David Twiston Davies
Alienation must be one of the most popular complaints of our age, I thought as I sweated up to town, exasperated that the entire population not on holiday seemed to be crammed into the same hot, stuffy railway carriage as myself. Young people feel alienated; immigrants feel alienated; mortgage buyers feel alienated; even holidaymakers waiting for planes feel alienated.
And, for each, there seems to be some officially appointed alienation detector who can be relied upon to burnish that sense of grievance. In the end, of course, this can only be overcome by a great effort on the part of the individual who, if he succeeds, then experiences a new tremor of alienation on discovering that his success has deprived him of the time to enjoy it.
Reading about the alienated masses in the papers almost every day, with my elbows crushed to my side, it occurred to me that the cause for complaint was not just an enormous collection of individual niggles but something bigger. Confirmation for my suspicion came from a surprising source at the weekend when I picked up The Catholic Revival in English Literature by Fr Ian Ker. This book differs from so many modern works of literary criticism, in that it did not alienate my sympathies by being written in incomprehensible jargon or aggressively advancing a political agenda.
Readers of The Catholic Herald, which published extracts from it last year, will recall that this much praised collection of essays looks at six authors who were not simply Catholics, but writers whose work is imbued by their Catholicism. Five of them are converts — Cardinal Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, G K Chesterton, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh — who remained in awe of the Church they had joined. The sixth is the cradle Catholic Hilaire Belloc. His reputation has been in decline for some 50 years, yet one still comes across extraordinary examples of his far-sightedness. One, which is being proved by our current experience of Islam, is his belief that religion lies at the bottom of all culture. Belloc attributed the alienation of the modern world to the smashing of Christian Europe by the Reformation. This, he declared, not only deprived modern man of his stake in the community with the rise of capitalism but, most important, left his soul isolated. For Belloc, man’s relationship with God was not simply an invisible link conducted through Scripture in a parsonical voice, but something which is lived through the community that is the Church.
It must be said that Belloc, who was half-French, had a considerable talent for alienating people for which his contemporaries forgave him (in part) because they recognised that he was a genius in the same way as Winston Churchill. He delighted in cocking a snook at the grim seriousness of Protestantism, not least in his comic verse. He relished the matter-of-factness of the combination of things of the spirit and those of the material world. His Path to Rome brought this out in its account of how he joined the entire population of an Alpine village at vespers, carefully placing his cigar under a stone beforehand and retrieving it afterwards.
Sitting in my garden, uneasily aware of many pressing matters, I not only derived great pleasure in reading Fr Ker’s chapter on Belloc, with its wealth of apt quotation. A quiet satisfaction came from the realisation that Belloc would have said that my enjoyment of the hot weather, the smell of the newly mown grass and the ease of my chair was the proper way to celebrate the happy unity of God and his creation.
David Twiston Davies works for The Daily Telegraph. The Catholic Revival in English Literature 1845-1961 by Ian Ker is available from Gracewing, priced £14.99