Stories of glass and stone—which told of the holy and sainted—convinced young Christopher Dawson that a saint was a saint not because of his or her individual talents, but as a continuation of the deepest longings and desires of the Church…
In 1889, when Henry Christopher Dawson entered the world, he did so with style. His family had, for generations, been aristocratic and bookish, but relatively poor. His mother gave birth to him in Hay Castle, and the stories he inherited told of how a mad woman had built it, brick by brick, in a single night in the twelfth century. Whatever Matilda of Hay had done seven hundred years earlier, Dawson came into a world dominated by his Welsh Anglican mother’s side.
His mother expected him to continue the family tradition and enter the Anglican clergy. God, it seems, had different plans.
When, the nineteen-year-old Dawson experienced a mystical vision in 1909, while visiting the Ara Coeli, he began a slow but certain path toward Roman Catholicism. In 1913, he made his intentions clear before his friends and the Church, and, a year later, he became a full-fledged Roman Catholic, much to his mother’s unending dismay and regret.
It wasn’t just the mystical vision that prompted his conversion, to be sure. His wife was Catholic as was his best friend, E.I. Watkin. As Joseph Pearce has so eloquently argued, the rush of English and Celtic Anglicans into the Catholic Church reached astoundingly high numbers during the modernist crisis of the Edwardian period. Equal or even greater numbers departed the Church of England for some form of paganism during this period as well. Dawson considered the era one of a “conflict of authorities,” one in which “the first wave of paganism… swept the country.”
To his credit, though, Dawson never bashed the Church of England, seeing it as a unique path to Christianity and one that nursed him toward what he considered fulfillment in Roman Catholicism. Indeed, he had learned too much Anglican theology and respect for Anglican holy sites to dismiss the religious traditions of his childhood. Through the stories etched in glass and stone, his mother’s Anglicanism had introduced him into a liturgical world of mysteries and majesties.
These stories of glass and stone—which told of the holy and sainted—had convinced young Dawson that a saint was a saint not because of his or her individual talents, but as a continuation of the deepest longings and desires of the Church. “The life of the Saints is not—as the eclectic student of mysticism believes—the independent achievement of a few highly gifted individuals, but the perfect manifestation of the supernatural life which exists in every individual Christian, the first fruits of that new humanity which it is the work of the Church to create.” The saint is, to be sure, an individual manifestation of grace, but the manifestation itself comes only from the One, the eternal Logos. Too many Christians had long ignored the Divine gifts bestowed by grace, thus diminishing not only themselves but those around them—those they honored from the past and those they anticipated in the days to come.
Dawson came to believe that just as the individual becomes more fully (not less) himself through Christian grace, so too with the past. The past has more meaning when sanctified by the mysteries of grace, and even the pagan becomes greater in the light of Christian truth. His mother had since his earliest infancy taught him of the great Celtic demi-god, Bran the Blessed, who had willingly sacrificed himself for Christ, though a resident of the pagan pantheon. By destroying the other pagan gods and demigods, the demigod Bran became “the bridge” (that is, the priest) that allowed the Holy Families of Wales—so critical to the Arthurian legends—to cross the Lodestone river and spread Christianity to the Celts.
If Dawson’s mother had introduced him to the world of myth and religion, his father—a professional officer and explorer in the British army—taught him to love duty and to love those who love duty above any utilitarianism, nationalism, or chauvinism. A man, properly understood and defined, fights only for eternal things, for the good, the true, and the beautiful. The true man knows what is ephemeral and what is permanent. As Dawson believed, his father represented best “the tradition of disinterested public service and devotion to duty which was in many respects opposed to the spirit of the age as expressed in the utilitarian philosophy and the practice of economic individualism.” As soon as he retired from the army, he indulged himself in one of his greatest passions, his reading. “I do not think I have ever known anyone who had more catholic tastes, for he was equally interested in modern science and ancient philosophy, medieval mysticism and modern history, Victorian novels and classical poetry,” Dawson recorded of his father. Most importantly, though, his father loved Dante above all other writers in world history. “His admiration for Dante had no limits, he rated him far above Shakespeare and Milton as the world’s one perfect poet,” Dawson recorded in his never-completed autobiography. “This love of Dante no doubt stimulated his interest in Catholicism and helped to dispel the Protestant prejudices of his upbringing. It was certainly by Dante that he had come to know St. Thomas.” That his father never became Roman Catholic always perplexed Dawson, but he believed his father had remained in the Church of England to honor his own father.
From each of his parents, though, Dawson learned to love fairy and myth. “Thanks to my parents, I learned the essential connection between story and history, so that I came to know the past not so much by the arid path of the Child’s History of England, as through the enchanted world of myth and legend.” His parents gave him, he believed, an understanding that one must never look at history as merely a “flat expanse in time, measured off by dates.” Instead, as the saint was an individual manifestation of a universal truth, so, too, was history the record of God’s grace. An era, Dawson believed, could not be defined by dates but rather, more accurately, as a “series of different worlds and that each of them had its own spirit and form and its own riches of poetic imagination.” Try as one might, man can never rid himself of stories. If the parents do not introduce the child to Arthur, Sigurd, Peredur, Regin, Bran, and Branwen, the child will content himself “with Donald Duck or Dick Barton.”
Still, it is better to give the child the real thing, however dark, violent, or sexual. “I believe the old myths are better not only intrinsically, but because they lead further and open a door into the mind as well as into the past,” Dawson argued, sounding much like his fellow parishioner, J.R.R. Tolkien. “This was the old road which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has traveled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come.”
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