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Dom David

That Mysterious Man



Author of Sancta Sophia or Holy Wisdom

M A I N   D A T E S

1575  Born, Abergavenny, Wales; brought up as Protestant

1590  Oxford; then law in London (Inner Temple)

1598  Recorder of Abergavenny

1600  Experienced escape from death on a bridge

1603  Became Catholic

1605  Became monk at St Justina, Padua (Italy)

1606  Seriously ill after some months: returned to England before profession

1607  Took vows London, with English monks of the Italian Congregation

1613  Ordained priest at Rheims

1613-24  Missioner in England, then collecting historical material which edited by CLement Reyner) formed Apostolatus Benedictinorum in Anglia (1626)

1624-33  Cambrai (NE France) with the English Benedictine nuns

1633-38  At Douai, St Gregory's

1638  Returned to English Mission

1641  Died in London (9 August). Buried in Holborn, London (St Andrew's)

The four Lives:

1643  Pritchard

1646  Salvin

1650  Cary

1656  Cressy

1657  Sancta Sophia published by Cressy

Later editions: 1857  1876  1910   1964  1972

Baker family house, Abergavenny

View from the family home

DAVID AUGUSTINE BAKER (1575-1641) was one of the earliest members of the newly restored English Benedictine Congregation. He has three claims on our attention.

It is helpful first to be clear about the pattern of his life. His parents were what are known as church-papists, as were many of the survivors of Queen Mary's time. They were so named because although they outwardly conformed, they remained Catholic at heart, and often returned to full practice if a chance arose. He was born as David Baker 9 December 1575 in Abergavenny (since 1858 a Benedictine parish: but people in his childhood would easily remember their parish church when it was the priory church of Benedictine monks).

Baker's father was a lawyer, and young David was trained for the law, and was a very highly thought of in his early practice. He was at Christ's Hospital, then in London, and at Oxford by 1590. He studied law, first with his father and then in the Inner Temple: in 1598 he was made Recorder of Abergavenny. He had by now become almost an atheist, and as morally casual as any of his generation.

But at twenty-five he had what seemed to him a miraculous escape from death when crossing a dangerous bridge, and promised that if there were a Being who could rescue him from this peril he would devote his life to seeking him. He did; so he did. Beginning to suspect that Catholicism held the key, he was received in 1603, and while in London met and assisted with his legal knowledge some of the monks from Italy, including Fr Thomas Preston (who met and looked after Buckley in 1603): with Preston he went to Italy, where Preston had become a monk, and Baker was clothed as a novice in the Abbey of St Justina in Padua on 27 May 1605, Whitsun eve and the day after St Augustine of Canterbury's feast.

Ill health affected him all his life, so that he was able to say that in the end he perceived it as a gift and an advantage, since it prevented him from being involved in active ministry, practical affairs or constant distraction. It meant that he could not finish his novitiate, but was sent back home, which enabled him to supervise his father's return to the faith before he died. He made his profession somewhere in London, but as a monk of the Cassinese (Italian) congregation, not Buckley's: it was before the great link-up was made. Baker was however one of the first to join the renewed English group, and when later there were allocated to particular houses, Baker opted for St Laurence's. effectively, you chose between St Gregory's and St Laurence's: at that time there was no other community.

Instead of going to Dieulouard, however, he retired to a quiet house mission at Cook Hill, Worcestershire, but this was not a success so he returned to London and lived a rather withdrawn life so as to find his way into prayer, but at the same time he made himself useful to those in need of legal help, and the better-off clients enabled him to live. At some point not known, but probably in 1613, he went to Rheims and was there ordained priest. Thus he differed somewhat from the beginning from the other monks in England, since they were priests sent to the Mission as a sort of concession, whereas he initially was trying to be a monk-prayer. His view of things differed from the start: or he is evidence that there was a tradition very early in our history other than the purely missionary.

After a visit to Abergavenny to see his family and settle property, he returned to London, lodging in Grays Inn Lane, a lawyers' district and having many Catholics. It was at this time that he was asked to do much research in archives and libraries to assemble material later used in the book Apostolatus Benedictinorum in Anglia (1625). Though others contributed and his name is not on the title-page, the Bodleian library in Oxford lists David Baker as the author. The general thrust of this work was the large part played by the monks in the original conversion of England.

In 1624 there was an anti-Catholic outburst (when the projected marriage of Prince Charles to the Infanta of Spain collapsed in the last year of James I's reign). Many missioners left England for a time, among them Baker, and while he was at Douai he was asked to go and help to teach the nuns at the new convent just started at Cambrai, which is now Stanbrook. He was there for nine years, and this was the most fruitful period of his life, not only in benefit to nuns (and monks) but also in the production of written guidance for others. His own prayer life at this time was not on a very high level, or at least not taking a lot of his time, and writing about it may have been in part a substitute spiritual activity. It was certainly rich in effect.

However, Baker was no exception to the rule that, if you do something good in the church, there will shortly come along someone giving good and holy reasons why things should not be done thus, and there were complaints, certainly to some extent the product of unhappiness at many nuns gathering round one director rather than another: the problem is a perennial one in all communities. After much searching, learned men pronounced his doctrine orthodox, but for peace he was asked to return to Douai. Here something similar happened, but after about five years Baker was indiscreet in allowing his annoyance at others' criticisms to overflow into barely concealed polemics, and the President had little choice but to move him. He was sent to London again, although he was not well. This was considered at the time a bit harsh, but everyone was impressed with his obedience in simply going and settling down to a few years of rather harassed recusant life in central London. On one occasion passers- by stopped the pursuivants arresting him in a house where he was, asking them what they would have there, in a house where nobody did live nor durst (the plague being suspected of having been lately in the house) but one poor woman, who was at that time gone abroad [Prichard 284] He died on 9 August 1641, and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrew's, Holborn. (Presumably he now lies somewhere under Holborn Viaduct)

Dom   Justin   McCann

Abbot Justin McCann, Master of St Benet's Hall 1921-47, and titular Abbot of Westminster from 1947, remains the principal expert on Baker, with the uncontested claim that he is the only man since Fr Cressy to have read all two million words of Baker, whose writings are very diffuse, repetitive and largely free of organisation. Some have been published in modern editions, but for the most part we are all dependent on the work of Fr Serenus Cressy, a convert monk of St Gregory's (1605-74) - he was once a Canon of Windsor - who produced the book Sancta Sophia.

Sancta Sophia

This is for most people the beginning and end of Baker. It is a digest of matter from nearly all Baker's treatises, following an orderly and comprehensible pattern. Even so, the book is long and diffuse by modern standards: perhaps one should dip rather than attempt to read right through. It is moderately easy to find second-hand copies of Fr Gerard Sitwell's editions of 1964-72. But the effort is worthwhile, for (allowing for a certain seventeenth century quality) there emerges much of the spirituality and common sense which has underpinned the English monks and nuns since Baker's time. If we remember that his ideas were first formed at the same time as our Congregation was being re-formed (he was clothed in 1605), one can see how remarks about the dangers of too much supervision in religion, or control by superiors, throw light on the reasons which led young men to leave the Jesuit-run seminaries and seek another form of Christian life in the monasteries of Italy and Spain.

Those who are moved most by the call to missionary life and an active apostolate have been less drawn to Baker, but often they show signs, especially in later years, of having been formed under his influence: this was particularly true of those whose novitiates were made at Belmont (1859-1919), and so it is still true today, for they formed us. And because the approach which Baker shows us is rooted in an older English tradition, that of Walter Hilton, the Cloud (both worked on or editied by Baker and Cressy), Julian of Norwich &c., there is about this English spirituality something special, and an extra gift in the Church, enriching traditions which have grown elsewhere.

The incident on the bridge

[Allanson's version of Pritchard]

Now it happened that returning home from a commission and his servant having ridden considerably before him, he, having his head full of business, or other thoughts, and not marking the way by a ford, by which he might pass the river, suffered his horse to conduct him by a narrow beaten path which at last brought him to the middle of a wooden foot bridge, which was large enough to pass over as you entered but growing still narrower as you proceeded, and of an extraordinary height above the water he perceived not his danger till the horse, by stopping, suddenly and trembling, gave its rider notice of the danger which he soon perceived to be no less than sudden death. To go forward or backward was impossible, and to leap into the river, which being narrower there was extremely deep and violent in its course, besides the greatness of the height seemed to him who could not swim all one as to leap into his grave. In this extreme danger, out of which neither human prudence; nor indeed any natural causes could rescue him, necessity forced him to raise his thoughts to some power and help above nature. Whereupon he made this resolution within himself, `If I escape this danger I will believe there is a God who hath more care of my life and safety than I have heed of his love and worship.' Thus he thought, and in a moment without his perceiving how it was done, he found his horse's head was turned the other way and himself and horse out of all danger. He never had any doubt but that his deliverance was supernatural, and it had such an influence upon him, that he not only altered his way of thinking regarding Divine Providence, but took a resolution to serve God who had so mercifully contrived his escape in the best manner he was able.

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14 July 2000