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Provocative Stories for Disillusioned Catholics

Chesterton: Cigar Smoke or Halo, on a Pedestal or in a Pub?

I begin this essay by stating some things fittingly paradoxical: sainthood, if and when it comes for G. K. Chesterton, will diminish him. It will martyr his broadly-based reputation for the sake of transient, Catholic parochial needs. He will be unfairly rebranded as a mere Catholic clotheshorse. His sainthood will invite longstanding suspicions and skepticism about his magnanimity, sincerity, and significance in the history of literature and ideas. He will become a    convenient pretext. All this will turn back a clock that for now appears to have unwound.

As recently as the 1960’s, an interest in Chesterton’s writings was considered out-of-touch, passé, even quaint, the passing infatuation of serious Catholic schoolboys in hinterland areas. Admit it, and expect to be indulged with a metaphorical pat on the head. It was all part of growing up, the bookish equivalent of what we once called puppy love. Mention him, and the indulgent response would be, “Have you read Father Brown or The Man Who was Thursday? Apart from his fiction, little else seemed to matter.

Chesterton was widely regarded—even in many Catholic circles—as a clever, rhetorical, master of disguise; a puppeteer pulling strings in the fashion of the puppet theater he loved as a youth. His Impending sainthood will nourish this perception. In this yet more beleaguered Christian era, among Chesterton’s adversaries, the ‘puppet master’ will become a mere a puppet pulled by self-serving institutional strings.

In 1961, Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward brought out Garry Wills’ biography Chesterton. It was Wills’ youthful attempt to revive G. K.’s flagging reputation. Wills speaks of having ransacked Chesterton’s Beaconsfield attic where a cornucopia of his yet unpublished writings were scattered about in disarray. By Wills’ account, Chesterton’s longtime secretary, Dorothy Collins, was living in rooms below. She offered him a suitcase to take what he wanted for further study!

Fifteen years later, Wills published a revised Chesterton reversing course on much he found to praise. I do not mention any of this to defend Wills’ chronically revolving-door view. Chesterton himself has always both devised and invited boomeranging criticism. He held his own in public debates not because he was so much smarter than Wells, Shaw, or Bertrand Russell, and not because he was always right, but because his congenial quick-wittedness made him harder to pin down than a housefly.

Today, Dorothy Collins lies in the same grave as Chesterton and his wife. Chesterton’s Top Meadow, his Beaconsfield home, has long since fallen into the hands of scheming property speculators. When he died there in 1936, the trick was how to get him out in a casket too large for his stairway.

Now, with his reputation larger than ever, the trick is how his admirers can get in. Meanwhile the name Chesterton ironically survives all over London in the ‘for sale’ signs of a real estate firm founded by distant kin. These circumstances seem truly torn from the cloth of Chesterton’s surreal fiction. He would laugh and make paradoxical sense of it, but paradox is a rope from which many an idea has been strangled.

I can imagine future pilgrims kneeling at Chesterton’s Beaconsfield grave looking for miracles; prayer requests taped to his deteriorating headstone; and al fresco marriages and baptisms taking place there. All because he is now a saint. I cannot imagine that Chesterton would want this.  But I can envision how his detractors will have a heyday. Tiresome accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia will lead to graffiti. Old speculations about closeted homosexuality will emerge. Someone will photograph a rainbow by chance overhead on a rainy Chiltern Hills day.

Sometimes things are best left as they are. T. S. Eliot is no less a poet because he died an Anglican as did C. S. Lewis.  Both may well be in heaven, but neither will ever be declared a saint. Sainthood—alas—has become an exclusive Catholic clubhouse. Monarchs can create knights, and Popes can create saints. To do so is to make the one a mere creature and creation of the other. This is upside-down.

The present-day spate of canonizations—not the least of recent popes—has begun to resemble a properly cynical assessment of the British monarchy’s Honors List.  The Catholic Church, in its current travails, wistfully casts about for saintly sorts among literary celebrities and hometown heroes with star power. Chesterton, the enemy of communism and fascism, already teeters on the edge of a personality cult, as does Tolkien whose cause is also bandied about. This is about as sensible as heaping honors on a bearded George Bernard Shaw because in his later years he resembled a congenial Saint Joseph. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “time is out of joint.”

Chesterton’s sainthood ‘cause’ arises from causes other than his own indisputable merits, personal or otherwise. His ‘elevation’ smacks of institutional expropriation when he is in ever so many ways above those who would elevate him. His significance as a writer and thinker does not rest exclusively on his Christian apologetics and his conversion to Catholicism. Had he never converted, he would still be a widely read and admired Christian writer. Much that he wrote would remain a quoted reference point. He would still be as good-natured and companionable as the thoroughly irreverent Falstaff with whom he at times is compared.

A man so much larger than life cannot be made larger either in death or in bronze. Statues are invariably disappointing. Nor can he be made more important by monarch or papal decree. He matters too much to too many people for any one institution to claim him as its own as if he is some property to be seized by eminent domain. Heaven might very well contain him but at risk of bursting its seams. The world is another matter. Better to have him with his floppy hat, sword stick, cape, unkempt hair, his cigars, and his engaging idiosyncrasies.  No halo, please!

Church statuary is not in vogue these days, but consider Chesterton as a religious statue, life-sized and true-to life in every preposterous detail, mop top, cape and bulging waistcoat, all six-feet-four and three hundred pounds of him. Picture this statue in a church, even a cathedral. I would love to see it on a pedestal near Hyde Park Corner, or outside his favorite Fleet Street pub, or at the entrance to Marylebone Station where these days the Chiltern Line will take you to his Beaconsfield home. I cannot fit his effigy into Westminster Cathedral. It is easier to think of Aquinas looking dignified in a duck pond.

Every biography contains hints of self-portraiture. One such can be found in Chesterton’s biographical study of Charles Dickens:

He was a good man, as men go in this bewildering world of ours, brave, transparent, tender-hearted, scrupulously independent and honorable; he was not a man whose weaknesses should be spoken of without some delicacy and doubt. But there did mingle with his merits all his life this theatrical quality, this atmosphere of being shown off—a sense of hilarious self-consciousness.

This is also Chesterton, a man with a billowing cape, swordstick, and cigar; a good man plunging into the White Hart pub at Beaconsfield, turning heads. His legacy will forever be the lovely and loving sense he made of this bewildering world. That is quite sufficient for me. I like to think that for him it would also suffice.

Vex not his ghost. O let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

King Lear by William Shakespeare