Two twentieth century intellectuals found themselves surprised by similar experiences that were to profoundly mark the direction of their lives. They were Simone Weil and Hilaire Belloc. Central to their spiritual lives were epiphanies, borne of a contact with the living past, something soon to be lost, something they themselves had never experienced. This was the experience of faith, unquestioning acceptance, contentment, that freedom to be found in familiarity with people, customs and environment. It was the experience of a synthesis of daily life, and all its joys and sufferings, with Christian faith. This synthesis still held sway in the peasant societies that touched and, indeed, changed their lives. It held a truth about the human condition lost to the modern desacralised world that profoundly affected them.
Simone Weil entered a small Portuguese fishing village on the day of the festival of its patron saint. “I was alone. It was the evening and there was a full moon over the sea. The wives of the fishermen were, in procession, making a tour of all the ships, carrying candles and singing what must certainly be very ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness. Nothing can give any idea of it. I have never heard anything so poignant unless it were the song of the boatmen on the Volga. There the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.” (From letter 4 in Waiting for God.) Such a conviction supported her belief that the simple faith of the lowly - in this case the peasants of this Portuguese village - imparted a wisdom that is born from their experiential contact with suffering, a wisdom inaccessible to many privileged individuals. The outcasts and the poor are bearers of truths about God, the human condition, and even nature - truths that, in the words of St Paul, shame the powerful and wise of the world (1 Cor. 26ff).
Hilaire Belloc rested by a stream in a French village on his path to Rome. “AsI was watching that stream against those old stones, my cigar being now half smoked, a bell began tolling, and it seemed as if the whole village were pouring into the church. At this I was very much surprised,not having been used at any time of my life to the unanimous devotion of an entire population, but having always thought of the Faith as something fighting odds, and having seen unanimity only in places where some sham religion or other glossed over our tragedies and excused our sins. Certainly to see all the men, women, and children of a place taking Catholicism for granted was a new sight, and so I put my cigar carefully down under a stone on the top of the wall and went in with them. I then saw that what they were at was vespers.” (The Path to Rome.)
He was transfixed by this whole village, taking religion for granted, transfigured by this collective act. It made him rethink the course of history. The peasant mind moved happily within a tradition and here was a depth of meaning that went down to the earliest moments of western history, and it was still alive. These people were still living out ritual activities that were hundreds and thousands of year old. He discovered that these certainties could be relived, if only one could shed those qualities of modernity that desire to gnaw away and criticise everything. If only one could shed the suspicion of tradition and embrace it. This would have nothing to do with the anodyne comforts of studious learning. From now self-knowledge would begin with faith, an openness to reality, an openness to the past.
“There was to be no more of that studious content, that security in historic analysis, and that constant satisfaction of an appetite which never cloyed. A wisdom more imperative and more profound was to put a term to the comfortable wisdom of learning."
Weil and Belloc had, until these moments of epiphany, experienced relationships to faith that were common to the modern age; one of secular indifference, the other of struggle and doubt. Their experiences of peasant life in Portugal and France represented a turning of their souls that was to profoundly mark the direction of their lives, connecting them both to tradition.