is in the small arenas of our lives, so it is as we experience the large things of society and life.

In a 1952 sermon “On Divine Providence,” Knox observes, “The cry of the saints, ‘How long?’, goes unanswered; and some of us will find their faith endangered by that subtle unexpressed wish we all have to be on the winning side—the faith isn’t always on the winning side.” Yet we have to understand that it is God who will provide for all our needs. Saints don’t get overly concerned about the outcomes of this world since “for the saint, you see, the essential facts are those of the next world, rather than those of this. God, your soul, eternity, sin, judgment, those are the essential facts; and the simplicity of the saints is to distinguish those facts all the time, without effort, from the unessential facts that do not matter, although human vanity and snobbishness and worldliness think they do.”

Knox understood that suffering and dying was the way in which Jesus came to us, that Providence works through our weakness and our failures, and that it could work even better if we gave up on the illusions that we could do better if we were in some other situation or were somebody else. If we were to calmly accept our failures, both our frailties and our sins, we could make so much more progress. We too often excuse our own failures by “running around in circles and complaining that the world is treating [us] badly” when we should be “taking things as [we] find them, making the best of things, as we find them.” This is the humility we need. Instead, too often, we misjudge ourselves and forget that “we shall be judged, not by what we might have done if we had been somebody different, but by what we did, being what we were.”

When we do take our sins seriously, we too often get angry. Says Knox, “[T]hat never did anybody any good.” We are not to be surprised or dismayed by our sins, for as Knox puts it so well: “God doesn’t want us to feel humiliated, he wants us to feel humbled. And that’s a very different thing.”

What we need to pray for, says Knox, is grace in the moment of our needs. And that is a very simple thing. In a sermon titled “Sins of the Tongue,” Knox advises us to remember that what we often need to ask God for is “the grace to shut up.”

“The grace to shut up.” This is about as wild and flowery as Knox gets. His preaching is not the sort of verbal fireworks show that will wow you. It is the sort of thing that is utterly useful to one attempting to live Christian life. In his introduction to the Occasional Sermons, Philip Caraman observes that in all Knox’s preaching, “There is always a sternly practical core in what he says.” But, says Caraman, Knox preaches not at “you” but to “we.” And this “‘we’ of his sermons is not the cliché of the orator; it is the unobtrusive link binding priest to people. When he gives an admonition he makes no distinction between himself and his hearers.”

People often ask me about “spiritual reading.” I recommend Monsignor Knox. He gives us no visions or holy weirdness, which are themselves not necessary. Instead, he addresses us where we are in ordinary life. Read those retreats or those Pastoral and Occasional Sermons. I think you will find what I have. It is the same thing that Fr. Thomas Corbishley wrote about him in his little book, Ronald Knox, The Priest: “No one who listened to him as he preached could doubt that here was a man who was setting out an ideal not just for his listeners, but for himself. His capacity for affecting others, by probing into the secret places where we try to hide from ourselves, arose from his own self-knowledge, from his own genuine humility. His effectiveness as a preacher came in the end, not from his skill in language but from his knowledge of the human heart.”
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The Imaginative Conservative [from which this it taken] applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. 
Source:  Imaginative Conservative Thursday, Oct 14 2021.

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