The shotgun nudged my shoulder with a firm recoil. Fifty yards away, the orange clay soaring through the air splintered against a backdrop of pure blue sky and fell to the snow and brown sagebrush below. Over the course of a morning, I got to shoot nearly every sort of firearm in common use, from hunting shotguns and rifles to military grade semi-automatics and a pistol. Shooting is one of several important activities that Hilaire Belloc assures us are necessary for reasonable happiness.
A few weeks ago, Jared Noyes published a brief but excellent call to put away our phones and become Renaissance men. I completely agree “that in stepping outside of our comfort zone, picking up new hobbies, and above all, challenging ourselves as men, we might very well discover additional means which can aid us in the deepening of our spiritual life and perfection of our faith.” But what exactly are some of the hobbies and crafts we should try to cultivate?
In this, I turn to the great friend of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, for inspiration and guidance. A man of many skills, fit and active (unlike Chesterton), Belloc’s time in the French army, his peregrination across America in pursuit of his future wife, his skill as a sailor, and his love of walking, drinking ale, and writing poetry all qualify him (in my opinion) as an excellent authority on what it means to be a Renaissance Man.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In The Path to Rome, Hilaire Belloc describes a handful of activities which modern industrial and urban life has all too often endangered or made extinct. On a foot pilgrimage to Rome, he attends an early morning Mass in a little village. Trying to analyze why this makes him so happy, he writes that:
The most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years. This is a matter of such moment that I am astonished people hear of it so little. Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long—but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food—and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God put him into a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul. Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should do a little work with his hands.
And in regard to the Low Mass which he has just heard in the country chapel, he says:
Now in the morning Mass you do all that the race needs to do and has done for all these ages where religion was concerned: there you have the sacred and separate Enclosure, the Altar, the Priest in his Vestments, the set ritual, the ancient and hierarchic tongue, and all that your nature cries out for in the matter of worship.
With the rambunctious and common-sensical Belloc as our guide, then, we can enumerate a short list of important manly activities:
- Hand crafts
- Hearing Mass
Objections might quickly be raised in regard to these activities; they are too expensive, or occasions of sin, or difficult.
On the contrary, hunting and shooting need not be expensive, and the same is true of boating. A reliable shotgun of decent quality can be acquired for well under five hundred dollars. A game license will be well under one hundred dollars. Boating need not be done on a large scale: canoes and kayaks are available for rent near most large bodies of water. A new canoe costs about one grand, while a pair of kayaks could easily be obtained for half that amount.
Sometimes people object to drinking and dancing as occasions of sin. The most fun and least promiscuous dancing is traditional folk dancing. This ought to be organized communally; it is simple enough that men, women, and children without any previous dancing experience can learn it. At the same time, it is complex enough that when a group becomes coordinated and smooth, they have the satisfaction of having achieved something worthwhile. One need not drink much to drink; and when men both young and old drink together, eat, and have plenty of leisure for storytelling and reading, surfeit is easily avoided.
Singing comes naturally to some and not to others, but if you do not have the aptitude, seeking out those who do should be possible. Of course, singing comes in two contexts: sacred and profane. For the first, joining a schola, when possible, will increase your appreciation for the Church’s liturgy. For the second, beer and song improve each other, as has been recognized as long as we can remember.
There are an almost infinite number of hand crafts—from making candles, to woodworking, to gardening and animal husbandry. Some prefer teaching themselves; others wish to learn from the experienced. The main thing in picking up a manual skill is to find one that genuinely interests you. Favorite and ancient crafts (I use the term in its widest sense) still widely practiced include brewing beer, making furniture, growing vegetables, keeping chickens, making pottery, and cooking, to name a few. Slightly more exotic but still easily accessible crafts might include weaving, beekeeping, or blacksmithery.
Finally, for the Catholic man, hearing Mass should mean (as it did for Belloc) hearing the Traditional Mass—that is, the liturgy which contains all our “race needs to do and has done for all these ages where religion was concerned.” Every Catholic man ought to learn how to serve Low Mass—there really isn’t very much memorization required, especially since one can easily serve a private Mass while holding a missal and server’s “cheat sheet.” This is the Mass for all Ages and of all men; the Mass of the Renaissance man as much as the barbarian, medieval, and Victorian. It ought also to be the Mass of modern Renaissance men.
Belloc considers the above return to reality through age-old activities as so important that he jokes how he might encourage them if he had great political power:
Indeed, if I had power for some thirty years I would see to it that people should be allowed to follow their inbred instincts in these matters, and should hunt, drink, sing, dance, sail, and dig, and those that would not should be compelled by force.
Converting the middle class into peasants, Belloc implies, is the most helpful thing that the rich could be doing with their money:
Oh! what good philosophy this is, and how much better it would be if rich people instead of raining the influence of their rank and spending their money on leagues for this or that exceptional thing, were to spend it in converting the middle-class to ordinary living and to the tradition of the race.
Though I have touched but briefly on these eight essential activities of the “reasonably happy” man, they deserve considerable and serious consideration by all those striving for a life of strength, virtue, and sanctity. In the coming months, I hope to discuss some of these topics individually in greater detail. I have spoken primarily of these activities as proper to men; I will address the question of the “Renaissance woman” in a few weeks’ time—how she complements, overlaps, yet has different priorities than the Renaissance man.
Finally, I have emphasized in passing that they need not be overly daunting or expensive; yet they can be costly, and not just financially. We should not be surprised or perturbed when they are. After all, strength, virtue, and sanctity are not cheaply acquired things. The “retethering of ourselves, our families, our culture, and our Church more tightly to God” (as Mr. Noyes said) is hard work which will, in the end, lead us to much more than “reasonable happiness.”