H. Belloc’s 1910 Sense of “Sacramental Things”: The Revival of the Past as a Vivid and Abiding Presence

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                  29 June 2020

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (d. 67 AD)

Hilaire Belloc’s Final Arrival Afoot in Rome (1901)

Epigraphs

“But whatever prompts the adventure [in the night] or the necessity, when the long burden [of the night] has been borne,…while all the air, still cold, is full of the scent of morning;…when in the end of that miracle the landscape is fully revealed,…then the great hill before one,…towering at last into the peaks and crests of the inaccessible places, gives a soul to the new [newly revealed] land….The sun, in a single moment and with the immediate summons of a bugle-call, strikes the spear-head of the high places [as in the Alps!], and at once the valley…is transfigured, and with the daylight all manner of things have come back into the world….

Livelihood is come back with the sunlight, and the fixed certitudes of the soul; number, and measure and comprehension have returned, and a just appreciation of all reality is the gift of the new day. Glory (which, if men would only know it, lies behind all true certitude) illuminates and enlivens the seen world, and the living light makes of the true things now revealed something more than truth absolute; they [these very providential things] appear as truth acting and creating.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” from his 1910 anthology, On Something, pages 260-261—my emphasis added.)

***

“And there lies behind it [i.e., “the first shaft of the sun”], one is very sure, an infinite progress of such exaltations [after “the long night” (265)], so that one begins to understand…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 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 who serve Him.’” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in On Something, pages 261-262—my emphasis added)

***

“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 power consists….There is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed. But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” page 257 and 265—my emphasis added)

***

While still an adventurous young man in his thirties, Hilaire Belloc wrote a moving and grateful short essay on the mediation and mystery of “sacramental things.” His vivid perceptions of the manifold world of the senses so often led him to deeper and abiding contemplative insights and sustaining nourishments.

For example, here is how, with examples, Belloc begins his grateful essay “On Sacramental Things”1:

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 to be in communion with the world….They will comfort him; they will prove a sort of solace against the expectation of the end….

A woman smiling at a little child, not knowing that others saw her, and holding out her hands towards it, and in one of her hands flowers; an old man, lean and active, with an eager face, walking at dusk upon a warm and windy evening westward towards a clear sunset below dark and flying clouds;….a deep, strong tide running back to the sea, going noiselessly and flat and black and smooth, and heavy with purpose under an old wall; the sea smell of a Channel [an English Channel] seaport town; a ship [under sail] 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 [a] give in all that she does which marries her to the sea….(257-258—my emphasis added)

Belloc then decides to add some technical sailing details and, with it, some implied history:

Whether it [the arriving sailboat] 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 and well called a leaning tower of canvas, or that primal rig, the triangular sail [the lugsail], that cuts through the airs of the world and clove a way for the first adventurers, whatever its rig, a ship so approaching an awaiting [small] boat from which we watch her is one of the [sacramental] things I mean.

I would that the taste of my time [around 1910 and just before world War I] permitted a lengthy list of such things: they are pleasant to remember! They do so nourish the mind! (258—my emphasis added)

Among others of Belloc’s more intimately and allusive wishes to have now openly recalled, he includes now some of his special, personal combinations, namely:

A glance of sudden comprehension mixed with mercy and humour from the face of a lover or a friend;…[also a] chief and most persistent memory, a great hill when [as on his 1901 long foot-path to Rome] the morning strikes it and one sees it up before one round the turning of a rock after the long [mountain] passes and despairs of the night.

When a man has journeyed and journeyed through those hours in which there is no colour or shape,…and when, therefore, the waking soul is bewildered or despairs, the morning is always a resurrection—but especially when it [the morning] 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 man. (258-259—my emphasis added)

After his additional descriptions of, for example, “so many rivers crossed, and more than one of them forded in peril” (259), Belloc also acknowledges more broadly the fuller proportions and accents of human communion:

So much, then, is conveyed by a hill-top at sunrise when it comes upon the traveller or the soldier after the long march of a night, the bending of the shoulders [with a heavy rucksack], and the emptiness of the dark.

Many other things put one into communion with the whole world….

Apart from landscape other things belong to this contemplation [of sacramental things]: Notes of music, and, stronger even than repeated and simple notes of music, a subtle scent and its association, a familiar printed page [verse or prose]. Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past [to include the sacred, inasmuch as Belloc had also just candidly spoken of “the Faith, the chief problem of this world.” (263—emphasis added)].

There is [for example also] a story translated into the noblest of English writing by Dasent [Sir George Webbe Dasent, circa 1860]. It is to be found in his Tales from the Norse. It is called “The Story of the Master Maid.” (263—my emphasis added, to include those additional emphases placed inside the subordinate, clarifying brackets.)

It is now fitting, I believe, to present Hilaire Belloc’s entire eloquent summary of this poignant Norse tale of loyalty and deep love and the final fruits of a sincere vow, once forgotten and broken, but touchingly later restored:

A man had found in his youth a woman on the Norwegian hills: this woman was faëry, and there was a spell upon her. 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 over-sea together alone, 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 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 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 the seas. He forgets his vow2 and eats human food, and at once he forgets [his vow].

Then follows much for which I have no 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 the King’s son sees a bird and its mate; he points them out to the woman, and she says suddenly: “So was it with you and me high up upon the Dovrefjeld.” Then he remembers all. (264-265—my emphasis added)

After contemplating Belloc’s deftly crafted and heart-piercing well-told-tale, we are more fully prepared for his immediately final summary paragraph on the Mediation and Mystery of Sacramental Things—perhaps even as “External Channels of Grace” as Father John A. Hardon, S.J. (d. 30 December 2000) would often solemnly say to us. Analogously, Hilaire Belloc here humbly says:

Now that [Norse] story is a symbol, and tells the 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.

But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell. (265—my emphasis added)

The Mystery abides. Yet we also remember the words “Sapientis Ordinare”—it is characteristic of a wise man to give order to things—perhaps even unto the “sacramental things.’

With his own special gifts, and as our guide, Saint Thomas Aquinas always strove to remain proportionally attentive to both Ordo et Mysterium. He humbly believed and trusted that reality as such is knowable and intelligible, and yet unfathomable.

–FINIS–

© 2020 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” (pages 257-265 in full), the essay being from Belloc’s own 1910 anthology, entitled On Something (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1910). The first passage of citation above is from pages 257-258—my emphasis added. All further citations to the Belloc essay will also be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this short essay and brief commentary.

2 Hilaire Belloc’s intimate friend, G.K. Chesterton, wrote his own profound chapter VII, entitled “The Story of the Vow,” and it is especially worthy of a savouring and close reading. It is a chapter (chapter seven) in Chesterton’s own 1920 book, The Superstition of Divorce.

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