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Convert, Lay Theologian, Novelist . . . Wanderer Contributor Philip Trower Dies At Age 95

January 12, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By PEGGY MOEN

Philip Trower, convert to Catholicism, lay theologian, novelist, and The Wanderer’s beloved friend and contributor, died on January 9. He was 95. Trower was born in London on May 16, 1923.
We unearthed the oldest letter we have from him on file, dated April 25, 1977. It followed our acceptance of his first article for us, part of a three-part book he was then just completing.
“I should perhaps explain why I have written it all,” said Philip about his book.
He gave us two reasons:
“I have written it partly as an act of faith; partly to fulfill a half-promise.”
The first “act of faith” reason forecast the books he did ultimately publish, including The Church Learned and the Revolt of the Scholars (The Wanderer Press: 1979), Truth and Turmoil: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church (Ignatius: 2003), The Catholic Church and the Counter-Faith — A Study of the Roots of Modern Secularism, Relativism, and De-Christianity (Family Publications: Oxford, UK: 2006).
The second reason for the book, the “half-promise,” he elaborated on as follows:
“To write it was not my idea. I was asked to by the American poet and writer Dunstan Thompson shortly before he died in my house in January 1975 after a long illness. He had himself begun such a book.
“But the manuscript was not in a state I could use, so after his death I began again from the beginning. The writing is all mine, but I can’t now say which ideas are his and which are mine as we discussed the whole subject together many many times from 1968 on.
“But I do know that he was far above me in intelligence and abilities. He had a brilliant and extraordinary mind, and a great love and understanding of the faith — and of truth in any form — deepened by having thrown the faith aside in youth and recovered it only, after much suffering and unhappiness, in his thirties.
“If I have been able to write about the faith in a way you think may be helpful to other people, I owe it almost entirely to him. I could say that from him I received my education as a Catholic.”
Seeing Trower’s letter, an editorial assistant at The Wanderer confused Dunstan Thompson with Francis Thompson, author of Hound of Heaven — perhaps prophetically.
Trower’s letter foreshadows his much later full account of his conversion to Catholicism, “How I Became a Catholic.” Written when he was age 90 — Trower was born in 1923 — and published at Christendom Awake, it relates what has to be one of the most astonishing conversion stories in Church history.
Pior to relating Dunstan Thompson’s role in his conversion, Philip recalls other figures who brought him from his “Anglican modernism” to Catholicism.
He outlines his coming to the faith in three stages: from his birth in 1923 to 1941 when he went to Oxford; his time in Oxford through his service in World War II, 1941-1945; and the final stage, which he likens to Psalm 17, “from on high He reached down and seized me; He drew me forth from the mighty waters.”
Among the dramatis personae in this three-stage story:
Four Catholic women star in stage one, none of whom made overt attempts to convert young Philip to Catholicism, but attracted him to it by their ways of life.
As Philip came from a prosperous legal family, his parents engaged a nanny to look after him and his elder brother and two younger sisters. Without directly evangelizing him, Nanny Gwen Butcher, a Catholic, counseled him to “offer it up” whenever anything went wrong, and introduced him to Sacred Heart devotions.
Next was a French governess, Mademoiselle Lambert, who had taught two earlier generations of Philip’s family. She lived with her three unmarried sisters in a modest house in London. Philip recalls in his 2013 online autobiography that these women exhibited “a holy light-heartedness which I have often since noticed in Catholics who have lived and loved their faith since early childhood.”
Third was “Cousin Curly” — not a real cousin, but a distant relative by marriage on his mother’s side and a convert to Catholicism. After Curly’s mother died, Curly lived permanently in Switzerland — Philip spent two memorable weeks with her in the summer of 1937.
“She had a devout Swiss Catholic friend who sometimes accompanied us when we went looking for rare flowers in the higher Alps. If we passed a crucifix they crossed themselves and from time to time stopped at a chapel or church to pray,” wrote Philip, noting that “going into a church to pray on a weekday was still a novelty for me.”
The fourth woman Philip recalls was Mademoiselle de Seze of Touraine, France, with whom Philip stayed for six months to learn French when he was 12. He recalls his love for his tutor, her home and surroundings — his “first experience of Catholicism as the dominant religion of a national culture,” though by then he had learned about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period.
(Notably, Philip Trower is cited as the translator of philosopher Etienne Gilson’s Methodical Realism, the edition published by Christendom Press in 1990, so he must have then mastered French along with experiencing Catholic culture.)
In stage two of his conversion story, Philip began his studies at Oxford in January 1941. There, he befriended an Anglo-Catholic who introduced him to Orthodox and Catholic thinkers, including Nikolai Berdyaev and Jacques Maritain.
Also, he sought counseling from a non-Catholic don who told him: “You will never find love until you find it in the tabernacle.”
Philip served in World War II, where he befriended a Catholic Army officer who lent him a copy of Karl Adam’s Spirit of Catholicism.
“I did read this with interest, but again without its moving me to action or a decision,” wrote Philip in his 2013 bio.
He was stationed in Italy and recalls the interiors of the village churches around Naples.
“They were full of statues and pictures and gilded ornamentation. There were no great works of art in them such as I would later see in Rome and elsewhere….Looking back I feel that our Lord must have had, and continue to have, the same kind of pleasure residing in them in His sacred humanity that He had in the house of Martha and Mary at Bethany.”
In May 1945, Philip was posted to an intelligence unit in Cairo, remaining there until he was shipped back to England and demobilized in 1947.
But while he was in Cairo, the British Air-Marshal invited him to come to Rome with him and his wife and his aide-de-camp. While there, Philip and the aide had an audience with Pope Pius XII: “I have come across few men in my life of now 90 years whom I have so instantly warmed to and liked.”
Yet even this experience did not move to Philip to conversion.

Recovering His Faith

Stage three is when Philip became a Catholic.
While in London, before leaving for Egypt, he met a “deeply lapsed” American Catholic poet, Dunstan Thompson, then noted for his “homoerotic” poetry. Ultimately, the two became lovers, settling in London in 1947 and then in Cley-Next-the-Sea. Philip wrote, with “shame and embarrassment,” that he had, for about three years prior to this, been homosexually active.
They had unwittingly moved near the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which Philip described as the “maneuverings of the Hound of Heaven.”
Soon, Dunstan began to recover his faith, something Philip first realized when he suggested a trip to Rome for the Holy Year 1950, when Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption. They did attend the ceremony.
Catholic writer William Doino tells their story this way in a December 15, 2014 article for First Things:
“When Dunstan told him he had received the Sacrament of Confession, and reconciled with the Church, Philip knew what that entailed: an end to their intimate relationship. But the change liberated him, and gave him peace of soul: ‘The obvious unnaturalness and therefore wrongness of homosexual practice had been troubling me for years.’
“This does not mean, however, ‘that there cannot be a love of friendship between men’ — far from it. In fact, Philip and Dunstan continued to live together, in a chaste, platonic relationship, following the guidance of their pastor” — Fr. William Peers Smith, SJ, of the “Farm Street Church” in London, to whom Dunstan had come when he decided to return to the fold.
Dunstan had had a deeply Catholic upbringing and education. Before his formal reconciliation with the faith in 1952, he undertook an intense study of Catholic theology, philosophy, and history. He started to tutor Philip in Catholicism.
Philip then began taking instructions from Fr. Peers Smith, who received him into the Catholic Church on March 15, 1953.
“From then on, until Dunstan’s death from cancer in 1975, both men used their gifts, their time and their energy in apostolic work for their local parish and for the wider Church,” wrote Francis Phillips in a September 9, 2014 article for the UK Catholic Herald.
Following his reconversion, Thompson never again received his previous acclaim and fame as a poet.
While Trower may be best known for his historical and theological writings, he also wrote a well-received Catholic novel, A Danger to the State (Ignatius Press 1998: San Francisco), about the 1773 suppression of the Jesuits. The novel is set in Spain, the Jesuit Reductions in Paraguay, and Catherine the Great’s Russia.
In one scene from the novel, some children in the Reductions are staging a play in honor of St. Michael.
In the play, the holy Archangel and the Devil are battling for a man’s soul. Lucifer reads a list of the man’s sins. Michael reads a list of his good deeds.
“You’ll never find enough good deeds to match all his sins,” says Lucifer, demanding ownership.
But St. Michael replies: “None of your tricks….You know the law. No matter how many sins he’s committed, if he repents, a million million sins will be forgiven.”
In that April 25, 1977 letter to The Wanderer, Trower also wrote: “I think that only in eternity will The Wanderer staff and writers know how much good they have done, drawing together Catholics who have suddenly found themselves spiritually isolated and scattered, and keeping up their spirits.”
Certainly, his own writings informed much of that ongoing task.
May this servant of God rest in peace.

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