Hilaire Belloc’s faith

On my mind yesterday, Hilaire Belloc who died on the Feast of Our Lady of Carmel in 1953. I don’t find him easy, not as accessible and subtle as GK Chesterton perhaps. Sentimental, conservative (a term that meant something different then), stubborn, arrogant, always certain he and  his Church were in the right. He was a pugnacious cigar-smoking hard-drinking Englishman of his generation and yet at odds with other Englishmen, a defender of the Faith all his life, a lone fighter of old battles.


But there are passages in his The Path to Rome that move me even after 25 years of reading him. I’m glad he didn’t live to see Vatican II because the loss of the ancient liturgies and traditional Latin Mass would have pained him  even if he might have glimpsed a new global vision somewhere in the changes of the 1960s. Which I doubt he would have considered to have any merit at all, because his deeply Catholic Europe remained always the  countryside through which he tramped in 1890, long before modernity or the horrors of WWI had  altered it. He writes about his journey and something that sounds very much like a conversion or reconversion  to a greater spirit of Catholicism and I wish he had been more autobiographical:


As I was watching that stream against those old stones, my cigar being now half smoked, a bell began tolling, and it seemed as if the whole village were pouring into the church. At this I was very much surprised, not having been used at any time of my life to the unanimous devotion of an entire population, but having always thought of the Faith as something fighting odds, and having seen unanimity only in places where some sham religion or other glozed over our tragedies and excused our sins. Certainly to see all the men, women, and children of a place taking Catholicism for granted was a new sight, and so I put my cigar carefully down under a stone on the top of the wall and went in with them. I then saw that what they were at was vespers.

All the village sang, knowing the psalms very well, and I noticed that their Latin was nearer German than French; but what was most pleasing of all was to hear from all the men and women together that very noble good-night and salutation to God which begins–

Te, lucis ante terminum.

My whole mind was taken up and transfigured by this collective act, and I saw for a moment the Catholic Church quite plain, and I remembered Europe, and the centuries. Then there left me altogether that attitude of difficulty and combat which, for us others, is always associated with the Faith. The cities dwindled in my imagination, and I took less heed of the modern noise. I went out with them into the clear evening and the cool. I found my cigar and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief.


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