Bradley J. Birzer: “Sanctifying the World, The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson”

Chapter 1
Dawson the Convert
1889-1920

ON OCTOBER 12, 1889, MARY LOUISA AND HENRY PHILIP DAWSON GAVE birth to a son, Henry Christopher. The blessed event took place in a twelfth- century Welsh castle, known as Hay Castle, in the Wye Valley in Herefordshire. Both the date and the place of his birth are auspicious, steeped in myth and tradition, and bringing together both sides of his family. October 12 was the Feast of St. Wilfrid, an eighth-century bishop of York, the ancestral home of Dawson’s father. St. Wilfrid famously stood by Roman Christian customs rather than Celtic ones and convinced many of his brother priests to do the same at a time when the customs were stridently in opposition to one another. Legend records that St. Wilfrid converted the South Saxons to Christianity, freed numerous slaves throughout the British isles, founded several monasteries in Mercia, and patiently suffered much opposition from his enemies.

The Influence of Place and Family

The place is also important, as the castle is connected in popular Welsh memory to a rather mysterious person known as Maude of St. Valery or Matilda of Hay, who supposedly built the castle in a single night while carrying the stones in her apron. But whatever may have happened in the twelfth century, by the late nineteenth century, the castle belonged to Christopher’s mother’s family. The men of his mother’s side, of Welsh decent, had a long tradition of being High Church Anglo-Catholic clergymen, both priests and bishops. His mother’s family, therefore, had great standing in the region, which Dawson remembered as “a sort of Anglican theocracy” as “the landowners were largely clergymen and the clergy were either landowners or brothers of landowners, so that there was a complete unification of political, religious, economic and social authority and influence.”

The rural culture into which Dawson was born was very traditional, steeped in many layers of natural and inherited authority Those around young Christopher reverenced the role and tradition of family, the beauty of nature, the Anglican Church, the Celtic saints and folklore, the Queen, and God. Each of these “layers” represented an ever ascending level of natural authority In their outlook, political views, cultural influences, and faith, Dawson’s family may have been more at home in the early eighteenth century than in the late nineteenth century. But in the late nineteenth century, there was a still a purposefulness and security in the holding of such deep and cherished traditions. “Never perhaps in the history of the world,” Dawson reflected in 1926, “has there been a society more secure, more certain of itself and more externally prosperous than that of England in the Victorian age.” By the 1940s, though, that security and purpose were gone, and Dawson deeply regretted the loss of the world in which he was raised. “The world and my childhood is already as far away from the contemporary world as it was from the world of the middle ages—in many respects even further,” Dawson lamented in the notes to his memoirs. He had been raised in a premechanical world, and, for the sake of the future, he felt compelled to record his experiences as quickly as possible. “If we do not record a lot that used to be taken for granted, it will be lost for good, and the understanding of the past will become even more difficult than it is already,” he feared. “Certain ways of human experience will become inaccessible, even to the historic imagination.”

Dawson’s beliefs went beyond mere nostalgia. Something had happened between his childhood and the modern world of the early twentieth century. There was at some point a “great divide,” a break between the old world and modernity. While ancient and medieval western men seemed to Dawson noble and generally virtuous, modern western man was “an imperialist, a capitalist and an exploiter.”

Dawson did not stand alone in these fears. Romano Guardini, a contemporary of Dawson’s, recorded the same process at work while watching one area in Italy, Lake Como, change from a closely-connected rural community tied together by the Church to a region in which rising industry mechanized the community, atomizing one person from another, and destroying the organic nature of society. The greatest change, he argued, came from the modern desire to dominate and exploit nature rather than live with it. Ironically, the human attempt to dominate nature through mechanization had led to the loss of control. “It is destructive because it is not under human control,” Guardini wrote. “It is a surging ahead of unleashed forces that have not yet been mastered, raw material that has not yet been put together, given a living and  spiritual form, and related to humanity.”  In his 1954 Cambridge inaugural address, C. S. Lewis said much the same thing. The rise of the machine had fundamentally changed the very nature of the relationship of man to man, man to the world, and man to God. In this brave new world, Lewis argued, “the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy.”  The machine, Lewis continued, takes on a religious significance to the poorly educated. “From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car;  from the gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage,” the Cambridge don concluded. Dawson agreed with both of these sentiments. No person “can look at the history of western civilization during the present century without feeling dismayed at the spectacle of what modern man has done with his immense resources,” Dawson wrote. Like his fellow Christian Humanists, Dawson spent much of his scholarly work attempting to uncover and explain the reasons for the break with the past and the development of  modern western man.

Influenced by his mother’s family, and especially by the deep respect he held for his mother, Dawson stood strongly entrenched in the Anglo-Catholic tradition before attending Oxford. Still, he saw significant weaknesses in the Anglo-Catholic position. “It was lacking in authority,” Dawson explained. “It was not the teaching of the official church but an enterprising minority which provided its own standard of orthodoxy.” And though Dawson later converted to Roman Catholicism, he admired the Anglican Church for the remainder of his life, crediting it with teaching him the value of the liturgy and the weight of tradition. He once told his closest friend, E.I. Watkin, “that his Anglican education had enabled him to appreciate aspects of Catholicism he might have missed had he been what is now termed ‘a cradle Catholic?’To an interviewer in 1961,  he said, “Brought up an Anglo-Catholic, I was always familiar with Catholic books and ideas.” While Anglo-Catholics remained distinct from Roman Catholics, seeing Roman Catholics as too fundamentalist, “they were even more completely separatist from the Protestant Nonconformists—The Dissenters.”And though the Roman and Anglo mind remained separated, the two had much in common, Dawson believed. One can find Dawson’s greatest appreciation for Anglo-Catholicism in his 1933 centenary re-examination of John Henry Newman and his allies, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement.

[for convenience, the notes have been omitted]

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