The great American Jesuit, James V. Schall, now retired in Los Gatos after almost 30 years at Georgetown University, and 15 more years before that in Rome and San Francisco, is an inspiration to many people in many different ways. For me, Fr. Schall is a true mentor in the leisure of the intellectual life, especially in his wonderful little book of “lighter Christian essays,” Idylls and Rambles. It was in one of those essays that Fr. Schall first introduced me to The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc.
The Four Men is a “farrago,” a literary mixture of many matters, sublime and mundane, which fits quite well the character of Belloc (and, I might add, of Schall), who had a particular genius for seeing the universal in the particular. The book tells the story of four Sussex men, who make a sort of honorific pilgrimage to their home County from October 29 to November 2 in the year 1902. It is a book meant to be read and meditated especially during these days of the year when the weather changes and the Sacred Liturgy teaches us about the Last Things.
The four men, Schall teaches us, are all parts of Belloc himself. It’s lovely to see how well Belloc knows himself, as we have the brute practicality of the Sailor balanced by the absentminded romance of the Poet. Their common foolishness is tempered by the wisdom of years in the old man, Grizzlebeard, with whom “Myself”, the fourth man, most often agrees. The dialogue of the four travelers often deals with issues related to the passing of temporal things, the ultimate futility of earthly happiness, and the preciousness of things that do not pass away. In essence, the book is an extended meditation on death.
We ought to meditate on death in November. The Church, in her wisdom, gives us a whole month to consider the ultimate in life: our own mortality, the just and merciful judgment that awaits us all, and the eternal destiny for which we were created. Most awesome of all is the truth that we do not “pass away” at death, but that we are created to live forever. All of this, of course, is made more acutely poignant, due to the mystery of Divine Grace, which places in each of our created wills the decision as to how we are to spend eternity.
The incongruity between the eternity for which we long and the passingness of created things is borne out beautifully as Myself awakes from his sleep on All Souls Day, 1902, the final day of the four’s journey together. He had been dreaming of the perfect place, “the place inside the mind, which is all made up of remembering and of peace…full of glory and of content, height and great measurement fit for the beatitude of the soul. Nor had I in that dream any memory of loss, but rather a complete end of it…”
Having awakened at last, however, he is jarred rudely back into the grim relative nothingness of space and time, for which death, leading unto eternal life, is a merciful remedy. “But this was in the dream only; and when I woke it was to the raw world and the sad uncertain beginnings of a little winter day.”
Dying and living, dreams and reality, passing things and eternal things: this is the stuff of November, of these holy days of our Christian time, in which we contemplate our own death, judgment, and eternal fate. We are, sadly, sinners, and sin has begotten death and passingness and nothingness. This, as St. Paul and Belloc and Fr. Schall all teach us, is the “sting of death.” But, they more loudly proclaim, “Thanks be to God Who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ!”
Fr. Joseph Previtali