“When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal, corrected ‘I believe’ to ‘one does feel.’” So spoke Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) even before he converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism. His satire was directed at those who would water down doctrine to mere opinion. That confused kind of thinking, often masked as “broadmindedness” or “liberalism,” was what Blessed John Henry Newman said he had spent his life contending against. The two of them logically led up to Pope Benedict XVI who has called such misunderstanding and abuse of truth the “dictatorship of relativism.”
When people inquire about good spiritual reading, I eagerly recommend anything by Knox, especially his collected sermons and retreat addresses, which are easily available. He is unique in his style, which is both easily understood and deceptively profound, woven with shining wit. As a young man he was heralded as the wittiest man in England. From the depths of his Christian consciousness, he said, “Only man has dignity; only man, therefore, can be funny.” Most of his writing was pastoral: some for students at Oxford where he was Catholic chaplain, some preached in parishes or on ceremonial occasions, and some given as talks to schoolgirls during World War II. He was a genius as a classical scholar and translated the entire New Testament. He may well have been the finest preacher of the twentieth century; he almost always has some original insight and expresses himself artlessly as a supreme artist of English letters. He was popular on radio, and incidentally wrote entertaining literary criticism and detective novels. There is an admiring biography of him by Evelyn Waugh, who lacked a natural instinct for seeing the best in people, and a book about him and his remarkable brothers, gifted in their own spheres, was written in 1977 by his niece Penelope Fitzgerald.
While more reserved than G. K. Chesterton, they were close friends, and what Knox preached in Westminster Cathedral after the death of his hero in 1936 describes himself, too: “He had the artist’s eye which could suddenly see in some quite familiar object a new value; he had the poet’s intuition which could suddenly detect, in the tritest of phrases, a wealth of new meaning and of possibilities. The most salient quality, I think, of his writing is this gift of illuminating the ordinary, of finding in something trivial a type of the eternal.”
One reason I mention Knox is that he represents the vast wealth of spiritual brilliance which has been neglected in the last generation. The light of those like Knox should not be hid under a bushel, but placed on a lampstand where it can give light to the whole house, and that means every parish church, which is God’s own house.