The Intriguing Case of GK Chesterton (And Other Would-Be Saints)

Madresfieldby Leanne Ogasawara

Not far from Amman, located just outside the city of Salt is the shrine of the Old Testament Prophet Joshua. It is a simple building containing nothing but a tomb. But what a tomb it is; for at about ten meters long, it makes quite an impression!

Indeed, ever since visiting the Tomb of Joshua, I've come to feel that all saints' tombs of saints should be super-sized like that.

It's not just saints either. Throughout Asia, one can follow the trail of the gigantic footprints of the Buddha (“Buddhapada”). These were the first “relics” of the religion before the rise of Greco-Buddhist art. From Japan to Sri Lanka, these monumental footprints abound and some are the size of a bathtub!

It is, you have to admit, somehow pleasing to see the great stature of these saints and sages reflected in their great physical size….a kind of inner greatness reflected in their after-impressions….

This larger-than-life quality is just one of the myriad of things I like about GK Chesterton. Not one to be outdone in anything, the prolific British writer had a massive final resting place. Like the prophet Joshua, his gigantic coffin was so huge that they simply couldn't get it down the stairs and out of his house for the funeral! Chesterton was, it seems, enormously fat. But as this wonderful old article in the Atlantic has it, this shows you how levity meets gravity– for he was in many ways a man of Biblical proportions!

Speaking of which, have you heard the Catholic church has opened an investigation into a possible case for his canonization?

Caricature_of_Chesterton,_by_BeerbohmAt first glance, the drink-loving outspoken poet and journalist seems an unlikely candidate for sainthood. And intrigued, I've been following the case for several years now.

What is it about Chesterton?

Nowadays, I think people know him best for his Father Brown detective stories (I personally much prefer Akunin's absolutely brilliant Sister Pelagia stories). While mainly overlooked now, there was a time when Chesterton was considered one of the greatest minds (and writers) of his day…But that is not what draws me to him. What I have always loved about him is the way he shares in some of the medieval predilections that I tend to admire in a man.

In July, I wrote in these pages about some men I've long admired; men whose commitment to the glories of the past were only to be outdone by their fierce resistance to the “modernisms” of their day.

Mi Fu, for examples, like nothing more than walking the streets of the Song dynasty capital in the fashions of two hundred years prior; while his beloved Emperor Huizong devoted himself tirelessly to the uncovering and study of ancient bronzes. Their eyes were strictly focused back in time–to a perceived golden age that was firmly rooted in the remote past.

CS Lewis and Tolkien were like that–as were the famous Catholic converts of pre-War England, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and yes, GK Chesterton. All of these men were not just fascinated by the past– as they were actively engaged in resistance to their present reality. Their conversion to Roman Catholicism was greatly informed by this retreat into ancient ritual and traditional practices. And, in England, such conversions made front-page news.

Why would anyone leave the Church of England, was the question.

The authors themselves explained it in essays and articles for the British papers. Theirs was a reaction, they declared, against the mechanistic, capitalistic, aggressive age they had come into. Evelyn Waugh, with his ear trumpet and hatred of the telephone, called this “the chaos of modernity.” This was the world that was in many ways inherited by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and then passed down to us today. Utilitarian, money-oriented, and lacking in enchantment, is it any wonder they withdrew intellectually, turning instead to such obsessive pursuits as poetry, quests, saints, and unicorns?

To respond to the front page headline informing of his scandalous conversion, Evelyn Waugh explained it like this in an article for the Express in 1930:

“Today we can see it on all sides as the active negation of all that Western culture has stood for. Civilization – and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe – has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state . . . It is no longer possible . . . to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests.”

Chesteron was huge in all this. For example, it was the publication of his book Orthodoxy that influenced such thinkers as Evelyn Waugh. It wasn't just Waugh either for his work had a profound influence on other converts, including Edward Sackville-West and even Anglican thinker CS Lewis, who declared he was an atheist before reading Chesterton's The Everlasting Man. His bon-mots and famous quotes were such that there even now exists a dictionary of “Chestertonitions.” ~~But a saint?

The possible case for Chesterton began in 2013, when the president of the GK Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, suggested the idea to Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, England. It was then Doyle who made the formal request to open the investigation for cause. As it happened, a year earlier, a very conservative Catholic archbishop in the US, utterly surprised people in this country by championing the case for the fiery left-wing social activist Dorothy Day to be canonized. An unexpected choice for such a conservative archbishop–and yet, no one could deny Day's tremendous work with the poor. Even in common speech, one wants to call her “a saint.”

Kudara_kannon_1Well, it seems Chesterton was also one of her heroes.

I recently read a short but interesting book, called the Tumbler of God, by Robert Wild. Also about the case for Chesterton, Robert Wild unpacks the idea of the mystic. We commonly think of mystics as those people who see visions or who undergo great trials for their beliefs. Finding their God within themselves, they tend to be inner-focused and they are known for their mystical visions. Robert Field believes there is another kind of mystic. And that is a mystic whose mystical vision is of the world.

Kafka once said that GK Chesterton was such an incredibly happy person that you could almost believe he really had discovered God. Well, Robert Wild thinks he had.

All this was on my mind during the Pope's recent trip to the US, with his mention of two other great contenders for sainthood, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day–for they too were deeply influenced by the words and life of GK Chesterton.

In his speech, Pope Francis held up Day and Merton as “models of Christian living anticipated what was made universal by the Second Vatican Council and expressed in Gaudium et Spes, that Christians are called to interpret the “signs of the time” in “light of the Gospel.” To be called to interpret but more to spread the light of the Gospel would be perhaps closer to what is meant.

And this is an important point. When Pope Francis visited, like a lot of people I felt unnerved by the media portrayal of the Pope–as Good Guy or Bad Guy, depending on your political persuasion…As if the entire world has to be slotted into the left or right box of American politics. People seemed to momentarily forget that Pope Francis is not an American politician or public intellectual; nor is he in any way a part of the bipartisan politics of this country. Rather, the man is the Bishop of Rome and spiritual head of the Catholic Church.

This was all made very clear with the canonization of Junipero Serra. From all standards today, the man really cannot be held up as particularly exemplary, can he? In fact, of all the would-be contenders for sainthood, it is Dorothy Day alone who I think comes closest to the ideal (my ideal?) of a “saint.” But in the end, the church does what the the church does and it's not my business. I just happen to love the writing of many of these British “converts;” my own personal favorite novels of this genre being Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Helana and the amazing Anglican “returnee” Rose Macauley's Towers of Trebizond, which stands as one of my favorite novels of all time.

For what it's worth, Chesteron had some wonderful words to say about saints:

“The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need . . . . Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”

Like the wonderful statues of the various Bodhisattvas from Japan offering blessings is the form of medicine (held in beautifully shapely jars), I agree with Chesterton that saints could serve as a kind of medicine for the world. Writing hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of words–all dedicated to the wonders of being alive, Chesterton offered medicine in the form of an almost radical happiness and hope. Unendingly devoted to enchantment and play, Chesterton's vision does have this incredible medicinal quality…. he is like a 300 pound happy pill.

The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.

Chesterton wrote tirelessly that if one could only retain the innocent sense of play and wonder of the child, they could feel the great wonder that is our world. And in that way maybe he really does serve as a kind of anecdote for the joylessly mechanistic and oftentimes wonder-less world in which we find ourselves? I, for one, stand with Chesterton for saint!

Ironically, though, after the Second Vatican Council, while Day and Merton were no doubt pleased, one cannot help but wonder if the two aristocratic-loving writers, Chesterton and Waugh would not have retreated back to the Anglican high church, though…since maybe rather than God, it was Beauty and unchanging tradition toward which they were gazing…?

Or as AN Wilson once declared, they might have had to turn to the Koran instead.


Photos of pre-Vatican ii Catholicism

Top Image: Madresfield Hall (The blueprint for Brideshead) and the Kudara Kannon

Recommended: The Problem with being Spiritual but not Religious

The Poisoned Chalice

G. K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead and The Lost, Unlovable Evelyn Waugh