Over the coming weeks some of our literary collaborators will give suggestions for ‘lock-down reading’, books of all kinds to amuse and raise our spirits. This week: Anthony Redmond on The Path to Rome (1902) by Hilaire Belloc.
It must be 40 years since I first read The Path to Rome and I have never forgotten it. In it Belloc describes in vivid detail his pilgrimage on foot from Toulouse to Rome.
This great book, published in 1902, is written in the most leisurely style and we find ourselves treated to dissertations on almost every subject under the sun – from mulled wine and the ways of the middle-class to Gothic architecture and the Catholic Church.
Belloc has graphic powers of description and an obsession with minute details. The people he encounters on his journey are captured with compassion and affection. In many ways, his Path to Rome is allegorical and symbolic.
Thus, for example, when he speaks of the “sharp steadfastness” of the Alps which “compelled my adoration”, he is thinking of things immaterial.
“From the height of Weissenstein,” he writes, “I saw, as it were, my religion. I mean, humility, the fear of death, the terror of height and of distance, the Glory of God, the infinite potentiality of reception whence springs that divine thirst of the soul.”
His passionate love for the Catholic Church forms the leitmotif of the book, and he never misses an opportunity to call attention to its cultural legacy and profound influence on European civilization. For Belloc, Rome is the pivot of the universe, the emblem of sanity itself.
He mentions the benefits of daily Mass and the joy he derives from it. “That for half an hour just at the beginning of the day you are silent and recollected, and have to put off cares, interests and passions in the repetition of a familiar action. That the surroundings incline you to good and reasonable thoughts, and for the moment deaden the rasp and jar of that busy wickedness which both working in one’s self and received from others is the true source of all human misery.”
When he eventually reaches his destination he refuses to tell us anything about Rome. He says: “I am on the threshold of a great experience; I would rather be alone. Good-bye my readers; good-bye the world.”
Belloc was part of an interesting group of Catholic apologists whose work is not read nowadays as much as it should be. I am thinking of great debaters and defenders of the Church like G.K Chesterton, Arnold Lunn, Ronald Knox, and Christopher Dawson. I think we are missing this level of debate nowadays.