Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

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Thursday, 24 November 2011

More on Vincent McNabb...



Courtesy of, and with thanks to, Mike Hennessy again...



Father Vincent McNabb: a voice of contradiction (Parts I, 2 and 3)

I suppose I shall place this here at the beginning. Had I lived more or less at the same time, spanning the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries, one person I most would have wanted to meet, canonised Saints aside, is Father Vincent McNabb (admittedly run a close second by Hilaire Belloc). I wrote this almost five years ago. (I am notionally trying to write a full-length biography/study of the man and his thought. It has progressed very little over the last few years:

“Every minister of holy religion must bring to the struggle the full
energy of his ‘mind’ and all his powers of endurance.”


If there is one thing, one single line of text, that could be said to have motivated the tireless apostolic work of Father Vincent McNabb, it is this line from the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII. This great papal “call to arms”, issued by Holy Mother Church just weeks before Father McNabb was ordained as a priest in the Dominican Order at the age of 23, illuminated all of his work and action: after Holy Scripture and the works of St Thomas it held pride of place in his heart. This should perhaps not be so surprising since he was a Dominican working for a large portion of his life in the slums of England, and Rerum Novarum was written - it is said - by Cardinal Zigliara, a noted Dominican scholar, in collaboration with the Pope, and was undoubtedly influenced by the life and work of the great English Cardinal Manning. Yet certainly no priest, no religious in England was as indefatigable as Father McNabb in his desire - in his work - to see the blue-print of Rerum Novarum put into action. Indeed, those Dominican students he taught while at Hawkesyard Priory remembered being instructed to keep a copy of the encyclical beside their beds: and his biographer (-of-sorts), Father Ferdinand Valentine, recalled being told to memorise the paragraph which Father McNabb thought was most central to Pope Leo’s work:

“There is general agreement that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient working-men’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organisation took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless under different guise, but with the like injustice, still practised by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”


It was to those living in the slums and decaying tenements and to those working in the factories and sweat-shops of London that Father McNabb brought these words of the Vicar of Christ: and as a priest he brought to them Christ’s power to inspire and to heal.


It is evident that Father McNabb is hardly known amongst Catholics today. Even amongst those who concern themselves with Tradition many may know his name but little more. Some may be aware that he is associated with that set of ideas known as Distributism (for which he was the principal inspiration); some that he was a well-known Dominican friar who frequently spoke at Parliament Hill and at Speaker’s Corner to the motley London throng; some that he was at one time a friend of Eric Gill and was connected with his community at Ditchling; perhaps most of those who have heard of him stumbled across his name while reading about Hilaire Belloc or G K Chesterton. All these mental associations are indeed aspects of the man, of the priest; yet he would, I think, like best to have been known for championing Rerum Novarum.

Father McNabb was - with some notable exceptions, principally within his own Order - held in high esteem by his contemporaries, even by those such as George Bernard Shaw or the Webbs, founders of the socialist Fabian Society, who could have most been expected to dislike him. During Father McNabb’s life, G K Chesterton wrote of him, in the introduction to his, Father McNabb’s, book, Francis Thompson and Other Essays:

“Now I am nervous about writing here what I really think about Father Vincent McNabb for fear that he should somehow get hold of the proofs and cut it out. But I will say briefly and firmly that he is one of the few great men I have met in my life; that he is great in many ways, mentally and morally and mystically and practically... nobody who ever met or saw or heard Father McNabb has ever forgotten him.”


Hilaire Belloc, who was in many ways temperamentally similar to Father McNabb, wrote this about him after his death in the Dominican journal Blackfriars in 1943:


“The greatness of his [Father McNabb’s] character, of his learning, his experience, and, above all, his judgement, was altogether separate from the world about him... the most remarkable aspect of all was the character of holiness... I can write here from intimate personal experience [here, Belloc refers to Father McNabb visiting Belloc - at the latter’s request - immediately after the premature death of Elodie Belloc, his wife, in 1914] ... I have known, seen and felt holiness in person... I have seen holiness at its full in the very domestic paths of my life, and the memory of that experience, which is also a vision, fills me now as I write - so fills me that there is nothing now to say.”

Perhaps appropriately, that memorial, that obituary, was the last thing that Belloc penned (or dictated) for publication before his death some ten years later.


Monsignor Ronald Knox, who was, in many ways, Father McNabb’s temperamental opposite, wrote, when asked for his opinion on the move - in the 1950s - to start a process for Father McNabb’s beatification:

"Father Vincent is the only person I have ever known about whom I have felt, and said more than once, ‘He gives you some idea of what a saint must be like.’ There was a kind of light about his presence which didn’t seem to be quite of this world.”


But perhaps my favourite tribute to him from his famous contemporaries - in one way at least - comes from the pen of Maurice Baring and through the eyes and ears and reflections of an unbeliever. To give some background: Cecil Chesterton, G K Chesterton’s brother, died in 1918 from trench fever caught while serving at the Front: he had converted to Catholicism in 1913. Before joining up, he had been a pugnacious journalist who had fought against financial and political corruption in Parliament, had been successfully but wrongfully sued by the Isaac brothers for revealing their part in the Marconi Scandal, and was in Belloc’s view the more able of the Chesterton brothers (a view that, I have to add, no-one else seems to have held, the humble G K Chesterton aside). Father McNabb preached at Cecil Chesterton’s funeral: sadly, no copy of the sermon survived (Belloc referred to it as the greatest piece of sacred oratory he had ever heard) but Maurice Baring published a poem in the 1943 August issue of Blackfriars inspired by the comments of an unbeliever friend and poet who had accompanied Baring to the funeral:

“A poet heard you preach and told me this:
While listening to your argument unwind
He seemed to leave the heavy world behind;
And liberated in a bright abyss
All burdens and all load and weight to shed;
Uplifted like a leaf before the wind,
Untrammelled in a region unconfined,
He moved as lightly as the happy dead.
And as you read the message of Our Lord
You stumbled over the familiar word,
As if the news now sudden to you came;
As if you stood upon the holy ground
Within the house filled with mighty sound
And lit with Pentecostal tongues of flame.”

So who was Father McNabb?


He was born Joseph McNabb, at Portaferry near Belfast on 8th July 1868. He was thus - I think importantly - senior to both Belloc and Chesterton, by two and six years respectively. His father was a sea captain whom he seldom saw: his mother was just that, a mother, and - in his eyes - all the more blessed for being “just” that (before her marriage, at a very young age, she had occupied an important sales and administration position in a New York department store). Not that she didn’t have other things than bringing up the children and managing the home to occupy herself with: one of Father McNabb’s first memories is of his mother taking him on a sick visit to a lady with a cancerous growth in her chest whom Mrs McNabb would wash and comfort. Mrs McNabb appears always to have played a leading part in parochial charity, and frequently to have commanded her children’s assistance. She was the mother of eleven children in total, Joseph McNabb being the tenth. In his later years he wrote a book, almost an autobiographical study of his early years, called Eleven, thank God! which he dedicated to his mother and which stands as a great apologia pro familia magna. Family always held a central place in Father McNabb’s world, as it indeed holds a central place in Rerum Novarum.

Although born in Ireland, by the age of 14 he had moved with his family to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on account of his father’s work. A move to London had been considered but the capital was thought to be too terrible a place for the bringing-up of children. For a short while Joseph McNabb continued to board for most of the year at St Malachy’s in Belfast until he was 16. However, the influence of his time in Newcastle was important to him, for his family moved into the parish of St Dominic’s which was - unsurprisingly - run by the Dominican Order. He was profoundly impressed by all he saw of Dominican life and spirituality, of their asceticism, their love for Holy Scripture and their profound learning; and so, after leaving St Malachy’s and taking one unsatisfactory year at St Cuthbert’s Grammar School in Newcastle, he decided to become a Dominican. Curiously, what appears to have been the principal human motive behind Father McNabb’s vocation was the same thing that drove Chesterton into the Catholic Church - fear of Hell. As he put it: “I don’t want to go to Hell; I think I’ll go to the Novitiate!” Undoubtedly, while many reasons can be identified for the motivation behind his vocation, the simple fact was that he felt God was calling him to become a friar in order to save his soul.

At the age of 17 - despite his father’s initial anger at his son deciding to pursue a vow of poverty: “I’ll never, no I’ll never consent to a child of mine becoming a voluntary pauper!”: an anger which only abated after a visit from a Dominican from the local Priory to explain the nature of poverty - Joseph McNabb entered the Dominican novitiate at Woodchester. The Dominicans at this time were but a small band: following their establishment at Woodchester in 1854, at the point of their lowest ebb in England, they were by 1885 only just beginning to attract novices and still barely had enough of them to justify a novitiate. Joseph McNabb’s entrance to the Order coincided with the beginnings of a comparative deluge of able and devout novices who entered in his year and the three or four years following, novices who once professed formed the basis of the Order’s rise to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century, principally under the aegis of Father Bede Jarrett.

As we have seen, Father NcNabb was ordained in September 1891, shortly after his 23rd birthday, and in the year of Rerum Novarum. He was the most brilliant scholar of his year in the novitiate, although the following years were to see some greater academic minds entering the Order. One of Father McNabb’s contemporaries wrote that “only Father Humbert Everest - who had left the novitiate for Louvain two years earlier - could have challenged [Father] McNabb’s intellectual supremacy”. Indeed, Father McNabb followed Father Everest to Louvain for further studies. By 1894, three years after his ordination, Father McNabb was sent back to Woodchester with his Doctorate in Sacred Theology.

For the next 26 years, Father McNabb was sent hither and thither as holy Obedience demanded. He taught novices at Woodchester for 3 years upon his return from Louvain and was then sent to Hawkesyard (where the senior novices were now taught) again for 3 years, to teach theology. For the following 6 years, 1900 to 1906, he was returned to Woodchester as Prior (at the tender age of 32): in 1906 he first went to St Dominic’s Priory in north-west London for the first time as parish-priest for two years from whence he was plucked back in 1908 to become Prior of Holy Cross, Leicester, for 6 years until 1914. In 1914 he was elected Prior of Hawkesyard, where he faced his severest personal and spiritual tests (and made some enemies - a point we will have to come to later), a position he served in for 3 years: for a further 3 years he served there as Professor of Dogma before returning to St Dominic’s Priory in London, where he served again as parish-priest until his death on 17th June 1943, some 23 years later.

That, in breathless and unsatisfactorily cursory summary, was his life. From whence then flowed his high reputation? It flowed from his words, from his works, from the substance of his life.

Now let us look in more detail at the work and thought of Father McNabb. Like every other religious, he took some time to find his own apostolic feet: he was little known to the outside world until his appointment to Holy Cross, Leicester, when a more public apostolate began. As he came into contact, through his apostolate, with more prominent Catholic and non-Catholic figures, he came into greater national prominence as he was asked to write articles and essays, to preach, and to address public meetings of almost every conceivable variety. It was not until he finally settled down at St Dominic’s Priory in Cobbett’s “great wen” at the age of 52 that he found a context for his work and contacts with those able best to assist him in his work and so - per accidentem - became a national Catholic figure. His preaching at Parliament Hill and Speakers’ Corner with the Catholic Evidence Guild were instrumental to this growing renown.

Just as at the beginning of this piece I threw up some quotations concerning Father McNabb to illumine what he meant to his contemporaries, I would like now to cite some quotations from his own works to throw light on what he was saying to those contemporaries.

This first piece is from the introduction to the book, Old Principles and the New Order, published in 1942, which was a collection of his essays printed in Catholic journals over the previous twenty years:

“This book rests upon certain dogmatic and moral principles, certain undeniable facts, and it makes certain practical proposals.

The first principle is that there is a God, our Creator, Whom we must love and serve; and Whom we cannot love and serve without loving and serving our fellow creatures.

The second principle is that the Family is the unit of all social life; and that therefore the value of all social proposals must be tested by their effect on the Family.

The third (psychological) principle is that from the average man we cannot expect more than average virtue. A set of circumstances demanding from the average man more than average (i.e. heroic) virtue is called an Occasion of Sin.

The fourth (moral) principle is that the occasions of sin should be changed, if they can possibly be changed, i.e. they must be overcome by flight not fight.

The great observed fact, of world-wide incidence, is that in large industrialized urban areas (and in town-infested rural areas) normal family life is psychologically and economically impossible; because from the average parent is habitually demanded more than average virtue...

...From this observed fact that the industrialized town is an occasion of sin we conclude that, as occasions of sin must be fled,... Flight from the Land must be now be countered by Flight to the Land.”


Who, upon reading this description of city-living as an occasion of sin, does not recall that passage from Cardinal John Henry Newman’s novel, Callista, describing the farm-worker, Agellius, entering the city of Carthage for the first time? -

“The sights now shock and now allure: fearful sights - not here and there but on the stateliest structures and on the meanest hovels, in public offices and private houses, in central spots and at the corners of the streets, in bazaars and shops and house doors, in the rudest workmanship and in the highest art, in letters or in emblems or in paintings - the insignia and pomp of Satan and of Belial, of a reign of corruption and a revel of idolatry which you can neither endure nor escape. Wherever you go it is all the same - you are accosted, affronted, publicly, shamelessly, now as if a precept of religion, now as if a homage to nature, by all which, as a Christian, you shrink from and abjure.”

The occasion of sin which Father McNabb was particularly - but not exclusively - referring to was the temptation placed before poor families living in poor conditions to resort to methods of birth control (“no birth and no control” as G K Chesterton so famously put it - “race suicide” as McNabb put it rather more grimly).

While the state in which so many of his contemporaries lived and worked filled him with grief and anguish - he regularly records in his books the latest statistics concerning the numbers of families living in one room (or even sharing one room) in the filthy and crumbling tenement blocks of London and elsewhere - it was largely amongst these people that he worked, and to these people he ministered and preached. Despite his popularity, and its usefulness to his mission, he was consistent in urging his congregation, his audience, to leave him and to leave London. He encouraged all those who could to desert the Babylon of London - “Babylondon”, as he often referred to it - and vowed to remain behind to serve those who could not, or would not, leave: at least until the way had been prepared by those who had gone before them into the countryside. And it must be remembered that this flight to the Land was no foolish idea: towards the end of Father McNabb’s life the Government was itself was in the face of war to encourage a return to the land, so as to increase agricultural produce from a degraded and untended land.

While objective material poverty may not now - save in exceptional cases - be so great as it was then, before the Second World War, who here would dare say that the various scourges of metropolitan life today are no worse?

Of course, the primary reason for Father McNabb’s detestation of squalid and degrading urban conditions was the effect they had upon family life. The family is the prime unit of Christian society - indeed of any society - and precedes the State in every respect. Father McNabb knew that all economic, social, and political acts had some effect upon the family: it was by their effect upon the family that he would measure their worth or morality. The family was what he called “the Nazareth Measure”. As he wrote in his book, The Church and the Land:

“All our personal and social building, to be lasting, must be trued by the measures of that little school of seers whose names are the very music of life - Jesus, Mary, Joseph!... the Nazareth measure of length and weight and worth is the Family... let no guile of social usefulness betray you into hurting the authority of the Father, the chastity of the Mother, the rights and therefore property of the Child.”


Father McNabb knew the importance of the strength that he had derived from his natural family, and the strength that he daily drew from his new spiritual family, his Dominican community. He always stressed that what changed when he “moved” from his natural family to his supernatural family were not the virtues he pursued but the vows he had taken. He was keenly aware of the need for lay people to be inspired amidst the many snares of the modern world to pursue heroic virtue, to imitate the evangelical counsels so far as their duties of state permitted. In his book, Old Principles and the New Order - a title that sounds quite prophetic to our own ears - he writes about charity, poverty, and obedience:

“[E]ven Catholics have sometimes come to think that the three virtues behind these religious vows were only for religious, whereas the three virtues are binding upon all individuals, and in some measure, upon that grouping of individuals... which we moderns...confusedly call the State’.”


On one level what Father McNabb says here is a truism - we must all strive to be chaste, poor - in spirit, let us say - and obedient: but upon closer examination Father McNabb is pointing out that these three virtues should be as much a daily call to arms as they are to the religious who have professed vows. For after all, as Father McNabb said:

“...the religious men or women who have publicly promised God to keep poverty, chastity, obedience are not thereby bound to more poverty, more chastity, more obedience than if they had remained as lay-folk in the world.”


Moreoever, Father McNabb added:

“[I]t need hardly be pointed out that the poverty of work and thrift, the self-control of virginal and conjugal chastity, the obedience to rulers and to law, are of the greatest social value and need.”


In many articles Father McNabb traced the decadent and withering effect of the State upon society to its neglect of poverty - through reckless expenditure, financial mismanagement, usurious practices - to its neglect of obedience - by going against the natural moral law and the laws of revealed religion - and to its neglect of chastity - by permitting, even encouraging, activities that undermined sexual or conjugal morality. Just as every individual should strive to be poor, chaste, and obedient, so too the State should aim to adhere to these three cardinal virtues.

One of Father McNabb’s hardest lessons to his own and to our generation concerns poverty. People nowadays are especially reluctant to consider what Father McNabb may have meant by poverty when he so encouraged people to embrace it. He was certainly not referring to indigence. To Father McNabb poverty meant having enough for your duties of state but no more: having no excess, no extravagance, no luxury - always giving, as Christian charity dictates, to those less fortunate what you yourself or those for whom you are responsible do not need. Certainly, what constituted “enough” in Father McNabb’s eyes would be considered as much too little by most of our contemporaries and even by most of us. But he was not recommending that we all become mendicants or fall into a life of helpless wretchedness and pauperism - only that we attempt to be self-sufficient, restrict our desires, limit our needs, and give from any over-abundance we possess. Many Catholics throughout the ages have fallen into complacency on this point by retreating behind the wall of “spiritual poverty”, by allowing themselves anything and everything on the basis that they are poor in spirit. Father McNabb of course realised the importance of spiritual poverty; realised that it was possible for a poor man to be more avaricious and more greedy than a rich man. But he also realised the dangers of riches, the difficulty of achieving spiritual poverty when surrounded by excess - and he also realised that the demands of justice and especially of charity required people to have less than they would probably like or would naturally have. Furthermore, he saw the embrace of poverty as a means of defeating the increasing materialism and destitution of the world about him.

Before moving on from the subject of poverty, I will leave you with this excerpt from The Church and the Land: it concerns the young man with great possessions from the Gospels:

“Only once did anyone come to Jesus after speech with Him and go away sad. This was the young man who had great desire to have everlasting life. But he also had ‘great possessions’. He did not know that for him the way to the joy of life was to accept the challenge of Jesus, ‘Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven. And come follow me.’ He did not realise that his invitation to follow the poor Babe of Bethlehem, the poor man of Galilee, the poor outcast of Golgotha, was a call to enter the narrow path of perfect joy. He could not leave the things which sooner or later would leave him. He clung to his great possessions on earth rather than seek treasure in Heaven, and left the joy of wilful poverty and the following of Jesus for the sadness of wilful wealth and the service of Mammon.”

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