“And I said to myself , inside my own mind: ‘What are you doing? You are upon some business that takes you far, not even for ambition or for adventure, but only to earn. And you will cross the sea and earn your money, and you will come back and spend more than you have earned. But all the while your life runs past you like a river, and the things that are of moment to men you do not heed at all.'”
– Hilaire Belloc, in “The Four Men”
And so the journey began. In the brilliant tale, “The Four Men”, a solitary figure was sipping port in an English public house. Enveloped in a brooding darkness and staring into the hearth’s crackling fire, Hilaire Belloc was lost in deep and nostalgic thought. It was All Hallow’s Time – a time for hauntings. How fitting – for Belloc himself was haunted. Where was he in life and what was life all about?, the morose spirits would ask. And so, it seemed, Belloc would have to answer,
“Then I said to myself again: ‘What you are doing is not worthwhile, and nothing is worthwhile on this unhappy earth except the fulfillment of a man’s desire. Consider how many years it is since you saw your home, and for how short a time, perhaps, its perfection will remain. Get up and go back to your own place if only for one day…’
As I said these things to myself I felt as that man felt of whom everybody has read in Homer with an answering heart: that ‘he longed as he journeyed to see once more the smoke going up from his own land, and after that to die.'”
Home. Hilaire Belloc would go home. Echoes of a boyhood long past called sweetly and insistently. It was time for a journey. But it would not be a journey taken alone. Along the way, he would be accompanied by three other souls puckishly introduced only as Grizzlebeard, Sailor and Poet. Together, they would be “The Four Men”. In time, these fortunate strangers’ lives and characters would unfold in discussions shared, debates fought and songs sung on the winding English roads to home. It was an adventure heartened by companionship,
“[In traveling with these men] I was willing enough, for all companionship is good, but chance companionship is the best of all.”
“Cutting ourselves quite apart from care and from the world, we set out with our faces westward, to reach at last the valley of the Arun and the things we knew.”
The journey would last four days. Initially, their eyes were set on the destination (Belloc’s home in Sussex’s valley of the Arun) and the means by which the group would afford inns, ale and food. Before long, however, the journey itself took precedence. The travelers’ discussions ranged from legends to law, from poetry to piety, from music to mirth. St. Dunstan and the Devil, the Song of the Pelagian Heresy, the legend of the Little People, the manner of curing Hog Flesh, the history of Washington Inn, and the supremacy of the King of Sussex would all be gleefully shared and uproariously indulged. Along the walk, the food would fill and the beer would flow. The tempers would flash and the laughs would bellow. Perhaps most famously, the Sailor would sing his Christmas carol, “Noel”,
“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 pray 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!
Indeed. Hilaire Belloc was unparalleled in crafting the bawdy, cutting lyrics of the Sailor’s carol. Furthermore, in his personal life, he was unmatched in his blunt roughness and penchant for making virulent enemies. Yet here is what is extraordinary about this story. “The Four Men” reveals something very intimate, very endearing, very human about Hilaire Belloc. It strips Belloc to his core and reveals a man with deep nostalgia, poignancy, even utter sweetness that epitomizes how the impenetrable gruff men we know and love are often, paradoxically, the most easily moved to tears. Found along this trek of remembrance are long-forgotten legends, long-neglected places and long-discarded customs. By simply traveling, talking and being, the Four Men rediscover and reclaim timeless and indispensable bits of wisdom.
They find that life’s journey with friends is irreplaceable in its importance.
“The worst thing in the world is the passing of human affection. No man who has lost a friend need fear death.”
They reaffirm the uncompromising value of tradition.
“There is always some holiness in the rising of rivers, and a great attachment to their springs.”
But, perhaps most important, Belloc’s Four Men gently – ever so gently – remind us that we are not of this world. There is a longing we have which no earthly destination can fulfill. In a particularly moving exchange, the Poet and Sailor describe the deep satisfaction found in returning home, but the aged and wise Grizzlebeard gingerly chastens them with a melancholy, but undeniable bit of wisdom,
“For my part, I have travelled widely…altogether forty times – I have come back to the flats of my own country…Then indeed I have each time remembered my boyhood, and each time I have been glad to come home. But I have never found it to be a final gladness. After a time I must be off again, and find new places.”
It turns out that a journey with friends (even chance friendship) filled with mirth, music, discussion and even disagreement – effectively our life’s journey – is nothing less than a sacramental journey. It is a journey with moments made precious by closing the distance between ourselves, our God and our fellow-man. But it is easily missed. It is in the dry times when we are not attending to the permanent things, when we are far from the sacramental moments that we feel an enduring emptiness, a disconsolate longing. The sacramental moments teach us that we are not ultimately created for this earthly place, but rather called to draw near to our loving Father and anticipate our heavenly home. Is it any wonder, Belloc’s friend G.K. Chesterton would ask, that we so often find ourselves “homesick at home”?
Four days would pass and Belloc would find himself arriving at his aim. Home. Yet as he is about to cross into his familiar land, he reluctantly breaks bread and bids a misty farewell to his unlikely friends. In spite of Belloc’s entreaties for one last night rich with drink and song, he is told by the others,
“No; we are all three called to other things. But do you go back to your home, for the journey is done.”
“The Four Men” is a tale of chance lives which found themselves intersected, if only for four days, in splendid communion. Belloc moves on, alone, but not without being heartened by the sacramentality of his journey.
“To us four men, no one of whom could know the other, and who had met by I could not tell what chance, and would part very soon for ever, these things were given. All four of us together received the sacrament of that wide and silent beauty, and we ourselves went in silence to receive it.”
“Your journey is done.” Indeed. It was quite the journey. A sacramental journey not to be missed.