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

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                       26 September 2019

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

Saint Thérèse Couderc (d. 1885)

Epigraphs

One of the main marks of stupidity is the impatient rejection of mystery; one of the first marks of good judgment, combined with good reasoning power, is the appetite for examining mystery.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, first published in July 1931), page 275—my emphasis added)

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Madonna!

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

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

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

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

Strategic Bombing and the Innocents: Considering Gertrud von Le Fort and Pope Pius XII in Response to World War II

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                        8 September 2019

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Epigraphs

“I was…thinking…about the nights in the city when the sirens had wailed so horribly to say: The foreign airplanes are coming!….That was eight years ago, and the [1939-1945] war has been over for a long time. I am not a little child now; I am a big boy—twelve years old soon. Yet even today, Mommy never talks to me about airplanes—I know she wishes I would forget all about the sirens and the airplanes. But I cannot forget them, although my thoughts always go only up to the edge of the memory—when I try to think of the most terrible moments, then suddenly there is a big hole, as dark as the cellar where we were sitting then, and there is such a terrible droning noise that I can no longer think about anything. Then all I hear is Mommy’s voice, loud and clear as a shout through all the other shouting: ‘Mary, take my child into your arms!’….

“When I began to think and see again, I thought at first that it really was the Virgin Mary holding me in her arms because Mommy’s face was as black as the picture of Our Lady of Altötting that hung in her room. But soon I noticed that it was Mommy’s face, covered with smoke and soot, completely frozen with fear and terror….” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents” (7-46) in The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019—first published in 1960 in German and entitled “Die Unschuldigen”), see now pages 7-8 for the above-cited passage.)

***

“Several days later the Church celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents, to whom the castle chapel is dedicated….The priest said that the [Psalm 124:7] verse expresses the voice of the Holy Innocents.

“Suddenly one of the refugee women began to whimper audibly. ‘But the children did not escape at all; they froze! They lay motionless and stiff on the ice when we fled across the lagoon [as was our coming from East Prussia]. They threw them into the water like dead fish!’ She moaned so loudly that the priest had to interrupt his sermon until they had led the woman out.

“Later when we left the chapel, Mommy was standing on the stairs holding in her arms the woman who had whimpered before. She had nestled her head on Mommy’s bosom and wept very gently and quietly. Later Grandmama told Mommy that she would like to explain to the woman [refugee] the psalm verse she had misunderstood. But Mommy just shook her head.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 28-29—my emphasis added)

***

“Mommy [Melanie, Heini’s mother] never goes with Grandmama to church in Niederasslau. Since she lost her rosary, she does not go to Mass anymore, either—she does not even go to the castle chapel when one is said there. But Mommy cannot stand the castle chapel at all because it is dedicated to the Holy Innocents. On the chapel wall to the right of the altar is a painting of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” page 18)

***

“I think that Grandmama was much fonder of Uncle Eberhard than of my father [Karl], who was also her son, after all….But there is something else that Grandmama has against my father.

“’You hold Karl’s death [by suicide] against him, Mother,’ Mommy recently said to her—Karl was my father–‘and yet it was a noble, heroic death,’

“’But not for a Christian,’ Grandmama replied. ‘A Christian must find another way out.’ Grandmama, I think, is very pious….

“But then she [Mommy] told me honestly and decisively, ‘No, Heini, your father shot himself, but his death was nevertheless a noble one. Your father preferred to die rather than to kill the innocent.’” Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 15-16 and 33—my emphasis added)

***

“’Karl [my officer husband] did not fear certain death,’ Mommy insisted. ‘He feared God, and you claim to be a pious woman.’

“’But you are unwilling to be one,’ Grandmama replied, ‘and that is at bottom the reason for all your trouble and unrest. God permitted this terrible event [a massacre in 1944 France at Oradour]; if you could believe in Him, you would soon find peace.’

“’No, on the contrary, then I most certainly would not find peace,’ Mommy said stubbornly, ‘because if God existed, He would have to be as indignant as I. But there cannot be a God, because the whole world is full of the suffering of the innocent!

“’That is precisely how the world was redeemed,’ Grandmama said calmly. ‘The guilty merely get their just punishment, but the sight of innocent people suffering softens hearts—Christ suffered, too, although He was innocent. Until you accept that, you cannot be a Christian woman.’

“’And I do not want to be one,’ Mommy protested, again looking quite desperate.’…I thought, ‘What Grandmama just said really sounded beautiful and mysterious. Why, then, will Mommy not accept it?’ But then I recalled what Herr Unger recently said to her: ‘But what could be the reason why people today no longer believe the piety of pious people?‘ (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 30-31—my emphasis)

***

“’But why, then, did Grandmama weep so bitterly at my bedside [after again Heini’s having been wounded by the fall of the tower-bell, but not a bomb]? I never knew she [in her poised dignity] could still weep like that! And why did she then tell you that she can now understand why you no longer want to pray?‘….

“’Well, does Uncle Eberhard not want to marry you anymore?’

“’No, my poor child rescued me from that.’

“’Oh, then I am glad, Mommy. But why are you kneeling down all of a sudden? Can you pray again now? And why are you praying downstairs in the chapel? Is there another Mass today for the Holy Innocents?

“’It is the domestics and the refugees, darling [and all the “children of Oradour” in France (46)]. I think they are praying for you.’….

“’So, now I want to go to the children—but suddenly I can no longer stand up—someone has to carry me. Ah, Mommy if you can pray again [as on page 8], then please say once again: Mary, take my child in your arms…’

“’Mary, take my child…‘” (45-46—my emphasis added) [Finis]

***

Introducing Gertrud von Le Fort’s 1960 poignant and at times very disturbing novella, “The Innocents,” has seemed a fitting way to speak of Allied strategic bombing in World War II, as well as of the later 24 January 1943 Allied demand for unconditional surrender. It may also lead us to wonder what Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church first specifically thought and then did about these two major moral decisions and the consequential actions. (Pope Pius XII, who knew German well, died on 9 October 1958, not long before Gertrud von Le Fort published “The Innocents,” which was dedicated to the lost children: “In memory of the children who died in World War II.”1 )

Moreover, Gertrud von Le Fort—by her vivid fiction—has intimately depicted some of the deep and longstanding effects of the promiscuous and often cynical aerial bombing, to include the ill fruits of revenge that such bombing so often incited and aggressively reciprocated, especially after the innocent were deliberately or negligently slaughtered. Culpable ignorance and culpable negligence were frequently present, as it appears—and as I have been told by pilots and naval aviators.

In this short reflection, I therefore propose to discuss, without any apparatus of learning, some of what I have learned over the years, to include oral history, beginning with my time as an eager cadet at West Point from 1960-1964.

The theorists of strategic bombing all essentially claimed that such a method would shorten the war, and avoid the stalemate-situation and moral horror of the Trenches of World War I, especially in Western Europe.

But, a declaration of unconditional surrender would—and did—protract the war, especially in light of the earlier vengeful “Carthaginian Peace” of Versailles (and the related stark Trianon Treaty and such). The enemy would also become more resolute as well as much more distrusting and deceptively mistrustful. That is to say, an already betrayed enemy was all too likely to “hunker down” intransigently and try to endure.

The strategic air power theorists had a set of presuppositions—fundamental premises—on which to base their confidence and their practices: the “industrial web theory” (about a vulnerable interdependent society of modernity); the belief that the bombers could get though to their targets without a fighter escort; their confidence that they could find, and in a timely way, the most important long-range strategic targets (such as the key nodes and choke points in the infrastructure of Romanian oil fields, so indispensable for sustained logistics); the reliable and continuous employment and precision of the new Radar); and their pilots’ ability to handle safely unexpended ordnance after an incomplete bombing mission over Germany, for example. But, almost all these assumptions were false. (My former father-in-law, a combatant bomber pilot in the 8th Air Force, told me calmly that, of course, he, like the other crews, often just dumped unused bombs anywhere he could—on cities or on the countrysides—before he returned to England and safely landed without any active munitions. He also landed in the Soviet Union twice, both times because of near emergencies, but, he reported, it was not a welcoming place or “ally” to be visiting, even briefly.)

Stalin first said that he wanted the capitalistic Western societies to fight each other and thereby to deplete each other, and then he would arrive into their own dissolution and take charge. Later, he did not want his putative Western allies to come up through Northern Italy into Austria. He even made some suggestions that, if the West did that, he just might have to make a Separate Peace with Germany, instead, another Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty (on 3 March 1918, late in World War I). But, this time, he said, to the advantage of the Soviet-Russians and not to the Germans. Stalin slyly wanted his Western allies to attack as far west as possible, instead, for example starting in western France so that the Soviet Army could more easily advance into eastern and central Europe (like the Mongols, but even further). Here was the country who had made an August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, and then invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, after losing to the Poles the decisive August 1920 Battle of Warsaw,2 which occurred only two years after Brest-Litovsk Surrender (in March of 1918). To appease their new Soviet ally (soon after 22 June 1941), England, on 6 December 1941, even declared war on heroic, anti-Bolshevist Finland, opening the way to the Soviet conquest of the three Baltic Republics.

From all things I have read down the years—and from all the searching questions I have asked—I have never discovered that Pope Pius XII ever even mentioned his warning or cautious assessment of “Strategic Bombing” and of the moral and immoral effects of effectively unlimited “Unconditional Surrender,” which Stalin himself hesitated to accept and to proclaim openly and then also to apply.

If anyone could give me evidence of Pope Pius XII’s analysis and resistance to Strategic Bombing and Unconditional Surrender taken together, and mercilessly applied, I would be very grateful—and even consoled.

Father John Anthony Hardon, S.J. once tested me orally by asking: “Is evil within the Divine Providence?” I said “Yes” but that didn’t get me very far, nor help my understanding very much. But Father then slyly said: “If you had said ‘No,’ however, we would have a problem!”

Then we spoke about the Mystery of the Permissive Will of God. For, Father said that God allows certain evils to avoid a greater evil or sometimes to enable a greater good to come forth and to abide. Then I said: “Papal Diplomacy certainly is a Test of your larger and manifold insights about the Providence of God.” What Pope Pius XII did or did not do—nor mention—during World War II is another Test about the purposes and allowances of the Divine Providence. No matter what, World War II was not—is not—“the Good War.” Gertrud von Le Fort has helped us to realize and to spread this true fact with empathy and with compassion.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Gertrud von Le Fort, The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), page 7 for her Dedication. All further references to “The Innocents” will be to this recent edition, and will be placed above, in parentheses, in the main body of this brief essay.

2For the conduct and the strategic implications of this battle and victory against the great Soviet Marshal Toukhatchevsky, see the excellent book by Viscount Edgar Vincent D’Abernon (d. 1941), entitled The Eighteenth Decisive Battle in the World: Warsaw, 1920 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931—or its later 1977 Reprint by Hyperion Press in Westport, Connecticut.)

Hilaire Belloc’s 1938 Return to the Baltic and Poland

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                              28 August 2019

Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430)

Epigraphs

“With every people of Europe outside the old limits of the Roman Empire [such as the Danes] there is a moment of origin to be discerned, a moment in which it passed out of the formless mist of barbaric paganism into the fixed culture of Christendom: a moment in which there came to it for the first time in sufficient strength the formative institutions of our civilisation, writing and record, the monastic centres, permanent building, and also, and above all, the kernel of the whole affair, the Mass.” (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic (London: Constable & CO LTD, 1938), page 5—my emphasis added.)

***

“Yet Cracow [in the southeast Poland, in “Carpathian Poland” and at the upper waters of the Vistula] will always be the real heart of the people, the sacred place. And one feels in Cracow the reality and the presence of the Polish soul as one feels it nowhere else. That is but the judgment of a chance foreign visitor, and as like as not romantically out of perspective, for after all Cracow is a frontier town not central to the Polish realm [like Warsaw on the Vistula, “the political center of Poland”]. Yet never have I trodden the streets of Cracow when I have visited and re-visited the town without a feeling of being in the immediate presence of that holy something which inhabits Poland like a secret flame.

“The Church of Our Lady from within, when you enter from the market place, strikes you suddenly like a vision: something hardly of this world. It is of a supernatural beauty.” (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic, page 159—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

***

“But there is another nucleus, the famous shrine of Czenstohowa [Our Lady’s Shrine, which is located not very far to the north from Cracow itself]. It is characteristic of our ignorance, here, in the west, of all things Polish that the monastery, the spire, the altar of Czenstohowa should be hardly known to us. It was the turning point of the invasions. It was here that the last of the [invasive] Swedish effort turned back.” (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic, page 161—my emphasis added)

***

“Oddly enough the one man, the only man then in the public eye, who wrote in English something sufficient about Poland, was Lord d’Abernon. He understood the full significance of the [August 1920] Battle of Warsaw and you would do well to read his book on the sharp turning-point in the history of the world. [See Viscount D’Abernon’s The Eighteenth Decisive Battle of the World: Warsaw, 1920 (1931)]. (Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic (1938), page 147—my emphasis added)

***

At sixty-eight years of age and only one year before the grave outbreak of the Second World War in Poland in September of 1939, Hilaire Belloc visited with a friend some of the Baltic-Scandinavian countries (Denmark and Sweden) as well as his cherished Poland on the southern shore of the Baltic.1 Belloc was now again traveling to the coasts of the Baltic Sea with his close friend (and exquisite illustrator) Edmond “Bear” Warre with whom he had also earlier visited the Baltic back in 1895, forty-three years earlier and when Belloc was but a youthful twenty-five years of age.

In light of the then impending war in Poland, Belloc’s mature perceptions and vivid historical comments in 1938 will still teach us many things of import, especially when we, from the outset, also candidly acknowledge (and unflinchingly remember) that the Soviet Army itself destructively invaded Poland from the east, in September of 1939.

The Russian invasion began on 17 September 1939, slightly more than two weeks after the German Army had first come into Poland from the west. The Soviet actions might also have been part of the intended vengeance to be inflicted for the Polish having twenty years earlier defeated and effectively humiliated the Russians themselves in the decisive 1920 Battle of Warsaw.2 (It was fought from 12-25 August 1920; the victory is also reverently now called “The Miracle of the Vistula.”)

But who denounced or actively tried to counteract this consequential Soviet invasion of Poland which was soon afterwards also to be imposed on the Baltic Republics and Finland? Did Pope Pius XII himself even say anything, or take other public or covert measures? But what of the Soviet Union’s later alliance with the West against Germany and Finland?

Moreover, says Belloc:

When [General] Pilsudski won the famous [1920] battle he did more than save the city called by its name (the Battle of Warsaw). He saved, as I have said, everything east of the Rhine. [However,] It looks as though the Germans may not have been saved for a better fate. It looks as though another barbarism, almost as bad as the modern barbarism of Moscow, were to take the place of the German culture, for that culture shrieked when Vienna fell [to the German National Socialists on 12 March 1938]. (175—my emphasis added)

Adding some further details (and hints) a few pages later, Belloc returns thereby to the strategic importance of the Baltic and to the reality of power in 1938, to include financial power:

Since it was taken for granted [after 1919 and Versailles] that the new Poland could not live [long], the international banking system, of which the chief exponent was the Bank of England, put all their money on Berlin. The English politicians, but still more the English banking power, restored Prussia, and that is why Prussia is not only leading and organises all the German millions, but unhappily dominates the Baltic to-day [in mid-1838]. (179—my emphasis added)

Leading us back to an earlier time of religious strife, Belloc will now expound some important history for us in light of the realities of Baltic geography:

So far so good. But the interest of Poland to a man who is considering the Baltic of the past, and the story of Scandinavia, is the varying fortunes of the two cultures into which Europe split after the Reformation, their struggle to have the Baltic in their hands: to leave the Baltic a Protestant or a Catholic lake. Poland made its effort towards the close of the Middle Ages. It was on the way to achievement when the storm of the Reformation burst and it was under that storm, and its later effects, that Poland lost the Baltic shore.

All energy polarises. The intense energies of the turmoil which shattered the unity of Christendom polarised as a matter of course, and the Baltic swung between two poles. Anti-Catholicism centered in Sweden, the revival of Catholicism centered in Poland. (147-148—my emphasis added)

In his characteristic light-hearted way, Belloc brings out some important points about the opacity or inaccessibility of a foreign language and how to begin to deal with it in public affairs:

The test of the business is [German] Dantzig [on the northern shore of the Vistula River] ….Meanwhile, the rival [Polish Gdynia] that cannot but kill Dantzig grows apace…..But can Gdynia remain Polish….

Gdynia has one disadvantage [with regard to Germanic Dantzig] however. It is a disadvantage attaching to many another Polish thing—it is the disadvantage of a name which the West cannot pronounce: the old language difficulty again. It would be of service indeed to Polish relations if the Poles would consent to transliterate for the purpose of those relations and to spell their place names and the rest so that we of the West—especially those of us who are the friends of Poland—could read the names and pronounce them. I know that one is here up against a point of honour. There is the same trouble with the Welsh. There is no great harm done to Europe by the bristling difficulties of the Welsh but a great harm is done to Europe by anything which makes Poland the bastion of our civilisation seem outlandish.

Yes, Poland is the bastion. It saved us in the [1920] Battle of Warsaw as it saved us more than 200 years earlier in the [17 July-12 September 1683] Battle of Vienna. It is of high moment to Europe that Poland should be in full communion with the rest of Europe, and the Polish place-names—and personal names for that matter—are the difficulty.

It was with the Poles as with the French. They lay balanced between two forces [Protestant and Catholic] which made a battlefield of all Christendom from 1530 and 1600. (148, 151-152—my emphasis added)

The struggles of the Faith, and the struggle for the Faith, during the early years of the Reformation were intense, but Belloc will reasonably be able to show us now only some of the results:

The recovery of Poland was a chief triumph of the Jesuits. The Society [of Jesus] re-established Poland, though here, as in France, it was the wealthiest men who most inclined to the new doctrines. Happily for Poland and for Europe there had not been so much loot available as in England and Sweden. The lesser gentry were not so much tempted, but perhaps what did most good was that irrational force of a nickname and the mere association of ideas. The Reformation began to be talked of as “that German thing,” and the Poles, like the Danes, though a very different nation, dreaded the power of the empire [as in the oft-misunderstood historic formulation of “the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations”].

Yet remember that Poland, had she received the full effect of the Reformation, might well have benefited on the material side. The breakdown of European civilisation let usury loose and the letting loose of usury created that credit system which had so vastly increased the wealth of the nations which adopted it and which is only now beginning to appear as a poison. Also in Sweden as in England the Reformation depressed the peasantry to the advantage of the wealthy, favoured adventure, and therefore enhanced leadership, judgment in commercial adventure, a readiness to accept novel instruments and new methods.

The Reformation killed the Guild. It gave us in the long run industrial capitalism, but its first fruits were only triumphs among the towns, where it meant new energies, new adaptations. In these [areas] the Poles, like all communities which had preferred the sacred things and the traditions, lagged behind the rest. (154-155—my emphasis added)

These deeply fair-minded and magnanimously refreshing words will continue to give us much to reflect upon and so much to reassess in some portions of our history. Belloc has so many admirable gifts in these areas.

Belloc has also written worthy comments about the elective Polish monarchy and its insufficiency during the rebellious times of the extended Reformation, and how the monarchy’s weakening and eventual loss of position would lead not only to Swedish dominance (especially at sea and along the Baltic coast), but also to the greater benefit and dominance of Prussia, which then led to achieving the humiliating Three Partitions of Poland (enforced by Prussia, Russia, and Austria):

But probably what hurt the strength of Poland most was the loss of monarchy….But [on the premise that “the whole task of government is to govern”] how should kingship govern without continuity? This new Polish crown was elective at the hands of an aristocracy. Permanent kingship there was not. [King] Sigismund the IIIrd [Vasa], the champion of the old Faith, he who made Warsaw the capital, would have done it if any man could, but the forces of rebellion were too strong….He saved the Faith of Poland, he saved the soil of Poland, too, triumphing to the east by land—but he lost the sea.

He [Polish King Sigismund, as mentioned] was a Vasa [i.e., of Swedish lineage and blood], the legitimate heir of Sweden and indeed accepted as king, but his religion was too much for the new millionaires. That [very Catholic] religion endangered their great fortunes based on the loot of the church land and revenues. He was driven out and, though he triumphed in the great flats of the east [toward Lithuania], the sea was not recovered. From his time [1566-1632] onward Sweden is the conquering power, barring Poles from the ways that led to the open seas, and to the ocean. (155-156—my emphasis added)

Moreover, says Belloc, “It was in the second lifetime after the full effect of the Reformation that Catholic Poland, like Ireland, was submerged. In the late seventeenth century the effects of the Reformation were clinched. (156—my emphasis added)

That is to say, more fully, yet somewhat unexpectantly, perhaps even to the learned:

The Polish fortunes were at their lowest [in those late 1600s]. In the eighteenth century Poland [then] fell a prey to the growing power of Protestant Prussia. It is a good example of how the thing that is both prophesied and dreaded does not usually come off. Another unexpected evil takes its place. [For example:] Sweden had barred Poland from the sea. After that the Swedes continued to invade and at the worst moment reached the very heart of the country at Czenstohowa. Yet it was not they [the Swedes] that benefited by the collapse of the restricted, harassed and undermined Polish monarchy. The beneficiary was Prussia.

It was Frederick of Prussia who was the real author of the partition [the three of them!]. His active and willing accomplice was the empress of Russia, but the main responsibility lies with that great soldier, the Hohenzollern….

There was more than one partition of Poland [i.e., three of them: 1772, 1793, and 1795], but throughout the bad business—the launching of our modern moral anarchy in international affairs—it is Prussia that presides over the murder.

England being morally an ally of Prussia for nearly two centuries [as of 1938], the part Prussia played has naturally been under-emphasised in our official histories, the new Oxford and Cambridge historical school of the nineteenth century. (156-157—my emphasis added)

At one point near the end of his richly nuanced and little-known book—Return to the Baltic—Belloc has an important and timely reflection:

I wonder how many of those few Englishmen who go into Poland and feel something of the Polish story have so much as seen Czenstohowa? It remains unspoken of in our letters. It was not even revealed to us when the attempt at framing a new Europe was made—and ruined by London and the Banks—after the victory of 1918. Czenstohowa has not even been subject to the general abuse which has fallen on most things Polish from the enemies of the Christian thing. Czenstohowa is not deliberately ignored. It is simply unknown, unrepeated in the Western tongue. (163—my emphasis added)

On the prior page, Belloc had modestly and more intimately written:

Czenstohowa and the Lady Church in Cracow between them are the spiritual pillars of the State. Czenstohowa has survived the floods of invasion after invasion, the ebb and flow of armies right up to yesterday. It remains as certain of continuance as the unseen forces [and thus Grace] which inspired it from the beginning and raised its walls and towers [in honour of Our Lady and the Holy Mass, “the kernel of the whole affair” (5)]….

So much for Czenstohowa. I could hope that the [Marian] shrine retains the memory of one, even dimly, as strongly as that pilgrim [Belloc himself] retains the scene of Czentsohowa. (162—my emphasis added)

Yet, we now know how much Poland had suffered and will soon have to face again many forms of betrayal between 1938 and 1945, and then once again after the Soviet post-War occupation of Poland, and thus after the broken promises of the British, to include perfidy from other Western Allies.

See the American Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane’s 1948 book, I Saw Poland Betrayed: An American Ambassador Reports to the American People. It is essentially about the betrayal of Poland by the Western Allies at the end of World War II. (What would Belloc also then have said to us?)

Our Lady of Czenstohowa, pray for us—and for the Polish people still.

CODA

Soon after the 22 June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, Great Britain was to ally herself firmly with those same Soviets who had invaded Poland first on 17 September 1939.

Moreover, on 6 December 1941—one day before the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack—Britain declared war on heroic little Finland, a long-time enemy of the Russian Bolsheviks.

Ambassador Lane’s 1948 book (just mentioned above3) will also make us consider again the nature of the purported 1945 victory in World War II.

In 1940, two years after Return to the Baltic was published, Hilaire Belloc had to face the sorrowful fact of the death of his beloved son, Peter, his second son to die in war. (His eldest son, Louis—an aviator—died in World War I and his body was never found.) Hilaire Belloc never quite recovered from this death of his son Peter and he even started, at age 70, to have some debilitating strokes.

Return to the Baltic, though regrettably too little known, is one of the last group of Belloc’s lucid and wise and fruitful books about history and strategic geography and culture—and the Faith. May the reader read and savor this fortifying book, which is about many other things, in addition to the increasingly vulnerable Poland, such as the Danes and the Protestant (and a few Catholic) Swedes.

Hilaire Belloc was to die on 16 July 1953, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, Return to the Baltic (London: Constable & Co, 1938). This hard-back edition’s excellent format also contains a set of twenty exceptionally beautiful illustrations and additional maps which were both made and provided by Belloc’s close friend and travel companion, Edmond L. Warre (affectionately known as “Bear” Warre). These pertinent and enhancing drawings are to be found throughout the book’s 191 pages, to include the vivid maps to be found inside the book cover, front and back.

2For an excellent and much fuller 1931 treatment of this decisive battle against the famous attacking Soviet Marshal Toukhatchevsky, see the original 1931 book by Edgar Vincent,Viscount D’Abernon (d.1941), entitled The Eighteenth Decisive Battle in the World: Warsaw, 1920 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931; or the later 1977 Reprint of the 1931 Text—Westport, Connecticut: Hyperion Press, INC., 1977).

3Arthur Bliss Lane, I Saw Poland Betrayed (New York and Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948). Lane was the American Ambassador to Poland during the transitional days to Soviet control, from 1944-1947. His report is candid.

Hilaire Belloc’s 1931 Insights from His Survey of the New Paganism

Picture: Greek Architecture in Agrigento, Sicily (Pixabay)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                            18 August 2019

Saint Helena (d. 326)

Epigraphs

“We call Paganism an absence of the Christian revelation. That is why we distinguish between Paganism and the different heresies; that is why we give the name of Christian to imperfect and distorted Christians, who only possess a part of Catholic truth and usually add to it doctrines which are contradictory of Catholic truth [e.g., nominalism and syncretism or a denial of free will]….

“This New Paganism is already a world of its own. It bulks large [as of 1931], and it is certainly going to spread and occupy more and more of modern life [and thus not only in the sprawling Amazon Region then]. It is exceedingly important that we should judge rightly and in good time of what its effects will probably be, for we are going to come under the influence of those effects to some extent, and our children will come very strongly under their influence. Those effects are already [in 1931] impressing themselves profoundly upon the Press, conversation, laws, building [i.e., architecture as a public art], and intimate habits of our time.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of A Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, 1931), pages 13 and 14—my emphasis added)

***

“Of these marks [of the New Paganism] the two most prominent are, first, the postulate that man is sufficient to himself—that is, the omission of the idea of Grace; the second (a consequence of this [postulate]), despair. The New Paganism is the resultant of two forces which have converged to produce it: appetite and the sense of doom….A licence in act and a necessarily more extended licence in speech [also “exercising the fullest license for what is called ‘self-expression’” (15)] are therefore the mark of the New Paganism…. I will say this much: that the one very powerful agent in producing this mood [of fatalism] is the desire to be rid of responsibility. (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic (1931), page 15-17—my emphasis added)

***

“But the New Paganism will tend, not to punish, but to restrain with fetters; to prevent action, to impose coercive bonds. It will be an issue more and more with human dignity. It has already, in certain provinces (the Calvinist canton of Vaud in Switzerland is an example), enacted what is called ‘the sterilisation of the unfit’ as a positive law. It has not yet enacted, though it has already proposed and will certainly in time enact, legislation for the restriction of births. Not only in these, but in many other departments of life, one after another, will this mechanical network spread and bind those subject to it under a compulsion which cannot be escaped.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic (1931), page 19—my emphasis added)

***

In the first chapter of his 1931 book, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England,1 Hilaire Belloc presents his own farsighted “survey of the New Paganism”—its resistance and lack of receptivity to the Faith—which contains some profound insights that are timely for us still, and refreshingly articulated.

Given the current discussions about the nature (and proposed new modifications) of Catholic missionary activity in the large and multi-cultural Amazon Region of South America, Hilaire Belloc’s reflections and differentiated view of Classical Paganism and its History might well be especially welcomed now—at least so as to give us a fitting sense of proportion and distinction and integrity.

The Preface to Belloc’s set of Catholic Essays shows us his modesty and his cultured reticence about some important matters of moment to a mature man:

I do not know whether I ought to apologise for the fact that these papers [these reflective essays] deal only with what may be called the externals of religion, are even in great part political, and without exception controversial. I have, perhaps, no faculty for dealing on paper with the more essential, the all-important, interior things of Catholic life. If ever I have dealt or shall deal with them I am sure I should not sign my name. (10—my emphasis added)

At the beginning of his essay on “The New Paganism,” Belloc reveals what for him is the importance of the difference between first struggling and receptively going uphill into the fresh air and the fresh water and lucid vision, as distinct from one’s later, in disillusionment and even still bitterly bearing “a rejected experience” (16), going back downhill into a mephitic and fetid swamp:

Our civilisation developed [gradually] as a Catholic civilisation. It developed and matured as a Catholic thing. With the loss of the Faith it will slip back not only into Paganism, but into barbarism with the accompaniments of Paganism, and especially the institution of [or different forms of] slavery. It will find gods to worship, but they will be evil gods as were those of the older savage Paganism before it began its advance toward Catholicism. The road downhill is the same as the road up the hill. It is the same road; but to go down back into the marshes again is a very different thing from coming up from the marshes into pure air. All things return to their origins. A living organic being, whether a human body or a whole state of society, turns at last into its original elements if life be not maintained in it. But in the process of return [“downhill,” as it were] there is a phase of corruption which is very unpleasant. That phase the modern world outside [and now, in 2019, maybe also, in part, inside?] the Catholic Church has arrived at. (11—my emphasis added)

However, Belloc acknowledges that, as of 1931:

The Christian scheme is still close enough even to the most Pagan of the New Pagans to be familiar, and the social atmosphere which is created still endures as a memory, or as a rejected experience, in their lives. The social atmosphere insisted on a number of restrictions. Of course, no society could exist in which there were not a great number of restrictions, but the restrictions imposed by Christian morals were severe and numerous, and most of them are meaningless to those who have abandoned Christian doctrine, because morals are the fruit of doctrine.

It is not only in sexual matters (the first that will be cited in this connection), but in canons of taste, in social conduct, traditional canons of beauty in verse, prose, or the plastic arts that there is outbreak [in the New Paganism]. The restriction and, therefore, the effort necessary for lucidity in prose, for scansion in poetry and, according to our tradition, for rhyme in most poetry—the restrictions imposed by reverence for age, for certain relationships such as those between parent and child, for the respect of property as a right—and all the rest of it are broken through. A licence in act and a necessarily more extended [and promiscuous] licence in speech are therefore the mark of the New Paganism. (16—my emphasis added)

A few pages later Belloc shows us, with vivid force, how the New Paganism considers moral responsibility and logicality and human reason:

It is true that the professors of this creed [of “Monism,” of “Fatalism” or of Evolutionary “Determinism”] are illogical; for no one gives louder vent to moral indignation than themselves, especially when they are denouncing the cruelties or ineptitudes of believers in moral responsibility, but then, as the denial of human reason is also a part of their creed, or, at any rate, the denial of its value as the instrument for the discovery of truth, they will not be seriously disturbed by the incongruity of their outbursts; for what is incongruous or illogical is not to them blameworthy or ridiculous—rather in their mouths does the word “logical” connote something absurd and empty. (18—my emphasis added)

Belloc will now comment on the overlapping interrelationship of religion and politics, and he criticizes an error that the moderns sometimes make, especially when considering the loyal Catholics:

And here I have…a quarrel with those moderns who will make of religion an individual thing (and no Catholic can evade the corporate quality of religion), telling us us that its object being personal holiness and the salvation of the individual soul, it [religion] can have no concern with politics. On the contrary, the concern of religion with politics is inevitable. Not that the Christian doctrine and ethic rejects any one of the three classic forms of government—democracy, aristocracy or monarchy, or any mixture of them—but it does reject certain features in society which are opposed to the Christian social products, and are opposed to them because they spring from a denial of free will. (21-22—my emphasis added)

Moreover, Belloc will continue to accent for us the importance of doctrine and its practical fruits:

The battle for the right doctrine [also in the Amazon now] in theology is always also a battle for the preservation of definite social things (institutions, habits) following from right doctrine; nor is there anything more contemptible intellectually than the attitude of those who imagine that because doctrine must be stated in abstract terms it therefore has no practical application nor any real fruit in the real world of real men. Contrariwise, difference in doctrine is at the root of all political and social differences; therefore is the struggle for or against, the most vital of struggles. (22—my emphasis added)

After this compact and profound summary of his courageous convictions and principles, Hilaire Belloc will gradually conclude his essay (22-26) by comparing and contrasting the New Paganism with Classic Paganism (sometimes called the Old Paganism):

But apart from these [earlier-examined] aspects of the New Paganism there is another which I confess I happen to feel myself closely concerned with. It is the connection between the New Paganism and that lure of the antique world, which is of such power over all generous minds, and especially upon those who are in love with beauty….

Yet this attraction [of created loveliness] of the antique [Pagan] world I conceive to be a dangerous decoy, leading us on to things very different from, and very much worse than, that classic Paganism from which we all descend. (22—my emphasis added)

After noting that “most modern people who fall into the New Paganism know nothing about the Paganism of antiquity” (23—emphasis added), Belloc goes on to specify his meaning:

There never was a time when educated men had a larger proportion among them ignorant of Latin and Greek [as of 1931], since first Greek was taught in the universities of Western Europe; and there was certainly never a time during the last two thousand years when the mass of people, the workers, were given less knowledge of the past and were less in sympathy with tradition.

None the less,….There is a general knowledge that men were once free from the burden of Christian duty, and a widespread belief that when men were free from it [Christian duty] life was [putatively] better because it was more rational and directed to things [“such as the health of the body and physical comforts and pleasant surroundings, and the rest”]….To direct life again to these objects, making man once more sufficient to himself and treating temporal good as the supreme good, is the note of the New Paganism.

Now what seems to me by far the most important thing to point out in this connection is that the underlying assumption in all this is false. The New Paganism [which is a “corruption”] differs, and must differ radically, from the Old [Paganism]; its consequences in human life will be quite different; presumably much worse, and increasingly worse. (23—my emphasis added)

But what are Belloc’s well-grounded reasons for having such a dark assessment of the processes and finality of the the New Paganism? (Let us, for now, remember the return downhill to the swamp after having once deeply experienced and resolutely rejected the Faith and Traditional Catholicism.)

Since Hilaire Belloc remains, on principle, resistantly attentive to a false synthesis of religions or to the formation of a hybrid religion (as is being done now in the Amazon Region, as it seems), he will offer his own set of reasons for firmly resisting the New Paganism on many fronts:

The reason of this [mark of difference] is that you cannot undo an experience. You cannot cut off a man or a society from their past, and the world of Christendom has had the experience of the Faith. When it moves away from the Faith to return to Paganism again it is not doing the same thing, not producing the same emotions, not passing through the same process, not suffering the same reactions, as the Old Paganism did, which was moving towards the Faith. It is one thing to go south from the Arctic towards the civilised parts of Europe; it is quite another thing to go north from the civilised parts of Europe to the Arctic. You are not merely returning to a place from which you started, you are going through a contrary series of emotions the whole time.

The New Paganism, should it ever become universal, or over whatever districts or societies it may become general, will never be what the Old Paganism was. It will be other, because it will be a corruption. (24—my emphasis added)

As he moves to a more specific presentation of his condign warnings and fuller admonitions, he sharpens the contrasts between the Old Paganism and the New Pagan manifestations:

The Old Paganism was profoundly traditional; indeed, it had no roots except in tradition. Deep reverence for its own past and for the wisdom of its ancestry and pride therein were the very soul of the Old Paganism; that is why it formed so solid a foundation on which to build the Catholic Church, though that is also why it offered so long and determined resistance to the growth of the Catholic Church. But the new Paganism has for its very essence contempt for tradition and contempt of ancestry. It respects perhaps nothing, but least of all does it respect the spirit of “Our fathers have told us.”

The Old Paganism worshipped human things, but the noblest human things, particularly reason and the sense of beauty….But the New Paganism despises reason, and boasts that it is attacking beauty. It presents with pride music that is discordant, building that is repellent, pictures that are a mere chaos, and it ridicules logical process, so that, as I have said, it has made of the very word “logical” a sort of sneer. (24-25—my emphasis added)

Now Belloc considers the openness to authority and the need for an alert perceptiveness:

The Old Paganism was of a sort that would be open, when due time came, to the authority of the Catholic Church. It had ears which at least would hear and eyes which at least would see; but the New Paganism, not only has closed its senses, but is atrophying them, so that it aims at a state in which there shall be no ears to hear and no eyes to see.

The one [the Old Paganism] was growing keener in its sight and its hearing; the other [the New Paganism] is declining towards a condition where the society it informs will be blind and deaf, even to the main natural pleasures of life and to temporal truths. It [i.e, such an atrophied, pagan-informed society] will be incapable of understanding what they [the pleasures and truths] are all about. (25—my emphasis )

One final contrast will prepare us for his last alert and warning:

The Old Paganism had a strong sense of the supernatural. This sense was often turned to the wrong objects and always to insufficient objects, but it was keen and unfailing; all the poetry of the Old Paganism, even when it despairs, has this sense. And you may read in those of its writers who actively opposed religion, such as Lucretius [especially in his lengthy epic poem, De Rerum Natura], a fine religious sense of dignity and order. The New Paganism [by contrast] delights in superficiality, and conceives that it is rid of the evil as well as the good in what it believes to have been superstitions and illusions [such a the traditional Catholic Faith and the Sacraments of the Church].

There it [the New Paganism] is wrong, and upon that note I will end. Men do not live long without gods; but when the gods of the New Paganism come they will not be merely insufficient, as were the the gods of Greece, nor merely false; they will be evil. One might put it in a sentence, and say that the New Paganism, foolishly expecting satisfaction, will fall, before it knows where it is, into Satanism. (25-26—my emphasis added)

CODA

Beware of superficial or syncretic, newly proposed “inculturations” and the sly use of both the Hegelian and the Marxist Dialectic, both of which deny the logical principle of non-contradiction. These recommendations apply not only to the current developments in the Amazon Region and Rome.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, 1931). Future references to this book will be to this first edition and, for convenience, be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this commentary.

Learning from the Early English Reformation 1531-1606

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                               6 August 2019

The Transfiguration

Epigraphs

“From these few representative instances [of “the propaganda of falsehood”], Catholics may perhaps better appreciate the very great handicap from which Protestants suffer when they come to consider the story of the Reformation in England. The surprise is not that so few come to the facts of it but that so many have had the pertinacity to unearth the truth, embedded under centuries-hard layers of propaganda, and, in finding it, have found also the courage to admit they have been cozened.” (Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (1957), page 31—my emphasis added).

***

“That [14th and 15th century variegated heretical] dualism…, in one form or another, may be described as the heresy against which the Church has had to struggle from its foundation until today [1957]. The essence of dualism, however the emphasis varies, is a denial of the reality of the Incarnation. By asserting the inherent wickedness of ‘matter,’ of ‘the flesh,’ it continues to separate what Christ united….It denies the first premiss of Christianity—that God became Flesh….It has flourished as the eternal and subtle enemy of the central Christian truth, with which no compromise is possible.” (Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (1957), pages 32-33—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added).

***

The legend [about Catholics as “rebellious, treacherous hypocrites with alien sympathies”—quoting the Elizabethan Act of 1593] still persists [as of 1957], for in spite of its demonstrable and demonstrated falsity, it is to this day repeated, taught, and officially insisted on in non-Catholic schools and universities. And it will die only when sufficient numbers of people come to realize what, in cold fact, the Reformation in England was—the imposition of a foreign religion to justify an economic revolution, set in motion by the lust of a bad Catholic king [“a simple conflict between loyalty and lust—and loyalty lost” (42)] who made himself and his successors the Spiritual Heads of a new State Church [“an Erastian State” (46)].” (Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (1957), pages 104-105—my emphasis added).

***

After just receiving an initial invitation to an upcoming autumn conference in Europe concerning “The French Revolution, 230 Years Later—A Critical Review,” I could not but wonder what my limited abilities could contribute to such a two-day gathering.

Although my French is very weak and incomplete, I first thought of presenting a few things on the French historian Augustin Cochin (d. 1916) and his seminal insights about the French Revolution and the influential power of certain forms of conflicting oligarchies.

For, Cochin’s writings have been found very worthwhile by such varied and deeply reflective men as François Furet, Arnaud de Lassus, James Burnham, and Igor Shafarevich. Cochin even understood what Léon de Poncins has called “civil wars within the revolution” and hence amongst its conflicting and contending oligarchs: concurrently engaged in both the “fast path” and “the slow path” of the revolution.

However, a prominent French traditional Catholic scholar and author—my beloved mentor Arnaud de Lassus—freshly provides for us, I think, a more fitting and much more manageable consideration. For, he himself belatedly came to see the importance of the earlier sixteenth-and-seventeenth century English Revolution, and especially its religious and political influence upon the French Revolution. For example, he once memorably said to me modestly and quietly in his home—just after he had finished reading Hugh Ross Williamson’s short and lucid 1957 book, The Beginning of the English Reformation1—that he had regrettably never, until then, realized just how important the English Revolution was in history, even for the better understanding of the French Revolution. He therefore inspired me to re-read, at least twice, my own 1957 copy of H.R. Williamson’s book. Each time I read it, I was gratefully to learn more and more about true history, instead of the specious “propaganda of falsehood.”

If I could now do so, as well, I would send a copy of that book to all of the conference attendees so that they might attentively read this incisive and fair-minded English-language book, and accomplish the reading before the fall conference itself begins. The progressive analogies and proportions of Williamson’s text will be a helpful searchlight to grasp the roots and purposes of the policies and methods and permanent targets of the incipient and maturing French Revolution. Williamson’s book would become for us a more convincingly formative and understandable work of research, one that is timely as well as timeless.

By considering the concrete life span of a seventy-five-year old man (1531-1606) with all of its tumultuous (and tragic) changes, Williamson again and again helps us to see and feel the scale and proportion of the losses to the Catholic faithful in England. His vivid supporting evidence and stories even frequently shake the heart. We again wonder about the mysteries of the Permissive Will of God Triune and Incarnate.

Given his fairness and integrity, Williamson (himself a Catholic) presents the weaknesses and corresponding vulnerability of the Tudor Catholics. For example, he says early in the book:

Thus, in England, the Protestant triumph was made possible by the failure of Tudor Catholics to fulfil their faith. Three sentences will serve as [an] epitome. Saint John Fisher said to his fellow bishops: “The fort is betrayed even of them which should have defended it.” Saint Thomas More described the English priests as “a weak clergy lacking grace constantly to stand to their learning.” And for the [Catholic] laity the Duke of Bedford may be spokesman when he [sacrilegiously] refused to return the plundered property of the Church but threw his Rosary into the fire saying that, much as he loved it, he loved his “sweet Abbey of Woburn” more.

The Reformation in England was made possible by the existence of fear, weakness and self-seeking in the very places, where, above all, one might have expected courage, strength and loyalty. No estimate of it which denies or minimizes this can pretend to accuracy. (6—my emphasis added)

From another perspective, Williamson also shows us a later passage about the reaction and public witness of the Tudor Catholics, in general:

So the prologue [to the deeper revolution] ended. The breach with Rome was effected….The lack of effective opposition to it—as was mentioned at the beginning of this essay—was due to the cowardice, self-interest and blindness of the Catholic hierarchy, clergy, and laity, in whose defense it can only be said that the issues, as presented to them, were technical rather than religious. “Religion,” in the sense in which the term is popularly used, was not in question, though, with [the artful heretic and prose master Thomas] Cranmer in command, the new Continental doctrines were soon to be brought in to buttress the new English Church the king [Henry VIII] had created and to justify the revolution now about to begin. (46-47—my emphasis added)

At this point it will be helpful to consider that, “doctrinally speaking” (37), there were “two distinct streams of heresy” (37), namely:

The older [stream], associated with the “Anabaptists,” attacked the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation (the Unitarians and the Quakers are the most logical of the “Anabaptists” of today) and was abhorrent equally to Catholicism and to “orthodox” Protestantism. The second [stream of heresy], embodying “advanced” Continental speculations, professed to keep the main Christian doctrines, but so interpreted them as to destroy their true meaning, and specifically denied beliefs, such as the invocation of saints and the existence of purgatory, which resulted in practices of piety and charity inconvenient to secular policy [and power!]. But the crucial issue of the Reformation in England was something apart from these. From the beginning it was and to this day for Anglicans [in 1957] it has remained the [Erastian] State’s jurisdiction over the Church in spiritual mattersthe substitution of the monarch for the Pope. (37—my emphasis added).

However, it had once been known and accepted in pre-Reformation England that “no temporal act can make a temporal man have spiritual jurisdiction.” (12) (We face such disputed matters today, as well, also the permanent difficulty about mixed and overlapping jurisdictions—“the Mixta.”)

Moreover, traditionally and abidingly it has been so that we give “a central position in the Christian faith to what is sometimes known as the Great Prayer of the Church, though more usually referred to as the Canon of the Mass.” (19—my emphasis added)

Williamson also shows us that the “The Great Pillage [of the Church institutions and property] …continued methodically and ruthlessly [the looting and plundering] from the winter of 1537 to the spring of 1540.” (55) Earlier, in 1535, the loyal uprising of the Pilgrimage of Grace took place, but it was met with destructive force, as foreign mercenaries were also later again to be regularly employed, as happened in 1549 against those who resisted the sudden infliction of Thomas Cranmer’s doctrinally skewed new Prayer Book, which was widely imposed on 9 June 1549—on Whitsunday:

The royal forces, five thousand strong, with a core of fifteen hundred mercenaries, veteran Italian infantry and German cavalry, finally defeated them [the uprisen peasants and others] outside of Exeter. “The killing was indiscriminate; 4000 were shot down or ridden down or hanged before the men of Devon would accept, without enthusiasm, the exquisite prose of Cranmer.” (69—my emphasis added) (These latter-quoted and slightly ironic, understated words were those of Hilaire Belloc himself, who also wrote an honorably fair-minded, lengthy book on Cranmer.)

During the brief reign (beginning in July of 1553) of Queen Mary Tudor (d. November of 1558), a well organized and financed migration to Continental Europe started in mid-1553:

The movement was financed by Protestant bankers and merchants, of whom forty eventually took part in the exodus, while in London, as early as the December of 1553, there was a directing committee of twenty-six persons of wealth and influence known as “Sustainers.” In charge of the [strategic] scheme abroad was [William] Cecil’s brother-in-law [and many others besides, including Protestant bishops!]. (78)

In so many ways—which we do not have space and faculties to consider now—the faithful Catholic Queen Regnant, Mary Tudor, was a truly tragic figure, even in her choice of close advisors when she was often so isolated herself. Williamson forcefully confirms that point when “the situation was beyond retrieving” (84), as he saw it:

The varied human vileness” is not too strong a description of Mary’s councillors. Several of them had been the very men who, in her father’s [Henry VIII’s] day, had trimmed their sails to his policies; of the laymen, nearly all had made fortunes out of the dissolution of the monasteries; even Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor, the best and most honest of them, had been an opponent of More and Fisher and had publicly upheld the supremacy of the State over the Church. (84—my emphasis added)

CODA

After the death of Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I’s reign then began, when she was only twenty-five, and she was to reign for forty-five years (1558-1603). She had a continuity of policy and of competent advisors (such as William Cecil and his son Robert) and she had much help from them in order to safeguard her own rule into the early seventeenth century.

If we were to have the sufficient qualities to do so, we should next promptly take a closer look at the continuation of the English Reformation into the ongoing Revolution throughout the entire seventeenth century, at least up to the effective deposition of the last Catholic (and Stuart ) King, James II, as part of the purported “Glorious Revolution.”

In this troubled seventeenth century we would certainly find even more influences upon what would become the secular-naturalistic Enlightenment and the acts of the French Revolution. We would thereby learn much more about overt and veiled oligarchies and the often unaccountable, but well organized, “money power.” As Arnaud de Lassus taught me, there were even keen conflicts in France between the financiers of the Girondins and the financiers of the Jacobins—an instance and example of those “civil wars within the Revolution.” Here, too, I have so much more to learn.

As we come to the end of our current reflections—and as we make a few further recommendations—we shall again recall the framework of seventy-five years (1531-1603) which Hugh Ross Williamson “took as defining the period of the Reformation—from the first guarded Oath of Supremacy in 1531 to the [quite specifically anti-Catholic] penal legislation imposing a sacramental test in 1606.” (95) This period ended three years after Elizabeth I’s grim, fearsome, and still haunting death.

But the English Revolution itself was to continue into, and throughout, the seventeenth century and afterwards. Scholars of the French Revolution will still find that further studies of the English Reformation and the complementary, ongoing English Revolution will provide a proportionate enhancement of our larger historical and theological understanding. (Montesquieu and Voltaire themselves seem likely and largely to have learned much from their English studies, experiences and time in England, although I do not yet know their specific personal and intellectual associations while receptively accepting British hospitality.)

Our own further research should certainly include our attentive reading of the French historian, Augustin Cochin, who as a young man was killed on the battlefield in World War I, in 1916. His writings, many of them posthumously published, show his deep and strategic understanding of small and well-organized philosophic groups (or societies). This matter constitutes part of his larger understanding of both open and concealed oligarchies, especially those who help to subvert the Catholic Faith and the traditional Catholic Church, especially the sacrificing, sacramental priesthood.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hugh Ross Williamson, The Beginning of the English Reformation (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1957). This very small book contains 103 pages of text, and then 7 pages of endnotes-references. The main contents are presented in three major sections: Introduction; The Course of the Revolution; and Epilogue: The Half-Century of Settlement. The Introduction (pp. 3-47) is subdivided, as follows: What It [The Reformation] Was; Why It is Misunderstood; The Existence of Heresy; and The Crucial Issue. Further page references to this book will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay.

Hilaire Belloc on Sailing and the Salt of Reality: The Cruise of the Nona (1925)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                   31 July 2019

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556)

Epigraphs

“Now at sea there is no advocacy. We are free from that most noisome form of falsehood, which corrupts the very inward of the soul. Truth is one of the great gifts of the sea. You cannot persuade yourself nor listen to the persuasion of another that the wind is not blowing when it is, or that a cabin with half of foot of water in it is dry, or that a dragging anchor holds. Everywhere the sea is a teacher of truth. I am not sure that the best thing I find in sailing is not this salt of reality. (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), page 323—my emphasis added.)

***

“It is with Torbay [on the Devon coast] as with the Fowey coast [in south Cornwall]. I have known it only under such weathers as leave a hint of heaven: never have I opened Torbay in passing Berry Head but it was morning, with the young sea delighting in a leading breeze; and once, a draught to last forever, I came up under such a dawn and with so tender a dying crescent in the sky that I spent an hour in Paradise.

“What are those days of glory? They are not memories: are they premonitions, or, are they visions?

“They are not memories, though perhaps Plato thought them so, and our modern pantheists…called and believed them so.

I will hope that they are premonitions, hints granted beforehand of a state to be attained. At the worst they are visions of such a state lying all about us, the home of the Blessed, which we are permitted to glimpse at for a moment, even those of us sad ones who may never reach that place.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), pages 160-161—my emphasis added.)

***

After receiving recurrent encouragement to do so, I have also now come to think that it would indeed be a worthy thing to do: namely, to frame and present some vivid and varied and unmistakably profound passages from Hilaire Belloc’s 1925 book The Cruise of the Nona.1 Moreover, it seems to me to be especially desirable to accent Belloc’s multiform passages on sailing and the salt of reality. For, considered together they also show his deep heart, and he himself often said that “it is during the sailing of the lonely sea that men most consider the nature of things.” (55)

Furthermore, his lengthy volume of almost 350 pages also contains a capacious and intimately challenging subtitle: The Story of a Cruise from Holyhead to the Wash, with Reflections and Judgments on Life and Letters, Men and Manners. Yet, surprisingly, this sustained overflowing, truly abundant book—written by an exuberant man in his fifty-fifth year of life—contains no index, nor any specific chapter-designations! Therefore, a keen reader of such a book might all too easily lose himself and not even be easily able to find once again those many inserted and refreshing expressions of wisdom and eloquence, and often of heart-rending poignancy which Belloc presents in passing and with a quiet implicitness. (The two above-quoted Epigraphs may well provide another hint to the reader of what Belloc will be willing to combine and to share with us with such candor and robust magnanimity—and with such unassuming and humbling modesty and with his frequent irony and humor.)

Let us now go directly to one of Belloc’s manifold and resonant passages to be found early in his maritime journey along the coast of Wales:

So we drifted down the narrow entry and out into the open sea [off Wales]; and all that afternoon, under a wind now slightly lifting, now falling again, we crept eastward and a little south, making more way as the sun declined, because the wind was shifting westward on to our quarter; and on that I was glad, for I desired to look into Port Madoc, which I had not seen since I was a child. I had vivid memories of it during a wonderful journey overshadowed by that air wherewith the Creator blesses childhood, lending to everything an active flavour of the divine; which is in three things, Clarity, Magnitude, and Multiplicity of strong emotion.

For the divine reveals itself in a special multiplicity, in an infinite variety. All that there is in colour and in music, and in line and in affection, and those added other raptures innumerable, such as we know not of nor can conceive—that is to be at last our beatitude: that is the fullness of being. In childhood our innocence permits us some little glimpse of such things; but with the passage of the years [if they are found to be without adequate Divine Grace] they are lost altogether. The light in the lantern goes out, and the living thing within us fails, and is stupefied, and dies….

If any man doubts the Fall of Man…let him consider this decay of heaven within ourselves as the maturity of our manhood develops. The more we are of this world and the more we know of it, the further we are drifting from the shores of the Blessed. (27-28—my emphasis added).

Shortly after this passage and his trying experience with the incompetent Welsh pilot (“a local trickster” (37)), we find Belloc now in a different spirit and he shows us other facets of his character and his nautical language:

Nona, cruising and voyaging Nona, wanderer over the seas of Britain, how in the solitude of your companionship my mind does lead me from one thing to another!….

The new day having come, we got the half-ebb [tide] a little before six o’clock, and threaded away down the Channel for the open sea.

I ought, I suppose, to have stopped in Port Madoc, and [to have] renewed the memories of my childhood. But a fig for the memories of my childhood, at six o’clock in the morning: at six o’clock of a May morning, and a nice little leading breeze, all cold a merry! The memories of childhood and the contemplation of the divine are for the evening; they go with candle-light, and with a wine I know, and with friends of twenty years. But, so help me He that made me, when I find the morning wind blowing well for the salt and myself freshly roused from a good sleep, I am full of nothing but the coming of the course and an eagerness for the line of the sea against the sky and the making of a further shore.

It ought to be more dangerous to float down on the ebb [tide] without a local trickster [like that dangerously feckless Welsh channel-and-harbour pilot bungling at night!], than to come up upon the flood [tide]. But fortune served, and the swirl of the ebb plainly marked the channel under that heartening [morning] light, with the glory of a new day shooting over the tops of the great and solemn mountains [of Wales] eastward, by the land.

Therefore, without misadventure, we came to the last marking buoy and took to the sea; running easily with the wind nearly aft, but a little on the port quarter, so that all was well. (37—my emphasis added)

We must not move on without first giving a little attention to Belloc’s reaction and commentary concerning that volunteer Welsh Pilot:

With the last of the light, and a westerly air which was but the suggestion of a breeze, we groped north anxiously for the opening to Port Madoc channel. How I should make it, even upon the flood [high tide], in the darkness, I knew not; for the sands [sand bars] there are miles wide, and this channel…shifts continually. But God sent me a pilot….

Nor was he a pilot, as the event shall show; but at any rate he belonged to that shore, and would have more knowledge that I. So I gave him the helm

The gliding [of the Nona] stopped; there was a slight thrill. She had hit Wales: an under-water, advance guard of Wales. The man at the helm was not apologetic, he was not humble, but he was at least subdued….I forbore to reproach him, not from kindness, but from cowardice….

To be coming thus into a very shoal fairway [the deeper channel], after dark, and to be in the hands of a pilot who was quite clearly one of God’s Three Great Welsh Fools—one of the triad, one of the Three Great Fools of Britain—was a strain to the temper, a strain to breaking point. It was no good my taking the tiller, for I had no idea of the channel, and only saw now and then, straining my eyes forward, a little blob on the darkness that would be a drum-headed buoy slowly drifting past as we lifted [off the sand bar] on the young flood [tide]. (31-32—my emphasis added)

Immediately after his delightfully humorous report and consequential detection of provocative folly, our beloved Belloc proceeds with an even deeper impish reflection, which is also full of irony:

I used to think that the irritation against fools was irrational and purposeless. Where it is written in Holy Writ [but done deftly and ironically so in Saint Paul himself!] that one should tolerate fools even with gladness, I thought that this was a general rule of conduct. But now I know it to be a counsel of perfection and, indeed, like so many things in the Old Testament, a counsel generally to be avoided. (33—my emphasis added)

The sustained artful charm of this rascal man is a fragrant enlivening balm. Do we agree?

Belloc also records with keen perceptions his meetings with two other men, one who seems to have been some kind of an exile, and the other was one who so generously supported all “sailormen” (123), and was especially now supporting the grateful Belloc himself.

After passing across Cardigan Bay, “a run of seventy-odd miles” (55), Belloc was first to meet a man, unnamed, who spoke “the most beautiful English” (55):

We let go the anchor, and, tying up our canvas [sails] in a very slovenly fashion, we hailed the shore and got a boat to come out, seeing that I had lost my own dinghy during the tempest in Bardsey Sound.

The man who came out to us in the boat hailed us as he approached in the most beautiful English….It was a privilege and an honour to be rowed to shore by such a man, for he was free of his conversation and all that he said was interesting, true, and well put….He asked us as we landed an astonishingly small payment for his services and then he promised to meet us again at a fixed hour to take us aboard [the Nona again]. In all things this man was worthy and a friend, for I could see in his eyes that he suffered exile. (55-56—my emphasis added)

Belloc’s second perceptive and very memorable encounter with a virtuous man began like this:

From the Cornish town [to the north] I had the next morning to make my way back to London; and Stephen Reynolds, whom I met, got her [the Nona] round the land safely to the ports upon the southern side [of the Cornwall peninsula, around Lands End, and perhaps beyond unto the likely larger port of Penzance], whence later I resumed this cruise2: Stephen Reynolds, that strongest-souled and most sincere of men, who desired and did good all his life. It is the meeting with such men, and the comparison of their public label with their true function, of their false renown or lack of renown with their certain standing in the eyes of their Maker, which lead all wise men to a perfect contempt for the modern world.

Does anyone remember him now of those who are reading this? Perhaps one or two, perhaps no one. He loved the poor: he understood the sea. He was a brother and a support to sailing-men, and he had charity, humility, and justice in equal poise. But the truth is, I take it, that our world is no longer fitted for governance by, nor even for advice from, its rare great men. It is fitted for governance by those who boast so exact an admixture of folly and of vice as makes them reasonably consonant with the stuff [or the mob] they have to govern. As for those who are too good for us, or too wise for us, why, the sooner they are out of it the better for them. And so it is the better with Reynolds….

But I wish that I could come across him again in this world, somewhere at the meeting of sea and land, and talk with him again about the schools of fishes, and the labours of those who seek them along our shores, and the souls of sailormen. (123 –my emphasis added)

Belloc was especially grateful, but also quite embarrassed by his likely failure after he, once again, had “sickened at the attempt” (124) out on the sea so as to turn “the point of Cornwall.” (124)

Later on, Belloc is given another bitter trial because of the crude and wrathful manners of a slick rich man at sea, and Belloc thus ironically finds some momentary (but quite impolite) relief by uttering himself a vividly imaginative and eloquent malediction (which we shall also aptly forgive):

What is less forgivable in the rich is their contempt for the usage of the sea, and their forgetfulness of its brotherhood….As with this man [“so rich that he must have stolen it…and his face purple with passion” (217)], his monstrous great ship soon steamed away down westward, and I sincerely hope that he struck that honest reef, the reef called Calvados, in a fog, making for Deauville [on the coast of France], and was drowned. (217—my emphasis added)

But Belloc was later to speak of an even greater trial, especially for his little boat:

I take it that there is no trial more trying in the sailing of a little craft than taking her through blinding weather at night inshore—whether that weather be blinding through feather-white slants of snow or through violence of sudden rain. (210—my emphasis added)

While we are absorbing and feeling such a situation ourselves, Belloc also intermittently presents us with another poignancy warmly remembered, and conveyed in his intimate personalizing of an inshore land formation, the Pillars of Old Harry and His Wife:

You are out of this main stream just before the ebb begins, and another, younger flood [tide] takes you up past Old Harry and toward Poole [a large seaport village on the Dorset coast].

Old Harry is an isolated chimney of chalk rock which still stands, expecting doom. He had a wife standing by him for centuries—a lesser (but no doubt nobler) pillar. She crashed some years ago and now he is alone. He cannot wish to remain so much longer, staring out to sea without companionship. I think he longs for his release. (207-208—my emphasis added)

Belloc will also teach us important things about truth, after first linking it to active sailing:

My [sailing] companion had never held a tiller, but he was very expert at all sports, and I thought to myself, “I will see whether so simple a thing as steering a boat [“at the fall of darkness”] cannot be easily accomplished by a man at the first trial. Then shall I be able to get whatever I badly need, which is a little sleep.”….I had given him his course [on the compass], and naturally, he had lifted [discovered] the light [on the horizon, the specific target and nautical marker] in good time. But he, for his part, could not get over it; he thought it a sort of miracle….that so clumsy a thing as a tiller and a rudder, and so coarse an instrument as an old battered binnacle compass, should thread the eye of a needle like that; it was out of all his experience….

That things should turn out so gave him quite a new conception of the sea and the sailing of it, and he talked henceforward as though it were his home.

This corroboration by experience of a truth emphatically told, but at first not believed, has a powerful effect upon the mind.

I suppose that of all the instruments of conviction it is the most powerful. It is an example of the fundamental doctrine that truth confirms truth….On this account, it is always worth while, I think, to hammer at truths which one knows to be important, even those which seem, to others, at their first statement mere nonsense….yet it is worth making, for the sake of the truth, to which we owe a sort of allegiance…because whenever we insist upon a truth we are witnessing to Almighty God. (47-49—my emphasis added)

And, as Hilaire Belloc repeatedly said throughout his writings: we must always loyally remember proper proportion, “that quality vital to truth, the sense of proportion.” (254—my emphasis added)

Here now we have some hearty Rabelaisian glimpses of Belloc’s earlier life of sailing and singing, as was mentioned in passing as he was then aboard the Nona and going south to Cornwall:

For we designed to beat in again after a few miles, and so make our way down Channel towards the Cornishmen. There was certainly quite enough wind: “All the wind there is,” as an old Irish sailor said to me once during an Atlantic gale so abominable that he and I could not walk against its icy, sleeting December fury, but had to crawl forward tugging along the rail by main force, all up the windward side….That was a passage worthy of remembrance….I learnt from a stoker two songs: one called “The Corn Beef Can,” and the other called “The Tom Cat.” They are of the great songs of this world. (107—my emphasis added)

Considering now how we may also fittingly present many other of Belloc’s insights, we shall sometimes shorten the presentations themselves as well as the framing context and background of his substantial thought and varied tonal words. See the following page-references of Belloc’s lengthy book for an elaboration of his own helpful verbal shorthands:

For example, “an hypothesis” is not to have the same standing as “a fact” (77); those like Belloc who are also “much alive to the mystery of things” (81) such as “the mystery of tides” (96); anchoring properly and courageously facing “all the wind there is” (107, 209).

We now more attentively present some additionally memorable sentences of Belloc:

“We met him with gratitude: he was of that very considerable class known as the Good Rich, with whom are the Penitent Thieves, the Reformed Drunkards, the Sane Professors, the Womanly Furies, and all other candidates for heaven.” (92)

“The Nona is like those women who are peevish and intolerable under all conditions of reasonable happiness, but come out magnificently in distress. I lie; for the Nona is never peevish and intolerable.” (109—my emphasis added)

It is no use to argue nor much use to command in the face of imbecility.” (110—emphasis )

“The Faith is an attitude of acceptance towards an external reality: it is not a mood.” (117)

Well, what will come out of that welter, that corruption into which the decomposition of the Christian culture is now dissolving? What I think will spring out of the filth is a new religion.” (122—my emphasis added)

Our only peace is doing God’s will; which includes going to pieces in the fifties, or sixties, or seventies, like an old disreputable, sodden, broken-down hulk [and sailboat] too long adventured upon the sea.” (186-187—my emphasis added)

“Poole harbour has traps within as well as this grinning trap of an entry, and the worst of these traps is the patchiness of the holding-ground [for anchors]. Unless you know where to drop anchor, you may be dragged in Poole, upwards, upon as fierce a tide as I know….But with all that, and although the Nona has caught fire there (the sea brings all adventures), Poole is a harbour that will always have good memories for me; and perhaps the Nona will go there at last to die.” (209—my emphasis added)

“And while they so thought [about the future] in terms of the only thing they knew, there had already arisen [in the 7th Century], in a place remote and utterly insignificant, among tribes of a few hundreds without power, culture, or tradition, under conditions utterly negligible, the flaming spirit of Islam.” (246—my emphasis added)

“It is in the irony of Providence that the more man comes to control the material world about him, the more does he lose control over the effects of his action; and it is when he is remaking the world most speedily that he knows least where he is driving.” (228—my emphasis added)

“For it is one of the glories of sailing that you are under the authority of the heavens, and must submit to the whole world of water and of air, of which you are a part, not making laws to yourself capriciously, but acting as servant or brother of universal things.” (293—my emphasis added)

“Once I spent the whole day drifting with the tide from the two Etaples Lights to the Dune, and very nearly all the way back, but even that did not persuade me to a motor, for, of all things abominable to God and His Saints, I know of nothing more abominable than machinery and petrol and the rest on board a little cruising boat. I would rather die of thirst, ten miles off the headlands in a brazen calm, having lost my dinghy in the previous storm [in Bardsey Sound], than to have on board what is monstrously called to-day an ‘auxiliary.’ The name is worthy of the thing. By auxiliaries the Roman army perished.” (296, 23, 55—my emphasis added)

“What gives me great pleasure in them [the “Channel Pilot” and the “West Coast Pilot”] is that they are also picturesque. The unknown authors let themselves out now and then, and write down charming little descriptive sentences praising the wooded heights above the sea, or sounding great notes of warning which have in them a reminiscence of the Odyssey. One paragraph I have put to memory, and often recite to myself with delight. It runs thus (after praising a particularly difficult passage or short cut behind a great reef of our coasts): ‘But the mariner will do well to avoid this passage at the approach of the turn of the tide; or if the wind be rising, or darkness falling upon the sea.’ I like this. If I could write Greek, I would write hexameters, translating that noble strain into the original of all seafaring language….” (305-306) It recalls Homer himself, whom Belloc cherished.

Turning to statements of any reality after a dose of advocacy [or a “the habit… of propaganda”] is like getting out into the fresh air from an intolerable froust [a stale and cramped and hot stuffiness, or congestion].” (323—my emphasis added)

So, too, is it with the freshness and spaciousness of Hilaire Belloc, a Catholic Homeric Sailor .

CODA

Now we shall fittingly see and hear some of sailor Hilaire Belloc’s final preparations for the coming home—with the salt of reality—to the last harbour of his beloved Nona:

A great full moon rose up out of the east, out of the seas of England, and the night was warm. There was a sort of holiness about the air. I was even glad that we had thus to lie outside under such a calm and softly radiant sky, with a few stars paling before their queen.

We slept under such benedictions, and in the morning woke to find a little air coming up from the south like a gift, and introduction to the last harbour. We gave the flood full time (for they do not open the gates, and cannot, till high water); then, setting only mainsail and jib, we heaved our anchor up for the last time, and moved at our pleasure majestically between the piers, and turned the loyal and wearied Nona towards the place of her repose. (327-328)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). All further references to the book will be from this text, and will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

2After his exquisite tribute to Reynolds, Belloc later openly said: “I confess to a complete ignorance of going round the land, that is, of turning the point of Cornwall, and of passing from the northern to the southern coast. Three times have I set out from Saint Ives [on the northern coast] with the firm intention of passing the Longships, and putting her round up-Channel. Never have I done so….Had I ever fallen so low as to put a motor into the Nona, she would have gone around like a bus or a taxi; but under sail alone it was forbidden me. Each of the three times I started with a light wind and was becalmed; and at the end of the each of those calms I drifted back so far upon the flood [tide] that I sickened of the attempt….That is why I sent the Nona round the land.” (123-124—my emphasis added) Was the Nona sent by sea, after all, or by a trailer and vehicle, instead? I do not know. The ambiguity has stumped me.

Hilaire Belloc’s The Cruise of the Nona (1925) and Elegiac “The Death of the Ship” (1931)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                  16 July 2019

Our Lady of Mount Carmel (1251)

The Day of Death of Hilaire Belloc (d.1953)

Epigraphs

Nona was an old-fashioned cutter of ten tons, that is to say some thirty feet long, slow, but reliable. Built in 1874, she had belonged to my father [Arthur, Lord Stanley of Alderley] for a few years when in 1914, being appointed to the Governorship of Victoria, he gave her to Belloc. The Cruise of the Nona was the result, for my father kept Nona at Holyhead [in Wales] when Belloc set out to bring her to his home waters of the Sussex shore.” (See the new 1955 Introduction—written by the Younger Lord Stanley of Alderley—to The Cruise of the Nona (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1956), page xxii—my emphasis added)

***

Indeed, I think that there stand out among all the boats of history, supreme, singular, incomparable to lesser things…two boats—Noah’s Ark and the Nona; and of these two, the Nona is the better ship. I judge this by the pictures of the ark I have seen upon match-boxes, which I take to be upon the whole our best text, though late and somewhat corrupt. Such a craft [the Ark] could not have been handled with any satisfaction. It has no gear, only a sort of deckhouse; but it is famous, and of such antiquity that it should be reveredfrom its time onwards there has been nothing but the Nona. You talk of the Ñina; of Columbus’s other ships [and many others besides]…But none of all these [other candidates numerously mentioned] ships is to be mentioned in the same breath as the Nona [i.e., “the chief boat of all the boats of the world” (309)].” (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925), page 309—my emphasis added)

***

 

In 1931, when he was sixty-one years of age, Hilaire Belloc published an elegiac but vividly affectionate essay entitled “The Death of the Ship” which was evocative of many of the adventures and misadventures he had had while sailing the Nona. Belloc’s plangent essay was published six years after his The Cruise of the Nona (1925), which was also close to being an intellectual autobiography in many ways, and it certainly provides a good background for understanding “The Death of the Ship.”1 For, “The Ship” alluded to is the Nona, and not to either of the other two sailing crafts that he had briefly owned: first, there was the Phya; and later, after the Nona could sail no more, came the further gift of his friends, the Jersey.

Two fitting passages from The Cruise of the Nona2—to be found in Belloc’s own extended (often playful) Dedication of his book to his beloved friend, Maurice Baringwill now also help us to appreciate more fully the later essay “The Death of the Ship.”

The first passage goes vividly (yet modestly) like this:

My Dear Maurice….How then should I approach this task which has been set me of writing down, in the years between fifty and sixty, some poor scraps of judgment and memory? I think I will give it the name of a Cruise; for it is in the hours when he is alone at the helm, steering his boat along the shores, that a man broods upon the past, and most deeply considers the nature of things. I think I will also call it by the name of my boat, the Nona, and give the whole book the title “The Cruise of the Nona,” for, in truth, the Nona has spent her years, which are much the same as mine (we are nearly of an age, the darling, but she a little younger, as is fitting), threading out of harbours, taking the mud, trying to make further harbours, failing to do so, getting in the way of more important vessels, giving way to them, taking the mud again, waiting to be floated off by the tide, anchoring in the fairway, getting cursed out of it, dragging anchor on shingle and slime, mistaking one light for another, rounding the wrong buoy, crashing into other people, and capsizing in dry harbours. It seemed to me, as I considered the many adventures and misadventures of my boat, that here was a good setting for the chance thoughts of one human life; since all that she [Nona] has done and all that a man does make up a string of happenings and thinkings, [often seemingly?] disconnected and without shape, meaningless, and yet full: which is Life. (iv, xii-xiii—my emphasis added)

Our Belloc, in a second passage, proceeds to express his further-refreshing analogies—or parallelsbetween the voyage of a soul and the sailing of a boat (especially when sailing in a boat without any engine aboard, not even a little motor in the auxiliary dinghy for a possible rescue!):

Indeed, the cruising of a boat here and there is very much what happens to the soul of a man in a larger way. We set out for places that we do not reach, or reach too late; and, on the way, there befall us all manner of things which we could never have awaited. We are granted great visions, we suffer intolerable tediums, we come to no end of the business, we are lonely out of sight of England, we make astonishing landfalls [from the sea]and the whole rigmarole leads us along nowhither, and yet is alive with discovery, emotion, adventure, peril, and repose.

On this account I have always thought that a man does well to take every chance day he can at sea in the narrow seas. I mean, a landsman like me should do so. For he will find at sea the full model of human life; that is, if he sails on this own and in a little craft suitable to the little stature of one man….But if he goes to sea in a small boat, dependent upon his own energy and skill, never achieving anything with that energy and skill save [except for] the perpetual repetition of calm and storm, danger undesired and somehow overcome, then he will be a poor man, and his voyage will be the parallel of the life of a poor man [indeed often like the modest Belloc himself]discomfort, dread, strong strain, a life all moving. What parallel I shall find in the action of boats for a man in the middle sort, neither rich nor poor, I cannot tell….At any rate, I am now off to sail the English seas again, and to pursue from thought to thought and from memory to memory such things as have occupied one human soul, and of these some will be of profit to one man and some to another, and most, I suppose, to none at all. (xiii-xiv—my emphasis added)

With the help of this larger background, we may now turn more attentively to Hilaire Belloc’s 1931 essay, “The Death of the Ship,” wherein we shall especially find the concurrent and permeating presence of affection and elegy. Without mentioning the name of Nona, his lady, he begins his tale of her death and intimately growing loyalty:

The other day there was a ship that died. It was my own ship, and in a way I would it had not died. But die it had to, for it was mortal, having been made in this world: to be accurate, at Bembridge, in the Isle of Wight, nearly sixty years ago. Moreover, since boats also must die, it is right that they should die their own death in their own element; not violently, but after due preparation; for, in spite of modern cowardice, it is better to be prepared for death than unprepared. (195—my emphasis added))

Anticipating some objections already, Belloc makes some polite distinctions while alluding to an enduring dispute made contentiously prominent also in Mediaeval Christendom:

They may tell me that a ship has no being at all; that a boat is not a person, but is only a congeries of planks and timbers and spars and things of that sort. But that is to open up the whole debate, undecided, branched out, inexhaustible, between realism and nominalism—on which I wish you joy. (195—my emphasis added)

Resuming his narration, now more personally and intimately so, he says:

She was my own boat, and I knew her very well, and I loved her with all my heart. I will offer you speculation on whether, now she has dissolved her being in this world of hers—which was sand and mud, salt water, wind and day and night and red and green lights, and harbours far away—she shall not be a complete boat again with all her youth upon her, in a paradise of boats. You may debate that at your leisure. (195-196—my emphasis added)

Making some analogies between the ageing of a man and the ageing of a sailboat, Belloc says:

She had been patched up for years past. So are men in their old age and their decay. As the years proceeded she had been more and more patched up. So are men more and more patched up as the years proceed. Yet all those who loved her tried to keep her going to the very last. So it is with men.

But my boat was happier than men in this, that no one desired her death. She had nothing to leave, except an excellent strong memory of days calm, days windy, days peerless, days terrific, days humorous, days empty in long flats without a breath of wind, days beckoning, principally in the early mornings, leading on her admirable shape, empress of harbours and of the narrow seas. Also, she had no enemies, and no one feared her. There was no one to say, as there is of men, “I shall be glad when they are out of the way.” There was no one to wish her that very evil wish which some men do other men—themselves evil: “I am glad to think that he is dead.”

No. My boat went most honourably to her death. She had nothing to repent, nothing to regret, nothing to fear, nothing to be the cause of shame. It is so with things inanimate, and, indeed, with animals. It is so with everything upon this earth, except man. (196—my emphasis added)

After another deserved tribute to the Nona“My boat was the best sea-boat that ever sailed upon the sea,” (196)Belloc tells us that:

Four men were happy on board her, five men she could carry, six men quarrelled. She did not sail very close to the wind, for she was of sound tradition and habit, the ninth of her family and perhaps the last. To put her too close [to the wind] was to try her, and she did not like it. But she would carry on admirably four points off [being in irons], and that is all you need in any boat, I think. She drew just over to just under 6 foot, according to the amount of human evil there was aboard her and of provision therefor. And she never, never failed.

She never failed to rise to a sea, she never failed to take the stiffest or most sudden gust. She had no moods or tantrums. She was a solid, planted thing. There will be no more like her. The model is broken. There was a day when I should have cared very much [for her vulnerable, patched up condition]. Now I am glad enough that she has gone down the dark way from which, they say, there is no return. For I should never have sailed her again. (197-198—my emphasis added)

Drawing us to consider more closely Nona’s designed and constructed seaworthiness, Belloc says:

He who had designed the lines of her approached the power of a creator, so perfect were they and so smooth and so exactly suited to the use of the sea….They made her to be married to the sea.

As to speed, I suppose she never in her life made nine full knots in one hour….I say I doubt if she every made nine knots in the hour, even on that famous day when she ran violently over-canvassed because she had jammed a block, roaring from the flats east of Griz Nez [i.e., Gris Nez in France, and across the English Channel] to the flats in Romney in just over three hours, not knowing whither she went, nor I either until the land was suddenly upon us—as suddenly as the land had left us when we first rushed out into the thick weather—and that, God help me! was more than a quarter of a century ago. (198—my emphasis added)

As we approach Belloc’s conclusion, he mentions some other memorable voyages or effective sprints with his seaworthy and reliable Lady Nona:

She once ran me from the same Torquay to the Solent in less time than it takes a man to betray his loyalties or to deny his God: or, at least, in less time than it takes to change his habits in the way of treason.

She once took me round from Dorsetshire to Cornwall [Penzance and Land’s End!] one summer night and with a wind off the land which was much too strong in passing Bolt Head; and she has taken me here and she has taken me there; and now we are to partif not for ever, at any rate for a good many weeks or months or years. Which things, I suppose, are inconsiderable to Eternity. No matter. We part. (199—emphasis added)

After this poignancy and somewhat unsuccessfully attempted detachment on his part, Hilaire Bellow will now become much more sincere, and even Homerically elegiac, in conclusion, for we might remember that Belloc often repeated Homer’s words from the Iliad spoken, unexpectedly, by the two observant, articulate, and compassionate Divine Horses: “Of all the creatures that move and breathe upon the earth, none is so full of sorrow as a man.” Remembering his cherished sailboat and their deep bond, Belloc will comparably now lead us to his own compassionate conclusion:

The patching up [of the Nona] had got more and more difficult. It had to be renewed more and more often. The expense was nothing. We will always pay for doctors when it is a matter of those we love. But off the Norman coast [of French Normandy] the other day she gave me that look which they give us before they leave us, and she started a plank [in the hull]. It was high time. Had she not been near the piers it might have gone hard with those on board. But she got through, though the channel was pouring in, and she reached the basin within, her cock-pit half full, and then lay upon the mud. And there she did what corresponds in man to dying. She ceased to be a boat for the purposes of a boat any longer. She was no-longer-patch-up-able. She had fulfilled her task. It was all over. She had taken to her repose.

Very soon she with hammer and wedge was dissolved into her original elements—all that was mortal of her—and the rest is on the seas of paradise. I wish I were there—already: now; at once: with her. (199-200—my emphasis added)

This Hilaire Belloc essay is not likely to be forgotten by anyone who—even oncewill have attentively savored its wholeheartedness and its sincere spontaneity and nuanced tones of language.

Belloc was always grateful and he was intimately faithful to the Nona, as he was long deeply loyal to his beloved wife Elodie (d. 2 February 1914)

On this anniversary of Hilaire Belloc’s own death in 1953, we still pray for his spiritual alacrity and for the repose of his vivid soul, and for his communion still with all whom he loved and all who loved him.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, “The Death of the Ship,” Chapter XXXII (pages 195-200) of Belloc’s Anthology, entitled A Conversation With A Cat and Others (London: Cassell and Company Limited, 1931). All future references to this Belloc essay will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this current commentary and essay.

2Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). The Dedication to Maurice Baring will be found on pages vii-xiv, and we shall only present Belloc’s words from pages xii, xiii, and xiv. All further reference to The Cruise of the Nona will be placed above in the main body of this essay, in parentheses.