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Robert Hickson

17 February 2013

Hilaire Bellocs View of a Pilgrimage


Blessed is he that has come to the heart of the world and is humble. (H.Belloc)1
When Hilaire Belloc was a rumbustious young man in his mid-thirties, and only a few years after he had completed his journey afoot to Rome, he wrote an essay entitled The Idea of a Pilgrimage, which first appeared in his memorable 1906 collection of essays Hills and the Sea.2 In this essay are some insightseven about the heart of a childwhich will be, I believe, still a fortifying inspiration for us today, and a deep moral nourishment. Throughout his essay one finds, in Whittaker Chambers words, both a reverential memory and a sense of historical landscape 3 which fittingly recall us to consider our own roots. Beginning his essay with a proposed definition, Belloc says: A pilgrimage is... an expedition to some venerated place to which a vivid memory of sacred things experienced, or a long and wonderful history of human experience in divine matters, or a personal attraction affecting the soul impels one. This is, I say, its essence.... [I]t may [even] be a little walk uphill to a neighboring and beloved grave. (229) He also thinks that, round the idea of pilgrimage, there has always 1
Hilaire Belloc, Complete Verse (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1970), p. 79These words constitute the first line of Hilaire Bellocs four-line verse, entitled From the Latin (But Not So Pagan). 2 Hilaire Belloc, Hills and the Sea (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1943, the 22nd editionfirst published in 1906).The page citations to this essay, on pages 229-234, and to the essay-collection will be in parentheses in the main body of the current article. Hilaire Bellocs The Path to Rome, published in 1902, is as vivid a record of his spirited and reverential march the previous year from the Moselle Valley in France down to Rome for the Papal High Mass on the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, on 29 June 1901. Dr. P. Chojnowski, once my student, just recalled to me our reading of this essay. 3 Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 40 and 40-41. I hold that a nations life is about as long as its reverential memory. (40); and Ah, she said, with a trace of wonder doing duty for obeisance [or pietas] before the greatness with which men have sometimes acted, eine historishe Landschaft [i.e., there at the actual place where George Washingtons Continental Army crossed the Delaware River on the cold Christmas Eve, 1776.]. I call that reverential memory at work. Cold Friday [my little height near Westminster, Maryland,] is [also] part of an historic landscape....I hoped to root them [my own children] in this way in their nation. For I hold that a nation is first of all the soil on which it lives, for which it is willing to diea soil bonded to those that lived on it by that blood of which a man usually loses a few drops in working any field like Cold Friday. (40-41)my emphasis added.

been something more than the mere objective(229)as in general worship you will have noble gowns [vestments], vivid colour, and majestic music...; so in this particular case of worship [i.e., pilgrimage], clothes, as it were, and accoutrements gather round ones principal action. (229) Thus, he adds: I will visit the grave of a saint or of a man whom I venerate privately for his virtues and deeds, but on my way I wish to do something a little difficult to show at what a price I hold communion with his resting-place, and also on my way I will see all I can of men and things; for anything great and worthy is but an ordinary thing transfigured, and if I am to venerate a humanity absorbed into the divine, so it behooves me on my journey to it to enter into and delight in the divine that is hidden in everything. (129-130) That is, in the words of Saint Thomas, Deus est in omnibus rebus, et intime. Then, our Belloc becomes more specific: Thus I may go upon a pilgrimage with no pack and nothing but a stick and my clothes, but I must get myself into the frame of mind that carries an invisible burden, an eye for happiness and suffering, humour, gladness at the beauty of the world, a readiness for raising the heart at the vastness of a wide view [as of the Alps], and especially a readiness to give multitudinous praise to God....The desire for reality and contact is a kind of humility, this pleasure in it a kind of charity. (230my emphasis added) For example, consider his vivid contact with the reality of the sea and wind, to be glimpsed in his own robust Introduction to Hills and the Sea, where Belloc speaks of how he and one of his sailing companions made it back under sail to England, with high risk, from one of their wandering pilgrimages together on the Continent of Europe. Speaking of these two hearty companions in the third person plural, Belloc says of their adventurous (and perilous) return journey in a great wind under sail, as follows: At another time they took a rotten old leaky boat (they were poor and could afford no other)they took, I say, a rotten old leaky boat whose tiller was loose and whose sails mouldy, and whose blocks [the block and tackle in the rigging] were jammed and creaking, and whose rigging frayed, and they boldly set out together into the great North Sea. It blew a capful, it blew half a gale, it blew a gale: little they cared, ...these cousins of the broad daylight! There were no men on earth save these two who would not have got her under [a little] trysail and a rag of a storm-jib with fifteen reefs and another: not so the heroes. Not a stitch would they take in [of sail]. They carried all her canvass, and cried out to the north-east wind [called Eager].... So they ran before it [the Great Wind] largely until the bows were pressed right under, and it was no

human power that saved the [dangerous] gybe. They went tearing and foaming before it, singing a Saga befitting the place and time. For it was their habit to sing in every place its proper song....And they rolled at last into Orford Haven [on the Suffolk coast in eastern England] on the highest tide that ever has run since the Noachic Deluge [!]; and even so, as they crossed the bar [the outer sandbar and reef] they heard the grating of the keel. (pp. xi-xii my emphasis added) But, our Belloc would have us know and well remember, that, despite the mighty adventures of the way (both out and back!), It is surely in the essence of a pilgrimage that all vain imaginations are controlled by the greatness of our object. Thus, if a man should go to see the place where (as they say) St. Peter met our Lord on the Appian Way at dawn, he will not care very much about the niggling of pedants about this or that building, or for the rhetoric of posers about this or that beautiful picture.... If, on the contrary, he find a beautiful thing, whether done by God or by man, he will remember and love it. This is what children do, and to get the heart of a child is the end surely of any act of religion. (230-231my emphasis added) In such a temper of mind, the pilgrim will never let himself...put himself, so to speak, before an audience in his own mindfor that is pride which all of us moderns always fall into. (231my emphasis) And, what is more, Nor does religion exercise in our common life any function more temporarily valuable than this, that it makes us to be sure at least of realities, and look very much askance at philosophies and imaginaries and academic whimsies. (231my emphasis) For, it is an error that the religious spirit should be so superficial and so self-conscious as to dominate our method of action (231-232), not only at sacred moments and places, but also even when it is more appropriate, that is, in relaxed ordinary life and in its more hilarious recreations. Then after making a few piquant comments about those who tend to be always more taut and solemn, who even rather dourly go about a common voyage in a chastened and devout spirit, while never letting go a little, much less briefly falling into every ordinary levity, he makes an embarrassed, but gracious disclaimer: I fear this is bad theology, and I propound it subject to authority. Covering himself then a little further, and now more specifically, Belloc then winsomely says:

I would rather for the moment that he [the Over-Earnest Man] went off in a gay, tramping spirit [though still haunted by [his sacred] mission], not oversure of his expenses, not very careful of all he said or did, but illuminated and increasingly informed by the great object of his voyage, which loose the mind and purge it in the ultimate contemplation of something divine. (232 my emphasis) However, Belloc admits of exceptions to his general rule, in that there is that kind of pilgrimage which some few sad men undertake because their minds are overburdened by a sin or tortured with some great care that is not of their own fault. (232) However, he adds, even to these a very human spirit comes by the way [in via, en route], and the adventures of inns and foreign conversations broaden their world for them and lighten their burden. (232) And, thus, as with other men on pilgrimage, he packs up the meaning of life into a little space to be able to look at it closely, as men carry with them small locket portraits of their birthplace [home] or of those they love. (233 my emphasis) Recalling us implicitly to his earlier-described adventurous and challenging return to Orford Haven and sailing full-sailed in the North Sea winds, Belloc adds another touch to charm us: If a pilgrimage is all this [diversity of contact and trials and general enlargement], it is evident that, however careless, it must not be untroublesome! (233my emphasis added) Moreover, it would be a contradiction of pilgrimage to seek to make the journey short and vapid... to remain as near as possible to what one was at starting, and to ones usual rut....That is not the spirit of a pilgrimage at all. (233-234) He draws us then to his conclusion and leads us to his own memorable path to Rome: The pilgrim is humble and devout, and human and charitable, and ready to smile and admire; therefore he should comprehend the whole of his way [to his sacred objective], the people in it, and the hills and the clouds, and the habits of the various cities. And as to the method of doing this4...the best way of all is on 4
Belloc had also given a few alternatives to going on foot: we may go bicycling (though that is a little flurried) or driving (though that is luxurious and dangerous, because it brings us constantly [up] against servants and flattery). (234)

foot, where one is a man like any other man, with the sky above one, and the world on every side, and time to see all. So also I designed to walk, and did, when I visited the tombs of the Apostles [in 1901]. (234) Now we may have, surprisingly, even a new standard by which to evaluate both Geoffrey Chaucers own variegated pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales, and G.K. Chestertons apt contrast of a modern pilgrimage with its earlier fourteenth-century counterpoint. In Chestertons own appreciative book, entitled Chaucer,5 he said, in essence, the following: in the Canterbury pilgrimage, the varied pilgrims (even the unmistakable rascals) hung their hats in different homes, but had their heads in the same universe; whereas, in the modern pilgrimage, the pilgrims often hang their hats in the same house, but have their heads it different universes. So, too, will it come to pass when, or if, the Catholic Faith today becomes, more and more, a set of ambiguities and equivocations, and of clashing dialectical incommensurabilities. However, in his own intimate and magnanimous essay on The Idea of a Pilgrimage, Bellocs words are still a tonic and a balm to the deeply Faithful Souls of the Catholic Faith. For as Saint Thomas, the Doctor of Creation (and, hence, of Createdness), said: God is in all things, and most inwardlyet intime. Also with the in-seeping and deepening-down of His Grace.


2013, Robert D. Hickson


G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer (London: Faber and Faber LTD, 1932).