Father Brown and the Mystery of Lent

Lent is a detective story. It is the detective story in which the soul is investigator, victim, and culprit all at once. Out of the entire year, it is during Lent that the Church demands that we confess our sins, and confession requires a full inquiry. This is just one aspect of the call to penance that marks the whole season. We are also told to be converted to God with all our heart, and to show our repentance in fasting, weeping, and mourning (Joel 2:12). How can we do this if we do not discover what we must weep about? How can we fittingly mete out justice to ourselves without knowing why we stand guilty? If we have not begun to meditate on our need for God, how can we be converted?

These considerations indicate that there might be some relation between solving a mystery and dissolving sinful attachments. If anyone has understood this relation, it is G.K. Chesterton, the English Catholic writer who gave us the famous roly-poly detective priest, Father Brown. Three of his stories form a story-arc appropriate for contemplating both the meaning of Lent and the detective work left for us to do before Easter.

The Blue Cross
A good Lent begins at the scene of the crime. The ensuing investigation should be a disconcerting experience. In “The Blue Cross,” the thief is forced to face up to this experience, along with many other embarrassing situations, thanks to the comical and clever tricks of the priest whom he thinks is his prey. Guided by Father Brown’s own brand of holy wit, the villain himself is forced to acknowledge the methods of his profession as “horrors.”

Even more light is shed on the nature of Lent if we consider the story from the perspective of Father Brown. Unique in the annals of detective fiction, here the detective solves the crime before it even occurs. It is Father Brown’s experience as a priest that enables him to pull off this feat: “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?” His experience with the deepest form of hypocrisy, sin, enables him to penetrate the clerical disguise of the man who seeks to take the cross “with blue stones” away. A similar kind of vigilance is required in examining errant nature, noticing evil when it first stirs, and hastening to prevent it.

Father-Brown filmThe Queer Feet
The same priest and the same criminal return in “The Queer Feet.” Whereas in the first story the culprit is merely “found out,” in this story he is brought to repentance as well. Several Lenten themes animate this story. A club of “twelve true fishermen” gather for supper, a “false apostle” makes his way into their midst, and a thief is caught with silver. Once again, Father Brown unmasks a clever disguise, an ingenious device that takes full advantage of England’s class system.

Understanding what is common of a waiter and a gentlemen, which is the crucial fact of this story, is akin to an appreciation of the common apostleship of Peter and Judas. The sole difference between the one and the other is repentance. We must not only discover ourselves as betrayers, but also imitate two of the right sort of thieves, one at the Crucifixion and the other a fictional character in an English club.

The Flying Stars
“The Flying Stars” presents a kind of Triduum for the soul of this robber pursued by Father Brown over the course of three mysteries. The “good thief” is finally brought to give up theft. Father Brown illustrates the necessity of giving up habitual sin in a beautiful, terrifying speech:

I want you to turn back, and I want you to give up this life. There is still youth and honour and humour in you; don’t fancy they will last in that trade. Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil…. I know the woods look very free behind you; I know that in a flash you could melt into them like a monkey. But some day you will be an old grey monkey. You will sit up in your tree forest cold at heart and close to death, and the tree-tops will be very bare.

The thief decides to put away the old grey monkey, or rather, the “old man, corrupted according to the desire of error.” As far as we can know by the end of this tale, he is ready to put on the “new man” of Christ (Eph 4:22-23).

The relevance of these stories for reflection in Lent and Eastertide does not end with the spiritual journey of the criminal. Several other themes in the stories bear meditation proper to these seasons. There is the way in which Father Brown uses “mystery,” in a theological sense, to solve his mysteries. In “The Blue Cross,” it is his profound understanding of the relation of Reason to the Faith that allows him to see through the rhetoric of the false cleric. It is his awareness of all men as made in the image and likeness of God that leads him to solve the crime in “The Queer Feet.” It is his appreciation of the banality of evil that is central to “The Flying Stars.”

Finally, as in salvation history, these stories not only offer hope for redemption, but also warn those who will not self-examine, who will not repent, who will not turn towards God; in other words, people who are not ready to delve into a good mystery. In his struggle for one soul, Father Brown encounters men whose incapacity to grasp the mystery of the story is reflected in their culpable inability to wrestle with the mystery of their lives; unable to discover themselves as crooks and to bring themselves to justice—the conversion of Lent.

For those who are willing to be sleuths of their own souls, however, Father Brown leads them along with his criminals, into and out of the mystery that they are.

Editor’s note: The image above is a scene from “Father Brown” staring Alec Guinness as Father Brown (1954), a film based on the Chesterton novel The Blue Cross.

Paul Joseph Prezzia

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Paul Joseph Prezzia is a citizen of Pittsburgh and a graduate of St. Gregory's Academy, class of 2002. He received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now writes in exile from Scranton.

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