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Dom Columba Cary-Elwes

MY FIRST INSTINCT--AND WHO KNOWS, IT MAY WELL be the right one-tells me to ignore this request for information. It results in self-advertisement. If people want to read my books, let them; if they don't, well, leave them alone. It is all very humble. But I did write the books so that as many people as possible should read them, as I was persuaded-and still am--that in them would be found something useful and important. Besides, people nowadays read such trash and are not ready to launch out into less flighty material without a little push from behind. So here goes, the instinct notwithstanding.

I have written four books and edited another. The first was The Beginning of Goodness, publishing in England and America, and, strangely enough, translated into Polish. Why did I write it? It was written during the second World War, at Ampleforth, while I was a house master of St. Wilfrid's House (1937-51), and written for the boys who left there and went into the world. Let me explain. Ampleforth is one of the large English Benedictine monasteries whose history goes right back behind the Reformation until it is lost in the mists of the very early Middle Ages. Attached to it is a large boarding school, divided into houses-or dormitories. As I watched the boys under my special care grow up and emerge into a world torn by war I felt that they needed a reminder of all that they had learned at school, a vade mecum for the young man in the world who wanted to bear witness for Christ in his life. So between classes and late at night this was written.

Were the boys an intolerable interruption in writing this and other books? It is true that they shared my room at the house. They played their chess, read the paper, played the gramaphone or radio, talked quietly-sometimes not so quietly. I found that music was almost helpful, unless it became a song in the modern idiom. Then either it had to stop or I.

My second book, Law, Liberty and Love (Devin-Adair, 1951) came out of my studies at Oxford, my teaching religious knowledge at Ampleforth and my long rambles with Professor Arnold Toynbee, who for so many years was a near neighbor of the Abbey, living at Ganthorpe. During the six years (1927-33) that I passed at Oxford studying modern languages (French and Spanish) and their literature, later following the theological course of studies at Blackfriars at Oxford, and also reading in sociology under the benign guidance of Father Leo O'Hea, it was clear to me that one of the major obstacles to a return into the fold of the Church was a false idea of liberty and an absurd fear of obedience. Reading St. Thomas, Rousseau and Leo XIII within a short time of each other brought the problem to a head and gave me some idea of how to resolve it. I tried to show the true meaning of law, liberty, and love in an historical perspective and at the same time attempted to show how at the Reformation the true nature of liberty and of obedience faded from sight. I follow these ideas through the New Testament, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Thomas, and St. Francis, Boniface VIII, Machiavelli, Luther, St. Thomas More, St. Ignatius, Rousseau, Leo XIII, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and others. Arnold Toynbee summed up much of our conversations in his masterly little preface to the book.

The reason for my writing The Sheepfold and the Shepherd (Longmans, 1956) is quite simple: I would pray and work for the return of the dissident Christians into the fold of the Church. Like so many other presentday Catholic families in England, last century it was almost entirely Anglican-Episcopalian, but the Oxford Movement, led by Cardinal Newman, a number came back into the Church. I can still remember a dear old great aunt who remained a staunch and pius Anglican. She would put me up when I as a young man was invited to a party in London. Every evening before dinner she would lead household prayers. In the far background of the family history was a martyr, but in the middle distance were Anglican archdeacons and bishops. The reunion of Christendom was never far from my thoughts. On two occasions I had the privilege to meet some of those most active in this important field, once when invited to an international meeting at Rome to discuss the whole problem and another time likewise an international meeting near Geneva, but on this occasion with an equal number of non-Catholics. This book then is the outcome of thoughts and conversations on this important theme. The main part of the book is concerned with the nature of the Church and the authority within it. Now that we have a Roman Pontiff whose primary aim is this very matter: the return of all Christ's sheep to the one Fold, this book becomes very to the point.

How did I ever come to write a tome on the Chinese missions, never having been there? China and the Cross (Kenedy, 1957). China and its mission has almost always had a fascination for me, not only because it has presented the greatest challenge to the Church for centuries and because it is one of the mightiest conglomerations of humanity upon this earth, but also for a personal reason. Two previous priests in the family, both Jesuits, one an uncle and the other a great uncle, had longed to be sent on the Chinese mission. They were both disappointed of that, though one went as a missionary among the native tribes of South Africa and the other was sent to evangelize the Indians in the hinterland of British Guiana. However, I decided that I could not force God's hand either, and so became a Benedictine (1924) at Ampleforth, and now I am helping in founding a monastery near St. Louis in the heart of the United States. Meanwhile, however, I have been reading about the Chinese missions since 1930 or even earlier. The more I read the more enthralled I became and wider became the horizons that opened up. First it was the medieval Franciscans that took my fancy, that opened the door to the whole Mongol story, to the great medieval travelers such as Marco Polo; but behind the Franciscans one found the Nestorian missionaries of the seventh century, and linked with them was the rise of Islam. No one who reads anything of the subject could help, either, to discover the gentle and wise Confucius, then northern Buddhism, Taoism, and the immense question of the rise of Manicheism. For years I read the accounts of that greatest of the chapters of the Jesuit missions, of Father Ricci as well as St. Francis Xavier, and so on to modern times. China provides a sample of all the major missionary problems. Wherever I went it was always one of the first enquiries I made, was there a library and had they any old book on China. Pinkerton I found in a second-hand bookshop in York, kind persons and the London Library provided the rest. The book, written in hall-hour stretches, one almost might say, took twenty-five years and more to write. I remember so well having to learn Italian in order to read the great Commentarii and letters of Father Ricci. One Christmas time, the boys gone home, I borrowed the work from the ever kind London Library and with this open on my knees and a miniature Italian-English dictionary between the leaves, I began. As time went on, the number of words one had to look up per page diminished. It is a regret now that I have no longer any reason to research upon this grand subject.

It was less laborous editing Ampleforth and Its Origins (Bow, 1952), as somehow or another I managed to persuade others to write the whole book except for half of the preface and half of the epilogue which are mine. The aim of this book was to give in miniature the history of the Benedictine Order by choosing one monastery that had continuity from almost the time of St. Benedict to the present day. One such is Ampleforth, a house of the old English Benedictine Congregation. So the book begins with an account of St. Benedict himself, carries on through the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, medieval Westminster--the motherhouse of Ampleforth-Dieuleward, whither Englishmen went during persecution times; the flight from there back to England and finally Ampleforth itself.

It is hard enough writing books while teaching and running a "house"; it is proving somewhat more difficult to do so helping to found a new monastery. But there are one or two books up my sleeve, and perhaps, God willing, they too will see the light.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dom Columba was born Charles Evelyn Cary-Elwes, in London, Nov. 6, 1903; educated by the Jesuits at St. Michel, Brussels, 1913-14, by the Benedictines at Ampleforth, York, 1914-22; joined the Benedictines, 1924; at Oxford, 1927-33, B.A. 1930, continuing studies there, taking theology under the Dominicans; returned to Ampletorth, 1933, in which year he was ordained, and where he was housemaster, 1937-51, claustral prior, 1951-55, St. Louis (Mo.) Priory, 1955 -

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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