This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
In a world of Twitter and Internet memes that prize brevity, short yet poignant quotes are often passed around on social media without much thought as to where they came from. Some of my personal favorites: “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”; “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”; and “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” What these all have in common is that they were said by the same man, G.K. Chesterton.
The name of G.K. Chesterton has mostly fallen into obscurity for the past few decades, except perhaps in conjunction with the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, the titular character of the BBC series based on Chesterton’s original short stories. Born at the end of the Victorian era, Chesterton was one of the most prolific and celebrated writers in England in his time, and he also enjoyed great popularity in America. He was a major influence on such minds as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Alfred Hitchcock, among others. His works included Christian apologetics, novels, plays and poetry. His funeral in England was attended by (then) Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, and Pope Pius XI sent a telegram of condolence that declared Chesterton a “gifted Defender of the Catholic Faith.”
Yet even in most Catholic and literary circles today, the mention of Chesterton will often draw blank stares. I only discovered him myself within the past several years, stumbling across him as I read biographies of my other favorite writers. I began to read him primarily to understand his influence on the authors who had influenced me, but I quickly fell in love with him for his own sake.
Unlike the academic lives of Lewis or Tolkien, professors in Oxford, Chesterton spent his life as a freelance writer and debater, spending a great deal of time in London and even doing two speaking tours around America. He was a man fully engaged with the world around him, delighting in poking into the nooks and crannies of social politics as much as the philosophical realities of what it means to be human. He cut a striking figure as well. At well over 6 feet tall and weighing around 300 pounds, he walked the streets of London wearing a cape and a crumpled hat, with a sword-cane in hand. And yet, what I have personally found most compelling about him is the pure exuberance and wonder in his work, such as when he writes in “Orthodoxy”:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Chesterton was a man who delighted in the mere reality of existence and the universe.
It was Chesterton’s Christian apologetic writing that began the conversion of a young C.S. Lewis away from atheism. In Lewis’ memoir of his conversion, “Surprised by Joy,” he notes, “In reading Chesterton … I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” And later on, as Lewis was still trying to cling to his youthful atheism, “Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity.” It was Chesterton’s goodness, his sincerity and honesty, that Lewis was so drawn to as a young man – even as he was fighting against it. And how many others has Lewis then drawn towards God in his turn?
On topics such as feminism and the importance of the family, many of our current writers are only now beginning to catch up with what Chesterton saw coming at the dawn of the 20th century. His reverence and appreciation for the roles of women is nearly incomprehensible in our culture today, where in the name of “equality” women are judged primarily on how much they can behave and function as men. Chesterton saw both the beauty and the strength inherent in feminine nature, influenced surely by his great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he was composing poetry even as a small boy:
“Hail Mary, thou blessed among women, generations shall rise up to greet,/ After ages of wrangles and dogma, I come with a prayer to thy feet.”
He viewed women as the crowning achievement of God’s creation, and it was the very nature of their femininity, their differences from men, that made them so valuable. In these modern times that seek to erase any differentiation between men and women, we could use some of that perspective.
It’s hard to explain why Chesterton’s work is not more widely known today. Over 100 years ago, he was speaking out and warning against many of the ills that plague our society and culture today, such as when he said, “These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.” From feminism and attacks on the family to education and the evils of eugenics, Chesterton’s words are proving to be more accurate than we would like. He was an advocate of truth and has also been called the “Apostle of Common Sense.”
The most intimidating factor when approaching Chesterton’s work is the sheer quantity of his writing, and it’s hard to know where to begin. One of the best ways to learn more about this remarkable man is to check out The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Formerly the American Chesterton Society, the group is now a Catholic lay apostolate, recognized formally by the Church as a private association of the faithful. Their website is a treasure trove of information, resources and books. They also hold an annual Chesterton conference every year around the beginning of August, with such speakers as Joseph Pearce, Rod Dreher, Brandon Vogt and others. This year’s conference drew more than 500 people, brought together from all over the world by their love for this great man and the truth he spoke.
As I urge you to explore the work of Chesterton for yourself, it seems only fitting to end with his own words, though there are so very many to choose from. He was a man who lived his life and his faith to the full, and we could all use more of his wisdom in our lives today.
“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”