The Holiness of Chesterton
William Oddie (Ed.)
In 2009 a conference was held at Oxford to explore the spiritual life of G.K. Chesterton. A group of scholars, some quite eminent, delivered lectures on the theme, which are here collected in book form. The contributors are Ian Ker (biographer and anthologist of Chesterton), Aidan Nichols, John Saward, Nicholas Madden, Robert Wild, and Sheridan Gilley. William Oddie, as editor, contributes an introduction and appendix.
John Saward focuses on the place of childhood and childlikeness in Chesterton’s life and thought, drawing on Jesus’ maxim that one must become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Saward argues that Chesterton lived this childlikeness, in the relevant sense, to an exemplary degree; spiritual childhood is, he says, “the still point around which the whole Chestertonian universe turns” and “the chief quality of his soul.” Readers of Chesterton will not be surprised by such claims; his sense of wonder, his admiration of children, his affection for children’s games, and so forth all speak to the point. Saward digs deeper, bringing out the way in which, for Chesterton, childhood represented a spiritual ideal. Upon his conversion, for instance, Chesterton said that among his principal motives was the desire to make a sacramental confession, which he saw as returning the penitent to a childlike state. Saward also briefly explores Chesterton’s thoughts about the pre-eminent child-saint of recent Catholic history, St. Therese de Lisieux.
Ian Ker takes as his subject the place of comedy in Chesterton’s spiritual life. “Laughter is as divine as tears,” he once wrote, and he is one of a relatively small number of thinkers — certainly in the past century — to see humour as a matter of great profundity and wisdom. For Chesterton the enjoyment of humour was closely linked to the virtue of humility, for it is humility that allows a man to really enjoy, to relish, the comedy of life. He said, “There is nothing to which a man must give himself with more faith and self-abandonment than to genuine laughter.” This is a stimulating address.
Aidan Nichols begins with the startling claim that Chesterton might justly be considered a Doctor of the Church. In good Chestertonian fashion, he is punning: his meaning is that Chesterton may be a Doctor of the Church as Augustine (for example) is the Doctor of grace. In other words, Nichols believes Chesterton has special insight into the nature of the Church, especially in her role as guardian of “the balance of subtlety and sanity,” and this he explores in his address. The flavour of his remarks can be gathered from this complimentary assessment:
“What commends him above all is the spaciousness of his Christian mind, the range of his experiential materials, the sense he conveys of Catholicism as a wider room than any of the competing ‘isms’ of religious — or, for that matter, secular — history. No one has written better of the gift of creation, the mystical quality of ‘ordinary’ life, the fulfilling of the pagan in the Christian, the practicality of a religion that synthesizes doctrine, ritual, and the everyday, the way the puzzle of the world and of life requires a revelation at once complex and single-minded to solve it, the liberating function of dogma for the imagination, and the self-defeating quality of schism. In a difficult age of the Church such as our own, when the invidious choice is often between, on the one hand, the vague and woolly whose religion is hardly more than humanism with a spiritual tinge, and, on the other, cribbed and cramped zelanti, he is surely the apologist-doctor of the hour.”
Two of the contributors take up the question of whether Chesterton was a Christian mystic. Robert Wild, whose book on this topic I read and reviewed recently, argues that Chesterton was blessed with a supernatural “charism of truth,” a special wisdom “to treat of human affairs in the light of faith.” Interestingly, this line of argument was only a minor theme in his subsequent book, which focused instead on Chesterton’s “Creator mysticism,” his habitual awareness of the radical dependence of created things on God. Nicholas Madden, on the other hand, though praising Chesterton’s “genius, bristling with originality, his wholesome goodness, his generous humour, [and] his massive modesty,” nonetheless raises a doubt as to whether he can rightly be considered a mystic. He questions whether Chesterton ever enjoyed the special encounters with the divine that are characteristic of Christian mystics through history, and he notes, too, that in his writings Chesterton often spoke disparagingly of “mysticism” and had a special antipathy for the way of introspective spirituality, which has, however, been followed by many Christian mystics and has the implicit endorsement of the Church. Now, Chesterton’s use of the word “mysticism” has been addressed at length by Fr. Wild in his book, and does not, I think, raise any serious concerns, but Madden’s other criticisms are worthy of consideration. His is the only sour note sounded in the book, and for that I think we must thank him.
In the appendix, William Oddie contributes an essay — relegated to the appendix only on account of its not having been delivered at the conference, rather than on account of its limited ambition — on the theme “The Philo-Semitism of G.K. Chesterton.” Those who follow these matters know that Chesterton has sometimes been accused of anti-Semitism, and such accusations will certainly be renewed if, as seems possible, the prospect of his sainthood is ever seriously considered. For this reason, Oddie’s essay is a welcome contribution to the debate — although I confess that I find such accusations, in Chesterton’s case, unpersuasive and strangely petty.
In short, this is a stimulating collection of essays on aspects of Chesterton’s life and character that have not often been considered. There is little doubt in my mind that Chesterton was a good man whom we — whom I — could profitably emulate, and this book has helped me to reflect more deeply on why. At his Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral, Ronald Knox said of Chesterton that those who knew him “found in him a living example of charity, of chivalry, of unbelievable humility which will remain with them, perhaps a more effective document of Catholic verity than any word even he wrote.” We should all hope for such an encomium. The book closes with a prayer for Chesterton’s intercession, approved by none other than Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio — now, of course, Pope Francis.