Dare I say it, but Belloc does make a disparaging remark about the High Mass in The Path to Rome. By 1927 he seems to have changed his tune. Anyway, he is going to get one on the 20th of July in West Grinstead.
A unique and unrepeatable event
In October of 1927 Hilaire Belloc first published his book, Towns of Destiny, (1) which contains his grateful depiction of a unique and unrepeatable event that so unexpectedly manifested itself to him in southern France on the High Feast of the Holy Ghost: a sacred action in a very special setting. In my view, this book often reveals to the attentive reader some of our beloved Belloc's deepest thoughts and resonant, as well as animating, convictions. One small test of this judgement, and an initial measure of its sufficiency, will be found if we consider only his thirty-second Chapter, entitled “Narbonne.” (2)
Consider how Belloc starts his presentation of Narbonne, interweaving geography and history and his recent personal travel and so much more. For, he is preparing us to savour more fully a set of converging facts and acts that combined to nourish him so gracefully and sacramentally in the Spring of 1925, almost seven months before Pope Pius XI published his own sacramental Encyclical, Quas Primas: his own declaration of the High Feast of Christ the King, in light of its underlying doctrine:
Upon a Whitsunday [in May of 1925] I found myself returning from the Balearics, through Spain, to that luxuriant warm plain between the mountains and the sea, which the Romans knew as the “Narbonnese.” It was the wealthiest district of their Gaul; grouped round its great central port; the pole of so much energy, superb achievement and tradition. (223)
Towns for centuries drowned
Drawing us then further into his first-person narrative, both his just-completed personal journeys and his evocations of earlier, but still timely, military history, he says:
I had spent these spring weeks from April [of 1925] onward, in passing through the recovered countries of Sicily, North Africa and Spain, drawing and writing upon the towns in which our civilisation has re-established itself, so gradually, recovering them from the flood of Mohammedanism in which they had been for centuries drowned. (223—my emphasis added)
Back again in unbroken tradition
Acknowledging the near completion of his wandering expeditions and his consolation to return closer to home, he adds:
Here, in the Narbonnese [with Carcassonne and Castelnaudary to the West], I was at the end of that excursion and back again in the unbroken tradition of our people and of our Faith. For though the Saracen flood had indeed beaten upon the walls of this place, and though sundry small garrisons of Islam had lingered on between the Pyrenees and the central mountains of France, yet had they not here occupied,ruined or transformed, as they had occupied, ruined and transformed elsewhere. And Narbonne catches on back through 2,000 years to its origin without interruption and has, stored up within itself, the very essence of Rome. It was in these fields that the great landed family, the highest name in whose lineage was that of Charlemagne, had its origin and root. (223-224—my emphasis added).
Belloc in various ways stresses the theme of continuity and nourishing rootedness, and he even said paradoxically that Narbonne is now “better suited for the conservation of the past and for the handing on of most ancient memories to us, the modern passer-by, from the fact that it is decayed.” (224—my emphasis added). Because of certain geographical changes, especially the mysterious silting up of its once-famous harbour and inlets, history, in a certain sense, largely then passed it by. thus, certain towns, like Narbonne, “have been arrested at some moment and fossilised, as it were, and we can live it again within their walls. It is so with Narbonne.” (224) Indeed, “That mother city slowly turned to a shrunken, inland place, its ancient function lost,” (224) for it was effectively isolated and no longer copiously open to the Mediterranean sea and its water-borne traffic. Then we come to face a sacred edifice which was still to be seen in that old mother city, now situated on a “shallow lagoon” that was no longer a great bay:
And the date of the turning point, when at last the narrows [to the open sea] had become too difficult, and the harbour too shoal for a continued life, is well fixed by the enormous cathedral and palace of the Bishop, which stand like a fortress, and are yet uncompleted, halted at mid-building in the very midst of the Middle Ages. (224—my emphasis added)
The fortress and the keep
The Narbonne cathedral, nearly contemporary with “the Palace of the Popes in Avignon,” somehow combines the effects of both “church and stronghold,” for “both the ideas are commingled and form one thing.” (224, 225) Expressing his own recent perceptions of that unfinished Narbonne cathedral, Belloc adds:
Coming upon it from the outer streets, if you approach by the palace side, you see indeed the buttresses and the ogives of a Gothic church, but there is a strength and bigness, a massiveness of stone, a reduction of ornament, which still suggests the fortress and the keep. (225)
A place of coloured light
Though that “huge thing is incomplete”—“an apse with transepts only begun...and uncontinued” like the nave and its “unconnected juttings of great stone”—something of mystery once again happens, as Belloc moves from the outside to the inside:
But this effect of power and resistance, this character of standing for a siege [perhaps a Mohammedan siege?], which is the great mark of the cathedral of Narbonne, disappears in a sort of magic and a transformation when one passes the door and gets within. Then all is suddenly changed into a place of coloured light. And that which externally was all shoulders and masonry, seeming to allow but small open spaces between, from within is one great round of those solemn and soaring windows which turn the greater glories of the thirteenth century into a vision. (225—my emphasis added)
After this framing preparation—by way of geography, history, and architecture—Belloc prepares us further for the approaching Sacred Action:
When I thus came to Narbonne, it being yet long before noon in the mid-morning, a strong May sun poured through that glass and made that whole airy cavern celestially alive. It seemed to have...the height of Beauvais, the majesty of Paris [Notre Dame], and something of the magic of Chartres. For the thirteenth century learned to work this miracle of contrasts: so to arrange the external stonework that its characteristic to the onlooker from without was the strength of this world, but so to devise the interior with the least proportion of fine, long-drawn supports, that the lights were its universal mark, and that the building itself seemed half air. (225-226—my emphasis added)
By some divine chance
In a later, and characteristically modest book, The Catholic Church and Conversion, G.K.Chesterton also memorably wrote that, as with a Gothic Cathedral, the Faith is much larger from the inside, than from without—and this more spacious and intimate sense of being within the Church, not outside, is what he gratefully and joyfully experienced as a convert, in 1922, to the Catholic Faith.
Now is the time for Hilaire Belloc to introduce us to his special experience and receptivity, and his timing was perfect (like the timing of God!):
I came to the town just in time for the Great High Mass of Pentecost, and going straight to the palace and past it into the cathedral, I took my place in what were once the stalls of the canons (for, as I have said, there is no [full] nave, and only the choir is roofed), till the procession entered, and the Sacrifice began. It was an experience such as I shall not have again, I suppose, in this life; such as I had not had before in all the many years and towns of my travels. For there met in combination there, by some divine chance [or special Providence?], certain streams of emotion, their combination all enhanced by the quality of the place.” (226—my emphasis added)
More significant than anything else in the world
He will now intensify the resonance of his deeper meaning by recalling us first to some sharp contrasts from his own recent travels:
What I had just seen in Barbary [the Maghreb of North Africa], the several crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, the town [of Narbonne] under the strong light [of May], the mountains to the south and to the north, far away, the richness of the plain, the great story of [Narbonne's] activity and of [its] decay, all this combined to give an immense significance to this which I was about to follow, this Act, repeated daily upon ten thousand altars, which is also more significant than anything else in the world. (226—my emphasis added)
Such is the truth, inherently, about the Sacred Action of the Mass—the Actio Sacra Missae.
Then, our beloved and humble Belloc will draw us on to other, less intrinsic, yet intimate, enhancements, which will also show us a deep glimpse of his heart:
It was as though this High Mass which was about to open had something about it especial; catching up the spirit of the myriad others [the other Masses] which in succession were rising to meet the sun in the progress of the morning light around the world; and I was filled with the recollection that I had
chanced, by the best of fortunes [or by the Grace of Providence], to find myself here upon the Feast of the Holy Ghost. It was a little after nine o'clock of the morning of that Whitsunday. (226—my emphasis added)
Emotion, mood and Faith
Now we turn to his consideration of “sacramentals,” as it were, and other enhancing supports of the Intrinsic Sacred Action of the Mass, while always still aware of the “unseen glory” of a low Mass offered with modesty and love amidst grave poverty, or even under conditions of wretchedness:
Men are often blamed (and more often justly blamed) for permitting the sensual to invade the intellectual; that is, for allowing their judgement (which is our highest faculty, after love) to be warped by the appetitive in man. On this account it is that the detestable Manicheans (for whom their modern name is “Puritans”) reject the proper glories of worship and the unison of the whole of man into the act of God's praise and of God's service. Without considering their unhappy malformation [i.e., that of the Puritans and their Forebears], it remains true that a man must never misinterpret his mere emotion for faith, nor his mere mood for intellectual assent and conviction, still less must he ever substitute intention for act, and a feeling, however strong, for achievement. Faith is of the will. He would be a poor heir of the Catholic Church who should consider the splendours of her most noble pageantry in the greatest Mass, as in some way adding to the inward values and to the unseen glory of a low Mass said hurriedly in some chapel of a hamlet. (226-227—my emphasis added)
The soul supported by sacramental things
After this gracious and noble reminder of the truth, Belloc will yet disclose his own yearnings and special vulnerabilities:
Nevertheless, I would advance it to be [additionally] true that the soul is supported by all sacramental things; that is, by all unison of the mind and the body upon a proper object; and [more specifically] that when great architecture and glorious colour and solemn music, and the profound rhythms of the Latin tongue, and ritual of many centuries, and the uncommunicable atmosphere of age, all combine to exalt a man in his worship, he is made greater and not less. He is supported. He is fed. (227—my emphasis added)
This last passage, I believe, should be read and read again. It is not only true, but a glimpse into the deeper heart of Belloc—a key to his own vividly expressed Sacramental Memories and Sacramental Visions and Understanding Heart, as will be found in his other writings, as well.
I cannot boast to be of such a kind
In his next transition, he gives honour to those who are of another stamp and attitude and habit of reverence, before admitting the needs of his own poor soul:
Well do I know that the greatest of visions have come to men in small rough huts of stone, round in shape, piled by their own hands above the western seas of Ireland or in the Hebrides. And I know that these men have scaled heaven. I also know that men similarly isolated in the deserts between the Nile and the Red Sea perceived our final inheritance and were admitted into the divine company.
There is no necessity of any aid from the senses; and the greatest of those who were adepts in the search for heaven did, upon the contrary, withdraw themselves from all influence of the senses when they most desired the satisfaction of the praegustatum—the foretaste of that for which wewere designed: our home. But I cannot boast myself to be of such a kind, and on my own poor level it is landscape, the sea, human love, music, and the rest, that help to make me understand: and in their absence I am very empty indeed. (227-228—my emphasis added)
Does this passage not make others also understand why we so deeply cherish and truly love Hilaire Belloc? As he says in one of his own verses: “Blessed is he that has come to the heart of the world and is humble.” (3)
A great good
With this fuller preparation and revelation of his heart, Belloc brings us to his rich accumulation and the climax of his narrative and its implications:
Now here in the cathedral of Narbonne, upon the Whitsunday of 1925, having come in with one companion [probably his friend, Edward “Bear” Warre] in the morning of a hot summer's day, after so much exploring of the heights of Africa, so much watching the conflict between Islam and ourselves, so much content in the glories of Spain and in the peace and wealth and good manners of Palma, of Majorica, so much breathing of the Mediterranean air in long nights upon the decks at sea, certainly all the support requisite, all the augmentations valuable to a man of my kind, came very fortunately together; and I received, at this Whitsunday High Mass in the cathedral of Narbonne, what I had desired to receive: a great good. (228—my emphasis added)
O that unbelievers could have witnessed this!
Belloc admits that those who “misunderstand the end of dignity do not confess these things to their fellow beings,” but he [Belloc] is “willing to confess them,” in part because “whatever has done oneself good should be communicated to others” and, besides that, “we are bound for a very different journey from that of this world.” (228) And, so, he will now conclude with vivid specificity and a consequent call for our further-faithful Catholic Witness, as was the case with Saint Dominic:
Well then the Mass began. They bore above the head of the celebrant that round shade of silk which had also come centuries ago from Rome. They had their particular rites of the bishopric, and of their tradition. They read the Gospel, not from the altar steps, but from high up near the roof, above the heads of the whole people; from the organ loft, in splendid fashion. And when they sang the Veni Creator, I could swear that the light which fell on the place took on another quality. And I remembered the singing of that same song on that great day, when St. Dominic sang it upon the scaling ladder, and our people stormed the wall and destroyed the mortal Albigensian peril, and restored Europe. I must tell you that all this time the Blessed Sacrament was exposed above the altar on a very high place in a blaze of light. The Mass proceeded; the final prayers were said; the thing was over. If I could have got into that nave of Narbonne all the starved unbelieving men cut off from the past in the dissolution of the modern world, there would have come out some reasonable proportion restored to the traditions of Europe [and hence to the Faith and the sacred traditions of the Faith]. (228-229—my emphasis added)
And, once again, Hilaire Belloc has borne his inimitable and vividly trustful Catholic Witness, here in the year of 1925, now almost a century ago, between the two civil wars in Europe—sometimes called another Thirty Years Wars—but more commonly known as World War I and World War II, about which Our Lady of Fatima also mercifully forewarned us, and especially the authoritative leaders of the Catholic Church. May Belloc's own combined sacramental words and gratefully communicated, special experience draw us also on to a greater fidelity to the Faith and hence to the Blessed Mother herself, Our Lady of Fatima.
Blessed be he who has come to the heart of the Faith and is humble.
© 2013 Robert D. Hickson
(1) Hilaire Belloc, Towns of Destiny (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1927)—“Illustrated by Edmond L.Ware,”
Belloc's beloved friend and travel companion. The book is divided into seven parts: Spain; Portugal; The Recovered
Country; France;The Rhine March; Tournai; and Three Towns of Life and Death (i.e., Narbonne, Chaise Dieu, and
Corneto of the Tarquins). It is a richly variegated and highly differentiated book of 238 pages.
(2) This seven-page chapter, simply entitled “Narbonne,” may be found on pages 223-229 of Towns of Destiny. Further
page-references to this chapter will be in parentheses in the text of this essay.
(3) Hilaire Belloc, Complete Verse (London Gerald Duckworth, 1970), p. 79— “From the Latin (But Not So Pagan),” line 1.