4) SCHALL ON BELLOC .
The column Schall on Belloc – Belloc is the English writer, historian, philosopher, I think the best essayist in the language – was a short-lived column begun in Generally Speaking before that newsletter merged into Gilbert! Below are fifteen essays on Belloc.
In addition, below these fifteen essays, under “New Series,” I will add two essays on the Hundredth Anniversary of Belloc’s famous walks – The Path to Rome of 1901, and The Four Men of 1902.
1) From Generally Speaking, October, 1997. This is the first of a new series of monthly columns. I will include 14 columns: 1) "'A Place Which I Have Never Yet See"; 2) "On the Usefulness of the New Year"; 3) "Ars Taedica"; 4) "On Endurance and Fortitude"; 5) "On Remembering 'A Remaining Christmas'";
6) "On the Fate of Academics"; 7) "On Irony as the 'Avenger of Truth'"; 8) "On Being Close to Things Primary"; 9) "On Thinking Continually of Those in Beatitude"; 10) "On Disliking Champagne but Delighting in Existence";
11) "The Certain Loss"; 12) "Permanence"; 13) On the Vanity of Learned Men"; 14) "'In the Presence of So Wonderful a Thing'"; 15) I will also include on Belloc an earlier essay, "Paths that Lead to Rome," Social Survey, Melbourne, 30 (May, 1981) [in The Distinctiveness of Christianity].
See also on Belloc, "In Pursuit of Nobody" and "The Pure and Cold Air that Befits All Hallows' Day," in my Idylls and Rambles; "Freedom, Property, and the Servile State, XII (May, 1986); "The Mortality of Immortal Men," in Another Sort of Learning.
"A PLACE WHICH I HAVE NEVER YET SEEN"
Belloc I have long considered simply the best essayist in the English language. I am quite capable of saying the same of Chesterton. In any case, Chesterton is today clearly much better known than Belloc. These two men were great friends; they talked together over much of their respective lifetimes about the highest things and about everything, even about "nothing" as Belloc wrote in a famous essay. In having both their writings we are simply blessed. The opportunity to write something rather regularly on Belloc, as I have for many years on Chesterton in the Midwest Chesterton News, is something to which I distinctly look forward.
I have long grown skeptical of any idea that a thing is necessarily good because it is well-known. Many well-known things are quite bad. Some of the very best things, like, say, the Nicene Creed, are not very well-known even when they are well-known and to be recited every Sunday. We cannot think of Chesterton without in some sense thinking of Belloc. I have always found each in his own way to be a source of delight, wisdom, insight, truth, and, especially in the case of Belloc, of a certain poignancy, or nostalgia, that has constantly touched my soul whenever I came across it.
The reader of this column will find me talking about this poignant side of Belloc rather a lot. Belloc was a man who walked and sailed and remembered. This is not to be a scholarly column, nor a matter of historical insight into Belloc's time and writings. I gladly leave that task to others. The good reader will find here the Belloc that moved my soul, the Belloc that brought me to places and to things and to persons I would never have otherwise met or known about. Belloc was a man of this earth in the only way a man can be a man of this earth, by being unsettled in it and by it, especially by its beauty, by the memory of things past, even by the memory of things that might have been otherwise.
My book Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays (Ignatius Press, 1994) contains fifty-four chapters. Why? Because this is the number of essays in J. B. Morton's collection Selected Essays of Hilaire Belloc (Methuen, 1948). This wonderful book was actually being discarded from the library of a religious house in San Francisco in which I was living at the time. I retrieved it. The house's loss is definitely my gain.
The fifty-fourth and last essay in the Morton collection is entitled "On Dropping Anchor." The essay begins, "The best noise in all the world is the rattle of the anchor chain when one comes into harbour at last and lets it go over the bows." Now, I am not sailor enough to know this rattling sound, nor why it might be the "best noise in all the world", even though my last name, in German, means "noise" or sound, especially, as I like to think, the sound of a bell.
In sailing one does not always drop anchor, but rather picks up stationary moorings. This means that there is no anchor dropping. But this mooring situation is always precarious, as Belloc recounts in his trying to tie up the Silver Star at an empty mooring by the Royal Yacht Squadron grounds up the Medina. He had, however, tied up at a rich man's moorings. According to the custom of courtesy, Belloc recounts, one can "pick up any spare mooring one could find." The rich man, who appeared with his big yacht on the scene, did not think so. Belloc's moral reflection on this incident of the rich man denying his little boat common courtesy was memorable: "Riches, I thought then and I think still, corrupt the heart."
The next tangle with moorings happened to Belloc when he was sailing to Orford town over the bar of the Orford River. Belloc and his companion spotted a buoy and tied up to it, much to the objections of the people on shore. To his surprise, the mooring did not hold his boat. He could not figure out why until he realized that he had tied up to a temporary mooring set up for a rowing regatta, which was why the folks on shore were trying to shout at him not to tie up there. The incident so struck Belloc that he wrote an eighteen line poem about it. "The men that lived in Orford stood / Upon the shore to meet me...."
From this experience, Belloc concludes that it is better to have moorings of one's own, or else to use one's own anchor and hear the chains rattle. This situation of anchors and moorings sets Belloc to further reflection: "I love to consider a place which I have never yet seen, but which I shall reach at last, full of repose and marking the end of those voyages, and security from the tumble of the sea." No wonder Morton chose this essay for the last essay in the Collection!
Belloc them proceeds to imagine such a place that he shall "reach at last." It shall be a cove surrounded by high hills with no houses or signs of men. There should be a little beach and a "breakwater made by God." The tide shall smoothly come in and out of the cove, like a "cup of refreshment and of quiet, a cup of ending." He shall guide his boat up the fairway into the channel and on into the cove that will be cut off from an opening to the sea. The sea he shall see no more, though he can still hear its noise. All around will be silence. "All alone in such a place, I shall let go the anchor chain, and let it rattle for the last time." He will let the anchor into the clear and salty water, maybe four lengths or more, so that the boat may swing at its anchor. Once secure, he will "tie up (his) canvas and fasten all for the night and get ready for sleep."
This will be the end of Belloc's sailings, in this lovely, imaginary cove, with the steep hills surrounding, the anchor chains finally rattling into the blue, salty water. "And that will be the end of my sailing." The Belloc who sails no more, of course, is the Belloc who has finally come home into his cove, who has finished with what delights and dreams this world has given to him in his Silver Star.
Let me repeat again these nostalgic, memorable words: "I love to consider a place which I have never yet seen, but which I shall reach at last, full of repose and marking the end of those voyages, and security from the tumble of the sea." This is the human condition, isn't it? We live in a world that makes us love to consider a place we have not yet seen, a place that we shall reach at last. The "end" of Belloc's sailing is, after all, our end, isn't it?
ON THE USEFULNESS OF THE NEW YEAR
Belloc remarks, in an essay entitled, "On New Years and New Moons," (The Silence of the Sea), that many different kinds of New Year's celebrations and datings can be found. Once the New Year began on "Lady's Day," March 25th. The Hebrews and the Chinese have differing dates for the New Year. Then there is the calculations that changed things a bit with establishment of the Julian and Gregorian Calendars.
But mostly, Belloc reflects, "The New Year is over-valued. Properly speaking, it is not there at all. It is a whimsy; it is an imaginary; it is a fiction of the mind; it is a convention; it is a fraud." In fact, Belloc cannot figure out why those who "object to anything that is not tangible and can be tested by experience" have not protested against the arbitrary imagination that says that the New Year begins on January 1, when it could in fact begin at any time we choose.
Belloc compares the New Year to the New Moon which he says at least is "something real." The New Moon, he continues, "hangs in the sky a tender crescent." My dictionary does not give the New Moon as the Crescent, of waxing or waning, but of the complete dark moon when its face is full to the Sun. In any case, "the New Moon is worthy of our adoration because she is real." Then Belloc adds a bit of metaphysics and epistemology, "the light on that lovely little, exiguous little, gradually brightening little arc is real, if, indeed, anything told us by our sense be real." Thus, we can hold the New Moon is real even if we cannot touch it, though our kind have touched it since Belloc wrote. Notice that Belloc, knowing about Kant, implicitly recognizes that there are those who deny that our senses can get to the real and thus must postulate the real, lest they walk about in a world that they deny exists.
But Belloc's main point is about the New Year. "I say that the New Year is a whimsy; an imaginary; a nothing." If we do celebrate it it is because it is "part of the myth-making of man." Seasons, to be sure, do change, days grow longer and shorter "after Goodwood. I wondered what this "Goodwood" was. It was not in my desk dictionary, nor in the Oxford English Dictionary. Obviously it means Midsummer's Night in some way, after which the days begin to be shorter. But here we have Belloc pointing out that something is a whimsy, yet, at the same time, that we can have rites and ceremonies about it. And what is the purpose of the rites surrounding New Year?
"A New Year has this useful thing about it, whether it be Mohammedan, Hebrew, Julian, Gregorian, Chinese, or Choctaw. It makes man remember and regret his follies and his sins." I need to point out that it is a very different thing to regret our sins and to regret our follies. The rite for dealing with the former is much better established than that dealing with the latter. Sins can be forgiven; our follies are ever forgotten. Men with few sins can have many follies, while great sinners can be relatively free of follies. Yet, Belloc reminds us, both are to be acknowledged. This passage, indeed, reminds me of a line of Chesterton who said, if I recall it correctly, that "we can be sorry for our sins but not for spilling gravy on our ties in a fine restaurant." The latter is not a sin, but it is a folly. We do regret the bad figure we cut with gravy stains on our ties.
Thus, when a man come to the end of his days, Belloc thinks, "on the downward slope" where he sees "the marble tomb," he sees on either side of him these two companions, follies and sins. "They talk to him continually." He says to himself, in my words, "Oh no! of that folly" and "God forgive me of that sin." Our follies and our sins need to be reckoned with. If we do not, "we should make very poor wayfaring with them at the end." When we do come to the end, we notice that we have lost the "other friends and fellowships." What we have left are our follies and our sins. We even strike up a conversation with ourselves, Belloc thinks, "Good morning, my dear Folly Number 8!" Then he feels his sleeve being pulled for attention, and responds, "Good-morning, Sin Number 368. Remember me to all the little sins."
I do not know whether the fact that Belloc mentions 368 sins and only eight follies is significant. I would be loathe to think that such is the proportion between follies and sins in most normal lives, though I would not be surprised. But notice that Belloc does not make New Year's Resolutions on this very arbitrary day, enhanced by much ceremonial. "I say that at the New Year we enter into preparatory companionship with our follies and our sins. Wherefore idiots on this occasion make good resolutions." Belloc thinks we had best not calculate what we might promise ourselves to do, but rather take an account of what we have done. We are better off to "make money (which lasts) or hay while the sun shines," than New Years resolutions. But of course, from Scripture, we know, as does Belloc, that money does not last, though it usually lasts longer than our good resolutions. Besides, "the sun does not shine at the New Year, and there is no hay, except what is already stacked under its thatch in the rick outside the yard."
What does this mean, that the sun does not shine on New Year and there is no hay, except that already stacked? It means that we best reckon with our follies and our sins, however many the number. Unlike our resolutions, they are real and impinge on our souls. If we do not deal with them, our good resolutions will make little difference and will only translate into further follies and sins. Thus, if the New Year is a fiction and a fancy and does not exist at all, it does not follow that the same can be said of our sins and follies, whatever their number might be.
My young friend, Gregory Doolan, has a very excellent collection of Belloc books. He does not have, however, very many of Belloc's books of essays, none of the "On" books, for example, though he does have a couple of different collections of Belloc's shorter pieces. Normally, I hesitate to borrow a book I genuinely covet, but finally the other evening, without necessarily revealing this darker side of my own otherwise happy nature -- I figure ex-students should be smart enough to have already figured it out -- I did borrow Hilaire Belloc, Stories, Essays, and Poems (London: Dent, 1938). The book Mr. Doolan had was a 1957 hardback, an enlarged reprint copy, the Everyman's Library Edition, with an Introduction by J. B. Morton. On the title page, the book bears the name of "Francis Sample, Cathedral College." I have no idea where Cathedral College might be. Mr. Doolan must have found this collection in a used book store someplace. If there is anything I like to see in ex-students of mine, besides their being aware of the darker sides of human nature, including my own, it is a diligence in haunting used book stores.
Two days after I borrowed this book, I took it with me to read on the Washington Metro returning to the Rosslyn Station across the Potomac from Georgetown. The first short piece I read was called "Mrs. Markham on the Police." It was really a funny account of a certain Mrs. Markham talking to her children. One of my Denver cousins in fact is a "Mrs. Markham", but bears no other similarity to this English lady explaining to her children why we have police, even though, in England, they only can use truncheons -- "No, my dear, we (English) do not give them (police) arms because we think it would be cruel and unjust. But we let them have a thick stick called a truncheon, with which they can hit people upon the head as hard as ever they like, to make them obey." You will understand the high metaphysical quality of Belloc's work by the next question Mrs. Markham's son Tommy asks her, "What do they do, Mamma, when, after the policemen have hit and hit and hit with their truncheons, and yet people will not obey?" -- a query worthy of an Augustine.
The second item I read was an essay entitled "The Art of Boring." I must confess almost breaking into tears on the Metro as I read it, so funny it was. I am very conscious of the outlandish effect on other absorbed Metro riders of an elderly gentleman bursting sporadically into laughter while reading an otherwise innocuous book. I still get what are called giggles when I think about it.
What made the essay doubly funny to me, as I read it, was its similarity of thesis to what is known as the Reverse Peter Principle. The Peter Principle, as you recall, states, more or less, that we rise to the level of our incompetence so that, in effect, every job is filled by an incompetent, a principle that, more than others I have seen, helps to explain our current political scene. However, let us suppose that, by manipulating this principle, you are shrewd enough to prevent yourself from rising to the level of your own incompetence. You simply want to stay at a level you are comfortable with. The way you do it is, on the occasion of your being considered to be Department Head or Associate Vice President or District Manager, you manage to do something so outlandish, like, say, suddenly cut off all your hair, or you begin to light your pipe with a sunglass. On observing your behavior, the already incompetents in charge quietly pass you over.
Belloc's "Art of Boring" is not unmindful of and probably was inspired by the famous essay of the Roman Poet Horace on "The Bore" and on how difficult it is to get rid of him. This is where Belloc suggests that what he is talking about, in Latin, is "Ars Taedica" -- taedium means weariness or loathing, hence boring. What is at issue for Belloc is not whether you yourself are boring to others, but whether you can deliberately be boring to others, either to pay them back or to accomplish some other worthy purpose -- hence the similarity to the Reverse Peter Principle.
"The Art of Boring" is a handbook on how to go about boring other people. Belloc tells us that many books and essays are written complaining of bores, but he recalls none to tell us how to acquire this useful art. Many bores, of course, are unconscious of the quality of their ability to bore other people to death. But positively to choose to bore, you must practice and have some skill. There are rules for boring others.
First you have to recognize the signs that the phenomenon is present. "The first sign is an attention in the eye of the bored person to something trivial other than yourself." You will notice the genius of Belloc's writing when you try to ask whether the pronoun "yourself" here was deliberately intended to refer also to "something trivial." To make his point, Belloc remarks that "if while you are talking to him his eye is directed to a person aiming a gun at him, that is not a sign of boredom." On the other hand, if his eye is caught by a "little bird" or "a passing cloud", this is a sign that he is bored with you. Two other signs of boredom are 1) when the other keeps interspersing interjections that have nothing to do with what you are talking about, and 2) when the bored person suddenly begins to talk to someone else in the midst of your discourse with him.
Just as any topic can be made boring, so can any topic be made interesting. The trick is to know how to make something vitally interesting dull. One way is the monotonous tone of your voice. A second way is to bring in a lot of useless detail and to branch off into all directions. Belloc gives the following example of hesitating over a date as a brilliant way for someone who wants to bore another to proceed: "'It was in July 1921 -- no, now I come to think of it, it must have been 1920, because --' (then tell them why it must have been 1920). 'No, now I think of it, it must have been 1921' (then tell them why it was 1921) -- 'or was it 1922? Anyway, it was July, and the year doesn't matter; the whole point is the month.'" Belloc calls this simply "a capital beginning, especially the last words, which indicate to the bored one that you have deliberately wasted his time to no purpose."
We make the same boring approach with a name, or by introducing many superfluous words and adjectives. Moral and artistic digressions are also helpful in boring someone to death. Belloc's reasonings here are enormously amusing: "Stop in the middle of the thing and add to the agony by explaining that you don't mind a man's getting drunk, or that you do mind it, or that you have no objections to such building as you are describing, or what not: for your private opinions in art and morals are the most exquisitely boring things in he world and you can't bring them up too much." A particularly fine way to bore someone else, Belloc adds, is to forget the end of a story you are telling. You could also led your listener up to a major question and ask eloquently, "What do you think to be the answer?" Then you forget the answer.
Belloc addresses the case of people who are adept at recognizing our boringness so that they try to defend themselves against it. It takes considerable skill on the part of the borer to defeat this sort of counter-attack by the boree. Suppose the borer is speaking dryly and at length of Rio to the bored listener. The latter fights back by announcing that he too knows Rio. He then starts giving back what he knows to the borer. How does the one intending to bore deflect such a one approach? Two ways are open. One is to complain that you are being interrupted. The other is to wait till the other's knowledge of Rio is exhausted, then continue right on as before.
A skilled defender against a boring person can also try this: he can wait patiently till the borer (who, remember, is deliberately trying to bore) finishes his point. The bored man can wait a moment and then ask the bore to go on, as if he had not known the boring story was finished. The proper way to defend against this defense, Belloc thinks, is for the one inflicting the boring story simply to repeat it.
If the boree tries to walk away from the borer, it will often work, but this is a sign of defeat. The borer's proper response, and it takes a brave man to do this, is to follow the bored man walking away, corner him, and continue with the boring story as if nothing has happened.
Belloc gives two fine points about how to be boring. The first is to put long pauses into one's conversations and dare the other to break it. Just as the boree is about to interrupt, recommence the boring story. "The other way is talking half incomprehensibly, mumbling, and the rest of it -- then, when the boree impatiently asks you to repeat, do it still less clearly." This method, Belloc adds, "never fails."
In the end, Belloc thinks that this fine art of boring others (ars taedica) probably cannot be learned with rules and precepts. Then he adds, with exquisite irony in the light of all that he has said about names and dates, "perhaps I have written in vain." That is to say, in setting out deliberately to bore us with an essay on "the art of boring," he has in fact delighted us by reminding us how utterly boring we can be.
ON ENDURANCE AND FORTITUDE
In an essay, "On Fortitude", in the Penguin edition of his Selected Essays (J. B. Morton, Editor, 1958, pp. 215-18), Belloc tells of the unusual cathedral of Périgueux, its massive, sheer stones. But it was not the Cathedral itself that he wrote of here. It was something, years later, that he recalled. He had once seen something in the Cathedral that struck him. He still remembers his being moved by what he saw, something that seems so incidental, so insignificant in itself, that he is surprised to remember it. He wondered a bit about how we could suddenly find ourselves meditating on some odd incident of our life, something that apparently made no visible difference, yet it kept coming back.
Indeed, Belloc took some time to reflect on how chance things can often change our lives It is a beautiful passage:
It has been remarked by men from the beginning of time that chance connections may determine thought: a chance tune heard in unexpected surroundings, a chance sentence not addressed perhaps to oneself and having no connection with the circumstances around, the chance sight of an unexpected building appearing round the corner of a road, the chance glance of an eye that will never meet our eyes again -- any one of these things may establish a whole train of contemplation which takes root and inhabits the mind forever.
We have no doubt that each of these items -- the tune, the sentence, the building, the glance -- were incidents in Belloc's life, things he never quite forgot.
The chance event that remained to inhabit his mind "forever", of which he writes here, took place in the very massive and strangely cupola-ed, almost Byzantine or Moorish Cathedral in this city in southwestern France, in the Department of Périgord. On the right side of the northern transept of this Cathedral -- he does not explain how he happened to be there -- there was a bare, gigantic arch with a mosaic of an Elephant under which was found the word "Fortitude". The Elephant was immense too, like the stones in the Cathedral. The Elephant, like the huge stones, seemed the perfect symbol of this virtue.
Fortitude is found there enshrined in a Christian Church because "it is one of the great virtues." What does fortitude imply? It implies "endurance: that character that we need the most in the dark business of life." Belloc reminds us that sometimes, often perhaps, the "the business of life" is "dark", unpleasant, dire. Terrible things sometimes have to be faced, have to be borne with.
Several words cluster about this notion of fortitude -- which itself means patience courage, not just courage, but patient courage. Courage itself indicates the habit by which we rule our fears and pains so that we can reach our end. This is Aristotle and Aquinas. Courage is necessarily at the basis of all the other virtues because it is directed to life itself, to existence and its preservation. But it has the connotation of a life standing for something. Courage is the opposite of cowardice. The courageous man endures; the coward gives up. If the courageous man dies, the principle for which he dies remains. If he stays alive no matter what, he stands only for himself, for an existence that means nothing but itself.
Bravery adds to courage a certain daring, a boldness in the face of a threat to life or honor. Valor means the continuous presence of bravery, the lofty quality of being brave not just once but over time in the face of many hardships and dangers. But, as St. Thomas said, the primary act of courage is not to attack but to endure, even to suffer. This does not mean that courage is a kind of silly pacifism. It means the courage of the martyr, as Josef Pieper pointed out, the one who endures what can no longer be avoided, endures in what he affirms.
Fortitude, Belloc remarked, must be not just endurance but "creative endurance." It involves some memory of a better time and some hope of its return. Belloc, we know, was a military man in his youth. He loved to follow the lines of battle, to reflect on the course of war in the very place of combat. He understood that with no fortitude, there would be no civilization. "The thing, Fortitude, is the opposite of aggressive, flamboyant courage, yet it is the greater of the two, though often it lacks action. Fortitude wears armor and holds a sword, but it stands ready rather than thrusts itself forward." The phrase "lacks action" said of fortitude needs reflection. Belloc's passage is at first sight a version of "if you want peace, prepare for war." It is also contains a sense of caution, a restraint on any untoward eagerness to "thrust forward." It contains the experience of mankind. If it uses the sword, it does so reluctantly, knowing what is at stake.
Belloc then spent a page in recounting the effects of this enduring fortitude during the dark and middle ages, when it looked like all was lost for Christendom. In the ninth and tenth centuries, with enemies on its south, east, and north, Europe should not have survived. But it did largely because of the Elephant of Périgueaux, because of Fortitude. "The West rose up again in glory, having been saved by Fortitude."
At the very end of the Twentieth Century, it seems almost eccentric to attribute anything to a virtue, to a virtue whose act is to rule our fears and our pains. Belloc did not write of arms or of strategy; he wrote of a virtue. "Fortitude does not envisage new things, rather does it tenaciously preserve things known and tried." Thus, fortitude implies that there are things worth preserving. Without this latter sense, there can be no proper fortitude, no endurance, no resistance. Fortitude for its own sake is in fact a vice. Fortitude is for a reason, for a purpose, for the highest reason and purpose of all, the reason of why we exist and what is true, of what has been handed down to us that is worth our keeping. "A whole train of contemplation that takes root and inhabits the mind forever" -- of such is the Elephant of the Périgueux Cathedral..
ON REMEMBERING 'A REMAINING CHRISTMAS'
December requires a Christmas essay. In the back of my somewhat unremembering mind, I recalled seeing an essay of Belloc on Christmas. After looking through a number of Belloc books, I finally located his essay, "A Remaining Christmas", in the Penguin Selected Essays. Somehow, the date of this essay is not given in the list of acknowledgments that J. B. Morton gave about the essays' sources. I have not had time to check further, but that is not so important here when we deal with timeless things that happen in time.
After I began the essay, I realized, of course, that I had read this lovely essay before. In fact, the title of the Chapter on Belloc in my Another Sort of Learning is taken from this essay -- "The Immortality of Mortal Man." Indeed, this curious juxtaposition of mortality and immortality is what Belloc called a "shocking, and intolerable and, even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing." Christmas for Belloc was something that made this thoroughly wrenching situation of immortal beings who still die to become somewhat "explicable, tolerable, and normal." How so?
"A Remaining Christmas" is about a man and his home. It is about a place wherein the things that change, and rapidly change, can find themselves confronted with things that do not change, with things that are. The very first sentence in Belloc's essay alerts us to our condition: "The world is changing very fast, and neither exactly for the better or the worse, but for division." The title of the essay "A Remaining Christmas" gains its wording from the question that people ask, even more at the end of the century than in Belloc's time, "how much remains of the observance and of the feast and its customs?" Belloc's essay is essentially an account of a single traditional Christmas. It takes place in an ancient house, the older parts of which date from the fourteenth Century. It is a mile in the countryside. Off the central upper room of the house is "a chapel where Mass is said." The house is constructed of oak and brick. In the fireplace, only oak is burned.
In this large upper room is a huge oaken table which was originally built for an Oxford college, but looted from there by the Puritans. It was finally purchased from the family that inherited it from the Reformation. This table was made "while Shakespeare was still living, and the whole faith of England still hung in the balance; for one cannot say that England was certain to lose her Catholicism finally till the first quarter of that (17th) century was passed." The room was light with candles, "the proper light for men's eyes", as Belloc rightly put it.
This is how Christmas eve is spent in this house. On the morning of that Eve, large quantities of holly and laurel are collected from nearby trees and lots of the farm. Every room in the house is decorated with fresh smelling leaves, berries, needles, and boughs. A Christmas tree twice the size of a man is set up, to which little candles are affixed. Presents are there for all the children of the village, household members, and guests.
At five o'clock, already dark in England that time of year, the village children come into the house with the candles burning on the tree. There is first a common meal. Next the children come to the tree where each is given a silver coin and a present. Then the children dance and sing game songs. Belloc does not see this as quaint or accidental: "The tradition of Christmas here is what it should be everywhere, knit into the very stuff of the place; so that I fancy the little children, when they think of Bethlehem, see it in their minds as though it were in the winter depths of England, which is as it should be." The coming of Christ to Bethlehem is also His coming to the winter depths of England.
There is a Crib with animals, stars, shepherds, and the Holy Family. The children sing their carol at the Crib -- "the one they know best begins, 'The First Good Joy that Mary had, it was the joy of One.'" I am sorry I do not know that carol. After the carols, all leave except the members of the household. The household dines, and, with the Christmas fast, await Midnight Mass. The Yule log is carried in, so large that it takes two men to carry it. It is put on the great hearth. If it lasts all night and is still shouldering in the morning, this is supposed to be good fortune to the family. At Midnight, there is Mass and all take Communion.
All sleep late the next day to await the great Christmas dinner at midday. There is "turkey; and a plum pudding, with holly in it and everything conventional, and therefore satisfactory." The great feast lasts most of the rest of the day. Of the critics of these things, Belloc says, in an aside, that "they may reprove who will; but for my part I applaud." Then follow the twelve days of Christmas, ending with the Epiphany. All the greenery is to remain till this Day of the Magi, but by the end of that day, nothing is to remain. All the greenery is burned in a coppice reserved for these Christmas trees, "which have done their Christmas duty; and now, after so many years, you might almost call it a little forest, for each tree has lived, bearing witness to the holy vitality of unbroken ritual and inherited things." This unbroken ritual and the inherited things are our defense against meaningless change and our reminder that trees too are living vestiges of the work of God.
On New Year's, the custom was to open all the windows and doors of the house so, they say, that "the old year and its burdens can go out and leave everything new for hope and for the youth of the coming time." Some folks say this is superstition, but, Belloc pointed out, it is as old as Europe and goes back to forgotten times. At Midnight, all go outside to listen hushed for the arrival of the New Year. The people wait the boom of a gun in a distant village to be sure that Midnight has arrived. The bells of the churches ring. When the bells cease, there is a silence. Then all go inside, the doors are shut, and all drink a glass.
Not merely death, but many things die and change all the time, and we can hardly bear this reality -- "all the bitterness of living." And yet in this ritual, it all becomes "part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude." All these events of life are connected "holy day after holy day, year after year, binding the generations together."
In this house that celebrates what remains of Christmas, all the tragedies and joys of life have occurred within its rooms and halls. "But its Christmas binds it to its own past and promises its future; making the house an undying thing of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival." The immortality of mortal men -- Belloc sees in this ancient house with its tradition, with its yearly celebration of Christmas, a way to bear the our lot, with the beloved things that change and pass. "There is this great quality in the unchanging practice of Holy Seasons, that it makes explicable, tolerable and normal what is otherwise a shocking and intolerable and even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing. I mean the mortality of immortal man."
Without these rituals of Christmas, their unchanging practice, we see that what is in fact shocking and intolerable and abnormal becomes inexplicable, becomes our lot and our culture. This is the nature of our times. We can no longer explain ourselves to ourselves. In failing to understand our immortality, we do not understand our mortality. And at Christmas, which we should see, as Belloc did, in our family tradition, such that Christ could also have come to the wintery depths of England, or to anywhere, we find in the Nativity the response to both our mortality and our immortality, in the Child with His parents, while the neighboring children sing, the carol I do not know, "The First Good Joy that Mary had; it was the joy of One."
ON THE FATE OF ACADEMIC MEN
In the Dent 1957 enlarged edition of J. B. Morton's 1938 edition of Hilaire Belloc: Stories, Essays, and Poems, we find an excerpt from The Path to Rome. This edition identifies Belloc in the following manner: "Hilaire Belloc, born on 27th July 1870. Educated at The Oratory School, Edgbaston. After leaving school served as a driver in the 8th Regiment of French Artillery at Toul. Matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, in January 1893 (Brackenbury History Scholar, and 1st Class in Honour History Schools in June 1895). Died in 1953." Between 1895 and 1953, nothing is mentioned. We find no reference to Belloc's stint in the House of Commons, nothing of his family, of his sailing, of Chesterton, of what he wrote. To the British mind, perhaps, all that is important about a life is the date of birth, the date of death, and, in between, what schools attended, what academic honors received, and in what regiment served, even if in a foreign army. Perhaps that is enough.
The eleven page extract from The Path to Rome, begins with Belloc, very hungry, just over a crest of the mountains. He is looking back down the Rhône Valley. He has managed to find an Inn called "The Bear," in the town of Ulrichen. Therein he is met by a middle aged lady, "one of the women whom God loves." Belloc addresses her in French. She answers him in a "rustic" version of the same tongue. She looks at him in the eye as she speaks to him.
It was this straight-forward, untroubled gaze that incited Belloc to thinking about academics, not his favorite folk, to say the least. "Beware of shifty-eyed people," he begins. Their nervousness reveals a kind of "wickedness." No doubt what will happen to the shifty-eyed. "Such people come to no good."
Belloc then asks the most marvelous question -- he is speaking to himself, one of his "Lector"- "Auctor" passages. "Why the greatest personages stammer or have St. Vitus' dance, or jabber at lips, or hop in their walk, or have their heads screwed round, or tremble in the fingers, or go through life with great goggles like a motor car?" He adds, for emphasis, "Eh?"
We have all met the man with the goggles, the one with the hop in his walk, the one with his head screwed round. From them we never got a straight answer. "I will tell you," Belloc informs us why. We are hardly prepared for the reason he gives for such stammerers, jabbers, and hoppers. "It is the punishment of their intellectual pride, than which no sin is more offensive to the angels."
All of this began, recall, when Belloc met the lady with the clear gaze in the Great Bear Inn. Suddenly, we are confronted in this unlikely spot with intellectual pride, surely the sin of the fallen angels. Who are these prideful ones? They are the ones who do not notice all the wonder to be found about them. A human being is more than a mind. Unless he is more, his mind is quite a dangerous thing. The angels are pure spirits; we are the rational animals, body and soul.
Belloc describes the situation of the mind-only-gentleman in this fashion:
What! here are we with the jolly world of God all round us, able to sing, to draw, to paint, to hammer and build, to sail, to ride horses, to run, to leap; having for our splendid inheritance love in youth and memory in old age, and we are to take one miserable little faculty, our one-legged, knock-kneed, gimcrack, grumpy intellect, or analytical curiosity rather (a diseased appetite), and let it swell till it eats up every other function?
What does the sane man do when this happens? He yells, "Away with such foolery."
Who is it, we might ask, that thinks the world of God to be jolly, who sings, draws, paints, hammers, sails, rides horses, runs, leaps? Who has love in youth and memory in old age? Who tells us it is a "splendid inheritance"? Why, it is Belloc himself, of course, perhaps still a bit annoyed that he did not himself end up as a very pedant, though this is hard to imagine. He knew the dangers of his own "grumpy intellect," for it could lead him to this very pride from which he was perhaps saved when he could not stay at Oxford.
The "Lector" wants to get on with the walk and quit these dreary philosophical musings. But the "Auctor" has a few more things to say. He repeats, "Away with such foolery." He decides to explain the problems we have with the pedants. They "lose all proportion." Worse, "they can never keep sane in a discussion." Belloc gives us an amusing example. The pedants "go wild on matters they are wholly unable to judge, such as Armenian Religion or the Politics of Paris or what not."
A man with a steady and balanced mind, with a clear gaze, on the other hand, has three questions to ask that keep him sane. These are 1) "After all it is not my business." 2) "Tut! tut! You don't say so!". And 3) "Credo in Unum Deum Patrem Omnipotentem Factorem omnium visibilium et invisibilium." In these last lines from the Creed, Belloc thinks, all the analytical powers of the pedants, the professors, are jammed "into dustheaps," by comparison.
Belloc then stops to add, as if it is preposterous, "I understand that they (the professors) need six months' holiday a year." If Belloc had his preferences, he would give them "the whole twelve, and an extra day on leap years." If they are on vacation all year long, they cannot do much damage.
The "Lector" is anxious to get back to the story of the woman in the inn. And Belloc is willing to return to her. In fact, he has never left her example in all this chiding of prideful academics who need six months' vacation a year. The sin of pride reminds him of the Day of Judgment. "(On this day), St. Michael weighs souls in his scales, and the wicked are led off by the Devil with a great rope, as you may see them over the main porch of Notre Dame (I will heave a stone after them myself I hope), all the souls of the pedants together will not weigh as heavy and sound as the one soul of this good woman at the inn."
I saw Notre Dame a couple of times, but never noticed above the main porch the Devil with a great rope leading startled pedants to their doom. But, of course, I did not know Belloc then.
Belloc finally sat down to eat. The good lady brought him food and wine. He found the wine good. However, the food had in it a "fearful herb," a spice or scent, "a nasty one." "One could taste nothing else, and it was revolting; but I ate it for her sake." The whole point of the redemption may be in these lines.
"We have for our splendid inheritance, love in youth and memory in old age."
These are the things that the biographical sketch of Belloc did not mention. They do make it possible for us to say, with him, "Credo in unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem, Factorem omnium visibilium et invisibilium," for these are the things that confound the pedants and cause us to look "to see the jolly world of God all about us."
ON IRONY AS THE 'AVENGER OF TRUTH'
Irony is a flourishing topic of study today in many academic circles. Indeed, academia itself is one of the prime subjects for irony -- no one today, for instance, would simply accept without amusement the notion that the academy is where you find unvarnished truth in our society. Almost everyone has heard of the rigid closure to truth that is found throughout the universities. The very title of Allan Bloom's now famous, but hardly attended to, book, The Closing of the American Mind, is ironical, as befits a good student of Plato. It is simply amusing and bittersweet that a book on the status of the open university would portray its mind as precisely "closed."
In the Selected Essays of Belloc (Penguin), we find an essay, "On Irony." It is a remarkable essay. Indeed it is the justification of irony as a legitimate but dangerous tool in the pursuit of truth itself. We sometimes have to speak the truth over the heads of someone who will not listen, but it is not irony unless there is some third party, even if it is God, who does listen to the implied, hence ironical, truth.
Take for instance that passage from the Declaration of Independence about self-evident truths among which is that all men have a right to life. Our judges, politicians, and reporters may well cite this passage with great solemnity as if this obvious principle is one quite widely accepted in our society. The very reciting of the passage is ironical in a society where millions are legally killed and the lives of many others constantly in jeopardy. A Pope will say, on the contrary, that we live in a culture of death. He speaks no irony.
"It is the intention of irony," Belloc tells us, "that it should do good, because it is of the nature of irony that it should avenge the truth." How does it do this avenging? Irony intends to inflict a wound. It points out to someone, anyone, the breach not only between what we say and what we do, but between what we do and what is right. Irony cannot be used with any "propriety except in God's service." Thus Belloc thinks that if we are morally compromised, we will not see ourselves as we are. We will have no criterion against which to see our depths. "The history of Letters is full of men who, tempted by this or that, by money or by ease, or by random friendship, or by some appetite lower than the hunger and thirst after justice, have found their old strong irony grow limp and fruitless after they had sold their souls." What a remarkably powerful sentence that is -- limp and fruitless men who have sold their souls!
Irony seems to be for men of the world. It is a strange virtue, if virtue it is. "To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have in it a quality of something evil, and so it has, for ... it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used -- nay, can hardly exist -- save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed." The "ironical man" -- Socrates was said to be such -- was often seen by his listeners to be mean-spirited or merely jesting with them. They did not grasp the truth he was indicating.
Belloc understands irony to be a primary weapon to "defend right against wrong." Indeed, the "bad spirit" that irony seems to take over from the evil it attacks would suggest that we should not use it. Yet, Belloc says, "how false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred of the evil men are in themselves evil, all human history can prove." This sentence needs sorted out. Vengeance, the requiting of an evil in the name of justice, the hatred of evil men, that is, the hatred of what they do, is not itself evil. Belloc appeals to the common sense and practice of mankind as witness. A society or people that bear absolutely no anger at evil done to the good or innocent, that has nothing but praise for the evil that men do, is itself a corrupt society that can feel nothing of the divine wrath, nothing of the divine criterion of right and good.
This is heady doctrine, Belloc knows. "A happy world, such as the world of children, or any society of men who have still preserved the general health of the soul -- such a society may be found in many mountain valleys -- needs none of this salt for the curing and the preservation of morals." But most societies are filled with the evil that occasions irony, from the poets and the old men who have known some wisdom.
But, perhaps too close to home, what about a generally corrupt society, one that enacts the violations of the commandments as its good deeds, as its rights? "There is a last use for irony, or rather a last aspect of it, which this general irony of nature and nature's God suggests: I mean that irony which can only appeal in the letters of a country where corruption has gone so far that the mere truth is vivid with ironical power." We can live in a society in which even the statement of the Commandments is ironical, since their very statement speaks against what is going on everywhere.
Belloc concludes with a penetrating sentence: "No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul." No doubt there is something autobiographical in these powerful lines of Belloc. He did not suffer fools lightly, but he did enjoy them. But he hated evil and was not afraid to call it such, even when he had to speak ironically about it, even when, even today, when we read him, we see that he speaks to God when he refuses to call evil anything other than it is.
Belloc did not live a happy life in many ways. But he did great good to his fellows and secured a "singular advantage to his own soul" because the evil in things was not allowed to pass unspoken. "How false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred of evil men are in themselves evil." What Belloc added to the normal wounds that irony is intended to inflict on evil doings is wit and laughter, the two things the mind in moral and intellectual error can least stand to hear directed to itself.
ON BEING CLOSE TO THINGS PRIMARY
In the Hills and the Sea (Marlboro Press, 1906), Belloc tells of being high in the Pyrenees, in a place recalled as "Los Altos", which I cannot tell whether it is a specific area or merely that it is in a very high part of these very high mountains. The essay in which he tells us this is entitled "On 'Mails'". He begins right away to tell us what "Mails" are. They turn out to be in fact "malls". Belloc describes a "mail" as a "place set with trees in regular order so as to form alleys, sand and gravel are laid on the earth beneath the trees, masonry of great solidity, grey, and exquisitely worked, surrounds the whole, except on one side, where strong stone pillars carry heavy chains across the entrance." The spelling "Mails" confused me.
Belloc did consistently put the term "mails" in quotation marks to indicate, I take it, an obsolete or foreign usage. I tried to find a dictionary or a reference book, a topic that shall come up shortly, to explain this usage. Finally, I found it in that microscopic version of the Oxford English Dictionary, after almost going blind with the magnifying glass. Evidently, it refers to a game, pall mall, or to a place where the game was played in Paris. I do not know this game, but the term Pall Mall is also a street in London where stylish folks once were said to live.
"Mails", Belloc tells us, take about two hundred years to perfect themselves and last in good condition for another hundred. They were popular during the time of Charles II of England and Scotland and Louis XIV in France. This essay is really about Belloc's "little pen" which has led him from one thing to another so much so that, at this point, he entirely forgets "The 'Mails'" until he realizes at the end of the essay that he has wandered into different intellectual and sentimental alleys.
At the mention of Louis XIV and Charles II, Belloc first begins to wonder which of these monarchs was older. He calculates this comparative age according to certain dates he does remember, the fact that Charles came back to England in 1660 and that Mazarin signed a Treaty with Spain in 1659. With such figuring, he finally decides that Charles is about thirty years older than Louis. At this point, of course, I eagerly wanted to look up the facts, which I did. It seems that Charles II was 1630-85, while Louis XIV lived from 1638-1715. So Belloc's memory was right on the money.
But this memory exercise was a literary trap for the reader, of course. Belloc himself could not look up the fact but had to recall it from his own memory because he was up in the Pyrenees at the time with no luxuries of civilization around him. "How dependent is mortal man on those Books of Reference," he sighs. At this point in my reading of this charming essay, I begin to wonder if I should have looked up the facts. Anyone with a few Books of Reference at his desk, Belloc observed, can seem more learned than Erasmus. There was the trap! Vanity! Belloc suggests in fact that "five out of six men who read this" essay will have such reference books at hand. I certainly did, which was why I could look up the dates and seem as wise as Erasmus.
But Belloc has another point to make, much more philosophical: "Let any man who reads this ask himself whether he would rather be where he is in London on this August day (for it is August), or where I am, which is up in Los Altos, the very high Pyrenees, very far from every sort of derivative and secondary thing and close to all the things primary?" This obviously rhetorical question -- I know there are some dull souls who would still rather be in London even in August -- forces us to ask ourselves about things secondary and things primary.
At this point, Belloc decides to describe what this rocky place in the high Pyrenees looks like. Beech and pine cling to the steep sides of the mountains, limestone precipices jut out. The going from camp site to camp site is very slow, dangerous. "It seems dead silent. There are few birds, and even at dawn one only hears a twittering here and there." The silence at first makes it seem as if nothing at all is being heard. Then he reflects that if he were suddenly to pick this Pyrenees place up and put it down in London, it would not be a silent place at all. What he hears at all times, day and night in Los Altos, is the roar of the torrent crashing down the steep mountainsides into the valley below. This noise has become so "continuous, so sedulous, that it has become part of oneself."
After several days, Belloc decides that he must begin to descend. Gradually, he notices signs of human life, an abandoned cabin, a path, "and thence to the high road and so to men." After he is among men for a while, he begins to think of where he has been. "I shall miss the torrent and feel ill at ease," he tells us, "hardly knowing what I miss, and I shall recall Los Altos, the high places, and remember nothing but their loneliness and silence" -- a silence and loneliness that has become "part" of himself.
When he gets to the valley, Belloc will saunter into a town, "St. Girons or another, along the riverside and under the lime trees...." And it was with this word "trees" that Belloc suddenly remembered "The 'Mails'", the very topic about which he had begun to write. At this sudden ending, he addresses, with mock seriousness, his little fountain pen with which he is writing these reflections of his stay in the Los Altos, his "companion and friend." He asks it "whither have you led me, and why cannot you learn the plodding of your trade?" Of course, we are most grateful that this little pen did not learn the "plodding" if its trade. We are delighted that, with its user in charge, it rather wandered from place to place, from topic to topic, beyond the Books of Reference and the relative dates of Charles II and Louis XIV, but, all the while, still remembering in mountains and, yes, in the "Mails" that take two hundred years to mature, "nothing but loneliness and silence." Here at last, we are again reminded to distinguish in our lives the things of "secondary" and "primary" importance, the great task of our existence.
ON THINKING CONTINUALLY OF THOSE IN BEATITUDE
In a letter from Manchester on August 13th, 1926, which I found in Robert Speaight's collection of Belloc's letters (London: Hollis & Carter, 1958), Belloc wrote to Laura, Lady Lovat, that he had just been to a party with many friends. His hostess, presumably Lady Lovat, was very kind and sent him a "parcel which contained a 1912 bottle of Haut Brion," which, as Belloc said, "astounded" him. I am not sure whether it was the Haut Brion itself that astounded him or the fact that Lady Lovat knew that he would like it, probably both. He was so inspired that he intended to complete his long poem on Wine that had been delayed for already four years. Belloc mused that "it will be a long time before I get Friendship and the Faith again under the same roof." Needless to say, these two belong together under the same roof, which is, more or less, the whole message of revelation.
Lady Lovet's daughter Rose died in August of 1940 at the age of fourteen. I do not know the exact circumstances of her death. As we know, Belloc's American wife, Elodie, died in 1914. He lost one son during World War I and another in World War II. He was privy to such sadness. Belloc wrote to Lady Lovat that he had been continually thinking of her daughter. He added:
I have always believed that thinking continually of those in beatitude is a sign of communion with them. Of course, that may be a superstition, but it seems to me there must be something in it, for I have noticed that the degree in which the mind recalls those who are no longer on earth is connected with some sort of communion. I do not understand these things but I cannot help but feeling a connection between actual persons and recurrent recollection. If it were not so why should one person be remembered more than another...?
This is the Communion of the Saints, isn't it?
Belloc presumes to extend words of consolation, as only he can, to Lady Lovat. He wants to stress two things that, he writes, are results of his own experience. "The first thing is," he tells her, "that strong human ties escape the general rule of mortality." Belloc, of course, is most conscience of what he called in The Path to Rome, "the mortality of immortal men." Here he is telling us, apparently contrary to all evidence, that something escapes the "general rule of mortality". He realizes that this teaching goes against our culture and our senses. He does not pretend to explain it. "How that escape is accomplished, I have no idea. Most things pass, but certain forms of human affection do not pass; they seem to be of another stuff from the common fabric of life." In the face of doubt, including his own, he trusts his experience.
Notice how "scientific", if you will, that Belloc is here. He does not have an a priori theory that prevents him from affirming his experience. He does not pretend to know how the experience comes about. On the other hand, he does not say that "since 'science' or philosophy tells us that there is no everlasting life, my experience of communion, even though I am aware of it, must be utter nonsense." What he knows, he admits; what he does not know, he also acknowledges.
The second thing that Belloc told Lady Lovat was that "human beings can rely permanently on doctrine." Here we see in Belloc a theme that we so often find in Chesterton, that the mind is a faculty of dogma, that its purpose is to state what is true. Since Belloc is here talking to a mother, his friend, about the death of her young daughter, it seems surprising that he is talking to her, of all things, about doctrine. We might we willing to accept vaguely that there is some affection that remains, but our mind should tell us that nothing remains.
Belloc admits to Lady Lovat that "doctrine is much drier than emotion and it is difficult to understand its full value today for the world has come today to depend wholly on emotion for its creed and its values." It seems remarkable that Belloc already saw in 1940, a creed that has become commonplace at the end of the Century. Remember that the doctrine at issue here is simply that of the Communion of Saints, the logical result of which would be that there is no reason why some communion between those of great mutual affection is not possible in theory. Belloc understands that this doctrine confirms his experience, which is what he is trying to explain to Lady Lovat.
Doctrine is, Belloc affirms, his "meat and drink." Then, almost in contradiction of what he has just said about his experience of communion, he explains the basic meaning of a doctrine that directly depends on faith: "I mean by doctrine that core of Catholic truth which is not to be referred to experience and not confirmed by experience -- the doctrine of immortality is of this kind. The less vividly it is imagined, the more firmly it can be grasped." That is, if we try to imagine immortality, we will begin to confuse the principle at issue with our own imaginings, which may be quite far off base. Thus we can end up confused and doubtful not because of the doctrine but because of the imperfection of our imaginings.
Having said all of this, however, Belloc's conclusion to his letter to Lady Lovat is remarkable: "I am afraid that insisting on that truth (of immortality) is of very little value to anyone, because people can only live upon their feelings and doctrine itself is not alive."
Doctrine, no doubt, is alive as all thought is alive. We need to recall that immortality is both something that is believed in faith and also a philosophic conclusion, something discussed by Socrates on his last day. Christianity is not the source of the doctrine of individual immortality. That comes from Greek philosophy. Christianity arrives at immortality via the resurrection of the body, the problem of the continuity between the resurrected body and the soul separated from the same body at death.
So we must notice how good Belloc's advice to Lady Lovat, in her grief, really was. He told her of his own experience of communion, which he acknowledged to be a feeling or an emotion, but something real and to be reflected on none the less. He next suggested that there is a rather dry doctrine that might confirm this experience of communion if thought about, but that it was tough going for most people, though he thought it fitting to mention to Lady Lovat.
"I have always believed that thinking continually of those in beatitude is a sign of communion with them."
"The first thing is that strong human ties escape the general rules of mortality."
"Human beings can rely permanently on doctrine."
The doctrine on which we rely permanently confirms our thinking continually of our communion with those in beatitude. The persistent thinking of those in beatitude escapes the general rules of mortality. Faith and friendship are to be found under the same roof with immortality and the Communion of Saints, with, indeed, as Belloc would say in astonishment to Lady Lovat, "a 1912 bottle of Haut Brion.
ON DISLIKING CHAMPAGNE BUT DELIGHTING IN EXISTENCE
Belloc wrote a letter from King's Land to Maurice Baring on February 6, 1911 (to be found in Speaight's collection, Letters from Hilaire Belloc [London: Hollis & Carter, 1958]).. I am not just sure from whence Baring was writing to Belloc, but in his response, Belloc disagreed with something Baring said. In Baring's letter, Belloc found "a touch of Devil-worship about it," a serious concern indeed. Devil-worship evidently means ultimately denying that existence is good.
But to make his point, Belloc presented to Baring a sort of litany of "do's" and "don't's" to explain just how the Church itself acted in dealing with reality. For instance, the Church says simply as a command, "Don't kill." The Church does not say, "If you kill, regard it as a sacrament." However, in saying "Do not kill" there are exceptions. One exception is just war. There the Church blesses the banners of the Armies. Preventing killing is not murder.
The Church does not say, "Do not marry." Belloc observes that the Church has difficulty in dealing with normal human relations "in a prohibitive way." What the Church does say about the marriage is that it is "indissoluble." The Christian praise of the celibate life has nothing to do with whether "marriage is right or wrong," just as, Belloc adds in a striking comparison, preferring a professional to a conscript army tells us nothing about whether a given war is just or unjust.
Belloc sees the Church's teaching on celibacy in this manner: if you are going to deal with the "inner life," you best be celibate. The Church adds that if you are going to deal with the "inner lives of others and direct and administer them, you must really be celibate." Belloc adds that this last practice is not a dogma, but it is discipline. The relation between the celibate and married life is not a question of degree of holiness, but of "two different kinds of life, both approved." Because of its very nature of dealing with one's own and other's inner lives, one is more "spiritual than the other."
Nor does the Church say, "Do not be rich." She does warn that wealth is dangerous and can easily corrupt. This is merely a statement of observed fact. But as such, being rich tells us nothing of someone's "character." We cannot conclude from the fact that riches are dangerous to whether a given rich man is actually corrupt. He may be quite virtuous. When there is no Church present to counteract the normal false assumptions about riches, Belloc observes, "people always think that great wealth indicates something: Intelligence at the lowest and courtesy or some other virtue at the highest." But of itself great wealth neither indicates intelligence our courtesy. Belloc adds, that the Church soberly warns us about wealth: "Unless you use it with the greatest care and worry yourself to death about it, you are doing a direct injury to your fellow citizens." Belloc calls this simply "sound economics."
Then Belloc adds, in an example that probably does not follow, "Every time you (Baring) and I drink champagne, we are ultimately depriving some poor man of beer, and don't you forget it." This quip of Belloc, however, is not "sound economics." It is best forgotten. In a market economy, we are more likely to deprive a poor man of his beer if we do not drink champagne. But of course, Belloc adds, with some playfulness, that in fact, at that moment, at least, he does not like champagne. So on his own terms there is no danger in his drinking it and upsetting the flow of beer to the poor man, which beer, be it noted, Belloc thinks he has a perfect right to. Belloc's stomach is upset. Thus, he does not think that he likes any "wine" except "Herefordshire Cyder." Just why he calls "cyder", "wine", I am not sure, for surely Belloc of all people, with both French and English blood in his veins, knew the difference. He did not, consolingly, seem to worry about whether the champagne that he and Baring might drink would deprive the poor man of "Herefordshire Cyder."
"What is all of this leading up to?" you might ask. So far we see little of the devil here. But he is hanging around fuzzy ideas. Belloc continues, "As for the Church saying 'Don't exist,' that is the last of the series and is absolutely plumb flat contradictory." The Church cannot approve of something that is "absolutely plumb flat contradictory." Faith does not contradict reason, as Aquinas often put it. If you want to get Belloc's point, try to command something before it exists, not to exist. We do not have the power of existence as such in our arsenal. This is the great Thomist truth, the truth of existence. Existence is the Gift we do not give ourselves, but only receive it. This is why, from our side, to recall Belloc's friend Chesterton, gratitude is the first response to being.
Belloc sums up these teachings: "The Church does say definitely 'Don't kill'. She certainly thinks sex dangerous, she regards riches with the utmost suspicion. But existence she delights in and it is Catholic civilisation only that ever produces a strong sense of individual existence." This is the most marvelous of sentences. To delight in existence itself, this is the highest mark of sanity and reality. If we can delight in existence itself, we can, even more, delight in the tiny particular being that exists -- the "strong sense of individual existence."
In conclusion, Belloc gives us in 1911 a criterion against which to test his thesis: "Let a nation lose the Church, and it is bound to fall in time into Pantheism, or a denial of spiritual continuity, and the immortality of the soul." We no longer bury our dead. We kill our kind before they are born and hasten their ends when they are useless. We deny that past generations can bind us to anything, no Constitution, no natural law. We subsume all back into Earth and judge individual existence merely as a function of or threat to the Environment. We can no longer, it seems, smoke indoors or out of doors. We have reinvented prohibition and made killing the tiniest of our kind a "right."
Thus, with regard to economics, I do not see why the rich and the poor both cannot have either champagne, beer, or Herefordshire Cyder. And with regard to the Devil-worship, that Belloc worried about in Baring's letter, what Belloc caught was a rancid smell of the idea that existence itself is not good, and hence that life is not good, that sex is not good, that material things are not good. In the affirmation that the Church "delights in existence," he knew that, however gingerly we must sometimes treat them, because of what they are, all things, as it says in Genesis, are good. And we are to delight in them in their proper order.
THE CERTAIN LOSS
Belloc, in his essay "On a Lost Manuscript," in On Nothing, speaks whimsically of some pages that he lost in a cab, evidently a horse cab as he speaks of "a trap door on the top of the roof", on Vigo Street in London, "at the corner." He did not exactly lose his essay, but unaccountably left it in the cab. He even went to Scotland Yard to try to see if some honorable cabbie had turned it in, only to be told that "cabmen very rarely brought back ... written things, but rather sticks, gloves, rings, purses, parcels, umbrellas, and the crushed hats of drunken men."
This lost essay was to have appeared on page 127 of On Nothing and was one that Belloc had worked upon until it was near perfect. He had kept it with him a whole year, rewriting, improving. It never left his side (he had no hard disc with a back-up). It crossed the Pyrenees seven times and the Mediterranean twice. Belloc even tells of fording the "Sousseyou", holding it high out of the water. Thus far, I have not been able to locate this river.
Belloc informs us of where he began to write this essay -- "... it was in Constantine, upon the Rock of Citra, where the storms came howling at you from Mount Atlas and where you feel yourself part of the sky." Oddly enough, I had just written an essay, (Crisis, November, 1996), about the seven Trappist monks from their Monastery in the same Atlas Mountains in Algeria, monks who were, last Easter, slaughtered by Muslim cadre.
And the only thing I vaguely recalled about Constantine was that I had some time ago read an essay of Albert Camus in which the city of Constantine appeared. I went to my shelves to see if I could find the reference. It turned out to be in an essay in Camus' Lyrical and Critical Essays, "entitled, "A Short Guide to Towns without a Past." I thought to myself both "What a wonderful title!" and "How could you have a 'long' history of towns without a past?"
This is what Camus said about Constantine, the place where Belloc wrote his lost essay, feeling himself "part of the sky": "In Constantine, you can always stroll around the bandstand. But since the sea is several hundred kilometers away, there is something in the people you meet there. In general, and because of this geographical location, Constantine offers fewer attractions, although the quality of its ennui is rather more delicate." One wonders what Belloc, that vital man, would have made of the notion of "delicate ennui"?
Belloc's lost manuscript was begun on the 17th of January in 1905. He was sitting where, as he unexpectedly recalled, the Numidian king Massinissa (210-149 B.C.) had come in "riding through the only gate of the city, sitting his horse without stirrups or bridle." Where is this from, I wonder, Livy? In any case, over his shoulder, an Arab was trying to read what Belloc was writing but could not understand the words; however, "the Muses understood and Apollo, which were its authors almost as much as I." Belloc was most pleased with his essay, the subject of which seems to have been the consequences to the Mediterranean costal trade because of the opening of Suez, an unlikely subject for such lofty sentiments, to be sure, but with Belloc almost any topic sufficed to reach the highest things..
Belloc's essay is really, of course, about losing things, about the fact, that as far as we know, things can indeed be lost. We are sometimes loathe to face this fact. He realized that he could never replace his essay; not even he could remember what he wrote or how he wrote it. He was aware of theories that would suggest that someday, in the future, beyond this life, perhaps, we could read this essay again, hear it praised for its worth -- "I will not console myself with the uncertain guess that things perished are in some way recoverable beyond the stars...."
This was not a skepticism about our destiny. Belloc, I think, must be understood in a way different from those of a more Platonic bent. He was too vividly aware of the loveliness of things and their passingness to be lightly put off by the prospects of future delight or knowledge. Thus, early in the essay, he writes, poignantly, "You all know how, coming eagerly to a house to see someone dearly loved, you find in their place on entering a sister or a friend who makes excuses for them...." (On reading this touching sentence grammatically, it again brings to mind an exchange I once had about the English use of the apparently singular "someone" with the plural modifying pronoun "their").
Clearly, Belloc does not end his essay in flaming hope. He does not maintain, however, that the possibility of seeing his essay again, possibly his loved ones again, is vain. He concludes, "It may be so. But the loss is certain."
Is this the "delicate ennui" that Camus experienced in Constantine suddenly appearing in Belloc? At first sight, it might seem so. But, as I said, this essay, the one not lost, is about losing things. Every day we see infinite things we shall never see again. Every day we compose essays in our minds we shall never write. We accustom ourselves, as we probably should, to notice mostly the things that might recur. We are not wrong to hope that "beyond the stars" we can recover what is lost.
But the first thing we must do is know that we have lost something. We must have enough love of reality, including the sticks, umbrellas, and the "crushed hats of drunken men", enough expectation "to come eagerly into a house" to know that someone is not there, something is lost. Only when we begin with this vivid realization of loss can we begin to hope. "It may be so. But the loss is certain."
As Belloc wrote on the Rock of Citra, in Constantine, "a town without a past", he recalled that the Numidian King Massinissa had ridden through the single gate of this city "sitting his horse without stirrups or bridle" -- so it was, after all, a town with a history.
One of Belloc's essays is lost; not even Scotland Year could find it. This loss is certain, because another of his essays, not on the "effect of the piercing of the Suez Canal upon coastwise trade in the Mediterranean", is not lost. I will not, in the end, say that "nothing was lost." I will say that the certainty that something is lost must be our beginning. "You all know how, coming eagerly to a house to see someone dearly loved, you find in their place on entering...."
But the loss alone is certain.
After I had read Belloc's essay on "Permanence" in The Silence of the Sea, a copy of which my young friend Greg Doolan let me borrow from his good Belloc collection, I came across this passage in Belloc's essay "On Diarists":
Why are there so few diaries? Because mankind, and even womankind, lacks the industry required. Most people have enough routine in their lives and certainly enough leisure to keep up the daily entries; but they have not the tenacity sufficient to keep abreast of the work. For one thing, there is no money in it. And yet I suppose that every man who has lived a long life, especially if it is a half-public sort, regrets his lack of a diary. However wrong-headed his judgments may have been, however superficial his appreciations, he would have preserved out of ten thousand chance happenings a hundred or two which would have been of permanent value to him.
How does Belloc understand what is "permanent"? One of the permanent things seems to be how little we remember about ourselves, itself perhaps an argument for the existence of a heaven, of a God who delights even in our wrong-headed judgments and our superficial appreciations, not because they are wrong-headed or superficial but because they were ours, the immortal creature.
Obviously, Belloc allows that not everything that happens to us is necessarily of permanent importance. I wonder if we understand the implication of this freedom we have to allow many insignificant things to happen to us in our every day lives. We brush our teeth every day, but we need not be so vain as to think that this needs recording for posterity, even though one or other brushing may well turn out to be of permanent amusement, the day that we used shaving cream instead of toothpaste, for example.
Moreover, our mothers once asked us every day during our early youth whether we brushed our teeth before we went to bed or after we got up. Someone revealed an interest in us, in the most boring things about us, not because it was so exciting watching us brush our teeth -- though watching children brush their teeth can be most entertaining -- but because our mother knew what was important was the ten thousand daily brushings, the regularity, the routine, the permanent recurrence of ordinary things..
In his essay on "Permanence", Belloc, reflecting on the many changes after the Great War, noted the "Permanency of Impermanence." This experience gives us a certain strength. "Though you may not affirm of any one thing in the mortal world that it is permanent, yet you may affirm of Permanence itself that it is permanent. You may repeat to yourself with confidence that the principle of permanence underlies all vicissitude." Spring and Fall return each year. These natural cycles, with the heavens, are not technically eternal, yet they are "in tune" with it and they are "a promise thereof."
Belloc finds the "principal value of history" in this experience of permanence in change. Not only do we have our immediate contact with the ten thousand things of daily life, we add a "third dimension" with this historical experience. History shows us "the limits to which the most generous enthusiasms must be confined, the term beyond which the most just of reforms may not venture, and the minimum at least of evil which human society must learn to endure." Notice what is said here -- that generous enthusiasms can be excessive, that just reform can turn unjust, that we cannot get rid of all evil without increasing it. In other words, we are to pay attention to the limits of our condition.
History is the record of the importance of "accident" in our lives. And yet it also teaches the permanence of things that recur. Belloc recalls once in "Barbary", in Algeria perhaps under the Atlas Mountains, where he saw a farmer plow his fields in the evening. Belloc knew that this "landscape" before him and the farmer had seen "every sort of revolution." The pagan gods and the signs of Christian presence, "all these had gone their way." Yet, the sun went down and would return. "With the morning there would be a new prayer in gratitude for the sun's rising and life advancing from the east, and the poughing of the field would begin anew." Belloc, aware of the history of the place, was reminded of things that are permanent.
However, even this recurrent ritual "of man and earth will go its way at last, after we know not what aeons of time." To a man who is overcome with the woes of his era, Belloc advises him to look again at these rhythms of ploughing and planting. "High verse" has this same effect, he thought. "Any civilisation must be near its end when its cities outweigh its countrysides." And yet, we notice that as the cities grow, in a sense so does the countryside. The two are not necessarily opposed to one another but require one another; indeed, cause one another.
And of the most recurrent of temporal things, Belloc writes, "The Heavens, which are so much more ancient and will outlast that which they roof, are not themselves for ever, but they have 'forever' written large upon them, for all men to read, and having read, to make seizin of their own dignity and of their immortal destinies. We, part of their household, may on that account repeat without fear that the immemorial hills, the deep woods, and the quiet rivers shall return." That is a remarkable and remarkably beautiful sentence by any standards.
The heavens that "roof" us, will outlast us, but they too are not "forever". Yet, their recurring permanence has "forever" written on them for us "to read." And after we read what is there, we can take possession of our own dignity and of our "immortal destiny". Our unwritten diaries would be filled with our recollections of hills and woods and rivers we have seen and visited, wherein the ten thousand unimportant and one or two hundred important things of our lives took place. We are part of the household of the heavens in which we are to read and take possession of our dignity and our destiny.
ON THE VANITY OF THE LEARNED MAN
Belloc's Cruise of the Nona, his account of skippering his sturdy little boat around England, is a book that I have not read in ages. However, one day a month or so ago, I was coming back to the Rosslyn Metro Station across the Potomac in Virginia. I happened to have with me the collection Hilaire Belloc's Stories, Essays and Poems (London: Dent, 1938) which my young friend Gregory Doolan had let me borrow from his fine Belloc collection. This book extracted some twenty-two pages from The Cruise of the Nona.
Belloc did everything he did with great zest and great style. His cruises, his walks, his journeys, his accounts of wars and places were, however, ever filled with philosophic reflection, with wonderment about why and how things happen to our kind. The Nona, sailing north in late May out of Holyhead harbor, ran into a swift and unexpected gale at the point of Carnarvonshire going into Bardsey Sound. Belloc was not sure if he was afraid or not, so busy did the storm occupy him. Finally, he and his companion got the battered Nona past the Black Rock, the Carrig Dhu, into smoother water away from the surging tide.
Looking about, Belloc saw that he was in a rather famous historical spot. This caused him to wonder about theories of learned men trying to expound the history of where he was. "One of the saddest things I know about the beach near Bideford River is the deadly hatred with which the Dons have devastated poor, dear Kenwith."
What, we wonder, have the Dons done that was so unjust to "dear Kenwith?" Why did they hate it so? Evidently, Kenwith is the place of early Danish landings -- "a few boatloads" -- in England. The oral tradition and local history all attest to the place where this landing took place. The learned scholars, it seems, refuse this tradition. They call it a "popular error," and locate the landing some miles away. At this point, Belloc decides that he wants to analyze this tendency of the academics not to believe local tradition or witness.
"What are their motives?" he wonders of the academics. The thing happens in all countries and in all universities, "but one is puzzled why it should come into being at all." These are the same folks, Belloc recalls, who say that the Gospel of John was not written by John, or that Homer did not write Homer, or that "the Battle of Hastings was not called the Battle of Hastings -- although the people who fought it there called it the Battle of Hastings." These same Dons also think that Caesar's Gallic Wars was written by his tutor -- "and all the rest of the nonsense." No doubt, Belloc's unpleasant experience with the university are reflected here.
This force that causes academic Dons to "make fools of themselves," Belloc thinks, can be reduced to three basic elements: 1) "First of all there is the vanity of the learned man." Since so few other scholars know about the situation, the learned man can get by with false conclusions without too much notice. The vain Don likes to think himself right and all the normal clods wrong. Today there is such a mass of technical evidence that people will swallow almost anything.
2) The second reason for their making fools of themselves is the "love of the marvellous, though it is a love of the marvelous appearing in a very degraded form." Belloc gives this example of how the love of the marvelous works to distort the facts:
Your pedant says: "All the apparent evidence, all tradition, all that you would call common sense, would make out Little Muddipool to be that same Little Muddipool where the treaty of Little Muddipool was signed. It is called in plain words "The Treaty of Little Muddipool," and its last words are 'Made by us at Little Muddipool.' But I tell you that it was not Little Muddipool at all, but a place a hundred miles away with a different name."
The love of the marvellous, the desire of uniqueness, causes the scholar to ignore common sense and his own experience. No one will think it marvellous to learn that the Treaty of Little Muddipool was signed in a place called Little Muddipool. But it you tell everyone that it was signed actually in Liverpool, against all the common sense evidence, they will take notice.
3) The third reason is negative. It is the "perpetual substitution of hypothesis for fact." This tendency Belloc finds to be "the greatest mark of Dons today." With this attitude of mind, Dons find that they cannot "weigh the proportion of evidence." Hypotheses make all sorts of results possible, in spite of the evidence. The "certain, the probable, and the absurd" can thus be no longer distinguished. And to show how modern Belloc is, he recalls a case in his time at Oxford of a Don who claimed that he had "discovered any number of classical passages containing concealed anagrams, furnishing the most astonishing information; for instance, that Euripides, when he was a little boy, wrote the plays of Aeschylus." Were this so, of course, the Oxford Don, as Belloc put it, would be responsible for a "miracle."
Fortunately, Belloc recalls, this sort of nonsense was but a stop to by another gentleman writing to The Spectator who pointed out that he had used the anagram method on the said Don's name, only to discover that it was but "a thinly concealed anagram in the opening lines of the Iliad." This proved, on his own theory, that the Oxford Don must have written the Iliad not merely when he was a little boy, "but long before he was born."
Belloc's amusing conclusion of these reflections on learned men, while he is tied up in little shallows in Bardsey Sound, is "and so much for that."
What perhaps makes this witty account of the foibles of the academic Dons rather pertinent is Belloc's perception that that "the certain, the probable, and the absurd" are today difficult to distinguish because we no longer easily know how to distinguish hypotheses from facts. Belloc thought that the common man living near Kenwith, insisting that the the Danes landed near Kenwith, as their ancestors had handed it down, or that the Treaty of Little Muddipool took place at Little Muddipool, is generally close to the truth. The hypotheses of the Dons prove something approaching the absurd because they marvelled at their own theories more than the facts. The greatest mark of the Dons today does indeed seem to be the "substitution of hypothesis for fact," the systematic reduction of what is into what might be and the subsequent difficulty in discovering any difference between the two.
"IN THE PRESENCE OF SO WONDERFUL A THING"
Belloc's walks disconcert me. Not merely is one envious of when and where he walked -- in Spain, in North Africa, across the Untied States, from Toul to Rome, in Sussex --- but also of the time he took, of his memories. "History enlarges everything one sees," he wrote in an essay called "On History in Travel," (Selected Essays, Methuen, 1941), "and gives fullness to flat experience, so that one lives more than one's own life in contemplating it, and so that new landscapes are not only new for a moment, but subject to centuries of varieties in one's mind." Outside the room in which I have lived for the past twenty years, there is a plaque informing me that "This floor was used as an auditorium from 1833-1879; it was used as a study hall from 1833-1889." This room embodies more than one's own life.
One evening, in Southern Spain, he tells is in "The Relic," in the same collection, Belloc had walked through a very dry and barren area, suddenly to come upon a huge Church that looked rather Italian to him. Though there were already some electric lights in Spain, the streets were dark. People in the few houses around the Church were sitting on the steps talking, but they were quiet as he walked into the town, obviously a foreigner. When he finally stood before the evidently huge Church, he confessed, "in the presence of so wonderful a thing I forgot the object of my journey and the immediate care of the moment and I went through the great doors."
The doors were elegantly carved. Belloc reflected a bit on how different and how similar were artistic works in Spain and Flanders. "The two districts differ altogether save in the human character of those who inhabit them...." Flanders has meadows and woods, water. Spain was dry, a desert land, "with air like a knife, and a complete absence of the creative sense in nature about one." However, man's creative sense in both places "runs riot." All artistic details are completed in each place and are different from their neighbors. The "exuberance of the human soul" is revealed in both.
Within the Church is a central covered choir that takes one back to the earlier history of Christian worship. There, one has more the sense of the Byzantine, of the "Mysteries" that are separated out and highlighed in the choir. "In every Spanish church," Belloc explains, "you have, side by side with the Christian riot of art, this original hierarchic and secret thing, almost shocking to a Northerner, the choir, the Coro, with high solemn walls shutting out the people from the priests and from the Mysteries as they had been shut out when the whole system was organized for defence against an inimical society around." One thinks of our present Masses where almost nothing is shut out, where the Mystery at times almost seems to take a second place to fraternity, which should be its result, not its cause.
The stillness in the Church is not complete. Belloc sees a young priest at the end of the choir. Candles were lighted; people were murmuring, "though not at prayers." As he spoke no Spanish, he asked the priest in Latin, very slowly, whether there would be Benediction? But he did not know the Latin word for Benediction; so he called it "Benedictio" or "Salus." The priest nodded, "Si, si."
However, what happens next is not Benediction. Rather, a middle aged man comes out of the congregation to accompany the priest up the stairs. The priest takes a key and opens the door of an ornate cabinet. "The candles shone at once the rough thick clear glass upon a frame of jewels which flashed wonderfully, and in their midst was the head of a dead man, cut off from the body, leaning somewhat sideways, and changed in a terrible manner from the expression of living men." The head seemed very old.
Belloc realized that this devotion, the prayer before a relic, not Benediction, was common. "Our race from its very beginning, nay, all races of men, have preserved the fleshly memorials of those to whom sanctity attached...." So Belloc is seeing something and in seeing it, he sees all of the races of men. He is miles from nowhere, does not speak the language, and is "in the inhospitable darkness of this hard Iberian land." Yet, he does not feel like a pilgrim. He was more aware of awe, even terror, than anything else. He did not know the history of the face he saw, whether he was cut down by Mohammedans or by Pagans in the Pacific Seas.
The people said a few prayers in Latin, then the Our Father in the local tongue. "They next intoned the Salve Regina. But what an intonation!" Belloc knew this chant all his life, but the tune was new. "It was harsh, it was full of battle, and the supplication in it throbbed with present and physical agony." The graceful verses that closed the chant were "full of wailing, and the children's voices were very high." Belloc's reaction is very unexpected: "Had I cared less for the human beings about me, so much suffering, so much national tradition of suffering would have revolted, as it did indeed appal, me."
Finally, the priest closed the doors, locked them. A boy blew out the candles, "one by one," as Belloc recalled. He then went out into the market place in front of the Church, "fuller than ever of Spain." Notice the reason Belloc gives for not being "revolted" as seeing this distorted relic, this head from some unknown incident of sanctity. He does not deny that the scene is horrid.
But Belloc does realize that he is in someone else's land doing a thing common to all mankind, honoring the incidents of sanctity even if he did not know the particular story before him. But he "cared for the human beings about him"; he was in their Church, their land. He too knew the Salve Regina, but not in that melody. What is it he said? "In the presence of so wonderful a thing I forgot the object of my journey...." This is the great capacity, isn't it? The capacity to stand before a wonderful thing, even in the desert of Spain, quite unbeknownst, and to recognize that even here are memorials of sanctity, of practices that all men share in their common lot.
PATHS THAT LEAD TO ROME
The only temptation to the faith really worth worrying about is the one that suspects, in spite of all the passing fame to be gained by doubting it, that the Christian faith might just be quite literally true. Credo in unum Deum.... And this is not Pascal's wager, a playing of the odds, but rather something that can be called a "grace," were our age not so pitiably enamoured with justice, the harshest, most "inhuman" of all the virtues.
In spite of all our vanities, then, we remain first of all a chosen people, hence, we are, in principle, free from the "Unended Quest" of a Karl Popper whose "deserved" happiness results from the struggle with his own intellectual "Third World" with ideas and constructs which "originate with us."
Credo in unum Deum ... Credo ut intelligam ... Credo quia intelligo ... (I believe in one God ... I believe in order that I may understand ... I believe because I understand). I believe that what originates with us also leads to God. I believe not merely in order to understand, but because I understand. I believe because I understand that the faith does indeed teach that we are finite beings given nothing less than everything, nothing less than the one God, who is Trinity. This is, at last, why we are restless, as Augustine taught.
"It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble," Belloc wrote. "We are tost as the great schoolmen were tost, and we dare not neglect the duty of that wrestling. But the hardest thing of all is that it leads us away, as by a command, from all that banquet of the intellect than which there is no keener joy known to man. I went slowly up the village place in the dusk thinking of this deplorable weakness in men that faith is too great for them...."
The wrestling, the command, no keener joy, the deplorable weakness -- the restlessness goes on, along the paths that lead to Rome.
Revelation is itself designed to make us, rather to incite us, to think about what does not originate within us. The very last discovery I ever want to make in this universe of Karl Popper's First, Second, and Third Worlds, is the discovery that I have created what there is. That, I think, would be the ultimate despair.
And so, rather, I believe in newness, in an infinity which does not originate within myself. Popper, in his own way, also caught some of this: "We may gain more knowledge from our children or from our theories than we ever imparted to them." Indeed, we receive more than we give, mostly. This is why, again, the only temptation worth worrying about is the one that would allow us to live only in our own world, closed off, perhaps forever, from a newness of which we are not the origin, but only the pale, yet sparkling images.
"The Italian lakes have that in them," I quote from Belloc's The Path to Rome again, "and their air which removes them from common living. Their beauty is not the beauty which each of us sees for himself in the world; it is rather the beauty of a special creation, the expression of some mind."
Recently, unexpectedly, I received a letter inviting me to a Conference at Lake Nemi above Rome, that tiny, gen-like volcanic pool, about which the delightful miniature strawberries are grown.
How paradoxical, I thought, that after I had "gone back" to Rome so many times during the more than a decade I taught there, that I would be invited to return just after reading again The Path to Rome at midsemester break, while walking slowly on the windy, lonely, wide Jersey beaches at Avalon and Stone Harbor. How odd suddenly to think of going back!
In a way, as I left Rome for what I assumed was the last time in the Summer of 1977, admitting a heavy portion of nostalgia in my character, I have not thought so much about the Eternal City. And, when asked, I always have answered, "No, I do not miss it, though I loved my time there, but, yes, there is one thing, the spaghetti, that I do miss." And I am mostly serious. We cannot spend our lives "missing" things, however much we do miss them in fact. We miss people mainly, sometimes people we do not even know. Places are people, people, places. Paths are what connect them. There is a veil about our lives, I think, that hides the real map of where we are. Thus, our paths, even to Rome, even on the straight line Belloc walked from Toul to get there, are often uncharted, at least to ourselves.
Yet, it is true about the spaghetti.... When Belloc first made it into Italy, he reflected on the Church: "Have you ever noticed that all the Catholic Church does is thought beautiful and loveable until she comes out into the open, then she is suddenly found by her enemies to be hateful and grinding.... She lays her foundations in something other, which something other our moderns hate."
This reflection brought Belloc to a little trattoria where he had to show the waiter what he wanted by gestures: "I first pulled up the macaroni out of the dish, and said, 'Formaggio,' 'Pommodoro,' by which I meant cheese-tomato. He then said he knew what I meant, and brought me that spaghetti so treated, which is a dish for a king, a cosmopolitan traitor, an oppressor of the poor, a usurer, or any other rich man, but there is no spaghetti in the place to which such men go, whereas these peasants will continue to enjoy it in heaven." My friends, who do not believe in the, Resurrection, cannot understand how much such lines comfort me. So this, too, is part of the faith -- no spaghetti in the world we create for ourselves, while the simplest peasants will be enjoying this food of the gods in the everlasting. Quests are ended when the spaghetti is served. My old Roman friends, Bob Taft, Ernie Martinez, John Navone, understood this, the truth about the being with sadness in his eyes who knew that joy was not an illusion because the spaghetti was served.
John J. Mulloy, who edited the collection of Christopher Dawson on the Dynamics of World History, which I used in class this semester, and which Sherwood Sugden, bless him, reissued recently, saw a review of mine on Professor McCarthy's new book -- Edwardian Radical -- on Belloc ("The Recovery of Unknown Corners," The Modern Age, Winter, 1980). There are still Belloc lovers in this cruel world. God be praised. Perhaps there are those of us who sense the sadness in the joy. For there was a sadness about Belloc, in his delight: "All you that feel youth slipping past you and that you are desolate at the approach of age, be merry; it is not what it looks like from the outside. And let us especially pray that the revival of the faith may do something for our poor old universities." It didn't, of course.
Mr. Mulloy was kind enough to send me a copy of Sir Arnold Lunn's :Memories of Hilaire Belloc," an essay I had never seen before (in And Yet So New, 1958). Lunn had corresponded with Belloc about his light verse in about 1910. "Either before or after this exchange of letters," Lunn reflected, "I had read and been fascinated by The Path to Rome, which remains to this day my favorite book."
Lunn, I think, is not alone here.
Another friend over in Maryland, who also had seen my review, wrote in the very style of Belloc's book:
But in 1957, I read The Path to Rome, and toward the end, I will confess to your, that I knelt down to receive a blessing.
Lector: "Why on earth would you do a thing like that?
Auctor (Auctoress, Auctora? What do you do to the feminine of 3d declension?) (I suggested later Auctrix without looking it up). "It just seemed the natural, spontaneous thing to do. When you have spent a volume of ideas and delights with an author, via the mysterious scribbling on paper, called words, three is an 'oughtness' (as some philosopher would put it) about kneeling. Besides, it does tend to settle the crowding and jostling of the ideas."
Lector: "You are carrying your romanticism too far. It is one thing to enjoy a good book, or a bottle of wine or whatever, without being religious about it."
Auctor: "I think not. There is a certain peace that flows from God through some men and some writings, that brings with it a heavenly kind of happiness, and , for ordinary readers, this must be acknowledged in humility to be bearable. The response must compliment the gift, or try to."
Lector: "You are taking it all too seriously. But I suppose women are like that."
Auctor: "When heart hears heart, it is in the knees the sound is best."
Lector: "Have the last word."
Belloc would have liked such a fine tribute, I think. And it does read like his playful controversies with himself between Lector and Auctor, in The Path to Rome.
Indeed, Belloc was genuinely concerned about those who would chance to read this book beyond his time. The Path to Rome, thus, began with this Dedication: "To every honest reader that may purchase, hire, or receive this book, and to the reviewers also (to whom it is of triple profit) greeting -- and whatever else can be had for nothing." Need I recall, that in the Christian tradition, "what can be had for nothing" is precisely the best thing, indeed, the only thing ultimately worth having.
Belloc recounted immediately after the Dedication the incident upon which the whole theoretic structure of the book was based. He had returned to his native town -- we should not forget that, in Christian tradition, our lives are most properly described, somehow, as precisely a "homecoming" -- where he greeted all. With the grocer, he argued politics; and "all but made the carpenter a Christian by the force of rhetoric" ... credo quia intelligo.
Then, "after so many years," Belloc went into his own town church in France, "a church that I love more than mother Church herself ... for this place is the shell of our soul, and one's church is the kernel of that nut." Upon this, he vowed a pilgrimage to Rome, but not to discover a Church he knew not at home. Rome is already at home -- this is the faith of Europe.
Belloc expected his book to be read in 1910, in 1957 with my friend in Maryland, even in about 1968 when I re-read it a second time in Florence, and again in 1980, on the Jersey shores. "And now you people whatsoever that are presently reading, may have read, or shall in the future read, this many-sided but now-ending book; all you also that in the mysterious disposition of Providence may not be fated to read it for some very long time to come...." The wait, dear friends, is still worth it, the Path is still there to be taken, "after so many years."
Thus, The Path to Rome can still be read, with its temptation, and the sadness of it. How often have I quoted these lines, mostly to myself, lines near the end: "The leaves fall, and they are renewed; the sun sets on the Vixen hills, but he raises again over the woods of Marly. Human companionship, once broken, can never be restored and you and I shall not meet or understand each other again. It is so of all the poor limits whereby we try to bridge the impassable gap between soul and soul."
"How sad!" another friend said, when first reading such lines. Yet, there is the spaghetti and the hope of the vow, the vow in which all is broken but its essence: "The essence of a vow is its literal meaning. The spirit and intention are for the major morality, and concern natural religion; but when a man talks to you of the Spirit and intention, look at him askance. He is not far removed from Heresy." Indeed, our times are more full of such heresy than even Belloc's, of people, monks, nuns, and philosophers who have torn down the structures of rite and dogma that uphold the essence of faith, because they concerned themselves with heart and sympathy, with spirit and intention. They thereby ended up doubting because the essence of faith, as the essence of the vow, is not dependent upon our subjective selves, of what we make. Relying on spirit and intention, ours, not God's, we give the people the faith God would have revealed if He had been us. We have forgotten the newness, the vow, the revelation of what is not us.
And so there is advice about drinking: "Never drink what has been made and sold since the Reformation.... Drink red wine and white, good beer and mead...." And do not forget the three phrases that "keep a man steady ... I mean the words 1) "After all, it is not my business." 2) "Tut! Tut! You don't say so," and 3) Credo in Unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem, Factorem omnium visibilium et invisibilium...."
The Path to Rome, no doubt, I shall read again, on some shore, on some walk, in some city of this world, for perhaps more than Rome itself, the end of the pilgrimage, the book reminds me of the faith, of the final temptation against which we each must struggle, the one that arises when we finally do realize that the doctrine is indeed the truth, in our own small churches. In our walks and in our paths, we discover that we are sad enough, to be sure, yet infinite too.
"We laughers," as Belloc called us, without the sadness, the Cross and the doctrine, we cannot laugh in heaven forever, and probably not here either.
"To what emotion shall I compare this astonishment? So, in first love, one finds that this can belong to me."
This vow to God shall not be destroyed by our spirit and our intention. This ultimate first love, as Augustine said, is God Himself. And the essence of the faith is "that this can belong to me." This we call a grace, if we be Christians who walk to Rome.
The only temptation, the one still so prevalent in "our poor old universities" which did not accept the faith, is that this is true. How awful to make ourselves and our world -- except after we know that we are made, that we are blessed, that we are hearing "in our knees, where the sound is best."
Auctor: "Drinking when I had a mind to,
Singing when I felt inclined to,
Nor ever turned my fact to home,
Till I had slaked my heart at Rome...."
1) Published in the Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal, #100, (Autumn, 2001), 16-24.
THE PATH TO ROME: BELLOC’S WALK A CENTURY LATER
“To every honest reader that may purchase, hire, or receive this book, and to the reviewers also (to whom it is of triple profit), greeting – and whatever else can be had for nothing.”
“And now all you people reading, may have read, or shall in the future read this my many-sided but now ending book; and all of you also that in the mysterious designs of Providence may not be fated to read it for some very long time to come ... the time is come when I must bid you farewell.”
In the Year, 1901, the English essayist, historian, poet, sailor, and traveler, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), decided to make a pilgrimage from Toul in France, scene of his military training in the French army, to the Eternal City. He chose a direct path to Rome, or at least as direct as the mountains and rivers of Europe would allow him to walk that distance in a straight line. He vowed – for a pilgrimage was a sacred event in the tradition of Christian men – that he would walk every step of the way, in the same boots with which he began, that he would hear Mass every morning, that he would not take a wheeled vehicle, and that he would arrive in Rome on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (29 June) in time for Mass in the great Basilica of St. Peter’s.
Needless to say, Belloc broke all the elements of his vow except its final one. He did make it to Rome, though when he arrived, he told us practically nothing of what he saw there.
“Well, as a pilgrimage cannot be said to be over till the first Mass is heard in Rome, I have twenty minutes to add to my book.” So, passing an Egyptian obelisk which the great Augustus had nobly dedicated to the Sun, I entered.... LECTOR: “But do you intend to tell us nothing of Rome?” AUCTOR: “Nothing, dear Lector.” LECTOR: “Tell me at least one thing; did you see the Coliseum?” AUCTOR: “... I entered a café at the right hand of a very narrow, long, straight street, called for bread, coffee, and brandy....”
Belloc then writes as his concluding words in the book, presumably from the same café, a “Dithyrambic Epithalamium on Threnody,” the concluding lines of which read: “Across the valleys and the high-land / With all the world on either hand / Drinking when I had a mind to, / Singing when I felt inclined to; / Nor ever turned my face to home / Till I had slaked my heart at Rome.” The Lector calls this “doggerel,” but Belloc does not mind. His walk is ended, his vow completed.
The Path to Rome is thus not about Rome but about getting there through a Europe what reflects Rome at every step. Belloc passed along the Rhone, over the Alps, through Switzerland, the Apennines, and into the Italian plains and cities on his path. As he went along, he told us much. He told us especially much of himself. Belloc, I think, could see more about something than most of us even when we are looking at the same thing. It is not merely that our memory is a function of what we see, so likewise is our hope, so likewise is our present being.
Not unlike Plato in The Apology of Socrates, Belloc was conscious of the fact that this account of his walk would be read down the ages. In this sense, his “path” is a walk we can all take. Because he recounted his trek in a book, we can still take the same walk. We could not do this even if we set off tomorrow morning from Toul to Rome by ourselves, with our staff and our boots and our vows. Our walk would not be his. I am sure that there are a number of people in the 20th and 21st Centuries who have or who will actually take Belloc’s walk. They will have in their pocket his book as a guide-book. They will begin from Toul and end in Rome, even on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. I envy them. They will try to eat and drink what he ate and drank where he ate and drank it. But “in divine Providence,” as he calls it, this newer walk, for all its attention to place, weather, local characteristics, drawings, and scenery, will not see what Belloc saw. Belloc’s book is an account of spirit, yes, of a spirit very much embodied in matter.
Belloc has no Manichean tendencies, of course, not even any Platonic tendencies that would see the whole man in his spirit or in his soul, though he does have a soul that connects him with what is.
In early youth the soul can still remember its immortal habitation, and clouds and edges of hills are of another kind from ours, and every scent and colour has a savour of Paradise.... Youth came up that valley of evening, borne upon a settled state, and their now sudden influence upon the soul in short ecstasies is the proof that they stand outside time, and are not subject to decay. This, then, was the blessing of Sillano (a small Italian town he had reached), and here was perhaps the highest moment of those seven hundred miles – or more.
The things that “stand outside of time,” the things that can be “had for nothing,” the ability to recognize our “highest moment” -- such are the important things that make us what we are, things that we might miss on our own walks from Toul to Rome or wherever we might wander if we do not first spend time with Belloc on his walk.
We know more about The Path to Rome if we realize that in the following year, 1902, Belloc took another walk in his native Sussex in England, where he intimates that the original Garden of Eden was located. “The north is the place for men. Eden was there, and the four rivers of Paradise are the Seine, the Oise, the Thames, and the Arun, there are grasses there, and the trees are generous, and the air is an unnoticed pleasure.” What a remarkable phrase -- “an unnoticed pleasure!” We are such earthlings that we think that we notice all our pleasures. Belloc confesses that “I was not made for Tuscany.”
This second 1902 walk, equally as charming as the 1901 Path to Rome, was called The Four Men. Needless to say, each of the men on this latter excursion was Belloc himself. I shall say something of this English walk in a subsequent essay. Suffice it to say here that both walks were lonely affairs and therefore ironically both profound lessons in companionship. To know one another, indeed to love one another, we also need silence, to be alone, the gift of the contemplative tradition. Those who have no silence, who do not sometimes walk alone, have no friends. Yet, The Path to Rome is full of Belloc’s affirmations that, after long stretches by himself, he suddenly “has need of companionship.”
Belloc is often reviled for his famous sentence that “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.” I cannot number the times that I have seen this sentence cited with horror and derision -- and with much superficiality of understanding about what he meant by it. Yet, there is a truth to it that can be seen in this walk from Toul to Rome in the late Spring and early Summer of 1901, a walk that took Belloc over the Jura and the Alps in the snow, while traversing the plains of France and Italy in such heat that he mostly walked at night and slept by day wherever he could, sometimes in inexpensive inns, sometimes in a barn, often in the open under a tree or in the shade of bushes. He finds crosses and small chapels on the mountains. He sees the gentle hospitality of men in pubs and peasant women in serving him breakfast. He buys a good wine that sometimes tastes sour to him in the morning. We can feel his hunger and the delight of the fresh loaves that he finds in the little house that is the baker’s, the one pointed out to him that has smoke coming out of the chimney early in the morning. Bakers, he thinks, are the finest of men because they have to arise so early and thus see the day come to be.
Belloc is adamantly “incarnational,” that is, he does not separate the soul and the body. There is much in The Path to Rome about food and wine and sleep, as I have already intimated, almost as if it is all right to be the kind of beings we are. “It is quite clear that the body must be recognized and the soul kept in its place, since a little refreshing food and drink can do so much to make a man.” Belloc is always aware of the truth that Augustine knew that the great temptations, the great crimes, do not arise from the flesh but, as in the case of Lucifer himself, from the spirit. And even when they appear in the flesh, they usually, in some way obscure but reflectively traceable in us, are controlled by the spirit.
Yet, we too are beings with a certain sadness about us. There is ever a poignancy in every work of Belloc, even in his laughter and amusement, of which there is much. “Then let us love one another and laugh. Time passes, and we shall laugh no longer – and meanwhile common living is a burden, and earnest men are at siege upon us all around. Let us suffer absurdities, for that is only to suffer one another.” We are indeed under siege; what we believe in the faith of Europe is rejected more and more openly hence a hundred years from Belloc’s walk.. But we laugh. We are indeed absurdities. Suffering one another is not merely a suffering; it is also patience, a world full of laughter.
Early in his walk to Rome, to give a further example of his thinking on food, Belloc asks about breakfast. His very way of asking the question is delightful. “I would very much like to know what those who have an answer to everything can say about the food requisite to breakfast?” “Those who have an answer for everything,” we suspect, have, in Belloc’s mind, few answers to anything. He recalls that Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, and Spenser drank beer for breakfast plus a little bread. In his French regiment, he remembers, for breakfast they drank black coffee “without sugar,” with a cut of a stale piece of bread to go with it.
The great (French) Republicans fought first and ate later. Belloc was also a sailor and ate “nothing for several hours.” He continues:
Dogs eat the first thing they come across, cats take a little milk, and gentlemen are accustomed to get up at nine and eat eggs, bacon, kidneys, ham, cold pheasant, toast, coffee, tea, scones, and honey, after which they will boast that their race is the hardiest in the world and ready to beat every fatigue in the pursuit of Empire. But what rule governs all of this? Why is breakfast different from all other things, so that the Greeks called it the best thing in the world...?
How amusing is this description of the breakfast of the hearty and hardy English gentleman, with its four meats plus eggs, in pursuit of Empire and oblivious of fatigue! And what was Greece if not a constant search for precisely “the best thing in the world”?
In re-reading The Path to Rome, what struck me was Belloc’s sense that the authority of God was put into the world to unsettle us, that we could be here much too occupied with ourselves, that we really did not want to bother with revelation, especially if it meant any kind of revolution in our manners or in our morals.
For when boys or soldiers or poets, or any other blossoms and prides of nature, are for lying steady in the shade and letting the Mind commune with its Immortal Comrades, up comes Authority busking about and eager as though it were a duty to force the said Mind to burrow and sweat in the matter of this very perishable world, its temporary habitation. “Up,” says Authority, “and let me see that Mind of yours doing something practical. Let me see Him mixing painfully with circumstance, and botching up some Imperfection or other that shall at least be a Reality and not a silly Fantasy.”
These are profound, if diverting words. The temporary habitation of the mind can be quite pleasant to it. Why worry about anything else? It is best to lay “steady in the shade,” to dream of worlds that perhaps might be, fantasies, to be sure. Authority is something of a pest. Yet, there are things that Mind prefers not to pay attention to, the first of which is Reality itself. How well does Belloc describe the men of our kind who are wont to favor their own musings over a more glorious reality that they could only receive, but not invent by themselves!
And yet, Belloc was prepared to do the things that men have done for thousands of years. His reasons for daily Mass are as profound as any seen in theological literature since. He gives four reasons. The first is “that for half-an-hour just at the opening of the day you are silent and recollected, and have to put off cares, interests, and passions in the repetition of a familiar action.” The second reason is ritual. “The function of all ritual (as we see in games, social arrangements, ans so forth) [is] to relieve the mind of so much of responsibility and initiative and to catch you up (as it were) into itself, leading your life for you during the time it lasts.” The third reason is that you are inclined to good and reasonable thoughts; you are not distracted by that “busy wickedness” of self and others that is “the true source of human miseries.” And finally, and most importantly, we do “what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years. This is a matter of such moment that I am astonished people hear of it so little. Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long – but I mean reasonably happy)....” To do what our kind does, to realize that we have here no lasting city, that we can perhaps be “fairly happy,” “reasonably happy” in this life, but to expect more is to reject the order of being and revelation in which we find ourselves.
No doubt, the passage in The Path to Rome that I have most thought of over the years, the one that always strikes me anew when I read it again occurs when Belloc is sitting in a Swiss town called Undervelier, by a stream, with a penny cigar. Recall that Belloc had an American wife from Napa, California. He had walked this country twice to see her. And to prove that he was not totally romantic about food, let me cite, at this odd point, the following delightful comparison: “They cook worse in Undervelier than any place I was ever in, with the possible exception of Omaha, Neb.” I might add, that I once had a very excellent supper with two of my cousins in precisely Omaha, Nebraska!
But bad food does not prevent Belloc from noticing that this mountain village of Undervelier contains believers who accept their faith almost naturally. He himself, he confesses, has not had this experience in his own life. For Belloc, faith was always “something fighting odds.” He goes into the village church where he hears the congregation sing in a “Latin nearer German than French.” They sing the Vespers hymn, Te, lucis ante terminum. He wonders about the nature of Belief.
“Of its nature it breeds a reaction and an indifference.” This is again the problem of authority with which Belloc began his walk. Belloc notes that unbelievers and atheists, those who only “think and judge” cannot really understand the problem of Christians. For faith “of its nature struggles with us.” In our youth we “inevitably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things.” Belloc, of course, is a born Catholic, that is, a man who is aware that we still have to come to terms with our faith even if we are baptized in our infancy. We think we can explain everything without it. We live our lives. To explain his point, he uses a mountain image. We are like men who go down the cleft of a mountain, things above are hidden by the rocks and cliffs. Suddenly, when we reach the bottom, “we look back and see our home.”
We have not found anything better in “the natural things” wherein we look. We have once known a “home.” So we return. Belloc asks about what causes this return? His answer is surprising: “I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution.” Our fantasies, our theories do not prove to be enough for us. We go on living, “every day.” And we experience evil. It is not we, but “the experience of evil” that “demands a solution.” And there is none to be found where we have been looking. We begin to remember at last “the great scheme.” “Our childhood pierces through.” In what must be an autobiographical note, Belloc tells us “that we who return (to the faith) suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities.”
The world without faith talks “a strange language.” And what is even worse, “we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions.” No doubt this observation is something that would be more pertinent to a Catholic, to a Church founded on Peter and the apostles. We forget that the human machinery is included in the superhuman revelation. We think we can save the world and the Church by ourselves. We cannot.
Belloc again travels on his way to Rome. “It is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows.” We have afresh the theme of why are we bothered with more than we can expect with just Mind? It is an “awful struggle” to reconcile two truths. We must not deny what “is certainly true” and yet we must keep “civic freedom sacred in spite of the organisation of religion.” And in an astonishingly frank admission, Belloc writes, “it is hard to accept mysteries and to be humble.” We must wrestle with faith and reason as “the great schoolmen were tost.” Thus, faith, authority, that which is given to us just when we think we have everything figured out, annoys us for it “leads us away, as by a command, from all that banquet of the intellect than which there is no keener joy known to man.” Belloc is quite aware of unexpected pleasures, including the pleasure of intellect, its own delight in what it knows.
But Belloc has also accepted the mysteries. To be humble is difficult. “I went slowly up the village place in the dusk, thinking of this deplorable weakness of men that the Faith is too great for them, and accepting it as an inevitable burden. I continued to muse with my eyes upon the ground....” We are, I suppose, wont to think of faith as a gift, which it is, and a joy, which it also is. But in Belloc we are aware of what it at stake, “this deplorable weakness of men that the Faith is too great for them.” And of course, it is too great for them, that is why they are called to everlasting life, not just to sacred civic freedom.
The Path to Rome, in conclusion, is a charming, moving, unsettling book, mostly charming. It is a book that involves us in a walk of a century ago. We must take it some time. Belloc, at one point, sees the Lake of Bolsena in Italy from a high distance. He was in the south now -- “I had become southern and took beauty for granted.” As he was sitting there, an old man in a pony cart came by. Belloc was tired. He again broke his vow about wheeled vehicles, though he does not attribute it to the temptation of the devil. As they raced down the hill, both sang. “I could not understand his songs nor he mine, but there was wine in common between us, and salami, and a merry heart, bread which is the bond of all mankind, and the prime solution of ill-ease – I mean the forgetfulness of money.” Bread is the bond of mankind and if we forget our money we will not be ill-at-ease.
So this is The Path to Rome which, if we are fortunate, we are fated to read a century after it was written, as Belloc himself intimated. As I said, there is ever a poignancy in Belloc. All good things “come to an end,” as he tells us. This ending includes his book. Then in a passage of almost sublime beauty, he writes: “The leaves fall and they are renewed; the sun sets on the Vexin hills, but he rises again over the woods of Marly. Human companionship once broken can never be restored, and you and I shall not meet or understand each other again. It is so of all the poor links whereby we try to bridge the impassable gulf between soul and soul.”
Belloc then changes moods. He gives us the musical notes (I forgot to tell the reader about his wonderful sketches of the scenes he saw that are in the book). He sings: “L’amore è una catena; l’amore è una catena; l’amore è una catena, Che non si spezza!” – Love is a chain that is not broken. The impassable gulf between soul and soul, human companionship, the poor links – yet, as we read Belloc, as we walk with him in the valleys and hills, in the mountains and plains of Europe, we are left with a feeling that we did understand him, while we walked with him. The companionship can be taken up again even a century later as we again read The Path to Rome.
2) Published in the Saint Austin Review, November, 2002.
“ON THE CHARACTER OF ENDURING THINGS”
“And on this account, Sussex, does a man love an old house, which was his father’s, and on this account does a man come to love with all his heart, that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and he finds in it the character of enduring things.”
The Path to Rome recounted the walk that Belloc took by himself from his old French army post in Toul to fulfill his vow to reach High Mass at St. Peter’s in Rome on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the twenty-ninth of June. This walk took place in 1901. The following year, 1902, exactly one hundred years ago, Belloc records a second equally “wonder-full” walk that he took in his home county of Sussex in England. The termination of both these walks, one suspects, was the same, albeit one ending at St. Peter’s, the other at his own home. On second thought the first walk did not exactly finish with Mass at St. Peter’s. As he tells us, Belloc arrived when Mass was just ending. A priest told him in Latin that the next one would begin in twenty minutes. So he added twenty minutes to his pilgrimage and thus delightfully to his book.
During this extra time, Belloc, crossing St. Peter’s Square, with no little amused irony, passed by an “Egyptian obelisk which the great Augustus had nobly dedicated to the Sun.” “The Reader” then wanted to know, after all this wandering about Europe, whether he planned to say anything of Rome itself? “Nothing, dear Lector,” Belloc retorted. Instead, while waiting, he went into a café down a long narrow street, where he “called for bread, coffee, and brandy.” In the remaining few moments, he wrote doggerel verses summing up his now completed “Path” to Rome – “Drinking when I had a mind to, / Singing when I felt inclined to; / Nor ever turned my face to home / Till I had slaked my heart at Rome.”
The Four Men also ends with verse: “When friend and fire and home are lost / And even children drawn away – / The passer-by shall hear me still, / A boy that sings on Duncton Hill.” Belloc concludes the second walk simply, “full of these thoughts and greatly relieved by their metrical expression, I went, through the gathering darkness, southward across the Downs to my home.” For Belloc, the kinship between home and Rome was not accidental.
The second walk lasts from the twenty-ninth of October to the second day of November, 1902. Included, in other words, with all their symbolisms, are All Hallows’ Eve, All Hallows’ Day, and All Souls’ Day -- the “Day of the Dead,” as Belloc named it. These solemn days recall the human condition -- we live, we sin, we repent, or perhaps we don’t. From the beginning, what we are destined for, even if we do not reach it, is glory. But, as Belloc is aware, some there are, Pelagians all, who claim that they need no grace to attain such glory and are proudly confident that they can save themselves.
Later, outside the Crabtree Inn on the 31st of October, the four men, whom we shall soon meet, stop for beer and cheese. The Sailor decides to sing “in a very full and decisive manner” (48). The song that he chooses is marvelously entitled, “Song of the Pelagian Heresy for the Strengthening of Men’s Backs and the very Robust Out-thrusting of Doubtful Doctrine and the Uncertain Intellectual.” No song-title is better suited to our time of doubtful doctrines and uncertain intellectuals who seek to accomplish everything, even their own salvation, for and by themselves.
Belloc gives the notes and the words of this little Pelagian tune. The words are remarkable: “Pelagius lived in Kardanoel, / And taught a doctrine there, / How whether you went to Heaven or Hell, / It was your own affair. / How, whether you found eternal joy / Or sank forever to burn, / It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy, / But was your own concern.” One of the fellow walkers called this doctrine “blasphemous,” but the Sailor maintained it was “orthodox,” which it wasn’t. He proceeded to sing the final “semi-chorus,” as it is called: “Oh, he didn’t believe / In Adam and Eve, / He put no faith therein! / His doubts began / With the fall of man, / And he laughed at original sin.” The verses go on to recount the whole history of such heresy in song – no doubt the only way it should be studied. All utopias begin, I suspect, by this “laughing at original sin.” They all end as a result by making things worse by “having nothing to do with the Church.”
Belloc likewise records the tradition, not to be found specifically in Genesis, to be sure, that the Garden of Eden was originally found in his home county. On finishing this book, we can well believe it. He gives the following account of this local lore:
When Adam was out (with the help of Eve) to name all the places of the earth (and that is why he had to live so long), he desired to distinguish Sussex, late his happy seat, by some special mark which would pick it out from all the other places of the earth, its inferiors and vassals. So that when Paradise might be regained and the hopeless generation of men permitted to pass the Flaming Sword at Shiremark Mill, and to see once more the four rivers, Arun and Adur, and Cuckmere and Ouse, they might know their native place again and mark it for Paradise (43).
The method Adam used to accomplish this special marking of Paradise that is Sussex was that, in this county alone, everything would be called by its opposite geographical name. Down would be called Up, and North would be called South. Moreover, “no one in the County should pronounce ‘th,’ ‘ph,’ or ‘sh,’ but always ‘h’ separately, under pain of damnation.” For Belloc not only were Rome and home identified, but both commenced in that Paradise originally located in the county of Sussex, Belloc’s own county.
As I try to read T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” every Ash Wednesday, so I endeavor to reread every year Belloc’s Four Men during these five “All Hallows” days. Belloc is right; enduring things are found here in this book, including a certain sadness that always seems to be about Belloc, in spite of his amazing jollity. Belloc, almost as much as Plato, is poignantly aware of the passingness of life and the need to attach what happens in time to more eternal things.
The Preface of The Four Men begins, “My county, it has been proved in the life of every man that though his loves are human, and therefore changeable, yet in proportion as he attaches them to things unchangeable, so they mature and broaden. On this account, Dear Sussex, are those women chiefly dear to men who, as the seasons pass, do but continue to be more and more themselves, attain balance, and abandon or forget vicissitude.” Belloc’s enduring things include the things he knew, the ones he loved, particularly the women.
The Four Men describes a walk through Sussex. The book includes maps, songs, sketches, and drawings. It is a perfect multi-media book and would make a wonderful film but only by a director wise enough not to change a word of the text. The sketches of the bridges, the stone buildings, the valleys are especially fine. The “four” men are each Belloc himself. They are called respectively, “Himself,” “Grizzelbeard,” “the Poet,” and “the Sailor.” In his complete life, Belloc of course was each of these men. He himself had sailed the seas, we remember the cruise of the Nona, written verses, and would grow old. He was a man who did not forget what he saw or knew. He loved companionship, but he also realized that it did not remain, however important it was while it lasted. “Himself” remarks to Grizzelbeard, after they agree to walk together, “for all companionship is good, but chance companionship is best of all...” (5). We shall return to the end of companionship when the four cease to walk together.
The walk began on October 29th, 1902, at an Inn, called the “George,” at Robertsbridge. Alone, “Himself” sat drinking a glass of port. A “multitude of thoughts” came into his head but most importantly “the vision of the woods of home and of another place – the place where the (river) Arun rises.” He talks to himself. He mocks himself that the purpose of his business far away seems to be only “to make money,” the result of which he will return to spend more than he earns. What about ultimate things? He chides himself, “all the while your life runs past you like a river, and the things that are of moment to men you do not heed at all.” The things that “are of moment to men” are indeed usually ignored until Belloc decides to walk in Sussex.
This is what The Four Men is about, the things that we should heed lest they run past us like a river. Or as he says to himself, “what you are doing is not worth while, and nothing is worth while on this unhappy earth except the fulfilment of a man’s desire.” It is at this point in his solitary broodings that “Himself” first meets Grizzelbeard, a man “full of travel and of sadness.” They also meet the Sailor. They agree to walk together to the end of Sussex. “This older man and I have inclined ourselves to walk westward with no plan, until we come to the better parts of the county, that is, to Arun and to the land I know,” Himself explains to the Sailor.
As the walk begins, the three finally run into the fourth companion, a youthful Poet. “His eyes were arched and large as though in a perpetual surprise, and they were of a warm grey colour. They did not seem to see the things before them, but other things beyond; and while the rest of his expression changed a little to greet us, his eyes did not change. Moreover, they seemed continually sad.” Grizzelbeard, “as though he was his father,” tells the Poet that these three are good men. He will enjoy the walk. “Only come westward with us and be our companion until we go to the place where the sun goes down, and discover what makes it so glorious” (16). Who could resist such a destination, where the Sun goes down, to discover “what makes it so glorious?”
As they continue their walk through Sussex, each recounts things he knew of the area. They know the geography and lore of the place. The first story has to do with St. Dunston. This is a wild narrative of how St. Dunston tricked the Devil and thus caused a great moat to be built in the land. Belloc includes some wise demonology, reminiscent of the lies that this same tainted gentleman told our mother Eve in the Sussex Paradise: “And indeed this is the Devil’s way, always to pretend that he is the master, though he very well knows in his black heart that he is nothing of the kind” (19).
One of the remarkable things about Belloc is the place that food plays in his life, vivid and concrete reminders of our incarnational existence. He would certainly have disdained and mocked modern dietary admonitions about cholesterol and calories. My favorite Belloc meal is the following. The last light of the day had disappeared. “The air was pure and cold, as befitted All-Hallows....” (146) The four men reached the edge of the Downs headed for the Hampshire border. Mist was on the Rother. They came to an old inn.
Sounds of singing from inside the inn greeted them. The men singing seemed to be farmers on a sales day. The bar of the inn was elegant. Some fifteen men were inside harmonizing and drinking. The four men were tired and the other party would last long. The four were thus served at another table. What did they eat after their long day’s march? The meal consisted
of such excellence in the way of eggs and bacon, as we had none of us until that moment thought possible upon this side of the grave. The cheese also ... was put before us, and the new cottage loaves, so that this feast, unlike any other feast that yet was since the beginning of the world, exactly answered all that the heart had expected of it, and we were contented and were filled (147).
I would hesitate to count the caloric intake here, but such a feast, “this side of the grave,” in its description surely fulfills what Leon Kass, in his great book, called, “Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.”
After this feast, it was time for a pipe. Each called for his own drink. “Himself” had “black currant port.” Grizzelbeard chose brandy. The Sailor bought the Poet beer, while the Sailor sipped claret. They then join the group of farmers. They sing together the rousing “Golier.”
This scene recalls that wonderful institution the inn. The Sailor, who has seen the world, remarks, “there is not upon this earth so good a thing as an inn; but even among good things there must be hierarchy” (62). The best inn in the world, we are told, was the Inn at Bramber; now forgotten, it will not return. The great inns are listed. Their very names charm us and take us out of ourselves: the Star of Yarmouth, the Dolphin at Southhampton, the Bridge Inn of Amberley, the White Hart of Storrington, the Spread Eagle of Midhurst, “that oldest and most revered of all the prime inns of this world,” the White Hart of Steyning, the White Horse of Storrington, and the Swan of Pentworth. Our business sees that these “were only mortal inns, human inns, full of a common and reasonable good; but round the Inn at Bramber, my companions, there hangs a very different air” (63). This is the inn of memory, so perfect that it cannot be visited again. “And what purpose would it serve to shock once more that craving of the soul for certitude and for repose?” Indeed, what purpose would it serve?
The conversation along the paths of Sussex is of battles and loves, of earthy things like fires and breakfast and ale. The best of ales is named in the Sailor’s famous All Hallows’ Day song: “May all good fellows that here agree / Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me, / And may all my enemies go to hell! / Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!” (126). But midst this levity, we find an amazing profundity to their conversation.
The mystery of how we stand to one another in the highest things comes back again and again. “Everything else that there is in the action of the mind save loving,” Grizzelbeard points out,
is of its nature a growth: it goes through its phases of seed, of miraculous sprouting, of maturity, of somnolescence, and of decline. But with loving it is not so; for the comprehension by one soul of another is something borrowed from whatever lies outside time: it is not under the confines of time. Then it is passes, it is past – it never grows again: and we lose it as men lose a diamond, or as men lose their honour (27).
“Himself” objects that loss of honor is worse than loss of friends’ love. Grizzelbeard did not think so. Honor is outside of us. We do not give it to ourselves. “Not so men who lose the affection of a creature’s eyes. Therein for them, I mean in death, is no solution.” What concerns Grizzelbeard is the mystery of the ”passing of affection.” Love is not under the confines of time, neither in its coming or in its going.
Belloc is never too far from warning us of the machinations of the academic and intellectual mind. “Himself” at one point remarks that “the Poet was now thoroughly annoyed, not being so companionable a man (by reason of his trade) as he might be. For men become companionable by working with their bodies and not with their weary noddles, and the spinning out of stuff from oneself is an inhuman thing” (123). We only know ourselves when we first know what is not ourselves.
On the final day, the four men arise early to end their chance companionship. They know they will never meet again. Grizzelbeard touchingly sums up their experience:
There is nothing at all that remains: nor any house, nor any castle, however strong, nor any love, however tender and sound, nor any comradeship among men however hardy. Nothing remains but the things of which I will not speak, because we have spoken enough of them already during these four days. But I who am old will give you advice, which is this -- to consider chiefly from now onward those permanent things which are, as it were, the shores of this age and the harbours of our glittering and pleasant but dangerous and wholly changeful sea (157-58).
Grizzelbeard speaks here of death. The four then pause “for about the time which a man can say good-bye with reverence.” They go their own ways. “Himself” watches them depart “straining my sad eyes.” He then returns to the Downs and his home.