Monday, 1 September 2008

The Light Invisible

"The Light Invisible" is a collection of stories bound together by the central character of an old parish priest, a similar character to Chesterton's Father Brown in some ways except that, instead of solving crimes, he sees visions. This is Benson's first novel, and the only one he wrote whilst still an Anglican. Later in his life he came to regard it as inferior to his other works. It is certainly true that the stories are sentimental and, in particular, the very emotive treatments of the sufferings of animals and plants can jar somewhat, but I found that these mystical stories led me to think in a new way about certain aspects of my faith.

The individual story which initially made me want to write something for the Women's Guild is called "In the Convent Chapel." In this the priest visits an order of enclosed nuns and as he kneels in the chapel, he reflects on the nun whose hour it is for making intercession before the Sacrament. He begins by thinking that the contemplative life is a waste and that this woman could have been happy and useful in the world; could have been a wife and a mother instead of being locked up in "the sour life of a cloister- as loveless and desolate as the cold walls themselves." But then the priest experiences what he (and S. Theresa) call an "intellectual vision". He becomes aware that the quiet of the convent chapel is deceptive and that the praying nun and the Tabernacle are in fact a hub of activity. He attempts to describe what he means by comparing the convent chapel to the office of a great business man, a Rothschild, which, though it may not seem as bustling, is in fact at the centre of far more activity than the "small provincial shopkeeper" (to whom the secular priest compares himself) could ever dream of.

In other stories, the priest talks about a spiritual life which goes on around human beings, for the most part without their noticing. In "Consolatrix Afflictorum" we see a grief-stricken little boy consoled by Our Lady, who is visible and tangible to him, though imperceptible by anyone else. Another story describes the intervention of a tender and loving angel who does not prevent but rather oversees the death of a small child. In "Over the Gateway" the priest is granted a vision of a saint interceding for a grieving woman, uniting himself with her grief and laying it before the throne of God. The praying man is kneeling in the air, but also at a sharp angle to the ground. It nonetheless appears to the the priest that there is nothing peculiar about this man but that instead the world appears skewed.

" showed me how the world of spirits was the real world, and the world of sense comparatively unreal."

Each story in the collection contributes to this idea: that our worldly experiences are only a small part of the picture; that our sorrows and struggles are consoled and supported by the prayers of the saints. However much we are taught about the communion of saints, and although we affirm our belief in it every week in the creed, the spiritual world of the angels and saints can seem very distant to those of us who are neither visionaries nor contemplative nuns. Stories such as Benson's help us to remember that we are surrounded by the unseen and spiritual Kingdom of God, which nevertheless involves and sustains us.

Benson's priest is not suggesting that we should all be in contemplative orders. After all, if it were not for the " small provincial shopkeeper" and even, perhaps, those of us without as much as a parish "shop" to run, it is hard to see how the prayers of the conventual Rothschild would win so many souls. Instead he is reminding us that the supernatural is "more than a beautiful and symbolic fairy-story" and that we are all living and praying within the context of the community of saints.

It is very interesting, I think, to note that Benson wrote these stories around the time when he converted which,for a member of the Community of the Ressurection and the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury must have been a time of considerable stress and uncertainty. It is easy to imagine why tales of devotion to Our Lady, trust in the Sacrament and the prayers of the saints should have appealed to him then.


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  2. Sometimes a little late victorian sentimentality is just what's needed! Google books has a substantial preview available but unfortunately, for copyright reasons, neither of the stories Richeldis mentions are shown.

    (deleted the first one because I can't spell)