The English Way: Studies in English Sanctity from St. Bede to Newman
Edited by Maisie Ward,
introduction by Bradley J. Birzer.
Cluny Media, [1933] 2016.
Paperback, 366 pages, $19.

You might expect a book called The English Way: Studies in English Sanctity from Bede to Newman, compiled under the reign of King George V, to rustle through the fingers like a necklace of finely-wrought gold. You might expect serenity, monumentality, harmony: a peaceable parade of right little, tight little saints.

You might expect that, anyway, if you don’t remember much about English history. The English Way, ed. Maisie Ward, is a beautiful book; but its beauties shine amid chaos and catastrophe. Half of the holy men and women profiled here seem to have believed, with much justification, that Catholic England was on the brink of final defeat. Invasion, corruption, heresy, and persecution—every era gets at least two.

The English Way was first published in 1933. This reprint edition is a rescue mission. It needed much tighter copyediting—there are numerous typos—but I’m glad Cluny Media dug this treasure-hoard up.

The book’s rough argument is not that English Catholicism is better than any other kind. The authors of these sixteen biographical sketches go out of their way to say that every culture will have its own “way”: “a Boer way and a Zulu way.” In fact, one of the distinctive features of Catholic faith in England is its bridge to the continent, as English Catholics nourish and are nourished by their coreligionists in France, Germany, and Rome. Instead, the animating controversy of the collection is its contention that to be utterly English is to be Catholic: that the church of Guy Fawkes offers not foreign distortions but the highest expression of the national spirit. And more than that. Catholicism is the flower of Englishness because it is not solely English. Against the idea that the ruler of England could be, by right of birth, the head of Christ’s Church, these authors retort: No church is an island.

Given this mandate, Ward’s collection can’t help but be occasionally defensive. Hilaire Belloc’s portrait of St. Thomas à Becket suffers the most from its polemic. What’s more striking is how often the book is, so to speak, aggressively undefended. E. I. Watkin’s essay on the poet Richard Crashaw goes out of its way to praise the spiritual depth of Puritanism; in several places the book depicts conversion from Protestantism as an expansion rather than a rejection. Occasionally the authors dip into simplistic racialized ideas of “the genuine unalterable Englishman” and his “stock,” but this is rare—and G. K. Chesterton, characteristically, fiercely rejects such claims.

The Catholic Church depicted in this collection is easily recognizable to contemporary eyes. It’s diverse and chaotic. The sunny, geometrically abstract mysticism of Dame Julian of Norwich is immediately followed by William Langland’s carnival-jeremiad—and yet in both authors there is that unshaken faith that Divine love rules all. Their Church doesn’t seek amber preservation of the past. Novelties (from Landfranc’s elevation of the Host to Mary Ward’s dream of a women’s equivalent of the Jesuits) are presented and defended forthrightly. Yet the entire structure of the book suggests the need for an unbroken communion with the past. And the collection exemplifies the old joke, “Oh, I don’t believe in organized religion—I’m Roman Catholic.” Especially once the English Reformation gets going, the essayists don’t skimp on criticism of papal and episcopal misrule. These are obedient Catholics but never servile ones.

Of the chapters whose subjects I’d never heard of, I loved “St. Wulstan of Worcester” and “Mary Ward” best. St. Wulstan is that rare English churchman who flourished under Norman rule. He preached against the Irish slave trade, loved penance and peace and the reconciliation of sinners. He’s a recognizable type we have learned not to recognize: a lover of ornate liturgy, angelic boys whose physical beauty matches their holiness, service to God’s poor, and chastity. I was skeptical of Mary Ward because she shares a surname with the editor, but now I think every catechism class should teach her story of “galloping girls” and “Apostolic Viragoes,” of difficult vocational discernment, passionate service to women and poor children, and prison letters written in invisible ink.

She’s also one of the subjects whose story feels most necessary for our own time, as an instance of women’s solidarity within the Church. The other most-relevant chapter is Christopher Dawson’s portrait of Langland and Piers Plowman. As Dawson writes, “The tragedy of the age was that although Christianity was nominally supreme … it seemed powerless to change human life.” Every “tradinista” should read this chapter, with its depiction of revolt against the rise of capitalism—and then read Piers, a bluntly anti-egalitarian vision of the desperate poor and the corrupt rich who both were “made … for joy.”

The writing is, as always in these anthologies, mixed. Gervase Mathew, O.P. pours out exalted pseudo-Northman prose, which I adored: “the friendless sea,” “long-haired monks with painted eyelids,” “as the ceorls stood through the warm nights in summer with the linden wood shields upon their shoulders and the scramasax hafts tapping their cross-garters.” (Mathew’s serious purpose here is to suggest how culturally divided Bede’s world was—and how threatened.) Chesterton’s two contributions are below his standard. But even mediocre Chesterton-pudding offers a few plums: “For a heresy is only a fossil liberty.” M. C. D’Arcy, S.J. on Bl. John Newman is the last piece, and unfortunately the weakest: D’Arcy may be too close to Newman chronologically to see him as anything but a prisoner of his time, a rigid Victorian. (This is also the only essay which calls Catholicism “foreign”—it allows the Reformation to triumph.) I wonder if depicting Newman’s friendship with Ambrose St. John might have helped D’Arcy place him more clearly in kinship with the honored, public friendships of the English past.

Is there an “English way” of being Catholic? The people picked for these sketches are too often writers and thinkers—the biographer’s easiest prey—but even so they seem relatively uninterested in moral theology or systematizing. They prefer to linger on the beauty of God’s creation and the Church’s liturgy. (Bede had “a doctrine of number which led him to see in the world of phenomena a notation of God’s music.”) They are love-drunk, love-possessed. They are not too fussed about contemporary gender stereotypes—a surprising number of these sketches note that the holy men were “feminine.” They are tender toward sinners—even toward the unrepentant, as in Campion’s entreaties to Elizabeth I. They are at once audacious and submissive: Mary Ward is the greatest example of many here, utterly yielded up to obedience and yet bold, even cheeky. She’s iron-willed whether she’s suffering in imprisonment imposed by Catholic cardinals or scratching her name with a diamond into the window of the (Protestant) Archbishop of Canterbury.

One author suggests that acceptance of hierarchical social relationships may be one hallmark of the ‘English way.’ I’m still not convinced by this idea of national rather than individual or local ‘ways,’ but if they do exist, the acceptance of hierarchy is unlikely to be a hallmark of an ‘American way’” of Catholicism. Perhaps it is for us to exemplify what it looks like to surrender your life to Christ the Liberator. 

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.