Thursday, October 23, 2014

Next Chesterton Society Meeting

Mark your diaries; the next meeting of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland will be held on Saturday the 15th of November, from 11:30 to 1:30 (approx.) and will be held in the reading room on the first floor (upstairs) of the Central Catholic Library, 74 Merrion Square, Dublin. From this meeting onwards, we are going to start reading through Chesterton's works book by book, so please read the three chapters (they're very short chapters) of What's Wrong with the World. If you can't get your hands on a copy, the text is easy to find online. (But if you never get round to reading it, just come anyway!) Free of charge, all welcome.

More Chestertonian Wit and Wisdom

Here are the latest five instalments of my Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton column from The Open Door magazine.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

Last week I started writing about Chesterton’s book What I Saw in America, written after his first lecture tour in that country.  It is perhaps the most well-known of his travel books.
Chesterton liked America and Americans. He did not share the anti-Americanism which is such a common feature of life on this side of the Atlantic. (Being married to an American woman, I am particularly aware of this. So many people who consider themselves liberal and free from prejudice are quite willing to use ‘American’ as a derogatory term).

To me, the most interesting passage in What I Saw in America might be the passage in which Chesterton discusses American excitability and enthusiasm.
To [an American] excitement itself is dignified. He counts it a part of his manhood to fast or fight or rise from a bed of sickness for something, or possibly for anything… he is not only proud of his energy, he is proud of his excitement. He is not ashamed of his emotion, of the fire or even the tear in his manly eye…

Of course, there are dangers in this, and Chesterton was well aware of them.  (He was always insistent on the need for clear thought before action.) But his point here is that such excitability is a good thing in itself. To be excitable is to be receptive to the world, to be outward-looking. It is a close relative to that most Chestertonian of all emotions, wonder.
The devil can quote Scripture for his purpose; and the text of Scripture which he now most commonly quotes is, 'The kingdom of heaven is within you.' That text has been the stay and support of more Pharisees and prigs and self-righteous spiritual bullies than all the dogmas in creation; it has served to identify self-satisfaction with the peace that passes all understanding. And the text to be quoted in answer to it is that which declares that no man can receive the kingdom except as a little child. What we are to have inside is the childlike spirit; but the childlike spirit is not entirely concerned about what is inside. It is the first mark of possessing it that one is interested in what is outside. The most childlike thing about a child is his curiosity and his appetite and his power of wonder at the world. We might almost say that the whole advantage of having the kingdom within is that we look for it somewhere else.


After writing about G.K. Chesterton’s view of America, perhaps it is time that I turned closer to home, and examined his relationship to Ireland.
Few Englishmen have been as friendly towards Ireland as Chesterton was throughout his entire life. Partly this is explained by his upbringing. His parents were ardent liberals, and supporters of the Liberal Party. Bear in mind that liberalism, at this time, was not the insane philosophy that it has become in our own era. It was, rather, a belief in freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and other basically noble ideas. In Britain, liberals also tended to be supporters of Irish Home Rule.

But it wasn’t just upbringing that made Chesterton a friend of Ireland. Ireland was, in many ways, the embodiment of all he believed in. Ireland was (at the time that he was writing) fervently Catholic—and, although Chesterton only converted to Catholicism in his forties, he had Catholic leanings long before that. As well as this, Ireland was a country of small farmers, a peasant country. This was Chesterton’s social ideal. He believed that the land and wealth of a nation should be owned by its people, rather than being owned by huge corporations. He also admired peasants for their way of life and their folklore. To quote a line I have already quoted in this series, Chesterton believed that the Irish peasant was “close to the heavens because he is close to the Earth.”
 Finally, Ireland was a country famous for its tradition of soldiery. The Wild Geese and other Irish exiles had distinguished themselves in armies all over the world, including the British army. Chesterton always preserved a rather boyish enthusiasm for soldiers and war. (His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which portrays a war between London suburbs, is an example of this. Many readers are taken aback at its almost gleeful scenes of bloodshed.) He carried a swordstick wherever he went, and the very name Swords—the village in Dublin, that is—inspired him to write a poem. (It’s a very bad poem.)

Chesterton was famous for his paradoxes, of course, and in his day there was a particularly Irish form of paradox known as an ‘Irish bull’. This was a humorous contradiction in terms, a slip to which the loquacious Irish were considered prone. (You don’t hear the term much today. More political correctness!) Chesterton often quoted (and, indeed, invented) Irish bulls. His best was: “One man is just as good as another…and a good deal better besides”!

Last week I promised to write more about G.K. Chesterton’s views on Ireland. For that purpose, I have been leafing through Irish Impressions, one of two books he wrote about Ireland. (The second book, Christendom in Dublin, is more of an extended essay than a book. It’s about the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.) But I found myself feeling frustrated as I browsed its pages.
The truth is that the Ireland Chesterton wrote about is very different from the Ireland of today. For instance, Chesterton writes that “the whole trend of the modern world is directly opposite to the whole trend of the modern Irish world.” He wrote this in 1919, three years after the Easter Rising (a rebellion that Chesterton regarded as an error on the part of the rebels). Ireland at this time was exuberantly Catholic and nationalist, and was fundamentally a country of small farmers. There were high hopes that, after independence, the Irish nation would develop in a different direction than England had, that it would not copy the industrial cities, irreligion and trashy books and newspapers that—according to Irish nationalists—were typical of the England of that time. As we know, these hopes turned out to be ill-founded. It is rather saddening to read Irish Impressions and Christendom in Dublin today.

The purpose of the visit which Chesterton describes in Irish Impressions was one which might raise eyebrows amongst my readers. He was seeking to raise volunteers for the English war effort in World War One. Chesterton was an ardent supporter of the Allied cause. He understood why Irish men might not wish to enlist, but this was his reasoning as to why they should:

I entirely sympathise with their being in revolt against the British Government. I am in revolt in most ways against the British Government myself. But politics are a fugitive thing in the face of history. Does anybody want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side at the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten? Does anybody want to be remembered as a friend of Attila, through a breach of friendship with Aetius?  In any case, it was with a profound conviction that if Prussia won, Europe must perish, and that if Europe perished England and Ireland must perish together, that I went to Dublin in those dark days of the last year of the war.

The wrong side? As they say, Homer nods.


In this series so far, we have taken an overview of Chesterton’s fundamental ideas, the history of his spiritual development, his eventual conversion to Catholicism, and his most important relationships. We have sampled some of his writings on particular subjects such as marriage and travel. At this point we will begin a chronological tour of his long (and very industrious!) writing career. Take a deep breath…
Chesterton’s first published writing appeared, as with many writers, during his school years. He was a member of the Junior Debating Club, a club of school-friends with literary and other intellectual aspirations, who produced their own magazine. Another famous member of this club was Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the detective novelist and inventor of the poetic form called the clerihew. You’re probably familiar with clerihews even if you don’t recognise the name. Here is one of the most famous:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said “I am going to dine with some men. 
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”
The book in which these breezy little verses made their debut was Biography for Beginners (1905), and Chesterton provided the illustrations to Bentley’s text. Chesterton had a talent for drawing spiky, madcap cartoons. He also illustrated the light verse of his friend Hilaire Belloc.
Chesterton’s first proper book was also a volume of light verse and illustrations, published by his proud father in 1900, and titled Greybeards at Play. Chesterton wrote some masterful humorous verse—but not in this book!

In the same year, Chesterton’s father also financed a collection of his son’s serious poetry, The Wild Knight. The volume contains two of Chesterton’s most famous poems, ‘By the Babe Unborn’ and ‘The Donkey’. The first puts into verse the thoughts of a baby longing to be born and to experience all the wonders we take for granted.
As for ‘The Donkey’, it is Chesterton’s most famous poem and you probably know it already—perhaps even by heart. It has a school-room simplicity which has justly made it a classic. In it, we are given the supposed thoughts of a donkey, who admits to being a ‘parody on all four-footed things.’ But then comes the great final verse when the donkey recalls its finest hour:
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears, 
And palms before my feet.
Chesterton, not yet a professed Christian, was already writing about Christ.

Last week, we looked at Chesterton’s earliest publications— two volumes of verse, one comic and one (more or less) serious. His first book in prose appeared in 1901, when he was twenty-seven. The title, The Defendant, is perhaps a surprising one for a young writer. Most young writers, then as now, are more interested in attack than defence. Young people have always had a taste for trying to knock down what their elders have built up. But the paradox is that, in Chesterton’s day—and this trend has only accelerated in our own—the passion for knocking things down had become so universal, amongst both the young and the old, that the real rebel was the one who came to the protection of old institutions and traditional morality. As Chesterton put it (in The Defendant itself) “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all the exhilaration of a vice.”
Chesterton, however, was not just rebelling against rebellion. In this book, his first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous intellectual fashions of his day, he strikes a note that he kept up throughout his entire career. There is nothing in The Defendant that would contradict anything Chesterton wrote later in life.
The book is also extraordinary for its confidence. All through his writing career, Chesterton wrote “not as the Scribes, but as one who had authority.” Here, for instance, is the paragraph that sums up the theme of The Defendant:
For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and
as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall.
Not for Chesterton the plodding business of quoting authorities and examples, or laboriously weighing up the ‘For’ and ‘Against’. He made bold and dazzling claims from the very first—and defended them. More on The Defendant next week.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Readings for Next Week's Meeting


First, an apology. This blog has been terribly neglected. We have a Facebook page which is so much easier to post on that the temptation is to put any Chestertonian thoughts on that rather than here.

Secondly, an apology. The next meeting of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland is a week from tomorrow, Saturday 19th September, in the Central Catholic Library in Merrion Square, Dublin city centre.

Although I announced this already on the Facebook page, I know that it's terribly short notice here.

Given the short notice, I've kept the readings this time short. Not that you have to read them ahead of time. We'll go through them at the meeting. Here they are.

Dickens and Christmas. From Charles Dickens (1906)
 Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England. Like Chaucer he loved story within story, every man telling a tale. Like Chaucer he saw something openly comic in men's motley trades. Sam Weller would have been a great gain to the Canterbury Pilgrimage and told an admirable story. Rosetti's Damozel would have been a great bore, regarded as too fast by the Prioress and too priggish by the Wife of Bath. It is said that in the somewhat sickly Victorian revival of feudalism which was called "Young England," a nobleman hired a hermit to live in his grounds. It is also said that the hermit struck for more beer. Whether this anecdote be true or not, it is always told as showing a collapse from the ideal of the Middle Ages to the level of the present day. But in the mere act of striking for beer the holy man was very much more "medieval" than the fool who employed him.
It would be hard to find a better example of this than Dickens's great defence of Christmas. In fighting for Christmas he was fighting for the old European festival. Pagan and Christian, for that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday. He had himself the most babyish ideas about the past. He supposed the Middle Ages to have consisted of tournaments and torture-chambers, he supposed himself to be a brisk man of the manufacturing age, almost a Utilitarian. But for all that he defended the mediæval feast which was going out against the Utilitarianism which was coming in. He could only see all that was bad in mediævalism. But he fought for all that was good in it. And he was all the more really in sympathy with the old strength and simplicity because he only knew that it was good and did not know that it was old. He cared as little for mediævalism as the mediævals did. He cared as much as they did for lustiness and virile laughter and sad tales of good lovers and pleasant tales of good livers. He would have been very much bored by Ruskin and Walter Pater if they had explained to him the strange sunset tints of Lippi and Botticelli. He had no pleasure in looking on the dying Middle Ages. But he looked on the living Middle Ages, on a piece of the old uproarious superstition still unbroken; and he hailed it like a new religion. The Dickens character ate pudding to an extent at which the modern mediævalists turned pale. They would do every kind of honour to an old observance, except observing it. They would pay to a Church feast every sort of compliment except feasting.

And (as I have said) as were his unconscious relations to our European past, so were his unconscious relations to England. He imagined himself to be, if anything, a sort of cosmopolitan; at any rate to be a champion of the charms and merits of continental lands against the arrogance of our island. But he was in truth very much more a champion of the old and genuine England against that comparatively cosmopolitan England which we have all lived to see. And here again the supreme example is Christmas. Christmas is, as I have said, one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making. But among those feasts it is also especially and distinctively English in the style of its merry-making and even in the style of its religion. For the character of Christmas (as distinct, for instance, from the continental Easter) lies chiefly in two things; first on the terrestrial side the note of comfort rather than the note of brightness; and on the spiritual side, Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy. And comfort is, like charity, a very English instinct. Nay, comfort is, like charity, an English merit; though our comfort may and does degenerate into materialism, just as our charity may and does degenerate into laxity and make-believe.

This ideal of comfort belongs peculiarly to England; it belongs peculiarly to Christmas; above all, it belongs pre-eminently to Dickens. And it is astonishingly misunderstood. It is misunderstood by the continent of Europe; it is, if possible, still more misunderstood by the English of to-day. On the Continent the restaurateurs provide us with raw beef, as if we were savages; yet old English cooking takes as much care as French. And in England has arisen a parvenu patriotism which represents the English as everything but English; as a blend of Chinese stoicism, Latin militarism, Prussian rigidity, and American bad taste. And so England, whose fault is gentility and whose virtue is geniality, England with her tradition of the great gay gentlemen of Elizabeth, is represented to the four quarters of the world (as in Mr. Kipling's religious poems) in the enormous image of a solemn cad. And because it is very difficult to be comfortable in the suburbs, the suburbs have voted that comfort is a gross and material thing. Comfort, especially this vision of Christmas comfort, is the reverse of a gross or material thing. It is far more poetical, properly speaking, than the Garden of Epicurus. It is far more artistic than the Palace of Art. It is more artistic because it is based upon a contrast, a contrast between the fire and wine within the house and the winter and the roaring rains without. It is far more poetical, because there is in it a note of defence, almost of war; a note of being besieged by the snow and hail; of making merry in the belly of a fort. The man who said that an Englishman's house is his castle said much more than he meant. The Englishman thinks of his house as something fortified and provisioned, and his very surliness is at root romantic. And this sense would naturally be strongest in wild winter nights, when the lowered portcullis and the lifted drawbridge do not merely bar people out, but bar people in. The Englishman's house is most sacred, not merely when the King cannot enter it, but when the Englishman cannot get out of it.

This comfort, then, is an abstract thing, a principle. The English poor shut all their doors and windows till their rooms reek like the Black Hole. They are suffering for an idea. Mere animal hedonism would not dream, as we English do, of winter feasts and little rooms, but of eating fruit in large and idle gardens. Mere sensuality would desire to please all its senses. But to our good dreams this dark and dangerous background is essential; the highest pleasure we can imagine is a defiant pleasure, a happiness that stands at bay. The word "comfort" is not indeed the right word, it conveys too much of the slander of mere sense; the true word is "cosiness," a word not translatable. One, at least, of the essentials of it is smallness, smallness in preference to largeness, smallness for smallness' sake. The merry-maker wants a pleasant parlour, he would not give twopence for a pleasant continent. In our difficult time, of course, a fight for mere space has become necessary. Instead of being greedy for ale and Christmas pudding we are greedy for mere air, an equally sensual appetite. In abnormal conditions this is wise; and the illimitable veldt is an excellent thing for nervous people. But our fathers were large and healthy enough to make a thing humane, and not worry about whether it was hygienic. They were big enough to get into small rooms.

Of this quite deliberate and artistic quality in the close Christmas chamber, the standing evidence is Dickens in Italy. He created these dim firelit tales like little dim red jewels, as an artistic necessity, in the centre of an endless summer. Amid the white cities of Tuscany he hungered for something romantic, and wrote about a rainy Christmas. Amid the pictures of the Uffizi he starved for something beautiful, and fed his memory on London fog. His feeling for the fog was especially poignant and typical. In the first of his Christmas tales, the popular "Christmas Carol," he suggested the very soul of it in one simile, when he spoke of the dense air, suggesting that "Nature was brewing on a large scale." This sense of the thick atmosphere as something to eat or drink, something not only solid but satisfactory, may seem almost insane, but it is no exaggeration of Dickens's emotion. We speak of a fog "that you could cut with a knife." Dickens would have liked the phrase as suggesting that the fog was a colossal cake. He liked even more his own phrase of the Titanic brewery, and no dream would have given him a wilder pleasure than to grope his way to some such tremendous vats and drink the ale of the giants.

There is a current prejudice against fogs, and Dickens, perhaps, is their only poet. Considered hygienically, no doubt this may be more or less excusable. But, considered poetically, fog is not undeserving, it has a real significance. We have in our great cities abolished the clean and sane darkness of the country. We have outlawed night and sent her wandering in wild meadows; we have lit eternal watch-fires against her return. We have made a new cosmos, and as a consequence our own sun and stars. And as a consequence also, and most justly, we have made our own darkness. Just as every lamp is a warm human moon, so every fog is a rich human nightfall. If it were not for this mystic accident we should never see darkness, and he who has never seen darkness has never seen the sun. Fog for us is the chief form of that outward pressure which compresses mere luxury into real comfort. It makes the world small, in the same spirit as in that common and happy cry that the world is small, meaning that it is full of friends. The first man that emerges out of the mist with a light, is for us Prometheus, a saviour bringing fire to men. He is that greatest and best of all men, greater than the heroes, better than the saints, Man Friday. Every rumble of a cart, every cry in the distance, marks the heart of humanity beating undaunted in the darkness. It is wholly human; man toiling in his own cloud. If real darkness is like the embrace of God, this is the dark embrace of man.

In such a sacred cloud the tale called "The Christmas Carol" begins, the first and most typical of all his Christmas tales. It is not irrelevant to dilate upon the geniality of this darkness, because it is characteristic of Dickens that his atmospheres are more important than his stories. The Christmas atmosphere is more important than Scrooge, or the ghosts either; in a sense, the background is more important than the figures. The same thing may be noticed in his dealings with that other atmosphere (besides that of good humour) which he excelled in creating, an atmosphere of mystery and wrong, such as that which gathers round Mrs. Clennam, rigid in her chair, or old Miss Havisham, ironically robed as a bride. Here again the atmosphere altogether eclipses the story, which often seems disappointing in comparison. The secrecy is sensational; the secret is tame. The surface of the thing seems more awful than the core of it. It seems almost as if these grisly figures, Mrs. Chadband and Mrs. Clennam, Miss Havisham, and Miss Flite, Nemo and Sally Brass, were keeping something back from the author as well as from the reader. When the book closes we do not know their real secret. They soothed the optimistic Dickens with something less terrible than the truth. The dark house of Arthur Clennam's childhood really depresses us; it is a true glimpse into that quiet street in hell, where live the children of that unique dispensation which theologians call Calvinism and Christians devil-worship. But some stranger crime had really been done there, some more monstrous blasphemy or human sacrifice than the suppression of some silly document advantageous to the silly Dorrits. Something worse than a common tale of jilting lay behind the masquerade and madness of the awful Miss Havisham. Something worse was whispered by the misshapen Quilp to the sinister Sally in that wild, wet summer-house by the river, something worse than the clumsy plot against the clumsy Kit. These dark pictures seem almost as if they were literally visions; things, that is, that Dickens saw but did not understand.
Popular Fiction (from The Defendant 1901)

One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy’s novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that a modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.

To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys’ literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personæ, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that anyone had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.

Equality and Difference (from Charles Dickens, 1906) (Incidentally, I think this is one of the most profound arguments that Chesterton ever made!)

In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. And the same applies in some degree to all genuine differences. It is a great mistake to suppose that love unites and unifies men. Love diversifies them, because love is directed towards individuality. The thing that really unites men and makes them like to each other is hatred. Thus, for instance, the more we love Germany the more pleased we shall be that Germany should be something different from ourselves, should keep her own ritual and conviviality and we ours. But the more we hate Germany the more we shall copy German guns and German fortifications in order to be armed against Germany. The more modern nations detest each other the more meekly they follow each other; for all competition is in its nature only a furious plagiarism. As competition means always similarity, it is equally true that similarity always means inequality. If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.
The Perils of Prophecy from the Illustrated London News, 12th August 1911

I wonder where this profound modern conviction arose that our descendants are all going to be off their heads. We were used to the notion that the human race would some day be tipped into the sun, to the New Deluge theory that men would all be drowned. But where did our sociological reasoners and romancers get this idea that they will all be cracked? For no other phrase will fit the predictions that are very common in essays and novels just now. The study of natural history in its simplest form might presumably lead us to suppose that our sons and daughters will be men and women, and not sphinxes and minotaurs; and that men and women will be interested in the usual things — chiefly in each other. Sex, self-defence, the peril of childbed, the peril of battle, will always dwarf everything else. Births, deaths, and marriages will always be on the front page. Special conveniences, striking inventions will grow till they have fitted into the framework of these gigantic things, and then they will stop growing. But to hear the social prophets talk, one would think these inventions and conveniences would grow vaster and vaster in a sort of void, and would swallow up everything, including the humanity that made them.

For instance, I heard the other day a quite sober and scientific lecture about Aviation. The lecturer said calmly, in a kind of parenthesis, that one could not actually fix the period when flying would be the ordinary mode of daily movement; but it was pretty certain to come. Now this is just as if, when railways were invented, some railway director had written that we should all end by dining and sleeping all our lives in the train, but he could not as yet make public the date when the new arrangement would begin. Obviously, the aeroplane will increase till it fills a particular place in civilisation, as the railway-train has increased; then it will stop, as the railway-train has stopped. If an early railway speculator had prophesied that railways would become a million times more general and necessary than most people supposed, he would have been right. But if had prophesied that these moving houses would soon be the only houses left, he would have been in error. If he had said that St. Paul’s Cathedral and the General Post Office would some day go by on wheels with a piston-rod, he would have been under a misapprehension. Steam has had its epoch of wealth and power, about as long as it is likely to have it. And strangely enough, there are still dining-rooms that are not dining-cars, and bedrooms (I am glad to say) that are not wagons de lit. If the first projector of automobiles had said that they would not always be confined to projectors, nor even exclusively to the very rich, he would have been right. But if he had said that by 1911 every man would motor downstairs to breakfast in the morning and motor upstairs to bed at night, motor round the library to choose a book, and motor across the drawing-room to ring a bell, then it would be possible by this time to detect in his prediction a faint trace of exaggeration. And in the same way, of course, a man who says that aviation will become much more important than it is, is probably right. But a man who says that it will become a normal human habit is not only mad himself, but evidently believes that he can bequeath his mental malady to his descendants.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More of my Open Door articles on Chesterton

My weekly articles on the life and ideas of Our Author continue to appear in The Open Door magazine, which is distributed in county Kildare. I published the first five of them on this blog and also on my Irish Papist blog. The next five of them can be read on my Irish Papist blog now. I will probably publish them here, too, but I'm too lazy at the moment. (When I cut and paste in Blogger, I lose all the italics and have to add them piecemeal. It's, like, such a drag, dude.)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Gilbert in the Workplace

I'm always trying to promote Chesterton. This is an article I wrote last month for my workplace's staff bulletin. (I work in University College Dublin library.) I wasn't sure if they would carry it, since Chesterton is a Catholic writer and it might be seen as controversial. But, fair play to them, they did.

Why You Should Read G.K. Chesterton
By Maolsheachlann O’Ceallaigh 
(Published in the Social Bulletin of University College Dublin Library, April 2014)

In 2010, I started the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, along with UCD philosophy tutor Angelo Bottone. I had becoming hooked on the works of Chesterton a few years before, and as there were Chesterton Societies in many other countries, but not in Ireland, I decided I would take matters into my own hands.

Who was G.K. Chesterton? Well, most of you know already, I’m sure. He was an English author who died in 1936. He was a novelist, a journalist, an essayist, a poet, a wit, a religious writer, and a social activist. He advocated the social and economic philosophy Distributism, which was intended as a ‘third way’ between communism and capitalism. It promoted small farms, small businesses and self-employment, and has often been reduced to the slogan ‘three acres and a cow’.

Considering the nature of this bulletin, I will not emphasise his role as a religious writer. But I will say that I truly believe Chesterton is an author who can appeal to people of every religious belief and none. He has many atheist and agnostic fans. He is also a writer who can appeal to people across the whole political spectrum. If you think he is a harrumphing reactionary, I appeal to you to dip in and see if this is really the case. At the very least, you will find that Chesterton is willing to argue everything, to go down to brass tacks and first principles in every matter. Although, with characteristic wit, he insisted: “The purpose of opening the mind, as with opening the mouth, is to close it again on something solid.”

So that’s why you shouldn’t not read him. Why should you read him? 

Because he is one of the funniest writers who ever wrote, for a start. Here was a man who, on a lecture tour of America, quipped that the Americans had a holiday to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgim Fathers, and that the English should have a holiday celebrating their departure. He described the Irish spirit of egalitarianism as: “One man is just as good as another, and a good deal better besides.” He called marriage a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline. He is up there with Oscar Wilde, G.B. Shaw (his friend and sparring partner) and Mark Twain when it comes to the production of quotable witticisms.

You should read him because reading Chesterton is an intellectual adventure. He jumped into every debate that was current during his long years a writer—many of which are still relevant, many of which are timeless. Even if you furiously disagree with him, you will certainly find your brain being taken for a spin. And you should read him for ninety -eight other reasons I don’t have room for.

I will leave some of my collections of Chesterton’s Illustrated London News articles in the James Joyce staff room. They are the ideal length for coffee break reading, and they are on every subject imaginable. Try him out. Open your mind and close it on something solid—and tasty, too!

An Open Door into Chesterton...I Hope!

Some weeks ago, the editor of The Open Door magazine (a local Catholic magazine distributed free of charge in the Kildare area) wrote to me and suggested I contribute a weekly column on G.K. Chesterton. I very eagerly agreed. The catch was that each article could only be 450 words in length. As readers of this blog will know, economy with words is not my strong-point-- or at least, not characteristic of my writing style.

But I've been writing these articles for six weeks now and I have found that it's actually a very enjoyable challenge. I've become a stickler-- I won't go a single word over 450 and I find myself striving to achieve that exact word-count!

I decided to write a week-by-week exposition of Chesterton's thought. Now that it's a few weeks in, I thought I might publish the first five articles here. The Open Door is only available (in paper format) in a certain area so I didn't think it was unreasonable to make the articles available to other readers. My hope is that whenever the series is finished it will be a nice little capsule course on Chesterton's philosophy. Anyway, I hope you like it so far.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton, parts one to five.

Almost eighty years ago, in 1936, a man by the name of Gilbert Keith Chesterton breathed his last. Reportedly, his final words were: “The issue is now clear. It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side”. The side that Chesterton chose was Christianity, and (later in life) Roman Catholicism in particular.

He was a journalist, a novelist, a poet, a controversialist, a wit, and quite possibly a saint. (The cause for his sainthood was opened this year.) His image is familiar even now—the tall, fat man in the cape and the battered hat. Tales of his absent-mindedness and eccentricity are also legion. (He was known to stop the traffic as he stopped dead halfway across the road, struck by some brilliant thought.)

We need Chesterton today. Why? Because many of the ideologies and evils that Catholics face in the twenty-first century—abortion, euthanasia, pornography, religious indifference, the erosion of the family, and a hundred others—were also current in Chesterton’s day. And Chesterton argued against them tirelessly, leaving an armoury of arguments and witticisms that will serve us well in our own efforts to defend eternal Truth.

This is the first of a regular feature in which I will be presenting ideas and argument from the thought of G.K. Chesterton to the readers of The Open Door.

The very title of this magazine suggests to me a famous passage from Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. It’s a good place to start because it takes us straight into the deepest and most abiding of all Chesterton’s themes; that is, the importance of wonder and gratitude.

Chesterton writes: “When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

To Chesterton the great question is: why do we ever lose that child-like sense of wonder at the sheer marvel of existence? Why do we take the wonders of the world for granted—or rather (as Chesterton put) not for granted, since we forget or even deny that they were granted to us in the first place?

A man whose eyes are opened to the fact that life is a wonderful gift—that we live ‘best of all impossible worlds’, as Chesterton put it—- is already well on the way to accepting and worshipping an all-powerful and benevolent God. We will go deeper into Chesterton’s insights into this subject next week.


Last week, we began our journey into the thought of G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic writer and apologist who died in 1936, by looking at the idea that was probably the most fundamental to his life and work; the idea of wonder and gratitude.

Chesterton’s aphorisms and witticisms are as plentiful as blackberries in September, but one of my very favourite (in fact, I had it put onto a tee-shirt!) is: “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.”

He believed that many of our modern maladies came from the simple inability to regard the world, God’s gift, with the proper astonishment and gratitude. In this he was like Gregory of Nyssa, a saint and bishop of the fourth century, who wrote: “Only wonder understands.”

With his matchless insight, Chesterton took this idea of grateful wonder and used it to illuminate many other aspects of Christian teaching. For instance, when he was studying the penny Catechism before his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 48, he came across these words: ‘The two sins against hope are presumption and despair.’ To Chesterton, this was a confirmation of what he had always felt. Presumption sees the world without gratitude, because it feels no sense of unworthiness before all the blessings God has bestowed on us. Despair has lost the simple wonder of being alive, the marvel at existence itself.

In his youth, Chesterton was confronted with the fashionable philosophy of decadence. Decadent poets and novelists wrote about their boredom, cynicism and their escape into sensual pleasures. In a poem about his youth, Chesterton wrote: “Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung; the world was very old indeed when you and I were young.” The young Chesterton (who was not even a Christian yet, let alone a Catholic) rebelled against this fashionable apathy, proclaiming the pure joy of being alive and the beauty of common things, from the very start of his literary career.

In our own day, we can see how forgetting the wondrousness of existence leads to some very sinister results. Unborn babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome and other genetic disorders are routinely aborted, on the spuriously compassionate grounds that their lives will not be worth living. People who are suffering debilitating illness, or who simply feel they have nothing left to live for, feel compelled to seek out euthanasia—- and, in some countries, society and the medical authorities more or less push them in this direction.

In the face of all this, we must proclaim the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton: “You should not look a gift universe in the mouth”.


In last week’s article, I wrote about G.K. Chesterton’s proclamation of the wonder of existence itself, and how he urged his readers to develop a fitting gratitude for being alive. Of course, this gratitude isn’t for God’s sake. This gratitude is for our own sake.

Isn’t it the case that people who are really happy—- a man in love, or a football fan watching his team play well, or an art lover looking at a beautiful picture—- are naturally inclined to give praise? They cheer, or they write love poems, or they rhapsodise about the thing they admire.

Some people like to make fun of the idea of an eternity spent praising God, which is what Christians look forward to. They wonder why God would be so egotistical as to want this. They overlook the fact that happy people naturally want to praise and give thanks. And the supreme happiness would make us overflow with this urge.

We can also see, from everyday life, how people who are never grateful are never happy. “She’s never happy”, is what we say about someone who’s never pleased, no matter how much people do for her.

In Chesterton’s view, none of us are grateful enough. He wrote: “We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is...All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

In Chesterton’s novel Manalive, the hero Innocent Smith puts this belief into very practical action. When someone tells Innocent he doesn’t feel life is worth living, Innocent obligingly points a pistol at him and offers to release him from his misery. His would-be victim, of course, quickly changes his mind. This procedure, however, is not recommended to readers of The Open Door.

A better approach might be to quote Chesterton’s moving poem, By the Babe Unborn, in which an unborn baby imagines a wonderland of tall trees and green grass—the world that everyone who is already born inhabits. It last words are:

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.


In the opening instalments of this series, I introduced readers of The Open Door to some of G.K. Chesterton’s most fundamental ideas—namely, the importance of wonder and gratitude. Now I am going to move on to a subject which is hardly less central to his thought, and which is closely related to the themes of wonder and gratitude. That is, the evil of pride and the importance of humility.

This, of course, will hardly be news to Christians. That pride is the worst of all sins is a commonplace in the Christian tradition. And we are well familiar with the notion that ‘he who humbles himself shall be exalted’. So why do we need Chesterton to tell us this all over again?

Well, as the great Samuel Johnson said, “Men more frequently need to be reminded than informed”. But even aside from that fact, Chesterton’s championing of pride and his denunciation of humility are important because of their exceptonal vividness. His gift was to impress upon his readers the great ugliness and futility of pride, and the profound beauty and joyousness of humility.

We should note in passing that he lived up to his own words. Everyone who knew Chesterton commented upon his humility. He was a very fat man who often made fun of his own fatness. He joked that he was more chivalrous than most men, since when he gave up his seat on a tram, he made room for three ladies rather than one.

But his humility went deeper than making fun of his figure. He was a man of tremendous literary talent who might have concentrated on carving out a reputation amongst the greatest authors of all time. His friends urged him to devote less energy to journalism and to concentrate on writing masterpieces. But he never did. He was not interested in the posthumous reputation of G.K. Chesterton. He was interested in fighting the evils of his day, and in jumping feet-first into every debate that was going.

Chesterton attacked pride because he knew it led to misery. “Pride is a weakness in the character”, he wrote. “It dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.” He put it even more stridently when he wrote: “The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair. “

Next week, we’ll journey further into Chesterton’s thoughts on pride and humility.


Last week, we started looking at the themes of pride and humility in the philosophy of G.K. Chesterton. We saw how powerfully Chesterton wrote against the sin of pride, and the way it drains all the laughter and joy and surprise out of human life. Let us now turn, gratefully, from the subject of pride to the subject of humility.

Chesterton never tired of proclaiming that the Christian virtues were not something negative, not the mere absence of something, but the very definite and overflowing presence of something. “The chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell.”

And, of all the Christian virtues, Chesterton assigned a very high place to humility. One of his most famous aphorisms is: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

Of all the many praises of humility that Chesterton wrote, perhaps this passage from Orthodoxy is the most eloquent: “if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything — even pride.”

Chesterton’s views on humility must not be understood. He had no time, for instance, for the misguided sort of humility which sees the human race itself as contemptible. “One can hardly think too little of one’s self”, he wrote. “One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.” As a Christian, of course, Chesterton believed that man was created in God’s image—so he had no time for the ‘humility’ of the scientific materialist, who sees the human race as nothing but a freak occurrence in an obscure planet lost in the vast tracts of the cosmos.

How are we to think so highly of our souls, but so little of our selves? The answer, of course, is the idea of original sin. Chesterton once wrote: “The whole of life becomes so very jolly and livable when once we have believed in original sin.”

What could he have meant by that? Well, I’ll tell you next week!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Not Quite Right

I don't know about you, but the first subject I usually look up in an encyclopedia or an index is G.K. Chesterton. So when I came across an edition of the Hutchinson Enyclopeda (a single-volume encyclopedia) from 1992, that's exactly what I did, and this is what I found:

Chesterton, G(ilbert) K(eith) 1874-1936. English novelist, essayist and satirical poet, author of a series of novels featuring the naive priest-detective 'Father Brown'. Other novels include The Napoleon of Notting Hill 1904 and The Man Who Knew Too Much 1922.

Born in London, he studied art but quickly turned to journalism. Like Hilaire Belloc, he was initially a Socialist sympathizer and joined the Catholic Church 1922.

How many errors can you spot in those five lines? (Admittedly, one of them is more an infelicity of expresssion than an error.)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Chestertonian In-Joke from Peter Hitchens's Blog

Describing a journey he took recently, he makes this oblique reference:

Also, the train to Nottingham stops at Market Harborough, which allows me to text messages to one or two trusted people saying ‘Am in Market Harborough’, knowing I will receive replies asking ‘Where ought you to be?’

 Read the rest here (although the rest is quite unrelated to Chesterton).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


A piece of whimsy from Irish Chesterton Society member Stan Reynolds, regarding Trinity College Dublin's recent redesign of their crest:

Based on the highly logical reasoning found in the most important text of 1979 A.D. - Douglas Adams' “The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy” (Ch.6, p52), the following theological argument can surely now be made:

I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies Faith and without Faith I am nothing.”

But,” says Man, “the recent removal of the Bible from the crest of T.C.D. is a dead giveaway isn't it?”

For,” continues Man, “the symbolic removal of the Bible from the very institution which has been vouchsafed custody of the ancient and wondrously illuminated gospels, know as the Book of Kells, simply must involve levels of irony vastly in excess of those that can possibly be generated even by the most senior management of an institution determined to become notorious as Ireland's foremost TCD - Third-level College of Dunce-craft.”

“Oh, that little 're-branding' matter,” says God nonchalantly, “but they are also changing their crest's colour scheme and, since it is well-known that I am the Cork team's most fanatical supporter, I can admit to naughtily feeling secretly pleased that on the playing fields of my beloved Ireland the letters “TCD” shall henceforth stand for “Tipperary Colours Denied.”

We demand!” says Man, “that You maintain our discourse at a suitably serious level! less of the enthusiasm for mere sporting matters if You please!...Now, it is in fact quite clear that the irony levels involved in the TCD (Trinity Crest Debacle) are so mind-blisteringly high as to conclusively indicate the existence of infinite irony.”

Furthermore, since we now know from observation that the Universe, while expanding, is finite, any infinite quality (even ironically, irony itself) must have an infinite source and, if we are to take our monotheism seriously, that Source can only be You, God.”

Therefore,” says Man, “we must inform You that your existence has now been officially TCD'ed – Theologically Completely Determined. For, by tapping into vast and infinite irony, TCD (Those Complete Duffers) have, quite accidentally it seems, managed to prove that You exist , and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don't. QED.”

Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn't thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

Oh, that was easy,” says Man who then, for an encore, (having removed the text upon which western civilisation's moral and economic limitation is based -i.e. the manual of its governance), continues to unwittingly install and happily practice quite the opposite -i.e. anti-governance.

And the rest is, as they say, likely merely prefaced by our recent history.

Stan Reynolds

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Some Wonderful News

I am sure all followers of this blog are eager to join me in congratulations to founder-member Angelo Bottone, whose wife Vicki gave birth to a daughter, Lucia, last night.

"The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?"-- Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dale Ahlquist coming to Dublin!

The G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland is proud to announce that we will be hosting Dale Ahlquist, the President of the American Chesterton Society, at eight o'clock of 2nd April (a Wednesday) in the Mont Clare Hotel, Dublin 2. Dale will be giving a lecture on G.K. Chesterton: Defender of the Family. Admission is free.

Dale Ahlquist is undoubtedly the world's greatest popularizer of Chesterton's work. He is the host of the Chesterton-themed television show The Apostle of Common Sense and the author of several books on GKC's thought and work, including Common Sense 101, The Complete Thinker and The Gift of Wonder.

If you'd like to attend this event (and why wouldn't you?), and to help us with planning, please email to confirm your attendance.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Talk on Apologetics and the Joy of the Gospel, with Particular Reference to G.K. Chesterton

This is the text of a talk I gave to the Blessed John Paul II Theological Society in St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, yesterday evening. I left out a handful of passages on the day because I was worried it was running on too long.

Good evening, everybody. I’d like to thank Eamon for inviting me here and to thank all of you for showing up. It’s a real privilege to be here.

My subject is Catholic apologetics today, especially in the light of Pope Francis’s recent document Evangelii Gaudium, which I prefer to call by its English title, The Joy of the Gospel. Since I am such a devotee of G.K. Chesterton, and considering that Chesterton is still the towering figure of Catholic apologetics, I will be mentioning him quite a lot.

The Joy of the Gospel, as you know, is an apostolic exhortation, rather than an encylical. It is not infallible or binding upon the faithful, as has been pointed out frequently by many Catholics who disagree with some of its contents. Its purpose is to encourage all Catholics to focus upon the work of evangelization, and it calls for the Church to make all of its activities “mission-oriented”, as the Pope puts it. It urges us to focus upon the essentials of the Christian message, rather than specific and controversial doctrines, and also to preserve a proper sense of proportion when we proclaim the Gospel. It also calls for a respectful dialogue with non-Catholics and non-Christians. Although the document is not about apologetics per se, it obviously has important implications for that subject. I’m not going to synopsize the exhortation any further, but I will quote from it as I go along.

Apologetics—whether Catholic, Christian, or merely theistic—is a subject of absorbing interest to me. I spent about a year as a voracious consumer of apologetics, before I came to finally accept the truth of the Christian revelation. Since then, I’ve leapt into apologetics myself, through my blog The Irish Papist and also through articles in Catholic publications. And, like so many other Catholics, I often find myself engaged in a kind of impromptu everyday apologetics, as I am so often challenged about my faith in every kind of setting, and from every conceivable angle.

I began to practice my faith less than four years ago(Correction: I meant to say a little more than four years ago. I met my wife a little less than four years ago, and I was a practicing Catholic when we met.). Before that, I don’t know how I would have classified myself in religious terms. I was certainly sympathetic to Christianity, and to Catholicism in particular, but I only ever entered a church for funerals and memorial Masses. I do remember declaring myself an atheist on a handful of occasions, and I can remember once challenging a colleague to explain what the word ‘spirituality’ actually meant. This was more in the spirit of frustration than of belligerence. I was never anti-religious, but I simply couldn’t see what grounds there were to accept the claims of any religion.

At other times I was closer to the outlook of Alexander Pope, in his Universal Prayer:

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

I think this latter attitude is a fairly common one. I actually suspect that there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Mass-going Catholics in Ireland who believe, not in the Trinity and the Resurrection and the Incarnation, but in some ineffable Force behind our reality, one that might as well be worshipped using the stories and rituals of Catholicism as in any other manner. For this reason I think our evangelization and our apologetics should be addressed, not only to declared unebelievers, but to the people in the pews as well.

So through most of my twenties, I didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about the meaning of life, or the nature of reality, or any of those things. I had other things to think about.

Then I started to write intensively. I had written poetry for years, plotting to spearhead a revival of traditional poetry that rhymed and scanned, and to smash the free verse establishment to smithereens. I’m still working on this plan, incidentally. But in my late twenties, I began to write fiction. I wrote a fantasy novel, followed by a children’s fantasy novel, followed by a horror novel, and finally a collection of horror short stories. They all remain unpublished, a status I don’t see changing.

I wrote non-stop, at a rattling pace. I spent my holidays and my weekends and my free-time and my tea-breaks at work writing. My imagination had been stirred by reading about Isaac Asimov, the science-fiction writer who wrote over five hundred books, and who famously said: “I think through my fingers”. I flung myself into a similar routine. And this turned out to be my undoing, the hook that God used to reel me in.

Story-telling is a quest. From the earliest times, stories were the means that mankind used to make sense of the universe and his place in it. Stories show us, not just a flux of random events, but something happening under the surface of events. More than that, stories are a quest for meaning. Stories tell us that life matters. They convince us that life is not a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing, as Macbeth claimed, but a wonderful adventure, a long homecoming.

I spent months and months, writing my stories, feeling I was probing deeper and deeper into the mystery of existence. Until suddenly, I felt I had come to a dead end, a brick wall, an endless abyss. On the very day I finished writing a collection of a hundred horror stories—I had a little bottle of Bailey’s Irish cream ready, to celebrate—I found myself sliding into the deepest depression of my life.

I found myself asking: After the catharsis and the purple prose of the final page, after the hero finally reaches home, after the heroine discovers who she really is—what then? What makes the final embrace of the star-crossed lovers any more consequential than the buzzing of a fly in the air above them? What makes the noble sacrifice of the last scene any better than the murder in the first scene? Stories were a search for meaning, but what meaning was there for them to find?

I saw with horrible clarity that nothing had meaning unless everything had meaning, that free will and intelligence and purpose and beauty were no more than phantoms unless they had a source in something transcendental, something that was not only relatively free or intelligent or beautiful or meaningful, but absolutely so. And this is, as Aquinas says, is what everyone calls God.

Thus began my delving into apologetics—books, websites, youtube videos. Choosing to believe was not an option for me. I had no interest in a leap of faith, or in Pascal’s wager, or in some kind of mystical apprehension or auto-suggestion. This was the most important question there could possibly be—ultimately, the only important question—and it was my reason that required satisfaction, not my emotions. A universe without God seemed to leave room for nothing but despair. And yet this very consideration, far from inclining me to give theistic arguments an easy ride, made me relentlessly critical of them. I saw every objection to them with a kind of ghastly clarity. I honestly believe that I journeyed deeper into doubt and scepticism, at this time, than almost any atheist ever does. At least, I rarely today encounter any atheist argument without thinking, “I could put the case even stronger than that.”

I became more and more frustrated with the arguments of apologists. I was tired of reading about the limits of science and of empirical measurement, tired of desperate appeals to half-understood quantum physics, tired of the question-begging quotation that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy”. Who said that there were? Again and again, I was told that science could only answer the “how” and “what” questions, that it left the “why” questions, and what were often referred to as the Big Questions, unanswered. I saw no reason that there should be a “why” answer. I certainly felt an intuition that there must be a “why”. But intuition wasn’t good enough. People believed all kinds of crazy things on the basis of intuition.

Some arguments of apologists just seemed daft to me. For instance, there was the fairly common argument that it was not illogical to believe in God despite having no way to prove His existence, since everybody believed in the existence of other peoples’ minds, and we have no conclusive way to know that other people have minds. I thought one might as well argue that the characters in children’s picture books dance around the page when the covers are closed. Christian apologists were continually pointing to the blood-soaked record of atheistic communism, as well they might. But they seemed to ignore the fact that Scandinavia, the most secularized part of Western civilization, has a very high standard of living and strong social bonds. Sometimes it was claimed that scientists had faith just as surely as religious believers did, since they expected the laws of physics to continue operating into the future, and no experiment could prove that this would actually happen. But wasn’t this really stretching the definition of “faith” to breaking point?

I became absorbed in this debate, which of course stretches back as far as human civilization, just at the time that the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and company—were having their heyday. It was not only Christianity or organized religion or even religion itself that was under attack, but the very notion that there was anything supernatural at all. I discovered that the Amazing James Randi, the American magician and sceptic, had offered a million dollar prize for anyone who could provide evidence of the paranormal, under test conditions. Nobody had ever collected the prize. Various other sceptical societies offered similar prizes, and none had ever been collected. Similarly, experiments that studied the efficacy of petitionary prayer had found very little evidence in its favour.

Today it seems to me rather presumptious to assume that God should perform under laboratory conditions, but this seemed like a devastating, almost knock-down disproof at the time. It was true that many of the miracles associated with Catholicism—like the miracle of the sun at Fatima, the stigmata and bilocations of Padre Pio, the healings at Lourdes, and the uncanny properties of the Turin Shroud—were compelling and difficult to dismiss. But this seemed like a very slender thread on which to build such enormous faith.

That said, the more I became wrapped up in the debate, the more I came to respect the Catholic Church. I even began to feel that it was a two-horse race between atheism and Catholicism. Incidentally, Chesterton once expressed the same belief, in a book about William Blake: “If every human being lived a thousand years”, he said, “every human being would end up either in utter pessimistic scepticism or in the Catholic creed.” I agree.

My respect for the Catholic Church was based upon the fact that it was so willing to lay its cards upon the table, to make definite truth claims—and not only about events in the distant past. It declared various miracles and Marian apparitions, some of them modern, to be worthy of belief. It stood over two thousand years of doctrine and dogma. It insisted upon the historicity of the Gospels and the Resurrection of Christ.

Best of all, it not only rejected fideism—that is, the claim that belief in God is entirely based upon faith, and not at all upon reason—it actually declared it a heresy. Pope Pius X’s Anti-Modernist oath declared: “God, the origin and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason from the created world.” A religion that didn’t insist upon that from the very first didn’t seem worth the time of day to me.

I decided that, if the Church was a liar, it was an amazingly consistent liar. If it was a fraud, it was a brilliant fraud. And, since I was an ardent social and cultural conservative, the culturally unfashionable teachings of the Catholic Church—on abortion, contraception, Papal authority, and so forth-- that were such a stumbling block to so many other potential converts, were a positive attraction to me. In fact, when I was finally convinced by the truth of Catholicism, I found myself having to trim the sails of my rather pugnacious conservatism more than a little.

But I was a long way from that at this time. In fact, I was beginning to despair. Philosophical materialism seemed to have won the day. I had been through all the arguments, over and over—the Argument from Design, the Argument from Morality, the Argument from Reason, the so-called fine-tuning of the universe, and many, many more—and nothing seemed like a winning argument to me. I may not, for instance, have understood or even been able to imagine how human consciousness could be something physical. But weren’t philosophers and scientists already talking about machines that could think? Why should the limits of my understanding be the limits of possibility?

I was in this sorry state—and it is no exaggeration to say that, at times, it amounted to a kind of mental and spiritual torture—when I read G.K. Chesterton’s little book Orthodoxy, first published in 1908. Chesterton, as you all doubtless know, was a journalist, novelist, poet, wit and Christian apologists. Later in life, he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. But Orthodoxy was more or less his debut as a self-confessed Christian, even though he had been a prominent polemicist for several years.

Pope Francis, in the only explicit mention of apologetics in The Joy of the Gospel, has called for a “creative apologetics”, and you could hardly get more creative than Orthodoxy. Chesterton, only thirty-four when he wrote it, makes an utterly original case for the truth of the Christian creed. It’s a virtuoso performance. I read it in one day, and by the time I put it down, I had all but accepted the truth of Christianity.

Amazingly, Chesterton opens by describing the very windowless cell of materialism that I had been trapped inside. He wrote:
“As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.
It must be understood [Chesterton goes on] that I am not now discussing the relation of these creeds to truth; but, for the present, solely their relation to health. Later in the argument I hope to attack the question of objective verity; here I speak only of a phenomenon of psychology.” End of quotation.

And later on in the argument, Chesterton does indeed attack the question of objective verity, but from the most extraordinary angles of attack. A chapter about fairy tales become a critique of the supposed necessity of the laws of nature. Chesterton argues that the regularities, the causes and effects, that we witness in the natural world are no less magical or less surprising than a mouse turning into a horse. Whimsical as it is, it is also the most rigorous philosophy. Chesterton is undermining the assumptions of the scientific fatalism of his day.

As the book goes on, his arguments become even more acrobatic and inspired. The chapter The Suicide of Thought contrasts the self-contradiction of various modish philosophies with the lucidity of Christianity, which—crazy as it seemed to his contemporaries—at least made internal sense. The chapter The Paradoxes of Christianity asks why Christianity has been attacked on so many grounds through the centuries; many of them starkly contradictory grounds. He concludes that Christianity must be at least be a most extraordinary thing, having been at different times attacked for being too dark and too bright, too timid and too warlike, too sensual and too otherworldy.
Finally, and triumphantly, Chesterton identifies this combination of opposites as being the very thing that makes Christianity unique, and that gives the Faith its uncanny knack of comprehending reality in all its irregularities and messiness.

“This”, he writes, “is what I have called guessing the hidden eccentricities of life. This is knowing that a man's heart is to the left and not in the middle. This is knowing not only that the earth is round, but knowing exactly where it is flat. Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe -- that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one. Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy -- that was a discovery in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel" -- that was an emancipation.”

I have described Orthodoxy at what might seem excessive length in order to make a point, and what I think is a very important point. The point is that the book, though an intellectual tour-de-force, is not purely intellectual. Nor is it purely poetical. Nor is it purely historical, or purely philosophical, or purely anything else. It is, in fact, a marriage of many different types of evidence. It also stunningly original. Chesterton, in looking into his own soul and describing his own reasons for belief, had come up with a genuinely new contribution to this most ancient of arguments. And this I consider truly creative apologetics. I believe it is this that made the apologetics of Chesterton, and later of C.S. Lewis, so influential.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing against the use of pure reason in the defence of religious belief and of Christianity, nor am I arguing against the use of pure science or pure history or pure philosophy. The fact that I had been left unsatisfied by such arguments until I read Orthodoxy did not mean that they would not play a part in the later solidification of my belief. A book by the Catholic physicist, Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, finally convinced me—where several similar books had failed—that there was no conflict between modern science and Christianity. The Last Superstition, a polemic against the New Atheism by the American Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, showed me that my understanding of Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God had been shallow indeed. It also convinced me that at least one of the arguments, the Argument from Contingency, was irrefutable. Feser’s blog also deepened my appreciation for the intellectual case for religious belief, and the philosphical poverty of materialism and naturalism. Finally, the debates I watched on Youtube between the Evangelical Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and many of the most famous atheists deeply impressed me. Craig relied upon purely academic arguments, and even atheists often conceded that he won the debates. His book The Son Rises, despite the awful title, is a very powerful defence of the Resurrection, on purely historical grounds.

So I do, in fact, think that pure reason is an indispensable weapon in the armoury of Christian apologetics. But I firmly believe that the most important form of Christian apologetics, the one that will win most minds and hopefully also most souls, is one that seeks to defend Christianity from as many different angles as possible, while using as many different strategies as possible.

I think that both Chesterton and Lewis were masters of this approach, and that this goes a long way towards explaining their continuing popularity, which eclipses that of any living Christian apologist. Chesterton was a writer whose output and whose diversity of subject matter was legendary. Collections of his essays have been given titles such as The Uses of Diversity, Generally Speaking and All I Survey. He wrote on every imaginable subject—some of his more noted essays were on the subject of chalk, on lying in bed, and on the case of a woman keeping a pig as a pet. But everything he wrote, articles and detective stories and novels and poems, was pervaded by his Christian and later Catholic viewpoint. Or as George Orwell put it, more disparagingly:

"Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan." End of quotation. Well, that’s one way of putting it, I suppose.

Lewis, on the other hand, expounded the Christian worldview not only in his apologetics but also in his Narnia books, his science fiction novels and his literary criticism. The chapter on Lucifer in his critical introduction to Paradise Lost is perhaps the most profound analysis of sin that I have ever read.

One reason I believe that this broad-ranging or holistic form of apologetics is so important is because it satisfies a certain demand in the human soul. Human beings, consciously or unconsciously, will seldom be content with a philosophy of life that doesn’t seem to take into account how complicated, wild, many-sided and inexhaustible the world is. An argument that satisfies the intellect but does not satisfy the soul is unlikely to be accepted for long. If Christ is truly the light of the world, rather than the fridge light that only comes on when we are looking inside it, then Christianity should illuminate the entirety of human existence. As Chesterton wrote: “Nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” Or as he also wrote: “A man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.” The best apologists are those who can convince their audiences, through appeals to the imagination and the intuition as well as to reason, that Christianity is big enough to contain their whole world. The best apologists demonstrate the truth of Pope Benedict’s moving words:”If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

Another reason I believe that apologists should strive for this broad, creative, wide-ranging approach is because it is so easy to get locked into a kind of table-tennis game, or perhaps a kind of trench warfare, with our opponents. The argument becomes stereotyped, stalemated, caught on a permanent roundabout. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Ping. The Church needs to move with the times and adapt to the modern world. Pong. No, the truths that the Church teaches are timeless, and it can’t meddle with them to please the fashions of the age. Ping. Oh really? Well, what about Limbo and fish on Friday? Pong. Limbo was never a defined doctrine and fish on Fridays was only ever a discipline. And on and on its goes, back and forth, tit for tat. Everybody knows what the next response is going to be, and it must be rare indeed that anybody changes their mind because of these exchanges.

Mind you, I’m not saying that we should simply retreat from this trench warfare, leaving the battlefield to the other side. That would be irresponsible. But without disengaging, we should always be seeking to open new fronts—or perhaps to dig tunnels into enemy territory, or to parachute in from the skies. We need to come upon those who have ranged such elaborate defences against the Christian gospel from unexpected directions.

One person who I think is very good at doing this is John Waters. Perhaps I should specify that I mean John Waters the Irish writer and journalist, and not John Waters the maker of deliberately offensive movies. John Waters, in his books Lapsed Agnostic and Beyond Consolation, and in innumerable articles in The Irish Catholic and The Irish Times, has written exhaustively of modern Ireland’s almost frantic effort to push away any reference to the transcendental or the spiritual, to limit reality to what can be measured and observed and categorized. He did this so much, and for so long, that I was beginning to get irritated with him. Similarly, I was getting fed up with his constantly repeated references to Pope Benedict’s metaphor of the bunker, the self-made reality that modern man has imprisoned himself inside. Waters used this metaphor again and again. And again and again. And then some more. I wondered how long he was going to labour this point, and when he was going to get round to actually talking about Jesus and about Christianity, which he so seldom seemed to do.

But I’ve come to believe that he was taking the right approach after all. Modern Ireland, or at least those parts of it that Waters is trying to reach, has indeed become so hostile to anything smacking of the spiritual that simply getting such people to recognize the artificiality and littleness of their own mental universe is enough of a labour for all of one man’s efforts. Just to render the bunker visible, as Waters puts it, is indeed a titanic and necessary work.

And I think Pope Francis would agree with this, too. In article 24 of The Joy of the Gospel, he writes: “An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.” In article 225, he says: “evangelization…calls for attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes and concern for the long run.”

It’s true that Pope Francis is talking about evangelization rather than apologetics here. But I don’t think evangelization and apologetics can be separated. How can we proclaim the gospel without being ready to answer objections? And what better opportunity is there to proclaim the gospel than when we find ourselves facing critics of Christianity or of the Catholic Church? Since I’m a shy person, I find the idea of approaching a stranger, or even a friend, and initiating a conversation about my faith extremely difficult. I am in awe of street evangelists. But I rarely find it difficult to speak up when I hear somebody taking issue with Catholicism or the Church. I think apologetics is a necessary form of evangelization.

While I’m on the subject of contemporary apologetics, I want to remark on some modern examples. I’m going to take a Goldilocks trio of examples; one that I think is all wrong in one direction, another that I think is all wrong in another direction, and a third that I think is just right.

The first is a TV series that was broadcast on TV3 recently, and hosted by Vincent Browne. The title was Challenging God, and the format was a panel discussion between believers and non-believers on the subject of God and religion. It’s a wonderful concept for a show, but it turned out to be a huge let-down. And I’m sorry to say that it was the Catholic and Christian guests who were mostly at fault.

I won’t give the names of the guests on the couple of episodes I saw. Most of them were theologians and priests that I had never heard of before. Perhaps it was simply a weak selection on the part of the producers. Perhaps it was even a deliberately weak selection. But one way or another, the contributors who were there to speak for the Christian and Catholic creed, and indeed one Jewish contributor, seemed to have only one tactic; retreat, retreat, retreat. When they were challenged as to certain parts of Scripture, they immediately complained about “literalism” on the part of their opponents, and ended up giving the impression that the Bible was nothing but a kind of extended poem. When they were challenged about our knowledge of God, they retreated perpetually behind God’s unknowability, as though we could know nothing at all about God—which is not the Christian belief, and which doesn’t leave us with much of a working relationship to the Deity. And when they were challenged on the subject of Christian history, they outdid the atheists in their eagerness to denounce it. This is a common motif in the sort of Christian apologetics that is all-too-apologetic in the conventional sense of that word—the idea that the history of Christianity, and even the history of Catholicism, has been one long lamentable betrayal of the message of Jesus. Always the implication is that millions upon millions of Christians through twenty centuries, with maybe a few exceptions like St. Francis, made a complete hash of the Christian life, but that the speaker is not about to fall into the same trap. And the sort of person who expounds this view is usually one who would castigate previous generations of Christians for their lack of humility.

Against this tendency, I cherish the words of Pope Francis in article thirteen of The Joy of the Gospel: “Nor should we see the newness of this mission as entailing a kind of displacement or forgetfulness of the living history which surrounds us and carries us forward. Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call “deuteronomic”, not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39). Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), some of whom, as believers, we recall with great joy: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb 13:7). Some of them were ordinary people who were close to us and introduced us to the life of faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). The believer is essentially “one who remembers”. End of quotation.

I think that one of the challenges of the Catholic apologist is to convey to the unbeliever, or to the non-Catholic Christian, that the history of Catholicism is not—to paraphrase Joyce—a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. It’s very difficult to do this, because in our era we imbibe with our mother’s milk the idea that tradition is a burden and revolution is the ideal, that scrapping everything that went before and starting from scratch is the way to go. To get past simply defending Catholic history, and to try to communicate the wild swashbuckling romance of it all—to explain that a Catholic who enters a Catholic church is not simply lifting his mind from time to eternity, but is seeing eternity refracted through time, as in the scene of the Annunciation—this, I think, is a mighty and necessary labour.

I turn to the other extreme, which is the American Michael Voris and his Church Militant internet TV station. I don’t want to make heavy weather of Voris, if only because every time I mention him I seem to draw the unwelcome attentions of his fanbase. Basically, as many of you doubtless know, Michael Voris is a kind of twenty-first century self-appointed Grand Inquisitor. His internet videos focus overwhelmingly upon the crisis that he sees afflicting today’s Catholic Church; communion in the hand, guitar masses, liberal priests, a lack of focus on the Four Last Things, and the triumph of what he likes to call The Church of Nice. It sometimes seems he wants to replace the Church of Nice with the Church of Nasty.

Many of Voris’s criticisms of the modern Catholic Church are undoubtedly justified, but he seems the prime example of what Pope Francis calls an inward-looking Church. The attitude of apologists like Voris seems to be that, if only we could get the liturgy right, and get catechesis right, and present the world with a supremely self-confident Catholicism purged of liberalism and abuses, the world would flock to our pews. There’s something to be said for that, but I think it’s deeply naïve at the same time. Like the cosmos of Chesterton’s materialist, the entirely self-referential cosmos that apologists like Voris inhabit seems like the smallest hole a man can hide his head in. Apparently uninterested in engaging with modern currents of thought with anything but hostility and derision, he has nothing to offer non-Catholics and non-believers except the magnetism of his steely, intransigent certainty. That will always attract some people, but its appeal is limited. And that’s enough about Voris.

After all that, it’s a pleasure to turn to my Goldilocks. I don’t think too many people here will disagree if I claim that Father Robert Barron, another American, is the greatest apologist of our day. He seems to be the very embodiment of Pope Francis’s ideal. He radiates joy and enthusiasm, not in a cheesy way, but in a very sincere way. He is eager to use modern methods to spread the Gospel, as witnessed by his Word on Fire website and his short, meaty Youtube videos. He comments on popular cinema releases and social trends. He tries to find some common ground with the critics of Catholicism, since a conversation or even a debate is not going to go anywhere until there is something both sides can agree on. Like Chesterton and Lewis, to whom he often refers, he isn’t content with answering the stock accusations with stock responses, but strives to come up with new and creative angles. He is eager to convey, not only the truth of Catholicism, but its beauty and sublimity and intellectual depth. And he is always polite and respectful. I honestly believe that, in order to see what a twenty-first century Catholic apologist should be, we could do no better than look at Fr. Barron.

It might be wondered what the great Catholic and Christian apologists of recent times would make of the The Joy of the Gospel. Do Pope Francis’s calls for a more joyful, respectful, open, humble approach to evangelization hobble the efforts of Catholic apologists? Who will be drawn to the Faith if he we do not boldly proclaim that our Chuch is the One True Church, if we are not unflinching in our exposure of heresy, if we do not confront the dictatorship of relativism and the wishy-washiness of post-modernism with the certainties of our own Creed? Wasn’t the exodus from the priesthood, the religious life, and the pews after Vatican II a result of just such rhetoric as Pope Francis uses in The Joy of Gospel—rhetoric like this, for instance: “In some places we see an ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige, but without any concern that the Gospel have a real impact on God’s faithful people and the concrete needs of the present time?” Or rhetoric like this: “"Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion.” What encouragement can there be for apologetics in a document that only uses the word “apologetics” once, but that uses the word “dialogue” fifty times? Doesn’t this kind of rhetoric, in fact, bring to mind those words from first Corinthians, “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who shall gird himself for battle?” When the Pope writes that an evangelizer must not look like someone who has just come from a funeral, isn’t it hard not to picture a photograph of Hilaire Belloc with his black clothes and his trademark scowl? Are we all meant to start being happy-clappy now?

Well, it’s hard for me to comment on Belloc. I have always found his work rather tough going. He famously wrote the lines:

Heretics all, whoever you may be,
In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,
You never shall have good words from me.

And judging from these, we may decide that he wouldn’t have been a big fan of the kind of respectful dialogue with other religions and with the surrounding culture for which Pope Francis is calling. But I imagine Belloc was mostly joking in those lines.

It is tempting to say that Belloc was an apologist for a particular moment in English history, a moment when it was necessary to punch with two fists against the prejudices instilled in the English people by four centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda and false history, that Old Thunder has done his work now and can safely be retired. However, this would be to underestimate his continuing popularity. A Hilaire Belloc Society was formed in Ireland only this year. I went along to the first meeting and was surprised by the turnout, the enthusiasm of the attendees, and the number of young people there. So we cannot conclude that Belloc is an exhausted volcano.
From my knowledge of his work, and granted that I might be wrong, I do get the impression that his pugnacious style of apologetics might not be exactly in harmony with The Joy of the Gospel, a document that Pope Francis tells us has “a programmatic significance and important consequences.”

Still, perhaps I am simply doing Belloc an injustice. Even if his manner and his tone could be rather severe, and if he was suspicious of ostentatious emotion, he was equally capable of expressing The Joy of the Gospel in his own restrained style. One of my favourite quotations about Catholicism comes from his essay, An Open Letter to Dean Inge: “One thing in this world is different from all others. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized and (when recognized) most violently hated or loved. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it is the night.” So much for Belloc. I apologize to any Belloc fans who are listening and scandalized at my ignorance.

When we turn to another figures famous for his spirited apologetics, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, we might believe we have another figure who may have been less than happy with the tone of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation. The picture he presented on the his television show Life is Worth Living, clad in all the splendour of his episcopal robes, declaiming rather than speaking, and using a blackboard to illustrate his points as though he was a schoolmaster, seems a long way from the idea of “dialogue”. And yet I think Archbishop Sheen’s apologetics were much more in the style of The Joy of the Gospel than might be supposed, particularly in his ecumenical attitude. Life Is Worth Living drew in ten million viewers at its height. It is unlikely to have been such a hit by appealing only to Catholics. In fact, an ultra-traditionalist Catholic website called Tradition in Action devotes an entire article to complaining about Archbishop Sheen’s wishy-washy statements, especially his generous atttitude towards othe religions. They are appalled by quotations like this one: “the fullness of truth is like a complete circle of 360 degrees. Every religion in the world has a segment of that truth.” Or “Christ is hidden in all world religions, though as yet His face is veiled as it was to Moses, who asked to see it.” Or his boast that, on his television show, “never once was there an attempt at what might be called proselytizing.” As well as this, his pioneering work in religious broadcasting and his frequent strategy of beginning a programme, not by launching into a discussion of religion straight away, but by taking a point of departure from the cultural world of his viewers, seems entirely consistent with the spirit of Pope Francis’s document, and indeed with the spirit of the New Evangelization in general.

And so I come to Chesterton. At this point, my listeners might not be surprised to hear that I think Chesterton would have been fully on board with the programme of the Pope as outlined in The Joy of the Gospel, and not only because of his well-documented reverence towards the successors of St. Peter. In fact, I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Chesterton might have written this document—although, if Chesterton had written it, there would have been rather more jokes.

Those who know little about Chesterton sometimes encounter his epigrams, and see his photograph, or read his war ballad “Lepanto”, and imagine that he was a harrumphing, crusty old curmudgeon who went about waving his fist at the modern world and launching into the most triumphalist, take-no-prisoners form of Catholic apologetics. But nothing could be more mistaken.

In an introduction to an anthology of Chesterton’s Catholic writings, James J. Thompson describes Chesterton the apologist as he really was:

“A controversialist can easily sink into bitterness, especially when the creed they champion, as with Catholicism in England, is despised and mistrusted. In defence of a good cause, a good man can be transmogrified into a crotchety, dyspeptic misanthrope. Chesterton never succumbed to this temptation. He refused to relinquish his boyish high spirits and sanguine temperament; to him, contending for the Faith was immense fun. He exemplified the laughing apologist, chortling merrily as he pricked pomposities, exposed illogic, and smashed ramshackle arguments. Although he took the Faith seriously, he never made the mistake of assuming that one Gilbert Keith Chesteton should be treated with a grave demeanour.

Chesterton usually liked his adversaries as persons, and they generally responded to him in a kindred spirit. For over three decades he conducted a running dispute with Bernard Shaw; had they ever exhausted their substantive disagreements, they probably would have intitiated a round of fierce polemics over the weather. Yet the two remained fast friends, each recognizing in the other qualities that transcended intellectual difficulties. H.G. Wells, another of Chesterton’s regular sparring partners, represented, in Chesterton’s eyes, a prime example of a man inebriated with modern progressivism. The two men pounced upon one another with gusto, yet Chesterton lauded Wells as a jewel in England’s literary crown.” End of quotation.

But it wasn’t just Chesterton’s good humour and affability that was remarkable, when it came to his clashes with the enemies of Christianity. It was his willingness to see things from the other side, to enter sympathetically into a different mentality, to appreciate and acknowledge the element of truth in every half-truth that had been set in opposition to the fullness of truth. In other words, he was committed to dialogue, not simply to debate.

The similarities between The Joy of the Gospel and Chesterton’s philosophy are startling.

Pope Frances devotes a fairly long passage to the theme of city life, and the importance of discovering a spirituality of the city. Chesterton, a Londoner through and through, was always trying to discover the magical and the mystical in an urban setting. He wrote: “The suburbs ought to be either glorified by romance and religion or else destroyed by fire from heaven.” His novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill is one attempt to do the first.

Pope Frances devotes a whole thirty pages of The Joy of the Gospel to the question of the poor, and the preferential option for the poor, insisting “They have much to teach us”. Chesterton never stopped writing about the poor, who he did not see as charity cases but the members of society who were most likely to preserve healthy instincts and traditions. He wrote: “We are always wondering what we shall do with the poor. If we were democrats, we should be wondering what the poor will do with us”. Nothing infuriated him more than condescending philantropy towards the poor.

Both men are concerned with the need for a philosophy of life to have a proportion, a fitting synthesis. The Pope writes: “The challenge of an inculturated preaching consists in proclaiming a synthesis, not ideas or detached values. Where your synthesis is, there lies your heart.” Chesterton wrote: “What is to prevent one Humanist wanting chastity without humility, and another humility without chastity, and another truth or beauty without either? The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch. And I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome.”

The Pope insists upon the importance of concentrating upon the most important aspects of the Gospel when we evangelize. He writes: “When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.”

This was always Chesterton’s modus operandi. He was not unwilling to engage in controversy about the smallest points of doctrine, but he always strove to emphasize the essence of Christianity, rather than the details.

Take these wonderful words from his sermon against pride, which I think are a good example of the kind of bold and creative evangelization the Pope is calling for:

"I should begin my sermon by telling people not to enjoy themselves. I should tell them to enjoy dances and theatres and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; to enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if they can enjoy nothing better; to enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to this other alternative; but never to learn to enjoy themselves. Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside. So long as they have this they have as the greatest minds have always declared, a something that is present in childhood and which can still preserve and invigorate manhood. The moment the self within is consciously felt as something superior to any of the gifts that can be brought to it, or any of the adventures that it may enjoy, there has appeared a sort of self-devouring fastidiousness and a disenchantment in advance, which fulfils all the Tartarean emblems of thirst and of despair." End of quotation.

Finally, and most importantly of all, the Pope and Chesterton resemble each other in the great emphasis that they put upon joy. The Pope’s document is entitled The Joy of the Gospel and the first words are: “The joy of the Gospel fills the heart and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” A few lines later, he writes: “I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy,”

Chesterton was ahead of him by a century or so. Joy and gratitude are the great Chestertonian themes, and the word “joy” resounds throughout all his writings.

Take this passage from a discussion of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, a poem full of the praises of wine and of seizing the pleasure of each moment, but which is laden with religious scepticism and pessimism:

Neither nature nor wine nor anything else can be enjoyed if we have the wrong attitude towards happiness, and Omar (or Fitzgerald) did have the wrong attitude towards happiness. He and those he has influenced do not see that if we are to be truly gay, we must believe that there is some eternal gaiety in the nature of things. We cannot enjoy thoroughly even a pas-de-quatre at a subscription dance unless we believe that the stars are dancing to the same tune. No one can be really hilarious but the serious man. “Wine,” says the Scripture, “maketh glad the heart of man,” but only of the man who has a heart. The thing called high spirits is possible only to the spiritual. Ultimately a man cannot rejoice in anything except the nature of things. Ultimately a man can enjoy nothing except religion. Once in the world’s history men did believe that the stars were dancing to the tune of their temples, and they danced as men have never danced since. With this old pagan eudaemonism the sage of the Rubaiyat has quite as little to do as he has with any Christian variety. He is no more a Bacchanal than he is a saint. Dionysus and his church was grounded on a serious joie-de-vivre like that of Walt Whitman. Dionysus made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. Jesus Christ also made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. But Omar makes it, not a sacrament, but a medicine. He feasts because life is not joyful; he revels because he is not glad. “Drink,” he says, “for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world as idle as a humming-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace.” So he stands offering us the cup in his hand. And at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. “Drink” he says “for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.” End of quotation.

Or take his most famous rhapsody on the joy of the Christian, once again from Orthodoxy:

Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear. End of quotation.

Do I think a Chestertonian apologetics is possible in the light of The Joy of the Gospel? Absolutely. A thousand times yes. If the recently opened cause for Chesterton’s sainthood succeeds, the Church might do worse than to declare him the patron saint of what we might call the New Apologetics, to go along with the New Evangelization. I think Chesterton showed, many decades ago, that a true and confident orthodoxy is not at all imperilled by a respectful and open-minded dialogue with different currents of thought, or with the use of new and bold forms of expression, or with a concentration upon the essentials rather than the doctrinal details of the Gospel.

I would only have this caution. We can emulate Chesterton, not by copying him or by quoting him to the point of tedium, but by seeking our own creative ways in which to proclaim and to defend the Gospel, the beauty ever ancient and ever new. The Catholic freesheet Alive!, which I think is a good newspaper in many ways, has a regular feature which goes by the name Dumbag Writes. In this feature, a master devil writes to an apprentice devil, advising him in his struggle to win human souls from God. In other words, the column is a blatant imitation of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which were a wonderfully fresh and original vehicle of apologetics at the time. Simply rehashing such ideas, in my view, can only give our readers and listeners that Christianity is no longer a living, vibrant force.

I also suspect that there is no need for such derivativeness. God called each of us by name, after all. I suspect that every one of us, as evangelists and apologists, have our own unique story to tell, our own unique insights to offer, our own unique glimpse into the deep things of God, and that with prayer and discernment and fidelity to the teaching of the Church we can bring it forth. As Pope Francis says: “I encourage everyone to apply the guidelines found in this document generously and courageously, without inhibitions or fear.” And if the trumpet gives such a resounding blast, who will fail to gird himself for battle?

Thank you.

(If you'd like to download a copy of this audio file as a podcast, you can access it on our facebook page in the 'files' section here: )