Meeting Chesterton After His Death

Tomorrow, it will be 78 years since G.K. Chesterton took his last breath on this earth. His death was front page news around the world and was met with an outpouring of spontaneous groans and genuine grief. Thousands of people who had never met Chesterton but who had welcomed him into their homes through his newspaper columns felt as though they had lost a friend. But the next few decades passed and he was forgotten. Then something quite contrary happened. Thousands of people suddenly found a friend in Chesterton. His books and essays surged back into print, and people got to know him all over again, embracing the sense of wonder and joy that lives on in his words.

We have witnessed a revival, and it has, of course, been personally gratifying as Chesterton has proved to be my friend, my hero, my mentor, my Virgil, who led me, not through the Inferno but through the comedy which is indeed divine. It is a great joke that he led this Baptist to the Catholic Church.

I certainly feel that I know him very well as I have explored the mountain of his words. Five thousand essays and counting. In the last few years we have found over four hundred previously uncollected essays. Yet I often think about the impenetrable wall that exists between those of us who have known Chesterton only through his writings and those who actually knew him in person. As we approach eight decades since his death, that latter list continues to dwindle.

I have met only three people on that list: people who met Chesterton. I have met several more who met people who met Chesterton, and I am always anxious to gather personal accounts. Even though his beloved wife Frances testified that he talked the same way he wrote, assuring me that I am hearing his voice when I read him, there is still something I crave about those personal encounters. This same feeling struck someone who, even though he met Chesterton, realized that gathering more of these face-to-face encounters would be valuable for generations to come. His name was Cyril Clemens, and within a year of Chesterton’s death, he put together a book of firsthand accounts of this great writer under the title Chesterton as Seen By His Contemporaries. Clemens had done the same thing earlier for another great writer whose legacy he felt was vitally important, and who happened to be a cousin of his: Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Here are my three-second degrees of separation. The most recent occurred when I was in England just a couple months ago, where I gave several talks, all well-received in spite of the fact that an American was lecturing Englishmen about not being grateful enough for one of their native sons. After one of the talks, an old gentleman walked up to me and said, “Dale, I have something to tell you that no one else here can tell you. I met G.K. Chesterton.” Rapture.

The Rev. Dr. Francis Andrews, a deacon, told me of how his parents took him to Douai Abbey in 1935, where the abbot, Fr. Ignatius Rice, one of the two priests who had received Chesterton into the Church, was hosting a talk by the legendary convert.

It was all very promising until he said, “I was only three years old at the time.” So he really did not have anything to tell me. But he was, at least, a second-class relic.

“I sat in Chesterton’s lap.” Those were the words spoken to me after another talk I gave in England, twelve years ago. I neglected to get the gentleman’s name, and his story was only a little bit better. He was five years old at the time, but he told me that his parents invited both G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc to their home for dinner. He recalled Chesterton being kindly and jovial. The only other thing he remembered was running through the house and crashing into Belloc’s stomach.

During that same trip a dozen years ago I met Barbara Wall. She was the granddaughter of Wilfrid and Alice Meynell. Wilfred was an important publisher who discovered Francis Thompson, the author of “The Hound of Heaven.” Alice was an accomplished poetess in her own right, a Catholic convert, and a mega-Chesterton fan. She used to refer to him as “My Chesterton.”

I had given a talk at the Meynell family estate in Sussex. Barbara Wall was in her 90’s and an utterly charming and gracious woman. She told me the story of how her grandfather had saved Francis Thompson’s life, all very interesting, but then she got to the good bit: the time she met G.K. Chesterton. She was a teenager. She was attending daily Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London, and one day she saw G.K. Chesterton come in for Mass. Being a properly trained English person, she would not approach him without having someone else introduce her. Opportunity lost. Afterwards, she approached the priest at Westminster, who was a family friend, and was none other than the same Don Ignatius Rice who figured in the nonproductive story above. She told him, “Father, I saw G.K. Chesterton at Mass today.”

“The next time you see him,” said Fr. Rice, “you go up to him and tell him that you are Wilfrid Meynell’s granddaughter and that I told you should go and introduce yourself!” An introduction in abstentia. Good enough.

The next time she saw G.K. Chesterton enter Westminster Cathedral, she rushed up to him and said breathlessly, “Mr. Chesterton, Fr. Rice said that that I should introduce myself and tell you that I’m Wilfrid Meynell’s granddaughter!”

And this is how she told the rest of the story: “And he looked down at me from his great height and bowed his head slightly and said, ‘And I trust that such holy obedience has not been a burden for you?’”

That was it. But it was wonderful. An unpublished Chesterton quotation. Unpublished till now.

Dale Ahlquist

By

Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense." Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published The Complete Thinker. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    Wonderful essay. It seems that Chesterton never grows old and is connected to everything. I have discussed him when teaching Freud and Darwin to Honors Program students. And just last week, his ideas on Greek mythology entered a discussion on Aeschylus. It is amazing how the mind of one man enriches so many and so much.

    • RufusChoate

      Very true.

    • Thomas

      The Everlasting Man makes a great companion to any course on Darwin. It helped me. Monkeys and reindeer drawing pictures of man? The woman in the cave clubbing the man of the cave. I read these lines in a ski lodge while my boys were on the slopes. I guess everyone wondered what I was reading because I was giggling with amusement. I loved the pictures Chesterton painted for me and he taught me a lot more about evolution than anybody else.

  • Al Du Bois

    The time spent to write, read and research this – we have much more work to do than worry about Chesterton – he was just a writer…….. Our Lord would vomit those who continue to read and live in the past these articles, daily, and not battle the evils at this moment

    • Pcreynolds

      Seriously? You just made my day based on the sheer absurdity of your statement. Are you having a laugh? ( Is he having a laugh? )

      • Pcreynolds

        Ps your welcome for the “up vote.” Apparently iOS does not like the “down vote” today.

        • Matt

          That is awesome!

    • Anne Hendershott

      I am grateful for Dale Ahlquist’s wonderful article. Having come late to the Chesterton fold, I appreciate learning all I can about this great man who seems able to bring me closer to the joy of my faith. He has so much to teach us. I just wrote a review of the new Disney release, Maleficent and I wondered what Chesterton might have thought of it – I don’t think he would have liked it. He valued fairy tales as a way to help children (and adults) find meaning in their lives. But, alas Maleficent is more about “message” than “magic.” The feminist message overpowered the classic fairy tale. He understood that children knew that there was evil in the world–he knew that children knew there were dragons in the world and he valued fairy tales because they helped children realize they too could slay them.

      • Mjb

        Check out “A landscape with dragons” by Michael O’Brien. What you are saying perfectly matches where the book goes and adds to it with many examples. I think it’s a very important book today has a guide to hold up to any fairytale.

        • Anne Hendershott

          Thank you – look forward to reading the O’Brien book –

    • Augustus

      I suppose we should ignore the saints too. Can’t learn anything from them; after all, they lived in the past! Your statement is incredibly ignorant. Next you’ll be calling for the end of Christian schools and universities…

    • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

      Yes, Chesterton was so pre-Vatican II… just like the Lives of all those saints, the Interior Castle, the Summa… oh, and the Bible. Nothing worth reading there!

    • Mike

      And the Lord told you this when?

      • Mike

        (Not to mention that it is, to the say the least of it, a false dichotomy…indeed, it is precisely reading those from “the past” which helps quite greatly in fighting present day evils.)

      • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

        Mike, I think you have hit the nail on the head. I have encountered this attitude very frequently with charismatics, to whom the Holy Spirit speaks directly, every day. They often see no need to study history, literature, philosophy… just preach the word the spirit gives you!

        • Thomas

          I once emailed a Jesuit a very good quote from Chesterton. In the quote, Chesterton correctly pointed out how matriarchy led to anarchy…and he added that “only when the fathers decided to stay put,” or when we turned to patriarchy, “that civilization flourished.”
          This Jesuit’s reaction was, “That sounds rather sexist.”
          I did not know until that moment that I would ever find a Catholic who looked at Chesterton’s contributions so negatively, and in such an ideological way.
          Thanks, Mr. Alquist for sharing this.

          • John O’Neill

            The well known Doctor Scott Hahn who is the founder and leader of the Saint Paul center of Biblical studies at Steubenville once mentioned his encounter with this sort of priest. When he was deeply considering abandoning his ministry and joining the Catholic Church because he now believed it was the true Church as he learned from reading the early Church fathers he confided in a priest who might likely have been a Jesuit who told him not to do so because he could do more good remaining a Presbyterian. There are so many academic priests like this man; they are American professors first and priests last.

          • redfish

            As I understand Chesterton, he wasn’t necessarily saying matriarchy led to anarchy; just that what is described by some in history as matriarchy really was just an abdication of fathers; not really ‘matriarchy’ at all.

            The more I understand history better, the more I think of ‘patriarchy’ as an exaggeration of what the situation was in Western culture. Its true that in European society, men had privileges. But, according to foreign authors, including Muslim visitors, Western women had a relative degree of independence and often ran the household. In many cases, women had political power, and even were monarchs. If the West was patriarchal, how do we then describe Islamic culture, where women had no power, and Eastern culture, where women had less power?

            In fact, I was reading a 19th century sociology book the other day which compared the ‘patriarchal East’ to the ‘communal West.’

            • Thomas

              I gave the Jesuit the full quote in two to three paragraphs starting with Chesterton’s reference to “the Couvade.” So, in my brevity here, I do not imply anything about matriarchy beyond the point you correctly make, and that is this: When the male of the human species stayed home, civilization progressed. Thanks for filling in the details.

    • Beth

      Al~for myself, I must read and learn from the wisdom of the Church and those who followed Her faithfully. I am raising children, many of them, and I must educate myself (daily!) to be able to educate them to the reality of this world and enable them to do battle. I think many folks who read at this place and others, do so for the same reason–to learn more about the truth of Jesus Christ and His Church so that we can face the evils of our day armed with this truth, rather than what we perceive as truth.

      Chesterton is just a small piece of my ‘continuing ed’ curriculum. And, of course, Crisis Magazine! The comments are a great source too. Thanks to all!

    • fredx2

      Nobody is “worrying” about Chesterton, so your fears are unfounded.

    • RufusChoate

      Okay, you do appreciate that nothing written anywhere on this entire site approaches the vapid inanity of your post.

      I am surprised you took your value time from battling current evils to post it. Just think of the evil accomplished in that time that you could have stopped. Heartbreaking.

    • Montague

      Chesterton is (I shudder to use the word) useful IN OUR PRESENT STRUGGLE. He had, as far as one can tell, the gift of prophecy; he is an excellent example of how to follow our Lord.

      And you know the old adage that “those who know not the past are doomed to repeat it.” Nay, Christ Himself came, not to destroy the past (the old covenant) but to complete it! You merely commit the silly fallacy of the clock, and I pity you for it, though I love you for your zeal. I only pray it would be strong-minded as it is strong-hearted.

    • Arriero

      – «Our Lord would vomit those who continue to read and live in the past these articles, daily, and not battle the evils at this moment.»

      The same argued Luther some centuries ago. Then, he and his heirs denied and despised the Saints, the Church, her dogmas and Tradition.

      Chesterton is certainly a strange case. One of the few AUTHENTIC CATHOLICS – from every point of view – who lived in anglo-protestant territory. Without any doubt, more Chestertons and more Chesterton is absolutely needed.

    • “I do not like seriousness. I think it is irreligious. Or, if you prefer the phrase, it is the fashion of all false religions. The man who takes everything seriously is the man who makes an idol of everything: he bows down to wood and stone until his limbs are as rooted as the roots of the tree or his head as fallen as the stone sunken by the roadside.” (G.K.Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity, On Seriousness)

      Al Du Bois, I pray that we choose our yokes wisely, lest any of us carry an unnecessarily heavy burden:

      “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Jesus Christ, Matthew 11:29-30)

    • Charles Ryder

      Mr. Du Bois- You’re absolutely right, to be sure. And for that matter, the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor.

    • alanaforsyth

      We each have our work; worry about your own instead of condemning others for not being as wonderful as you think you are.

      • Arriero

        That’s not about being wonderful, is about following Catholic teaching on everything, and not only on abortion and marriage. That’s why Chesterton was an AUTHENTIC Catholic. I know very well that not everything that Chesterton wrote is well received in anglo-protestant circles, just like not everything of what this Pope says is either well received. Yet, both are in the same path.

        • alanaforsyth

          I wonder if you misunderstood my post. I was chastising Al Du Bois.

          • Arriero

            Sorry, I’ve certainly misunderstood your post. I thought you were replying me.Even so, I maintain what I’ve said above.

            Excusez-moi monsieur

  • Chesterton’s world no longer exists. If he had a vision for the future it was more of what attracted him to the Catholic Church. GB Shaw had a vision that is still growing and destroying. The Chesterton church no longer exists. The USA died while he was alive and is barely a myth today. The belief that the past was better than now or the future seems the wine of tradition. Its musty intoxication insures the same outcome as in Chesterton’s day; The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

    • bdlaacmm

      Your last sentence is sheer genius! Is it original, or did you hear it somewhere else?

      • The sentence is Chesterton’s. I failed to make that clear.. Everything after Chesterton’s day; I should have put inside quotes.

  • ryangcny .

    Thank you, Dale, for all your efforts over the years to promote GK.

    I thought you might be interested in an observation of the renowned scholar of Islam insofar as it reflects on patriarchy-matriarchy. In “What Went Wrong,” Prof. Bernard Lewis explained the cultural differences between Islam and the West. He concluded that perhaps the most conspicuous difference between Islamic and Christian civilizations resided in the status of women. As he noted, a Turkish writer, visiting Catholic Vienna in 1665, observed, “They [women] are honored and respected out of love for Mother Mary.”

  • alanaforsyth

    You mean “in absentia,” not “in abstentia” — great article.

  • Catholic Fast Food Worker

    Hon. Mr. Ahlquist, beautiful! Thank you for your work from the bottom of my heart. As our Catholic Faith teaches us, our hearts will never be satisfied until we experience an encounter with a Person- Jesus Christ. A Person who is a human to the fullest extent (indeed, the true human) while also mysteriously being fully God. For this encounter we were made. In this life we get such an encounter with Christ in numerous ways, most powerfully & fully through the Blessed Sacrament of course, but also through such gifts such as Chesterton’s writings. We live in a fallen world where evil forces try to keep us away from this encounter with the Person of Christ by throwing us distractions. (As CS Lewis once observed, only in the new Heaven & new Earth will such evil & wordly distractions be completely distinguished.) But when I’m distracted (by the world’s darkness) from being with Jesus, I pick up my sword (Chesterton’s writings) & it never fails to break down the obstacles & bring my focus & being back to Him. I yearn for the day in Heaven, when God willing, I shall be with our Lord eternally with Chesterton’s companionship, laughing with joy. Chesterton was (& is) a Person filled with Christ; he’s a Christopher (Christ-bearer). Honestly, to encounter Chesterton is to encounter Christ.

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