Contribution Of Catholic Letters

(This is the paper written in preparation for a talk given at the 2005 St. Benedict Center Conference.)

(Saint Anthony Mary Zaccharia, July 5, 2005)

The Contribution Of Catholic Letters To The Conversion Of Our Country

A deepening, savored knowledge of the nature and scope of Catholic Letters will inspire and fortify those of the Catholic Faith to share its more abundant life and rootedly radiant generosity with their countrymen, and also the growing immigrants, unto their true conversion to the Faith. The long, articulate tradition of this Catholic literature – vivid non-fiction as well as fiction – throughout the several centuries and various cultures of the Faith and the once-existing public order of Christendom, will also, if we form ourselves fully to partake of it, increase our gratitude.

This gratitude, moreover, will prompt us to be more capaciously and selflessly generous and self-sacrificing for the greater good – the greater supernatural common good (Bonum Commune) – of others, their sanctification and salvation,  in fidelity to Christ. For, one cannot be grateful without also being humble. When one acknowledges himself to be the recipient of a gift, and especially of great gifts which are both precious and indispensable, and which one has not deserved or merited, one „makes oneself small“ in his grateful joy. Gratitude is a gracious school for humility.

G. K. Chesterton, who was himself a Catholic Man of Letters, memorably said, moreover, that „the test of all happiness is gratitude“ and „your world would be a lot larger, if you were smaller in it.“ And, with the help of such Catholic Letters and Literature, we may also help to make that world larger for others, unto their more abundant life, both here and in Beatitude.

When we come to look upon others as our potential companions in Beatitude, grateful recipients of the gift of Vita Aeterna, our own life and world become, at once, much larger. This is true even when we are in the midst of our many wars and struggles for power today – especially the pervasive subversion and intimate psycho-cultural warfare against the Faith and the often seductive revolts against the true authority and integrity of the Church. For, how does one prudently combat the corruptions of authority without thereby subverting the principle of authority – and to do it with fortitude and gratitude and radiant „battle joy“?

The intimate assimilation and nourishment of Catholic Letters will, I believe, sustain in us that „battle joy“ and deepen our wisdom, too, for the fuller exercise of our pratical lives of charity – selfless love – upon which we shall all be finally judged.

The traditional prose genres of ancient Greek and Roman literature were: philosophy, history (and biography), and oratory (political, legal, and ceremonial). The traditional genres of ancient verse were: epic (narrative verse), drama (especially tragedy, but also comedy), and lyric (shorter, more intimately personal verse, but also the elevated verse of the ode). However, there were also other categories of Letters, to include travel literature and geography, autobiography and personal letters (to include verse epistles), and lighter, playful comic verse and varied satire. Such stable types of literature also continued in the growth and fullness of Catholic culture and civilization, and new genres also emerged, to include sermons and apologetics and saints’ lives (hagiography) and liturgical poetry (sequences and the like) – and a wide variety of theological literature and vivid historical and satirical novels; and theological interpretations of history and culture and strategic warfare, in the longer light of history. This includes richly diverse, both formal and informal, essays on the life of the Faith, and on the history and challenge of Islam and of all of the Christian Heresies.

Given the inimitable versatility, for example, of Hilaire Belloc, let us consider the scope and variety of the genres in which this great Catholic Man of Letters wrote. Let me illustrate. How does one even categorize, much less adequately describe, his The Path to Rome (1902), The Cruise of the Nona (1925), The Mercy of Allah (1922), Survivals and New Arrivals (1929), Esto Perpetua (1906), Hills and the Sea (1906), The Servile State (1912), The Road (1923), Belinda (1928), The Four Men (1912), Towns of Destiny (1927), The Great Heresies (1938), The Crisis of Our Civilization (1937), Europe and the Faith (1920), The Campaign of 1812 and the Retreat from Moscow (1924), The Battle Ground (1936), The Jews (1922), and The Complete Verse of Hilaire Belloc (1954, 1970 – to include „The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts,“ „An Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine,“ and „The Song of the Pelagian Heresy“)? His combinations and variations of writing are nearly indescribable but all full of vitality where „the font of joy within never yet went dry“ (his own words). He was a Christian soldier, a man of gracious chivalry, who also matured and mellowed into spiritual childhood – a task, a mission for us all.

Before we examine more closely some representative examples of Hilaire Belloc’s profound Catholic writings, we shall consider the lucid insights of two other men who also had a „detestation of humbug“ (Belloc’s words) and an appetite for reality and thus a differenciated sensitivity to language, both as a vehicle to reveal, and all too often to conceal, reality. Both men, Evelyn Waugh and James Burnham, eventually converted to the Faith, one of them only near the end of his life.

A younger British contemporary and admirer of Belloc was Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), whose insights will also aid us to appreciate „the sacramental visibility“ which is to be found in good and consciously Catholic literature, as is the case in all of the genres of Hilaire Belloc.

In 1960, Evelyn Waugh wrote that his historical novel, Brideshead Revisted, had as its theme „the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters.“[1] Although this work of fiction was set in the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote it during World War II (between December 1943 and June 1944), while recovering from a minor injury incurred when parachuting as a British commando officer. (He himself had been received into the Catholic Church in 1930.)  His experience of the war, especially in the Balkans, also made itself expressed in his historical novel, which was first published in 1945.

Waugh also noted in his 1960 Preface to the second and slightly (but importantly) revised edition of Brideshead Revisted that „This novel … lost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries.“[2] For his contemporaries had come to realize that he was, not just an acute and eloquent satirist, but also a profound Catholic – and who thus believed in the intimate reality and indispensablity of Grace for a true life and an ever-fuller life in time and eternity.

Five years after Brideshead Revisted was first published, Waugh published another historical novel, Helena (1950), set in the late-third and early-fourth centuries after Christ and depicting the life of Emperor Constantine’s mother, the future Saint Helena. She it was who was blessed to have found in the Holy Land the true Cross of Christ, and Waugh vividly depicts the events and her interior, as well as exterior life which finally lead sub gratia to the Inventio Crucis – „the Discovery,“ as distinct from the dishonorably counterfeit „Invention,“ of the True Cross. Waugh also depicts the operations of „power without grace“ (Helena’s own words to her troubled son) and the various struggles for power within the Roman Empire of the time. Waugh unforgettably presents the activities of Emperor Diocletian’s „foetid termitary of power“ in vivid contrast to Helena’s growing life of grace.

Such Catholic „sacramental literature“ — here in the form of the historical novel, like Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi), which was set in the seventeenth century during the Thirty Years War of Religion (1618-1648) – vividly mediates to our receptive senses and answering soul the reality of grace, often in sharp constrast to the struggle for „power without grace.“

James Burnham’s 1947 book The Struggle for the World – a work of non-fiction – depicts such „power without grace“ and the preliminary phases of „the Third World War,“ which he believed to have begun in April 1944 and which was later misleadingly called „the Cold War.“ This „camouflaged, subversive war“ (in the words of B. H. Liddell Hart) was another kind of temporal struggle, as Burnham understood it, for „World Empire,“ and now with the additional danger of atomic and biological weapons.

In his lucid, analytical book,  Burnham, himself an American (and former Rhodes Scholar), says:

The attempt at World Empire will be made, and is, in fact, the objective of the Third World War, which in its preliminary stages, has already begun. It should not require argument to state that the present candidates [as of 1947] for leadership in the World Empire are only two: the Soviet Union and the United States.[3]

As Evelyn Waugh’s contemporary (born in 1905, two years after Waugh), James Burnham understood, from within, the dialectical system of communism and its deceptions and dedicatedly brutal struggles for power: „Power without Grace.“ For, he had been once a Trotskyite himself, but had broken with communism some eight years before his 1947 strategic analysis of world politics and temporal power. Burnham had not yet returned to the Catholic Faith in which he was raised, although he would do so, in God’s mercy, near the end of his life, which came in 1987. However, what Burnham wrote forty years before his death has much still to tell us about our current Catholic situation and about the realities of the new struggles today for temporal power, especially by Islam and strategically organzied Judaism and Zionism. For, he wrote always with trenchancy and lucidity about the ruses and groping struggles of our fallen human nature, especially in the international political order. What Burnham often shows, without any sentimentality, is the pervasive struggle for „power without grace“ in the new forms of „the foetid termitary of power“ (Waugh’s own words).

Burnham, too, like Evelyn Waugh and Hilaire Belloc (as we shall soon see), was attentive both to language and to reality, and he did not want language to block or obscure our access to reality. In his chapter on the dialectical system of communism, he says:

The most common source of errors abut the nature of social and political movements is the idea that the words used by adherents of the movements, in alleged explanation of their aims and activities, can be taken at face value. The words are not unimportant, and sometimes they tell the truth. More frequently, however, their function has nothing to do with the truth, but is to express, as a kind of poetry, hidden sentiments, hopes and confusions. The words used publicly by communists about themselves and what they do are particularly misleading, because deliberate deception of others, as well as the normal unconscious self-deception, are an integral part of communism.[4]

Therefore, he adds, „toward all words we must take the attitude: false, until proven true.“[5] So, too, today with Judaism and Zionism and Islam, it would seem. As to the reality of communism (hence „Jewish Bolshevism“)  itself, Burnham acutely says:

On the basis, then, of the full evidence, communism may be summarily defined as a world-wide, conspiratorial movement for the conquest of a monopoly of power in the era of capitalist decline. Politically it is based upon terror and mass deception; economically it is, or at least tends to be, collectivist; socially it is totalitarian. Every word in this definition is meant in the strictest sense [and, he then proceeds „to elaborate its content“].[6]

The Catholic Hilaire Belloc also knew, like the former Trotskyite James Burnham, but with a Catholic strategic purposiveness, that, in Burnham’s own words,

In general it is a law of politics [“since politics is nothing but the struggle for power” — to include ecclesiastical politics today and its interior struggles for power and influence] that a small minority, tightly organized and disciplined, knowing in advance what it wants and planning consciously how to get it, has far greater weight than loose, amorphous majorities.[7]

This is as true today as it was in 1947, and earlier, when Catholics were especially concerned with the strategic operations, deceptions, and subversions of Soviet-based Bolshevik cadres. Today it is true of the strategic political action of organized Jewish forces and of the networked cadres of militant Islam, as well as of the subversive heretics and syncretists (or „false ecumenists“) within the Church.

In fact, a Catholic today would be deeply fortified, enlarged, and enriched, not only by partaking in the varied plenitude of Catholic Letters (as in the case of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, who even wrote an essay „On Pigs as Pets,“ which is so full of insight, as well as charm!), but also by reading a strategic mind like James Burnham, who has deeply understood „The War We Are In.“ For example, if one were today to read his above-cited 1947 book and substitute for his word, „communism,“ either „Judaism and Zionism“ or „Islam,“ one would have an elucidating framework full of deep insights about the current kinds of war we are in – to include the sophistries and seductions of its „dialectical logic“ and bloviations about „freedom“ and „messianic democracy“ and all that.

Before considering Hilaire Belloc as an especially representative Catholic Man of Letters and inspiring example for us all, let us consider a few more, framing insights from James Burnham himself. For, he was such a sober analyst of the reality of power – especially the reality of power in the temporal and secular mode, to include political and military struggles in war, as we see it mounting again today. Like Trotsky, Burnham implicitly knew that, even if we aren’t interested in war, war is very interested in us!

Burnham also knew that „a shift in political rhetoric“ was not the same as a shift „in political reality.“[8] He also said that „No law of foreign policy is better founded than this: that there is no use talking tough unless you are ready to act tough,“[9] but that „It is quite false to believe that, in politics, all issues can be compromised,“[10] although „In politics, as in marriage, it is always wise to concede every thing, except essentials.“[11] Moreover, he says, „Wise politics is occupied with the realities of power“[12] And „Whatever the words, it is well to know the reality.“[13] Thus, „What is chiefly needed is merely to call things by their right name,“[14] so that language may be used, not to conceal, but to reveal reality.

(In this context, too, it should be argued that a properly disciplined and carefully cultivated study of Catholic Letters in their fullness would persistently and fundamentally combat all Sophistry, which itself (as a permanent temptation of the human mind) constitutes a twofold corruption: namely, it corrupts the mind’s access to reality and it corrupts the communication of that reality to another, to another person or persons. Christ’s important „Parable of the Sower“ taught us about the cultivation of the soul as well as the cultivation of the soil.)

James Burnham, too, strives, in his own special mode, to combat all Sophistry – or Fakery, Humbug  – wherever and whenever he encounters it. (He often says: „I am concerned with realities, not with words“[15] or „if we judge by facts, not by wishes [or dreams]“[16] or „No wish or thought of ours can charm this issue away.“[17]) Therefore, his sober, historically based, strategic insights will help Catholics assess, at least by way of sound analogy, their true situation today and „the structure of social facts“[18] which may block as well as aid their strategic missionary efforts for the Catholic conversion of our country.

Therefore, in his profound and far-sighted and lucidly written 1947 book, The Struggle for the World, about the realities of secular or temporal power – especially the strategic realities of organized Communist power in the already begun Third World War – James Burnham says the following about the vulnerable precariousness of East Asia and South Asia during „the postlude to the Second World War“:

For my part, I am inclined to doubt these prophecies about China (or India), in the form they are usually given [namely that, „by building up … China …, the United States would be creating a rival which in the future, with its vast resources of manpower, would crush its American sponsor“]. It is forgotten that China and India belong to entirely different civilizations from that of the West. Though they may accept, or have forced upon them, the mechanical surface of the West, with its appliances and some of its material conveniences, the current of their independant cultural life it too deep, I think, to be absorbed by the Western tide. If China or India [or Islam], in some future, conquers the world, it will not be because they, having become Western, turn to destroy the West. It will more probably be because Western Civilization has collapsed from within. China or India or Islam might be called to act as receiver for the Western bankrupt [i.e., taking our property or funds into custody for the purpose of more effective administration].[19]

It is now almost sixty years since those words were written and we of the Catholic Faith and culture are likely involved in a new and probably protracted Fourth World War with a more religious opponent than was Communism or even Jewish Bolshevism.

To what extent, we may poignantly and trenchantly ask, is „the current of [Catholic] independant cultural life“ today in America „too deep … to be absorbed by the Western tide“ of militant secularism or false ecumenism and disintegrative syncretism? Or by the Islamic tide itself? These counter-movements to the Faith and its traditional culture would also include the further Judaization of our culture, with the political help of Protestant Christian Zionism. Moreover, from a certain perspective – that of theology – Islam itself may be seen as both a Jewish heresy and a Christian heresy, at least in its origins and before it sequentially recruited and effectively absorbed various warrior cultures – Berber, Mongol, Seljuk and Ottoman Turk, for example – to become a new and „global“ religion itself.

It is at least fair to say that we of the Catholic Faith – and not just in America – are enmeshed in a long-range cultural and religious war, which includes „the hot reality“ of Islamic power and organized Jewish power.

Catholics would therefore derive profound and helpful strategic and cultural insights into reality if they would not only read, in our current context of war and struggle, James Burnham’s The Struggle for the World, but also Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, which was published by Princeton University Press recently, in late 2004.[20] The combination of counterpointing insights from these two candid books would inspire sincere Catholics to be more strategic and intelligent in their understanding of real power and the struggle for influential and „re-orienting“ cultural power (which is not always „soft power“).

In the light of Slezkine’s own emphasis upon an energetic Jewish predominance in the early Bolshevik and later Soviet struggle for a monopoly of world power – to include in the secret service apparatus and in the management of the Gulag system – one may discerningly read – or re-read – Burnham’s own strategic-minded book with new insights into our current political and cultural reality. Wherever Burnham uses the concept „communist power,“ the attentive and reflective reader could usefully substitue „Jewish power,“ or „Zionist power“ (both Jewish and Christian Zionism), and sometimes even „Islamic power.“ Aided by this comparative and reciprocally clarifying study, faithful Roman Catholics may better understand the deeper meaning of certain current struggles and subtle forms of warfare. That is to say, the deeper spiritual, as well as political and geo-cultural, meaning of these pressing events, which go to the heart of life and the challenging purpose of our life here „during our short time through the daylight“ (H. Belloc).

Let me illustrate.

At the end of Part I of his book, entitled „The Problem,“[21] James Burnham says:

In the world [of 1947] there are only two power centers adequate to make a serious attempt to meet this challenge [namely the United States and the Soviet-based „Communist Empire,“ the latter of which was then clearly attempting „to organize world dominion“]. The simultaneous existence of these two centers [of power], and only these two, introduces into world political relationships an intolerable disequilibrium. The whole problem [and „challenge“] is made incomparably sharper and more immediate by the discovery of atomic weapons, and by the race between the two power centers for atomic supremacy…[22]

One of the two power centers [the United States] is itself a child, a border area, of Western Civilization. For this reason, the United States, crude, awkward, semi-barbarian, nevertheless enters this irreconcilable conflict as the representative of Western culture [Burnham’s first Chapter is explicitly entitled „The Immaturity of the United States.“]. The other center [The Soviet-based Communist Empire with its „Strategic Base“ in the geographical „Heartland of Eurasia“], though it has already [as of 1947] subdued great areas and populations of the West, and though it has adapted for its own use many technological and organizational devices of the West, is alien to the West in origin and fundamental nature. Its victory would, therefore, signify the reduction of all Western society to the status of a subject colony. Once again, the settled [rooted] peoples of the Plains would bow to the yoke of the erupting Nomads of the Steppes [of the Deserts – the Mongols, the Turk, the Arab or Berber cavalry]. This time the Nomads have taken care to equip themselves from the arsenal of the intended slaves. The horses and dogs have been transformed into tanks and bombs. And this time the Plains are the entire Earth [i.e., it is a global struggle].[23]

In his book, The Jewish Century [i.e., the Twentieth Century], the Jewish scholar, Yuri Slezkine, explicitly subtitled his own, first chapter „The Jews and Other Nomads,“ and also calls them „Mercurians,“ because they follow „all the way“ „Precocious Hermes“ (the Roman god, Mercury), rather than „Apollo“ and thus have come to dominate the „dynamic“ and „entrepreneurial“ Modern Age.

In the current war we are in – perhaps the Fourth World War – it would at least seem that the Muslims do not want to be dominated by these „Mercurian Nomads,“ nor by their „Proxy Troops,“ or „Auxiliaries“ and „Useful Idiots,“ such as the Imperial Americans.

But what about the Catholics? Where is their independant cultural life and power and strategic will (and intelligence) to resist this fragmentation and de-stabilization and restless rootlessness and roaming of mind? Rooted people have not „the itch for innovation“ nor the desire for deceit and manipulative cleverness. However, says Burnham, „human beings too easily deceive themselves“[24] – and, maybe especially, sentimental Catholics today, and not only by their openness to seemingly self-destructive „ecumenism.“

For example, those who „insist on analyzing politics in terms precisely of the struggle for power, who are less concerned with praising permanent peace than securing a temporary truce or charting the course of an approaching [or spreading] war“ are often called „cynical“ and defective in humanity.[25] Yet, says Burnham, with a hint of acute irony:

It is perhaps a tribute to man’s moral nature that he so often allows his conscience to blind him to reality… Unfortunately we do not get rid of cancer by calling it indigestion.[26]

Faithful Catholics today who are „caught in the storm of the world struggle,“[27] also in the disorder within the Church, are thereby very easily disinclined to consider long-term (and disciplined) education for themselves and their children, much less the seemingly „unrealistic“ or „impractical“ place of Catholic Letters in the Conversion of Our Country and the spreading of the deeper Culture of the Faith. As Burnham himself somewhat sharply says: „You can’t re-educate a wicked crew if it is going down, tonight, on the sinking ship.“[28] And what about our own increasingly apostate society advancing into what Hilaire Belloc (already in 1931) called „the New Paganism“?[29]

Belloc soberly confronts us with „the key to the situation,“ even today, at least according to the Catholic criterion (which is more inclusive than Burnham’s):

Our [Western] civilization developed as a Catholic civilization. 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, especially the institution of slavery [or „the Servile State“]. It will find gods to worship, but they will be evil gods as were those of the older savage Paganism before it began to advance towards 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 [the mephitic swamps] is a very different thing from coming up from the marshes into the pure air.[30]

This inimitably versatile and very great Catholic Man of Letters should be an example – as he will be a good nourishment – for us all, like „red wine and white, good beer and mead“ and „all these feeding, fortifying and confirming beverages that our fathers drank in old time,“ to include, if we can get it, „liqueurs made by monks.“[31] This „rule“ will help us „to distinguish between Bacchus and the Devil,“[32] the droll Belloc also assures us!

In an especially intimate passage – one of the most intimate (and beautiful) in all of his writings that I know – Belloc speaks of the Faith – the Catholic Faith – and what it implies: i.e., the challenge, the combat, the struggle of and for the Faith.

In this passage, he is on his way afoot to Rome and „in the fourth valley of the Jura [Mountains in Switzerland], with the fifth ridge standing up black and huge before me against the last of the daylight.“[33] And, „there, in this silent place, was the little village of Untervelier“ where he „contemplated the glorious clear water tumbling and roaring along beneath it [„a low wall“] on the other side; for a little river ran through the village“ and „their church, close at hand, was built along the low bank of the torrent.“[34] And, „the graves seemed set in a natural place of rest and home, and just beyond this churchyard was that marriage of hewn stone and water which is so peculiar a satisfaction; for the church tower was built boldly right out into the stream and the current went eddying about it.“[35]

Indeed, he says, „it is an emotion apart to see our device and structure [the hewn old stones and the tower ] where it is most enduring come up against and challenge that element [water] which we cannot conquer and which has always in it something of danger for men.“[36]

Then, unexpectedly, „a bell began tolling, and it semed as if the whole village were pouring into the church [it was for Vespers!].“[37] Belloc’s vivid narrative resumes, as follows:

At this I was very much surprised, not having been used any time in my life [Belloc was then 32, having been born in 1870] to 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 [minimized, underplayed, superficially glossed over] our tragedies and excused our sins.[38]

(What would Belloc say about our sentimental religion and sentimental theology today, with its enervating syncretism and false ecumenism?)

After Belloc heard them singing their Latin Psalms, he was most pleased to hear them sing the old Latin Hymn of Saint Ambrose („Te, lucis ante terminum“) – and noticing that „their Latin was nearer to German than French“ – he delighted to partake with them in „that very noble good-night and salutation to God.“[39] („The soul is supported by all sacramental things“ – H. Belloc)

Then, he draws us even closer to his heart and to his most intimate thoughts:

My whole mind was taken up and transfigured by this collective act [of devotion], 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 [the „bonum arduum“ – the steep good] 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 [he had put his cigar „carefully down under a stone on the top of the wall“ – p. 157 – before going in with them for the twilight liturgy] and lit it again, and musing much more deeply than before, not without tears, I considered the nature of Belief.[40]

The reader is invited now to consider with this great-hearted man, both what genuine Catholic Letters can vividly convey to the discerning mind and an answering heart, and how language itself can reveal (and not just conceal) reality:

Of its nature it [the Faith] breeds a reaction and an indifference. Those who believe nothing [or think they believe nothing] but only think and judge cannot understand this. Of its nature it struggles with us and we, we [the autobiographical hint is clear!], when our youth is full on us invariably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things. Then for a long time we are like men who follow down the cleft of a mountain and the peaks are hidden from us and forgotten. It takes years to reach the dry plain [or mephitic marshes of Neo-Paganism], and then we look back and see our home.[41]

(May those who are now entangled in the corruptions and stench of „the New Paganism“ also, please God, do the same!)

Belloc, resuming the narrative of his reflections, then says:

What is it, do you think, that causes the return? I think [if we prescind from Grace] it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil [hence of injustice, and even intimate perfidy], demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory [memoria fidelis – the faithful memory] of the great scheme [of the Faith] which at last we remember. Our childhood pierces through again [perhaps now our true spiritual childhood] …. But I will not attempt to explain it, for I have not the power; only I know that we who return suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world [like the new and easy „false religions“] begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation [as in the administrators – or inflictors of the „Post-Conciliar Church“]; we are over-anxious for its [the Church’s] safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions [perhaps against the agents of disorder or their passive, slothful associates and accomplices?].[42]

Belloc’s insights now deepen further down, with his additional, but tacit, self-relevation:

And this is hard: that the Faith begins to make one abandon the old [and merely natural, or un-supernatural] way of judging. Averages and movements [to include political movements and strategic maneuvers] grow uncertain. We see things from within and consider one mind or a little group as a salt or a leaven. The very nature of social force [or fervent political action] seems changed to us. And this is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows [Belloc’s confessor and friend, Father Vincent Mc Nabb, O.P., in a personal letter to Belloc, spoke with reverent admiration of Belloc’s „heroism of accepted loneliness;“ and he spoke not just about „intellectual loneliness;“ but he said to Belloc: „You must know, and we must make you know, that you have been a lighthouse to us all.“]. And this again is very hard, that we must once more take up that awful struggle [and the Cross] to reconcile two truths and to keep civic freedom sacred in spite of the organization of religion [and its common temptation to intrusive neo-clericalism], and not to deny what is certainly true [i.e., the dogmas, the irreformable doctrines, of the Faith]. It is hard to accept mysteries, and be humble.[43] We are tost as the great schoolmen were tost [like Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventura], and we dare not neglect the duty of the wrestling [i.e., to seek the deeper harmony, the deeper concord, between Faith and Reason]. But the hardest thing of all is that it [the Faith, with its necessary and indispensable struggle] leads us away, as by a command, from all that banquet of the intellect than which there is no keener joy known to man [i.e., to „the natural man,“ who prefers not to sacrifice his intellect in submission to anything, especially a supernatural mystery, beyond its ken].[44]

With humility and further reflection upon things of moment to man, Belloc continues:

I went slowly up the village place in the dusk, thinking of this deplorable weakness in man that the Faith is too great for them, and accepting it [this sorrow and sad fact] as an inevitable burden. I continued to muse with my eyes upon the ground …. There was to be no more of that studious content, that security in historic analysis [as are to be seen in the serene and strategically keen-minded political analyses of James Burnham], and that constant satisfaction of an appetite [for mere natural truth] which never cloyed. A wisdom more imperative and more profound [than the truth from mere natural reason] was to put a term [i.e., an end] to the comfortable wisdom of learning. All the balance of judgment, the easy slow convictions, the broad grasp of things, the vision of their complexity, the pleasure in their innumerable life [of diversity and enlargement] – all that had to be given up [a lesser good for the sake of a greater good – a true sacrificium intellectus]. Fanaticisms [zealotries] were no longer entirely to be despised, just appreciations and a strong grasp of reality no longer entirely to be admired. The Catholic Church will have no philosophies. She will permit no comforts [Belloc once said: „There is no final harbour in this world“.]; the cry of the martyrs [and also the hope of the Christian martyrs] is in her far voice; her eyes that see beyond the world present us heaven and hell to the confusion of our human reconciliations, our happy blending of good and evil things [our „sentimental theology“ and our „dialectical logic“ which dares to deny the law of contradiction]. By the Lord! I begin to think this intimate religion [the Faith in all its challenging plenitude is] as tragic as a great love [„That man sets in motion events which he can neither calculate nor control is a tragic fact“ – A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Scholar]. There came back into my mind [the Memory and the Vision!] a relic that I have in my house. It is a panel of the old door of my college [Balliol College of Oxford University], having carved on it my college arms. I remembered the Lion and the Shield, HAEC FUIT, HAEC ALMAE JANUA SACRA DOMUS [This was, this is the sacred door of my nourishing home]. Yes, certainly religion is as tragic as first love, and drags us out into the void from our dear homes. It is a good thing to have loved one woman from a child [like „Holy Mother Church“ – Sancta Mater Ecclesia], and it is a good thing not to have to return to the Faith.[45]

Hilaire Belloc has poignantly presented us with the challenge of the Faith and with its intimate spiritual struggles for the sake of the greater good, the greater supernatural good, and lived according to the standards of the higher chivalry. From the Book of Job in the Old Testament, we are also reminded and instructed that „Warfare is the life of men upon the earth“ during our short time through the daylight: the time of our probation (Militia est vita hominum supra terram) [to include the life of Christian chivalry, according to the later Medival Latin meaning of „militia,“ as in Saint Bernard’s De Laude Novae Militiae, a tribute to  the chivalric order of the warrior-monks of the Knights Templar].

In 1927, in his Towns of Destiny, Hilaire Belloc further exemplifies what the range and tone of Catholic Letters can convey and inspire, most especially in his chapter on the historic city of Narbonne (Chapter XXXII).[46]

This rooted and magnanimous man with a sacramental imagination evokes the context of the living Faith at the very outset of his essay, while he concurrently roots us in geography and history:

Upon a Whitsunday I found myself returning from the Balearics, through Spain, to that luxuriant warm plain between the mountains and the sea, which the Romans knew as the „Narbonnese.“ It was the wealthiest district of their Gaul; grouped round its great central port; the pole of so much energy, superb achievement and tradition.[47]

Does the reader not desire to read further, and immediately?

He makes his essay now even more personal, and he reveals his Faith and deep allegiance:

I had spent these spring weeks, from April onward, in passing through the recovered countries of Sicily, North Africa and Spain, drawing and writing upon the towns in which our civilisation had re-established itself, so gradually, recovering them from the flood of Mohammedanism in which they had been for centuries drowned.[48]

Like no one else whom I have read, Hilaire Belloc conjoins in his writings (both prose and verse) sacred Christian mystery and concrete palpable intimacy in his images and metaphors, and in the tone and evocative allusiveness of his vivid literary style. His mode of writing expresses a form of the sacramental imagination: the sensible order (the full range our five senses) is linked with divine mystery and the supernatural order of grace. His prose essay on „Narbonne“ is paradigmatic of what I am contending and trying to describe; and the narrator of that essay, without vanity or self-absorption, very vividly conveys his own rumbustious personality and those intimate things which he cherishes and which are, indeed, to be cherished! Rooted himself in the createdness of nature and the concreteness of geography and history, he resumes his interwoven narrative and elevating description:

Here in the Narbonnese, I was at the end of that excursion [„through the recovered countries“] and back again in the unbroken tradition of our people and of the Faith. For though the Saracen flood had indeed beaten upon the walls of this place, and though sundry small garrisons of Islam had lingered on between the Pyrenees and the central mountains of France, yet they had not here occupied, ruined or transformed [the local Catholic culture], as they occupied, ruined and transformed elsewhere.[49]

Belloc the wayfarer felt very deeply the atmosphere of the preserved continuity of that once-famous seaport of Roman Gaul, and saw, as well, many external signs of this lineage and endurance and rootedness. By way of surprise and paradox, he further tells us:

The place [Narbonne, the „Narbonnese“ of the Romans] is better suited for the conservation of the past and for the handing on of the most ancient memories to us, the modern passers-by, from the fact that it is decayed. Those great centres of Europe which had been continuously active, from the pagan days to our own, have largely destroyed, with re-building and with the change of fashion, the material objects [the external, visible manifestations] of their inheritance. But towns [like Narbonne, no longer a great and bustling Mediterranean seaport] which have been arrested at some moment and fossilized, as it were, present the remote past [and continuity of tradition] and we can live it again within their walls.[50]

The life of Narbonne changed, because „the land rose in one of those imperceptible movements which change political geography, and the great land-locked bay turned, as the centuries proceeded, into a shallow lagoon, with but one issue, where a small port continued to carry on perhaps one-hundreth of the trade that the mother city had once conducted.“[51] That is to say, an unexpected and uncontrollable alteration of the physical geography decisively altered the political and economic geography of Narbonne, and „that mother city slowly turned to a shrunken, inland place, its ancient function lost.“[52]

The reflective, respectful traveller then sees other external signs of the Christian Faith and continuity of tradition, but which will soon reveal to him a deeper life and a most precious experience. Let us consider how many things the great-souled Belloc now interweaves:

And the date of the turning point [in the fate of Narbonne], when at last the narrows [connecting the receded old city and the open sea] had become too difficult [for the navigators], and the harbour too shoal for a continued life, is well fixed by the enormous cathedral and palace of the Bishop, which stand like a fortress, and are yet uncompleted, halted at mid-building in the very midst of the Middle Ages.[53]

This cathedral (with the neighboring episcopal palace) manifested the unexpected combination of „church and stronghold,“ a theme upon which Hilaire Belloc will now further reflect:

Here in Narbonne both the ideas [sacred edifice and military fortress] are commingled and form one thing [as if to say „the Catholic Thing,“ as he does elsewhere!]. Coming upon it from the outer streets [of the city], if you approach by the palace side, you see the buttresses and ogives of a Gothic church, but there is a strength and bigness, a masiveness of stone, a reduction of ornament, which still suggests the fortress and the keep…. But the effect of power and resistance [especially against the Mohammedan corsairs and pirates!], this character of standing, for a siege, which is the great mark of the cathedral of Narbonne, disappears in a sort of magic and a transformation when one passes the door and gets within [the Church is larger, more spacious, from the inside, that it is from the outside – as when one is not a member!]. Then all is suddenly changed into a place of coloured light. All that which externally was all shoulders and masonry, seeming to allow but small open spaces between, from within is one great round of those solemn and soaring windows which turn the greater glories [architectural glories] of the thirteenth century into a vision.[54]

Belloc continues to frame the situation and to convey a special atmosphere and presence as he designedly prepares to introduce us to something more profound and complete and fulfilling:

When I came to Narbonne [in the year of 1925], it being yet long before noon [on Pentecost] in the mid-morning, a strong May sun poured through that glass [the stained glass windows of the Gothic] and made the whole airy cavern celestially alive. It seemed to have (though it had not actually the measurement) the height of Beauvais, the majesty of Paris [Notre Dame], or something of the magic of Chartres. For the thirteenth century learned to work this miracle of contrasts [solid strength and light and fine supporting proportions so that „the building itself seemed half air“].[55]

Then he gets even more personal and intimate with his reader:

I came to the town just in time for the Great High Mass of Pentecost, and going straight … into the cathedral, I took my place in what were once the stalls of the canons [the canons regular of the Cathedral chapter] … till the procession entered, and the Sacrifice began.[56]

Belloc, as is so rarely the case, will allow us to enter now even further into things of intimate moment for him – and for us, too:

It was an experience such as [i.e., the quality of which] I shall not have again, I suppose, in this life; such as I had not had before in all the many years and towns of my travels [he was then 55 years of age and had just published his great book about the sea and his sailing, entitled The Cruise of the Nona]. For there met in combination there, by some divine chance [and gift], certain streams of emotion [like a sensible grace!], their combination all enhanced by the quality of the place.[57]

That is to say:

What I had just seen in Barbary, the several crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, the town [of Narbonne] under the strong light, the mountains to the south and to the north, far away, the richness of the plain, the great story [history] of activity and of decay, all this combined to give an immense significance [i.e., meaning] to this which I was about to follow, this Act [the ACTIO SACRA of the Mass, where Eternity intimately enters into Time], [which is] repeated daily upon ten thousand altars, which is also more significant [more full of meaning] than anything else in the world.[58]

Then Belloc prepares us better to understand, and to cherish „all sacramental things,“ that combination of intimate Christian mystery and sensible, concrete vividness:

Men are often blamed [and more often justly blamed] for permitting the sensual [in an inordinate fashion] to invade the intellectual; that is, for allowing their judgment (which is our highest faculty after love) to be warped by the appetitive in man. On this account it is that the detestable Manicheans (for whom the modern name is „Puritans“) reject the proper glories of public worship [i.e., liturgy or cultus] and the unison of the whole of man into the act of God’s praise and of God’s service. Without [further] considering this unhappy malformation, it remains true that a man must never misinterpret his mere emotion for intellectual assent and conviction; still less must he ever substitute intention for act, and [or] a feeling, however strong, for achievement. Faith is of the will. He would be a poor heir of the Catholic Church who should consider the splendours of her most noble pageantry in the greatest Mass [a High Mass], as in some way adding to the inward values and to the unseen glory of a low Mass said hurriedly in some chapel of a hamlet.[59]

Now, Belloc will propose his „however,“ in the form of an enlarging and elevating contrast to this essential and humbling truth:

Nevertheless, I would advance it to be true that the soul is supported  by all sacramental things; that is, by the unison of the mind and the body [as in the Incarnation itself] upon a proper object [here the oblation of Christ Himself in the Actio Sacra of the Mass]; and that when great architecture [here the Gothic] and glorious colour and solemn music [Gregorian Chant or „plainsong“], and the profound rhythms of the Latin tongue, and the ritual of many centuries, and the incommunicable atmosphere of age, all combine to exalt man in his worship, he is made greater and not less. He is supported. He is fed.[60]

Belloc humbly concedes that „the greatest visions have come to men in small rough huts of stone, round in shape, piled by their own hands above the Western seas of Ireland or in the Hebrides [Islands of Northwest Scotland]“ and he knows very well, moreover, „that these men scaled heaven.“[61]

Moving to a different historical and geographical setting, Belloc also knows that „men similarly isolated in the deserts between the Nile and the Red Sea perceived [as a foretaste] our final inheritance and were admitted [by God’s gift of grace] into divine company [and communion].“[62] Indeed, to all appearance, without „any aid from the senses,“ the greatest of those who were „adepts in the search for heaven“ did withdraw themselves from all influence of the senses when they most desired the satisfaction of the praegustatum – the foretaste of that for which we were designed [i.e., created]: our home.“[63]

With an immediately following, transitional „adversative conjunction,“ Belloc shows us further his heart – and his honest humility:

But I cannot boast myself to be of such a kind, and on my own poor level it is landscape, the sea, [a human face, the face of an innocent child], human love, music, and the rest, that help me to understand: and in their absence I am very empty indeed [„the soul is supported by all sacramental things“ – p. 227].[64]

The narrative resumes with some additionally enrooting details and humane touches and surprises, and „incremental variations“ of his earlier themes:

Now here in the cathedral of Narbonne, upon the Whitsunday of 1925 [„the Feast of the Holy Ghost“], having so come in with one companion in the morning of a hot summer’s day [in May], after so much exploration of the heights of Africa [North Africa, Barbary, the Maghreb], so much watching of the conflict between Islam and ourselves, so much content in the glories of Spain and in the peace and wealth and good manners of Palma, of Majorca [in the Balearic Islands], so much breathing of the Mediterranean air in long nights upon the decks at sea, certainly all the supports [of the soul and body] requisite, all the augmentations valuable to a man of my kind, came very fortunately together; and I received [with great gratitude], at this Whitsunday High Mass in the cathedral of Narbonne, what I had desired to receive: a great good [and grace].[65]

Belloc then says that he is willing to „confess these things,“ in part because „whatever has done oneself good should be communicated to others,“[66] especially since „we are bound upon a very different journey from that of this world.“[67]

Immediately, Belloc then returns to the details of the great Act which unites earth and heaven, time and eternity:

Well then, the Mass began. They bore above the head of the celebrant priest [acting and consecrating in persona Christi] that round shade of silk which had also come centuries and centuries ago from Rome. They had their particular rites of the bishopric [local variations rooted customs], and of their tradition [perhaps the Gallic liturgy]. They read the Gospel, not from the altar steps, but from high up near the roof, above the whole people; from the organ loft, in splendid fashion [intoned]. And when they sang the Veni Creator [the hymn to the Holy Ghost, the liturgical sequence after „the Alleluia“], I could swear that the light which fell in the place took on another quality.[68]

At that moment – with that presence – Belloc expressed another presence: the presence of the past, a memoria fidelis, a memory faithful to the truth of the past. And this is a past with implications for the future – for our future and our duty.

He says, as if he were there, as if he had really been there, the following:

And I remembered the singing of that same song [the Veni Creator Spiritus] on that great day, when St. Dominic sang it upon the scaling ladder [while attempting to overcome the enemy fortress], and our people stormed the wall [in the early thirteenth century] and destroyed the mortal Albigensian peril [as distinct from the mortal „Mohammedan flood“ and peril], and restored Europe [to the Faith].[69]

Belloc then returns us to his vivid present before giving us his conclusion and final desire, which is also, for us, an exhortation and an invitation:

I must tell you that all this time [during the Sacrifice, the Actio Sacra – the Sacred Action of the Mass] the Blessed Sacrament was exposed [in a radiant Monstrance] above the altar on a very high place in a blaze of light. The Mass proceeded; the final prayers were said; the thing [the res sacra] was over. If I could have got into that nave [of the cathedral] of Narbonne all the starved unbelieving man cut off from the past [and from our Catholic Tradition] in the dissolution of the modern world [and the new syncretism and its false ecumenism], there would have come out some reasonable proportion [of these souls] restored to the traditions of Europe [and hence of her intimately formative Faith].[70]

So, too, with those who are further nourished by Catholic Letters – the full and versatile range of Catholic sacramental literature – which is so vividly and robustly exemplified by Hilaire Belloc, in his inimitable humility and magnanimous chivalry and spiritual childhood.


Those readers who have come know better the diverse and nourishing consolation of Catholic Letters and to have been stirred by Hilaire Belloc’s sacramental language of the Faith, which flows from the abundance of his heart, will especially want to read his exquisite essay, „The Missioner,“ about the coming and spreading of the Faith to Norway and larger Scandanavia.[71] It is my invitation and hope that readers will savor this important and deeply moving essay and be thereby further prompted to aid the conversion of our country to the Faith, hence to the love of the Blessed Mother, in fidelity to Christ and loving Him to the end.


© 2005 Robert Hickson

[1] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisted (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1962), p. 7

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Burnham, The Struggle for the World (New York: The John Day Company, Inc., 1947), p. 55

[4] Ibid., p. 56 – my emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., p. 57 – my emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., pp. 59-60 – my emphasis added. His elaboration runs from page 60 through the end of the chapter (on page 74).

[7] Ibid., pp. 105 and 136 – my emphasis added.

[8] Ibid., p. 160

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 170

[11] Ibid., p. 187

[12] Ibid., p. 188. Later he says: “Policy unsupported by power is empty, but power divorced from correct policy is sterile. This is a law of politics which recent experience [1944-1947] should be making well known to the United States.“        (p. 239)

[13] Ibid., p. 180

[14] Ibid., p. 179

[15] Ibid., p. 54

[16] Ibid., p. 45

[17] Ibid., p. 135

[18] Ibid., p. 232

[19] Ibid., pp. 2 ad 197

[20] Yuri Slezkine, coming originally from the Soviet Union, is a Professor of Russian History at the University of California (Berkeley), and he is himself Jewish and very consciously so.

[21] Part I also means “the Fundamental Challenge“ or „the Key to the Situation“ (see Chapter 10); the other three parts of The Struggle of the World are, respectively:  „What Ought to Be Done“ (Part II); „What Could Be Done“ (Part III); and „What Will Be Done“ (Part IV).

[22] Earlier in his book, Burnham says: „The uniqueness of atomic weapons is to be found first of all in this: that they create a definite material possibility of the total annihilation of human life. (The possibility is also present in the methods of mass biological warfare)“ (p. 28). Later, on p. 182, Burnham reiterates: „I use the term ‘atomic weapons’ to refer not only these in the proper sense but to any weapons comparable in destructive power.“

[23] Ibid., pp. 134-135 – my emphasis added.

[24] Ibid., p. 154

[25] Ibid., p. 142

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 165

[28] Ibid., p. 148

[29] Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1992), Chapter I –  „The New Paganism“ – first published in 1931.

[30] Ibid., p. 1. By “Paganism,” Belloc means simply, „an absence of the Christian revelation“ (p.3).

[31] Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (New York: G. P. Pulnam’s Sons, 1936), p. 154 (This unmistakably great book was first published in 1902, at the very beginning of „the Jewish Century.“)

[32] Ibid., pp. 153-154

[33] Ibid., p. 155

[34] Ibid., p. 156

[35] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[36] Ibid., pp. 156-157

[37] Ibid., p. 157

[38] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[39] Ibid., p. 159

[40] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[41] Ibid., pp. 158-159 – my emphasis added.

[42] Ibid., p. 159 – my emphasis added.

[43] Twenty-nine years later, in his Essays of a Catholic (Chapter 13 – entitled „An Article of Mr. Haldane’s“), Belloc memorably says: „One of the main marks of stupidity is the impatient rejection of mystery“ (p. 209). And, correlatively, he adds: „one of the first marks of good judgment, combined with good reasoning power, is the appetite for examining mystery“ (p. 209).

[44] Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, pp. 159-160 – my emphasis added.

[45] Ibid., pp. 160-161 – my emphasis added.

[46] Hilaire Belloc, Towns of Destiny (New York: Robert M. Mc Bride and Company, 1931). This book of historically minded travel literature was first published in 1927.

[47] Ibid., p. 223

[48] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[49] Ibid., p. 223 – my emphasis added.

[50] Ibid., p. 224 – my emphasis added.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[54] Ibid., p. 225 – my emphasis added.

[55] Ibid., pp. 225-226 – my emphasis added.

[56] Ibid., p. 226 – my emphasis added.

[57] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[58] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[59] Ibid., pp. 226-227 – my emphasis added.

[60] Ibid., p. 227 – my emphasis added.

[61] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[62] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[63] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[64] Ibid., p. 228 – my emphasis added.

[65] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid. – my emphasis added.

[69] Ibid., pp. 228-229 – my emphasis added.

[70] Ibid., p. 229 – my emphasis added.

[71] Hilaire Belloc, On Everything (London: Methuen and Company, 1909), pp. 261-269 („The Missioner“). This volume of 39 chapters is one of several collections of Belloc’s eloquent and variegated essays.