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Who Was Knox?

by Michael de la Bedoyere


In this 1957 article, Michael de la Bedoyere pays tribute to Msgr. "Ronnie" Knox, who was a brilliant scholar, a dedicated priest, and an eminent writer and translator. Although he was extremely sought after in his time, Knox was a shy, upper-class intellectual who seemed an unlikely candidate for popularity. However, the simplicity and integrity of his character made him attractive to all who knew him. La Bedoyere tries to present the true character of Ronald Knox through a look at his literary works, as well as the works that he chose to translate: the Bible, and St. Therese of Lisieux's autobiography.

Larger Work

The Catholic World

Publisher & Date

The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, December, 1957

The death this summer of Msgr. Ronald Knox has deprived the English-speaking Catholic world of, perhaps, its most eminent contemporary writer. Comparisons are odious—at least until the passing of time allows values to be focused, and I do not propose to make any. Nor, in a way, is it necessary, for Ronnie Knox, as he has come to be almost universally known in this country, has achieved immortality through his translation of the Bible. There is no sort of doubt that the "Knox Bible" will remain as much of a household word to future generations as the "Douay Bible" or the "Authorized." This, not only because of its intrinsic merits, but because it has been officially approved by the British Hierarchy and authorized for public use in churches.

"Who was Knox?" "Why is it called the Knox Bible?" "Did he have anything to do with John Knox?"—such questions will be put to their teachers by children for as many years to come as we can envisage.

"RONNIE KNOX"—the so widespread familiarity raises the first puzzle about this remarkable Catholic figure of this century.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, fourth son of an Anglican bishop, does not seem the sort of person who could ever evolve into "Ronnie Knox" within the middle and popular class English Catholic community, except, maybe, in a somewhat derisory sense. It is, of course, true that the "Ronnie" was the natural enough product of a brilliant and popular figure in prefirst-war Oxford. It is also true that there must be vast numbers of British Catholics today who have never thought of him as "Ronnie," but then they have probably never thought of him at all, except as a Bible translator's name.

The fact remains that insofar as he was known as a living person at all—by those who had met him, by his fellow Catholic clergy, by his readers, by many generations of students and children of both sexes to whom he had given conferences or been chaplain, he was simply "Ronnie."

Why? Was he a hail-fellow-well-met, popular figure? Was he a specially easy conversational companion? Did he mix easily and travel much? Was he always there at the party, the reunion, the rally? On the contrary, he was almost the opposite of all this. Thin, rather ascetical, and certainly intellectual, looking slightly bent and willowy, always shy, with a detached and far-away appearance, he was the born scholar, the obvious cerebrotonic. His deserved reputation as one of the greatest wits and jugglers with words of his time was apt to be off-putting to those who met him and felt markedly inferior. His casual conversation, it is true, did not sparkle particularly, and the pleasant, drawly dryness in it was hardly to the casual oncomer's taste. He could not really disguise the fact that he was made for a certain social class that was closely bound up with his own upbringing (Eton and Balliol) and taste.

As the most sought-after preacher of his day, he maintained as a Catholic the virtually unique habit of reading his sermons from a typed script. And though as an extempore speaker after dinner or at a social occasion, the combination of his detached, hesitating, willowy manner with devastatingly funny witticisms was quite irresistible, he was certainly not the obviously popular figure.

Furthermore, throughout his life he sought strict personal retirement from the public scene and hardly ever traveled abroad or at home, except in the course of his actual work. Yet he was never what at first sight he obviously should have been "Ronald Arbuthnott Knox," but "Ronnie."

This may be a puzzle; but it is also, I think, certainly a clue to the real character, influence and work of the man. Somehow the intense humanity and lovableness of his character pierced through all the external barriers which might have been supposed to isolate him, at any rate in the English Catholic community, clerical and lay, which he joined at the age of twenty-nine.

It was a complete surprise to me to learn after his death that as an Eton schoolboy he had made a vow of celibacy, denying himself "the tenderest sympathy which a happy marriage would bring" that he might live free "to attend upon the Lord without impediment." So early did the sense of spiritual dedication begin!

Spiritual dedication within the world, the aura, the manners, the conventions into which he had been born and which he accepted with the same simplicity as he accepted the clothes which he wore. Spiritual dedication with and within the exceptional talents of devastating verbal cleverness, of impish imagination, of scholarship and style with which God had endowed him. Surely, we begin to see the real man and his inevitable popularity. Under an unaffected, but rare and perhaps even off-putting exterior, integrity and simplicity were to shine through.

This integrity first reflected itself in his conversion. The world of Eton and Oxford, of the highest English society, of the Establishment and the Church of England lay at the feet of this brilliant man (the world, represented at his funeral forty years later by Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, and Anthony Eden, as well as many others), but as he read, studied and pondered, the logical clarity of his mind and perhaps an instinctive and permanent refusal in his nature to be "had" by any sophistry, any excess, any woolliness, led him simply, straight and in all humility into the Church which must also be, in a temporal sense, his exile. "The biggest fish landed since Newman," as they said. Not that, with his deep sense of what really mattered in human life, he had any great illusions about what the world alone could offer him.

We are told that his crossing of the Rubicon, not perhaps as turbulent as Newman's, but scarcely less deep, was a straightforward march into a fresh homeland: the society of fellow Catholic clerical students and, as a priest himself, the society of other priests and young students to whom he taught classics and, later, Scripture, the tradition of which he carried over from former days.

It was recorded by a contemporary that he quickly absorbed the traditions of St. Edmund's seminary. "He let it be seen that St. Edmund's was as much his home as Oxford." Yes, but at the same time he did not then or later throw away what he had learned from his rich past and what that past had made him. He became an intimate member of the Church in England, a Catholic priest among Catholic priests, yet without in any way diminishing this, he remained what he was—very different.

In other words, in all simplicity he gave to the Church what he had to give and what he was. Again, it was this simplicity, this non-duality in a personality so dually compounded which caused his fellow Catholics to see him, not just as a name or a figure, but as a person somehow near to them, despite the outward differences.

The same integrity, the same quality of service, first of all to his Master to whom he had early vowed himself, then to the Church through which his Master authentically spoke, dominated the work of his life.

He did not consider that he had anything great to contribute, any new ideas, any fresh system of thought in philosophy, theology or Scripture. He only wanted to be a servant using his talents as he could give them and as they might be required. His outlook was utilitarian. He was a writer, writing as well as he could for the greater glory of God—and the books flowed on.

Father Martin D'Arcy has expressed it in the following words: "We always felt the hand of the master craftsman, the delicacy of word, the perfection of phrasing, the wrought idea, a work of art which had passed the censorship of the divine Master. Though so ingenious and exceptional a mind, though so precocious when he was young, his style is never singular, theatrical or conceited; he could be brilliantly original and amusing, but never vainglorious."

What others had to discern of him through a kind of second sight (much liking what they discerned of "Ronnie"), the Catholic students of Oxford when he was their chaplain got to know through the privilege of intimacy. Friendships, lasting the years and stretching out to distant parts of the globe, were the fruit of those years. Others could see that this man was lovable; they knew it.

And to Oxford we owe the detective stories, utilitarianly undertaken to help finance the chaplaincy, and on which some in higher places were wont to frown. A careful reading of the detective stories furnishes a valuable insight into the author's tastes and values. I remember a crotchety old lady of high breeding being compared to lesser folk as "a precious diamond among sham jewels." And it was "Ronnie" himself who was most surprised when he found himself a roaring success when asked to give retreats and conferences to school-girls, one such girl, we are told, insisting on returning at once to school, though not well, because "she could not miss one of Ronnie's talks."

In the same integrated, dedicated way he gave all he could give to the simplest conference, the least-important of sermons, with the result that these today remain in print at the service of future generations.

OF his greatest work, the translation of the Bible I will not write. He has had many critics of his attempt to find a "timeless English," and certainly there was widespread regret that he so drastically altered famous passages which had become traditional in English culture, Catholic and non-Catholic. Yet there is almost universal agreement that he, for the first time, made many passages of the Epistles intelligible to the man-in-the-street. For myself, at any rate, I thank him for having made the Old Testament a book to read and to enjoy.

But time alone can judge of the quality of the work, my own guess being that as old associations weaken it will be more and more surely hailed as a work of real genius. And this particularly because it was absolutely a "one-man" job. This in itself was a fantastic achievement, due to his learning, his mastery of the English tongue, his quiet, retired way of life (though never a recluse), an unusual faith in himself, springing not from conceit, but rather from a genuine humility in the sense of being dedicated to God's service and to what God wanted of him in terms of the talents with which God had endowed him. This honest looking-outward, rather than worrying-inward, was so characteristic of him and so much the key to his popularity in spite of heavy odds.

Perhaps the most typical thing of his life was the publication in 1950 of Enthusiasm, that massive study of over 600 pages of religious "exaggerators" through Christian history. Ronnie, I have said, did not think that he had anything of great importance to contribute to Christian theology and philosophy. He was content to see his vocation in working to rule and necessity in a utilitarian way. But as keen a mind as his could hardly avoid all speculation, all relating of revealed truth and Church history to his own tastes and values. And indeed friends had observed for years that behind their backs, so to speak, he had been reading a great deal of material that did not seem to bear on his day-to-day writing—almost furtively taking notes on his reading. And one day, seven years before his death, out came from the Oxford University Press this unexpected and very self-revelatory work.

Apart from being the most amusing and freshly-turned serious work on Church history, Enthusiasm reflects its author's love of balance and common sense, of the solid highroad through emotional and subjective dangers. With reason, revelation and common sense (Aristotle and the Christian pattern) a man is safe. Let Plato, subjectivism, experience and ultrasupernaturalism in, and danger arises, if not to the individual personally, at least to enthusiastic disciples. Of such stuff are all heresies compounded.

Such is the thesis, strictly adhered to in the earlier part of the book. But the sympathy and sensitivity, so much part of the author's nature, so clearly visible in all his human contacts, find themselves coming more and more into play as the work proceeds. Religion is more than a philosophy, a doctrine, a safe way charted through dangers; it is a personal relationship with the Spirit of God, an embracing by His love. So many have so clearly become religious enthusiasts because they so clearly felt the touch of God in their souls. So, while maintaining his thesis, which indeed is irrefutable, we find the author more and more understanding of, more and more indulgent to, the enthusiasts, while not denying the dangers lurking within their spiritual zeal.

It is not without significance that "the biggest fish landed since Newman," the rarest, most detached of our contemporary Catholic Oxford scholars, the man molded by social and class associations that have passed, should have ended his days, seeking to enter the mind of a young nineteenth century bourgeois French girl called to Carmelite sanctity, as he translated the original text of the Little Flower's autobiography.

This article was taken from the December 1957 issue of "The Catholic World", published by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York.

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