Explaining faith is a difficult task, because faith is separate from intellect. Or... is it? Certainly some of the greatest "apologists"—explainers of the faith—have managed to incorporate the two, and one of those people lived in a time both entirely unlike and entirely like ours—barely a century away from us. His writing hovers over that liminal valley between past and present. He wrote unequivocally about his own time... and just as unequivocally about eternal truths.
His name was G. K. Chesterton. And he had a great deal to say that’s 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 uncovers this paradox: “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.”
Paradox is at the center of Chesterton’s opus—and of Chesterton’s world. Paradox is also central to Christianity. 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; Chesterton shows Catholics “you don’t have to say your Rosary every five minutes to be holy.”
Chesterton 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.”
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.
And we’re here to help! Pauline Books & Media is pleased to announce a new Chesterton volume in our Ex Libris series, introduced and compiled by Dale Ahlquist. Dale Ahlquist is the president of the American Chesterton Society, publisher of Gilbert magazine, and the co-founder of Chesterton Academy. He has edited ten books of Chesterton's writings.
So don’t take our word for it—take a look at Chesterton’s great writing for yourself!
This small volume introduces readers to G.K. Chesterton's signature joyful, wonder-filled approach to the mysteries of life.
Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton was an English literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. His best-known character is his priest-detective, Father Brown, while The Man Who Was Thursday is his best-known novel. In all, he wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays.
Chesterton's words ring as true today as when they were first written at the end of the 19th century. "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: his witty aphorisms deliver enduring truths, truths that enrich lives and broaden our understanding.
Compiled by Dale Ahlquist, president of the G.K. Chesterton Society, this volume collects wit and wisdom culled from a number of Chesterton's books, presented in an easy-to-read format.
image: Priscilla du Preez for Unsplash