“There is a valley in south England remote from ambition and from fear…”
Hilaire Belloc, ‘The Mowing of a Field’

Reading a Belloc essay aloud is one of my favorite things to do with students in my home—or in this case around a bonfire. Such readings were very formative for me when I was an undergraduate. They are a simple and profound way to spend rich time together. Such times of plenitude (as I like to call them) are the stuff of memory; more importantly, they are the stuff of life.

In this essay Belloc relates the wonderful experience of returning to the home of his youth. “Whatever veil is thrown by a longing recollection had not intensified nor even made more mysterious the beauty of that happy ground; not in my very dreams of morning had I, in exile, seen it more beloved or more rare.”

Memory has a powerful and irreplaceable role in life. “Happy memories” go a long way in making for ongoing happiness. However, life is now; and the true role of memory is not to take us back, but to enable the past to inform the present. There is something a little odd when a vacation spot is advertised as where “to make memories.” We’re not seeking memories; we seek life.

Yet at the same time, especially as a parent or teacher, I do want to enact something that will be worthy of remembering. Such experiences can form the soul and give a taste for things that matter. In this way, preserved through memory, times of plenitude remain with us, giving compass and direction.

Such times cannot simply be snapped into existence or fabricated. We cannot pay a planner to make them happen. But we can be intentional about them, by attending to two “c’s”: character and context. Times of plenitude are never far away when persons of a certain character seek out contexts of a certain kind.

Character refers to where our heart is; the person of good character consistently sets his heart on things that matter. Belloc refers to a valley remote from ambition. Ambition here seems to mean a condition common today: a heart set on things that, perhaps not bad in themselves, are passing and less important, as opposed to things that really matter.

Context is a set of conditions in our life, many of which are in our control. Belloc refers to a valley remote from ambition. Immediately one imagines a context with characteristics ranging from natural features such as fields and hay, to cultural features such as work habits and eating practices. These things matter.

Times of plenitude often arise unexpectedly, and they are always a gift. But they do not arise randomly, as though removed from our choices and cultivation. Such rich times, being a taste of something profound that can elude us, are always also a fore-taste, a promise of something yet to come. For those who seek it.

Belloc writes, “And…the good vision of the place, which I had kept so many years, left me and was replaced by its better reality. ‘Here,’ I said to myself, ‘is a symbol of what some say is reserved for the soul: pleasure of a kind which cannot be imagined save in a moment when at last it is attained.’”

Indeed, reality is always better. It is better than we imagined, or remembered, or even hoped. Our challenge is to learn to receive it and to enact it.

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), born of a French father and English mother, was a poet, historian, and essayist. This quote is from a great little essay in one of his most delightful collections of essays, The Hills and the Sea.

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