The world needs St. Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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First of all, Chesterton was not anti-Semitic, and those who say so are either ignorant or malicious. I am only too happy to shed light on their ignorance or expose their malice.

But let’s not get waylaid with that nonsense. Let’s talk about what is truly true and truly important.

Let’s talk about why the world needs Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

This was a good and holy man whose life and writings continue to point others to Christ in his fullness. That means, not only getting Catholic doctrine right, but also getting Catholic social teaching right. It means loving God and loving neighbor—the strange tension that seems to separate the Right and the Left, because neither side can manage to do both.

 

I’ve called Chesterton “The Apostle of Common Sense.” I’d also like to call him “The Apostle of Life.” In his fantastical novel The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton says that modern philosophers hate life itself. In his book St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton says that the Church is always on the side of life. In other words, he identified the Church’s battle with the Culture of Death long before St. John Paul II gave our time its official epithet.

But what is the Culture of Life? For that matter, what is life? Chesterton tells us: life is a gift. Life is freedom. Life is a fight.

As a young man, Chesterton, like so many other young people, experienced a deep depression that brought him to the brink of self-destruction. He was only saved, he says, “by clinging to one thin thread of thanks.” He realized that existence is better than non-existence, and that existence is not something we’ve earned. We can only respond to such a gift the way we respond to any gift: by accepting it with gratitude, by being thankful.

“The greatest kind of giving,” he declares, “is thanksgiving.” It puts one in a permanent position of humility. It banishes pride, which is chief of the sins—the sin that not only ruins all the virtues, but even ruins the other sins.

In the Mass, we hear the priest say, “We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks…” Indeed, we do—or, at any rate, we would. It would save us from losing our temper, losing our patience, losing our charity. It would save us from worrying. If we were always thankful, we would always have the right perspective.

G.K. Chesterton is an example of someone who had that perspective. He would consistently give praise and comfort to others, whether friend or foe—not only because he was thankful for them, but because he knew he shared their struggles and weaknesses. Indeed, as he said, “Thanks is the highest form of thought.” (Emphasis mine, but I am only affirming Chesterton’s emphasis on “is” elsewhere, where he says, “There is an Is.”)

Because Chesterton shows that life is a gift, he is a saint for those who are depressed, because he shows the way out. Today’s world is full of depressed people. They need Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton with his joy, encouragement, and hope.

But life isn’t only a gift: it is freedom, too. Freedom is self-government. Self-government is self-control. Self-control is self-limitation.

Just a minute. Freedom is self-limitation? That’s a paradox. Why would anyone who is free bind themselves to something?

Because that’s what free people do: they make a choice. And every time they choose something, it means they reject everything else. Lovers choose each other, thereby rejecting everyone else, and they bind themselves to each other in marriage. Thus, marriage is the truly free state. Chesterton says it’s the only state that creates and loves its own citizens. “Only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard by which to criticize the state,” he says elsewhere.

Chesterton holds a complete and coherent philosophy that is the key to reforming our broken society. It’s a philosophy based on family rights—of the sacredness of the home as the oasis of freedom. “The disintegration of rational society started in the drift from the hearth and the family; the solution must be a drift back.”

In demonstrating that life is a gift, that life is freedom, he is an advocate for the sacrament of marriage, for the family, and for babies. In today’s world, there are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and children who are painfully aware that no one is standing up for them. They need Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s eloquent defense of the home, his faithfulness, his “wild domesticity.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with all of this. Some don’t agree with any of it. Because life, as Chesterton also shows, is a fight. That’s also one of its great glories. “We all wake up on a battlefield,” says Chesterton, and we have to figure out which flag we are going to fight under.

No, we didn’t choose to be born. We also didn’t choose to be born on a battlefield. But that’s what happened. Life is still a gift. Life is still freedom. But freedom means there are choices. We have to choose which side we are on.

As Chesterton fabulously points out in The Man Who Was Thursday, we’re often under the misapprehension that we are fighting each other when we’re really on the same side. There is only one Enemy, and he’s trying to drag you into Hell. Chesterton spent his life fighting against bad ideas and bad philosophies because the people who embraced them were in danger, not only of destroying themselves, but of causing others to stumble as well.

For instance, he fought the rich because they worshipped a false god and used that false religion as a form of oppression. He reminded them of Christ’s words: that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven. And he pointed out that the rich man’s response was to attempt to manufacture a larger needle and breed a smaller camel.

As a controversialist, he knew that his opponents would often misconstrue his words. They still do, despite the fact that he was one of the clearest thinkers ever to take pen to paper—and his pen was one of the cleanest pens. There was a moral force to his words because he backed it up by living a moral life. He wrote the truth, and it’s still true. Those who attack him today only manage to wound themselves.

In his own day, Chesterton was famous for making friends out of enemies by being disarmingly civil and charming in debate. We need Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton today, when controversy has become vicious and cowardly and demeaning,

If ever there was a patron saint of journalists, it’s St. GKC. Indeed, journalists should be at the forefront of his cause. Instead, they’re engaged in “the art of missing the point”—just as they were in Chesterton’s day.

In the meantime, devotion to G.K. Chesterton continues to grow all over the world. Santo subito.

Dale Ahlquist

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Dale Ahlquist is President of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the author of Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton.

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