For Christmas I received as a gift, and I have been reading with joy and benefit, Ronald Knox’s religious memoir, A Spiritual Aeneid. This book was written when Knox was still relatively young, so it is not a full autobiography. It is rather an account of his conversion to Catholicism from Anglicanism–which was a pretty big step for any Englishman of his generation, but especially for Knox, whose father was an Anglican bishop.
A book like this is instructive not only as regards the faith, but also with a view to seeing how the public culture has changed over the last 100 years (the book was published in 1918), at least in the English speaking world. In this regard, one passage in particular caught my attention. In the book’s first chapter, Knox discusses his earliest religious influences in childhood. His focus is almost entirely on the religiosity he picked up at school. He closes the chapter with this interesting remark:
In closing this haphazard account of early tendencies, I must apologize for one obvious gap. I have spoken throughout of my education away from home; and the best part of anybody’s education, particularly in matters of religion, inevitably comes from home influences. If I am silent about these, it is from a natural sense of piety and decency; self-revelation cannot go all lengths. Accounting as they do for so much in the stuff and fabric of my religion, they cannot be discussed here, only acknowledged with a gratitude I can never cease to feel.
There is a lovely generosity here, of course, in Knox’s continuing to value the piety he learned at home, even though he later thought he had to leave the church in which he was raised. What is more striking, however, as a point of cultural comparison is his unwillingness to talk about his home life out of simple respect for the privacy of his family. We live in an age when people are willing–and even apparently eager–to publish articles and books about their childhood in which they advertise to the world their parents’ failings, weaknesses, and vices. In contrast, Ronald Knox did not want to write for the public even about his family’s good points, seemingly just because it is nobody else’s business or because it is somehow improper to draw the veil away from one’s private life in this way.