Thursday, December 24, 2009
by Gerald J. Russello
For some years, I have set aside time during Advent to read Hilaire Belloc's short essay, "A Remaining Christmas." First published 80 years ago next year, it has been worth my annual rereading. It is an extended reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation and of each person's earthly journey.
Even now, Belloc (1870-1953) arouses strong opinions. Conventionally paired with his lifelong friend G. K. Chesterton, Belloc was the more combative and sour part of that creature Bernard Shaw called the Chesterbelloc. The two of them fought a rearguard action against the evils of the age with rhetorical skill. Belloc was the Catholic apologist without apology. Famous for declaring that "the Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith," Belloc combined a keen historical sense with a sharp analytic mind. He was convinced that the Reformation had ruptured the continuity of Europe in general and of England in particular. In particular, the religious break, compounded with the dramatic changes brought about by industrialism, had separated Europeans from their full history. While some of his writing errs on the cantankerous side, at his best Belloc is a graceful and wide-hearted stylist.
The son of a French father and English mother, Belloc was educated at the famous Oratory, where when still a student he met the aged John Henry Cardinal Newman. After serving a tour in the French military (he was a French citizen), Belloc went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he served as president of the Oxford Union. Angered at not receiving a prestigious appointment as a Fellow to All Souls College (which he attributed, not entirely incorrectly, to anti-Catholic bigotry), Belloc turned to writing and journalism, finding time also for standing a few years as a Liberal member of Parliament for Salford South. Among his more than 100 books and thousands of shorter pieces, he is perhaps best known for his travelogue, Path to Rome; his critique of capitalism, The Servile State; his sailing book The Cruise of the Nona; and his books of children's poetry. He was also a biographer of note, writing -- for example -- lives of major figures of the Reformation.
Charles Taylor has written in his book A Secular Age that among its other effects, modernity has shattered the religious sense of time, which is not horizontal -- one thing following another, but non-linear -- connecting the sacred with the mundane, where the eternal can touch the temporal. Belloc's Christmas essay is a throwback to this traditional Christian way of thinking. The essay recounts the traditions of Christmastide as observed in Belloc's home in Sussex, King's Land. The essay opens with Belloc declaring the problem and the purpose of the essay:
The world is splitting more and more into two camps, and what was common to the whole of it is being restricted to the Christian, and soon will be to the Catholic half.
What was "common" are the traditions and customs of the Christian world.