Saturday, February 4, 2023

Lessons from The King's Achievement

 The assault was not going to stop at matters of discipline; it was dogma that was aimed at, and, worse even than that, the foundation on which dogma rested. It was not an affair of Religious Houses, or even of morality; there was concerned the very Rock itself on which Christendom based all faith and morals.

To whom are you faithful? 

This was perhaps one of the most critical questions facing the English people in the years of King Henry VIII’s reign—the period of the English Reformation. When remaining faithful to the Catholic Church could cost you your head, should you pledge your allegiance to the King’s new church? 

In 1904 Father Robert Hugh Benson wrote The King’s Achievement, a historical novel that follows the lives of the Torridon family. Two brothers, Ralph and Chris, represent two contrasting paths. Ralph—of the world—works for Lord Cromwell. Meanwhile, Chris—of the spirit—enters a monastery and becomes a priest. As the persecution against the Catholic Church heightens and monasteries are attacked, Ralph becomes the antagonist who leads an attack against Chris’s monastery.

A family grieves the brother whose soul seems lost. Ralph pursues worldly success while courting the lovely Beatrice, who is a fervent Catholic, but will devotion to Lord Cromwell sabotage his burgeoning love? Can Ralph continue to justify his actions, even as he befriends and comes to respect the great Thomas More? Chris’s turbulent emotions toward his wayward brother threaten his own spiritual peace—can he learn to be in the world but not of it? And can he save his brother even while Chris’s resistance to the King’s orders places his own life in danger? 

Benson does a remarkable job of bringing this era of English history to life, especially in illuminating the horrific, completely destructive persecution against the Catholic monasteries. Many monks gave their lives as martyrs. Many monasteries were looted, robbed, and destroyed. Peaceable religious men and women who had quietly carried on valuable spiritual work within the walls of these monasteries and convents suddenly found themselves on the street, nearly penniless and, objectively speaking, vocationless. 

Peterborough Abbey, Benedictine monastery dissolved November 29, 1539

The methodical tearing apart of the Catholic Church in England is concerning in its familiarity to some of the tendencies one could observe in our own world today. The Catholic faithful of the 1530s, many of whom were not fully catechized, did not know what to believe. King Henry and his clergy expressed persuasive arguments that quickly led people astray. Then these same men criticized, condemned, and silenced those who dared defend the truth of the Catholic Church. 

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

There are so many excellent aspects to this historical novel. Benson brings alive the personalities of St. Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and Lord Cromwell. Also, I truly enjoyed the family dynamics of the Torridon family. It’s sobering how two brothers, raised by the same parents in the same household, could veer along such completely opposite paths. At one point in the novel, Benson describes Ralph and Chris walking along with their father, just feet apart from each other, but an impassable gulf exists between them. Anyone who has experienced conflict within one’s familial relationships can relate to that sensation of heartbreaking distance among people of shared blood. 

Chris’s spiritual journey is very fulfilling, especially as he overcomes his inner struggles. Within his monastery, Chris detaches himself from everything and everyone in the outside world. As the plot progresses though, Chris begins to realize that, while leaving the world behind, he still needs to be mystically one with that same world. 

“Neither a life in the world would have done it, nor one in the peace of the cloister; but an alternation of the two. He had been melted by the fire of the inner life, and braced by the external bitterness of adversity.”

I will say that there are a few aspects of the plot that I found disappointing. While Benson does a superb job creating suspenseful scenes, sometimes those moments lose their punch: in two specific instances, when Chris finds himself in particularly dangerous circumstances and the stakes are high, the resolution to the conflict is quite anticlimactic. As for the romantic plot of the book, I questioned why the highly intelligent and deeply faithful Beatrice would be attracted to Ralph. However, I became most concerned by one of the major take-aways of the novel, namely that one should practice loyalty for loyalty’s sake. Faithfulness to something—or someone—bad is not a virtue and I cannot understand why it was lauded as such. 

Where does your loyalty lie? Are you a faithful son or daughter to the King of Kings? The King’s Achievement reminds us that sometimes faithfulness carries a steep price. Yet, Benson depicts Saint Thomas More reminding the other characters—and us—that we are all God’s prisoners. May we serve Him loyally every day of our lives.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Resolutions: A Family Tradition

In the top drawer of my desk, which is located in our dining room, sits a couple of sheets. They are worn and crumbled from much use. One reads at the top: RESOLUTIONS 2021. The next: RESOLUTIONS 2022. And we have just added a new sheet with the words—I’m sure you’ve guessed it—RESOLUTIONS 2023. 

It’s become a tradition in our family at the end of every year, certainly not an uncommon practice. Many people make New Year’s resolutions … in a way, so did Our Lord! 

We read in the Gospel of Luke,

When the days for His being taken up were fulfilled, He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

Our Lord made a resolution, which is a word the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a firm decision to do something.” It contains a sense of urgency, purpose, and intention. A goal, in contrast, is an end, which one may or may not feel a strong desire to reach. 

To make a resolution for 2023 means more than just hoping to accomplish something; it means you will set out with a firm purpose to do it!

In our family, each person makes one or more resolutions. My husband and I try to encourage the children (as much as ourselves!) to focus on three different areas: physical, mental, and spiritual. Physical resolutions span the gamut from learning to walk (our 1-year-old) to learning to ride a bike without training wheels to running a 5K in 25 minutes. Mental resolutions involve things such as setting a goal for how many books one will read or learning a new language or achieving a certain grade in school.

As for the spiritual resolutions, we try to focus on the areas where we each struggle the most: for me, it’s patience, so I’m resolving not to lose my temper around the kids (wish me luck!). Our oldest daughter is resolving to read the Bible each day, setting aside quality time for prayer. 

We also make a “family resolution,” which is something everyone contributes to and benefits from. Last year this was quite practical: get the kids to bed on time! This year, we made it more enjoyable: have quarterly “family days” where we spend the majority of the day together doing something fun, whether it’s something simple like taking a walk and playing board games or going on a day trip. 

We keep the list of our resolutions nearby because we review them as a family at least quarterly. As the summer rolls around, we pull out the resolutions and check in with each person: “We’re halfway through the year! How are we doing on our resolutions? Have we made progress?”

There is something in human nature that appreciates a new beginning and a fresh start. Similarly, setting one’s sight on a certain objective brings purpose and intention to what we are doing. For the competitive among us, it gives incentive to “keep the streak alive” by accomplishing the resolutions of each year—or to improve upon last year’s efforts. Dr. Kevin Majeres of OptimalWork refers to the “deadline benefit:” by the end of the year, I resolve to X (for example, forgive my friend, spend more time with my spouse, publish my book, and so on). By setting a deadline, we have a parameter to work within; the goal becomes specific and, indeed, moves from a goal to a resolution. Some positive pressure is helpful! 

When we look at the Gospels, we find a model of intentionality within the spiritual life. The shepherds went to look for the newborn Infant with haste. This doesn’t mean they were chaotically running hither and thither. It means they acted with resolution! How will you seek the Lord in 2023? Will you do so with haste? Is there something you can do or sacrifice that will help you set your sight resolutely upon the Lord as we move through the year? 

Of course, sometimes we don’t reach our resolutions. That’s why, however, our family holds onto the resolutions of prior years. Maybe we didn’t achieve what we set out to do … yet. We have one family member who has carried over the same resolutions for the past three years, albeit with some modifications. And that’s okay! The point is that we are moving forward, improving and continually striving upward. As Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati said, “We must never exist but live.”

A New Year’s resolution affords us a whole year to move forward, improving ourselves in every area. Will New Year’s Eve 2023 find you and your family closer to Our Lord? Let’s resolve to make it so!