Hilaire Belloc’s 1910 Reflective Essay “On Sacramental Things”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                       26 September 2019

The Eight North American Martyrs (d. 1642-1649)

Saint Thérèse Couderc (d. 1885)

Epigraphs

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.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, first published in July 1931), page 275—my emphasis added)

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Truth comes by Conflict” (Hilaire Belloc’s own Epigraph to his 1931 book, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England.)

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Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past….But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in his 1910 Anthology entitled On Something, pages 263 and 265—my emphasis added. )

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“Now that story [of the Dovrefjeld in central Norway’s mountains] is a symbol, and tells a truth. We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; a woman and a child, a man at evening, a troop of soldiers; we hear notes of music, we smell the smell that went with a passed time, or we discover after the long night a shaft of light upon the tops of the hills at morning: there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in the author’s own 1910 Anthology, On Something, page 265—my emphasis added.)

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In January of 1910, when Hilaire Belloc was almost forty years of age and already widely traveled on land and sea, he published his intimately reflective essay “On Sacramental Things,” which was first presented in his own authorial anthology, entitled On Something.1 He will effectively teach us herein to be more perceptive and attentively receptive and grateful; and, he will give us help to preserve a vivid memory and even sacred devotion.

Moreover, near the end of his essay, Belloc will even show us a rare portion his heart, as he gives us his own memorably purified version of an old Norse Tale with its evocative presentation of trustworthiness and the implicit meaning of a Vow and of Loyal Love.

Mindful of the nourishing needs of the soul of man, Belloc begins his refreshing reflections, as follows:

It is good for a man’s soul to sit down in the silence by himself and to think of those things which happen by some accident [or providence?] to be in communion with the whole world. If he has not the faculty of remembering these things in their order and of calling them up one after another in his mind, then let him write them down as they come to him upon of piece of paper. They will comfort him; they will prove a sort of solace against the expectation of the end [“Respice Finem!”]. To consider such things [e.g., one’s end and purpose] is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their power consists. (257-my emphasis added)

Belloc then directly gives us an initial taste of what he has so vividly perceived and remembered himself, especially from all his travels afoot in Europe, in North Africa, and on his formidable 1901 Path to Rome:

A woman smiling at a little child, not knowing that others see her, and holding out her hands toward it, and in one of her hands flowers; an old man, lean and active, with an eager face, walking at dusk upon and warm and windy evening westward towards a clear sunset below dark and and flying clouds; a group of soldiers, seen suddenly in manoeuvres, each man intent upon his business, all working at the wonderful trade, taking their places with exactitude and order and yet with elasticity; a deep, strong tide running back to the sea, going noiselessly and flat and black and smooth, and heavy with purpose under and old wall; the sea smell of a Channel seaport town; a ship coming up at one out of the whole sea when one is in a little boat and is waiting for her, coming up at one with her great sails merry and every one doing its work, with the life of the wind in her, and a balance, rhythm, and give in all that she does which marries her to the seawhether it be a fore and aft rig and one sees only great lines of the white, or a square rig and one sees what is commonly called a leaning tower of canvas, or that primal rig, the triangular sail, that cuts through the airs of the world and clove a way for the first adventures, whatever its rig, a ship so approaching an awaiting boat from which we watch her is one of the [consoling, sacramental] things I mean….

They do so nourish the mind! A glance of sudden comprehension mixed with mercy and humour from the face of a lover or a friend;…chief and most persistent [is the] memory,[namely] a great hill when the morning strikes it and one sees it up before one round the turning of a rock after the long passes and despairs of the night.

When a man has journeyed and journeyed through those hours in which there is no colour or shape, all along the little hours that were made for sleep and when, therefore, the waking soul is bewildered or despairs, the morning is always a resurrection—but especially when it reveals a height in the sky. This last picture I would particularly cherish, so great a consolation is it, and so permanent a grace does it lend later to the burdened mind of a man. (257-259—my emphasis added.)

Belloc is certainly a sensitive “tuning-fork,” as it were, able to perceive nuances of atmosphere and the varied responses of the human soul to geography or to the radiant goodness of a human face and the fresh face of a child. Sometimes he just bursts out in his own digressions, such as this passage:

Glory (which, if men would only know it, lies behind all true certitude) illumines and enlivens the seen world, and the living light makes of the true things now revealed something more that truth absolute; they appear as truth acting and creative….

So one begins to understand, as the pure light shines and grows,…what has been meant by those great phrases which still lead on, still comfort, and still make darkly wise, the uncomforted wondering of mankind. Such is the [slightly modified] famous phrase: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor can it enter into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that serve [and thereby love] Him.” [1 Corinthians 2:9] (260-261—my emphasis added)

Before Belloc introduces us to a Norse Tale, he mentions a little-known place:

There is another place more dear to me but which I doubt whether any other but a native of the place can know….A traveller [suddenly] breaks through a little fringe of chestnut hedge and perceives at once before him…the most historic of European things, the chief of the great capitals of Christendom and the arena in which is now being debated…the Faith, the chief problem of this world. (263—my emphasis added)

Just after his commentary on the Faith and its challenges and its consequent, permanent struggles, he tells us about “the Master Maid” (263):

Apart from landscape other things belong to this contemplation [of sacramental things that lead us to God and thus to the seven sacraments and to a greater sacred devotion]: Notes of music, and, stronger than repeated and simple notes of music, a subtle scent and its association, a familiar printed page. Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past. [In this context, we recall The Concept and Reality of the “Memoria Corporisthe Memory of the Body—as in the Body of the Lord, or in the Body, the Corpus, of Sacred Tradition.]

There is a story translated into the noblest of English writing by Dasent.2 It is to be found in his [1904] Tales from the Norse. It is called the “The Story of the Master Maid.” (263—my emphasis added)

As he had earlier done with his 1903 translation of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult,3 Hilaire Belloc now again shows us how he is able to summarize and purify a sometimes truculent Scandinavian tale, and to do it with compactness and lucidity and a resonant poignancy:

A man had found in his youth a woman on the Norwegian hills: this woman was faerie, and there was a spell upon her [cast by a troll]. But he won her out of it in various ways, and they crossed the sea together, and he would bring her to his father’s house, but his father was a King. As they went overseas together, he said and swore to her that he would never forget how they had met and loved each other without warning, but by an act of God, upon the Dovrefjeld. Come near to his father’s house, the ordinary influences of the ordinary day touched him; he bade her enter a hut and wait a moment until he had warned his father of so strange a marriage; she, however, gazing into his eyes, and knowing how the divine may be transformed into the earthly, quite as surely as the earthly as the earthly into the divine, makes him promise that he will not eat human food. He sits at his father’s table, still steeped in her and in the seas. He forgets his vow and eats human food, and at once he forgets.

Then follows much for which I have not space, but the woman in the hut by her magic causes herself to be at last sent for to the father’s palace. The young man sees her, and is only slightly troubled as by a memory which he cannot grasp. They talk together as strangers; but looking out of the window by accident [or providence?] the King’s son sees a bird and its mate; he points them out to the woman, and she says suddenly: “So it was with you and me high up upon the Dovrefjeld.” Then he [the young man] remembers all. (264-265—my emphasis added)

As we are savoring Belloc’s tones and tenor, and his gracious brevity, he says, once again, that “We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; …[and] there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.” (265—my emphasis added)

He had, at the outset of his essay, earlier said: “To consider such things is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their [mysterious] power consists.” (257) At the end of his inquiring essay, he says: “But why all these [sacramental] things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” (265—my emphasis added)

Granted our own slightly greater perceptiveness now as to the “Memoria Corporisour memory of the body of thingsmay we now also better be able to contemplate with love the Passion of the Lord.

And to contemplate, as well, the Passion (and the Joys) of Our Lady, the Blessed Mother.

Santa Madonna!

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,”is to be found in his anthology On Something (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1910), pages 257-265.) All future references will be to this 1910 edition and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this appreciative essay.

2See Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817-1896), Popular Tales from the Norse (London, 1904).

3See Hilaire Belloc, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (London: George Allen, 1903) as translated from the French of Joseph Bédier by Hilaire Belloc. See also a later-published text: Hilaire Belloc, Tristan and Iseult (London: Unwin Books and George Allen, 1913 and 1961).

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