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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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

On Thinking Continually on Those in Beatitude. James V. Schall S.J.


In a letter from Manchester on August 13th, 1926, which I found in Robert Speaight's collection of Belloc's letters (London: Hollis & Carter, 1958), Belloc wrote to Laura, Lady Lovat, that he had just been to a party with many friends. His hostess, presumably Lady Lovat, was very kind and sent him a "parcel which contained a 1912 bottle of Haut Brion," which, as Belloc said, "astounded" him. I am not sure whether it was the Haut Brion itself that astounded him or the fact that Lady Lovat knew that he would like it, probably both. He was so inspired that he intended to complete his long poem on Wine that had been delayed for already four years. Belloc mused that "it will be a long time before I get Friendship and the Faith again under the same roof." Needless to say, these two belong together under the same roof, which is, more or less, the whole message of revelation.


Lady Lovet's daughter Rose died in August of 1940 at the age of fourteen. I do not know the exact circumstances of her death. As we know, Belloc's American wife, Elodie, died in 1914. He lost one son during World War I and another in World War II. He was privy to such sadness. Belloc wrote to Lady Lovat that he had been continually thinking of her daughter. He added:

I have always believed that thinking continually of those in beatitude is a sign of communion with them. Of course, that may be a superstition, but it seems to me there must be something in it, for I have noticed that the degree in which the mind recalls those who are no longer on earth is connected with some sort of communion. I do not understand these things but I cannot help but feeling a connection between actual persons and recurrent recollection. If it were not so why should one person be remembered more than another...?

This is the Communion of the Saints, isn't it?


Belloc presumes to extend words of consolation, as only he can, to Lady Lovat. He wants to stress two things that, he writes, are results of his own experience. "The first thing is," he tells her, "that strong human ties escape the general rule of mortality." Belloc, of course, is most conscience of what he called in The Path to Rome, "the mortality of immortal men." Here he is telling us, apparently contrary to all evidence, that something escapes the "general rule of mortality". He realizes that this teaching goes against our culture and our senses. He does not pretend to explain it. "How that escape is accomplished, I have no idea. Most things pass, but certain forms of human affection do not pass; they seem to be of another stuff from the common fabric of life." In the face of doubt, including his own, he trusts his experience.


Notice how "scientific", if you will, that Belloc is here. He does not have an a priori theory that prevents him from affirming his experience. He does not pretend to know how the experience comes about. On the other hand, he does not say that "since 'science' or philosophy tells us that there is no everlasting life, my experience of communion, even though I am aware of it, must be utter nonsense." What he knows, he admits; what he does not know, he also acknowledges.


The second thing that Belloc told Lady Lovat was that "human beings can rely permanently on doctrine." Here we see in Belloc a theme that we so often find in Chesterton, that the mind is a faculty of dogma, that its purpose is to state what is true. Since Belloc is here talking to a mother, his friend, about the death of her young daughter, it seems surprising that he is talking to her, of all things, about doctrine. We might we willing to accept vaguely that there is some affection that remains, but our mind should tell us that nothing remains.


Belloc admits to Lady Lovat that "doctrine is much drier than emotion and it is difficult to understand its full value today for the world has come today to depend wholly on emotion for its creed and its values." It seems remarkable that Belloc already saw in 1940, a creed that has become commonplace at the end of the Century. Remember that the doctrine at issue here is simply that of the Communion of Saints, the logical result of which would be that there is no reason why some communion between those of great mutual affection is not possible in theory. Belloc understands that this doctrine confirms his experience, which is what he is trying to explain to Lady Lovat.


Doctrine is, Belloc affirms, his "meat and drink." Then, almost in contradiction of what he has just said about his experience of communion, he explains the basic meaning of a doctrine that directly depends on faith: "I mean by doctrine that core of Catholic truth which is not to be referred to experience and not confirmed by experience -- the doctrine of immortality is of this kind. The less vividly it is imagined, the more firmly it can be grasped." That is, if we try to imagine immortality, we will begin to confuse the principle at issue with our own imaginings, which may be quite far off base. Thus we can end up confused and doubtful not because of the doctrine but because of the imperfection of our imaginings.


Having said all of this, however, Belloc's conclusion to his letter to Lady Lovat is remarkable: "I am afraid that insisting on that truth (of immortality) is of very little value to anyone, because people can only live upon their feelings and doctrine itself is not alive."

Doctrine, no doubt, is alive as all thought is alive. We need to recall that immortality is both something that is believed in faith and also a philosophic conclusion, something discussed by Socrates on his last day. Christianity is not the source of the doctrine of individual immortality. That comes from Greek philosophy. Christianity arrives at immortality via the resurrection of the body, the problem of the continuity between the resurrected body and the soul separated from the same body at death.


So we must notice how good Belloc's advice to Lady Lovat, in her grief, really was. He told her of his own experience of communion, which he acknowledged to be a feeling or an emotion, but something real and to be reflected on none the less. He next suggested that there is a rather dry doctrine that might confirm this experience of communion if thought about, but that it was tough going for most people, though he thought it fitting to mention to Lady Lovat.

"I have always believed that thinking continually of those in beatitude is a sign of communion with them."

"The first thing is that strong human ties escape the general rules of mortality."

"Human beings can rely permanently on doctrine."

The doctrine on which we rely permanently confirms our thinking continually of our communion with those in beatitude. The persistent thinking of those in beatitude escapes the general rules of mortality. Faith and friendship are to be found under the same roof with immortality and the Communion of Saints, with, indeed, as Belloc would say in astonishment to Lady Lovat, "a 1912 bottle of Haut Brion.


From Generally Speaking, February, 1997.

'Schall on Belloc', James V. Schall, S. J.


The first French estate to lend its name to a wine...



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