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An Account of Friendship between George Tyrrell and Maude Petre

Ivana Noble 

‘Truth can and ought to be approached from many sides; it is not different because these aspects and approaches are different. The same city will offer as many distinct views to the sketcher as there are points in the surrounding horizon; but by no summing together of these sketches can we bring the whole within the compass of a single inward gaze. Religion too can be set before us under different presentations, all true in their way, but none, nor all together, exhaustive of reality. We can recognise under various descriptions a face that we have once seen; but if we have never seen it, no description can bring its full individuality home to us.' (Lex Orandi,1904: v)[1]

George Tyrrell's metaphor of a city and a sketcher trying to catch one of its many facets carries two important recognitions: first, that our understanding of reality, including religion, is always pluralist and never complete; second, that it stands and falls with religious immanence, the concept that provoked so much reaction at the beginning of the century.[2] What did Tyrrell mean by the stress on immanence? As he wanted to argue against 'the purely intellectual aspect of religion' (1904:vi), already in Lex Orandi and Lex Credendi he took for his starting point a "sense of God" or "religious sense", that was assumed to be natural to every person, and embedded in all human experience of reality. In this article, nevertheless, I am not going either to argue for its rightness or to examine its complexity, rather I am going to consider a particular quality of immanence - a need of communion. Thus, I will look at a particular instance of it, George Tyrrell's friendship with Maude Petre. Friendship, or friendly love, will be depicted as something fundamentally church-building at the closest level.[3] My interest is both, historical and theological. The friendship between George Tyrrell and Maude Petre attract me as a developing phenomena, which enabled Tyrrell to be sustained by the friendly and caring face of the church while bearing a gradual abandonment by the church hierarchy during the anti-modernist controversies, and which helped Petre to find her place in church, where communication was demanding but fresh, opening new horizons and inviting the whole of personality, yet with a permanent accent that the other cannot be owned. The theme interests me theologically because of the disjoint between immanence and individualism, and because of the contribution of friendship to the understanding of the church as a communion.

1. A Historical Perspective

A retreat given by George Tyrrell in July 1900 was a beginning of a life-time friendship between himself and Maude Petre. She speaks of it in her diaries as the ‘beginning of a new life' (My Way of Faith:13)[4], and identifies it with a love, which in its demanded purity, is to lead her to ‘more faith and religion than it [the soul] had ever known.' (‘An Englishwoman's Love Letters', The Month 97 (1901):120). George Tyrrell in that time was working as the editor of the Month and his main interests in spirituality and helping to remove intellectual obstacles of his contemporaries to faith, showing a Catholicism, which was both traditional and modern, sacramental and secular, closely corresponded to those of Maude Petre.

George Tyrrell was born in 1861 in Dublin, an Anglican by baptism, a convert to Catholicism, entered the Society of Jesus and studied the scholastic theology, both of which in his later critical view represented an authoritarian form of religion. After ordination and a short period in a parish he taught philosophy and soon became known through his articles in The Month. His first interest in spirituality was accompanied by the new discoveries in historical and biblical criticism of Christianity, in which he saw a remedy for resolving the conflict between modern culture and Christian tradition statically conceived. From 1899 he was confronted with the conflicts with the Vatican and Jesuit authorities, first refusing to give the imprimatur to his writing, then dismissing him from the Society of Jesus, then from the ministry as such, forbidding him to preach and to communicate any of his religious ideas even in private correspondence, and finally, after the pronouncement of Pascendi excommunicating him de facto, by forbidding him from receiving sacraments, although his case was claimed to be reserved to the Vatican. He died in 1909, in the age of 48, conditionally given the last sacrament, but refused burial in a Catholic cemetery.

Maude Petre was born in 1863 at Coptfold Hall in Essex in an old aristocratic English Catholic family. As she later expresses in My Way of Faith, her family took belonging to the Catholic Church as something not alterable, even if it was costly for her ancestors[5] in times of persecution, and later for herself during the anti-Modernist controversies. She stated: ‘As to the Church, there was no question about it. She contained for us all that we needed. We were inside, totally inside, without the least notion of there being any habitable place outside ... She contained us, held us, embraced us; she fulfilled all our spiritual needs, had the answer to all our spiritual questions.' (61) Before Maude Petre was twenty she lost both of her parents. And although the family tradition, the Cisalpine spirit[6], as she often referred to it, her young adulthood was signed by a spiritual trauma and religious doubts. She searched for advice and got one from Father Peter Gallwey S.J. to study Aquinas in Rome so that ‘she would be immune from doubt for the rest of her life.' (Crews, 1984:8)[7] Tyrrell comments on Maude's "pilgrimage for certitude" years later in his poem "Rome Express":

‘Lo, in the rear an Amazon who shoves

And murmurs to herself: I feel it moves

Herself immobile, nothing can defeat her;

Rock versus Rock and Petre versus Peter.'


Crews note: ‘Her perplexed aunt, Lady Lindsay, told her overly inclusive friends: "Maude has gone to Rome to study for the priesthood."' (8)[8] Back in London in 1890 Maude Petre entered a noviciate of the Society of the Heart of Mary, where she renewed her vows till 1907, when she was made separated from the congregation.[9] In the meantime, however, she was its zealous member looking after settling orphanages and houses for the poor, as well as instruction of converts and soon became a superior. In the year 1900 she worked herself to an edge of a breakdown marked with fatigue and depression. Meeting with George Tyrrell represented for her a turning point, of which she said: ‘And from that time forth my friendship with George Tyrrell took on ever increasingly the character of a spiritual vocation.' (My Way of Faith, 1937: 276) As Crews summarize, Maude Petre on her side sought‘ to share his dangers, to check his imprudence and to ensure his perseverance' (1984:12), the main factors, that could contribute toTyrrell's growth. George Tyrrell, on his side saw Maude Petre as a trusted, critical and intelligent friend, on whose support he could rely without reserve.

To speak of their friendship in terms of showing something of the closeness of the tights building up the church, means also to mention a tension between a shared purpose and a shared affection, which contributed to this "vocation". This can be best summarised in Tyrrell's position as depicted by Crews: ‘He went on to reject any love... that resulted in a clinging attachment' (1984:13). Petre in My Way of Faith reflect on'Tyrrell and I were as unlike as possible in temperament and character; he was elusive, I was direct; he was rebellious, I was law-abiding; he was subtle, I was simple; he was utterly without self-regard, I was self-conscious.' (1937:271) Yet the friendship was ‘as pure on both sides, and as disinterested in its comon aims as any friendship could be.'(1937:273) The "common aims" linked Tyrrell and Petre to the community of the church, which was a priority, however, it was their friendship and other friendships, which represented means of grace there and made the sacramentality of the church something visible. Crews quoting Petre's article ‘An Englishwoman's Love Letters' says: ‘One human being's love for another, she thought, as it grows ever deeper, "begins to seek God, for it has laid hold of what, in man, is most hidden, and also most divine."[10] ...a fundamental theme that would run like a thread through many of Maude Petre's later writings: the incarnational truth that human thought and experience are the primary locus of spiritual realities.' (1984:17)[11]

Maude Petre accompanied Tyrrell through the difficult time of the controversies till his death. She was a thinker of her own value, a friend of Bremond, and Baron von Hügel, not a "clinging attachment" without her own life, own ideas. Nevertheless, their relationship was often misunderstood. In 1902-1904 both lived in Richmond and Maude Petre was asked to leave it because of ‘her frequent companionship with Tyrrell' (Crews:14). The dramatic year of 1907, which brought the decree Lamentabili and the encyclical Pascendi, placing the "modernists" outside the church, also ended Maude Petre's membership in the the Society of the Heart of Mary.[12] When in 1908 Tyrrell, whose health was decreasing, moved to Storrington, to the small house attached to where Petre lived, both were reconciled to bear the gossip, even if there was nothing to hide. The unwelcome of the local Premonstrate Priory and by the local bishop Amigo did not stop hospitality and friendship to be shown. Petre looked after Tyrrell throughout his illness until 1909, when he died, she organised his fortification by the sacraments, a funeral in a situation that an official Catholic funeral was rejected, as well as ensured that a gossip would not spread that Tyrrell recanted his beliefs and thought. After Tyrrell's death Petre worked as an executor of his writings[13] and as an early historian of the Modernist movement[14]. Although the two world wars brought new social and political themes to Maude Petre's thought, she kept her interest in ecclesiology, authority and spirituality. Her persistence to receive communion in the Roman Catholic Church as its genuine faithful without signing the anti-Modernist oath, she was asked to by bishop Amigo, finally found support in 1939, when Pius XII became pope.[15] Maude Petre died in 1942 and was buried besides Tyrrell and their mutual friend Arthur Bell in the Anglican Churchyard at Storrington. Although in the diocese south of the Thames, she shared with Tyrrell the exclusion from the visible communion of the church, at the Westminster diocese at a requiem mass (which took part at Assumption Convent at Kensington Square) she was described by a Carmelite priest as a ‘Most holy and spiritual woman.' (Crews:100)

2. A Theological Perspective

In this part I will concentrate on shared aims of Tyrrell-Petre's friendship, in particular a spiritual growth of the church. Along the way I will trace the sustaining and germinating power of friendship, when other means of visible church support acted against Tyrrell and Petre.

As I quoted at the beginning of this article, Tyrrell in the Lex Orandi, when he speaks of a variety of ways in which we can encounter truth employs a symbol of a face: ‘We can recognise under various descriptions a face that we have once seen; but if we have never seen it, no description can bring its full individuality home to us.' (1904:v) His emphasis on a "sense of God" within us, which enables us to recognise God in all other things, does not operate on abstract ideas, but rather on experiences, which are interwoven in the life of the church. This is something dynamic. Tyrrell emphasizes a need for changes in history as well as in one's personal life, the need for permanent adaptation to new conditions. Tyrrell speaks of the 'process of becoming' where the Divine is something actual and given (Christianity at the Cross-Roads,1909:115)[16].Tyrrell asks: 'How, then, must we, here and now, understand the apocalyptic and transcendental revelation of Jesus, so as to shape our spiritual life, feeling and action in harmony with His? How must we re-embody the same "idea" if it is to live for us?' (1909:114) Tyrrell was aware that this process does not happen in isolation, that it is a shared enterprise, something, which so vividly comes from the pictures of Jesus's life testified in the gospels.

Petre in her "re-embodiment" of the apocalyptic and transcendental revelation of Jesus highlight that as ‘human thought and experience are the primary locus of spiritual realities' (Crews:17), emphasises the value of friendship. It was the friendship, which demonstrated a capacity of solidarity and support, where companionship has become a reality. Tyrrell in Through Scylla and Charybdis, claims: 'Life is the test and criterion for truth' (1907:196)[17]. The whole of human life including spiritual life is something within us, but not of us, as Tyrrell emphasizes, we take part in shaping it, in opening it to relationships, both human and divine. If life is the test and criterion for truth, than what enables us to become more alive, cannot be otherwise but taking its strength from God of life.

For Tyrrell and Petre friendship, which takes its inspiration in the life of Jesus, is a church-building concept rather than an expression of an exclusive love. In her article ‘George Tyrrell and Friedrich von Hügel in their Relation to Catholic Modernism' Petre wrote about friendship in terms of a shared fidelity to the church, to her living tradition and its costly permanent adaptation, ‘for the sake of which he [the Modernist] endured the cramping torture of ecclesiastical institutions, because inspite of their limitations, he found in them support in the passage through this dark and troubled life; he found through them, the grace to live, the courage to die.' (Modern Churchman 17 (June 1927): 143-54, 154)

When we speak of Tyrrell's and Petre's shared fidelity to the church, which plays such an important role that they give it priority from personal "happiness" - or rather that they see their fullest happiness in her and in the service of her, it is important to look at their understanding of the church. Petre in My Way of Faith in an account of why she remained in the church sketches the following portrait of her:

‘The Church has lighted my way. Instead of struggling through a wilderness I have had a road... Without the Church should I have learned to serve, to pray, to love, to adore? ...She taught me why I was in this world and what I had to do while I was in it; she taught me the right use of my body, without despising it, and its subjugation to the soul; she taught me spiritual ambition, in virtue of my high destiny; she taught me to remember my own weakness and my inability to fulfill that destiny unaided; she taught me that God was my portion, and she offered me priceless help in attainment of that portion; she told me what sin was, and she expected me to fall into it, but she offered me daily and hourly recovery from it; she spread out her sacramental system, with its visible and corporeal means of spiritual regeneration and strength and growth...In one word, she has taught me how to seek God. I believe that God's ways are not our ways and God's thoughts are not ours; that He can and does reveal Himself in countless ways. But to me He gave that way and showed no better one...' (341-342)

This shared understanding of the church marries devotion and questioning, something which represented the strongest common interest of Tyrrell and Petre since they met at a retreat in 1900, and which made their course so costly. Tyrrell's controversies started after having published his article ‘A Perverted Devotion' in Weekly Register in December 1899[18], where he opposed the idea of faith being based on a fear from hell. And in the same year in ‘Theology and Devotion'[19], an article, which summarised his future efforts, he gave an account of devotion as a living source of theology, which is to ‘bring us back to our original point of departure [with a child-like concrete devotion], albeit on a higher plane; to restore to us the stimulus of our childlike conceptions, not only fully, but superabundantly; and to convince us almost experimentally, that God's way of putting the truth was, after all, the better and the wiser.' (471) but he also elaborates on its tendencies to curve, to obscure, to become an oppressive burden. Two years later Maude Petre publishes also in Weekly Register a three part article ‘Devotion and Devotions', in which she tackles the problem of providence and determinism. Crews summarizes: ‘One measures the worth of special devotions, she had begun, not by any mere appeal to antiquity; rather one asks if the devotion is truly living, springing from "the soil of our spiritual life."' (17) [20] Tyrrell gains space for devotion, but also points to its dangerous deviations, Petre widens its understanding. Against limiting God and God's saints to asking for little favours she emphasizes the desire for the Lord alone.[21] She, similarly to Tyrrell, emphasizes the permanent need of cultivation and growth, which prevents devotion from its destruction and the church from symptoms of death. Again Crews summarizes: ‘The real enemies of spiritual truth, she wrote, are those "who repress endeavor to renew it in each age of the world." Life is after all, "a continued renewal, and mere repetition is another name for the decay that leads to death."' (18)[22]

In 1904 Maude Petre published a pamphlet for the Catholic Truth Society in London, entitled ‘Devotional Essays'. Its theme elaborated the earlier work, Where Saints Have Trod (1903). The same year brings about a book called The Soul's Orbit, which was written in a cooperation with Tyrrell.[23] There we read: ‘Our journeying to God is so pre-eminently a matter of action, experiment, life and movement, that it is needful perhaps to consider what part thought and knowledge and speech have got to play in the process.' (1904:9)[24] This theme run through all Tyrrell's major works: Nova et Vetera (1900), Hard Sayings (1901), Lex Orandi (1903), Lex Credendi (1906), Through Scylla and Charybdis: The Old Theology and the New (1907), Medievalism: A Reply to Cardinal Mercier (1908), and Christianity at the Cross-Roads (1909). Petre elaborates the theme in Petre's The Temperament of Doubt (1904) and Catholicism and Independence: Being Studies in Spiritual Liberty (1907), as well as later in the historical and biographical writings. Again and again we read of the church, which when it faces the world has through Christ in the Spirit means of salvation for the world, of the spiritual grounds of our being and of the sacramental aid to built on them. We read of the divine embodied love calling for a response embodied in our relationships and our actions. There, indeed, ‘Truth can and ought to be approached from many sides' and ‘it is not different because these aspects and approaches are different.' (Lex Orandi, 1904:v)

To conclude, I entitled this article "A sketch of divine love", precisely because the friendship of Tyrrell and Petre, in spite of all its difficulties, brings home to me the "full individuality" of the city or of the face, in Tyrrell's imagery, which speaks of God being active in our lives, of the Father through the Son giving the church as "the road to walk", and in Spirit to understand that it is ‘the road to an end, not an end itself - the road to truth, not the fullness of truth itself' (Petre, 1937:341). In this sketch I tried to depict friendship as an expression of the church, where love, faithfulness, support and solidarity were to be found, rather than mourning about situations and relationships which lacked these qualities. A remembrance of a friendship, which was capable to bear so much opposition and to transform it creatively into hope and work for better future, without becoming bitter that God's kairos does not run as fast as our life, seemed to me the best way of celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tyrrell's ‘Theology and Devotion'.

[1]Lex Orandi: Or, Prayer and Creed. Longmans, Green, London 1904.

[2] 'Immanentism', as an attempt, which derives religious truth from the intrinsic needs of life, was condemned both by the Holy Office's decree ‘Lamentabili Sane Exitu' (4 July 1907), a list of modernist errors, and then the pope, Pius X, completed it with an encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (8 September 1907) making out of these errors a clearly defined system on which base the 'modernists' wanted to destroy the foundations of the church, see ‘Pascendi', in The Doctrines of the Modernists, 1937: 11-15. However, neither of the documents examined with an openness to a favourable interpretation what really was meant by the stress on immanence by those theologians who were accused of immanentism.

[3]See John 15:12-17.

[4] My Way of Faith. Dent and Sons, London 1937.

[5] E.g. in the eigtheen century the great-great-grandfather of Maude Petre, Robert Edward, Lord Petre, was the first president of the Castholic Committee (later called the Cisalpine Club), which played a vital role in a struggle for a Catholic emancipation. See C.F. Crews, English Catholic Modernism: Maude Petre's Way of Faith. University of Notre Dame Press, Burns & Oates, Notre Dame, Kent, 1984:2-4.

[6]The Cisalpine group exercised both a great deal of independence and yet a respect for an ecclesial authority. In the eighteen and nineteen century the group was e.g. opposing the preparations of ground for pronouncing the dogma on papal infallibility. See British Museum, Add. MS. 52,367, Petre Papers, Vol.1, Tyrrell-Petre, December 18, 1900.

[7]In My Way of Faith Maude Petre looking back says: ‘It was a fairly crazy idea,' (172), however she pursuied it in the time being.

[8]Cf. My Way of Faith: 168.

[9] The Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary was founded in France during the French Revolution as an attempt to live a religious life in a secular society. Its members were not bound to live in religious community or wear a distinctive dress. Maude hoped to find there freedom in expression of contemplative as well as active life. But she never took perpetual vows and in 1907, after her publication of Catholicism and Independence was refused to renew her temporary vows.

[10]Cf. ‘An English Woman's Love Letters', The Month 97 (1901):124.

[11]However, Crew also notes that ‘her conception of God's immanence in man is very far from excluding transcendence.' And that she hold as Blondel and Tyrrell that ‘transcendent Being is immanent in human experience, but that which is within us is not of us.' (1984:17)

[12]See controversies round Petre's book Catholicism and Independence, Crews: 38-47.

[13]She has posthumously published Tyrrell's Christianity at the Cross-Roads (1909), completed Tyrrell's autobiography, which was published as The Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell (1912), edited and published his Essays on Faith and Immortality (1914) and George Tyrrell's Letters (1920).

[14]See Modernism: Its Failure and Its Fruits (1918), but also My Way of Faith (1937), Von Hügel and Tyrrell: The Story of Friendship (1937), and Alfred Loisy: His Religious Significance (1944).

[15]See a reply of Pius XXII Secretary of State to Petre's letter saying: ‘Most Esteemed Lady - The Holy Father cannot but rejoice at the desire which is echoed in your Ladyship letter. The Lord will dispose how and when he will be able to grant it. Meanwhile he entrusts it to Him with the most fervent prayer; and in sending to your Ladyship his paternal blessing he blesses also - invoking upon them light and teachableness of spirit - all who in sincerity of heart are straining towards one truth and seeking it in charity.' (British Museum, Add. MS.52,381, Petre Papers, Vol 15, Maglione-Petre, April 14, 1939; in Crews:128)

[16]Longmans, Green, London 1909.

[17]Longmans, Green, 1907.

[18] Cf. Weekly Register in December 16, 1899:797-800.

[19]Cf. The Month 94 (1899), 461-473.

[20]Cf. Weekly Register, November 22, 1901:636.

[21]Cf. Weekly Register, December 6, 1901:701.

[22]Cf. ‘Human Love and Divine Love', Catholic World 74 (January 1902): 442.

[23]In the prologue to this book the name of the person who collaborated on the book is not mentioned, however Maude Petre admits in the Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell, that it was him. See Crews:31.

[24]The Soul's Orbit or Man's Journey to God. Longmans and Green, London 1904.