This is the Panegyric which was preached at Westminster Cathedral by Belloc's friend Ronnie Knox. After the Requiem, for Belloc, Absolutions were given by Cardinal Griffin. Monsignor Knox took his text from Jer. I:
"Up, then, gird thee like a man, and speak out all the message I give thee. Meet them undaunted, and they shall have no power to daunt thee. Strong I mean to make thee this day as fortified city, or pillar of iron, or wall of bronze, to meet king, prince, priest and common folk all the country through."
THE other day, in a curiously moving country church at West Grinstead, we laid to rest, not without the tears of memory, an old and tired man. It was a funeral of circumstance; the Mass was Pontifical, the habits of many religious Orders graced the sanctuary, and schoolboys' voices lent an intolerable beauty to the Dies Iris. But in essence it was a country affair ; some of Hilaire Belloc's friends had met to see his body lowered into the grave—there, in Sussex earth; there, beside the wife he had so long mourned ; there, with the house he had lived in for forty years, till it became "like a bear's fur" to him, only a few miles away. Today, as if humouring that other side of him, which loved stateliness and the just proportion of well-ordered things, we gather with muffled foot-falls among the echoing vaults of a great cathedral - we, lesser men, who have lived so long under the shadow of his championship, to remind ourselves what it is we have lost, and to do him honour.
We ask foolishly what such a man would have wished to hear said in his praise if he were alive; perhaps still more foolishly, what he is wishing to hear, if the dead know so much, care so much, about transitory things. It was a question that exercised him greatly, especially at the end of his life ; the appetite for fame was, he said, at once the most irrational and the strongest of all appetites ; of fame itself he told us, "It is but a savour and an air." For his friend Chesterton he prophesied enduring fame only on condition that the cause for which they both did battle should ultimately triumph, and England should return to a happier way of living. Whether that was right may be a matter of dispute; but I think it gives us a clue to Belloc's own feeling about such matters. What he cared for was not the good word of posterity taken in the gross, but the praise of Christendom. Only such praise concerns us, here before his catafalque. Let others remember him—have no fear, he will be remembered - as a great master of English prose, that virile, nervous English prose which he shares with men like Sterne and Cobbett; or as a satirist to be mentioned in the same breath as Swift and Moliere; or as a historian who had the rare quality of making the past live. For us, these are but the trappings of his greatness. Here was a man that interpreted divine things for us, under homely images and in our common speech. He was a prophet.
When I say that, I do not mean to suggest that he had any special skill in forecasting future events ; he made mistakes there, like the rest of us. I mean he was such a man as saw what he took to be the evils of our time in a clear light, and with a steady hatred; that he found, or thought he had found, a common root in them, and traced them back, with what light God gave him, to their origins in history. In this, he resembled a great man whom he was proud to claim as his champion-in-arms, Father Vincent MacNabb, of the Order of Preachers. Father Vincent, who has left us so little record of his splendid gifts, was an inspiration to all that brilliant circle of Catholics among whom Belloc moved; men like John Phillimore, the professor of humanities at Glasgow, and Maurice Baring, whose novels we shall read again. But only two accepted from him the mantle of prophecy, Belloc and Chesterton. And of these, Belloc had the double portion; he was a prophet by destiny and by temperament.
A prophet, by derivation, is one who speaks out. He must not wrap up his meaning; he must not expect success. "To brazen-faced folk and hard-hearted thy errand is, and still from the Lord God a message thou must deliver, hear they, or deny thee a hearing; rebels all, at least they shall know that they have had a prophet in their midst." There is the double tragedy of the prophet ; he must speak out, so that he makes men dislike him, and he must be content to believe that he is making no impression whatever. Such is the complaint of Jeremias, "An ill day when thou, my mother, didst bring me into the world ! A world where all for me is -Strife, all is hostility; neither creditor I nor debtor to any man, yet they curse my name." He would be rid, if he could, of the prophet's burden; and there were moods, at least, in which Belloc would indulge in the same complaint. Even when he wrote the Path to Rome, he was conscious of the strain; "We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language: . . . And this is hard when a man has loved common views, and is happy only with his fellows." And in his tribute to Chesterton, one of his last works, you will find him exclaiming, half in envy, half in reprobation, at the man who took part in so much controversy, yet never made an enemy; "without wounding and killing," he said, "there is no battle." With Chesterton, as with Johnson's friend who tried to be a philosopher, "cheerfulness was always breaking in"; Belloc's destiny was conflict, and he did not love it. He was "a prophet lost in the hills": Why must he always be different, not thinking the thoughts of common men ?
A sad life? You would not venture to assert it; as a young man, he would sing in chorus, and ride, and sail the seas; nor did he lose, to the end, the pleasures of old memory and of tried friendship. But he was melancholy by temperament; the undercurrents of his mind were sad, and his face never looked happy in repose. And because this melancholy was fed, at all times, by a sense of intellectual loneliness, he stood, mentally, a confessor to the faith that was in him. Many, who shared that faith, would not go all the way with him in following out its implications. Was the story of the Reformation really so simple as he made it out to be? Were financial interests so powerful, were modern politics so corrupt, in real life as in Emmanuel Burden? But his vision was prophetic, and therefore integral. If you could not trace every link in the chain of historical causation, still you could not doubt the logical sequence of events; it was no mere accident that the world which accepted the Reformation drifted, after a few centuries, into being the world we know. If we had lost good fellowship and good craftsmanship and a hundred other things which the natural side of him regretted, it was, it must be, a nemesis, traceable to the loss of certain other things, which the supernatural side of him regretted inconsolably.
Does the prophet do good? No such promise is made him when he sets out with his message. His task is to deliver that message to the men of his time, whether they hear or refuse him a hearing. It may be, the stark language he talks to them, the unconventional gestures by which he tries to thrust it home, will produce a reaction, and wed them all the more firmly to their old ways of thought. There are one or two terrible passages in the Old Testament which almost seem to imply that the prophet is sent out, not to inspire repentance, but to redouble the guilt of his unbelieving audience. What is important, it seems, is that they should know they have had a prophet in their midst. Must that be the epitaph we pronounce today over a man so widely read, so greatly loved? That the violence of his protest defeated itself, and left England less kindly disposed than ever to a propaganda so crude, so exaggerated?
To be sure, he was prophet rather than apostle; he did not, as we say, "make converts." You do not often hear it said of Belloc, as you hear it said of Chesterton, "I owe my conversion to him." But the influence of a prophet is not to be measured by its impact on a single mind here and there; it exercises a kind of hydraulic pressure on the thought of his age. And when the day of wrath comes, and that book is brought out, written once for all, which contains all the material for a world's judgement, we shall perhaps see more of what Belloc was and did; how even his most irresponsible satire acted as a solvent force, to pierce the hard rind of self satisfaction which, more than anything, kept Victorian England away from the Church; how the very overtones of his unostentatious piety brought back to us memories of the faith, and of the Mass, and of our Blessed Lady, to which English ears had grown unaccustomed.
Have I represented him as a figure of marble? No one who knew him, no one who has read the more intimate of his writings, can picture him otherwise than as a man essentially human, twinkling with fun, rippling with vitality. Even as we commit his soul into the hands of his Creator, with those severely impersonal prayers the Church dictates to us, we are haunted by a thousand human memories of him, recall a hundred endearing characteristics of him - his undisguised admiration for lesser men than himself, the punctilious care with which he would bestow charity on a beggar, his rather stiff courtesy to strangers, his fondness for company and good cheer. Human? God knows he was human. For human frailties, may he receive the pardon he always desired. For the wideness of his human sympathies, may he find reward.
And yet, you who loved Hilaire Belloc, you who read him, and found inspiration in the reading, do not imagine that he would be satisfied if we wrote for him the epitaph, "This man endeared himself to his fellows." He was a prophet; men thought him a fanatic, and he has written his own epitaph, I think, in a poem of that name. A Fanatic, he says, is one who keeps his word—not merely this or that casual promise, but
That great word which every man Gave God before his life began : It was a sacred word, he said, Which comforted the pathless dead, And made God smile when it was shown Unforfeited before the Throne.
an undertaking (that, surely, is the sense) that he will be true to himself, that he will carry out faithfully the mission God gave him to perform, that he will challenge the men of his age with his own characteristic protest. No human flattery, no love of ease, no weariness of conflict, shall make him retract the pledge he has given. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have redeemed my pledge" - that is what Hilaire Belloc would wish us to say of him, and there are few of whom it could be said so truly.
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.