Young Hilaire Belloc’s 1906 Open Letter on the Decay of Faith: His Polite Reply to Some Eloquent Discouragements

Dr. Robert Hickson

5 April 2021

Saint Vincent Ferrer, O.P. (d. 1419)

Blessed Juliana of Mount Cornillon (d. 1258)

Epigraphs

“The enormous evils from which we are suffering, the degradation of our fellow-citizens, the accursed domination of our plutocracy is in the act of [a complacent? or temporarily acquiescent?] settlement. But after that? Will there not remain the chief problem of the human soul? Shall we not still smell what Chesterton so admirably calls ‘the unmistakable smell of the pit,’ shall we not still need salvation with a greater need than the need for water upon a parched day? And will there not remain among us—since we are a civilized people, possessed of printing and careful of our monuments—the record of the faith? Will it not be there to return to?” (Hilaire Belloc, M.P., Open Letter on the Decay of Faith, page 13—my emphasis added)

***

“You [dear C. F. G. Masterman, a fellow M.P.] are acquainted as I am with the Gospels; you have perhaps wondered, as I have, at their astounding power of diction; there is not a book in the world that loses so little by translation.” (Hilaire Belloc, M.P., Open Letter on the Decay of Faith, page 13—my emphasis added)

***

Do not, I beg of you [dear Masterman], be oppressed by forces already dissolved. You have mistaken the hour of the night. It is already morning.” (Hilaire Belloc, M.P., An Open Letter on the Alleged Decay of Faith (March 29, 1906), page 14—my emphasis added)

***

In 1906 when Hilaire Belloc was still thirty-five years of age, he became a British Member of Parliament for almost five years. Early in his membership he wrote his Open Letter on the Decay of Faith (14 pages) which was at first addressed specifically to C.F.G. Masterman, M.P., on 29 March 1906, but it was soon also reprinted and opened to a broader audience, being then published as a compact pamphlet.1 This reprinted pamphlet also has a variant title, by its inserting the word “Alleged”: “An Open Letter on the Alleged Decay of Faith.” In either case, both titles will get us thinking—especially today over a hundred years later, and given the cumulative history of Europe and now also of the alleged United States of America.

Hilaire Belloc begins his Letter with fitting politeness and capturing benevolent simplicity:

My dear Masterman, I have just been reading some words of yours in the Speaker. They have set me thinking. And I am sorry to say they have set me writing, too. I could not but write, and when I had written I desired to make what I had written public. It is on this account that you may see, if you do see, the sentences which I print here. (3)

Belloc then goes straight to the presentation of an articulate perception of Masterman’s candid (but discouraging) claim about the abiding decay of the Christian faith. Moreover, in his initial reply, Belloc also adds some memorable vividness when he evocatively alludes to the Mediaeval Old French Epic, The Song of Roland, which depicts the strategic retreat of Charlemagne’s army from the Pyrenees Mountains of northern Spain and the treacherously effected and tragic loss of the rearguard and loyal knight, Roland:

You say there [in the 1906 issue of Speaker] that (as you conceive it) the Christian religion is in peril: nay, that the immemorial battle is now decided; that the quiet enemy has conquered and that no army will return to oust him; that we shall not hear again the horn of Roland.

Your words are clear. You speak of “the passing of a whole civilization from a Faith in which it was founded.” You speak again of “a Faith that is slipping from the horizon of mankind.” Let me detain you upon these things. (3-4—my emphasis added)

Belloc then presents a series of searching questions to Mr. Masterman, to include his use of certain metaphors or analogies:

Do you, then, really believe that this movement [of de-Christianization] of which you speak is a tide? Do you, then, really think that the things of the mind are subject to such easy, such rhythmical and such servile laws as are the things of the world around us? And do you believe that the Faith is ebbing away? (4—my emphasis added)

After some personal notes about the poetry of Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach”) and some adventures of his maritime life in 1895 or so, Belloc returns to his earlier set of larger questions and earnestly says:

Well, then, I want to examine this question for myself. I feel, with an extraordinary vividness, the power of what you [Masterman] say: as who does not who has known or even visited this evil modern world [as of 1906]? You are right; all around us there is a sort of air, as though the fundamentals of the mind were changing, and as if the Faith, from a postulate [presupposition, axiom], were tending to be an opinion, and were in danger of becoming from an opinion a fad, from a fad to a memory. I will not deny that what you wrote struck me with a shock of recognition, and that I was disturbed by the recollection of certain mortal phrases….which are the luxury and perhaps the price of our entry into manhood. (5—my emphasis added)

After Belloc’s own honest and humble recall of some “just and rational negations which boys indulge in” (5) and “which you [Masterman] revived in me” by your “careful and significant sentences,” he especially remembers “youth’s divine hope and divine cousinship with the hills and with the morning.” (6) And he poignantly adds:

I do not mean that your mournfulness or your dread revived in me the simple and childlike denials which meant in our generation no more than this—that youth was doing what youth always does, that is, taking gaily the tragic human spirit of its time. No, your prose did much more in me that this. It re-awoke those visions of nothingness which I have suffered in the last five years, even in my own shrines [as a Roman Catholic], and which must undoubtedly haunt the soul of every man to-day who has known other things.

Well, in spite of those visions, and in spite of their poignancy, which you have recalled, I propose to examine the matter with you. (6—my emphasis added)

Belloc then begins to consider some historical analogies and their limits—as well as their capacities to mislead a later scholar inattentive to proper proportion:

As it seems to me…we exaggerate the analogy of history. Our historical knowledge is a small thing, though our tradition is a great one….since little is known by scholars… of the Dark Ages, since the Middle Ages were but a short and unfruitful [sic] dream… since the last four [post-Mediaeval] centuries have crescendoed up to an anarchy and to a tumult, all men of culture necessarily refer to the example of Rome. And surely there must have been in your mind…that parallel of the old Paganism dying, of the deserted temples, of the whining priests of Apollo,…and assaulting its own fables; of the oracles growing dumb—no prophesies, no miracles; of the sophists in the second and third centuries (who so exactly correspond to our famous Germans of to-day—the Hegels and the rest…!)…as Rome had passed through all the stages of decay; its free citizens fallen to be a proletariat; its rich men governing the world; its vices blatant; seeing these things, perhaps you thought that our religion also, the Faith, that is, was bound to fail and to go the determined course as does every limited and human thing. Now I desire to recall to you that the Faith is not of this world. (6-8—my emphasis added)

He speaks then of a certain “mood of the mind” (8)—“it is a good mood and a true [mood], it is that in which the mind [of Faith?] most nearly apprehends the ultimate realities….one can perceive at one glance Matter and Will. In such a mood no man despairs of the Faith.” (8—my emphasis added)

In this context, Belloc introduces the exemplary and heroic case of the Irish (at home and in the diasporas) under the historical conditions of protracted adversity—as of 1906, but in sharp contrast to the all-too-apostate Ireland of today, in 2021, with its growing and alluring (but often specious) prosperity.

After considering the larger case of Ireland and the Faith, Belloc anonymously mentions the current Pope (Pius X), who was still in office in 1906 (having ruled since August of 1903, and then he did continue until August of 1914):

It is said that the Pope keeps laid open before him upon a desk perpetually a page from the writings of De Maistre [Joseph de Maistre, 1753-1821]. They say he keeps this page for a short and repeated daily reading. Here is the passage.

The temples are empty or profaned; the altars are deserted. Mere reason, that powerful governor, not to be despised, which is not only the weapon of the intelligence, but is also our human power of integration, our judgement, and almost our sanity—mere reason has every temporal chance in its favour, that it will sweep the field; and if it wins it will make a carpenter’s bench of the Cross, and Jesus Christ will be partially forgotten and wholly lost, as are mere literary figures. But what if the Faith should rise and lift this Antean thing [such as the weight of mere reason], this human judgement from the earth, the common soil which is its only strength? What if the Faith, like Hercules, should lift humanity up in one of those spasmodic wrestling strains which its own history proves native to it, and should so keep it on the plane of this, that [what if] at last the Faith, and not reason, should conquer? For the Faith is a demigod. Patuit Deus[God has so revealed it].(10-11—my emphasis added)

After this first and likely true story, Belloc, in his own words, has a second and certainly true story about his own experience in the mountains of Spain:

And here is the the second story: Once in the Pyrenees I sat wakeful at night beside a companion who slept. The night was absolutely still; we were on the summits, and its was extremely cold. The pine trees were so motionless that they might have been trees of metal carved in bronze. The fire was dying, and I sat crouched close beside it with my blanket round my knees, believing that some ultimate silence had come upon the hills and me. Then there arose a little wind: the branches barely moved, but that movement was more different from the silence than I had thought one thing could be from another; the wind rose and grew with an awful rapidity; the tall trunks shook before I had heard the moaning grow strong; the sky awoke, clouds drove across the stars, and in the midst of all this noise it dawned. It is in this way that the vast changes come upon the unbounded and incalculable empyrean of the [alert and receptive] human mind. (11-12—my emphasis added)

Having prepared the way, Belloc now bears witness to the reality and uniqueness of Europe, at least as it was once, but may soon no longer be the case, Deo Volente, not even as a missionary initiative of the loyal Catholic Faith:

I desire you [Masterman] to remember that we are Europe; we are a great people. The faith is not an accident among us, nor an imposition, nor a garment: it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh: it is a philosophy made by, and making, ourselves. We have adorned, explained, enlarged it; we have given it visible form. This is the service we Europeans have done to God. He has made us Christians. [And we adorn what we love!]….Will you [Masterman et al.] not believe that this modern phase of ours [and, perhaps, our disordered modern civilization?] is passing? I do. (12—my emphasis added)

Such are Belloc’s affirmations and encouragements, sub Gratia Divina, in the Catholic Faith.

As a Franciscan Scholar once deftly said to me: “The truth about trouble is a twofold truth. It is as Christ Himself effectively told us, as well. In the world you will have trouble, He said, but I have overcome the World.”

As magnanimous Hilaire Belloc finally said to Masterman—likely recalling not only the tragic Roland and his Horn, but especially the later Dawn in the Pyrenees that surprised and stirred our Hilary so—and we may fittingly apply it still today: “Do not, I beg of you, be oppressed by forces already dissolved. You have mistaken the hour of the night. It is already morning. H. Belloc.” (14—my emphasis added)

–FINIS–

© 2021 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, M.P., An Open Letter on the Decay of Faith (London: Burns & Oates, LTD.,1906), 14 pages. It contains this note at the outset: “This Letter is reprinted with the Author’s permission from the Tribune of March 29, 1906.” Further references to the fourteen-page Letter and Pamphlet will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this short essay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s