This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Joseph Pearce looks at Hilaire Belloc and his theology of place.
Hilaire Belloc wrote on literally anything and everything, ‘literally’ being meant quite literally. His book On Anything, published in 1910, had been preceded the previous year by his book On Everything. He also published On Nothing in 1908 and On Something in 1910. Then, in 1923, he took the omnivorous whimsy to its utmost conclusion, publishing On. Such volumes display Belloc’s versatility as an essayist, illustrating not only the many facets of his Catholicism but also his catholicity of taste on anything, everything and, most beguilingly, on nothing in particular. Thus, for instance, he writes “On the Pleasure of Taking Up One’s Pen,” “On Ignorance,” “On Tea,” “On Them,” “On Death,” “On Experience,” “On Sacramental Things,” “On Song,” “On the Rights of Property,” “On Old Towns,” and, appropriately enough at the conclusion of one of the volumes, “On Coming to an End.” In the pages of these meandering miscellanies one discovers more about Belloc the man than is discernible in any of his other works except for those hauntingly personal pilgrimages of the soul, The Path to Rome (1902), The Four Men (1912) and The Cruise of the Nona (1925), in which the author waxes wistful and whimsical on the first things, the permanent things, and in general on the things (and the Thing) that give meaning to, and make sense of, anything and everything else.
These three “pilgrimages,” taken together, might be dubbed “travel-farragoes,” a distinct literary genre in which Belloc excelled. They are, at one and the same time, both travelogues and farragoes: linear narratives connected to a journey interspersed with seemingly random anecdotal musings on anything and everything. The overriding structure of each of these three works is, therefore, animated by the creative tension between the forward momentum maintained by the author’s account of his pilgrimage and the inertial force of the tangential interruptions. As such, Belloc’s travel farragoes are not for those who are in a hurry but for those who wish to saunter with the author in the leisurely pursuit of those things that are worth pursuing at leisure; and those things worth pursuing at leisure are, of course, the very things that are worth spending our whole lives getting to know better.
Although The Path to Rome was, according to Belloc’s own appraisal, the best book he ever wrote, there is little doubt that The Four Men warrants a place of distinction as one of the finest works of this finest of writers. Although it was not published until 1912, Belloc seems to have embarked on it as early as 1907, originally planning to call it The County of Sussex. In 1909 he told Maurice Baring that it would describe “myself and three other characters walking through the county; the other characters are really supernatural beings, a poet, a sailor and Grizzlebeard…they only turn out to be supernatural beings when we get to the town of Liss, which is just over the Hampshire border.”1 In The Four Men, therefore, Belloc provides a metaphorical and therefore metaphysical path through Sussex to accompany his earlier path to Rome.
The Path to Rome and The Four Men are pilgrimages conveying a soul’s love for the soil of its native land, which in the former case is the macrocosmic “Europe of the Faith” in which Belloc was raised and in the latter case is the microcosmic Shire in which he was also raised. Home, like Rome, is a “holy place” and The Four Men is full of spiritual premonitions of “the character of enduring things” amid the decay of time:
…it has been proved in the life of every man that though his loves are human, and therefore changeable, yet in proportion as he attaches them to things unchangeable, so they mature and broaden.
On this account…does a man love an old house, which was his father’s, and on this account does a man come to love with all his heart, that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it
changes, it changes very little, and he finds in it the character of enduring things….
And as a man will paint with a peculiar passion a face which he is only permitted to see for a little time, so will one passionately set down one’s own horizon and one’s fields before they are forgotten and have become a different thing. Therefore it is that I have put down in writing what happened to me now so many years ago, when I met first one man and then another, and we four bound ourselves together and walked through all your land, Sussex, from end to end. For many years I have meant to write it down and have not; nor would I write it down now, or issue the book at all, Sussex, did I not know that you, who must like all created things decay, might with the rest of us be very near your ending. For I know very well in my mind that a day will come when the holy place shall perish and all the people of it and never more be what they were. But before that day comes, Sussex, may your earth cover me, and may some loudvoiced priest from Arundel, or Grinstead, or Crawley, or Storrington, but best of all from home, have sung Do Mi Fa Sol above my bones.2
One is struck upon reading these wistfully eloquent words from the preface to The Four Men with their similarity to the preface to The Path to Rome, published ten years earlier. Belloc began the earlier book by recounting an unexpected encounter with the valley of his birth, conveying his pleasant surprise that “the old tumble-down and gaping church” that he had loved in his youth had been renovated so that it appeared “noble and new.” This pleased him “as much as though a fortune had been left to us all; for one’s native place is the shell of one’s soul, and one’s church is the kernel of that nut.” In both books, therefore, Belloc lays the foundations of what might be termed the “theology of place” from the very outset. This concept, which can be said to be truly at the heart of Belloc’s work, is quintessentially incarnational. A sense of “place” is linked to the love of home, and the love of home is itself salted by the home’s temporary absence or unattainability. Paradoxically it is the sense of exile that gives the love of home its intensity and its power. The theology of place is therefore rooted in the earth and yet reaches to heaven. It is expressed most sublimely in the Salve Regina, in which the “poor banished children of Eve,” lost in
“…for one’s native place is the shell of one’s soul, and one’s church is the kernel of that nut.”
“this vale of tears,” hope that, “after this our exile,” we might behold the Blessed Fruit of our Mother’s womb, Jesus. Heaven is our haven, Jesus is our home. And where Jesus is at home, in his Mother’s arms and in her womb, we shall be at home also. One’s earthly home, or “native place,” is “the shell of one’s soul” because it is an incarnated inkling of the home for which we are made and toward which we are mystically directed. It is for that reason that “one’s church is the kernel of that nut.”
Nowhere has Belloc encapsulated the theology of place better than in a letter to E.S.P. Haynes on November 8, 1923:
The Faith, the Catholic Church, is discovered, is recognized, triumphantly enters reality like a landfall at sea which at first was thought a cloud. The nearer it is seen, the more is it real, the less imaginary: the more direct and external its voice, the more indubitable its representative character, its ‘persona,’ its voice. The metaphor is not that men fall in love with it: the metaphor is that they discover home. ‘This was what I sought. This was my need.’ It is the very mould of the mind, the matrix to which corresponds in every outline the outcast and unprotected contours of the soul. It is Verlaine’s ‘Oh! Rome — oh! Mere!” And that not only to those who had it in childhood and have returned, but much more — and what a proof! — to those who come upon it from over the hills of life and say to themselves
‘Here is the town.’4
“The metaphor is not that men fall in love with it: the metaphor is that they discover home.” The Church, the Faith, is Home, and lest we forget the Catholic ecclesiology which informs the metaphor, let’s remind ourselves that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church is “home” because Christ is “home.” This understanding of the spiritual significance of “home,” this theology of place, is such a recurrent theme in Belloc’s work that it could be said to be almost omnipresent. Few writers have felt so intensely the sense of exile, and hence the love of home, to the degree to which it is invoked by Belloc. From the love of Sussex at the heart of The Four Men and in poems such as “Ha’nacker Mill” or “The South Country,” to the love of Europe in general, and France in particular, evoked in The Path to Rome and in poems such as “Tarantella,” his work resonates with the love of earth as a foreshadowing of the love of heaven. It is in this soil-soul nexus that the nub of Belloc’s profundity is to be discovered. It manifests itself in the tension between permanence and mutability, and finds infectious expression in the perfect balance between wistfulness and whimsy. These qualities are to be found in all of Belloc’s work, as expressions of the very spirit of the man himself, which is why all of his books deserve to be read and re-read by all who hunger for the “enduring things” in an age of deplorable change.
Joseph Pearce is the author of Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (TAN Books) and Small is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered (ISI Books).
Hilaire Belloc to Maurice Baring, 4 December 1909; quoted in
Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc, New York: Books for
Libraries Press, 1970, p. 325
From Belloc’s Preface to The Four Men
To the pedant we will concede that The Path to Rome does not have a preface that is named as such but the prefatory section preceding the text, entitled “Praise of this Book,” is indubitably a preface in all but name.
Hilaire Belloc to E. S. P. Haynes, November 8, 1923; quoted in Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc, Freeport, New York:
Books for Libraries Press, 1970, p. 377.