G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

And at this I cursed them and kicked at them and made an exhibition of myself; having made myself the champion of the Lion’s Tooth, with a dandelion rampant on my crest.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (d. 1936), who wrote these words, was an English “man of letters” – a novelist, journalist, playwright, poet, essayist, cartoonist, and broadcaster. He was one of the greatest apologists for the Christian faith. He was a convert, first to Anglicanism, and then Catholicism (1922). But was he a saint?

It was announced in August by Dale Ahlquist at the American Chesterton Society Conference in Worcester, MA, that the cause for Chesterton’s canonization may be edging closer to the realm of possibility. Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton is “sympathetic” to those who desire to see Chesterton canonized and is said to be “seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for Chesterton.”

It was a quotation obtained during a personal visit to the Bishop by Martin Thompson, the head of the lively Chesterton group in the great man’s home town of Beaconsfield. The announcement caused “huge cheering and applause and great emotion” at the American conference-although, it has to be said, seeking someone “to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause” is a long way from actually opening the cause, let alone bringing it to a successful conclusion.

And yet the time is auspicious. Interest in Chesterton has been growing for many years, stimulated by the realization on the part of many Evangelical admirers of C.S. Lewis that Chesterton was an influence on their hero (as he was on a host of others, from Dorothy Day and Mahatma Gandhi to Jorge Luis Borges). Here in England, the Chesterton archive and museum compiled by Mr. Aidan Mackey over many years has found a home at last – the new library of the Oxford Oratory, alongside the Oratory’s Newman archive. The Fathers of the Oratory still need funds to construct the shelves and establish a full-functioning study centre (philanthropists please take note), but the first step is completed.

The collection itself has long been a place of pilgrimage for researchers and admirers – and thanks are due to the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture at Seton Hall and to the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire for keeping this material together over the years and making it accessible in Oxford at the Centre for Faith & Culture – not just the books, of course, but the toy theatres, the drawings, the marginalia, the typewriter, and the walking sticks that make Gilbert himself so vividly present to the visitor. The Chesterton Institute has in recent years run dozens of conferences in various parts of the world to promote an interest in this great “defender of the faith” (a title given him by Pope Pius XI) from Chile to Lithuania. The Italian Chesterton Society is working hard to put Chesterton’s “distributism” into practice, and has linked up with the Sierra Leone Chesterton Centre. Internationally, interest has never been higher.

But the most auspicious development of all is the election of Pope Francis. According to EWTN News and the Catholic News Agency, a letter to Mr. Thompson from the Argentine ambassador who heads a Chesterton group in Argentina noted that the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, “encourages us in our aspiration to see the initiation of the Cause of Chesterton to the altars.” Not only that, but Cardinal Bergoglio approved the text of a private prayer for the canonization of Chesterton only three days before being elected Pope.

But is Chesterton really a saint? And if he were, what would be the benefit of “raising him to the altars”? Many admirers of the great English writer (even Catholic admirers) worry that by canonizing him, the Church would seem to be laying claim to a man who should remain the property of everyone, not relegated to a dusty niche in some cathedral.

As to the first question, we may all have opinions. But it partly depends what we think the word “saint” means. The word signifies a person who is in heaven, and the Church believes herself capable of judging whether that is the case. The reason the Church declares someone a saint is to propose them for our imitation and veneration. If the Church judges that they are close to God, we may be confident that their prayers are effective, and seek their intercession for our needs on earth.

Is Chesterton in heaven? In a way, it would be worrying and strange if he were not. Deeply devout and much loved by everyone who knew him – even his enemies in debate – he seems to have been exemplary in his kindness, as well as blessed by a supernatural intelligence that shone through his voluminous writings. He was not infallible (saints don’t need to be that), but he was surely holy, and if he is not in heaven there seems to be very little hope for the rest of us.

The case for Chesterton’s holiness is made in Dr. William Oddie’s edited collection, The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton (Gracewing, 2010). A more recent book by Father Robert Wild, The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic (Angelico Press, 2013), argues that if Chesterton was not a saint, he was at least a mystic, indeed a “new kind of mystic” – “the first that ever saw a dandelion as it is” (apart, perhaps, from the unorthodox William Blake). Fr. Wild believes he “not only had profound ideas that are vital for the future of Christianity, but he also had a mysticism for the common man that is the fruit of a mystical grace.”

G. K. ChestertonNow I don’t much like dandelions. To me they are weeds, constantly spreading across the lawn, rooting deeply, hard to kill. Yet everything that lives is holy, and Chesterton is a great inspiration to us precisely because he would love and cherish and defend everything, no matter how trivial, as a direct gift of the Creator and an expression of his wisdom and beauty. In his first book of essays, The Defendant, he defended, among other things, skeletons, cheap thrillers, china shepherdesses, slang, planets, and ugly things in general. He defended defending them in the Introduction. Yet he left it to his last book, to the last pages of his Autobiography, to mount a proper defense of dandelions, alongside the whole theology of the Catholic Church: “this common human mysticism about the dust or the dandelion or the daylight or the daily life of man does depend, and always did depend on theology, if it dealt at all in thought.”

If Chesterton is a mystic, he is so by the preservation into adulthood of a childlike wonder at all things. “I had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness, which has not been killed by sin or even by sorrow.” This childlike wonder was intensified into a philosophy of being that chimes with that of Saint Thomas Aquinas, on whom he wrote one of his greatest books. For all philosophy begins with wonder, and (as he says elsewhere) “thanks are the highest form of thought”. If he is a saint, it is because he lived this Christian philosophy with his whole person, not just in his head. Father Wild believes he demonstrated “a new type of sanctity,” one that combined the love of God with a love of things in the world.

So a mystic, certainly, though a new kind of mystic, and a saint perhaps, but if so a new kind of saint. It is up to the Church to decide on the latter. But I worry about the poor Bishop of Northampton. He has merely agreed to look for a priest or deacon to begin an investigation into the possibility, and Chestertonians around the world are already jumping to the conclusion that the cause is underway.

Meanwhile the Trustees of the Library need help in promoting interest in one of England’s greatest men of letters and Christian apologists (saint or not). Potential donors should visit the G.K. Chesterton Library and the Oratory Appeal.

Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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  1. Fantastic article! If Chesterton is to be raised to the altars it will be because he was first and foremost a mystic. Despite the massive role his apologetics and social commentary (which has proved to be truly prophetic) have played in my own life, I can honestly say that it is his supernatural sense of childlike wonder and thankfulness that have impacted me the most. This paragraph in chapter 5 of his biography of St. Francis may well have been autobiographical:

    “It is commonly in a somewhat cynical sense that men have said, ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.’ It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that Saint Francis said, ‘Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.’ It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero, from the dark nothingness of his own deserts, that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them; and they are in themselves the best working example of the idea. For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset. But there is more than this involved, and more indeed than is easily to be expressed in words. It is not only true that the less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of his good luck and of all the gifts of God. It is also true that he sees more of the things themselves when he sees more of their origin; for their origin is a part of them and indeed the most important part of them. Thus they become more extraordinary by being explained. He has more wonder at them but less fear of them; for a thing is really wonderful when it is significant and not when it is insignificant; and a monster, shapeless or dumb or merely destructive, may be larger than the mountains, but is still in a literal sense insignificant. For a mystic like Saint Francis the monsters had a meaning; that is, they had delivered their message. They spoke no longer in an unknown tongue. That is the meaning of all those stories whether legendary or historical, in which he appears as a magician speaking the language of beasts and birds. The mystic will have nothing to do with mere mystery; mere mystery is generally a mystery of iniquity.”

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