Wednesday, March 28, 2012


The Shameless Popery blog has a good post on ecumenism, with several Knox quotes from 'Reunion All Round' and 'Absolute and Abitofhell'.

Monday, March 26, 2012


The new Sherlock Holmes movies, starring Robert Downey Jr., and the recent and returning PBS Sherlock Holmes shows, have attracted wide attention. Few people, however, seem aware of the connections between Holmes and Ronald Knox, or the significance of the year 2012 in this regard.

In particular, they are not aware that Holmes helped solve a serious problem Knox faced shortly after his graduation from Oxford in 1910, or that Knox played a major role in bringing Holmes back from the non-living. Because of this, they may be unaware of what Knox referred to as “my one permanent achievement.”

The story begins in 1910 when Knox was a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and preparing for ordination to the Anglican priesthood. In his Spiritual Aenied (the story of his conversion to Catholicism), Knox relates that, as a Fellow, he faced the task of preparing one talk for general college gatherings, and another for theological groups. Moreover, the young Knox was distressed by the fact that his teachers at Oxford had neglected one feature of religion to which he was especially attached: orthodoxy. It was in this situation that Sherlock Holmes came to Knox’s rescue. Knox wrote a talk titled Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, which he found would fulfill both functions, and simultaneously convey his distress at one feature of his training at Oxford, the attention given to biblical “Higher Criticism.” The Higher Critics were prone to pointing out contradictions in the Bible, and to making claims such as that Isaiah had been written not by one author, but by a proto- and deutero-Isaiah. What Knox did was to treat the then-published Sherlock Holmes stories as a sort of Canon composed, not by Arthur Conan Doyle, but by a proto- and deutero-Watson. Knox noted such facts as that Watson’s first name appears some times as John, other times as James. Knox thereby found that he had one talk that would suit both audiences, and simultaneously allow him to criticize the Higher Critics, whom, Knox noted, viewed his hilarious spoof as a “tract.” Moreover, when he sent the talk to Conan Doyle, Doyle delighted Knox with a warm response.

The effects of Knox’s paper have been quite extraordinary. It was first published exactly one hundred years ago, in 1912. It was republished in 1920, and then included in Knox’s Essays in Satire in 1928. Gradually, what Knox had done caught on. A host of other authors, including Dorothy Sayers, T. S. Eliot, Cambridge University’s Sir Sydney Roberts, and perhaps twenty thousand others decided that this was a fun game to play: to write about Holmes as if he were a non-fictional character, using a flood of footnotes to prove frequently absurd claims relating to him (e.g. that Watson was a woman), and to do all this in a totally somber way. Dorothy Sayers, who contributed to the literature by a major essay directed at establishing whether Holmes had attended Cambridge or Oxford, described the activity: “The game of applying the methods of the ‘Higher Criticism’ to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavoured to disintegrate the Bible. Since then, the thing has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America. The rule of the game is that it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”

Knox’s biographer, Evelyn Waugh, contributed to the story by quoting a remark Knox made on this matter: “it is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke.” It is hard to know how seriously Knox meant this remark, but it does seem clear that Knox would be astounded by the impact his paper has had. Recently, Professor Michael Saler has published a richly documented book in which he argues that Knox’s 1912 paper was the pioneering document in the present tendency of thousands of people to treat fictional characters as non-fictional, and, in effect, to attempt to live with and to devote much of their lives to studying the Hobbits, Harry Potter, etc.

Persons wishing to read Knox’s paper, or to read this story in full detail, or to examine the evidence supporting it, may wish to take a look at a book I have recently published, marking the anniversaries of Knox’s presenting and publishing his famous Sherlock Holmes essay: Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes: The Origin of Sherlockian Studies

Michael J. Crowe

Michael Crowe is Cavanaugh Professor Emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The book mentioned is Crowe’s ninth. Professor Crowe has been working hard trying to drum up interest in Ronald Knox at Notre Dame. A local newspaper ran a story on his efforts to engage students and others.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


For the Feast of St. Benedict, here's a reflection from a Benedictine, with quotes from the Holy Father and Ronald Knox.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Ronald Knox delighted in limericks, as in all forms of wit. Here's a sampling of his most famous:


The following limericks were written as a spoof of the bizarre theological notions of the Irish philosopher, Bishop Berkeley. Berkeley's teaching on the relationship between existence and perception is often, if inadequately, summed up in the formula esse est percipi, "to be is to be perceived."
There once was a man who said, 'God
Must think it exceedingly odd
   If he finds that this tree
   Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad.'
Dear Sir: Your astonishment's odd;
I am always about in the Quad.
   And that's why the tree
   Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.
O God, forasmuch as without Thee
We are not enabled to doubt thee,
   Help us all by Thy grace
   To convince the whole race
It knows nothing whatever about Thee.
Cf. the Collect for the 19th Sunday after Trinity


The authenticity of this limerick is vouched for by Sir William Hamilton Fyfe, who was present when it was composed. He reports: 'Scene: R.A.K.'s rooms in Trinity, c. 1911. Several other young dons in armchairs. R.A.K. on a window-seat with his legs up. Someone, looking at a magazine, calls out: "Here's a good title - the Bishop-Elect of Vermont." In the time that it took him to turn round and put his feet on the floor, R.A.K. produced this:
An Anglican curate in want
Of a second-hand portable font
   Will exchange for the same
   A photo (with frame)
Of the Bishop-Elect of Vermont.
There was a young man of Devizes,
Whose ears were of different sizes;
   The one that was small
   Was no use at all,
But the other won several prizes.
Visas erat: huic geminarum
Dispar modus auricularum;
   Minor haec nihili;
   Palma triplici
Iam fecerat altera clarum.
The above are reprinted in In Three Tongues.


Ronald Knox called attention to this limerick in his review of Langford Reed's The Complete Limerick Book; he found it in his Breviary:
Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio
Concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,
   Caritatis et patientiae,
    Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutum augmentatio.
If you'd like to find out more about this interesting piece of minutiae concerning Knox and St.Thomas read this article by A.N.Wilkins.

"Father Knox, are not limericks unfit
For a priest to compose?" "Not a bit!"
   He'd reply to his foes,
   "What makes you suppose
That the Lord is deficient in wit?"

Reprinted by permission of The Pentatette: the newsletter of the Limerick Special Interest Group.

Monday, March 5, 2012


Amazon offers a well-rounded selection of Ronald Knox's books for Kindle users:
  • The Essentials of Spiritual Unity: written between 1914-1917; Knox describes the thought process which led him to the Catholic Church.
  • In Soft Garments: (1942) is one of Knox's best-loved and most enduring works of apologetics. It's a collection of sermons given to Oxford undergraduates while he was their chaplain. Remarkably readable and relevant today.
  • Retreat For Lay People:(1955) a collection of 24 retreat meditations. A wonderful introduction to the style, wit, profound knowledge and compassionate heart of Msgr. Knox.
  • The Creed in Slow Motion:(1949) is a collection of sermons given to the nuns and schoolgirls at Aldenham after their evacuation during WW2.
  • Second Friends:(2008) by Fr. Milton Walsh. Father Walsh has used his understanding and knowledge of Msgr. Knox and C.S. Lewis to imagine a conversation between them.