Hilaire Belloc’s 1901 Reflections on Belief and the Faith in his The Path to Rome (1902)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                     28 January 2019

St. Agnes (d. 304)

St. Peter Nolasco (d. 1256)

St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)

Epigraphs

A faithless man is a hopeless man is a loveless man.” (These are the solemn words of Father John Hardon, S.J., spoken with gravity to R.D. Hickson in the late 1980s and early 1990s)

***

“[I]n private [however] he [Belloc] would sometimes give vent to his irritation: ‘I have been having my bellyful of clerics lately. I always like to associate with a lot of priests because it makes me understand anti-clerical things so well….Caveant sacerdotes. [Let the priests be attentive, and carefully aware of us!] (Hilaire Belloc’s 9 November 1909 Private Letter to E.S.P. Haynes)

“After one such gathering [with priests], he [Belloc] arrived to lecture at Repton, and banging his hat down in the hall remarked to William Temple: ‘The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.’” (Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957), page 383—my clarifying brackets and emphases added

***

In a Swiss valley village in the Jura Alpine region while en route to Rome afoot in June of 1901, Hilaire Belloc had some sincerely wholehearted and profound reflections on the nature of Belief and on the matter of The Faith. What he so honesty considered at thirty years of age may well be of special moment to us yet today, for he dealt with timely as well as timeless things. Moreover, the beauty and reverence to be found in that little village of Undervelier, Switzerland enhanced Belloc’s own reflections and his vivid perceptions will still touch us deeply today, I believe.

Hilaire Belloc first sets the scene and tone that conduces to his deeper and sustained reflections:

Remembering him [that lax man he knew who was “given to drink”] and pondering upon the advantage of strict rule, I hung on to my cart [with the “boy in a waggon” pulling and leading him], taking care to let my feet still feel the road, and so passed through the high limestone gates of the gorge, and was in the fourth valley of the Jura [region of the Swiss Alps], with the fifth ridge standing up black and huge before me in the last of the daylight. There were as yet no stars.

There, in this silent place, was the little village of Undervelier, and I thanked the boy, and painfully approached the inn….1

When he yearningly entered a hospitable inn, he first “asked the woman if she could give me something to eat,”(155) and:

She said that she could in about an hour, using [an idiom], however, with regard to what it was I wanted to have, words I did not understand. For the French had become quite barbaric, and I was now indeed lost in one of the inner places of the world. (155-156—my emphasis added)

Desiring to relax a little while he waited, Belloc was able still to purchase there a cigar:

A cigar is, however, even in Undervelier, a cigar. One of these, therefore, I bought, and then I went out smoking it into the village square, and finding a low wall, leaned over it and contemplated the glorious clear green water tumbling and roaring along beneath it [the “low wall”] on the other side; for a little river ran through the village.

As I leaned there resting and communing I noticed how their church, close at hand, was built along the low banks of the torrent. I admired the luxuriance of the green grass these waters fed, and the generous arch of the trees beside it. The graves seemed set in a natural place of rest and home, and just beyond this churchyard was the marriage of hewn stone and water which is the source of so peculiar a satisfaction; for the church tower was built boldly right out into the [“torrent”] stream and the current went eddying round it. (156—my emphasis added).

We now are to be more deeply introduced to some of Belloc’s preparatory reflectiveness, here concerning the especially satisfying “marriage of hewn stone and [flowing] water”:

But why it is that strong human building when it dips into water should thus affect the mind I cannot say, only I know that it is an emotion apart to see our device and structure where it is most enduring come up against and challenge that element [strong flowing water, especially the sea] which we cannot conquer and which has always in it something of danger for men. (156-157—my emphasis added)

After briefly giving some illustrative and architectural examples, “a splendid thought of the Romans” (157)—such as the building of Venice and Le Mont St. Michel off the coast of Normandy, France—Belloc returns to his cigar and watchfulness of the hewn stone and the stream, and he soon hears something quite unexpected:

As I was watching that stream against those old stones, my cigar being now half smoked, a bell began tolling, and it seemed as if the whole village were pouring into the church. At this I was very much surprised, not having been used at any time of my life [of 30 years] to the unanimous devotion of an entire population, but having always thought of the Faith as something fighting odds, and having seen unanimity only in places where some sham religion or other glozed over our tragedies and excused our sins. Certainly to see all the men, women, and children of a place taking Catholicism for granted [reverently] was a new sight, and so I put my cigar carefully down under a stone at the top of the wall and went in [to the church] with them. I then saw that what they were at was Vespers. (157—my emphasis added)

Belloc was further astonished at how well the villagers knowingly sang, both the twilight hymn by Saint Ambrose of Milan, and also the words of the Psalms:

All the village sang, knowing the Psalms very well, and I noticed that their Latin [as spoken there “in one of the inner places of the world” (156)] was nearer German than French, but what was most pleasing of all was to hear from all the men and women together that very noble good-night and salutation to God which begins

Te, lucis ante terminam.”

My whole mind was taken up and transfigured by this collective act, and I saw for a moment the Catholic Church quite plain, and I remembered Europe, and the centuries. Then there left me altogether that attitude of difficulty and combat which, for us others, is always associated with the Faith. The cities dwindled in my imagination, and I took less heed of the modern noise. I went out [from the church] with them into the clear evening and the cool. I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief. (158—my emphasis added)

Now will begin Belloc’s longer meditation on the nature of Belief, as such, and, then more specifically, on the Catholic Faith:

Of its nature it [i.e., “Belief”] breeds a reaction and an indifference. Those who believe nothing but only think and judge can not understand this [twofold act of belief: i.e., both a secure affirmation of something and a trust in the reliable testimony of someone]. Of its nature it [Belief] struggles with us [, however]. And we, we, when our youth is full on us invariably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things. Then for a long time we are like men who follow down the cleft of a mountain and the peaks are hidden from us and forgotten. It takes years to reach the dry plain, and then we look back [and up] and see our home. (158-159—my emphasis added)

Then our Belloc—attentive, as well, to his own personal case—modestly meditates on the deeper causes of our freely chosen return to the Faith and all its firm and authoritative Belief:

What is it, do you think, that causes the return? I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme which at last we remember. Our childhood pierces through again…. But I will not attempt to explain it, for I have not the power; only I know that we who return suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; 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 [our] violent decisions.

And this is hard: that the Faith begins to make one abandon the old way of judging. Averages and movements and the rest grow uncertain. We see things from within and consider one mind or a little group as a salt or leaven. The very nature of social force seems changed to us. And this is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows.(159-160—my emphasis added)

Hilaire Belloc continues to specify how and why a delayed or belated return to the Faith presents us with difficult adjustments and additional, accepted challenges to our loyal integrity:

And this again is very hard, [namely,] that we must once more take up that awful struggle to reconcile two truths and to keep civic freedom sacred in spite of the organization of religion, and not to deny what is certainly true. It is hard to accept mysteries, and to be humble. We are tost as the great [medieval, philosophical and theological] 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. (160—my emphasis added)

As he still proceeds on his slow walk through the village of Undervelier with these poignant meditations in his heart, he continues his trenchant reflections about the burdensome magnitude of the Faith and thereby to be soon considering also the witness and experience of a great love:

I went slowly up the village place in the dusk, thinking of this deplorable weakness in 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….

There was to be no more of that studious content, that security in historic analysis, and that constant satisfaction of an appetite which never cloyed. A wisdom more imperative and more profound was to put a term to the comfortable wisdom of learning. All the balance of judgment, the easy, slow convictions, the broad grasp of things, the vision of their complexity, the pleasure in their innumerable life – all that had to be given up. Fanaticisms were no longer entirely to be despised, just appreciations and a strong grasp of reality no longer entirely to be admired.

The Catholic Church will have no philosophies. She will permit no comforts; the cry of the martyrs is in her far voice; her eyes that see beyond the world present us heaven and hell to the confusion of our human reconciliations, our happy blending of good and evil things. (160-161—my emphasis added)

In his elegiac and magnanimous wholeheartedness, Hilaire Belloc will now surprisingly conclude his memorable meditation upon loyal gratitude (also to his Balliol College at Oxford), and upon a severe personal tragedy, and yet upon a great love:

By the Lord! I begin to think this intimate religion as tragic as a great love. There came back into my mind a relic that I have in my house [in beloved Sussex]. It is a panel of the old door of my college [Balliol College], having carved on it my college arms. I remembered the Lion and the Shield, Haec fuit, Haec almae janua sacra domus. [That is: This was, this is still, the sacred door of my nourishing home—i.e., his alma mater.] Yes, certainly religion is as tragic as first love, and drags us out into the void away from our dear home. It is a good thing to have loved one woman from a child, and it is a good thing not to have to return to the Faith. (161—my emphasis added)

Again at the end of his reflections, we also recall Hilaire Belloc’s own earlier and still nourishing words: “It is hard to accept mystery, and to be humble.” (160—my emphasis added)

He has also elsewhere more than once pertly written that “the impatient rejection of mystery is one of the main marks of stupidity.” In his later Essays of a Catholic (1931), for example, Belloc says:

Now, Mr. Haldane’s interest in this is an excellent proof of his high intelligence. One of the main marks of stupidity is the impatient rejection of mystery; one of the first marks of good judgment, combined with good reasoning power, is the appetite for examining mystery.2

CODA

Almost a quarter of a century after his pilgrimage to Rome afoot in June of 1901, Hilaire Belloc published The Cruise of the Nona (1925),3 and therein he discussed, among other fundamental matters, his theme and thesis that “truth confirms truth.” That is to say, especially the insight that “All human conflict is ultimately theological.” (52—emphatic italics in the original)

Introducing the insight of Cardinal Manning, Belloc, now at fifty-five years of age, very gratefully also says:

There is another form of impressing the truth, and testifying to it, and doing good by it, which is the dogmatic assertion of truth by the old and the experienced and the revered, to the young….One was a sentence which Cardinal Manning said to me when I was but twenty years old [just ten years before his own pilgrimage path to Rome]….

The profound thing which Cardinal Manning said to me was this: “All human conflict is ultimately theological.”…

The saying of his (which I carried away somewhat bewildered) that all human conflict was ultimately theological, that is that all wars and revolutions and all decisive struggles between parties of men arise from a difference of moral and transcendental doctrine, was utterly novel to me. To a young man the saying was without meaning: I would have almost said nonsensical, save that I could not attach the idea of folly to Manning. But as I grew old it became a searchlight: with the observation of the world, and with continuous reading of history, it came to possess for me a universal meaning so profound that it reached to the very roots of political action, so extended that it covered the whole.4 (51-52—italics in the original; bold emphasis added)

May Hilaire Belloc be now for you what, for so long, he has been to me. And so abundantly.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902 and again in 1936), p. 155—my emphasis added. All further references will be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of the essay.

2Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1992—first published in 1931), page 209—my emphasis added. This passage comes from Chapter 13 as a response to J.B. S. Haldane (d. 1964), who was a scientist of considerable distinction, and with a highly gifted intellect.

3Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). See especially pages 51-52, concerning Henry Edward Cardinal Manning’s influential “searchlight” words to young Hilaire Belloc.

4Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), pages 51-52).

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