Katharine, my preteen, sent me a link to a song she’d happened across. “It’s my new jam,” she wrote, and I eagerly clicked on it to listen. What dad of a preteen wouldn’t?
Imagine my surprise when Kath’s new jam turned out to be an ad for a cleaning product. The accompanying video was fun and eye-catching, and there was no doubt that the tune was catchy as well. So catchy, in fact, that I couldn’t help thinking that it had caught my attention before. “Well, I can scrub 500 tiles,” it went at one point, “and I can scrub 500 more.”
Of course! I poked around on YouTube and quickly located the Proclaimers’s hit 1988 single, “I’m Gonna Be.” It really is a terrific tune—and the video’s 30 million plus views backs me up on that. The Proclaimers themselves, a Scottish group, are actually a duo—twin brothers, in fact—Charlie and Craig Reid. Their rich accents, combined with the organic blending of their voices, add to the song’s appeal—especially when the brothers make their harmonized leaps in the chorus. “But ↑ I ↓ would walk 500 miles, and ↑ I ↓ would walk 500 more, just to ↑ be ↓ the man who walked a thousand ↑ miles ↓ to fall down at your door.”
Walking 500 miles—or the 1,000 miles total that the song indicates—is an undertaking, to say the least. My eldest daughter and I once walked from our home in northern Indiana to the Michigan state line, and it tuckered us out—and that was a measly ten miles! To do it again 50—let alone 100—more times in succession seems superhuman.
But who can excuse The Proclaimers a bit of hyperbole in their lyrics? It’s a love song, after all—an exuberant, exaggerated expression of total abandonment. “When I come home,” the singer insists, “I’m gonna be the man that comes back home to you.” The singer (Charlie? Craig?) is declaring that nothing will hold him back from his beloved—ever. “If I grow old, I’m gonna be the man who’s growing old with you.”
“This is about marriage,” I thought to myself as I listened. “This is about marital fidelity and commitment.”
Then it hit me: I’d read about someone who’d lived the Proclaimers’s song and who did walk 1,000 miles for love. I’m talking about Hilaire Belloc, the curmudgeonly Edwardian writer, historian, and Catholic apologist, and one of G.K. Chesterton’s closest friends.
The story begins with Belloc making the acquaintance of his future bride, Elodie Hogan, when she and her family were visiting England in 1890. Immediately smitten, Belloc made up his mind to seek Elodie’s hand in marriage no matter the cost. When Elodie returned to the USA shortly thereafter, Belloc tried to woo her via correspondence—with no luck. Not to be deterred, the lovestruck Belloc sold everything he owned and booked passage for a transatlantic voyage in order to pursue her.
Yet Elodie didn’t live on the east coast; she lived in Napa, California—close to 3,000 miles away from where Belloc disembarked. Now, it would be convenient for my purposes here if he’d simply started walking across the continent to reach his true love—which would have resulted in a romantic mileage total three times the Proclaimers’s musical boast. But the truth is, while he walked some of the way, he also took trains to reach Elodie—which is still plenty romantic, I’d say. Moreover, when rebuffed (largely due to Elodie’s mom being skeptical of the eccentric young Englishman’s fortunes), the dejected, tapped-out Belloc turned on his heel and headed back to the Atlantic coast on foot—at least some of the way, and took a full month to do so.
All the tramping back and forth, regardless of the actual amount, turned out to be well worth it. Hilaire and Elodie eventually did wed, and they had a very rich, happy marriage by all accounts. God blessed them with five children, and the couple remained deeply devoted to each other until Elodie’s death in 1914. Hilaire outlived his beloved bride by almost four decades, but he never remarried, and he mourned Elodie’s passing until his own death in 1953.
If that was the end of the story, I wouldn’t have tried linking it to the Proclaimers’s song. But let’s back up a bit—to the turn of the century, when the French-born Belloc was visiting his homeland. He entered a simple parish church and was transported in a kind of spiritual vision. Here’s Belloc in his own words:
I was quite taken out of myself and vowed a vow there to go to Rome on Pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith has saved…. I will walk all the way and take advantage of no wheeled thing; I will sleep rough and cover thirty miles a day, and I will hear Mass every morning; and I will be present at high Mass in St Peter’s on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul.
This comes from the preface to Belloc’s Path to Rome (1902), a book he considered his best. Many agree with him on that point, and it has rarely been out of print since. Path is a record of Belloc making good on his vow, for on the Feast of Corpus Christi, 1901, beginning in Toul, France, he walked over the Alps to the Eternal City—a trip encompassing just over 1,000 miles, including the last 750 on foot. But the book is more than a record; it’s more than a travelogue. It’s essentially a love letter. “I hate writing,” he confessed in an interview toward the end of his life. “I only wrote for money. The Path to Rome is the only book I ever wrote for love.”
And what love was that? It was Belloc’s first love, the Church. “The faith is Europe,” he declared once, “and Europe is the faith.” There are many ways to parse that statement, but at the very least it captures Belloc’s conviction that our Faith isn’t just a set of abstract dogmas and rules. It’s a potency, an animating energy, because it’s a Person, a divine Person. When we surrender ourselves to this Person we are overwhelmed and utterly transformed, and everything in our orbit will be affected. The effect won’t be immediate, nor will it be total. But it will be real to the extent that our surrender is real.
How could it not be? It’s what happens when we fall in love.
Europe, until pretty recently, was an example of this kind of imperfect surrender on a grand scale: An entire continent permeated by Christ—in its art and architecture, its mores and customs, and, as Fr. Schall notes, its “common assumptions about what life, liberty, God, man, and cosmos were about.” Did Europe ever fully live up to those assumptions? Clearly not, but those assumptions nonetheless constituted a frame of reference that transcended borders and languages, and which shaped Europe’s very identity. “For Belloc, Europe is the child of Christianity,” writes Michael Novak, “and Christianity shows its incarnate flesh in Europe, as one day it will also in all cultures that will accept the yeast of its joyous, suffering-tempered vision.”
Anyone familiar with Belloc’s biography will know that he, like Europe, fell short of the Christian vision he embraced. Cranky, frequently intolerant, and mired in anti-Semitic sentiment, Hilaire was no paragon of the Faith he professed. But he was nonetheless smitten to the core, and his march to Rome was a celebration of that devotion. He commenced his pilgrimage from a parish and concluded it in a cathedral, yet the entire journey was steeped in the enfleshed sacrament which is the body of Christ. “We are of so glorious a company that we receive support, and have communion,” he later wrote in an open letter to the anti-Catholic Dean Inge. “Even in these our earthly miseries we always hear the distant something of an eternal music, and smell a native air. There is a standard set for us whereto our whole selves respond, which is that of an inherited and endless life, quite full, in our own country.”
We belong to that country as well, the Church Militant on the march. It’s a march that’s undergoing no little disruption these days, and there’s no glossing over all that. But march on we must, for 500, or even 1,000 miles—whatever it takes. She’s our first love after all. Let’s lace up our boots.