Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Holiness Inspires Greatness In Others - Fr Vincent McNabb's Impact on Belloc and Chesterton

We can’t all be great, like Chesterton or Belloc, but we can all be holy like Fr McNabb.

Pontifex University Press is re-publishing two collections of essays by Fr Vincent McNabb,
an Irish Dominican priest who lived in England for over 50 years and was influential on the thought and writing of both Chesterton and Belloc, with both of whom he was good friends. It is through that association and with the land movement that Chesterton and Belloc championed that he is generally known today.

These collections have been chosen to deal with a range of subjects, but we deliberately chose essays that do not focus on what he generally known for, the land movement. As a result, they are a fascinating insight into a man who is a deep and intelligent thinker with a great love for God and man, and so, will give fresh insights indirectly into his motives for support of the land movement.

The first book, God’s Dealings With the Minds of Men - Essays on Biblical Inspiration, Mysticism, and the Imagination, edited by Matthew Horwitz and with a Foreword by myself, shows McNabb as an intellectual. These essays are written for his peers and are technical, reflecting his powerful intellect. They cover the nature of inspiration and revelation in treatments that are surprisingly fresh and relevant for today’s reader.

The more recently published collection is called The Wayside - A Priest’s Gleanings, which is a charming and touching series of essays that are descriptions of how his work with the poor and underprivileged in the tenements and prisons of London and Leicester affected him personally. Again this is edited by Matthew Horwitz, and has a Foreword by Michael Hennessy, who is the chairman of the Hilaire Belloc Society in the UK.

These include some reflections by a theologian and scholar of St Thomas, for example, The Dumb Ox of Thought, and St Thomas as a Controversialist, and an essay on the liturgy called The Riches of Ritual. But as much as these, it is his accounts of the joy he has in serving those around him, that give us insights into McNabb as a man, for example, Jane Seedcombe Wool Weaver: Of Certain Notable Things Heard From Her Lips.

In The Innocent, he describes his regular visits to an alcoholic prisoner called Patrick Glennon who, by his own account was justly serving time. One day he went in and Glennon was not there, but another prisoner whom he did not know.
I was talking with Patrick Glennon’s successor in A4, 22.

“You knew Patrick Glennon, I suppose,” he said.

“Yes! What of him?” I answered, in dread. “He died last month.” The A4, 22, shifted himself uneasily on his feet. I noticed a quiet flood filling his eyes.

“Died?” I asked.

“In the workhouse—”

We kept silence, as if before the presence of a great law. I was relieved when A4, 22, began the panegyric of the dead.

“He was a good one, was Pat. Never heard him say a wrong word of anyone. He was one of the best. He was—you know what I mean—holy!”

An uncontrollable “Amen” nearly rose up in my throat.
Most of us cannot hope to be great men in the manner of Belloc and Chesterton. But we can all aspire to holiness, even that of Fr Vincent McNabb. It is through personal holiness that we can inspire greatness in others. Here is what Belloc and Chesterton had to say about McNabb (again quoted in the book) and then some concluding remarks from Michael Hennessy’s Foreword to The Wayside

Here is what Belloc and Chesterton had to say about McNabb (again quoted in the book) and then some concluding remarks from Michael Hennessy’s Foreword.
The greatness of . . . [Fr. Vincent McNabb’s] . . . character, of his learning, his experience, and, above all, his judgment, was altogether separate from the world about him . . . But the most remarkable aspect of all was the character of holiness . . . I have known, seen and felt holiness in person . . . Never have I seen or known anything on such a scale. 
— Hilaire Belloc
I will say briefly and firmly that . . . [Fr. Vincent McNabb] . . . is one of the few great men I have met in all my life; that he is great in many ways, mentally and morally and mystically and practically; and that next to nobody nowadays has even heard of him . . . [but] . . . nobody who ever met or saw or heard Father McNabb has ever forgotten him.
— G. K. Chesterton
In the Foreword to The Wayside - A Priest’s Gleanings, Michael Hennessy, chairman of the Belloc Society in the UK wrote:
Some writers are famously less than their oeuvre. If great books are the products of great writers, they are not always the product of great men. Fr. McNabb’s close friend, Hilaire Belloc—and Fr. McNabb accompanied Belloc through the darkest days of his life, immediately after the early death of his wife, Elodie—wrote over 150 books; yet the consensus is that even this great mass of writing, and the gems of literature and thinking within it, does not match the magnificence of the personality, genius, haecceitas, of Belloc. They do not encapsulate the astonishing breadth of his subject material, the depth of his thinking, or the extent of his energy. They form an incomplete jigsaw or a partial map, the cartography of which is not only imperfect through what it lacks but on which even what is visible is indistinct. Even more partial a map is fashioned by the works of Fr. McNabb.

McNabb wasn’t as great a writer as he was a thinker; and he wasn’t as great a thinker as he was a lover of God, and of His creation in an order to Him. Sometimes his mind moves too fast for his pen clearly to express his thoughts; and sometimes his thought is caught up in an emotion that, amidst all the hardness of his scholastic reasoning, yet retains strains of a vivid Irish sentimentalism.

Two of the essays in The Wayside particularly express, beyond his “book-learning,” the deep, unstinting charity he felt towards others—in respect of the non-conformist wool-weaver, Jane Seedcombe, and the convict, Patrick Glennon. An effulgent sensitivity in how he writes of others, seeing all those around him in the light of Christ, fills his work. The context of rustic Irish emotion in which his young Faith was nurtured reveals itself in some of these essays, which show a gentleness before beauty and an acuity of spirit before truth. In other essays, his mind fastens hawk-like on apologetic arguments and criticisms, and the condensing of logical argument becomes so great as occasionally to defy easy understanding.

Reading these essays, it is clear that their author was a man consumed by love for God and for his fellow man, and determined, in that charity, to oppose arguments and error that sought to dethrone Christ and take away from the people their rightful, loving King. For his task was to show God to all, in all that he wrote, said and did.

There was an old lady, bed-ridden, who lived in a tenement by Camden Lock. For years, someone came regularly to visit her, to talk to her and to tidy her room and scrub her floor. A few weeks after Fr. McNabb died, people who used to live nearby talked about how visits by this kind old lady had stopped. One of the bed-ridden lady’s best friends knew that this visitor had in fact been Fr. McNabb, in his homespun habit and cloak, on his way to Parliament Hill to speak at the Catholic Evidence Guild. Even his fellow friars hadn’t known about these visits. Such was the man who wrote this little, beguiling book.
Here is my interview with Michael about the book in which he offers other fascinating insights into McNabb and his connection to Belloc.
Mike Hennessy’s email: michael.hennessy4@btinternet.com

The Belloc Society Blog: thehilairebellocblog.blogspot.com/

And here is a talk by Mike Hennessy on Belloc’s love for wine!

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