Prayers and Saving Grace

I saw the movie “Benediction” last night. The beautiful and historic period piece was intriguing. Siegfried Sassoon, the English poet most known for his moving poetry about World War I wrote a letter after the Battle of Somme, declining further service. He was saved from Court Marshal and a death sentence through political and family connections, spending time instead at a psychiatric hospital. He formed very deep connections with his doctor and a fellow patient.

The film is worth seeing, but in my mind had some very loose ends that could have been more accurately and effectively tied. The movie softly jumps from one to another of Sassoon’s repeated efforts to reconcile the horror of war with a productive, meaningful life. There is a brief scene of his intention to become Catholic as an elderly man, and it looks like one more futile attempt to “save” himself.

A man who has previously had many affairs with other men, Sassoon marries a young woman, Hester Gatty, telling her that his whole future could depend on her. With Hester he has a son, and announces to party guests that this child is his future. She makes a comment that he said that once of her, hinting at the breakdown of the marriage.

It is not mentioned in the movie, but in the late 1950s he began to correspond with Mother Margaret Mary McFarlin of the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington. He introduced his niece Jessica to the nun, and she became Catholic. Jessica became a nun herself after his death. I’d like to think that he did find redemption in a belief system that gives meaning to life, to suffering, to difficulties, to attempts to find happiness in the flesh, to betrayals, even to horror.

Sassoon lived amongst famous writers, musicians, poets and royalty. His mother is portrayed in the movie by Geraldine James. She was actually an artist herself, a member of the famous Thornycroft family of sculptors. In James she exudes a sad peace, quiet and steadfast, beautiful and pained. Her younger son Hami is killed in the war.

Sassoon wrote a poem about her, To My Mother.

I watch you in your constant way,

In selfless duty long grown grey;

And to myself I say

That I have lived my life to learn

How lives like you unasking earn

Aureoles that guide, and burn

In heart’s remembrance when the proud

Who snared the suffrage of the crowd

Are dumb and dusty browed…

For you live onward in my thought

Because you have not sought

Rewards that can be bought.

And so when I remember you

I think of all things rich and true

That I have reaped and wrought.

Siegfried Sassoon

Late in life, yet not in the movie, another close relationship formed with a Benedictine, Dame Felicitas Corrigan. After his death she published a book about their friendship, including his correspondence with her. He wrote to her before his death:

All I know is that my pilgrimage has ended as a man before a crucifix finding sanctuary.”

As I see it, four women were “key to his future.” Mother Margaret Mary, Dame Felicitas, Hester, and his Mother each directed him toward the peace that passes all understanding.