The Priest Won

Many and sometimes tortuous are the paths to Rome. Few are stuffed with as much contradiction (or as much logic) as the path pursued seventy-six years ago by the British writer and mountaineer Sir Arnold Lunn.

Before his conversion, Lunn was one of the most vigorous intellects writing in the English language against Roman Catholicism. After his conversion, he was as articulate an apologist as ever served the church. He was spectacularly catapulted from one extreme to the other in 1932 with the publication of the book Difficulties. Today Lunn is best known in the sport of skiing as the inventor of the modern slalom race. His close friend William F. Buckley Jr., who met him on the slopes, described him as standing “about five feet ten inches...his hair thick, unruly, and white...his face weather-beaten red. He spoke with animation and laughed a cackly laugh after every sentence or two, almost always provoking in his listeners similar laughter.”

He was the eldest son of Henry Lunn, an ardent Methodist and head of a British travel agency, which had originated in the work of organizing Christian conferences in the Swiss Alps. The young man became a fervent skier and climber, and his adoration of the mountains soon became mixed with religious feelings. When he was nineteen years old, he found himself “resting on an Alpine pass after a climb and a sunset of supreme beauty. Suddenly I knew beyond immediate need of proof that a beauty which was not of this world was revealed in the visible loveliness of the mountains. From that moment I discarded materialism for ever.”

He did not discard his skepticism, though, and he feasted on controversy. His first book, The Harrovians, scandalized Britain’s upper class by pulling back the curtains on the life of a schoolboy in an elite public school. Following his studies at Oxford, he took up a writer’s career, and between 1907 and 1968 he produced more than fifty books. In addition to those on skiing, mountaineering, and travel, about a third were on philosophical and religious topics. Anyone considering entering (or leaving) the Roman Catholic faith today could do worse than read such Lunn works as Now I See and Roman Converts.

Lunn initially focused on the Oxford Movement, which continued in full swing after World War I. In the view of the Tractarian members of the Oxford Movement, the Anglican Church was consumed by secularism, beholden to the state, and in decline. A true church should be imbued with loftier spiritual values. But Lunn saw frightful flaws in the reasoning of those who turned to Rome for their salvation. They came under his withering scrutiny in his 1924 book Roman Converts. The targets of his criticism included Henry Edward Manning (made a cardinal in 1875), the writer G. K. Chesterton, and, most famous of all, Cardinal John Henry Newman, who led many others with his 1845 conversion. Lunn compared Newman’s reasoning to the tracks of an Alpine party wandering around a mist-covered glacier. “All roads lead to Rome, even those which go around in a circle,” he remarked.

Ronald Knox, cleric and detective-story writer, was another of the converts. He and Lunn struck up a correspondence. Should one or should one not become a Catholic? It was a popular topic for discussion and furnished a ready market for publishers. Lunn’s and Knox’s letters to one another became the book Difficulties. In it, Lunn forcefully presented all of the familiar arguments against Roman Catholicism—the Inquisition, indulgences, the treatment of Galileo, papal infallibility. To secular England, Lunn appeared to be the Christopher Hitchens of his day. But in Lunn’s own heart the religious sentiments, felt during his climbs in the Alps, were once again stirring. While he was preparing the final manuscript for Difficulties in 1931, his wife detected that “the priest is winning.”

And so it happened. On July 13, 1933, instructed by the very man whose thoughts he’d attacked, Lunn was received into the church. Knox’s arguments had become Lunn’s.

Lunn claimed his decision was founded purely on research and reason. He likened the historical analysis he used in proving Christ’s bodily Resurrection to the scientific logic he employed in studying snow surfaces and avalanche conditions. “The mental process in both cases seemed to me much the same.” But such austere logic was a weak underpinning for faith. “There must be a supernatural element in all conversions,” he confessed. “I should probably still be an agnostic if I had not felt an urgent need to explain the sense of worship which mountains arouse in me.”

His was an odd spiritual journey, made possible eventually by uniting religion with his love of the mountains. Famous for his successful effort to make downhill and slalom Olympic sports, Lunn was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1952. The Queen should have honored his unique contributions to the literature of religion as well.

Published in the 2009-06-05 issue: 

John Fry is the author of The Story of Modern Skiing (2006). He lives in Katonah, New York.

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