Isn’t it an amazing feeling when you read a book or an article and feel that the author has really captured your own thoughts about something? When you find yourself nodding along as you read? When you read words written before you were born and feel that the writer really “got it”?
Many authors of the early 20th century were enmired in their specific time, and at a distance their writings appear old-fashioned at best—and irrelevant at worst. Others seem to have been prescient, their work resonating fresh and clear for a new generation of readers.
And then there’s G.K. Chesterton, whose writing hovers over that liminal valley between past and present, who wrote unequivocally about his own time—and just as unequivocally about eternal truths. And he had a great deal to say that is relevant to us as Catholics today.
This was a man of great appetites: intellectual, spiritual, and physical. He weighed upward of 300 pounds, and is said to have “liked his beer and Burgundy.” He wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. He was a columnist for the Daily News, The Illustrated London News, and his own paper, G.K.'s Weekly; he also wrote entries for the Encyclopedia Britannica. When he embraced God, he did so wholeheartedly, repudiating first atheism and then even the Church of England, finding the latter a pale reflection of the Catholic Church.
And yet despite those appetites—or perhaps because of them—Chesterton’s touch is light and filled with humility and humor. Read his Father Brown mysteries, and you’ll meet a detective who’s no acerbic Sherlock Holmes: a bumbling, mild-mannered cleric who at times seems almost anecdotal to the story, yet whose commentary on the human condition is incisive, empathetic, and forgiving. “Chesterton inherited a form naturally given to morbidity,” writes Michael Newton in The Guardian, “and infused it with a reckless joy.”
Or perhaps you’d like to read Chesterton’s defense of the faith in Orthodoxy, in which he writes, “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sane: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.”
Ah, paradox! Paradox is at the center of Chesterton’s opus—and of Chesterton’s world. Paradox is also central to Christianity: its paradoxical doctrines are at the heart of how it responds to moral and philosophical problems. The theological paradox of original sin answers the Church’s central moral dilemma: by combining the doctrine of the fall with the promises of the Incarnated Christ, the Church found balance. And, with that balance, it also found truth:
The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. (...) In short, I would say chiefly of the Catholic Church that it is catholic. I would rather try to suggest that it is not only larger than me, but larger than anything in the world; that it is indeed larger than the world.
At the same time that he defended the theology and dogma of the Church, Chesterton “broke the mold of conventional holiness,” says Canon John Udris, the priest investigating for the Vatican the possibility of opening Chesterton’s Cause. (One of Chesterton’s most influential admirers is Pope Francis, who supported a Chesterton conference in Buenos Aires and was an honorary member of the committee of the Chesterton Society.) Udris remarks wryly that Chesterton shows Catholics “you don’t have to say your Rosary every five minutes to be holy.”
A potential saint, in other words, for the rest of us. And one who knew how to cut to the heart of the matter, deftly and elegantly. In March of 1920 he wrote in the London Illustrated News, “The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.”
Chesterton did indeed not only write for the Church; he also wrote for his time. He argued articulately with H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. “The whole modern world,” he wrote in 1924, “has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
But his writing is also timeless. “Progress,” he writes in Orthodoxy, “should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision; instead, we are always changing the vision.” There’s a clear takeaway here for everyone. Again and again his witty aphorisms deliver enduring truths, truths that can enrich lives in our century and—hopefully!—many to come.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
A collection of G.K. Chesterton’s quotations, Way of Wonder: The Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton, compiled with a foreword by Dale Ahlquist (president of the American Chesterton Society), is available now from Pauline Books & Media.