“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring… I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Autumn is a wistful time.
It’s a perfect time to read the rough, the wise and the deeply nostalgic. It is a time to read Hilaire Belloc. One of my favorite Catholic thinkers, Fr. James Schall, recommends warmly settling into an oversized chair while the chill autumn wind impatiently knocks at the windows and reading Belloc’s masterpiece, The Four Men every year. The Four Men is a beautiful lark about a overworked Englishman committing to walk a four days’ journey to his boyhood home. Along the way, he meets and is accompanied by an old man (Grizzlebeard), a poet and a sailor. Exchanging bawdy jokes and recalling local legends, singing drinking songs and discussing nuances of Catholic theology, the unlikely quartet drawer nearer to each other as they draw nearer to their destination.
And while you will found yourself laughing at times and choked up (I’ll admit it) at others, there are profound verities that emerge again and again as this book is read (and, hopefully, re-read). One of those truths speaks to G.K. Chesterton’s (not coincidentally, one of Belloc’s best friends) description of feeling “homesick at home.” Why is it that, in the midst of our overly-busy, stressful lives, we envision an idyllic place (often a venue associated with our childhood) only for it to leave us unfulfilled when we visit and re-experience it? Belloc’s Four Men speaks to this poignantly,
The Poet: “Whatever you read in all the writings of men, and whatever you hear in all the speech of men, and whatever you notice in the eyes of men, of expression or reminiscence or desire, you will see nothing in any man’s speech or writing or expression to match that which marks his hunger for home. Those who seem to lack it are rather men satiated, who have never left their villages for a time long enough to let them know the craving and necessity. Those who have despaired of it are the exiles, and the curse upon them is harder than any other curse that can fall upon men. It is said that the first murder done in the world was punished so, by loss of home; and it is said also that the greatest and the worst of the murders men ever did has also been punished in the same way, by the general exile of its doers and all their children. They say that you can see that exile in their gestures and in the tortured lines of their faces and in the unlaughing sadness of their eyes.”Grizzlebeard: “When you say that thus, coming home, you will be satisfied, are you so sure? For my part, I have travelled very widely…and, one time and another – altogether forty times – I have come back to the flats of my own country…I have seen once more the heavy clouds of home fresh before the wind over the Level, and I have smelt, from the saltings and the innings behind Pevensey, the nearness of the sea. Then indeed I have each time remembered my boyhood, and each time I have been glad to come home. But I never found it to be a final gladness. After a little time I must be off again, and find new places…Belloc: “What Grizzlebeard has asked, or rather what he means by asking it, is true. We none of us shall rest [upon arriving home]; we shall go past and onwards…We shall not be content, we shall not be satisfied. The man who wrote that he had not in all this world a native place knew his business very well indeed, and it is the business of verse.
C.S. Lewis once spoke of this when he noted, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” We have surrogate visions for the peace of heaven, but the alpine escape, the island getaway, the high school football field or the childhood family couch and roaring fireplace will always leave us a little empty, a little hungry, a little homesick though we are at home. Heaven awaits, but we find, again and again, it is not here. Earth provides no final gladness. Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O God.
The Poet, in the midst of interruptions and ribbing would offer a poem that captured this hunger and angst, but also this sweet, blessed assurance of heaven that awaits us.
I shall go without companions,And nothing in my hand;I shall pass through many placesThat I cannot understand – Until I come to my own country,Which is a pleasant land!The trees that grew in my own countryAre the beech tree and the yew;Many stand together,And some stand few.In the month of May in my own countryAll the woods are newWhen I get to my own countryI shall lie down and sleep;I shall watch in the valleysThe long flocks of sheep.And then I shall dream, for ever and all,A good dream and deep.
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