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 20 December 2011

On Remembering a Remaining Christmas - Gregory Schall SJ

'Kingsland' - Belloc's home 

Reproduced with the kind permission of the author...


December requires a Christmas essay. In the back of my somewhat unremembering mind, I recalled seeing an essay of Belloc on Christmas. After looking through a number of Belloc books, I finally located his essay, "A Remaining Christmas", in the Penguin Selected Essays. Somehow, the date of this essay is not given in the list of acknowledgments that J. B. Morton gave about the essays' sources. I have not had time to check further, but that is not so important here when we deal with timeless things that happen in time.

After I began the essay, I realized, of course, that I had read this lovely essay before. In fact, the title of the Chapter on Belloc in my Another Sort of Learning is taken from this essay -- "The Immortality of Mortal Man." Indeed, this curious juxtaposition of mortality and immortality is what Belloc called a "shocking, and intolerable and, even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing." Christmas for Belloc was something that made this thoroughly wrenching situation of immortal beings who still die to become somewhat "explicable, tolerable, and normal." How so?

"A Remaining Christmas" is about a man and his home. It is about a place wherein the things that change, and rapidly change, can find themselves confronted with things that do not change, with things that are. The very first sentence in Belloc's essay alerts us to our condition: "The world is changing very fast, and neither exactly for the better or the worse, but for division." The title of the essay "A Remaining Christmas" gains its wording from the question that people ask, even more at the end of the century than in Belloc's time, "how much remains of the observance and of the feast and its customs?" Belloc's essay is essentially an account of a single traditional Christmas. It takes place in an ancient house, the older parts of which date from the fourteenth Century. It is a mile in the countryside. Off the central upper room of the house is "a chapel where Mass is said." The house is constructed of oak and brick. In the fireplace, only oak is burned.

In this large upper room is a huge oaken table which was originally built for an Oxford college, but looted from there by the Puritans. It was finally purchased from the family that inherited it from the Reformation. This table was made "while Shakespeare was still living, and the whole faith of England still hung in the balance; for one cannot say that England was certain to lose her Catholicism finally till the first quarter of that (17th) century was passed." The room was light with candles, "the proper light for men's eyes", as Belloc rightly put it.

This is how Christmas eve is spent in this house. On the morning of that Eve, large quantities of holly and laurel are collected from nearby trees and lots of the farm. Every room in the house is decorated with fresh smelling leaves, berries, needles, and boughs. A Christmas tree twice the size of a man is set up, to which little candles are affixed. Presents are there for all the children of the village, household members, and guests.

At five o'clock, already dark in England that time of year, the village children come into the house with the candles burning on the tree. There is first a common meal. Next the children come to the tree where each is given a silver coin and a present. Then the children dance and sing game songs. Belloc does not see this as quaint or accidental: "The tradition of Christmas here is what it should be everywhere, knit into the very stuff of the place; so that I fancy the little children, when they think of Bethlehem, see it in their minds as though it were in the winter depths of England, which is as it should be." The coming of Christ to Bethlehem is also His coming to the winter depths of England.

There is a Crib with animals, stars, shepherds, and the Holy Family. The children sing their carol at the Crib -- "the one they know best begins, 'The First Good Joy that Mary had, it was the joy of One.'" I am sorry I do not know that carol. After the carols, all leave except the members of the household. The household dines, and, with the Christmas fast, await Midnight Mass. The Yule log is carried in, so large that it takes two men to carry it. It is put on the great hearth. If it lasts all night and is still shouldering in the morning, this is supposed to be good fortune to the family. At Midnight, there is Mass and all take Communion.

All sleep late the next day to await the great Christmas dinner at midday. There is "turkey; and a plum pudding, with holly in it and everything conventional, and therefore satisfactory." The great feast lasts most of the rest of the day. Of the critics of these things, Belloc says, in an aside, that "they may reprove who will; but for my part I applaud." Then follow the twelve days of Christmas, ending with the Epiphany. All the greenery is to remain till this Day of the Magi, but by the end of that day, nothing is to remain. All the greenery is burned in a coppice reserved for these Christmas trees, "which have done their Christmas duty; and now, after so many years, you might almost call it a little forest, for each tree has lived, bearing witness to the holy vitality of unbroken ritual and inherited things." This unbroken ritual and the inherited things are our defense against meaningless change and our reminder that trees too are living vestiges of the work of God.

On New Year's, the custom was to open all the windows and doors of the house so, they say, that "the old year and its burdens can go out and leave everything new for hope and for the youth of the coming time." Some folks say this is superstition, but, Belloc pointed out, it is as old as Europe and goes back to forgotten times. At Midnight, all go outside to listen hushed for the arrival of the New Year. The people wait the boom of a gun in a distant village to be sure that Midnight has arrived. The bells of the churches ring. When the bells cease, there is a silence. Then all go inside, the doors are shut, and all drink a glass.

Not merely death, but many things die and change all the time, and we can hardly bear this reality -- "all the bitterness of living." And yet in this ritual, it all becomes "part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude." All these events of life are connected "holy day after holy day, year after year, binding the generations together."

In this house that celebrates what remains of Christmas, all the tragedies and joys of life have occurred within its rooms and halls. "But its Christmas binds it to its own past and promises its future; making the house an undying thing of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival." The immortality of mortal men -- Belloc sees in this ancient house with its tradition, with its yearly celebration of Christmas, a way to bear the our lot, with the beloved things that change and pass. "There is this great quality in the unchanging practice of Holy Seasons, that it makes explicable, tolerable and normal what is otherwise a shocking and intolerable and even in the fullest sense, abnormal thing. I mean the mortality of immortal man."

Without these rituals of Christmas, their unchanging practice, we see that what is in fact shocking and intolerable and abnormal becomes inexplicable, becomes our lot and our culture. This is the nature of our times. We can no longer explain ourselves to ourselves. In failing to understand our immortality, we do not understand our mortality. And at Christmas, which we should see, as Belloc did, in our family tradition, such that Christ could also have come to the wintery depths of England, or to anywhere, we find in the Nativity the response to both our mortality and our immortality, in the Child with His parents, while the neighboring children sing, the carol I do not know, "The First Good Joy that Mary had; it was the joy of One."

From Schall on Belloc, Generally Speaking, December, 1996.

Another , and more contemporary, view of 'Kingsland'

Friday 16 December 2011

Christmas with Belloc...

The following ditty can be found in The Four Men: Belloc's imaginary ramble across the, then, largely unspoilt Sussex of 1902. The men in question represent different aspects of HB's character. Grizzlebeard for some, but not for me, represents the least appealing facet of Belloc's personality. His alternative Xmas song represents, in my view, one of the funniest things that he wrote. Anyhow, if you have crossed anyone off your Xmas card list this year you might consider the following alternative festive greeting: 

Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
A Catholic tale have I to tell!
And a Christian song have I to sing
While all the bells in Arundel ring.

I pray good beef and I pray good beer
This holy night of all the year,
But I pay detestable drink for them
That give no honour to Bethlehem.

May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me
And may all my enemies go to hell!
Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël!
May all my enemies go to hell!
Noël! Noël!


Tuesday 13 December 2011

'The South Downs Song Project'

BBC News report on the 'South Downs Song Project'
Chris Hare, who is currently spearheading the revival of folk music in Sussex was, in a previous life, the Vice Chairman of the Hilaire Belloc Society. Belloc would warmly endorse such a project because although he didn't, arguably, have a great voice he was the champion of Sussex's historical identity which included, of course, its folk traditions.

Indeed he contributed to it:

They sell good beer at Haslemere
And under Guildford Hill.
At Little Cowfold, as I've been told,
A beggar may drink his fill:
There is a good brew in Amberley too,
And by the bridge also;
But the swipes they take in at Washington Inn
Is the very best beer I know, the very best beer I know.


With my here it goes, there it goes,
All the fun's before us;
The tipple's aboard and the night is young,
The door's ajar and the barrel is sprung,
I am singing the best song ever was sung
And it has a rousing chorus.

And if you feel like singing it:

Anyhow, full marks to Chris and all that he does to promote Belloc and protect the wonderful South Downs, so beloved by the great man, from unsympathetic development.


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

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Return to the Shire and Seven Ways to Eat Like a Hobbit...

If it had not been for Belloc, Chesterton and, to a lesser extent, Vincent McNabb there would have been no Middle Earth. So we have Belloc, at least in part, to thank for Hobbits, Orcs and Cave Trolls.

More seriously, Tolkien's Shire takes its inspiration from the so called 'Back to the Land' movement. As I have alluded to in a previous post the agenda was not just agrarian. Arguably Father McNabb gave it more of an agricultural flavour. Either way the Ditchling Community never quite lived up to the vision he had for the Distributist commonwealth. He never quite got around to scouring Ditchling but, as I have mentioned previously, he certainly told them off.

On a connected note, I recently came across this lovely little web site which is all about 'creating a Hobbit-friendly life in a Mordor world'. There are handy tips such as 'seven ways to eat like a Hobbit' and how to build a pole bean tent. Well, I don't know, I think that I would rather be a womble.

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.”

Sunday 20 November 2011

Author List of Pubs & Inns with a literary connection

The Eagle has Landed!

"From the towns all inns have been driven; from the villages most... Change your hearts, or you will lose your inns, and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves - for you will have lost the last of England." 

Hilaire Belloc, "From This and that on Inns", 1912

Dickens pips Belloc and comes joint second with Thomas Hardy:


Funnily enough, one of Belloc's favourite watering holes was the Spread Eagle Hotel in Midshurst. Herman Goering liked it to and the Eagle in the lounge adorned his chair in the Reichstag. He apparently chose a site, down the road, which was to be his country seat after the successful conquest of Britian!

I wonder what would have happened if Belloc had bumped into him. Belloc, of course, had a track record of opposition to German (Prussian) militarism by then. The origins, of which, lie in the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871. During the conflict the family home (in La Celle Saint-Cloud) was wrecked by invading Prussian soldiers.

Belloc, Hilaire
BlackboyBlackboysSussexThe Four Men
Black SwanPeas PottageSussexThe Four Men
Bridge InnAmberleySussexThe Four Men
Crabtree InnCrabtreeSussexThe Four Men
Cricketer's ArmsDunctonSussexThe Four Men
Fountain InnAshurstSussexThe Four Men
Franklands ArmsWashingtonSussexThe Four Men
Forester's ArmsGraffamSussexThe Four Men
Fullers ArmsBrightlingSussexThe Four Men
George InnHenfieldSussexThe Four Men
George InnRobertsbridgeSussexThe Four Men
George & DragonHoughtonSussexThe Four Men
GreyhoundCockingSussexThe Four Men
Gun InnFindonSussexOften frequented
Spread EagleMidhurstSussexOften frequented
SwanPetworthSussexOften frequented
Tabby Cat InnWest GrinsteadSussexOften frequented
Three HorseshoesElsteadSussexThe Four Men
White HartStorringtonSussexThe Four Men
White HartSteyningSussexThe Four Men
Washington InnWashingtonSussexThe Four Men

Washington Village - 'Holy and Secluded'

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Vincent McNabb

I was looking at a Spanish 'Distributist' site, recently, which was, and is, surmounted by a picture of members of the Ditchling Community. Ditchling was founded by a group of people who were inspired by the writings of Belloc and Chesterton. More specifically, what they had to say about 'Distributism'.

One day I will blog about 'Distributism'. It's a very home grown socio/political/economic 'theory'  (owing more to Cobbett and Goldsmith than Leo XIII). But referring to it in such terms probably makes it more complicated than it actually was. In fact, to a certain extent, it boils down to a theory of ownership. It certainly wasn't a small-holders version of Capitalism. Belloc described Capitalism as the 'disease of property' and Distributism was his antidote for it.

But anyway I digress (creatively). Thinking about Ditchling reminded me of one of Belloc's firm friends Father Vincent McNabb. He was visiting the community, on one occasion, and told them off for not getting their hands dirty. I don't think that it was a question of them being too artsitic but, as he saw it, there was no point in moving to the countryside if agricultural activity did not form part of the agenda. 

But who was Father McNabb OP? Thank you to MH (our very own Belloc Blog historian) for this small piece:

'I find it a matter for great perplexity that relatively so few people who know about the great Father Vincent McNabb OP have yet read nothing by him.  I won’t bore you here with his life-story (not that it would bore, although my recounting of it may be wanting), which you can find at http://vincentmcnabb.org/contradiction.html if you want to know more, but I do want to say something about one of the matters he often wrote about.

Father McNabb‘s writings by and large posses the admirable Dominican quality of clarity: they can be astonishingly forthright, but are usually a model of compressed lucidity.  Occasionally they become so compressed (as though the reasoning is foreshortened) that they can be tough to follow: occasionally his Irish temperament admits the mystic mists of poetry into his writings, and its meaning loses some of its immediacy.  However, Father McNabb is always clear about family, about contraception (which he grimly refers to as ‘race suicide’), and about conditions in the modern city being for many a proximate occasion of mortal sin.  I was thinking about Father McNabb and his writings as I travelled home from work in the great Babylon of London a week-or-so ago.  My mind (such as it was after a day in a stinking office) was full of the recent attacks made on Catholic morality and proper liberty of (informed) conscience by the Government  and I was mulling over the failed attacks upon home-schoolers orchestrated by local authorities in cahoots with the Department for Education and Skills in 2009.  I thought immediately of McNabb’s ‘Nazareth Measure’, that measure by which he suggested all legislation and social action should be assessed, and - if found wanting – rejected:

“The Nazareth Measure of length and weight and worth is the family - that terrestrial “Holy and Undivided Three”.  Let no guile of social usefulness betray… [the Government] into hurting the authority of the Father, the chastity of the Mother, the rights and therefore the property of the Child.  Social and economic laws are more subtle but no less infallible than physical laws.  No program of good intentions will undo the mischief caused by an interference with family life.  As well try to arrest a thrown bomb by a plea of good intentions as try to prevent the final ruin of the State by the plea that our ruin of the family was well-intentioned.”

Increasingly in this country (as in many others) we will find the rights of parents under attack on account of a purported desire to protect or assist the child:

“The Rights of the Parent are Natural Rights…When therefore a child is born  its parents find themselves possessed of certain rights which, though occasioned by their own acts of marriage and procreation, are not determined by their own will, nor by the will of the State, nor by the will of man, but by the Will of God. The Rights of the Parent are prior to the Rights of the State.  This is clearly seen by those who recognise the Catholic doctrine that the family as a family is prior to the State. Not only in idea but in facts, families must have preceded States….It is truer to say that the State has duties towards the family than that families have duties towards the State.  A nation’s chief duty towards this living and essential thing is to safeguard it… Thus the home, with its dowry of natural rights, is an older institution than any law or Parliament of men.”            

Yet the rights of the child will clearly be in danger the more threatened become the rights of parents:

“The Rights of the Parent are the Best Safeguard of the Rights of the Child… Thoughtless folk whose vision has been darkened by meddlesome philanthropy can hardly be expected to see that even in idea childhood could have no better guardian than parenthood.  These people are often heard to ask “why we hear so much about the rights of parents, and so little about the rights of children.”  Their foolish question shows them ignorant of the psychological principle that although the rights of parent and child seem to be two, these two are really one. Until the child is of an age to defend itself against those who merely seek to use it, or improve it as a means to an end, the child’s rights are centered in the parent, the only one whom nature has empowered to love it as an end in itself.  No other institution in the world either loves the child as the parent loves it, or even loves it at all.”   

As my train passed out of the stench of London and briefly passed through an open landscape of tilled fields (unfortunately on its way to another urban conglomeration, further along the Thames Valley) I thought of those lines of Father McNabb which had first lodged in my mind after one casual reading of his book The Church and the Land several years ago and had caused me to read more of his writings and learn more about his holy life:

“Full family life must be the acid test of any system calling itself civilisation. But under our present system [he was writing this in 1925] the possibility of full family life is practically and explicitly dead. As wages and rents now are [one now might add, the cost of housing in general], there is no possibility for the average working man to have the average [Catholic] family.  In order to avoid this average family only two courses are now open to him.  He may exercise birth-control by abstinence, which is sinless, or by neo-Malthusian methods of mortal sin.  His choice is therefore between mortal sin and what is for the average individual heroic virtue. In other words, the town civilisation of today is for the vast majority of the married classes a proximate occasion of sin.  But it is teaching of the Church that we must fly the proximate occasions of sin.  To remain in unnecessary occasions of sin is to be guilty of the sin we should fly.”

 Thus the rallying cry of “Flee to the fields!” with which Father McNabb is often identified.  Things have obviously changed since McNabb’s day, but the economic pressures that made what he referred to as an average family (and which would be referred to in this benighted day and age as a very large family), pressures which may now be less for most people, have been in good measure replaced by social and cultural pressures which, with the dilution of Catholic life since Vatican II, it can require heroic perseverance and a good degree of courage to overcome.  And while McNabb was very much aware of the “evil propaganda” of his day, pushing families into ‘race suicide’, into sin and immorality, he would have been appalled at the wall-to-wall, full throttle licentiousness which parades itself in its full measure of perversity and wretchedness across the advertising hoardings of tube stations and shop windows, and across the pages of mainstream magazines and newspapers which many of those around you, crowded onto buses and trains, are greedily consuming.
Cheery journeys, my journeys home from London.'

Mike Hennessy

Available here