11th June 1901: A Black Day

Today, Belloc walked from just before Burgdorf to an inn just before the Brienzergrat

11th June 1901 was Hilaire Belloc’s most difficult day on his pilgrimage to Rome. At the end of yesterday’s ‘entry’ in The Path to Rome, he describes how he thought he was suffering from ‘fatigue’ (Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.188) whereas it as actually ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ (Ibid).

I have read The Path to Rome several times but only really took in that line – ‘a deep inner exhaustion’ – when I read the book last year. What caused it? Is Belloc close to a nervous breakdown?

To answer the latter question first, no; if The Path to Rome is a true account of his pilgrimage, he is nowhere near it.

To answer the former question, Belloc has only been on the road for eight days, so I would rule out the stress of travelling as the cause for the exhaustion. It is more likely the symptom. To my mind, Belloc’s ‘deep inner exhaustion’ has its roots in his life before his departure from Toul.

Belloc left the inn where he had spent the night and began walking.

All that day was destined to be covered, so far as my spirit was concerned, with a motionless lethargy. Nothing seemed properly to interest or to concern me…

The Path to Rome, p.189

Part of the problem was certainly that Belloc felt intensely lonely.

I had the feeling that every one I might see would be a stranger, and that their language would be unfamiliar to me, and this, unlike most men who travel, I had never felt before… I had no room for good-fellowship. I could not sit at tables and expand the air with terrible stories of adventure, not ask about their politics, nor provoke them to laughter or sadness by my tales.

The Path to Rome, pp.189-90

As for being among strangers whose language one cannot not understand – I can relate to this. I took my first solo holiday abroad in 2002. It was to Tuscany, Italy. Upon my arrival at the hotel, I had a two hour panic attack because here I was now in a strange land surrounded by strangers whose tongue I did not speak. There was no one here to help me; I was entirely alone.

Eventually, I forced myself out of the hotel*. Belloc continued walking. He had breakfast at the Burgdorf railway station where he lamented the sight of tourists just as my friends and I did with the ‘tourist pilgrims’ at Sarria when we did the Camino this year.

[It was] a day without salt. A trudge. The air was ordinary, the colours common; men, animals, and trees indifferent. Something had stopped working.

The Path to Rome, p.193

‘Something had stopped working’. This line gives me the chills. When applied to the spirit, it seems so profound. It seems to go much beyond just feeling blue or a bit sad. Again, it takes me back to my panic attack described above, and the time I felt ‘holed’ (see post here).

Nothing went right for Belloc today. He was in a deep funk; to make matters worse, he was also let down by those around him. Case in point – a peasant asked him to hold his horse while he – the peasant – went into an inn. Belloc, being a horse lover, was happy to do so, but on the understanding that the peasant would bring him a drink. The peasant did not speak English or French so this understanding was only implicit. It was also not known, or ignored. The peasant went inside and stayed there. Belloc grew more and more irritated at being ignored; finally, he lost his temper; he gave the horse a whack and sent it galloping down the road. Now the peasant – and his his friends – came tumbling out of the inn. Belloc took hold of his staff and resumed his walk.

That evening, he was cheered up by the sight of children dancing. They gave Belloc the strength to continue walking. The weather deteriorated, however, and it began to rain. Fortunately, he was able to find a hotel, and there he stayed the night.

*I’m happy to be able to tell you that once I left the hotel, all was well. I had a brilliant holiday

Benedicamus Domino

10th June 1901 Belloc walked from Undervelier to the Weissenstein, from where he saw the Alps for the first time.

When Belloc left Undervelier, he walked towards isolation. He could speak French, but no German, and he was now entering the German speaking part of Switzerland.

He probably didn’t help his chances of getting on with anyone by deciding that the man who refused to give him a coffee was a heretic. But still, it inspired a funny song, which he kindly records in the book.

.. Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so,
Benedicamus Domino

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003), p.165

This is one of the things that I like about Belloc – his absurdist humour. It comes out again when he says,

I… thought what a fine fellow I was, and how pleasant were my friends when I agreed with them.

Ibid

Belloc may have been a staunch Catholic but he had friends far beyond the walls of Rome. I wonder if we can see this in the final verse of his song. He writes,

… as everything ends in death, and as that is just what Heretics least like to be reminded of, I ended thus –

“To my poor self on my deathbed,
And all my dear companions dead,
Because of the love that I bore them,
Dona Eis Requiem

The Path to Rome, p.166

Within the context of the song, which is a celebration of Belloc’s Catholic faith, the companions are no doubt meant to be fellow Catholics. But perhaps by not specifically naming them as such, Belloc is creating a space for his non-Catholic friends who might read the book to see themselves as his deceased friends. Belloc was too generous a man to see good in Catholics and no one else.

10th June 1901 From the Weissenstein, Belloc started walking towards Burgdorf. He would not reach it today, though.

Not that he always saw good in Catholics. Belloc is the man, after all, who is quoted as saying,

‘The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.’

Wikiquote

But, I digress. Belloc kept walking. He ate and drank in Moutier, and then took a rest under a tree.

By midday he was on the move again, and passing a hamlet named Gansbrunnen. He stopped at an inn there for some inn. The inn keeper was an old lady, witch like in appearance. Belloc says he ‘made the sign of the evil eye’ (The Path to Rome, p.175) to protect himself against her. He really isn’t trying at all now to make friends.

On leaving the inn Belloc walked up a hill. From the ridge at its peak he saw a plain, and beyond it, the Alps. They made a profound impact on him.

To what emotion shall I compare this astonishment? So, in first love one finds that this can belong to me.

The Path to Rome, p.180

He goes further,

… from the height of the Weissenstein 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; my aspiration also towards completion, and my confidence in the duel destiny.

Ibid

There is a fly in the ointment, though, for Belloc concludes,

That it is also which leads some men to climb mountain-tops, but not me, for I am afraid of slipping down.

The Path to Rome, p.181

Belloc is being too modest. He loved Elodie Hogan so much, he walked across America to ask her to marry him. For love of God he undertook this pilgrimage. In a few days, he will climb the Alps. He may have been afraid, but he did not let his fear get the better of him. There’s a lesson for us in that.

Belloc walked today until it was dark. He was heading towards Burgdorf but was still a little way from it when he called time and entered an inn. There, he ate, and would have been the butt of the peasants’ jokes there had he not learnt a few words of German along the way. This cut Belloc to the quick as they were fellow Catholics and so shared a great bond with him. He retired to his room, disappointed. Things would not get better tomorrow.