Some days it is more difficult to be Catholic. These times of sacramental shutdown, social distancing, scandal, and secularization put a strain on Catholic life. We can gain a perspective on our own struggles by reflecting on other hard times in the history of the Church. Robert Hugh Benson’s masterful and acclaimed novel, Come Rack, Come Rope, provides an engaging opportunity to do just that.
Set during persecution rather than pandemic, Come Rack, Come Rope, with its mix of historical figures—among them St. Edmund Campion and the devilish torturer Richard Topcliffe—and characters of Benson’s creation, draws the reader into the complexity of life under Queen Elizabeth I’s crackdown on Catholics.
The novel opens with two young Catholics—Robin and Marjorie—courting each other. “Robin Audrey,” the narrator tells us, “was no more religious than a boy of seventeen should be.” Contentious and faithful, but ordinary and unremarkable, Marjorie and Robin seem destined to follow that simple and blissful path to marriage and family life that lies before them. But Marjorie and Robin live in “evil days.” Persecution, personal betrayal, and familial capitulations to Protestant oppression disrupt their peaceful romance, sending them down different roads.
In such times, we often wonder why God permits these evils. Our eyes don’t have the strength to see the extent of God’s providence or how our particular pains fit into the vast tapestry he is weaving. But when, in the fullness of time, God spoke to us in His Son (Heb 1:2), that Son drew the pattern of endurance in suffering. He for the sake of “the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:2).
Without seeing the whole, we can still allow our sufferings to be stitched along the pattern he traced. Then we find ourselves conformed to Christ crucified with his joy set before us.
Then “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). Come Rack, Come Rope tells the story of God’s love poured into the hearts of Marjorie and Robin, strengthening them to endure suffering and producing acts of heroic virtue.
Sacrificing the good of marriage, Marjorie and Robin dedicate their lives to serving their fellow Catholics during the persecution. The novel follows the fascinating story of priest holes and hideouts, of Marjorie’s coordinating underground Masses, of Robin’s ordination and priestly ministry, and of the drama of martyrdom. Benson brings to vivid and moving life this tale of persevering faith, hope, and love.
Some days the world seems to be hostile to Catholic life—whether the source is an epidemic, persecution or indifference, or even self-inflicted wounds. In such days, the witness of the English martyrs, so well conveyed in Come Rack, Come Rope, helps to draw our gaze to the cross and beyond to the joy one finds who has borne it.
Image: Melchior Kusell, The Torture of Saint Nicholas Owen, S.J.