“The Four Men is the greatest of books.”
– Fr. James Schall
“Read anything of Belloc you can find, I doubt if it makes any difference what order.”
– Fr. James Schall
One of the greatest and most prolific Jesuit thinkers today is Fr. James Schall. And as a retired Georgetown professor,author of over thirty books and hundreds of essays, he is quite gifted at his craft. Moreover, he is also an extraordinary guide. Anyone who has not purchased, read and re-read his exceptional “syllabus” Another Sort of Learning is missing deeply considered and carefully culled wisdom, achieved over a robust lifetime, on what to read and why. That is why when Fr. Schall writes a book (Remembering Belloc) devoted to the life and works of Catholic Anglo-Frenchman Hilaire Belloc and introduces him as,
“simply the best essayist in our language”,
it is imperative that we listen.
So as we approach the season that Fr. James Schall dubs the “all hallows period“, I find that I want to walk with Hilaire Belloc again. In this season of burning leaves, taunting winds, and grudging clouds, I long to journey through the hills, fields and wagon-worn roads of Sussex, England. I want to indulge my wistfulness and shore up strength in seriously reconsidering what really matters in life. As the year retires and surrenders itself to the deadness of winter, I want to go on that one last walk which will ensure my heart remains safe and warm.
It is time to journey with Belloc’s Four Men.
I have written previously on this book (please see Not Missing the Sacramental Journey: Hilaire Belloc’s ‘The Four Men‘), but this fall I would like to consider it more deliberately. The journey that Belloc’s Four Men embark upon through the vivid paths of Sussex takes place over four days (October 29-November 1, 1902). Thus, I would like to devote a post to each day of the journey. If you will indulge me, simply consider these four posts (written weekly) to be the contemplative walk you assured yourself you would go on – but never did. Now is the time. Autumn is getting late.
Chapter 1 – The 29th of October, 1902
In the fall of 1902, Hilaire Belloc found himself drinking port in a Sussex pub. Gazing into the fire, he was lost in deep thought. It was a season for reflection. And while his stream of thought meandered this way and that, it ended in deep and unexpected waters. It was a thought of home. Home. Emerging from the foggy, dream-like memory was the clear vision of Belloc’s boyhood woods and local lake. Belloc found that, while lost in this reverie, this memory teased him. These phantoms of the past seemed all at once instantly accessible and yet puckishly (if not painfully) elusive. Over years of maturing and establishing himself in vocation and achievement, a man nurses himself on wistful dreams of returning home to something solid, something genuine, something true…and yet he never goes. He blames his work, his finances, his family, his inadequate time…but, in the end, he simply never goes. He finds life to be pitiless as it daily demands an unforgiving toll. It dismisses our call to re-visit our roots and refresh our souls. But this time – this time – it would be different. Hilaire Belloc was about to change all of that.
“What are you doing? [Belloc challenged himself inwardly] 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.”
“The things that are of moment to men, you do not heed at all.” And as he began to further consider these words, the vision of his boyhood home became strikingly vivid with valleys and river banks and autumn leaves and rippling streams. He gathered himself up and declared,
“What you are doing is not worth while, and nothing is worth while 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…”
Perhaps, Belloc ventured, the immortal Homer said it best about one of his characters,
“He longed as he journeyed to see once more the smoke going up from his own land, and after that, to die.”
And so Belloc finds himself so deeply excited that he blurts out,
“I will go from this place to my home.”
He would then be startled by a gravely voice of a previously unnoticed bearded man in the shadows. Belloc, who thought he was alone, realized that he was not. This stranger would affirm Belloc’s decision and would, further, invite himself along for the journey. With deep set eyes “full of travel and sadness” and a wiry beard, this older man revealed that he too was from the same area and would enjoy the journey together with a travel partner. The older man observed,
“A man is more himself if he is one of a number; so let us take that road together, and, as we go, gather what company we can find.”
In response, Belloc quietly reasoned,
“I was willing enough, for all companionship is good, but chance companionship is the best of all.”
And so the journey began. They playfully agreed to conceal their true names from one another and instead awarded themselves, respectively, the titles, “Grizzlebeard” and “Myself”. And as the first day drew to a close, Belloc noted,
“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.”
In this brief chapter – in this one day – one senses the melancholic spirit of fall tempered by the hopeful spirit of spring. We are all old in the fall. Sitting quietly by the hearth’s fire, our failures and doubts creep in. We are stung by guilt at the distance between who we are and who we once were or who we should be. The devil plays with us in the autumn shadows telling us we are old, we are fallen, we are broken and beyond repair.
And yet, we can’t quite believe this.
In spite of the noise of life, almost imperceptibly, we can still hear a dignified call. It is a call that asks us to return to our better selves, to who we once were, to who we are supposed to be. We are called to uncover the bedrock which has long become overgrown by the tendrils of care and weeds of worry over worldly things. But it is up to us to answer the call. To stop making excuses. To accept surprising allies and unlikely friends who will walk with us, reinforce us and perhaps even correct us on our journey back to ourselves.
On this day – October 29, 1902 – and on this journey, that is what Hilaire Belloc did.
Will we join him?