This passage appears in Housman's autobiography, The Unexpected Years. — George P. Landow.

could not feel that any religious or social system, which so sedulously refused to tell and to face the truth, deserved respect; and though for a while I still conformed, it was without heart or conviction. Quite recently a relative, for whom intellectually I have a great respect, said that he considered the Church of England the best religion ever invented; it was so undisturbing. That, I think, is what separated me from it; its undisturbingness disturbed me. To-day, over the most burning of all moral problems the relation of Christianity to war it takes a back seat, and still signing itself with the Cross, does nothing: too often, at Peace Meetings, it is the representative of the Established Church who gets up and defends war, without shame or embarrassment.

For the same reason, though I once had a hope that I could find rest for my conscience in the Roman Catholic Church, I can do so no longer: the moral obstacles have increased as time has gone on; the Church's tolerance of war has become the final barrier between myself and any form of Institutional Christianity.

Roman Catholicism, as a medium for devotion, has always attracted me; but I have been generally repelled by the hard arrogance of its apologists, though the repul sion has sometimes been mingled with amusement. Once, in a discussion with an ardent young Catholic, I happened to say that since Rome admitted the validity of Orders in the Greek Church, she must also admit the validity of its Sacraments. 'So it comes to this', I said, 'the Real Presence being upon their altars just as much as upon yours, what you find is not good enough for you, Christ yet finds to be good enough for Him.' To which argument I got this amazing reply: 'Ah, yes! but He's there under protest! He's there under protest!'

That proposition of Christ led daily to unwilling sacrifice in the Blessed Sacrament, though it scandalized my sense of spiritual values, did rather delight me as an example of the grotesque lengths to which the odium theologicum can lead its victims.

Until my fourteenth year, since I had no friends or acquaintances in its communion, Roman Catholicism had no interest for me. If I thought about it at all, it was as a superstitious form of religion lying outside the pale of genuine Christianity. But in that year, circumstances drew me into a closer relation through the beginning of a very great friendship with members mother and children of a Roman Catholic family. She was a distant cousin, quite unknown to us until, with an invalid husband and two small children, she came to live at Bromsgrove. She was young, charming, and beautiful, and her two children were adorable little creatures. Very quickly we became intimate; her husband's health failed rapidly, and for some weeks before he became finally bed-ridden, I went daily to carry him up to bed a task which was easier than it sounds, for illness had made him a living skeleton.

In this household I found religion to be a real thing, though in its long-winded forms rather cruelly oppressive to such young children to the boy, at any rate, whose resistance to evening prayers full of vain repetitions and the invocation of a dozen saints for whom he had no use, resulted in whippings which rather shocked me, and did him no good.

But from that closer acquaintance I began to view Roman Catholicism differently: I saw that it had a real meaning to one whom I loved. It was not a matter of more conviction than I had met before in others; my elders were quite convinced of the religion they professed, but it had no marked effect on their life and actions; our home religion was mainly an act of conformity, an affair of family prayers every morning, grace before the meal which included potatoes and pudding (but not before breakfast or tea) and Sunday observance. Family prayers we disliked because of their monotonous unreality: Sunday observance we rather liked so far as church-going was concerned, because of the music and the hymns, and also the human interest of watching a large congregation of the various classes in their Sunday best, decorously behaving themselves, or not, as the case might be. Its other restrictions, the prohibition of games or the reading of fiction, we dodged fairly successfully.

But now as I grew older, and having been confirmed, I found that so much unreality had brought uncertainty. I was no longer sure what I believed, or whether I believed anything. As a communicant, I had a great wish to believe in the Real Presence; but I required certainty; and the Church of England, with its doctrinal variations of High and Low, could not give it me. That certainty, I saw, existed at any rate in the minds of the Roman Catholics I knew; and for the next fourteen years my problem was whether to accept uncertainty as a natural and inevitable condition of human knowledge concerning the unseen, or to batter myself into a fictitious certainty which habit might presently make real, for man having a peculiarly human faculty for making himself believe anything that he sets his mind on any fixed ritual or observance, carried through, day-in day-out, with a certain solemnity of mind, gets into the blood till some thing which cannot rightly be called knowledge becomes conviction; and it is far more out of conviction than out of genuine knowledge that the world has grown its religious beliefs beliefs about things which, in their very nature, are impossible of proof. . . .

In those early days, I had far more hope than I have now that belief might become a certainty; and from about my twenty-eighth to my thirtieth year, I did what I believed to be my best to accept intellectually the faith of the Roman Church, which emotionally made so deep an appeal to me.

But emotion was not enough: I knew it to be a danger. Emotionally I enjoyed, and almost accepted, all that it seemed to offer; and at that time I was writing stories and poems which to the unobservant might have marked me down as already a Roman Catholic. I had just written two such books, Spikenard and All-Fellows, when I made the acquaintance which grew into friendship of George Tyrrell, s.j., not then at loggerheads with the powers at Rome. From him I tried hopefully to extract the certainty I was in search of. He told me frankly that he did not think the kind of absolute certainty that I craved was obtainable only a reasonable certainty on the basis of every other alternative to the Catholic faith being less reasonable: then when reason had made its choice religious experience would confirm it, and give it an engrained quality which would meet my need. That I take to be quite orthodox teaching, having in it no taint of modernism. Coming to me from a man whom I liked and whose intellectual powers I admired, I wished to give it every chance of getting hold of me; and as Tyrrell was due to conduct a Retreat at Stonyhurst during Holy Week I went with a Catholic friend, to go through the experience.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Tyrrell was at the last moment snatched away to be operated upon for appendicitis; and a very dear old Jesuit Father took his place. I found his ministrations pleasant and soothing; he said nothing that disturbed or shocked me; I was interested, attracted I was even happy, believing that conversion was about to come. But in the end I remained unconvinced; and on Holy Thursday, when relics were produced for the veneration of the faithful, I found that I had too much respect for my fellowship to take a sham part in the observance.

My experience of that Retreat ended in a sharp sense of isolation, which I hoped would be only temporary. On Easter-day I attended an early Mass, and saw the Communion taken by my friends and companions in the Retreat, while I, of course, had to remain a non-communicant. I was then on a threshold which I longed to cross, but could not.

A week later I went to Paris on journalistic work for the Manchester Guardian and when I saw, in some of the lovely French churches, the tawdry statues, emblems, and ornaments with which modern Catholicism allows its altars to be desecrated, I began to be glad of my escape: unreasonably glad, perhaps, but I cannot dissociate false art from false worship. If there be a Personal God, the beauty they produce and cherish is for me the surest sign that His worshippers have the truth in them: if beauty is betrayed, God is betrayed also. And so the foolish vulgarity of modern Roman Catholic art was a decisive aid to my escape from St. Peter's net an escape for which I became more and more thankful as the years went on. [145-47]

Related Material


Housman, Laurence. The Unexpected Years. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.

Last modified 19 November 2012