Project Canterbury

FATHER IGNATIUS

1837-1908

Text from Lead, Kindly Light: Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement, by Desmond Morse-Boycott. (New York: Macmillan, 1933).


ON November 23, 1837, four years after the Oxford Movement had begun, there was born at Trinity Square, London, to Francis Lyne, a merchant whose father had been Welsh and whose mother was Italian, by his wife Louisa Genevieve (nee Leycester), a second child who was destined to blaze a trail across the pages of Anglican history; be detested and persecuted by fellow-Churchmen; win countless souls for Christ; and raise up a memorial in stone which must ever remain a permanent reproach to the Church he served so nobly, and to the generations which have forgotten even his name.

Joseph Leycester Lyne was rather a precocious child, who early became oppressed by a fear of hell-fire, which was to haunt him for thirty years and then vanish by a revelation of the saving power of Christ. He seems to have impressed his masters mightily. One of them, writing his memory of Joseph in St. Paul's School, twenty-four years afterwards, said:

My recollections of Joseph Leycester Lyne are among the freshest and most pleasing reminiscences of well-nigh the third of a century's superintendence of St. Paul's School. You may say to all who ask (if any should ask a question)—had he the usual failings of a boy? that, in my judgment, he was most unlike all boys that I ever knew, with none of their pardonable short-comings, and more true holiness and spirituality of mind and character than usually falls to the lot of Christians, still growing in the grace of God in after years throughout this world's proficiency.

As a young man Joseph came into repeated conflict with his father, who disliked his High Church tendencies, but despite many ups and downs (emptying a Presbyterian church while, as a layman, in charge of a mission in Scotland, and driving all his own flock to the Presbyterians!) he managed to become a deacon. As he was much criticized in after years over his ecclesiastical status it is important to mention that, having scruples over his baptism as an infant, he was conditionally baptized at this time by the vicar of St. Peter's, Plymouth, taking a vow of perpetual celibacy.

Helped by friends he became an unpaid assistant to Canon Prynne, of St. Peter's, Plymouth, where he worked fruitfully. Dr. Pusey and Mother Priscilla Sellon (who re-established the religious life for women in the Anglican Communion) sympathized with his tendencies to monasticism. They became as convinced as he of his vocation to reestablish religious life for men, although it is evident that in time Dr. Pusey was frightened of his erratic ways. It is my purpose in this essay to stress the fact that what was erratic was accidental and superficial, and t at a grave justice has been done to Father Ignatius, as he was soon to style himself, by the overlooking, deliberate or otherwise, of the fact that he never turned back from any plough that he set his hand to.

Miss Sellon made him his first habit, which was intercepted and destroyed by his father; and she made him a second. As yet he was a friar rather than a monk, assisting Father Lowder at the mission of St. George's-in-the-East. He became acquainted personally with all the inhabitants of the infamous Ratcliff Highway, where he was as fearless as he was tactless, going into disreputable dancing halls to announce, in a loud voice, that " We must all appear before the judgement-seat of Christ." Even more courageously, he threw away his chance of ordination to the priesthood by refusing to abandon the unusual habit that he wore on all occasions.

So I became a Benedictine [he wrote]. Two other people were willing to join me now. I was twenty-four years of age. My father was very angry, and refused to give me any further help. . . . I realized that I should be penniless. I had already drawn a very crowded congregation to Father Lowder's Mission Church, but I had made up my mind to break away from every tie. Relatives, except my mother, would have nothing to say to me. My bright prospects in the Church would be for ever ruined; the world would say I was mad; the Church would regard me as most dangerous, a kind of ecclesiastical Ishmael. . . . Yet I firmly believe God was calling me, and I must obey. . . .

Obey he did. To attempt, in what must be a short sketch, to follow his footsteps in detail is a task I cannot do. But, for the forming of a better opinion of this heroic deacon, I will outline him sharply in some of his astonishing crises (every day was a crisis, of some sort).

He was molested with violence by Protestant fanatics in the first house he founded, and was stoned in the streets. He shows no sign of wavering. He moved to another house, where he stayed, with his companions, for two and a half years. They were half-starved.

This morning [he writes] just as our firing was nearly all spent, a gentleman sent us two chaldrons of coke. One of the Brothers fainted away in choir on Wednesday last, and some ladies who were present in chapel sent, about an hour afterwards, a hamper of fish and seven-and-sixpence; and so we had a good dinner that day.

At times his priory was surrounded by angry mobs. Police and armed supporters would camp around it. One day he set out for Rome, in search of health, with a quaint retinue, regardless of spiteful tongues—Brother Philip, Sister Ambrosia (to nurse him) and a little child of four years whom he had adopted as an oblate to the order. He was hospitably received by the Pope. Donald Attwater, in a recent book, is most, amusing in this connexion. He writes:

Two men wearing the dress of monks, going about with an indeterminate female and a child in sandals and a white habit, would cause a sensation anywhere. In Rome it was a furore. Monsignori took snuff and looked down their noses; ladies of the noble families put their heads together; the superstitious shot out the index and little finger of the right hand. And the authorities sent somebody round to the Via Condotti to investigate. . . . Dr. Brownlow, of the Venerable English College, and afterwards Bishop of Clifton, was appointed to wait upon the distinguished visitor, and a religious woman was told off to take an adjoining room and chaperon Sister Ambrosia—Rome forgets nothing.

But when Ignatius returned to England he found his community at Norwich dispersed and his priory put up for sale. The Archbishop of Canterbury advised him to try to recover the property by action, but, though he struggled for twelve years, and spent all his inheritance (£12,000), he finally failed. Some accounts refer to a flaw in the title deeds, but the "official" biography by the Baroness Bertouch calls it fraud.

In August, 1866, Dr. Pusey invited the broken-down and lonely monk to stay with him in the Isle of Wight. Here his sorrow was turned into joy, as he walked along the seashore, while the melancholy roar of the sea whispered of the follies of the children of time. He was oppressed by the thought of Hell, his shattered health his ruined life, when there flashed upon him, like a ray of evening sunshine, sinking softly on wild and wold, ere the tender stars come out to gleam in token of the infinite beauty of God, the thought that he was mistaken in trying to save his soul, for Jesus Christ had done all that for him. He says: "I cannot tell the joy, the new life, the strength that came to me. 'My beloved is mine and I am his,' I could say with all my heart…"

Can we doubt this personal revelation when we consider the circumstances which surrounded the bewildered, shattered young champion of Jesus? Note his unchangeability. To the end of his harassed life he walked in that radiance. If he was given to moods, and tempestuous actions, they must be attributed to the life he had to live, calculated to shatter the strongest of men, while he was one of the weakest. They were superficial. There never left his heart the joy that he gained on that memorable moment when he found his master on the shore in the evening.

The scene now changes. We find the undaunted monk essaying a task which only the faith which can remove mountains would embark upon. It is to build a monastery on a Welsh mountain, miles away from anywhere. The transport cannot get within four miles, and huge stones have to be dragged up in waggons. The workmen, inadequately supervised, quarrel and down tools. By fits and starts the work progresses, and the shell of Llanthony Abbey begins to appear. Meanwhile the monks are enduring hardships justly comparable to those of the Cistercians at Citeaux and Fountains.

Ignatius writes:

(We) went through incredible hardships at our first foundation here, I myself living in a cold wet shed, the only shelter for the Blessed Sacrament and myself for some time existing here; the other monks living in a windowless draughty barn. . . . From 22nd July, 1870, until December of the same year, our first portion of the Abbey, the west cloister, remained unfinished. The kitchen fire, for cooking purposes, burned on the mud floor of the barn up in a corner, the smoke finding its way out as best it could. . . . As the winter frosts began our sufferings were great indeed. I myself often rose at 5 a.m. from my bed in the cold damp shed, the blanket that covered me really steaming with the damp. I had to quickly make my bed and ring the bell to call the brothers from the barn to come and sing Prime with me in my shed " the Abbot's Lodge." Of an evening, after supper and Vespers, we would kindle a fire on the muddy ground of the unfinished and desolate cloister, fastening up a blanket for a shelter from the cutting wind. We had gathered the wood on the mountain for ourselves, being too poor just then to procure coal.

And the while, in well-warmed episcopal palaces well-fed bishops wrote inhibitions, bidding him refrain from preaching in their churches; and deans and archdeacons and the whole hierarchy of higher clergy spoke of him acidly or with jocularity over their wine cups; and the people of England, who flocked to bear him in the Halls in which he was driven to speak, came to mock at a madman and remain to pray; and dry-as-dust dons composed voluminous treatises to oppose Modernism, of which they were to become in time the champions, leaving him to heard the atheist in his den, and bid him come to Jesus. His magnificent debates with Bradlaugh and others at least effected this, that they compelled people to see that Christianity is a life rather than a creed.

In the fullness of time his Abbey was built, and like all cities built on a hill attracted pilgrims. Here one must notice a defect in his character which was, perhaps, the underlying cause of his failure to found an enduring Community. He was gullible to a degree. He took everyone at his own valuation, and so was perpetually surrounded by impostors as well as the genuine. The Community was thus exposed to constant disintegration and reformation. Ignatius was so transparently honest that he simply could not understand how anyone could be deceitful. Towards the end of his life he swung to the other extreme, and became suspicious of everyone. Small wonder!

Another of his faults was an imperious temper. He was kind and affable in repose, but when aroused hardly responsible for his actions. He would, too, vanish on preaching tours for months while his monks, and the nuns whom he had established hard by, were inadequately provided for, spiritually and materially. This was a serious weakness. He was forced to pursue two irreconcilable paths, which he never doubted were the Divine plan for him; that is to say, he tried to be Abbot of a monastery, an office that can only be held wisely by an efficient and quiet administrator, with capacity to judge character, and a Missioner, plucking brands from the burning in Hull, Newcastle, Birmingham, Cardiff, Brighton, Worthing, and the United States of America, etc. And the

Mission work was done, again, for daily bread. It all worked into the scheme of things, but it spelt and provoked disaster. If someone had come forward with a substantial gift to endow Llanthony Abbey, it might belong to the Anglican Church to-day, and be a centre of vitality such as Cowley or Mirfield, or even if he had been a shrewd judge of character, for then he might have been assisted by an able monk. But the work was marred by the bickerings of his followers, who were quick to see and resent the intrusion of knaves. The right men cleared out while the wrong ones stayed—for a time.

This aspect of his work is pitiable, but date we blame him? Scorned in his lifetime, he is forgotten by modern Churchfolk, and has lately been dubbed, by a biographer whom I suspect to be a Roman Catholic,

"the reductio ad absurdum of the reaction from eighteenth century classicism and of the opposition to the new self-satisfied materialism and scientific rationalism; . . . not indeed the last end, but a term of the Gothic Revival, of the Oxford Movement, of Romanticism, of Evangelicalism, of neo-Medievalism, of revivalism in a general sense taking on a new and particular sense."

He so stresses his Victorianism that Ignatius would seem to be a religious version of Mr. Barrett of Wimpole Street. I suggest a simpler definition. Father Ignatius—saint.

The degree of his sanctity can be appreciated best by those whose work lies in the foundation of some colossal undertaking. They can feel for the frail friar in his weariness; his eager search for funds; his longing to be quiet in his monastery while the placards blazed abroad the information that he would preach in this place and in that, and reporters waited on his doorstep; and, when quiet, in the restless urge that came upon Mm to win enough bread for his children, to whom the Church offered a stone. He cannot be understood by the simple and the scholarly and the stay-at-homes. It is illuminating, for instance, to find that in some of the histories of the Oxford Movement he is scarcely mentioned.

But I think that he was rewarded by Heaven. There are strange stories told, by those who knew him intimately, of visions and hearings. Here is one, told me by one of his monks, who became a bus conductor. I have told it in full elsewhere, but a mention must needs be made in this connexion. I quote my own words first, then his:

There were some boys who received their education in the Abbey. They were playing in the fields one summer evening, but abandoned their game and ran to Father Ignatius, crying out that there was a light burning in a bush. He calmed them, and ordered a watch to be kept before the altar by the monks of the Abbey and the nuns in the Convent near by. . . . The next day one of the nuns sent word that Father Ignatius had left the monstrance on the altar. . . . Father Ignatius went to lock it up, but it was not visible. . . . On that evening the boys saw the light in the bush again. The monks were assembled in the porch, where they sang an Ave….. It was a foul night. The wind howled in the vast solitude. The rain teemed down. A thick pall of cloud draped the hills and the heavens.

Then—I quote the witness's words:

A wonderful light appeared in the heavens. It seemed to open out, and in the centre there then appeared the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her hands were outstretched, and the light from her presence was so radiant that the monks could hardly look upon it. The walls of the massive monastery became like glass.

I would comment on this vision only with two reflections. (I) Ignatius hated a lie. Others might deceive him; he had no self-deceit. (2) Presumably a vision from Heaven would be a reward for sanctity and heroism. Who among priests and prelates in Ms days had more than he? The splendour of his courage pales his contemporaries' valour (and there were giants in those days) into insignificance.

In connexion with the vision I once received the following letter:

…A rather extraordinary personal experience of mine with regard to him and his death may interest you. Except to a few intimate friends I have never talked of it. In 1889, owing to my adopting a profession Fr. Ignatius greatly disapproved of—I became an actor—for some few years our correspondence ceased. Several years later I happened to be in London, and being in Baker Street one afternoon, I saw a poster announcing a series of services by Father Ignatius at the Portman Rooms, and there being one that afternoon, I felt I must hear him once again, and went in and sat right at the back. At the end, as I was leaving, Mr. Charles Lamb, who for years was one of his chief helpers in London, stopped me and said, after exchanging greetings, the Rev. Father spotted you and wants you to wait and see him. I did so, and we had a long talk and renewed our friendship, and I found that his views with regard to my calling had become somewhat less austere. From that time we restarted an occasional correspondence.

A few years later, I was living for a time in Bath, my wife being an invalid. One Sunday evening we had had some friends to see us, and when they were about to leave, my wife suggested our walking with them thro' the Park—it being a lovely evening. After saying goodbye to our friends, as we were returning, I saw in the twilight what appeared to be a statue of our Lady, with a halo of light round it, in a group of trees, and the statue seemed very familiar. I was, of course, convinced it was some hallucination and said nothing, when my wife suddenly said, "What a curious place to put a statue of our Lady. I've not seen that before—lets go over and look at it." As her health was very frail and I dreaded the effect of any shock, I persuaded her to put off seeing it till another time. But the whole thing puzzled me, and the next morning I rose early, went out and walked over the same route, but as I felt sure, there was no statue. When I got back my wife, who was not up, called me, and when I went to her room, said, "You've been in the Park." I said, "Yes." " There's no statue there?" I replied, "No." "Then look at that," and she handed me the Daily Sketch, and the front page was headed "Death of Fr. Ignatius," and the page was divided down the centre, one side a photograph of the Rev. Father, the other side a photograph of "Our Lady of Llanthony," the statue erected there in memorial of the vision. That was the statue we both saw the night before in the Park at Bath.

Two years later my wife died—alluding to that experience almost at the end.

Ignatius died, as he had lived, a monk, albeit a quaint one. He made a fatal mistake, as far as his work was concerned, in accepting ordination to the priesthood at the hands of a wandering old Catholic bishop, who was an adventurer. Thus he was finally discredited in the eyes of the Church that denied him the priesthood and ignored his appeals for the Sacraments for his flock. He died on October 16, 1908, murmuring, "Praised be Jesus for ever and ever," was given a wonderful funeral, and a number of critical obituary notices in the press. A fool like St. Francis, a hero like St. Benedict, a revivalist like Moody, a lover of souls like General Booth, an ascetic like St. Anthony the hermit, an orator as golden as Lacordaire, but withal a poor theologian, and as simple as a child, of whom his Church was unworthy. Alas! She is awkward in her handling of saints and her saints cannot breathe in "Establishment."


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