Published in the Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal, #100, (Autumn, 2001), 16-24.

 

James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200

 

THE PATH TO ROME: BELLOC=S WALK A CENTURY LATER

 

ATo every honest reader that may purchase, hire, or receive this book, and to the reviewers also (to whom it is of triple profit), greeting  B and whatever else can be had for nothing.@

B Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome[1]

 

AAnd now all you people reading, may have read, or shall in the future read this my many-sided but now ending book; and all of you also that in the mysterious designs of Providence may not be fated to read it for some very long time to come ... the time is come when I must bid you farewell.@

B Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome[2]

 

I.

In the Year, 1901, the English essayist, historian, poet, sailor, and traveler, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), decided to make a pilgrimage from Toul in France, scene of his military training in the French army, to the Eternal City.  He chose a direct path to Rome, or at least as direct as the mountains and rivers of Europe would allow him to walk that distance in a straight line.  He vowed  B for a pilgrimage was a sacred event in the tradition of Christian men B  that he would walk every step of the way, in the same boots with which he began, that he would hear Mass every morning, that he would not take a wheeled vehicle, and that he would arrive in Rome on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (29 June) in time for Mass in the great Basilica of St. Peter=s. 

Needless to say, Belloc broke all the elements of his vow except its final one.  He did make it to Rome, though when he arrived, he told us practically nothing of what he saw there.


AWell, as a pilgrimage cannot be said to be over till the first Mass is heard in Rome, I have twenty minutes to add to my book.@  So, passing an Egyptian obelisk which the great Augustus had nobly dedicated to the Sun, I entered....  LECTOR:  ABut do you intend to tell us nothing of Rome?@  AUCTOR:  ANothing, dear Lector.@  LECTOR:  ATell me at least one thing; did you see the Coliseum?@  AUCTOR:  A... I entered a café at the right hand of a very narrow, long, straight street, called for bread, coffee, and brandy....@[3]

Belloc then writes as his concluding words in the book, presumably from the same café, a ADithyrambic Epithalamium on Threnody,@ the concluding lines of which read: AAcross the valleys and the high-land / With all the world on either hand / Drinking when I had a mind to, / Singing when I felt inclined to; / Nor ever turned my face to home / Till I had slaked my heart at Rome.@  The Lector calls this Adoggerel,@ but Belloc does not mind.  His walk is ended, his vow completed.

The Path to Rome is thus not about Rome but about getting there through a Europe what reflects Rome at every step.  Belloc passed along the Rhone, over the Alps, through Switzerland,  the Apennines, and into the Italian plains and cities on his path.  As he went along, he told us much.  He told us especially much of himself.  Belloc, I think, could see more about something than most of us even when we are looking at the same thing.  It is not merely that our memory is a function of what we see, so likewise is our hope, so likewise is our present being. 


Not unlike Plato in The Apology of Socrates, Belloc was conscious of the fact that this account of his walk would be read down the ages.  In this sense, his Apath@ is a walk we can all take.  Because he recounted his trek in a book, we can still take the same walk.  We could not do this even if we set off tomorrow morning from Toul to Rome by ourselves, with our staff and our boots and our vows.  Our walk would not be his.  I am sure that there are a number of people in the 20th and 21st Centuries who have or who will actually take Belloc=s walk.  They will have in their pocket his book as a guide-book.  They will begin from Toul and end in Rome, even on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.  I envy them.  They will try to eat and drink what he ate and drank where he ate and drank it.  But Ain divine Providence,@ as he calls it, this newer walk, for all its attention to place, weather, local characteristics, drawings, and scenery, will not see what Belloc saw.  Belloc=s book is an account of spirit, yes, of a spirit very much embodied in matter. 

Belloc has no Manichean tendencies, of course, not even any Platonic tendencies that would see the whole man in his spirit or in his soul, though he does have a soul that connects him with what is. 

In early youth the soul can still remember its immortal habitation, and clouds and edges of hills are of another kind from ours, and every scent and colour has a savour of Paradise....  Youth came up that valley of evening, borne upon a settled state, and their now sudden influence upon the soul in short ecstasies is the proof that they stand outside time, and are not subject to decay.  This, then, was the blessing of Sillano (a small Italian town he had reached), and here was perhaps the highest moment of those seven hundred miles  B or more.[4]

The things that Astand outside of time,@ the things that can be Ahad for nothing,@ the ability to recognize our Ahighest moment@  -- such are the important things that make us what we are, things that we might miss on our own walks from Toul to Rome or wherever we might wander if we do not first spend time with Belloc on his walk.

We know more about The Path to Rome if we realize that in the following year, 1902, Belloc took another walk in his native Sussex in England, where he intimates that the original Garden of Eden was located.  AThe north is the place for men.  Eden was there, and the four rivers of Paradise are the Seine, the Oise, the Thames, and the Arun, there are grasses there, and the trees are generous, and the air is an unnoticed pleasure.@[5]  What a remarkable phrase  -- Aan unnoticed pleasure!@  We are such earthlings that we think that we notice all our pleasures.  Belloc confesses that AI was not made for Tuscany.@ 


This second 1902 walk, equally as charming as the 1901 Path to Rome, was called The Four Men.  Needless to say, each of the men on this latter excursion was Belloc himself.  I shall say something of this English walk in a subsequent essay.  Suffice it to say here that both walks were lonely affairs and therefore ironically both profound lessons in companionship.  To know one another, indeed to love one another, we also need silence, to be alone, the gift of the contemplative tradition.  Those who have no silence, who do not sometimes walk alone, have no friends.  Yet, The Path to Rome is full of Belloc=s affirmations that, after long stretches by himself, he suddenly Ahas need of companionship.@

II.

Belloc is often reviled for his famous sentence that AEurope is the faith and the faith is Europe.@  I cannot number the times that I have seen this sentence cited with horror and derision  -- and with much superficiality of understanding about what he meant by it.  Yet, there is a truth to it that can be seen in this walk from Toul to Rome in the late Spring and early Summer of 1901, a walk that took Belloc over the Jura and the Alps in the snow, while traversing the plains of France and Italy in such heat that he mostly walked at night and slept by day wherever he could, sometimes in inexpensive inns, sometimes in a barn, often in the open under a tree or in the shade of bushes.  He finds crosses and small chapels on the mountains.  He sees the gentle hospitality of men in pubs and peasant women in serving him breakfast.  He buys a good wine that sometimes tastes sour to him in the morning.  We can feel his hunger and the delight of the fresh loaves that he finds in the little house that is the baker=s, the one pointed out to him that has smoke coming out of the chimney early in the morning.  Bakers, he thinks, are the finest of men because they have to arise so early and thus see the day come to be.


Belloc is adamantly Aincarnational,@ that is, he does not separate the soul and the body.  There is much in The Path to Rome about food and wine and sleep, as I have already intimated, almost as if it is all right to be the kind of beings we are.  AIt is quite clear that the body must be recognized and the soul kept in its place, since a little refreshing food and drink can do so much to make a man.@[6]  Belloc is always aware of the truth that Augustine knew that the great temptations, the great crimes, do not arise from the flesh but, as in the case of Lucifer himself, from the spirit.  And even when they appear in the flesh, they usually, in some way obscure but reflectively traceable in us, are controlled by the spirit. 

Yet, we too are beings with a certain sadness about us.  There is ever a poignancy in every work of Belloc, even in his laughter and amusement, of which there is much.  AThen let us love one another and laugh.  Time passes, and we shall laugh no longer  B and meanwhile common living is a burden, and earnest men are at siege upon us all around.  Let us suffer absurdities, for that is only to suffer one another.@[7]  We are indeed under siege; what we believe in the faith of Europe is rejected more and more openly hence a hundred years from Belloc=s walk..  But we laugh.  We are indeed absurdities.  Suffering one another is not merely a suffering; it is also patience, a world full of laughter.


Early in his walk to Rome, to give a further example of his thinking on food, Belloc asks about breakfast.  His very way of asking the question is delightful.  AI would very much like to know what those who have an answer to everything can say about the food requisite to breakfast?@[8]  AThose who have an answer for everything,@ we suspect, have, in Belloc=s mind, few answers to anything.  He recalls that Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare, and Spenser drank beer for breakfast plus a little bread.  In his French regiment, he remembers, for breakfast they drank black coffee Awithout sugar,@ with a cut of a stale piece of bread to go with it. 

The great (French) Republicans fought first and ate later.  Belloc was also a sailor and ate Anothing for several hours.@  He continues:

Dogs eat the first thing they come across, cats take a little milk, and gentlemen are accustomed to get up at nine and eat eggs, bacon, kidneys, ham, cold pheasant, toast, coffee, tea, scones, and honey, after which they will boast that their race is the hardiest in the world and ready to beat every fatigue in the pursuit of Empire.  But what rule governs all of this?  Why is breakfast different from all other things, so that the Greeks called it the best thing in the world...?[9]

How amusing is this description of the breakfast of the hearty and hardy English gentleman, with its four meats plus eggs, in pursuit of Empire and oblivious of fatigue!  And what was Greece if not a constant search for precisely Athe best thing in the world@?

In re-reading The Path to Rome, what struck me was Belloc=s sense that the authority of God was put into the world to unsettle us, that we could be here much too occupied with ourselves, that we really did not want to bother with revelation, especially if it meant any kind of revolution in our manners or in our morals. 


For when boys or soldiers or poets, or any other blossoms and prides of nature, are for lying steady in the shade and letting the Mind commune with its Immortal Comrades, up comes Authority busking about and eager as though it were a duty to force the said Mind to burrow and sweat in the matter of this very perishable world, its temporary habitation.  AUp,@ says Authority, Aand let me see that Mind of yours doing something practical.  Let me see Him mixing painfully with circumstance, and botching up some Imperfection or other that shall at least be a Reality and not a silly Fantasy.@[10]

These are profound, if diverting words.  The temporary habitation of the mind can be quite pleasant to it.  Why worry about anything else?  It is best to lay Asteady in the shade,@ to dream of worlds that perhaps might be, fantasies, to be sure.  Authority is something of a pest.  Yet, there are things that Mind prefers not to pay attention to, the first of which is Reality itself.  How well does Belloc describe the men of our kind who are wont to favor their own musings over a more glorious reality that they could only receive, but not invent by themselves!


And yet, Belloc was prepared to do the things that men have done for thousands of years.  His reasons for daily Mass are as profound as any seen in theological literature since.  He gives four reasons. The first is Athat for half-an-hour just at the opening of the day you are silent and recollected, and have to put off cares, interests, and passions in the repetition of a familiar action.@[11]  The second reason is ritual.  AThe function of all ritual (as we see in games, social arrangements, ans so forth) [is] to relieve the mind of so much of responsibility and initiative and to catch you up (as it were) into itself, leading your life for you during the time it lasts.@[12]   The third reason is that you are inclined to good and reasonable thoughts; you are not distracted by that Abusy wickedness@ of self and others that is Athe true source of human miseries.@  And finally, and most importantly, we do Awhat the human race has done for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years.  This is a matter of such moment that I am astonished people hear of it so little.  Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long  B but I mean reasonably happy)....@  To do what our kind does, to realize that we have here no lasting city, that we can perhaps be Afairly happy,@ Areasonably happy@ in this life, but to expect more is to reject the order of being and revelation in which we find ourselves.

III.

No doubt, the passage in The Path to Rome that I have most thought of over the years, the one that always strikes me anew when I read it again occurs when Belloc is sitting in a Swiss town called Undervelier, by a stream, with a penny cigar.  Recall that Belloc had an American wife from Napa, California.  He had walked this country twice to see her.  And to prove that he was not totally romantic about food, let me cite, at this odd point, the following delightful comparison:  AThey cook worse in Undervelier than any place I was ever in, with the possible exception of Omaha, Neb.@[13]  I might add, that I once had a very excellent supper with two of my cousins in precisely Omaha, Nebraska!  

But bad food does not prevent Belloc from noticing that this mountain village of Undervelier contains believers who accept their faith almost naturally.  He himself, he confesses, has not had this experience in his own life.  For Belloc, faith was always Asomething fighting odds.@  He goes into the village church where he hears the congregation sing in a ALatin nearer German than French.@  They sing the Vespers hymn, Te, lucis ante terminum.  He wonders about the nature of Belief. 


AOf its nature it breeds a reaction and an indifference.@[14]  This is again the problem of authority with which Belloc began his walk.  Belloc notes that unbelievers and atheists, those who only Athink and judge@ cannot really understand the problem of Christians.  For faith Aof its nature struggles with us.@  In our youth we Ainevitably reject it and set out in the sunlight content with natural things.@  Belloc, of course, is a born Catholic, that is, a man who is aware that we still have to come to terms with our faith even if we are baptized in our infancy.  We think we can explain everything without it.  We live our lives.  To explain his point, he uses a mountain image.  We are like men who go down the cleft of a mountain, things above are hidden by the rocks and cliffs.  Suddenly, when we reach the bottom, Awe look back and see our home.@ 

We have not found anything better in Athe natural things@ wherein we look.  We have once known a Ahome.@  So we return.  Belloc asks about what causes this return?  His answer is surprising:  AI think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution.@  Our fantasies, our theories do not prove to be enough for us.  We go on living, Aevery day.@  And we experience evil.  It is not we, but Athe experience of evil@ that Ademands a solution.@  And there is none to be found where we have been looking.  We begin to remember at last Athe great scheme.@  AOur childhood pierces through.@  In what must be an autobiographical note, Belloc tells us Athat we who return (to the faith) suffer hard things; for there grows a gulf between us and many companions.  We are perpetually thrust into minorities.@ 

The world without faith talks Aa strange language.@  And what is even worse, Awe are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and superhuman revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions.@  No doubt this observation is something that would be more pertinent to a Catholic, to a Church founded on Peter and the apostles.  We forget that the human machinery is included in the superhuman revelation.  We think we can save the world and the Church by ourselves.  We cannot.


Belloc again travels on his way to Rome.  AIt is hard when a man has loved common views and is happy only with his fellows.@[15]  We have afresh the theme of why are we bothered with more than we can expect with just Mind?  It is an Aawful struggle@ to reconcile two truths.  We must not deny what Ais certainly true@ and yet we must keep Acivic freedom sacred in spite of the organisation of religion.@   And in an astonishingly frank admission, Belloc writes, Ait is hard to accept mysteries and to be humble.@  We must wrestle with faith and reason as Athe great schoolmen were tost.@  Thus, faith, authority, that which is given to us just when we think we have everything figured out, annoys us for it Aleads us away, as by a command, from all that banquet of the intellect than which there is no keener joy known to man.@  Belloc is quite aware of unexpected pleasures, including the pleasure of intellect, its own delight in what it knows. 

But Belloc has also accepted the mysteries.  To be humble is difficult.  AI went slowly up the village place in the dusk, thinking of this deplorable weakness of men that the Faith is too great for them, and accepting it as an inevitable burden.  I continued to muse with my eyes upon the ground....@  We are, I suppose, wont to think of faith as a gift, which it is, and a joy, which it also is.  But in Belloc we are aware of what it at stake, Athis deplorable weakness of men that the Faith is too great for them.@  And of course, it is too great for them, that is why they are called to everlasting life, not just to sacred civic freedom.


The Path to Rome, in conclusion, is a charming, moving, unsettling book, mostly charming.  It is a book that involves us in a walk of a century ago.  We must take it some time.  Belloc, at one point, sees the Lake of Bolsena in Italy from a high distance.  He was in the south now  -- AI had become southern and took beauty for granted.@[16]  As he was sitting there, an old man in a pony cart came by.  Belloc was tired.  He again broke his vow about wheeled vehicles, though he does not attribute it to the temptation of the devil.  As they raced down the hill, both sang.  AI could not understand his songs nor he mine, but there was wine in common between us, and salami, and a merry heart, bread which is the bond of all mankind, and the prime solution of ill-ease  B I mean the forgetfulness of money.@[17]  Bread is the bond of mankind and if we forget our money we will not be ill-at-ease.

So this is The Path to Rome which, if we are fortunate, we are fated to read a century after it was written, as Belloc himself intimated.  As I said, there is ever a poignancy in Belloc.  All good things Acome to an end,@ as he tells us.  This ending includes his book.  Then in a passage of almost sublime beauty, he writes:  AThe leaves fall and they are renewed; the sun sets on the Vexin hills, but he rises again over the woods of Marly.  Human companionship once broken can never be restored, and you and I shall not meet or understand each other again.  It is so of all the poor links whereby we try to bridge the impassable gulf between soul and soul.@[18]  

Belloc then changes moods.  He gives us the musical notes (I forgot to tell the reader about his wonderful sketches of the scenes he saw that are in the book).  He sings:  AL=amore è una catena; l=amore è una catena; l=amore è una catena, Che non si spezza!@  B Love is a chain that is not broken.  The impassable gulf between soul and soul, human companionship, the poor links  B yet, as we read Belloc, as we walk with him in the valleys and hills, in the mountains and plains of Europe, we are left with a feeling that we did understand him, while we walked with him.  The companionship can be taken up again even a century later as we again read The Path to Rome.

 


Endnotes:

 



[1]. Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Anchor, [1902] 1956), 7.

[2]. Belloc, 264.

 3. Belloc, 269.

[4]. Belloc, 227.

[5]. Belloc, 242.

[6].Belloc, 28.

[7]. Belloc, 11.

[8]. Belloc, 31.

[9]. Belloc, 32,

[10].Belloc, 13.

[11]. Belloc, 38-39.

[12]. Belloc, 39.

[13]. Belloc, 104.

[14]. Belloc, 102.

[15]. Belloc, 103.

[16]. Belloc, 253.

[17]. Belloc, 254.

[18].Belloc, 265.