By William Oddie
Just after Chesterton’s premature death at the age of 62 Maisie Ward, his first biographer, a friend of 30 years, was touched by a tribute paid to him by the maid at a house he used to visit in his home town of Beaconsfield. With tears in her eyes, she said simply: “Oh Miss, our Mr Chesterton dying – he was a sorter saint, Miss, wasn’t he? – just to look at him when you handed him his hat made you feel sorter awesome.” It has not always been as evident, even to many of his admirers, that he was “a sorter saint”; but to others, like the late Cardinal Emmett Carter, who described him as one of those “holy lay persons” who “have exercised a truly prophetic role within the Church and the world”, it has been clear enough.
It is certainly time to ask why this should be a growing view. After a paper I delivered last year to the annual conference of the American Chesterton Society I was asked what stage the Cause towards Chesterton’s beatification had reached. When I said there was no Cause, the audience showed signs of incredulity. I explained lamely that there had to be evidence of a cult: one man stood up and said, indicating the approximately 500 present, “what the heck do they think we are?” It is becoming clear that serious attention needs to be paid in the country of his birth to the question of Chesterton’s holiness: that is why the Chesterton Society has convened a major one-day conference next month (on July 4, in Oxford) to examine the question. The speakers are Dr Ian Ker, Fr John Saward, Fr Aidan Nichols OP and Dr Sheridan Gilley (details at www.gkchesterton.org.uk) .
Meanwhile, it is worthwhile to ask why such a question even needs to be asked, why to so many Chesterton’s sanctity is so far from being obvious. Perhaps it is necessary to share his own simplicity and purity of heart to begin to perceive it with the clarity of that housemaid. To the clever and sophisticated, commentators like A N Wilson (and who cleverer or more sophisticated?), the very idea is absurd: he recently dismissed the “bizarre talk of G K’s canonisation” with the impatience of all those who admire Chesterton as a wit and perhaps even as a perceptive (but lightweight) social critic, but who wish to close their minds firmly against any notion of virtue, let alone holiness. Chesterton, on this reading, cannot bear the weight of any very close scrutiny, either of his thought or of his personality: “with so playful a writer as Chesterton, one needs to tread carefully”, as Wilson puts it.
With all this goes another assertion, common among those who like Chesterton well enough but are anxious to underplay the significance of his pilgrimage from agnosticism to theism to a kind of Unitarianism then on to Anglican Catholicism and finally to Rome; and especially of that final and definitive stage of his spiritual journey. The claim is made that after he became a Catholic his writing deteriorated; even that he became a mere polemical hack in the service of his Church.
Thus, for the Anglican A L Maycock the decade beginning in 1904, “the decade of Heretics and Orthodoxy, of ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, of ... the Charles Dickens, the first two volumes of Father Brown, of The Victorian Age in Literature and much else shows him at the summit of his powers”. The view, nevertheless, that Chesterton reached the summit only after his reception into the Catholic Church in 1922, with The Everlasting Man, St Francis and, above all perhaps, with St Thomas Aquinas, is probably more generally held. Etienne Gilson, one of the most substantial Thomist scholars of the last century, remarked on the appearance of St Thomas Aquinas that “Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book.” Despite so massive an intellectual achievement as St Thomas Aquinas, nevertheless, the notion of Chesterton as a thinker continued to face exactly the same objection after his death as the more far-reaching perception that he was a saint. How could anyone so exuberantly funny be a thinker, let alone an exemplar of holiness?
On his death the Manchester Guardian’s obituary made a point of dismissing the widespread description of Chesterton as a “philosopher” as “very ill-chosen”. He had, asserted the writer, “a profusion of fresh and original ideas, but they owed more to... an enormously zestful temperament than to continuous or connected thought”. His friend Belloc commented that “The intellectual side of him has been masked for many and for some hidden by his delight in the exercise of words and especially in the comedy of words.” And Belloc insisted that Chesterton’s good humour was an important element in a spirituality which powerfully affected all those who really knew him (and which could touch – as it clearly did a certain housemaid – even those who did not).
There was nothing merely facetious about his delight in the comedy of life. Hilaire Belloc called it the “constant and exuberant geniality which all around him... felt at once, and feeling were in a sense nourished”. Belloc explained it as a “genius for good humour lifted to the plane on which it becomes a moving and efficient virtue”. That is why Dr Ker, Newman’s biographer, will be speaking on “Humour and Holiness in Chesterton” at the Chesterton Society’s conference in Oxford.
The humour is part of a Godcentredness in Chesterton’s personality which can only be fully appreciated, I believe, by understanding something of its origins. There is a moment in the life story of many saints in which personal crisis is followed by a moment of vision, a moment in which there is a personal encounter with God which brings about a complete change of direction. There is, I think, such a moment in Chesterton’s life.
He was 20 years old. He had just left the Slade School of Art, where he had undergone a prolonged time of periodic depressions. After possibly the worst but certainly the last of these, he wrote to his friend Bentley about what seemed to be – and in fact was – the final ending of this dark period in his life. We can date this letter in the summer of 1894: and in it he can only be talking about some kind of clearly and definitively religious experience: he describes it as a “vision” and writes of “speaking to God”: “Inwardly speaking I have had a funny time. A meaningless fit of depression, taking the form of certain absurd psychological worries, came upon me, and instead of dismissing it and talking to people, I had it out and went very far into the abysses indeed. The result was that I found that things, when examined, necessarily spelt such a mystically satisfactory state of things, that without getting back to earth, I saw lots that made me certain it is all right. The vision is fading into common day now, and I am glad. It is embarrassing talking to God face to face, as a man speaketh to a friend.” (Chesterton is referring here to Exodus 33, in the Authorised Version, which he loved and knew well: “and the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend”.) After this “vision” he never again fell into the depression and instability from which he had emerged. This is how he wrote about the consequences of this final emergence from “the abysses” when he came to write his autobiography 40 years later: it is a key passage. “I had wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather, when he said that he would thank God for his creation [even] if he were a lost soul. I hung on to religion by one thin thread of thanks... At the back of our brains... there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.” The rest of his life, we can say, Chesterton spent digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder”. The autobiography is not always a reliable source of information about Chesterton’s life. But at this point there is strong contemporary evidence for its reliability. A notebook he began keeping in the autumn of that year is full of a sense of wonder and of gratitude for his own existence. Here is one of the (previously unpublished) reflections I found in it when I was researching my book Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: There is one secret for life The secret of constant astonishment.
On one page he wrote a series of pensées – brief, unconnected thoughts – which show a newly rediscovered and now permanent optimism, a gratitude for his own existence and that of his fellow men, and a rejection of his former depressive self; there is a clear sense, here and in other writings from this period, that a corner has been turned and that a new life is now beginning: It matters less what a man’s religion is As long as it keeps ahead of him Charity to one’s stupid old selves It is the only hard charity Existence is the deepest fact we can think of And it is such a nice fact If I could sing the most poetical poem of my vision I would sing the poem of Charing Cross Station In the same notebook I came across this, written about 14 years before his theological development comes to its natural conclusion with Orthodoxy, at the beginning of what we can see as a long and continuous process of conversion: Have you taken in the conception Of the tremendous Everything which is anywhere And dreamed that it could fail to satisfy anything in you?
It is clear that we are very close here to Chesterton’s first astonished discovery of what that “Everything” was, or at least, where it came from.
A few pages before, he had written a brief poem called “A walk”. It is just three lines long: Have you ever known what it is to walk Along a road in such a frame of mind That you thought you might meet God at any turn of the path?
Turning these pages I had a strong sense that in them at times Chesterton is struggling for words, almost for breath; that his direct experience of the “sunrise of wonder” he writes about in the Autobiography was being recorded here for the first time; and that this first rediscovery of wonder and joy was simply beyond his powers of utterance to describe. At one point he expresses his intense frustration: I pause between two dark houses, For there is a song in my heart, If I could sing at this moment what I wish to sing, The nations would crown me, If I were dumb ever afterwards, For I am sure it would be the greatest song in the world... But it will not come out.
We can almost say that the rest of his life was spent in a more and more articulate attempt to sing that song; and after his death, in the context of his massive complete oeuvre (over 80 books, hundreds of poems, and many thousand articles) one critic wrote that “the other articles of the Chestertonian creed fall easily into place once this ruling principle of ‘wonder in all things’ ... is firmly grasped.” That wonder comes from an absolute centredness in God, who is its always bubbling source. We can see his own perception of this reaching its natural intellectual conclusion by the end of 1903 (he was 29), fittingly in an article in The Daily News: fittingly, for he was above all else a journalist (at the Oxford conference, Dr Sheridan Gilley will be talking about “G K C: The Saint as Journalist”), and his God-centredness can be seen in his journalism as much as in his major works of apologetics, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man: “You cannot evade the issue of God; whether you talk about pigs or the binomial theory, you are still talking about Him... Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true. Zulus, gardening, butcher’s shops, lunatic asylums, housemaids and the French Revolution – all these things not only may have something to do with the Christian God, but must have something to do with Him if He really lives and reigns.” As he put it in the very first of his articles, earlier that year, in which he openly defended the Christian religion – after conversion, “with this idea once inside our heads a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them”.
And this new perspective induces in him an irrepressible lightness of spirit. This was in some ways something of a problem for him. As he put it in one of his early apologetic articles: “I have begun to realise that there are a good many people to whom my way of speaking about these things appears like an indication that I am flippant or imperfectly sincere... I think I see the naturalness of the mistake, and how it arose in people so far removed from the Christian atmosphere. Christianity is itself so jolly a thing that it fills the possessor of it with a certain silly exuberance.” This conviction that joy is at the centre of the Christian faith is something that many have experienced at certain times; but few have held it at the centre of their lives so entirely and so exuberantly until death, as Chesterton did. Towards the end of his life he looked back on it as having been “indefensibly happy”. We have to ask why, and the only answer I can arrive at is the same answer we have to give when we ask similar questions about the saints: that they were all, each in his or her own way, very close to God and that only that closeness can explain their lives and the irrepressible joy at the centre of them.
After his death his friend Lucian Oldershaw told Maisie Ward that even at school, “we felt that he was looking for God”. A friend who knew him well in the years that led up to Orthodoxy, Rann Kennedy, gave her what she called “electrifying” testimony: “Gilbert,” he said, “was busy always with the other world... We must explain him like the hermits. So obviously, burningly led by the Holy Ghost that he had no time to think of his own soul’s salvation... Gilbert had innocence, simplicity, down-in-the dirt humility... he had an [exceeding] calm of soul. He enjoyed a perpetual Eucharist, the Eucharist of desire... Gilbert [was] always busy with the other world, was ministered to by angels like Our Lord.” Perhaps that explains why he was never run over by the traffic. One of his friends once saw him “emerge from Shoe Lane, hurry into the middle of Fleet Street, and abruptly come to a standstill in the centre of the traffic. He stood there for some time, wrapped in thought, while buses, taxis and lorries eddied about him in a whirlpool and while drivers exercised to the full their gentle art of expostulation. Having come to the end of his meditations, he held up his hand... and returned to Shoe Lane.” His legendary absent-mindedness, according to one writer, demonstrates that “here was a true contemplative, given (as few people are) to the habit of prolonged and concentrated thought”. And prolonged thought, as often as not, brought him in the end to joyful laughter. When the Chestertons moved to Beaconsfield, his Fleet Street friends came down to visit; their housemaid later recalled that “you could hear the roof lifting with their laughter”. After his death his lifelong friend E C Bentley (inventor of the clerihew) wrote of his “exuberantly joyous and love-compelling personality”.
As a writer he was above all a controversialist because he hated heresy. But though he hated heresy, with certain exceptions, he had an extraordinary capacity for loving the heretic. In controversy, no matter how fierce, as Belloc wrote after his death, “he seemed always to be in a mood not only of comprehension for his opponent but of admiration for some quality in him... it was this in him which made him, with other qualities, so universally beloved”.
“Universally beloved” is no mere obituary cliché. At his funeral the streets of Beaconsfield were lined with mourners. I find it always moving to reflect that it was the police – the police – who asked if the funeral cortege could take a longer route from the church to the cemetery, so that more people might “have a chance to say goodbye to Mr Chesterton”.
There were of course many epitaphs. Pius XI sent a telegram describing him as a “gifted defender of the Catholic Faith” (which sounds almost like a kind of informal declaration that he was a Doctor of the Church: Fr Aidan Nichols’s contention at next month’s Oxford conference). But for most of those who loved him his true epitaph was the lovely verse written years before by the poet laureate, Walter de la Mare, which by the wish of his widow Frances appeared on the service sheet at his funeral Requiem Mass: Knight of the Holy Ghost, he goes his way, Wisdom his motley, Truth his loving jest; The mills of Satan keep his lance in play, Pity and innocence his heart at rest.
William Oddie is author of Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: the Making of GKC (1874-1908) and chairman of The Chesterton Society. Details of the Society and of next month’s conference are on the Society’s website (www.gkchesterton. org.uk)