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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Sunday, 4 December 2011

The last word on Vincent McNabb...




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



Father Vincent McNabb: a voice of contradiction (Parts 4, 5 and 6)



We must, however, not forget that Father McNabb would never claim originality or even ingenuity for any of the things about which he taught or preached. His great pride - if we are permitted to use that word in this context - was that he taught only what the Church taught: in particular that he taught almost exclusively from Holy Scripture and from the works of the Angelic Doctor. All that may strike us as unique about Father McNabb’s teachings - he himself would never claim anything unique for them, of course - was in their emphasis and application.

And there were many sides to Father McNabb: as well as being the devoted preacher of Rerum Novarum in works such as The Church and the Land, Nazareth or Social Chaos and the aforementioned Old Principles and the New Order; as well as being the ‘celebrity friar’ who appeared at public meetings, who spoke at Speakers’ Corner and at Parliament Hill, and preached at great Catholic funerals such as that of Cecil Chesterton: as well as all this Father McNabb was a busy teacher and a retreat master, in both cases for lay people as well as clerics. His classes on St Thomas - open to all-comers - were very popular; and from his retreats a devotee of his - Dorothy Findlayson - culled sufficient verbatim shorthand notes to have printed, with his permission, a number of slim but rewarding volumes of spiritual advice: Stars of Comfort, In Our Valley, The Craft of Prayer, The Craft of Suffering, Joy in Believing, God’s Way of Mercy and Mary of Nazareth. Most of the chapters in these volumes are meditations on a few lines of Holy Scripture, or a line-by-line analysis of one of the great prayers of the Church.

Father McNabb was also an enthusiast for Chaucer and Francis Thompson and wrote essays on these, and other, poets and writers. His diverse collections of essays are entitled Francis Thompson and Other Essays, Our Reasonable Service, Thoughts Twice-Dyed, From a Friar’s Cell and The Wayside: A Priest’s Gleanings. He was also - it has to be admitted - a rather casual biographer: he wrote a slim work on St John Fisher. He also wrote a number of small books on aspects of Holy Scripture: The New Testament Witness to Our Lady, The New Testament Witness to St Peter, Meditations on St John, St Mary Magdalen, The Doctrinal Witness of Infallibility of the Fourth Gospel. His work, The Life of Our Lord, was written under strict obedience: it is a strange book, full of curious omissions and odd emphases, which unhappily reflects the author’s reluctance to take on such a demanding subject.

Interestingly, the very first book for which Father McNabb was responsible was an edition of the decrees of the First Vatican Council: his first printed pamphlet, entitled Infallibility, was a version of a lecture he had been asked to give to the Anglo-Catholic Society of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Father McNabb showed great interest in the possibility of the Anglican Church re-uniting with the Catholic Church: he often spoke to Anglican and Anglo-Catholic meetings and expressed great concern for the continuing de-Christianisation of their sect, from which concern sprang his book The Church and Reunion. He also took an interest in the poor Jews of Whitechapel and East London in general, and was held in great affection by the Jewish community there.

In a more theological context, Father McNabb initially made his name as a preacher and teacher - beyond the walls of the Dominican institutions which he served - with his conferences on faith and prayer at the Catholic Chaplaincy of Oxford University. Initially published separately, these conferences - with some slight revisions - were eventually published in one volume, Faith and Prayer, and constitute the most substantial contribution Father McNabb made to more academic theological writing. He also wrote a slim book on the Blessed Sacrament - God’s Good Cheer - a collection of theological essays, Where Believers May Doubt, which concentrates on the relationship between Holy Scripture and scholasticism, and another collection of similar essays, Frontiers of Faith and Reason, which covers a variety of topics from the origin of the epiclesis to a plea for the re-introduction of the Sarum Rites of Betrothal and Marriage.

Aside from these works Father McNabb was also a great contributor to periodicals of many sorts, from GK’s Weekly, where his writings rubbed metaphorical shoulders with those of Chesterton, Belloc and TS Eliot, to the more obvious Catholic periodicals, Blackfriars and the then-orthodox Tablet. While Father McNabb was clearly more than a ‘one-issue man’ it is striking how many of these books and articles touch upon, even dwell upon, matters relating to the social teaching of the Church and to the family.

A little more should now be said about Father McNabb’s life as a friar in order once again to put flesh upon him after such a tedious catalogue of books and anthologies.

Even amongst his fellow Dominicans, as yet untainted by modernism and its laxities, Father McNabb was considered to be an ascetic. As Prior of Woodchester, HawkesyardSumma Theologica. He kept a compendious box of notes, all written on scraps of paper - the backs of cards, used envelopes and the like - on a huge variety of subjects some penned in English, some in Latin, some in Greek and some even in Hebrew (this box is now with the Dominican archive in Edinburgh and is looked after by the oldest Dominican in Great Britain, Father Bede Bailey, a pupil of Father McNabb’s). Everything he wrote was hand-written: he abominated most machinery and had particular a vehemence for type-writers! Hilaire Belloc, who shared many views with Father McNabb, always had a fascination for machinery and considered the type-writer - and the telephone (something else Father McNabb loathed) - as a great boon (Belloc’s handwriting was notoriously slovenly: Father McNabb’s was habitually neat and legible). It would no doubt have been both interesting and amusing to have been a fly-on-the-wall as they discussed the desirability of the ‘automated writing machine’!

Of course, as a religious, indeed, as a Catholic, prayer was central to his life. His profound attachment to Holy Mass and the Office aside, Father McNabb devoted much of his energy to praying and to encouraging others to pray the Holy Rosary. As a man of formidable intellect and deep learning he had nothing but impatience for those who claimed that the Rosary was a prayer, a devotion, for simple beginners, for the unlettered, for those who have not yet ascended to the sublime heights of spirituality. Such people rendered Father McNabb almost speechless with indignation. “The Rosary”, he would say, “is the safest and surest way to union with God through mental prayer”. What impressed him the most about the Holy Rosary was the prayerfulness of many of the faithful who had been taught or had grown up to pray to God through Our Blessed Lady. Again and again he would say: “Most of the contemplatives I have met are in the world, and these have found union with God through the Rosary.” Devotion to the Rosary, he insisted, should be fundamental to a Catholic’s prayer life. As he said during a sermon on Rosary Sunday on 1936:

“The Incarnation is the centre of all our spiritual life.. One of the means by which it is made so is the Holy Rosary. There is hardly any way of arriving at some realisation of this great mystery equal to that of saying the Rosary. Nothing will impress it so much on your mind as going apart to dwell in thought, a little space each day, on Bethlehem, on Golgotha, on the Mount of the Ascension.”

Father McNabb wore a homespun habit - he only had the one at any one time - and marched around London in the same heavy hob-nailed boots from year to year. Over his shoulders as he trudged about the streets he had slung his “McNabb-sack”, a capacious if battered means of carriage for his Vulgate, Breviary, and whatever other books he needed. Although he was not averse to rail travel, or public transport in general, he usually refused to travel by car or by cab: the long distances he had to cover in London from St Dominic’s Priory to the various convents to which he was chaplain, to Speakers’ Corner and to Parliament Hill, he managed on foot and at a startling pace. Hilaire Belloc, who astonishingly still holds the time record for walking between London and Oxford, was full of admiration for Father McNabb’s speed and endurance: indeed, he gave him advice on how to follow his own route from Toul to Rome, famously walked and recounted in The Path to Rome. Father McNabb’s superior would not however allow him the vacation time to accomplish this walk, which he had so wanted to do - at the age of 68 (Belloc had been 31!) - to celebrate the golden jubilee of his profession in the Dominican Order.

There is a moving account of an occasion when Father McNabb actually took a cab back to his Priory. For months he had made sick calls to a young girl - an only child - who was dying. The mother - who had asked him to come - was a Catholic; the largely absent father was not, and moreover was one of his chief hecklers at Parliament Hill. They were a poor family, lodged with another family in a single, small room in a crumbling tenement block near St. Pancras Station. Sadly, the daughter died: McNabb said the Requiem Mass. Just a few weeks later the mother died - she had been ill throughout her daughter’s illness but had said nothing about it to anyone. McNabb again said the Requiem Mass. As he left the graveyard the husband approached him, gave him a flower from a funeral bouquet that Father McNabb had arranged from a pious benefactor, and asked him how he was planning to return to his Priory. The sky was thunderous and rain was beginning to fall. Father McNabb replied that he planned to return as he had come - on foot. The husband - trebly poor now - pulled from his pocket enough money to pay for a cab: at first Father McNabb demurred and then he realised that this was the widower’s mite. With tears in his eyes he accepted the money. He never forgot this instance of simple charity. As he wrote:

“Blessed are the poor! Few things have ever touched me more than that. Out of his poverty he offered me my fare. Imagine that coming from one who has not the faith. What am I to do when I see him next? To kiss his feet would be unworthy of him. I shall pray... that God may give him the consolation of the faith.” 


The full extent of Father McNabb’s own charity will of course never be known. What he did privately remained private even after the public death that we will shortly be considering. One known instance may have to suffice. In another rotting block of flats close to Camden Lock lived an old bed-ridden woman. For months, possibly for years, someone came regularly to talk to her, to tidy the room and to scrub the floor. A few weeks after Father McNabb had died, a group of people living in rooms near to the woman’s were discussing who would do the job as the old lady who had come to do the work before had evidently stopped coming. Only the bed-ridden lady’s best friend knew that this ‘lady’ had in fact been Father McNabb, on his way to Parliament Hill, dropping in for an half-hour-or-so to see the old lady.

I touched earlier upon Father McNabb’s homespun habit. When one was worn out he received another - and the donor from 1917 onwards was the Ditchling Community, an artistic variant of the back-to-the-land movement which Father McNabb supported throughout his life. Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler had been the two talents behind its genesis in 1907. Father McNabb acted as the Community’s chaplain - many of the its members became Third Order Dominicans - but nonetheless fault-lines soon appeared. Its attempts to live off the land faltered - most of its members were artists and had little aptitude for real land-work - and gradually it became an artistic rural retreat rather than a self-sufficient community with an artistic bent. Father McNabb was disappointed that the members of the Community had not applied themselves more to the primary thing - to working on the land. On this matter he did not see eye-to-eye with Eric Gill. Eventually, Gill departed for Wales in 1924. Thereafter, despite his enthusiastic advice to all who asked for it to return to the land, to strive for poverty and self-sufficiency away from the stink of the cities, Father McNabb never again attached himself to any particular project as he had to Ditchling.

Indeed, Father McNabb was always concerned with the primary things and saw any work or activity that moved even one stage away from the primary thing as less worthy and possibly less virtuous. As a result he loathed international finance which was as far removed from reality and the primary things as it was possible to go. As he put it, cuttingly:

“Some men wrest a living from nature. This is called work. Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature. This is called trade. Some men wrest a living from those who wrest a living from those who wrest a living from nature. This is called finance.”

Before I move on to describe Father McNabb’s death, I feel I must offer up a few examples of his wit in order to derail any growing impression that Father McNabb must have been a miserable fanatic. Father McNabb certainly had a way with words. He was particularly adept at dealing with hecklers. On one occasion during a long disquisition on sin at Speakers’ Corner an Irish woman shouted out: “If I was your wife I would put poison in your tea!”. Grinning, Father McNabb replied: “Madam, if I were your husband I would drink it!”. On another occasion he famously compared hearing nuns’ confessions to being pecked slowly to death by ducks. On a more serious note, he once attended a public meeting on the subject of the Mental Degeneracy Bill then passing through the House of Commons. After listening to various medical experts explaining how they would certify as degenerates, and as a result sterilise, many types with whom Father McNabb was familiar in his pastoral work, the good friar stood up and, having been called to speak by the chairman of the meeting, bellowed: “I am a moral expert and I certify you as moral degenerates!” He stormed out of the meeting to rapturous applause and the meeting broke up in disarray.

If it is true that it is possible to tell a lot about a person’s life from the manner of their death then it seems only appropriate that we should now turn to the last long weeks of Father McNabb’s life and to his eventual death.

On 14th April 1943, as he was drawing to the end of his seventy-fifth year, Father McNabb was told by his doctor that he had only a short time to live. That same day he wrote to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen, a Dominican sister, “Deo Gratias! God is asking me to take a journey which everyone must sooner or later take. I have been told that I have a malignant incurable growth in the throat. I can, at most, have weeks to live.” The following day he preached to the Sisters of Mercy. It was Thursday in Passion Week, and, after a few vivid words of reflection concerning the imminence of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Father McNabb said:

“And now dear sisters, I have some very good news for you. This is the last time I shall be speaking to you together in this chapel. You know in these days everyone is being called up[this of course was in the midst of World War II] ... I too have been called up!... And for what? To the King of Kings, and that not for the duration but for Life Everlasting! The words of the Psalm, ‘Rejoice at the things that were said to me - with joy I have entered the House of the Lord’, are filling my heart with joy.” 


It was to be approximately nine weeks before Father McNabb finally died - and these last two months were as busy a period for him as any that had gone before. He carried on his teaching courses on Aquinas and the Psalms, even offering to start a course on the Angels for as long as he lasted: “I do not now what sort of Angels they will put me amongst, dear children! I am not good enough for the good Angels.” He warned his students that at any time he may have to send them a telegram to say that he was dead.

When the press - Catholic and secular - found out that such a popular figure was about to die they hounded the Dominican Community at St Dominic’s Priory. Father McNabb was determined that his death should be as much a sermon as his life as a Dominican had been. He knew that the last weeks would be difficult. He had been told that he would effectively die slowly of starvation, and may well experience some severe breathing troubles, as the passage of his throat narrowed and finally disappeared. While his strength was still with him he continued to preach and speak across London, marching along its dreary streets in his habit and hob-nailed boots with his heavy ‘McNabb-sack’ over his shoulders. He went to all his choir duties until a few days before his death: although he was able to speak to the end, and his breathing problems were slight, he was not able to eat for about a week, and could not swallow any liquids for three days, before he died. In the end, he collapsed one morning at Prime, on Monday 14th June: he experienced a slight recovery and wrote his last letter, again to his niece, Sister Mary Magdalen. The next day he received the Last Rites and slowly deteriorated until the morning of Thursday 17th June when he summoned Father Prior to his cell (under obedience he was seated on a straight-backed chair - they didn’t dare suggest to him that he should take to his bed!). There, amidst the bare surroundings of a familiar austerity, Father McNabb sang the Nunc Dimittis for the last time, confessed his sins to Father Prior, and renewed his vows. He then became unconscious for half-an-hour, sneezed, and died.

Crowds of people, young and old, rich and poor, but especially old and poor, came to see him, pray for him, and touch his habit as he was laid out in the Lady Chapel at the Priory for three days. The Requiem Mass took place on Monday 21st June: the Church was packed, principally with Catholic luminaries - the streets outside were thronged with the poor from the tenements he had so often visited. As requested, he was buried in a plain deal box, marked with a simple black cross: it was drawn on an open-backed wagon to Kensal Green Cemetery to where amidst even more crowded scenes Cardinal Manning had been carried almost half-a-century before. The newspapers were full of stories and details about his last few days, his death and his funeral. Truly, his last sermon, his death, was what reached his greatest audience. As his Prior, Father Bernard Delaney, said at his funeral:

“All that he [Father McNabb] said, all that he did, all that he was, were the expression of his burning love for his Master, Jesus Christ Our Lord. The cause of God was his consuming passion - the glory, the justice, the truth of God. He was a great Friar Preacher, but he was something more - he was a living sermon.”

There is much more that could be said about Father McNabb. His work for the social reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ was great: he touched many, many souls, and after his death a small movement started for his beatification. It got nowhere, despite several significant endorsements, largely because his own Dominican family was in two minds about him. Whereas those who perhaps saw less of him considered him a saint, several of his brother friars thought him a play-actor, a rigid and harsh ego-maniac who craved attention and utter obedience. Many of the friars with such negative views appear to have suffered under his authority when he was Prior of Hawkesyard and they were his charges many years ago.

This sense of division comes across in the only (pseudo-)biography of Father McNabb, written by a Dominican pupil of his, Father Ferdinand Valentine (one too young to remember those gruelling Hawkesyard days), who grew from hero-worship to perplexed uncertainty as he wrote the book and encountered views of the man that differed markedly from his own. The greatest asset of this book - more a slightly hysterical quasi-psychological poly-conjectural study of the man than a proper biography or examination of his work - is the appendix which contains a wealth of letters and testimonies that make up over a quarter of its pages. Sadly, Father McNabb has suffered under the pall of this book for many years. In 1996, The Chesterton Review bravely brought out a very useful if rather ambivalent special issue devoted to him: aside from this the only other book dealing with him was one full of peculiar admiration written by E A Sidermann, one of his chief hecklers at Speakers’ Corner and an atheist to boot.

Although some aspects of Catholic social teaching which he championed would certainly be enthusiastically cheered by elements amongst the ‘typical’ May Day anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation protesters, and some aspects would be limply applauded at ghastly Justice and Peace hand-holdings across the country by the polo-necked pseudo-Dominicans who sadly even today sometimes pass for St Dominic’s sons, much of what Father McNabb stood for - integral, upright, unapologetic, strong, fervent Catholicism - is of course now out of favour. There can be no doubt that Father McNabb would have been desolated by what passes for Catholicism in so many churches up and down the country, across the world, indeed, today. He would have prescribed as its antidote an apostolate of Catholic Action, but only if it were founded on a strong and well-anchored spiritual life. He knew that our lives - well-lived - would accomplish more than our words.

I will conclude this piece with some more of Father McNabb’s words, and with a prayer of his:

“Some people say, ‘I do not like sermons . I never go to hear a sermon.’ They do not know that these very words are themselves a sermon. They do not realise that every deed done in the sight or hearing of another is a preached sermon. The best or the worst of all sermons is a life led. God made every man and woman an apostle when he made them capable of dwelling with their fellow men and women. The best argument for the Catholic Church is not the words spoken from this pulpit but the lives lived in this Priory and in this parish. We should measure the words by the life, not the life by the words.”

“Bend my stubborn heart, my Master, make my lips truthful. May my prayer be a prayer of truth as well as a prayer of petition. May I desire what I say I desire; and may I desire as first what Thou hast put first, at the head of all our desires - Thy Will, Thy Kingdom, and the hallowing of Thy Name.” 

McNabb on Freud



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