A Conversion Letter Worthy of Brideshead

Traveling for the Institute has not been easy. I always hate leaving home and family. But I have been amply rewarded by my family’s support of this important work, and by the privilege of meetChauncey Stillman youngering so many dedicated Catholic educators and beautiful Catholic people. As Our Lord promised:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,  who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

One of the houses I have been blessed to be welcomed into is Wethersfield Estate and Gardens in Amenia, New York. Built by Chauncey Devereux Stillman, Wethersfield is only two hours north of NYC, but part of another world. To me, being at Wethersfield is like a taste of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead. From the full length portrait of Stillman as a jaunty confident young Harvard undergrad of the late twenties to the compelling frescoes painted by friend Pietro Annigoni to the continued tradition of foxhunts in Dutchess County, parallels to Waugh’s nostalgic/romantic po5519609_origrtrayal of the home of Sebastian and Julia Flyte abound. The Estate even retains the Mr. Stillman’s several dozen aristocratic carriages, each worthy of Sebastian, along with stories of Mr. Stillman’s daily carriage drives around the miles of pathway dedicated to them.

On my last visit, an Academic Retreat I led for teachers from St. Thomas Aquinas Tutorial, Wethersfield’s Executive Director, Douglas Dewey, completed the Brideshead magic by reading to us a letter Mr. Stillman wrote to his beloved sister, in which he broke the news that he was joining the Catholic Church. The letter is beautifully, feelingly crafted. In it you feel his affectionate anxiety for his dear friends, but also his calm, deep, grace-filled confidence in taking what was in 1951 still a very dramatic step for a scion of the East Coast aristocracy.

He highlights the role played by the attractions of culture, his experience as a naval officer, his intimate friendships with Catholics, and the best parts of the Episcopalian tradition. His experience anticipated that of many Christians who have embraced the revival of clasChauncey Stillmansical education:

Many years ago I started finding that every secular expression of the human spirit that struck me as valid, beautiful, wholesome, could be traced back, if one sought far enough, to the mainstream of Christianity, usually pre-Reformation.  This proved true of architecture, painting, music; economics, social ethics, psychology, – even romantic poetry.

Mr. Stillman’s faith became an inseparable part of his life. He remodeled a sitting room into a private chapel,

1276816_orig founded the Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard (first held by Institute inspiration, Christopher Dawson), and founded The Wethersfield Institute “to promote a clear understanding of Catholic teaching and practice and to explore the cultural and intellectual dimensions of the Catholic faith.” The Institute continues to do this through its own programs and by opening Wethersfield to organizations, like our Institute, that share its mission.

With the gracious permission of The Wethersfield Foundation, I have appended a transcript of the letter below, along with a link to a PDF of the original. Please pray for its flourishing, and for the repose of the souls of Mr. Stillman and his loved ones.


Dearest Elizabeth,

I’ve long put off writing you this letter wondering how to do it without distressing you.  Now I rely most earnestly on your love and respect, and Lang’s, for sympathy when I tell you that I am taking a step of greatest significance to me: that is joining the Catholic Church.  Only two considerations mar my happiness about it – that you may be troubled at first to learn it, and that I will henceforth be attending a different service from Lily and Theo.  To you two, as to them eventually, I owe some account of the path that has led me to conversion.

Summarily – too simply put to mean much – of course my reason is that I am convinced that the whole truth is contained in the Catholic Faith.  Chesterton remarked, “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church.  The moment men cease to pull against it, they feel the tug towards it.”  As you know, I’ve felt this tug for years.  To resist it longer would be a denial, a refusal to bear witness to the light as I see it.

Many years ago I started finding that every secular expression of the human spirit that struck me as valid, beautiful, wholesome, could be traced back, if one sought far enough, to the mainstream of Christianity, usually pre-Reformation.  This proved true of architecture, painting, music; economics, social ethics, psychology, – even romantic poetry.  It took me a long time (me lazy, scatter-brained, and no scholar) to face up to the inference that all these peripheral paths that I wandered across led from a central highway.

An obstacle has been the notion that the Catholic Faith required a servile, unreasoning submission to authority.  Fortunately life has given me a number of Catholic friends, notably Louis Warren, Martha Hamlen, and the Emmett Rieras.  Although I have never seriously discussed religion with any of them, their lives have shown me that the assumption that they were in any way unfree was a chimera.  Gradually my distrust of spiritual authority per se dissolved, to be replaced by the desire for duty, enrollment, under such authority as “an obligation freely undertaken.”

Here my navy experiences helped by an analogy.  Submission to authority, it became plain to me, is a condition of honorable service.  For instance, in the navy there were men above me to whom I must submit, and men below me to whom I must transmit authority.  My own effectiveness and peace of mind depended on subordination, on my acceptance of my place in an order.  So, in creation, I as a man rank somewhere between animal and angel.  The Church recognizes, reflects this hierarchic condition of man.  She doesn’t expect each seaman or junior officer to route the task force or to write fleet doctrine, but she requires his full duty for the successful accomplishment of the entire mission.  When a man sets out on a long combat voyage he does well to travel with professional officers, the most reliable charts, and tested instruments.

I feel in this step I make no repudiation of any positive tenet of the Episcopal Church.  I am grateful for familiarity with “her august and passionate liturgy,” for having known such ministers as Bishop Rhinelander, Arthur Ketchum, and Tooie Kinsolving.  In joining the Catholic Church I feel I am abandoning no birthright but reclaiming the full one that your and my ancestors enjoyed for some 1500 years, then relinquished some 450 years ago.  I have found the rooted tree from which the branch was lopped.

As an undergraduate I was surprised to hear Bishop Rhinelander remark that the Protestant Reformation was the greatest tragedy in history.  I remembered the remark on reading Belloc to the effect that the tragedy was two-fold in that the north lost the full faith whereas the Catholic Church lost “the genius of the north.”  I guess he means that she lost the peculiar contribution that lay within the Teutonic (including Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian) people.  I mention this realizing ruefully how alien to us yankees the surface of Catholic practice and people can seem.  But I have learned to distinguish between faith and its temporal vessels.

Solely on my own hook I sought instruction, choosing a priest mainly because his office was on 76th Street and Madison.  No friend has been consulted.  I have never been proselytized; in fact I have been lengthily and rather austerely quizzed on my sincerity.

I doubt if my external life will show much change.  I daresay I will continue to be a stumbling, erratic person.  But I know I will get back on course more quickly after each aberration, and with no more wanderings into “adventures of discontent.”  I know that I will continue and increase in the love of the same people, particularly yourselves.

Always devotedly,

Chauncey

July 1951

to my sister, written longhand of course

(copy kept for my daughters)

Chauncey Stillman’s brief Apologia

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About Andrew Seeley

With over 30 years of immersion in a Great Books based, fully integrated curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College in California, I enjoy sharing the fruits of the discussions I have with students, colleagues and friends about authors and ideas. As the Director of Advanced Formation for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and a founding member of the Justin Martyr Fellows, I work to share my good fortune with Catholic educators and students around the country. As a lover of God, Church, family, America, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, I like to write about them in particular ways.
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One Response to A Conversion Letter Worthy of Brideshead

  1. Alvin J Wolf Jr says:

    Dear Andrew, I’m reminded of the definition of the proof of faith which is the conduct of one’s life. Mr. Stillman’s credit to men and women who exemplified the Catholic faith through the conduct of their lives ought to remind us all of our potential to evangelize silently.

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