Chesterton: Apostle of the Home

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Few words are as evocative as that of “home.” The multiplicity of usages and shades of meaning are really rather impressive. Take, for instance, the simple example of saying “he finally went home.” This could mean at least two, very different things; one, a long overstayed and saucy guest finally left your party, or, two, a saintly soul passed onto his eternal reward. When saying “home,” I might mean the place I live, my home state, tradition, or, even, the Eternal Paradise.

Sadly, however, this word and the reality it corresponds to are taken under consideration far less than they ought to be. On the one hand, it must be admitted that this reality is so close to the heart of our human experience that its import is often just known at an intuitive level. This intuitive knowing of the importance and gravity of “home” does not preclude our considering the concept closer though. Of course, for some, this exploration of the concept and reality of “home” is new, and the need for a guide becomes apparent. And, of course, there is no better guide than the great modern apostle of the home: G. K. Chesterton.

At first, the phrase “apostle of the home” might come off as contradictory. An apostle is one who is sent forth, yet the home is most assuredly a place one stays put. Yet, in the person of Gilbert Chesterton, as in so many other cases, this apparent contradiction is reconciled into a perplexing yet true paradox. In fact, it is this first concept—going forth—that makes the second—staying put—truly and abidingly satisfying. And, for the purposes of this little piece, home will mean mainly that place, that physical tangible place, that is sanctified and glorified by the everyday familial glories and banalities that make up domestic life, and the “sense” it provides of welcome, comfort and belonging.[1]

Unfortunately, for some, the home, what they take to be solely the physical dwelling they inhabit with their family, becomes to their tastes stale, still and lifeless. It is in cases like this where it might become advisable for such a housebound denizen to undertake the task of exploration, barreling forward from his house, (the physical structure he resides in) on a path to his home (the place where the most comforting and momentous occasions of wonder and ordinariness occur).

One such stale and boorish literary figure is that of Mr. White Wynd, the central figure of Chesterton’s short story “Homesick at Home.” When we meet Wynd we find a grown man that had “been born, brought up, married and made the father of a family in the White Farmhouse by the river.”[2] Yet, despite the central and irrevocable place this farmhouse had played in his life, Wynd had become dull to its enwoven glory. He had by this time become unsatisfied; forever awaiting what was next—whatever that might be. This unalterably changes one morning, which, according to Chesterton, was the eight hundredth and first time the light of day had shone on the family at breakfast. On this morning, Wynd stops passing a cup mid-pass and says, as if in the haze of a dream, “That green cornfield through the window . . . shining in the sun. Somehow, somehow it reminds me of a field outside my own home.”

“Your own home?” cried his wife, “This is your home.” Wynd then rose to his feet and “stretched forth his hand and took a staff. He stretched it forth again and took a hat,” with dust falling from both of them. One of his children then questioned, “Father, where are you going?” “Home,” was his ringing response. “Oh, he is mad!” his eldest daughter concluded. Yet, quite to the contrary, Wynd was awakening from the madness of boredom, the nefarious condition of the unobservant and ungrateful. And so, taking on the persona of the pedestrian pilgrim, Wynd sets out to find his home by walking around the globe, going from one place to the same place in a straight line.

As he bounds about the world, he works different jobs, traveling from city to city, living among different types of men. Ultimately his circumnavigation proves far more impressive than that of Magellan. As his journey approached its close, on a summer evening, Wynd happens upon his home again. As it turned out this was no normal summer evening (if it could even be said that any summer evening is normal) and Wynd was no normal man. On this evening Wynd felt “a strange feeling [come] over him,” as if he were “one who has just crossed the border of elfland.” And as the “setting sun was raying out a universal glory,” creation makes known its joy as “all the earth and the glory of it seemed to rejoice round the madman’s homecoming.”

After four songs of praise to the Almighty, Wynd trots and plods down a hillside to the White Farmhouse, of which the narrator relates that “It was his home now,” “and in the stony courtyard he saw his wife drawing water.” Of especial significance is that simple phrase: “he saw his wife.” Upon departing the White Farmhouse he saw no one but strangers surrounding him at breakfast, happening upon his home again, at the end of his journey, he actually has eyes to see, his wife that is.

Of course, those familiar with Chesterton’s Manalive will recognize in Wynd a precursor to Innocent Smith and his trans-global trek in search of his home. And to see Chesterton employing this general thrust of a story in at least two instances ought to cause the reader to investigate what the great rejoicer in domesticity is getting at. For, he most certainly is not advocating for the abandoning of one’s spouse and family on a path of intercontinental and interoceanic proportion (at least in the majority of cases).

It appears to this writer, and hopefully to this reader, that what Gilbert is inviting us to—as he almost always is—is a more profound and delightful (not to say joyful, excited, and grateful) appreciation and acknowledgment of the great worth of the home. This invitation issued by Gilbert might be accepted in many forms, yet they all would take shape as an effort to observe and become alive to the glory that daily and presently surrounds us, especially in the place we reside. And, as this is more of an activity of the mind and heart, such an undertaking can be accomplished from the comfort of one’s own home.[3]


[1] By writing of the home as an ideal, it is certainly recognized that many homes fall far from this ideal, and some fall very far. Nonetheless it must be recognized that the ideal remains as something to aspire to.

[2] All quotations are derived from “Homesick at Home,” G.K. Chesterton, Brave New Family (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990) pgs. 65-69

[3] By calling this activity one primarily of the mind and heart, it is not intended to disregard actual travel from one’s home as enabling a person to appreciate anew their home. Physical separation is surely a tried and true occurrence that can lead to a new appreciation of one’s home.

By

Matthew Chominski currently teaches history and literature to middle and high school students. His is a regular contributor to several Catholic publications. He resides with his family in his native Pennsylvania.

  • Donna

    Of course, now when White Wynd got back, he would find that his wife had divorced him, remarried and convinced the kids they were better off without him – whereupon his homelessness would become permanent.  Plus he’d be getting socked for child support payments all along the way.
    Did G.K. C. ever write a scenario where it’s the wife who walks out ? If so, does she take the kids with her or leave them behind ?

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  • Guest

    G. K. Chesterton always emphasized the importance of the everyday. Sometimes, we just need a change of perspective to realize what we have.

    In a chapter in Orthodoxy called “The Ethics of Elfland,” for instance, says that fairy tales give us that change of perspective. We read them, in other words, for that moment when we go back home–to reality. He says that when we read about rivers flowing with wine, we rejoice to remember that they flow with water.

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