Somerset Ward (1881-1962) ... spiritual guide and writer on mysticism
Visiting Saint Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle-upon-Tyne this morning [4 December 2011] for the Cathedral Eucharist, I was reminded that the other Newcastle in England – Newcastle-under-Lyme in the Potteries – was the birthplace over 130 years ago of the great spiritual writer on mysticism, the Revd Reginald Somerset Ward (1881-1962).
No, I had not lost my direction, for Somerset Ward was on my mind only two days ago when I gave to a student thinking about ordination my copy of Ward’s To Jerusalem: Devotional Studies in Mystical Religion first published in 1931. This work gives guidance on spiritual direction and prayer, and provides psychological insight, all of which are still relevant for today.
The great practical mystic of his day, he stressed the priority of prayer in our daily lives.
Reginald Somerset Ward was born on Newcastle-under-Lyne in Staffordshire on 28 January 1881, one of four children of the Revd Richard Ward, Vicar of Saint George’s Church in the town. He studied history at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and graduated BA in 1903.
He was ordained deacon in 1904 and priest in 1905, and was a curate first at Emmanuel Church, Camberwell, and then at Saint Clement’s, Barnsbury, before becoming Rector of Chiddingfold, a small rural parish in Surrey.
Before moving to Chiddingfold, Ward formed “The Road,” which he said was “not a society, not an order, but a method of training in mystical prayer.” The first members joined in 1911, and eventually “The Road” had hundreds of members.
During World War I Ward became unpopular in the village not only because of his pacifism, but also because he tried to stop the bell-ringers bringing beer into the belfry, and he rebuked wealthy parishioners for hoarding food.
Eventually, he resigned from the parish, and with the support of Bishop Edward Talbot of Winchester he began a lifetime’s work of spiritual direction, based at his home in Farncombe in Surrey, and supported financially by friends.
Each year, he spent up to three months on three or four tours around Britain, speaking and hearing confessions. Each month, he wrote a monthly Instruction on prayer, which continued for over 40 years, running to 457 editions.
One penitent recalled how, as he waited, he sometimes heard “peals of laughter” from the priest and the previous penitent. Signing his letters “RSW”, he corresponded with hundreds of people, clergy and laity, about every aspect of the spiritual life.
After he suffered a breakdown in 1918, Ward warned the clergy repeatedly against overwork. Then in 1920, he was involved in forming an association of priests to promote spiritual direction and development within the Church of England.
Those valued the spiritual direction they received from Somerset Ward included Eric Abbot (1906-1983), Dean of Westminster Abbey (1959-1974), Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), Archbishop of Canterbury (1961-1974), the writer Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), also a noted spiritual director, and the author and theologian Canon Peter Ball. Evelyn Underhill described him as “the most remarkable soul-specialist I’ve ever met since the Baron (von Hügel).”
The membership of “The Road” was always predominately female, and Ward was a keen supporter of women’s ministry. However, he was strongly opposed to divorce and approved the excommunication of divorced people who subsequently remarried.
But, however stern Ward might seem to others, he was austere and stern towards himself. He described his approach to spiritual direction as that of a physician of souls rather than a judge or a dictator issuing commands. He always stressed he was not a psychologist, but he made use of some psychological techniques in his spiritual counselling, and as a confessor he always encouraged penitents to examine their fears as well as their sins.
He wrote in his Guide for Spiritual Directors (1957): “The physician of souls has two equally important tasks, the first of which is to discover and to treat the spiritual hindrances to the health of the soul, and the second to develop and train the strengthening and quickening energies in the life of the soul.”
He would sum up the essential qualities of an effective spiritual guide or director in these words: “One pound of spiritual direction is made up of eight ounces of prayer, three ounces of theology, three ounces of common sense and two ounces of psychology.”
After World War II, Ward started to slow down in his work. He stopped his touring ministry in 1949 after a heart attack, and handed over much of his work to the network of spiritual directors he had established, especially the Revd Norman Goodacre.
Ward died on 9 July 1962 and his ashes were interred at the west end of Chiddingfold Church. His friend, Dean Eric Abbott, spoke at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey on 8 October following.
To Jerusalem, edited and introduced by Susan Howatch
Most of his books were published anonymously, either as “A Priest” or as “The Author of The Way.” His three works on the spiritual life, The Way (1922), Following the Way (1925) and To Jerusalem were made up of edited versions of the advice he sent out each month to those who came to him for consultation. But he never wrote a major work on spiritual direction.
Although much of his written work long seemed dated, there was a renewed interest in Somerset Ward’s work in 1994, over thirty years after his death, when Mowbray’s published a four-part Library of Anglican Spirituality, bringing the works Somerset Ward, as well as those of Austin Farrar, Dorothy Sayers and HA Williams to the attention of a new generation of readers. In this collection, the novelist Susan Howatch edited and introduced Somerset Ward’s To Jerusalem: Devotional Studies in Mystical Religion first published in 1931.
A year later, in Absolute Truths (1995), the third novel in her second trilogy, Susan Howatch begins each chapters with citations from Somerset Ward.
Words quoted by Jeremy Taylor best describe Somerset Ward’s approach: “God hath appointed spiritual persons as guides for souls, whose office is to direct and comfort, to give peace and to conduct, to refresh the weary and to strengthen the weak; and therefore to use their advice is that proper remedy God hath appointed.”
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
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