Short n sweet: Read this book. It’s a quick read. If you’re Catholic, it will stir you in some ways (and if you’re familiar with the old liturgy, even more so) and dismay you in others. If you’re not Catholic, it will give you a glimpse into how the Church thinks even if, as is most likely and is the attitude of most of the people in the book, you end up thinking it crazy.
It is not for nothing that both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis admire this book. It is hard not to think of Benedict when reading about the Pope John of the first half – ancient, calm, clear, saintly and unbending on those things that cannot bend. Probably Francis wants that too, it’s just clearer with Benedict, who happens to look the part.
Lord of the World was written by Robert Hugh Benson in 1907 as a response (or so Wikipedia says) to the utopias of H.G. Wells. Seems Benson, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury who ordained him an Anglican priest and who nonetheless converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest, didn’t think that Roddenberry’s – oops, Wells’ – world of eugenics, euthanasia, atheism, communism and marriage as an easily voided contract would ultimately make people happy. Go figure.
The main speculative point upon which the story hangs and derives much of its power is the assumption that it all works – that, by eschewing God, family, individual rights and life itself in favor of a great brotherhood of Man in which individuals are subsumed as cells in a body, that the world obtains prosperity, peace and a happiness that, while not exceeding understanding, is pretty darn good. Benson’s point is that it is not in the failures of a materialist Communist utopia that the real evil lies, but in its successes. He was free to imagine this, as it had not been tried and found murderous and miserable – yet, in 1907.
It is always so nice to read English authors from the turn of the last century. Their command of English and elegance of expression is so often a pleasure, even when, as is the case with Wells, it’s snake oil they are selling. Benson doesn’t disappoint – it is often a beautiful book to read. One other impressive thing he does is write about the interior, spiritual lives of his characters, often at some length, describing the strictly indescribable without derailing the story.
Fr. Percy Franklin is a young priest in London in something like the 1990’s – 80+ years after the date the book was written. Fr. Franklin is intelligent, reverent and striking looking – his hair is completely white even though he’s ‘not more than 35’ years old. His duties are to write a daily report to his superior, the Cardinal-Protector of England in Rome. Things have gotten bad enough, and Church shrunken small enough, that the Pope has appointed Cardinal-Protectors to all the major areas of the globe. Their field agents are sharp-eyed and intelligent priests such as Fr. Franklin.
Oliver Brand is a member of the British government representing Croydon. As a charming, attractive and articulate man, he serves by giving speeches that promote the government’s positions while mocking his opponents into silence. He’s very good at it, and enjoys and is proud of his work. He lives with Mabel, his young and beautiful wife, and his mother in a house just outside London.
The story is told largely through the adventures, after a brief encounter, of Fr. Percy, Oliver and Mabel as the world unwinds around them. The world has fallen to communism, materialism, atheism and a general contempt for all things Christian. The Americas form one sphere or empire, Europe and Africa another, and the East a third. Peace and prosperity reign, with marvels such as high-speed trains and highways to everywhere and volors, which sound like Zeppelin/LMH-1 airships, by which easy and convenient world travel is possible. Prisons have been reformed to be more humane, the death penalty forbidden, and euthanasia stations established so no one need suffer either physically or psychologically.
In a desperate move, Rome negotiated the surrender of almost all local church property in exchange for the Pope’s sovereignty over Rome itself. Pope John then rejects most of the new technology in favor of a renewed search for holiness. Catholics from around the world move to Rome and its suburbs in order to be near the last bastion of Catholicism in the world and share in its life. The descendents of the royal families of Europe, laid low by the new governments, regain their Catholicism as they lose their temporal powers – they know themselves to be kings by the grace of God, and having lost their temporal kingdoms does not change that. Powerless earthly royalty surrounds Rome.
In defiance of the world, the Pope reestablishes capital punishment, on the grounds that, while life is sacred, it is not the most important thing, and those more important things can be defended unto death. Rome is a smelly anarchy – except it isn’t. It is a nursery of holiness.
When the story opens, England and all of Europe are anxiously awaiting news from the East. No wars have broken out in many decades, but perceptive observers know that, once the East has measured its own strength, that Europe could not hope to stand against it. Their only hope is that, somehow, the East might restrain itself or be restrained.
As tensions in the West mount over the threat of the East, an amazing figure appears from out of America – the mysterious Julian Felsenburgh. (1) Felsenburgh stops war and the rumors of war by sheer strength of personality, it seems. He goes East, gives speeches and holds meetings to each in his own language, and the impossible is achieved: peace not only among the three Great Powers, but among the ancient rivals of the East.
Spoilers after the break. Stop here if you have not read the book, and go read it!
- Had to run that through an anagram generator, as Julian Felsenburgh is hardly a name, let alone an American name, one would readily come up with. Best so far: SHEEN FULL ABJURING. Yep, I bet Archbishop Fulton would be throwing down quite some full abjuring at the Antichrist!
This is a story about the Apocalypse, imagining how it would look in the modern world. Bensen pays careful attention to showing how, under the reign of the Antichrist, everything is a mockery of Christianity. The peace and brotherhood under Felsenburgh are masks for brutality and death; the spirit by which he creates it is a sham Pentecost, complete with the Speaking in Tongues from Acts, whereby everybody hears the story in his own language. The brave new world celebrates liturgies that parallel the Mass, except they end up glorifying Man as God, instead of God Incarnate.
Benson is more subtle and insightful than to leave it at a mere physical or even conscious level. In the opening parts of the novel, Fr. Percy performs spiritual exercises to enable mental and contemplative prayer, where he strips away all thought and desire until he experiences his own will surrendering to God; Mabel performs nearly the same exercises only to end up surrendering her will the the Will of Humanity considered collectively, in which her own personality disappears within the Whole – at least, that’s what she believes. Further, the coming of Felsenburgh has a near-magical effect on almost everyone. People fall silent in his present, weep for joy, and find themselves willing to die for him. No one can remember exactly what he said, only that they agree entirely with it.Only Fr. Percy, by an iron act of will, resists falling under Felsenburgh’s influence.
Just as comparative religion focuses on the superficial similarities of what are, at their roots, profoundly different fundamental beliefs, the followers of Felsenburgh think they are seeing the logical and pure realization of all that was ever good in Christianity as they joyously commit themselves to worshipping the Devil and engage in increasingly insane acts of barbarity. Benson has the new world order use Christian language and symbols and even Scripture to frame up what it is doing.
The elite fall especially hard. Shades of Nazi Germany (or Fichte’s Germany, for that matter), where the professional classes fell hard and first for Fascism. Oliver has no doubts whatsoever that Felsenburgh represents the much longed for expression of humanity’s godhead, a manifestation which makes complete sense to him, somehow, as reasonable and even logical. Benson’s exposure of the irrational – in fact, anti-rational – nature of worshippers of Progress is wonderful. Hegel at least attributed the purposefulness of progress to a Divine Spirit; Marx does away with anything that could possibly have purpose, and indeed denies that there is a purpose – he’s a materialist, after all – while maintaining a complete faith that, somehow, we are going someplace in particular and better – inevitably. Thus, Oliver is both completely convinced that he is logical and rational and has rejected superstition and faith, and yet, at the same time, completely sure that, somehow, Humanity has produced for itself a Savior and God in the form of Felsenburgh.
Mabel, who doubts her own rationality – at least, in the face of the growing horrors performed in the name of Humanity – is, in fact, the one clear and logical thinker we see outside the Church. She, faced with agreeing with her husband’s logic and living with horror, or facing reality, chooses to kill herself in one of the ubiquitous and ‘compassionate’ euthanasia facilities. If the logic of Felsenburgh and Oliver leads to the brutal murder of harmless people and the extermination of all believers, she chooses, not to reject that logic, but to decide she can’t live with it.
Never does the Devil use brutal language; always, atrocities are committed in the name of defending the newborn god Humanity. When Rome, the Pope and all his Cardinals save 3 are bombed into extinction – along with the last traces of royalty – it is attributed to a regrettable but understandable excess of righteous zeal. Same goes for the lynchings of Catholics and the burning of their churches. Whatever the people may feel and do, the elite frame it up as ultimately forgivable – and do nothing to stop it.
Finally, the Pope – Fr. Percy, by a strange set of circumstances – and all the Princes of the Church are discovered in Nazareth by means of a betrayal. The final parallels are played out. Pope Sylvester – Fr. Percy – is the spitting image of Felsenburgh; the bombers arrive at Nazareth just as the assembled Church is finishing Pentecost Mass and heading out in Eucharist Procession. Just as Felsenburgh starts his ‘church’ by means of a miracle of tongues – he is credited with being the master linguist, as he seems to address everyone all over the world in his own language – the Church arrives at the Second Coming on that feast of the founding of the True Church. Jesus, in the Host and in the Pope and in his Church, head out to meet His end after the Last Supper
The Lord of the World is a strange and beautiful book. Beson’s attention to the interior life of his characters could easily bog things down, but does not. Instead, these digressions are among the most interesting aspects of the book. Of course, Benson’s prescience is going to attract the most attention, and it is impressive. One scene in particular springs to mind: Mabel, once she sees what the new order has come to, goes to a former priest to ask what it is that Catholics truly believe. While she’s certain Christianity is the source of all unhappiness and the stumbling block of Progress, she has no idea what the Church teaches – almost everything the fallen-away priest tells her is a surprise. And that is the state of things: we are now at the point where many Catholics cannot say what the Church teaches, let alone those who hate Her. Yet their hatred is complete. Mabel is only unusual in that she asked and listened to the answers.