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Hilaire Belloc and a High Mass

Hilaire Belloc and a High Mass

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In October of 1927 Hilaire Belloc first published his book, Towns of Destiny,1 which contains his grateful depiction of a unique and unrepeatable event that so unexpectedly manifested itself to him in southern France on the High Feast of the Holy Ghost: a sacred action in a very special setting. In my view, this book often reveals to the attentive reader some of our beloved Belloc's deepest thoughts and resonant, as well as animating, convictions. One small test of this judgment, and an initial measure of its sufficiency, will be found if we consider only his thirty-second Chapter, entitled “Narbonne.”
In October of 1927 Hilaire Belloc first published his book, Towns of Destiny,1 which contains his grateful depiction of a unique and unrepeatable event that so unexpectedly manifested itself to him in southern France on the High Feast of the Holy Ghost: a sacred action in a very special setting. In my view, this book often reveals to the attentive reader some of our beloved Belloc's deepest thoughts and resonant, as well as animating, convictions. One small test of this judgment, and an initial measure of its sufficiency, will be found if we consider only his thirty-second Chapter, entitled “Narbonne.”

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Published by: Saint Benedict Center on Apr 04, 2013
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Dr. Robert Hickson 25 March 2013Feast of the Incarnation 
Hilaire Belloc and a High Mass
In October of 1927 Hilaire Belloc first published his book,
Towns of Destiny,
1
 
which containshis grateful depiction of a unique and unrepeatable event that so unexpectedly manifested itself to himin southern France on the High Feast of the Holy Ghost:
 
a sacred action in a very special setting. In myview, this book often reveals to the attentive reader some of our beloved Belloc's deepest thoughts andresonant, as well as animating, convictions. One small test of this judgment, and an initial measure of its sufficiency, will be found if we consider only his thirty-second Chapter, entitled “Narbonne.”
2
Consider how Belloc starts his presentation of Narbonne, interweaving geography and historyand his recent personal travel and so much more. For, he is preparing us to savor more fully a set of converging facts and acts that combined to nourish him so gracefully and sacramentally in the Springof 1925, almost seven months before Pope Pius XI published his own sacramental Encyclical,
Quas Primas
: his own declaration of the High Feast of Christ the King, in light of its underlying doctrine:Upon a Whitsunday [in May of 1925] I found myself returning from theBalearics, through Spain, to that luxuriant warm plain between the mountainsand the sea, which the Romans knew as the “Narbonnese.” It was thewealthiest district of their Gaul; grouped round its great central port; the pole of so much energy, superb achievement and tradition. (223)Drawing us then further into his first-person narrative, both his just-completed personal journeys and his evocations of earlier, but still timely, military history, he says:I had spent these spring weeks from April [of 1925] onward, in passing through
the recovered countries
of Sicily, North Africa and Spain, drawing andwriting upon the towns in which our civilisation has re-established itself,
sogradually
, recovering them from the flood of Mohammedanism in which theyhad been
for centuries drowned
. (223—my emphasis added)
1Hilaire Belloc,
Towns of Destiny
(New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1927)—“Illustrated by Edmond L.Ware,”Belloc's beloved friend and travel companion. The book is divided into seven parts: Spain; Portugal; The RecoveredCountry; France;The Rhine March; Tournai; and Three Towns of Life and Death (
i.e
., Narbonne, Chaise Dieu, andCorneto of the Tarquins). It is a richly variegated and highly differentiated book of 238 pages.2This seven-page chapter, simply entitled “Narbonne,” may be found on pages 223-229 of 
Towns of Destiny
. Further  page-references to this chapter will be in parentheses in the text of this essay.
1
 
Acknowledging the near completion of his wandering expeditions and his consolation toreturn closer to home, he adds:Here, in the Narbonnese [with Carcassonne and Castelnaudary to the West], Iwas at the end of that excursion and back again
in the unbroken tradition
of our people and
of our Faith
. For though the Saracen flood had indeed beatenupon the walls of this place, and though sundry small garrisons of Islam hadlingered on between the Pyrenees and the central mountains of France, yet hadthey not here occupied, ruined or transformed, as they had occupied, ruined andtransformed elsewhere. And Narbonne catches on back through 2,000 years toits origin
without interruption
and has, stored up within itself, the veryessence of Rome. It was in these fields that the great landed family, the highestname in whose lineage was that of Charlemagne, had its origin and root. (223-224—my emphasis added).Belloc in various ways stresses the theme of continuity and nourishing rootedness, and heeven said paradoxically that Narbonne is now “better suited for the conservation of the past and for 
thehanding on
of most ancient
memories
to us, the modern passer-by, from the fact that it is decayed.”(224—my emphasis added) Because of certain geographical changes, especially the mysterious siltingup of its once-famous harbor and inlets, history, in a certain sense, largely then passed it by. Thus,certain towns, like Narbonne, “have been arrested at some moment and fossilised, as it were, and wecan live it again within their walls. It is so with Narbonne.” (224) Indeed, “That mother city slowlyturned to a shrunken, inland place, its ancient function lost,” (224) for it was effectively isolated and nolonger copiously open to the Mediterranean sea and its water-borne traffic.Then we come to face a sacred edifice which was still to be seen in that old mother city, nowsituated on a “shallow lagoon” that was no longer a great bay:And the date of the turning point, when at last the narrows [to the open sea] had become too difficult, and the harbour 
too shoal for a continued life
, is wellfixed by the enormous cathedral and palace of the Bishop, which stand like afortress,
and
are
yet uncompleted
, halted at mid-building in the very midst of the Middle Ages. (224—my emphasis added)The Narbonne cathedral, nearly contemporary with “the Palace of the Popes in Avignon,”somehow combines the effects of both “church and stronghold,” for “both the ideas are commingledand form one thing.” (224, 225) Expressing his own recent perceptions of that unfinished Narbonnecathedral, Belloc adds:2
 
Coming upon it from the outer streets, if you approach by the palace side, yousee indeed the buttresses and the ogives of a Gothic church, but there is astrength and bigness, a massiveness of stone, a reduction of ornament, whichstill suggests the fortress and the keep. (225)Though that “huge thing is incomplete”—“an apse with transepts only begun...anduncontinued” like the nave and its “unconnected juttings of great stone”—something of mystery onceagain happens, as Belloc moves from the outside to the inside:But
this effect
of power and resistance, this character of standing for a siege[perhaps a Mohammedan siege?], which is the great mark of the cathedral of  Narbonne,
disappears
in a sort of magic and a transformation when one passesthe door and gets within.
Then all is suddenly changed into a place of coloured light
. And that which
externally
was all shoulders and masonry,seeming to allow but small open spaces between,
from within
is one greatround of those solemn and
soaring windows which turn the greater gloriesof the thirteenth century into a vision.
(225—my emphasis added)After this framing preparation—by way of geography, history, and architecture—Belloc prepares us further for the approaching Sacred Action:When I thus came to Narbonne, it being yet long before noon in the mid-morning, a strong May sun poured through that glass and
made that wholeairy cavern celestially alive
. It seemed to have...the height of Beauvais, themajesty of Paris [Notre Dame], and something of the magic of Chartres. For the thirteenth century learned to work 
this miracle of contrasts
: so to arrangethe
external
stonework that its characteristic to the onlooker from without wasthe strength of this world, but so to devise the
interior
with the least proportionof fine, long-drawn supports, that the lights were its universal mark, and thatthe building itself seemed half air. (225-226—my emphasis added)(In a later, and characteristically modest book,
The Catholic Church and Conversion
,G.K.Chesterton also memorably wrote that, as with a Gothic Cathedral, the Faith is much larger fromthe inside, than from without—and this more spacious and intimate sense of being within the Church,not outside, is what he gratefully and joyfully experienced as a convert, in 1922, to the Catholic Faith.) Now is the time for Hilaire Belloc to introduce us to his special experience and receptivity,and his timing was perfect (like the timing of God!):I came to the town just in time for the Great High Mass of Pentecost, and goingstraight to the palace and past it into the cathedral, I took my place in what3

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