Hilaire Belloc on the Hospitality of Small Inns and their Surprises: On the Path to Rome

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                   28 February 2019

Pope Saint Hilary (d. 468)

Saint Romanus (d. 460)

Epigraphs

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“Upon my soul I believe such people are the salt of the earth. I bowed with real contrition, for at several moments I had believed myself better than they.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

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“Nevertheless, I was so wrapped round with the repose of this family’s virtues that I fell asleep at once.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

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“And I pitied her so much that I bought bread and wine off her, and I let her overcharge me, and went out in the afterglow with her benediction.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

Throughout his varied writings in prose and verse, Hilaire Belloc manifested a special affection for small inns, especially for the inimitable and recurrent hospitality of well-rooted, traditional inns. He also considered the decadence of that institution—those refreshing and reposeful inns—to be a sure sign of the decomposition of civilization.

When he was still thirty years old (in June of 1901) and making his adventurous “path to Rome” largely afoot—often wandering off the main paths and doing so during uncommon hours—he encountered small inns of different characters and cultures and customs. These often-restorative discoveries were for our beloved Belloc a great consolation and also a nourishing repose, especially when he was without sufficient wine and famished and physically fatigued or even, at times, gravely hindered by his own hobbling and blisters and torn boots.

In the first one hundred pages of The Path to Rome,1 Hilaire Belloc gives us, for instance, two interwoven and vivid examples of small inns that he had gratefully visited along the way (largely along the upstream route of the Moselle River flowing down from its mountain source at “the Ballon d’Alsace” (70) towards the south-east). He found those two inns during the first 80-100 miles of his pilgrimage from Toul, France in Lorraine whence he had so energetically begun his demanding journey afoot to Rome: “this great march” (70), as he called it. Belloc gives us character portraits and a fuller flavor of the hostess or host of the inn, as well as conveying the attitudes and atmosphere often radiantly generated by some of the occupants or the visiting diners then present at the little inn. Some of Belloc’s own evasive ruses, tall tales, and politely ironic excuses are depicted with charm. They are also, for sure, a balm to the reader!

Belloc will now introduce us to a rare view of beauty as it is to be seen from the high hill above the village of Archettes where he shall soon also discover and enter his first small inn:

When I reached it [“the brow of the hill”] I looked down the slope…and there was the whole valley of the Moselle at my feet.

As this was the first really great height, so this was the first really great view I met on my pilgrimage….Archettes, just below; …the dark pines on the hills, and the rounded mountains rising farther and higher into the distance until the last [mountain] I saw, far off to the south-east, must have been the Ballon d’Alsace at the sources of the Moselle—the hill that marked the first full stage in my journey and that overlooked Switzerland.

Indeed, this is the peculiar virtue of walking to a far place [like Rome], and especially of walking there in a straight line, that one gets these visions of the world from hill-tops.

When I call up for myself this great march I see it all mapped out in landscapes, each of which I caught from some mountain….The view here from the Hill of Archettes [is the first long view of the whole sequence]….They unroll themselves all in their order till I can see Europe, and Rome shining at the end. (69-71—my emphasis added)

This sense of geography and scale and proportion also prepares us better to savor the welcome little inn, beginning with its identifying sign, “The Trout Inn”:

So much for views. I clambered down the [steep] hill to Archettes and saw, almost the first house, a swinging board “At the sign of the Trout of the Vosges,” and as it was now evening I turned in there to dine.

Two things I noticed at once when I sat down to meat. First, that the people seated at that inn table were of the middle class of society, and, secondly, that I, though of their [social] rank, was an impediment to their enjoyment. For to sleep in woods, to march some seventy miles [from Toul], the latter part in a dazzling sun, and to end by sliding down an earthy steep into the road stamps a man with all that this kind of [“middle-class”] people least desire to have thrust on them. (71-72—my emphasis added)

With these last discerning perceptions and comments, Belloc will then make an extensive digression, to which we shall briefly return, namely his “Apology for the Middle Class”:

I say it roundly ; [for] if it were not for the punctiliousness of the middle-class in these matters [e.g., “cleanliness and clothes and social ritual” (72)] all our civilisation would go to pieces. They are the conservators and maintainers of the standard, the moderators of Europe, the salt of society….

I [myself] find it very hard to keep up to the demands of my colleagues [e.g., “cleanliness, order, decency, sobriety, and a steady temper” (73)], but I recognise that they are on the just side in the quarrel; let none of them go about pretending that I have not defended them in this book. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Now we shall see how deftly—in the imagined presence of the other guests at the small inn— Belloc brings out for his readers his own cunning “tall tale”; his imagined self-defense, with some delightfully imaginative forms of irony (and light sophistry), and with a winking impishness, to boot:

So I thought of how I should put myself right with these people [the middle-class diners]. I saw that an elaborate story [would not be suitable, nor would it work] (such as, that I had been set upon by a tramp who forced me to change clothes: that I dressed like this for a bet: that I was an officer employed as a spy, and was about to cross the frontier into Germany in the guise of a laborer: that my doctor forbade me to shave—or any other such rhodomontade); I saw, I say, that by venturing upon any such excuses I might unwittingly offend some other unknown canon of theirs deeper and more sacred than their rule on clothes; [for,] it had happened to me before now to do this in the course of explanations.

So I took another method, and said, as I sat down—

“Pray excuse this appearance of mine. I have had a most unfortunate adventure in the hills, losing my way and being compelled to sleep out all night, nor can I remain to get tidy, as it is essential that I should reach my luggage (which is at Remiremont) before midnight.”

I took great care to pay for my glass of wine before dinner with a bank note, and I showed my sketches to my neighbor to make an impression. I talked of foreign politics, of the countries I had seen, of England especially, with such minute exactitude that their disgust was soon turned to admiration. (73-74—my emphasis added)

May it be so that you are still imagining the details of that scene and laughing along with the rumbustious Belloc himself!

Now after his own dexterous tales, Belloc will introduce us to the hostess of the inn and he will fittingly show us a few of her own pert or feisty exchanges with the middle-class diners:

The hostess of this inn was delicate and courteous to a degree, and [she was] at every point attempting to overreach her guests, who, as regularly as she attacked, countered with astonishing dexterity.

Thus she would say: “Perhaps the joint would taste better if it were carved on the table, or do the gentlemen prefer it carved aside?”

To which a banker opposite me said in a deep voice: “We prefer, madame, to have it carved aside.”

Or she would put her head in and say—

“I can recommend our excellent beer. It is really preferable to this local wine.”

And my neighbor, a tourist, answered with decision

Madame, we find your wine excellent. It could not be bettered.”

Nor could she get around them on a single point, and I pitied her so much that I bought bread and wine off her to console her, and I let her overcharge me, and went out into the afterglow with her benediction, followed also by the farewells of the middle-class, who were now taking their coffee at little tables outside the house.

I went hard up the road to Remiremont. The night darkened. (75—my emphasis added)

Some time later, while on his demanding hike in the higher mountains with their panoramic views of beauty, Belloc feels somewhat overwhelmed and he admits his fatigue:

I tired of these immensities, and, feeling now my feet more broken that ever, I very slowly and in sharp shoots of pain dragged down the slope towards the main road: I saw just below me the frontier towns of the Prussians, and immediately within them a hut. To this I addressed myself.

It was an inn. The door opened of itself, and I found there a pleasant woman of middle age, but frowning. She had three daughters, all of great strength, and she was upbraiding them loudly in the German of Alsace and making them scour and scrub. On the wall above her head was a great placard [in witty and political French, under which was also the droll message in French of an “emblematic figure of a gallic cock”] which I read very tactfully, and in a distant manner, until she had restored the discipline of her family….

While I was still wondering at this epitome of the French people, and was attempting to combine the French military tradition with the French temper…, the hard-working, God-fearing, and honest woman that governs the little house [inn] and the three great daughters, within a yard of the frontier, and on top of this huge hill, had brought back all her troops into line and had the time to attend to me. (94-95—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now give us a further depiction of the small inn’s hostess:

This [belated attentiveness to me] she did with the utmost politeness, though cold by race [the Prussian?], and through her politeness ran a sense of what Teutons called Duty, which once would have repelled me; but I have wandered over a great part of the world and [along with the Catholic scholar, Josef Pieper] I know it now to be a distorted kind of virtue.

She was of a very different sort from that good [Lorraine-rooted] tribe of the Moselle valley beyond the hill; yet she was Catholic–(she had a little tree set up before her door for the Corpus Christi: see what religion is, that makes people of utterly different races understand each other; for when I saw that tree I knew precisely where I stood. So once all we Europeans [in Christendom] understood each other, but now we are divided by the worst malignancies of nations and classes, and a man does not so much love his own nation as hate his neighbors, and even the twilight of chivalry is mixed up with a detestable patronage of the poor. But as I was saying—) she also was a Catholic, and I knew myself to be with friends. (95-96—my emphasis added)

Belloc now says a little more about his hostess’ manner as an unmistakably robust Catholic:

She was moreover not exactly of—what shall I say?—not of those who delight in a delicate manner; and her good heart prompted her to say, very loudly—

“What do you want?”

I want a bed,” I said, and I pulled out a silver coin. “I must lie down at once.”

Then I added, “Can you make omelettes?”….

When, therefore, I asked this family-drilling, house-managing, mountain-living woman whether she could make omelettes, she shook her head at me slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on mine, and said in what was the corpse of French with a German ghost in it, “The bed is a franc.”

Motherkins,” I answered, “what I mean is that I would sleep until I wake, for I have come a prodigious distance and have last slept in the woods. But when I awake I shall need food, for which,” I added, pulling out yet another coin, “I will pay whatever you charge may be; for a more delightful house I have rarely met with. I know most people do not sleep before sunset, but I am particularly tired and broken.”

She showed me my bed then more kindly…. (96-98—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now gradually lead us to consider an unforgettable passage of courtesy and graciousness, after first presenting the situation and then another vivid and laconic exchange:

When I woke up, which was long after dusk, she gave me in the living room of the hut eggs beaten up with ham, and I ate brown bread and said grace.

Then (my wine was not yet finished, but it is an abominable thing to drink your own wine in another person’s home) I asked whether I could have something to drink.

“What you like,” she said.

“What have you?” said I.

“Beer,” said she.

“Anything else?” said I.

“No,” said she.

Why, then, give me some of that excellent beer.”

I drank this with delight, paid my bill (which was that of a labourer), and said good-night to them.

In good-nights they had a ceremony; for they all [four of them] rose together and curtsied. Upon my soul I believe such people to be the salt of the earth. I bowed with real contrition, for at several moments I had believed myself better than they. (98—my emphasis added)

These last words amongst his new Catholic friends give another glimpse of Hilaire Belloc’s deep soul and good heart—and humility.

After that gracious and unmistakably touching ceremony, Belloc at once modestly writes:

Then I went to my bed and they to theirs. The wind howled outside; my boots were stiff like wood and I could hardly take them off; my feet were so martyrised that I doubted if I could walk at all on the morrow. Nevertheless, I was so wrapped round with the repose of this family’s virtues that I fell asleep at once….

The morning outside came living and sharp after the gale—almost chilly. Under a scattered but clearing sky I first limped, then, as my blood warmed, strode down the path that led between the trees of the farther vale and was soon following a stream that leaped from one fall [waterfall] to another till it should lead me to the main road, to Belfort, to the Swiss whom I had never known, and at last to Italy [“and Rome shining at the end” (71)!]. (98-99—my emphasis added)

CODA

At the end of this essay, we propose to consider Hilaire Belloc’s brief, partly humorous, digression on wealth and the ways of the wealthy, and especially on the power and the illusions of luxury, as he presented them to us during his visit to Archettes, when he was attentive to the contrasting qualities of the honorable Middle Class (70-75). As is usually the case, our Belloc seeks to be fair:

And those who blame the middle-class for their conventions in such [personal] matters, and who profess to be above the care for cleanliness and clothes and social ritual which marks the middle-class, are either anarchists by nature or fools who take what is but an effect of their wealth for a natural virtue….

For the kind of man who boasts that he does not mind dirty clothes or roughing it [as in his desultory “vagabondism”], is either a man [as is “the barbarian”] who cares nothing for all that civilisation has built up and who rather hates it, or else (and this is much more common) he is a rich man, or accustomed to live among the rich, and can afford to waste energy and stuff because he feels in a vague way that more clothes can always be bought, that at the end of his vagabondism he can get elegant dinners, and that London and Paris are full of luxurious baths and barber shops. Of all the corrupting effects of wealth there is none worse than this, that it makes the wealthy (and their parasites) in some way divine, or at least a lovely character of mind, what is nothing but their power of luxurious living. Heaven keep us all from great riches—I mean from very great riches.

Now the middle-class cannot [as of 1902] afford to buy new clothes whenever they feel inclined, neither can they end up a jaunt by a Turkish bath and a great feast of wine. So their care is always to preserve intact what they happen to have, to exceed in nothing, to study cleanliness, order, decency, sobriety, and a steady temper, and they fence all this round and preserve it in the only way it can be preserved, with conventions [and traditions], and they are quite right. (72-73—my emphasis added)

Here too, even about Prussians, Hilaire Belloc attempts to be both forthright and fair-minded.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902, 1936). The second edition of 1936 contains a new four-page Preface (pp. vii-x) by Hilaire Belloc; but otherwise it is an exact replica of the original 1902 edition. All future page references will be to this edition, and will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

Josef Pieper’s Presentation of Purity

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                10 February 2019

Saint Scholastica (d. 543)

Agnes Muriel Hickson (d. 10 February 2009)

Epigraphs

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“With good reason it is said: only he who has a pure heart can laugh in a freedom that creates freedom in others. It is no less true that only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty. (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991—first published in German in 1988), page 44—my emphasis added.)

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“To be open to the truth of real things and to live by perceived truth: these constitute the essence of the moral person.” (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, pages 42-43—my emphasis added.)

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“For us men and women of today,…who scarcely regard as sensible the concept of an ascesis of the intellect—for us, the deeply intrinsic connection that links the knowledge of truth to the condition of purity has vanished from our consciousness. Thomas [Saint Thomas Aquinas] notes that the firstborn daughter of unchastity is the blindness of spirit. (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, page 42—my emphasis added.)

***

Intemperantia [the vice of Intemperance] and despair are connected by a hidden channel. Whoever in stubborn recklessness persists in pursuing perfect satisfaction and gratification in prestige and pleasure has set his foot on the road to despair. Another thing, also, is true: one who rejects [final] fulfillment in its true and final meaning, and—despairing of God and himself—anticipates nonfulfillment, may well regard the artificial paradise of unrestrained pleasure-seeking as the sole place, if not of happiness, then of forgetfulness, of self-oblivion: ‘In their despair, they gave themselves up to incontinence’ (Ephesians 4:19). That sin is a burden and a bondage is nowhere more apparent than in intemperantia, in that obsession of selfish self-preservation, which seeks itself in vain.” (Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), pp. 204-205—my emphasis added)

***

The German philosopher, Josef Pieper (d. 1997), had a fresh and vivifying way of presenting the concept and reality of purity, especially as a part of the Fourth Cardinal Virtue of Temperance. Given what has been happening in the Catholic Church over these last twenty-two years after his death, Josef Pieper’s perceptive thought and profound insight may yet help us today to understand and to live out the higher meanings of purity—and to combat various forms of hedonistic indiscipline and impurity.

I propose to be brief as I more closely consider two of Dr. Pieper’s writings: a chapter from his book, The Four Cardinal Virtues (1966); and one analogous portion of his shorter and later book, which is entitled A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (1991).1

Over the grateful years I knew him (June 1974-November 1997), Josef Pieper always combated anything disordered that “stifles man’s primitive power of perceiving reality” (202) and impairs him from “reaching reality and truth” (202). For example:

Not only is the satisfaction of the [human] spirit with the truth impossible without chastity, but even genuine sensual joy at sensual beauty is impossible….However, that this [sensual] pleasure should be made possible precisely through the virtue of discipline and moderation—that is a surprising thought….Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty [in itself] and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything….It is no less true that only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty. (43-44—my emphasis added)

With this form of simplicitas and affirmation and alacrity, we may now better appreciate an even more profound passage through the clear eyes of Josef Pieper:

Purity means that crystalline, morning-fresh artlessness and selflessness in relating to the world [sine dolo, without guile], as it becomes a reality in the person when the shock of deep pain brings him to the limits of existence or when the nearness of death touches him. In Sacred Scripture it says, “Serious illness sobers the soul” (Sirach 31:2); this sobriety belongs to the essence of purity. The most debated of Aristotle’s tenets points in the same direction: tragedy achieves purification, catharsis. The donum timoris [the infused “gift of fear”], the spiritual gift of fear, which Thomas [Aquinas] subordinates to temperantia, also cleanses the disposition as the blessed experience of the innermost peril to the person; it [virtuous temperance] has that purity as its fruit in virtue of which one renounces that selfish seeking after deceptive and false fulfillment. Purity is the unreserved openness of the entire being, from which alone the [sacred] word can be spoken: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). This supreme realization of purity is expressed in one of the most perfect (and one of the most unknown) German poems in an image of immaculate beauty and radiant authenticity: “Untroubled, the undaunted rose/ stays open in hope” (Konrad Weiss).

Here a new depth becomes manifest: namely, that purity is not only the fruit of purification but also comprises in itself the readiness to accept God’s purifications, perhaps terrible and deadly, with a brave openness of a trusting heart and so experience its fertile and transforming power. (45-46—my emphasis added)

In his earlier 1966 book on the cardinal virtues, Josef Pieper gives us further insights as well as some additional connections, especially about beauty, in his Chapter 10 on “The Fruits of Temperance.”

He says, for example, that the cardinal virtue of temperance is “the preserving and defending realization of man’s inner order” (203) and it is, thus, “particularly co-ordinated” with “the gift of beauty” (203—my emphasis added):

Not only is temperance beautiful in itself, it also renders men beautiful. Beauty, however, must here be understood in its original meaning: as the glow of the true and the good irradiating from every ordered state of being….The beauty of temperance has a more spiritual, more austere, more virile aspect. It is of the essence of this beauty that it does not conflict with true virility, but rather has an affinity to it. Temperance, as the wellspring and premise of fortitude [the third cardinal virtue], is the virtue of mature manliness.

The infantile disorder of intemperance, on the other hand, not only destroys beauty, it makes man cowardly; intemperance more than any other thing renders man unable and unwilling to “take heart” against the wounding power of evil in the world. (203—my emphasis added)

Josef Pieper helpfully tries to convey to us in multiple ways that “Temperance…is liberating and purifying. This above all: temperance effects purification” (205—my emphasis added):

If one approaches the difficult concept of purity through this strangely neglected way and begins to understand purity as the fruit of purification, the confusing and discordant sounds [tones] which usually obscure this notion and move it dangerously close to Manichaeism [or “Catharism”] are silenced. From this approach the full and unrestricted concept of purity—so different from the currently accepted one—comes into view.

This is the purity meant by John Cassian [the learned Christian Monk of Marseille, 360-435; a contemporary of Saint Augustine of Hippo who died in 430] when he calls purity of heart the immanent purpose of temperance: “It is served by solitude, fasting, night watches, and penitence.” It is this wider concept of purity which is [likewise] referred to in St. Augustine’s statement that the virtue of temperance and moderation aims at preserving man uninjured and undefiled for God. (205—my emphasis added)

Such are some considerations of the ends of temperance–both the immanent and the transcendent purpose–answering, in part, the searching question: “What is temperance for?”

In this context, Josef Pieper will even help us to be more perceptive and to learn by way of contrast some of the different outward signs of a just man and of a temperate man, to include “the fruits of temperance” (203):

It is not easy to read in a man’s face whether he is just or unjust. Temperance or intemperance, however, loudly proclaim themselves in everything that manifests a personality: in the order or disorder of the features, in the attitude, the laugh, the handwriting. Temperance, as the inner order of man, can as little remain “purely interior” [hidden] as the soul itself [of a man], and as all other life of the soul or mind. It is the nature of the soul to be the “form of the body” [in Latin, “anima forma corporis”].

This fundamental principle of all Christian psychology [“anima forma corporis”] not only state the in-forming of the body by the soul, but also [states] the reference of the soul to the body. On this [principle], a second factor is based: the temperance or intemperance of outward behavior and expression can have its strengthening or weakening repercussions on the inner order of man. It is from this point of view that all outer discipline…obtains its meaning, its justification, and its [moral] necessity. (203-204—my emphasis added)

Such “outer discipline” is also a sign of a virtuous inner fortitude—the heroic capacity, not just to undertake open acts of aggressive bravery, but also– more fundamentally– to undergo and to endure inordinate injustice, and thus also to face “the innermost peril to the person” (such as the loss of eternal life). Saint Augustine once candidly said that fortitude itself presupposes injustice, the endurance facing the objective existence of injustice—as in the humiliating case and endurance of the Christian martyrs with their abiding hope. And with a grace-filled purity “open in hope.”

As we now conclude these cumulative reflections, we ask, now once again, “what does this unrestricted concept of purity stand for?” (205):

It stands for…that selfless acceptance of the world which man experiences when the shock of a profound sorrow carries him to the brink of existence or when he is touched by the shadow of death. It is said in the Scriptures: “Grave illness sobers the soul” (Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 31:2); this sobriety belongs to the essence of purity….

A new depth here opens to our view: purity is not only the fruit of purification; it implies at the same time a readiness to accept God’s purifying intervention, terrible and fatal though it might be; to accept it with the bold candor of a trustful heart [“open in hope”], and thus to experience its fruitful and transforming power.

This, then, is the ultimate meaning of the virtue of temperance. (205-206—my emphasis added)

There is never a false tone in beloved Josef Pieper’s writings, nor in his warmly candid character, in person. “Kein falscher Ton”—not a false tone in him!

CODA

One early morning when we were walking together to Mass from his beloved Westphalian home in Münster, Germany, Dr. Pieper unexpectedly said to me: “Today we shall be having a young, recently arrived priest to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass.”

I said: “Is he a good priest, Dr. Pieper?”

Kein falscher Ton!” These were Dr. Pieper’s only words.

(These words seemed so resonantly fitting to him, especially given his wholehearted and nuanced love of music– as was so evident from his first playing for me in his home Monteverdi’s Vespers— with his cherished wife also seated beside us, and so attentively and so graciously present.)

After first hearing Josef Pieper himself say “Kein falscher Ton” by way of a sincere tribute, I have always applied it to my own beloved mentor, Josef Pieper himself. “Not a false tone in him.”

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Further references to these two books will be placed in the main body of this essay above, in parentheses. The bibliographical notations of Josef Pieper’s two books are, as follows: The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966); and A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991).

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).

Glimpses of H. Belloc’s Pluck and Youthfulness: G.K. Chesterton and The Path to Rome

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                              17 January 2019

Saint Anthony the Great (356)

Saint Benedict Center (Founded in 1949, 70 Years Ago)

Epigraphs

“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!”

(Hilaire Belloc, “Song of the Pelagian Heresy” (1911))

***

“Whatever are those keen lives which remain alive under memory—whatever is Youth—Youth came up the valley that evening, borne upon a southern air. If we deserve or attain beatitude, such things at last will be our settled state….This, then, was the blessing of Sillano, and here was perhaps the highest moment of those 700 miles….” (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (1902))

***

In 1916, G.K. Chesterton memorably told us how he first met Hilaire Belloc in London in 1900. He also chose to convey to us vividly the abiding impression which that first encounter had made upon him.1 It was a high tribute, and even a mirthful sort of warning!

If we now further consider Chesterton’s perceptive 1916 Introduction, we may also better understand and savor Belloc’s unique energy, stamina, and youthful spirit back in 1901 when, at thirty years of age, he made his pilgrimage (largely on foot) from France to Rome; a journey which he soon thereafter inimitably recorded and personally illustrated in his own variegated and unmistakably rumbustious 1902 book, entitled The Path to Rome.

Chesterton begins his Introduction with the following words:

When I first met Belloc he remarked to the friend who introduced us that he was in low spirits. His low spirits were and are much more uproarious and enlivening than anybody else’s high spirits. He talked into the night; and left behind in it a glowing track of good things. When I have said that I mean things that are good, and certainly not merely bons mots, I have said all that can be said in the most serious aspect about the man who has made the greatest fight for good things of all the men of my time. (vii—my emphasis added)

Giving us now some specific and vivid details, Chesterton thereby effectively proposes to support his high tribute of Hilaire Belloc, who soon became his good friend, as well:

We met between a little Soho paper shop and a little Soho restaurant [in London in 1900]; his arms and pockets were stuffed with French Nationalist and French Atheist newspapers. He wore a straw hat shading his eyes, which are like a sailor’s, and emphasizing his Napoleonic chin….The little restaurant to which we went had already become a haunt for three or four of us who held strong but unfashionable views about the South African War [the Second Boer War, 1899-1902], which was then in its earliest prestige….To understand how his [Belloc’s] Latin mastery, especially of historic and foreign things, made him a leader, it is necessary to appreciate something of the peculiar position of that [our own!] isolated group of “Pro-Boers.” We were a minority in a minority….But we might, in one very real sense be described as Pro-Boers. That is, we were much more insistent that the Boers were right in fighting than that the English were wrong in fighting. We disliked cosmopolitan peace almost as much as cosmopolitan war….and I myself had my own hobby of the romance of small things, including small commonwealths. But to all these [things and differences and nuances] Belloc entered like a man armed and as with a clang of iron. He brought with him news from the fronts of history;…that cynical Imperialism not only should be fought, but could be fought and was being fought [as against the unjust “Transvaal adventure” in South Africa then];….There were many other uses of his genius, but I am speaking of this first effect of it upon our instinctive and sometimes groping ideals. What he brought into our dream was this Roman appetite for reality and for reason in action, and when he came into the door there entered with him the smell of danger. (vii-ix—my emphasis added)

After this Chestertonian introduction, a thoughtful and sufficiently leisured reader might now well want to glimpse and savor a few vignettes from The Path to Rome2 as composed in 1901-1902 by its charming young author. I now propose, for example, his passages concerning his arrival in Flavigny early in the morning and exhausted from his 20-mile march from Toul, France (the starting point of his pilgrimage afoot); his considerations of the meaning of a Vow, just before arrival in the memorable village of Undervelier; and his appreciation of Sillano and spiritual childhood in a valley in Italy.

These passages will “warm hearts,” as my wife Maike just memorably said. And they may also, I hope, prompt some young Catholic graduate students—and prompt even some young Catholic Priests—whom I have recently met also to read The Path to Rome in its entirety, and at least once!

About the village Flavingny, Belloc says:

To return to Flavigny….But [by my digressions] I continue to wander from Flavigny. The first thing I saw as I came into the street [out of the forest] and noted how the level sun stood in a haze beyond,…was a cart drawn by a galloping donkey, which came at and passed me with a prodigious clatter as I dragged myself forward [in fatigue]. In the cart were two nuns, each with a scythe; they were going out mowing, and were up first in the village, as Religious always are. Cheered by this happy omen, but not yet heartened, I next met a very old man leading out a horse, and asked him if there was anywhere where I could find coffee and bread at that hour, and he shook his head mournfully….so I went on still more despondent till I came to a really merry man of about middle age who was going to the fields, singing, with a very large rake over his shoulder….And when I asked him how I should know the baker’s he was still more surprised at my ignorance, and said, “By the smoke coming from the large chimney.”….So I thanked him and went and found there a youth of about nineteen who sat at a fine oak table and had coffee, rum, and a loaf before him. He was waiting for the bread in the oven to be ready; and meanwhile he was very courteous, poured out coffee and rum for me and offered me bread.

It is a matter often discussed why bakers are such excellent citizens and good men. For while it is admitted in every country I was ever in that cobblers are argumentative and atheists (I except the cobbler under Plinlimmon, concerning whom I wish I had the space to tell you all here, for he knows the legend of the mountain), while it is public that barbers are garrulous and servile, that millers are cheats (we say in Sussex [my beloved home county in southern England along the sea] that every honest miller has a large tuft of hair on the palm of his hand), yet—with every trade in the world having some bad quality attached to it—bakers alone are exempt, and everyone takes it for granted that they are sterling: indeed there are some societies in which, no matter how gloomy and churlish the conversation may have become, you have but to mention bakers for voices to brighten suddenly and for a good influence to pervade every one. I say this is known for a fact, but not usually explained; the explanation is, that bakers are always up early in the morning [like the Nuns] and can watch the dawn, and that in this occupation they live in lonely contemplation enjoying the early hours.

So it was with this baker of mine in Flavigny, who was a boy. (40-43—my emphasis added)

A second vignette that Belloc presents to us—before he is to have his profound reflections and rare experiences in the village of Undervelier (155-161)—is about the meaning of a vow.

While I was occupied sketching the slabs of limestone [along a beautiful gap in the gorge], I heard wheels coming up behind me, and a boy in a waggon stopped and hailed me.

What that boy wanted to know was whether I would take a lift, and this he said in such curious French that I shuddered to think how far I had pierced into the heart of the hills, and how soon I might come to quite strange people. I was greatly tempted to get into his cart, but though I had broken so many of my vows one remained yet whole and sound, which was that I would ride upon no wheeled thing. Remembering this, therefore, and considering that the Faith is rich in interpretation, I clung on to the waggon in such a manner that it did all my work for me, and yet could not be said to be actually carrying me. Distinguo. The essence of a vow is its literal meaning. The spirit and intention are for the major morality, and concern Natural Religion, but when upon a point of ritual or of dedication or special worship a man talks to you of the Spirit and Intention, and complains of the dryness of the Word, look at him askance. He is not far removed from Heresy.

I knew a man once that was given to drinking, and I made up this rule for him to distinguish between Bacchus and the Devil. To wit: that he should never drink what has been made and sold since the Reformation—I mean especially spirits and champagne. Let him (I said) drink red wine and white, good beer and mead —if he could get it—liqueurs made by monks, and in a word, all those feeding, fortifying and confirming beverages that our fathers drank in old time; but not whisky, nor brandy, nor sparkling wines, not absinthe, nor the kind of drink called gin. This he promised to do, and all went well. He became a merry companion, and began to write odes. His prose clarified and set, that had before been very mixed and cloudy. He slept well; he comprehended divine things; he was already half a republican, when one fatal day—it was the feast of the eleven thousand virgins, and they were too busy up in heaven to consider the needs of us poor hobbling, polyktonous and betempted wretches of men—I went with him to the Society for the Prevention of the Annoyances of the Rich, where a certain usurer’s son was to read a paper on the cruelty of Spaniards to their mules. As we were all seated there around a table with a staring green cloth on it, and a damnable gas pendant above, the host of that evening offered him whisky and water, and, my back being turned, he took it. Then when I would have taken it from him, he used these words—“After all, it is the intention of a pledge that matters”; and I saw that all was over, for he had abandoned definition, and was plunged back into the horrible mazes of Conscience and Natural Religion.

What do you think, then, was the consequence? Why, he had to take some nasty pledge or other to drink nothing whatever, and became a spectacle and a judgment, whereas if he had kept his exact words, he might by this time have been a happy man.

Remembering him and pondering upon the adherence of strict rule, I hung on to my cart, 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, with the fifth ridge standing up black and huge before me against 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, withdrew from his cart, and painfully approached the inn….(153-155—my emphasis added)

We now may consider the nuances and spirit of a third vignette. For, near the end of his pilgrimage, Belloc was to find a little valley and village in Italy, which, like Undervelier, especially touched his heart. It was the village of Sillano:

Crossing the Serchio [River] once more [while descending the hills of the Apennine ridge], … I passed by a wider path through the groves, and entered the dear village of Sillano, which looks right into the pure west. And the peaks are guardians all about it: the elder brothers of this remote and secluded valley.

An inn received me: a great kitchen full of men and women talking, a supper preparing, a great fire, meat smoking and drying in the ingle-nook, a vast timbered roof going up into darkness: there I was courteously received, but no one understood my language. Seeing there a young priest, I said to him—

Pater, habeo linguam latinam, sed non habeo linguam Italicam. …”

To this [request for help in translation] he replied, “Libenter,” and the people [hearing our discussion in Latin] revered us both. ….

And a little while after he [the priest] left for his house, but I went out on to the balcony, where men and women were talking in subdued tones. There, alone, I sat and watched the night coming into these Tuscan hills. ….

The fire flies darted in the depths of the vineyards and of trees below; then the noise of grasshoppers brought back suddenly the gardens of home [in Sussex], and whatever benediction surrounds our childhood. Some promise of eternal pleasures and of rest deserved haunted the village of Sillano.

In very early youth the soul can still remember its immortal habitation, and clouds and the edges of hills are of another kind from ours, and every scent and colour has a savour of Paradise. What that quality may be no language can tell, nor have men made any words, no, nor any music, to recall it—only in a transient way and elusive the recollection of what youth was, and purity, flashes on us in phrases of the poets, and is gone before we can fix it in our minds—oh! my friends, if we could but recall it! Whatever those sounds may be that are beyond our sounds, and whatever are those keen lives which remain alive there under memory—whatever is Youth—Youth came up that valley that evening, borne upon a southern air. If we deserve or attain beatitude, such things shall at last be our 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, and here was perhaps the highest moment of those 700 miles—or more [from Toul, France, his point of departure in Lorraine in eastern France]. (pp. 372-375—my emphasis added)

CODA

By way of conclusion, Hilaire Belloc also shows another side of his robustness and humor and deep insight when he surprises us again with an example of his own verse and commentary thereon:

When I got to the top of the ridge there was a young man chopping wood outside a house, and I asked him in French how far it was to Moutier. He answered in German, and I startled him by a loud cry, such as sailors give when they see land, for at last I had struck the boundary of the languages, and was with pure foreigners for the first time in my life. I also asked him for coffee, and as he refused it I took him to be a heretic and went down the road making up verses against all such, and singing them loudly through the forest that now arched over me and grew deeper as I descended.

And my first verse was—

“Heretics all, whoever you be,

In Tarbes or Nîmes, or over the sea,

You never shall have good words from me.

Caritas non conturbat me.”

If you ask me why I put a Latin line at the end, it was because I had to show that it was a song connected with the Universal Fountain and with European culture, and with all that Heresy combats. I sang it to a lively hymn-tune that I had invented for the occasion.

I then thought what a fine fellow I was and how pleasant were my friends when I agreed with them. I made up a second verse, which I sang even more loudly than the first; and the forest grew deeper, sending back echoes—

“But Catholic men that live upon wine

Are deep in the water [of Baptism], and frank, and fine;

Wherever I travel I find it so,

Benedicamus Domino.”

There is no doubt, however, that if one is really doing a Catholic work, and expressing one’s attitude to the world, charity, pity, and a great sense of fear should possess one, or, at least, appear. So I made up this third verse and sang it to suit—

“On childing women that are forlorn,

And men that sweat in nothing but scorn:

That is on all that ever were born,

Miserere Domine.”

Then, as everything ends in death, and as that is just what Heretics least like to be reminded of, I ended thus—

“To my poor self on my deathbed,

And all my dear companions dead,

Because of the love that I bore them,

Dona Eis Requiem.”

I say “I ended.” But I did not really end there, for I also wrote in the spirit of the rest a verse of Mea Culpa and Confession of Sin, but I shall not print it here. (pp. 164-166)

Nine years later, in his 1911 book The Four Men, our beloved Belloc—in the persona of a salty Sailor—also even composed, and then did sing aloud, “The 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.”3

For our further sobriety and jollification, and as a grateful viaticum, here is the first stanza (with chorus) of that robust and stout-hearted drinking song:

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. ….

[Semi-chorus.]

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!

May we too come to preserve—or recover and restore—such pluck and spiritual youthfulness. What we have is Nature, what we need is Grace. Gratia est Gloria incepta, Gloria est Gratia perfecta.

With gratitude to G.K.Chesterton, too, for helping us to savor the nuances of Hilaire Belloc once again, and now even more so.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1G.K. Chesterton, “Introduction” (vii-xii) to the book by C.Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks, Hilaire Belloc: The Man and His Work ( London: Methuen & CO. L.T.D., 1916), pp. vii-xii. All further references to this Introduction will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

2Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936—the second edition of the original first edition of 1902). Further page references will be placed above in parentheses. This will include citations from pages 41-43; 152-155; and 371-375. In the CODA, I shall cite Belloc’s special verses on Heretics, from pages 164-166 of his 1902 book.

3Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men: A Farrago (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984—first published in 1911), pages 48-51.

“That Unended War…Against the Innocent”: Evelyn Waugh and Father McNabb, O.P.

Dr. Robert Hickson                            9 January 2019 (Within the Octave of Epiphany)

Saint Julian of Antioch (d. 313 AD)

Epigraph

***

“The present writer’s years of life can now be so few, at most, that the only reason for stating an opinion is that he thinks it true, and its opposite opinion not only untrue but harmful.” (Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., “The Family,” Chapter 5 of the 1934 anthology Flee to the Fields—Father McNabb, speaking himself, was to die eleven years later, during World War II, in 1943.)

***

“As if in gratitude to the Family for having given Him welcome, He raised to the dignity of the supernatural the plighted love that unites husband and wife—father and mother.” (Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., “The Family,” Chapter 5 of Flee to the Fields (1934))

***

“And He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them.” (Luke 2:51)

***

Recently re-reading after some twenty years one of Father Vincent McNabb’s own writings on the family, and thus on Nazareth, I saw for the first time the importance and timeliness of one of the principles that he so concisely and lucidly articulates.

Writing in the early 1930s about one of “The Dangers to the Family”–in one sub-section of his longer essay, entitled “The Family”—he acutely said:

The second danger arises from the sentimental as distinct from the rational and ethical view of divorce. We have reached a legal state [already in 1934] when the fate of children can be decided by the existent sentiment between their father and their mother. Our divorce laws [in England], although not considered wide enough, are sufficiently wide to be governed by the principle that “it is immoral for a man and woman to remain together when they have ceased to love each other.” This principle largely initiated here in the West has been carried out with characteristic consistency in Soviet Russia [under Lenin, N. Krupskaya, A. Kollontai, and Stalin].1

Soon after reflecting on this principle and its increasingly promiscuous implementation, which is all too often to the grave detriment and long-term harm of the innocent children, I thought of Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 historical novel, Helena, especially one passage from Chapter 11, entitled “Epiphany.”2 The conjunction and counterpoint of these two Catholic authors, with their fresh insights, will teach us still many important truths.

Shortly before Waugh’s Helen is to find the Cross in Jerusalem, she visits Bethlehem on the Feast of the Epiphany and, with deep wonder, identifies with the Three Royal Wise Men, as they were personified and presented by three Greek monks in their re-enactment of the composite scene:

Helena [herself a recent convert] knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words or anywhere in the immediate scene. She forgot even her quest [for the True Cross] and was dead to everything except the swaddled child long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.

“This is my day,” she thought, “and these [three royal sages] are my kind.”….

Like me,” she said to them, “you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way.”….

How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot.”….

“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod [i.e., “Crudelis Herodes”]. Deadly exchange of compliments [false flattery and deception] in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!” (222-223—my emphasis added)

We think at once about the impending Slaughter of the Holy Innocents and the three-decade later call for the release of criminal Barabbas and the resultant raging betrayal of innocent Jesus. Today, too, the Little Ones—the Parvuli of Christ—are indifferently, even impenitently, slaughtered. We are numbed by the magnitude of the dead and we struggle yet with the Permissive Will of God.

The wholehearted Evelyn Waugh nonetheless chooses to show us more of Empress Helena’s heart (and Waugh’s own heart, too) as he presents further and imaginative expressions to “those three royal sages” (222):

“Yet you came [to the Nativity], and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family….

You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers [to Christ], of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

“Dear cousins [ye royal sages], pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son [the still unbaptized Emperor Constantine]. May he, too, before the end, find kneeling-space in the straw….

For His sake who did not reject your [three] curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.” (223-224—my emphasis added)

In this passage, Evelyn Waugh shows us a reverent mother’s prayer for her son, hoping that he, too, would soon come to kneel humbly in adoration before the Christ Child—considering also His later, maturing youth in Nazareth. Helena herself, despite her energetic quest and mission, manifests a gracious reverence and spiritual childhood. She again and again acknowledges and submits to Divine Authority, believing that her own son must yet, and soon, be baptized—not just on his deathbed. For, she sees that he is pitifully “overloaded” by his own “Power without Grace.”

In 1934, Father McNabb likewise saw the pitiful spread of temporal “power without grace”–that is, without divine grace. After first commenting on “the fate of children” (76) and thus on the ill fruits of an increasingly-resorted-to secular principle of disorder—namely, “it is immoral for a man and woman to remain together [in marriage and thus in the full rearing of their children] when they have [purportedly] ceased to love each other” (76—my emphasis added)—he speaks of another peril to the family:

The third danger to family life springs from the modern rejection of obedience to authority [to include the authority of the father]. This rejection begins by disobedience to the authority of God [thus also to the Rights of God abiding]. But, as all lawful authority is, as such, of divine right, the rejection of divine authority tends to dissolve the claims and rights of all authority. In this welter of might without right such fundamental rights as that of the parent and the family [as a unit] tend to be set aside as belated [outmoded] or suppressed as harmful. (76—my emphasis added)

Such interrelated matters are part of “the threatened social avalanche” (76) that was seemingly accumulating, and thus “of deep concern” (76) to Father McNabb five years before the outbreak of World War II.

Five years after the end of World War II, Evelyn Waugh had another insight about that then-actual “social avalanche.” For, like Father McNabb (1868-1943), Waugh knew that Christ was being hunted even at His birth and also soon thereafter. Other Holy Innocents were likewise altogether threatened. For, in a prior and deceitful “deadly exchange” with the graceless and cruel power of Herod (“Crudelis Herodes”) “there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!” (223—my emphasis added)

Almost seventy years after those heartfelt words from Evelyn Waugh, that war is still “unended.” The attacks on innocence and purity have now even increased. The amount and intensity of crude and cruel “power without grace” have also seemed to have increased. Yet, for the Loyal Faithful, wherever evil abounds, indispensable Divine Grace superabounds and we are to co-operate.

In one of his 416 A.D. sermons against the Pelagians (Sermo 169, 13—PL 38, 923), Saint Augustine of Hippo effectively said that God created us without our co-operation, but He will not save us without our co-operation. That is to say, without our free consent.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., Chapter 5 of Flee to the Fields (Norfolk, Virginia: IHS Press, 2003), p. 76—my emphasis added. This is a new addition of the original 1934 book, Flee to the Fields: The Founding Papers of the Catholic Land Movement, which also preserves Hilaire Belloc’s original 4-page Preface, which is now on pages 15-18. All further references to this book will be placed above in parentheses.

2Evelyn Waugh, Helena (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950). All further references to this book will be placed above in parentheses.

Remembering Father John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000)

Dr. Robert Hickson                 27 December 2018 Saint John the Evangelist

Epigraph

Any developments?” (Jesuit Father John A. Hardon’s first question and memorable customary greeting, spoken often in his low-toned voice whenever we spoke together, either by phone or again in person.)

***

After recently receiving some appreciative comments about Father John Hardon’s memorable words to me, as they were just briefly circulated on the Internet by my wife Maike, she modestly thought that we might provide more quotes—even as a small tribute to him. She thought that she and I still could—and still should—present some additional instances of Father’s discerning insights—especially as he had freshly expressed them to me down the years (and sometimes, emphatically, more than once) from the late autumn of 1980 up until the time near his death on 30 December 2000.

Thus, I propose a twofold division: first a list of Father Hardon’s specifically remembered words to me; and then a slightly longer presentation of what he told me about some important years in his life (1950 in Rome; in 1957 with the new leadership of the Jesuit Order in the U.S.; 1990-1991 when considering the Final Draft of the New Catechism; and some of his doctrinal work, for example on the Spiritual Works of Mercy with Mother Teresa of Calcutta).

The first list is reported by me, almost always exactly, as Father spoke the words to me, although I cannot repeat his memorable variations of tone in his deep voice—especially not his slow and solemn tone and grave facial expression. In the following list, I have had to resort to a close paraphrase only a few times, especially in his longer expressions. Moreover, there is no chronological or logical rationale in the following list of vividly preserved recollections—some of which my wife and children often hear me use in our daily life.

“What we have is Nature, what we need is Grace.”

“The highest function of Nature is to provide us with clarifying analogies of the Supernatural Christian Mysteries.”

“Love is the willingness to suffer with the beloved, for the beloved, and—most painfully—from the beloved…. Hence also sometimes even from the Church.”

“Archbishop Fulton Sheen also often spoke of the tragedy of wasted pain. Often enough, those in hospitals did not offer up their pain and consecrate their own suffering in a Christian sacrifice.”

“Suffering is the consciousness of pain; sacrifice—Christian sacrifice—means the consecration of suffering.”

“We are only as courageous as we are convinced…. But what are we truly convinced about?”

“Meekness is not weakness.”

“We have to use our temper not lose it.”

“A temptation wouldn’t be a temptation if it weren’t attractive.”

“As to our purpose in life, we are to live and to die supernaturally alive in the state of Sanctifying Grace.”

“We shall finally be judged by how many people we have helped get to heaven.”

“Sanctifying Grace is to the supernatural life of the soul what the soul is to the natural life (and form) of the body: the two principles of life, supernatural and natural. As in Anima forma corporis est.”

“Grace [i.e., “sanctifying grace”] is Glory begun; Glory is Grace perfected: Gratia est gloria incepta; gloria est gratia perfecta.”

“But the basis of unity is truth. Why do you think I have been working with Mother Teresa?”

“We are witnessing a massive effort to remake our historic Faith.”

“Walter Kasper does not even believe in the Incarnation.”

“In practice, perhaps the hardest thing for me to do is to be charitable to a public heretic—especially to a heretic priest. Such as my recurrent companion at the Georgetown dinner table, Father Robert Drinan, S.J., who continues to sign and to give me a copy of his most recent book in person, even handing it to me across the table.”

“If it were not for Catholic Christianity itself, which—as in Christian Chivalry—so deeply respects and honors Our Lady, there would not be a Feminist Movement today. Just read Vladimir Lenin’s writings on women as published by [Nadezhda] Krupskaya herself, Lenin’s favorite wife, or companion.”

“Irreconcilably so, the Japanese Code of Bushido and the Samurai elite did not have, much less reverence, the Blessed Mother, Our Lady, and thus they are deeply distinct from Christian Chivalry.”

“Hinduism is finally a form of Pantheism where the Atman becomes the Brahman.”

“The days of America are numbered.”

“As with my recurrent Spiritual Exercises, I divide the various creatures in my life into four distinct categories: those creatures who are to be enjoyed; those who are to be endured (tolerated); those who are to be removed; and those who are to be sacrificed (thereby giving up a lesser good for a greater good, or a lower good for a higher good).”

“Without heroic Faith Catholics will soon not be able to endure and survive, much less grow in the Faith and pass it on intact and faithfully—whole and entire– to their own children. I say it again, and earnestly: our Faith, and all of our derivatively cultivated virtues, must become and truly be heroic.”

“The are no such things as Accidents; there are only Acts of Divine Providence.”

“Is sin within the Divine Providence?…. If you say ‘no,’ we have a problem.”

“The comparative word in the Jesuit motto is fundamental and purposive: ‘Unto the greater glory of God’—’Ad maiorem Dei Gloriam.’ We may thus never become complacent, and we may not presumptuously think we have been sufficient. We may always do more. No sloth!”

“Sanctity may also be summed up in one word: ‘More’. Sanctity is disposed to give more, to suffer more, to love more, to endure more, to be more generous, to pray more.”

“When I am discouraged, two passages from Saint Paul always bolster me, fortify me, and they make me more resilient: (1) wherever sin abounds, grace superabounds; and (2) for those who love God, all things co-operate unto the good—and to the greater good. But to love God and even to love the good, means that you must love the Cross—do you hear me? But you must not be—much less remain—a mere amateur in suffering.

“Have you ever wondered why Saint Thérèse of Lisieux—of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face—was also known as the Little Flower? In thinking this morning about the deeper meaning of that title, I thought of a possible meaning for that metaphor and analogy. Flowers are cut for those we love.”

“How many theological virtues did Jesus have? If you do not say ‘one,’ we have a problem. For you would then show that you have not sufficiently understood Our Lord’s Hypostatic Union in the Incarnation. Our Lord had only the theological virtue of charity; He did not need, or have, the infused virtues of faith or hope.”

“In the Final Draft of the New Catechism, it was difficult to see that Christ had added anything essential to what was already said and admired in the Old Testament—even the Eight Beatitudes.”

“The Beatitudes in the New Testament cannot be lived without Grace. It is impossible.”

“My greatest intellectual humiliation is teaching Catholic theology in English, instead of in Latin. For example, how does one teach Grace as ‘a supernatural accident’? What are then one’s first mental associations and images? A crash?”

“An informed Latin American friend once said to me, sometime in the 1950s, and by way of suggestive contrast, as follows: ‘If you take the average Latin American, no matter how unchurched he is, and you scratch him beneath the surface, you will find a Catholic; if you take the average American Catholic, no matter how churched he is, and you scratch him beneath the surface, you will find a Protestant.’ Perhaps it would no longer entirely be the case today [in the 1980s]. What do you think?”

“In the mid-1950s, in its New York office, the Protestant World Council of Churches told me (and my superior from Rome) that, after World War II, they had made a major geographic shift and Grand Strategic decision: to shift all of its main resources and missionary efforts to Latin America. For, they had first seen that the Catholic Church was having much more success in Africa and in Asia.”

“Sometimes I get tired of being good, and even of just trying to be good. But that is a temptation. To be resisted.”

“I wrote almost all my books in front of the Tabernacle.”

“I haven’t gone to Confession yet today.” [Father tried to go every day to the Sacrament of Penance, even when it required driving some distance by car.]

“I’m still wringing pride out of me.”

“You have to endure many humiliations to grow even a little in humility.”

“Early in my priesthood I made a Private Vow that I would always, when at all possible, live in community, in the Jesuit community, despite the trials: ‘vita communis, mea maxima poenitentia.’”

“I also made a Private Vow that I would not waste time.”

“You think you have an irascible temper and fiery anger, but your anger is nothing compared to mine own white-hot temper. Remember that meekness is not weakness.”

“As a novice in the Jesuits, I was at once considered by my fellow novices—and by my novice master—to be ‘an intellectual bully,’ and I was not only severely warned, but almost thrown out of the novitiate in my first month! No one had ever talked to me like that! Thereafter ‘mum was the word’!”

“I think that one part of Divinely Revealed Sacred Tradition was that Saint Peter was to go to Rome. Another instance is, I believe, a Corpus of Sacred Music.”

“In solemnly defining in 1950 the Dogma of Our Lady’s Assumption, Pope Pius XII was also trying to show us that this truth could not be supportively found in Divinely Revealed Sacred Scripture, but only as a part of Divinely Revealed Sacred Tradition. The learned Jesuit Father, Hugo Rahner, tried to prove this Irreformable Doctrine from Scripture; but he was unsuccessful.”

By way of conclusion, we shall now briefly consider some focal years and some companion transpiring events that were of special import in Father Hardon’s life and loyal priesthood: especially the years 1950, the late 1940s and early 1950s, 1957, 1980, 1990-1991, and the 1980s-1990s (with Mother Teresa and her sisters).

I first met Father Hardon in Virginia in 1980. He was conducting a short day of recollection at a local college. His first words to me were in Sacramental Confession. In the interior forum he asked me whether he could speak with me outside of Confession. Given his solemn tone of voice, for the first time in my life I thought I was not going to receive Absolution. But he wanted to speak with me about “rock music” and its nature and destructive effects—and its then growing permeation, even in monasteries. This discussion began our long association, even our common research and collaborations, also for the Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan.

In a few of our conversations about his own life and priesthood, he memorably discussed three things in which he was involved in Rome in 1950, and while he was completing his doctoral dissertation: Pius XII’s canonization of Maria Goretti (24 June 1950); Pius XII’s promulgated Encyclical, Humani Generis (12 August 1950), which is, in part, an updated Syllable of Errors; and Pius XII’s Declaration of the Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Blessed Mother, entitled Munificentissimus Deus (1 November 1950).

Father Hardon said he was involved with Vatican Radio and the Pope in the Canonization of Maria Goretti, whom the Pope honored as “a Martyr to Purity.” Father never forgot that title.

After Humani Generis came out—though it did not mention any names explicitly—there was a large bitter reaction, as Father Hardon then saw. As an assistant to the Head of the Jesuit Library at the Gesù, he had the unpleasant and insulting task of recalling various privately circulated samizdat-manuscripts written by papally unapproved more modernist authors in light of Humani Generis. Father Hardon vividly recalled many hostile faces in their doorways as they reluctantly gave up the officially summoned texts. (I never saw a list of those texts and suspect authors, if Father Hardon had preserved one for himself, although I think that Hans Urs von Balthasar—then himself a Jesuit, up until 1950—was one of them. In any case he soon left the Jesuits. Another on the list was likely Henri de Lubac, S.J., especially his writings on Nature and Grace.)

The year 1957 was important for Father Hardon, for he places that year as the pivotal time when his troubles more fully arose within the Jesuit Order. For, in 1957 there returned from the General Jesuit Congregation in Rome a new set of hierarchical leaders in the Jesuit Society throughout the United States. Despite Father Hardon’s education and dogmatic specializations, he was, for example, no longer to be allowed to teach Dogmatic Theology to his fellow Jesuits or Novices. Never again.

When I asked him about comparable things in the Jesuit Order in the Northeast of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and especially the controversial dogmatic matters of de Ecclesia, in view of the opinions of Jesuit Father Leonard Feeney, Father Hardon claimed not to know of these doctrinal and disciplinary matters. Father only said that those things occurred in the Northeast Jesuit Province about which he had little reliable knowledge. However, Father Hardon’s non-Jesuit friend, Father William Most, had and publicly expressed a very strong doctrinal criticism of Father Leonard Feeney, also after Leonard Feeney (d. 1978) himself, for disciplinary reasons, was no longer a Jesuit.

In 1990, Father Hardon was belatedly asked by then-Archbishop Jan Schotte to be deeply involved in the assessment and writing of the new Catechism, and thus in working, as well, on the accurate translation of its final Latin text. (I was with Father Christoph von Schönborn, O.P., the Executive Secretary of the Universal Catechism, when the Austrian Dominican priest explicitly invited Father Hardon to help translate what would be the final, official Latin text of the Catechism, under Cardinal Ratzinger’s overall management for Pope John Paul II.)

After Father Hardon first read the final Draft in 1990, he was deeply shocked. Truly shaken. He then memorably, and with grave solemnity, said to me: “We are witnessing a massive effort to re-make our historic Faith.” At least three times, he repeated these trenchant words—also in the presence of others, at least twice. I could say much more about this whole matter, but not here. (I have, however, already published some things on this important matter of Father Hardon’s commentary on the Final Draft of the Catechism in the Catholic journal, Christian Order, which is edited by Rod Pead. Please see here Part I and Part II.) It was also in the context of the drafting of this Catechism, with then-Father Walter Kasper’s own welcomed role in it – there was a nervous excitement within the drafting group in Rome about the late arrival of the eagerly awaited Modi of Walter Kasper – that Father Hardon so intensely exclaimed: “Walter Kasper does not even believe in the Incarnation!”

I wish to conclude with one revealing incident Father Hardon very carefully told me about: his trip to Rome with Mother Teresa, with whom he was then closely collaborating. Mother Teresa and Father were inside the Vatican and waiting for the arrival of Pope John Paul II, which was somewhat delayed. Mother Teresa was especially effervescent—”very bubbly,” Father Hardon said. She was expressively going around to the larger audience and speaking “very ecumenically” about Hindus and about “unity.”

Suddenly and very unexpectedly, as Father put it: “A Cardinal spoke to Mother Teresa and very earnestly said to her: ‘But, Mother, the basis of unity is truth.’” Father Hardon would never tell me who that Cardinal was, although I asked him and pleaded with him again and again to do so!

However, after telling me again the unnamed Cardinal’s incisive words, Father Hardon said to me: “Robert, Mother Teresa needed to hear that. Robert, Mother Teresa needs to hear that. Robert, why do you think I am now working with Mother Teresa? Already, for example, I am working on adapted catechetical texts and other aids whereby she and her sisters may also fundamentally teach the spiritual works of mercy, not only the corporal works of mercy, and thereby even expand their own founding charism.”

(Mother Teresa also came to hand out an abundant number of already blessed Miraculous Medals, because Father Hardon had once told her about about a miracle of healing that had occurred to a young boy in coma from a sledding accident—and it was early in Father’s own priesthood. Father Hardon, after once telling me the full story in private when the two of us were alone, said to me: “Robert, that miracle was not for that little boy; that miracle was not for the suffering, loyal family of that little boy; Robert, that miracle was for me: it saved my priesthood.”)

May we now also better consider and more deeply incorporate those brief words from the Cardinal in Rome which were also so important for Father Hardon: “The basis of unity is truth.”

Father Hardon was to enter into eternity on 30 December 2000. But, with his voice and words still vivid in my heart, his poignant death seems such a short while ago. May he now know the more abundant life Christ promised us.

 

–Finis–

© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

G.K. Chesterton on “the New Sort of Cynic”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                               18 December 2018

The Expectation of Mary

G.K. Chesterton on “the New Sort of Cynic”

Epigraphs

“All this [fastidiousness] has ended in a sort of Manichean madness against the fundamental facts of life.” (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials (1934), p.171)

***

“People are positively nervous about mentioning duty or [informed] conscience or religion [hence sacred tradition and irreformable dogma], because of the high-strung and delicately poised sanity of the new sort of cynic….This is something more than a perversity; it is an inversion, and an inversion which amounts to a sort of mental malformation….The real and reasonable question of morality and immorality awaits discussion; and it will not be best discussed by [“the new type of sensitive”] epileptics, even if they are also cynics.” (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials, p. 171—my emphasis added)

***

“Those who are now called Pagans actually do what they themselves have chiefly blamed in the Puritans: they despise the body and all the affections that lie nearest to the body. Their aestheticism, more than any asceticism, has produced a repugnance for the real facts of life [like the birth and nurturing of children]….This is a new and curious philosophical phase. It may not yet be conscious. But for many it will be the final phase of that fury of fastidiousness which already rages in them against the mere mention of common affections or even natural habits….being unsatisfied even with the most harmless natural affections. (G.K. Chesterton, Avowals and Denials, p. 173-174—my emphasis added)

***

In his published 1934 essay—two years before his death—entitled “On the Touchy Realist,”i G.K. Chesterton, amidst some verbal antics, imparts to us a few unexpected insights about cynicism, and they may well shed light, as well, on some contemporary manifestations of soft mercy and sensitive forms of diversity and purportedly pastoral tenderness.

Chesterton begins his essay with a compact summary of his main thesis:

Not very long ago, men complained of the cynic, saying that he was hard and had no human feelings. Now they [the faithful, too?] are asked rather to respect the cynic, because his feelings are so soft and sensitive. (170)

About this new kind of sentimentalism, Chesterton then modestly adds:

This [phenomenon] is a curious change, but a real one, and one that has not been adequately noticed. There is a type of modern youth [or modern pastor?] which is cynical not because it is thick-skinned, but because it is thin-skinned [and “touchy”]. It has…the…tendency to shudder at anything conventional [or especially traditional?]….Indeed, the cynical youth [or a promiscuous libidinous prelate?] is in many ways very like the [sensitive] Victorian spinster, only not so self-controlled. (170—my emphasis added)

Attempting to understand this potential vulnerability and provocative weakness, Chesterton goes on to comment upon this arguably new kind of irrational cynicism:

It [this type of cynicism] has exactly the same tendency to shudder at anything conventional [much less traditional] as the Victorian spinster had to shudder at anything unconventional….There is, however, in his [the cynical youth’s] world of culture exactly the same fundamental weakness that really weakened the worst parts of the old world of convention. I mean, there is the horror of certain phrases as such, [a constricted ideological horror] of certain allusions and associations, without any real effort to reduce them to any system recognized by reason. The new type of sensitive [sic] is sickened by anything that he would call sentimental [e.g., a happy traditional family, the love of a mother, the protection of innocent children], just as the [touchy Victorian] spinster was [sickened] by anything she would call cynical. In both cases it is a matter of associations and not of analysis; and it matters more what words are used than what thought is presented. (170-171—my emphasis added)

Such a new cynicism thereby shows itself to be a form of sentimentalism, as well as a form of ideological irrationality. We probably already know that cramped ideological mentation is often “touchy,” if not fundamentally irrational. Unwilling to consider rational objections to its claims and “armed new doctrine,” an ideologue is often himself paradoxically “more discontented if he is not discontented.” (He is understandably agitated when he is uprooted—or when he is unrooted.)

With his artful tones of irony, Chesterton now proceeds to give some illustrative examples:

The truly refined [cynical] youth will turn pale at the mention of a mother’s love or be seriously unwell on hearing of a happy marriage….I know a distinguished lady who can hardly even hear the words “woman and children”…without being carried fainting from the room. People are positively nervous about mentioning [one’s] duty or conscience or religion, because of the high-strung and delicately poised sanity of the new sort of cynic [and decadent? or barbarian?]….If our [Victorian] aunts ought to have been able to hear about immorality without fainting, surely our [currently surviving, seemingly soft, if not decadent] nephews might brace themselves to hear about morality without throwing an epileptic fit. (171—my emphasis added)

After noting, by way of further example, that “there are…husbands who are too selfish or unsociable” and even saying that that fact is “so obvious that it has been satirized by all the satirists of human history,” (172) Chesterton makes some important distinctions and a contrast:

But the [new] modern thing that I mean carries with it quite a different [cynical] implication. It implies not that the fruit is sometimes rotten, but that the root is always rotten; and the further that feeling goes, the more it works backwards to the rottenness in the very roots of the tree of life. It rather resembles a sort of rage of amputation in a mad surgeon who has forgotten the difference between the malady and the man. There is nothing that needs a sense of proportion so much as amputation; and in this [mad] inhuman philosophy it [amputation] has gone far beyond the cutting off of the hand [as in the amputated right hand of the courageous Scaevola, circa 500 B.C.], or the plucking out of the eye, which symbolize the extremes of asceticism….Meanwhile the general stampede against nature goes on [as with the natural moral law]….(172-173—my emphasis added)

Chesterton will now take us to an even deeper consideration of these matters of the natural and the unnatural and the fact of evil:

The serpent always bites its own tail; and the whirlwind always turns upon itself; and all emanations of evil in history have always described this strange curve [turning upon itself] and [have] ended up by contradicting themselves. (174—my emphasis added)

To bolster his thoughtful and humane opinion that disproportionate and excessive fastidiousness and cynicism have grave and near incorrigible effects, Chesterton now has us consider other historical manifestations of excess:

The excess of Private Judgment [in Luther and other Protestants] ended in Prussianism; the excess of Prohibitionism and Puritanism [as in the U.S.A.] ended in a government of bootleggers and gangsters; the excess of cut-throat competition, born of the [British and Ricardo] Manchester School, ended in the universal tyranny of the Monopoly and the Trust. This is not the first time in history that the excess of Paganism has led to mere Pessimism, and its name now, like its name two thousand years ago, is, or ought to be, Manicheanism [as well as Gnosticism, a dark and chosen “escapist” religion, as well]….That was the frame of mind in which many men, in the age of St. Augustine, for instance, passed from a Greek glorification of nature to an Oriental glorification of nothing [i.e., an acknowledgement of final Nothingness]; because nature herself demanded sacrifice and life itself imposes limits. By ignoring limits, they lost all sense even of the limit that divides life and death, and finally [in despair?] found in death the only unlimited liberty [hence voluntary and permissible suicide]. That ancient and tragic transformation from the Pagan to the Manichee is passing through many minds [at least as of 1934], and fulfilling itself before our very eyes to-day; and whether there be any cure for it, deeper than the destruction [or self-destruction] itself, this is no place to inquire. (174-175—my emphasis added)

Have we, perhaps, now come to such a point where “we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies”? The historian Livy once thought this to be the case in Rome around 19 B.C. (in his Latin, he incisively said “nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus”).

In a partial response, Chesterton himself has resolutely said: “But we can [and we should] protest against history and human experience being distorted by these fleeting fads and fashions.” (175—my emphasis added)

On the prior page of his essay, Chesterton had already given to us a well-rooted and memorable illustration of the recurrent historical excess displayed by “the Pessimism of Manicheanism” (and its closely related Gnosticism, which also essentially rejected the divine Creation of material Nature):

It [this “frame of mind,” this destructive phenomenon] appears at a point when men no longer distinguish between the leprosy that is devouring the life and the life which it devours; when their rage against the weeds that choke the flowers passes into a wild feeling that all flowers are weeds; when the tares and the wheat seem so hopelessly entangled that the demented farmer is more angry with the wheat than with the tares. (174—my emphasis added)

As it is with the cultivation of the soil, so is it with the cultivation of the soul. (Does not Christ’s own “Parable of the Sower” try to teach us that? It is His longest parable, as well: Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8: 4-15.) By way of her stern rebuke, Dante’s beloved Beatrice—near the end of the Purgatorio—also tried to teach her yearning Pilgrim that a richer soil like loam needs to be more frequently and more attentively weeded (and pruned), so too with a richly gifted and endowed soul—for instance, like G.K. Chesterton’s!

CODA:

Chesterton himself knew the dangers of tepidity and limpness and the inordinately soft corruptions of putative mercy. He also knew of the corrosive effects of cynicism and its selective slothful evasiveness of fundamental facts and purposes of life. Moreover, if he had been alive and active during the Second Vatican Council and its too often-deliquescent aftermath, he would have lucidly warned us—with characteristic and polite charity—about how certain excessive forms of sentimentalism are also an unmanly form of cynicism inattentive to the risks and results of our grace-extinguishing sins which lead us finally to “the corrosion of hopelessness.” Such presumption and despair—the two sins against hope—do not, however, display much softness or sensitivity or tenderness and diversity.

The robust former Jesuit priest, Father Vincent P. (“Pete”) Miceli, used to say to me (in his memorable New York accent): “We are to be the Church Militant, not the Church Milquetoast.”

The excesses of fastidiousness” and often “petulant undisciplined softness” shown by “the new sort of cynic” that our Chesterton has detected will only be exacerbated by subtle new (but still subversive) claims of “historical and cultural relativism” and of its closely related “nominalism.” Furthermore, they will also be aggravated by certain high-dialectical proposals for a developmental evolution of the Church’s once-irreformable dogma (as well as of broader doctrine), to include the Church’s longstanding traditional moral doctrine. That is to say, the sophistry and infidelity will advance by way of appeals for a “creative” and often Grace-Free “Integra Humana Progressio” and All That. As it now appears, this new orientation will also call for a new tenderness and a special sensitivity toward sustained turpitude and perversion and intrinsic acts of evil. The corruption of mercy is surely “a terrible thing to think upon” (in the robust sixteenth-century words of Father François Rabelais). “Touchy” feelings “so soft and sensitive” (170) also conduce to the effeminate.

We are indeed grateful to G.K. Chesterton for his helpful foresight and for his cautionary essay about “excess” concerning “corrosive cynicism” and other matters of moment to man. With his keen intellect and sincere heart—his “cor sincerum”—G.K. Chesterton vividly saw so much ahead of time.

–Finis–

© 2018 Robert D. Hickson

iG.K. Chesterton, “On the Touchy Realist,” in his anthology, entitled Avowals and Denials (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1934), pages 170-175 (Chapter XXIX). All references to this brief essay will henceforth be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of this text. The emphases that are added to Chesterton’s original pages will also be noted in the parentheses above. Italics are usually made by Chesterton, and will be so indicated.