“In the presence of this man I did not feel ashamed”

Continuing with Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden (see previous post), after a week of not reading very much I’ve now reached 1937, when Auden met Charles Williams – best known today as a member of the Inklings. Carpenter writes (p.223):

Williams, then in his early fifties, commanded adoring attention from a small but devoted circle of readers for his strange novels, best described as theological thrillers, his works on Christianity, his plays, and his poetry, all of which gave expression to his highly idiosyncratic view of the Christian religion – a view moulded by such diverse influences as Dante and Rosicrucianism.

Williams was working for the Oxford University Press, and met Auden to discuss the latter’s proposal for an Oxford Book of Light Verse. The OUP accepted this proposal, after Williams argued (in an internal memorandum after his meeting with Auden) that “it would be quite a good idea to collect Auden’s name”.

But the main impact of this meeting for Auden was rather different. He said of meeting Williams:

For the first time in my life, [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity.

Carpenter observes that Auden was not alone in this. T.S. Eliot said much the same of Williams, who had (in Carpenter’s words) “an extraordinary radiance that made a profound impression; he emanated love”.

Auden later wrote:

I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings, but in the presence of this man – we never discussed anything but literary business – I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving. (I later discovered that he had had a similar effect on many other people.)

This meeting did not immediately affect Auden’s views on religion – which, for now, remained closer to “E.M. Forster’s humanist agnosticism” (p.237) – but “it made him aware of the existence of something that seemed to him to be sanctity”.

What most struck me about this, though, was that description of the quality of true sanctity, true holiness. Good people make us feel inadequate and ashamed; holy people make us feel (however briefly) transformed, lifted up, unashamed – because they radiate the holiness of a loving and forgiving God who is in the business of transformation.

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1 thought on ““In the presence of this man I did not feel ashamed””

  1. Glad you’re doing this series. I just downloaded a Kindle sample of the book this afternoon and think I may buy the book.

    Your contrast between the holy and the good reminds me of something I first saw framed on a friend’s wall:

    For the good man to realize
    that it is better to be whole
    than to be good
    is to enter on a straight and
    narrow path compared to which
    his previous rectitude
    was flowery license.

    ~ John Middleton Murry (1889-1957)

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