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Neville Hunter Watts

I DON'T KNOW WHAT INTEREST MY LIFE SHOULD HAVE FOR anyone else, sufficient to make it worth while to describe it or anyone else's to read. But, after all, every individual life has something unique in it, something which, could it be communicated, would contribute to the sum of man's knowledge of his race. I'm just one of the human crowd, most human in my failings and my self-importance; but in the sight of my Maker I have a peculiar value and a special import. There's a pigeon-hole in heaven where my papers are docketed. And it isn't everyone who has been undeservedly lucky enough to find a Way of Life-a way that makes life add up and come close to a reasonable result, as I have. Everyone's life is different, but some lives are more different than others. -

I was one of the large family of an Anglican clergyman, and I was brought up to be "good, like father," who, in my eyes, could do no wrong. To be good meant to be like Jesus Christ, to be obedient and gentle and honest, not to pull my sisters' hair, and not to play with my toys (except Noah's Ark) on Sundays. On my walks with my mother or nurse, I would occasionally meet a Catholic priest (generally fat, and rather shabby) or a pair of nuns, and, on enquiry about them, I would be told that they bowed down to images, worshipped the Virgin Mary, and devoted their efforts to "getting hold" of simple Protestants, especially rich ones.

Throughout my boyhood and adolescence I was, by my mother's influence and prayers (for which I have never ceased gratefully to bless her memory) preserved from the grosser sins. Twice I was swept emotionally off my feet by religious spasms: once after Confirmation, when in the presence of my embarrassed family I went to my knees and burst into tears in the dining-room; once, at the age of seventeen, when a celebrated revivalist preacher conducted a week's mission in my father's church. But these were both transient and, in my second year at Cambridge, I avowed myself as an agnostic, and for the next seven years I never, except to comply with college rules or to conform to my family when I was at home, entered any place of worship.

After graduating I applied for and obtained the post of Classical master at Downside, a celebrated English Catholic school. My parents, who had expected that my lapse into irreligion would prove as transient as my earlier phases of religiosity, had not resigned the hope that I would enter the Anglican ministry, and were strongly opposed to my connecting myself with a Papist institution; crucifixes in all the class-rooms, my father urged, would surely be most distasteful to me. But I pointed out that, having refused to swallow anything, I was secure from the fate of being tempted to swallow everything, and that my choice of the post was due merely to its being situated in a part of England which I had known and loved in walking-tours.

The school was run by Benedictine monks, and among them, and among my pupils, I soon found friends. I taught Latin and Greek, I played cricket, I walked in the beautiful countryside, and I was supremely happy. But, though I soon outgrew my prejudices against the Catholic Church, I drew no nearer to her. I invented a nature-religion of my own, whose high priests were Wordsworth and Shelley. One evening, in converse with a Catholic lay colleague, I threw out some ill-considered and probably ill-mannered jibe at the Church. My friend, with perfect firmness and perfect good humour, proceeded to dress me down until I was no more than a limp rag. I was humiliated, but my humiliation germinated within me and slowly, in the year that followed, grew into a realization of the meaning of the Church. I fought against this, even to the extent of breaking off my engagement to a Catholic girl on the ground that our religious differences amounted to an incompatibility which would make married happiness impossible. She became a nun, and I have no doubt that it was her prayers that broke down my resistance to the light and brought the truth into clear focus. I put myself under instruction, and after six months was received into the Church.

My Protestant relatives, deeply resentful at my defection, were at pains to represent my 'lapse' into 'Romanism' as the reaction of a weak and malleable nature to its environment; it was just a case of protective assimilation to background. The first World War wrenched me away from this background and probably gave my family to hope that my delusions would succumb to an alien and possibly hostile milieu. And it might well have proved so, but for the grace of God. Sunday Mass was intermittent, chaplains were rare birds, and the only other Catholic officer in my battalion had given up the practice of his religion and was a man of low, indeed of no, morals.

On my return from the war, I resumed my teaching routine, trying to infect my pupils with my own passion for the literature, and above all for the poetry, of the two languages commonly known as 'dead'-the two most alive languages in humanity-Greek and Latin. Out of these has grown the literature of the English-speaking races, and my love for this grew with and out of my love for the former. I spent a summer holiday in making a selection of English medieval religious poetry, which Burns and Oates published in 1924, under the title Love Songs of Sion. I worked at two volumes of translations of Cicero's speeches for the Loeb Library. In 1937 Burns and Oates brought out a small collection of my verses, Pedant Poems, as to the value of which I am under no illusion. More important and more formative than these was my taking up lecturing in 1926 for the Workers' Educational Association. This organization, non-political and non-sectarian, provides for adults in scores of towns and villages all over England evening courses in a wide variety of subjects, the only limitation being that the instruction shall be nonvocational,-education for life, not for livelihood. I threw myself into this work with avidity, travelling distances up to thirty miles or more after my day's work in school, often three evenings in the week. My audience would number sometimes sixty, sometimes six. I would talk as a low-brow to low-brows. By this I mean that I was not interested, and made it no part of my business to interest my class, in the snob-values of literature,-its use as a means of social or vocational advancement. I tried to present literature, and above all poetry, to them as a means to fuller and deeper life for themselves because it would help them, paradoxically, to live not in and for themselves but in and for others, to care more about more things. "Christianity taught us to care. Caring is the great thing, caring matters most," wrote von Huegel on his death-bed. Great literature, too, teaches us to care, and so can be a handmaid to religion.

During more than twenty years of this work, members of my classes had from time to time told me that they would like to have some record of my talks. So in 1946, I sent a selection of them to a publisher-a Catholic publisher, as I was confident that my angle on literature had been a Catholic angle. The book was accepted by Sheed and Ward, published under the title The Vision Splendid, and has found a fair number of readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Such has been my brief and spasmodic literary output. If it has any import at all, it may be summed up in lines which perhaps contain more truth and value than all else that I have written put together:

To set thy heart a harp to every breeze;
To greet life's grandeur on adoring knees; 
To see the world as pitying Godhead sees, 
One-souled, one-hearted with "the least of these"- 
This is the end of all philosophies.

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors

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