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The Extraordinary Things Hilaire Belloc Could See


National Portrait Gallery London

Tod Worner - published on 06/06/16

Witty and wise, bawdy and sublime, he stops us in our busy tracks and points us to delicate Truth, to poignant Grace

In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the True, the Good & the Beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable Canon of essays, speeches & books which will light a candle in the darkness. It is a Canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge & inspire each reader. But most importantly, I hope it will remind us of what is True in an age of untruth. And if we know what is True, we are more apt to do what is Right.

He was a coarse man.

Of course he was.

Born in the midst of an unforgiving French lightning storm, he was nicknamed “Old Thunder”… and his temperament justified it. Hilaire Belloc was a man of fiery passion and deep conviction. He was known to barge uninvited into the basement of friends. Unwashed and stinking from a weeks-long pilgrimage, he would curse and bellow for beer and bacon as he roughly rummaged through a larder not his own. In his political career he bristled at broadsides attacking his Catholicism and retorted,

I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!”

And few could forget the Sailor, Belloc’s brusque alter ego in his novel, The Four Men, when he sang his Christmas carol titled “Noel”:

“May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me,

And may all my enemies go to hell!

Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!

May all my enemies go to hell!

Noel! Noel!”

Surely, he was a coarse man.

But he could see.

The brilliant Father James Schall, S.J. called Hilaire Belloc nothing less than “the best essayist in our language.” Surely, this prized accolade is warranted based on style and wit alone.

But Hilaire Belloc’s fine distinction is most apropos because he could see something that most of us have missed. And in the midst of personal tragedy, professional setbacks and political defeats, Belloc captured that keen vision into utter poetry. Witty and wise, bawdy and sublime, he stops us in our over-rushed tracks and points us to delicate Truth, to poignant Grace.  Just consider an excerpt from his essay, “On an Unknown Country”:

“There was a shepherd the other day up at Findon Fair who had come from the east by Lewes with sheep, and who had in his eyes that reminiscence of horizons which makes the eyes of shepherds and of mountaineers different from the eyes of other men. He was occupied when I came upon him in pulling Mr. Fulton’s sheep by one hind leg so that they should go the way they were desired to go. It happened that day that Mr. Fulton’s sheep were not sold, and the shepherd went driving them back through Findon Village, and up on to the high Downs. I went with him to hear what he had to say, for shepherds talk quite differently from other men. And when we came on to the shoulder of Chanctonbury and looked down upon the Weald, which stretched out like the Plains of Heaven, he said to me: “I never come here but it seems like a different place down below, and as though it were not the place where I have gone afoot with sheep under the hills. It seems different when you are looking down at it.” He added that he had never known why. Then I knew that he, like myself, was perpetually in perception of the Unknown Country, and I was very pleased. But we did not say anything more to each other about it until we got down into Steyning. Then we drank together and we still said nothing more about it, so that to this day all we know of the matter is what we knew when we started, and what you knew when I began to write this, and what you are now no further informed upon, namely, that there is an Unknown Country lying beneath the places that we know, and appearing only in moments of revelation.

Whether we shall reach this country at last or whether we shall not, it is impossible to determine.”

At first, Belloc’s list of unfamiliar locales distracts … but then his genius becomes clear. The places only provide a setting so tangible, so palpable that we almost overlook what they are for: a venue for eternal verities to kiss common people.

Hilaire Belloc was a coarse man. But he had “in his eyes that reminiscence of horizons which makes the eyes of shepherds and of mountaineers different from the eyes of other men.” This helped him to hear the laughter of angels and to feel the softest kiss of Grace. This helped him to see. And in seeing, he caught glimpses of the revealed God – and his Unknown Country – while the rest of us dust by in our hurry to less important things.

Perhaps it is time that we change our eyes.

Perhaps, like Hilaire Belloc, it is time for us to see.

To read Hilaire Belloc’s essay “On an Unknown Country” in its entirety, please click here.

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