G.K. Chesterton and Child

Devon, PA.  Earlier this week, some devout and worthy reader on the Porch proposed G.K. Chesterton as the patron saint of the Front Porch Republic.  Aside from heartily endorsing the idea, I was also reminded of a short essay I wrote for the Notre Dame campus paper a few years ago.  When that was first published, a friend of mine commented that he had liked it and liked it all the more because it seemed to imply that Chesterton was already a canonized saint of God’s Church.  In the spirit of popular piety, I publish here a slightly revised form of that original essay, submitting it as evidence in favor of the formal opening of Gilbert Keith’s cause.  The reader, I hope, will forgive the parochial tone, recognizing that it was written, as all things should be, for an actual group of people and not for the non-existent ears of that abstraction called “man.”

In the Martins’ Grocery parking lot one winter afternoon, I passed a poorly but enthusiastically maintained Mazda whose rear-end was overloaded with absurd bumper stickers, most of them along the lines of this: “Conscientious Non-Conformist.” The cheap shot one is tempted to make is that no person answering to that description could possibly have found so many bumper stickers to “express” his heart-felt opinions.  It is a cheap shot, because most of us cannot make anything on our own – not even descriptions of ourselves – but must buy or steal everything.

Sometimes the cheap shot is correct, however, as it is in this case.  When the mass of men and women subscribe to barbaric opinions or listen to savage, banal and unsublimated music, they generally do so for some arguably good reason that has nothing to do with their identity as “consumers” or “individuals,” as “conformists” or otherwise.  The owner of this ideologically-loaded jalopy, on the other hand, could have put up that mass-produced, block-lettered, sticky declaration of individuality only for one end – a purpose it singularly could not achieve.

In one respect, I cannot help sympathizing with its trite, failed message.  Reading the major cultural critics of the nineteenth century and after, from Alexis de Tocqueville to G.K. Chesterton and W.H. Auden, one encounters the constant fearful apprehension that men are all growing alike.  The person under the reign of modern society had become a black-coated, straight-faced bore, and had so become because of the pressures of modern industry, the workplace, and especially through the offices of that “hygienic” arm of the modern state, mass education.  Whereas men were once farmers and knights in their own private realms, in our day, they had become recessive Mickey Mouse-es deprived of any kingdom beyond the factory floor.  Who is the modern man?, queries Auden in Letter to Lord Byron?

     Ask the cartoonist first, for he knows best.

Where is the John Bull of the good old days,

    The swaggering bully with the clumsy jest?

    His meaty neck has long been laid to rest,

His acres of self-confidence for sale;

He passed away at Ypres and Passchendaele.


Turn to the work of Disney or of Strube;

    There stands our hero in his threadbare seams;

The bowler hat who straphangs in the tube,

    And kicks the tyrant only in his dreams,

    Trading on pathos, dreading all extremes;

The little Mickey with the hidden grudge;

Which is the better, I leave you to judge.

 Auden, a product of the elite schools of England, argued strongly that parents should be left as much control of their children’s education as possible, and that children should be let to run around with as many neuroses as they could without seriously hurting themselves.  If conformity cast an increasing pall on the first decades of the last century, and if the commoditization and “sanitization” of persons has continued unabated, what basis have we to believe the situation has gotten better rather than worse in our own day?

None.  In ages past, occasional “eccentrics” sprang up in the hamlets of England or in the Villages of the Italian peninsula, and their exceptional attributes were but incidental signs by which such persons called one to greater devotion to God.  They sealed themselves up in side-chambers of churches, fasted and prayed; they sat on pillars, moaned and prayed; or they flagellated themselves at the edges of town; or they performed works of mercy among the poor, sick and outcast, draped in modest rags just the color of your cappuccino.  They shouted with joy the beauty of cats and the sublimity of shook foil, the pleasures of song and the enslavement of gold.  They were called saints, and it was on account of their unusual behavior that the great masses of people flocked in fascination to bathe within the light of their eccentric haloes.  As G.K. Chesterton put it, more or less, their genius may have been accidentally eccentric but it was, at its heart, truly “centric,” for by its disturbance they called our forefathers from the routine plodding of the highways of their affairs to the still center of eternal love.

The death of saints, I think we can say, was always the plot of some jealous few despite the better velleities of the crowd.  In other words, the notion of popular saints – of persons being declared “saints” by popular demand – suggests the way in which most people once welcomed those different from themselves, so long as that difference was a signifier for a higher mode of life.  Difference, when it reflected elevation, was a privilege not a derangement; saintliness awakens us to virtues we lack but which we ought to have if we simply wish to be ordinary persons.  Because so few of us in fact are ordinary, the cockeyed saints bear the cross of laughing like fools.  And so the makers of martyrs were those who did not so much persecute the difference in the saint, but rather, sought to exterminate the deep but exposed humanity in him: that self-revealing quality whereby the holy threatened to bring to light the frailty and thirst for mercy and justice in every run-of-the-mill person.  The sorrow of martyrdom comes in part from our basest common character falling under the control of this jealous few, betraying and spurning that noble common need.

We, at present and as a rule, can no longer understand sainthood.  When someone proposes the virtue of a celibate life, we look on in confusion and contempt.  We whisper in corridors and rear back our heads like furious pack horses before returning, each of us, to our individually seasoned consumer brothels.  When someone proposes the good of the life of contemplation, we sneer at her uselessness.  “She’ll learn when she’s starving,” we say, though we have managed to avoid ever seeing anyone starve.  We presume the celibate must suffer some secret sexual disorder – or what used to be called a “disorder” before it became just another consumer choice.  And we simply accuse the contemplative of being “impractical” or “unrealistic,” although no one I have heard use those terms has ever had the faintest idea what those words might mean.

If you want practicality: ora et labora.  If you want reality, be practical and you cannot fail to arrive there.

This transformation from past to present is especially glaring at a Catholic university, where light of the saints in stained glass falls upon us all the time as we cross campus on our way to a marketing or economics lecture, where we learn the only truth worth countenancing is that of “supply and demand.”  Or coming home from yet another “mock interview,” as we train to describe ourselves the way that will least expose our self and will best play up those fungible attributes that show we have the promise of being docile good workers.  Will any of this lead to the kind of work that will win us friendship in the Communion of Saints?  Will it even make us someone with whom Chesterton might have sat to drink a beer?  Or does it all serve to prepare us not for a life of sin and an afterlife of the damned, but to follow the inconstant flag of the lukewarm and the indifferent?  In brief, such habituations and trainings prepare us neither to be saintly nor ordinary, but to exist less, to diminish ourselves until we can be fitted into the scheme of any profitable capitalist.

St. Francis wore a tonsure; other saints wore hair-shirts.  Chesterton wore a cape and saber.  St. Padre Pio wore the Wounds of Christ, and John Paul II the scars from a bullet.  I do not write to recommend such accouterments.  But rather than celebrating the “diversity” of what we listen to, wear, eat, smoke, or copulate with – all the while we continue living lives thoughtless, identical and efficient – we might do better to seek after those higher goods that inevitably make the human wheel spin a little wobbly.

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  1. Wilson, you are the epitome of the recalcitrant rebel among this coterie of insurgent academics and professionals. The piece conjured up that distant memory of the soft light of an alter candle at five o’clock Mass, the smell of fresh burnt incense at the Novena, the shared grief of the funeral and the slow ride to St. Aloysius Cemetery in Frankie Dawson’s black Cadillac.
    Like Wendell you have not only made me remember but you have explained why I must.
    The Irishtown Jacobin

  2. Impressive post.

    A good reminder that Love is not just a drug to be imbibed, but a cross to be carried, if we want to follow in the steps of the greatest non-conformist of all, by conforming to a higher purpose.

  3. But rather than celebrating the “diversity” of what we listen to, wear, eat, smoke, or copulate with—all the while we continue living lives thoughtless, identical and efficient–we might do better to seek after those higher goods that inevitably make the human wheel spin a little wobbly.

    Hammer, meet nail. WHAM!

    Sublime. Your prose is just that perfect offbeat combination of scholarly and earthy, an apt illustration of the very eccentricity you write about. It reminds me of GKC’s writings in many ways, but even more, it reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers, whose razor-sharp wit was not at all obscured by her scholarly vocabulary and style.

    My sister remarked to me some time ago that she suddenly realized that all her friends were weird and eccentric. Then she realized that most people in the world would call her weird and eccentric. On occasions when she meets former acquaintances and small-talk ensues, there almost always comes that awkward moment when her interlocutor’s eyes glaze over and he starts looking for the exit.

    When she said that, I began to realize the same thing about myself. More and more, I find myself joining the cadre of the strange, not so much through conscious choice of non-conformity (“Today I will be odd.”) but through finding the company of the strange to be more convivial. I just naturally migrate that direction. Sure, certain conscious choices I have made have marked me as eccentric, but those choices were made because they seemed right, not because they seemed non-conformist.

    Take homeschooling, for instance. We made the choice to do that for many reasons, none of which included simple rebellion—we didn’t choose it simply to be different. We very quickly discovered, though, that many people view homeschoolers with a mixture of concern and pity, and not infrequently, veiled hostility. There is comfort in having like-minded friends in the face of hostility, even though they are frequently rather strange, and so we find ourselves, six years on, having more close friends inside the homeschooling community than outside of it.

    If you want practicality: ora et labora. If you want reality, be practical and you cannot fail to arrive there.


  4. Dear Amod,

    My argument and John Paul II’s actions are related. John Paul said on several occasions that one reason for the increase in canonizations was that our times were in especially desperate need of the examples of the saints; watching the decreasing intelligibility of sainthood and holiness unfold in his lifetime, John Paul did what he could to reverse it. By the nature of his office, he was uniquely positioned to counter that trend by canonizing more saints. Whether this had the desired effect is another question.

    Needless to say, my essay does not indict John Paul II for failing to understand sainthood, but our culture more generally. I should also add that John Paul frequently explained the increase in canonizations also in terms of the particular barbarity of our age. Not only did we need saintly examples more than ever, but, because of the particular evils of the Twentieth Century, more saints were being “made” by being unmade. I haven’t bothered to count, but thinking back to his Pontificate, I recall that the vast majority of saints he canonized were martyrs; in this respect, John Paul was prophetic in his choices of canonization, for already we see that Christianity has entered a new age of martyrdom: outside the West, Catholic Nuns are being raped and killed, priests and missionaries persecuted and executed, and Christian communities “cleansed.” In the West, they are being harrassed and penalized by bureaucratic means, mocked in effigy in the mass media, and, as the essay emphasized, becoming generally unintelligible to most de-Christianized persons. As our society shows time and time again, the prelude to severe persecution is the making of persons into unintelligible commodities; once we cease to read a person as a person we feel freer to read him as a menace worthy of extermination. Good and evil alike are founded on exegesis, aren’t they?

    Thanks to everyone for the kind comments. This is a favorite short essay of mine, and I’m glad it found sympathetic ears. If anyone else wishes to compare me to Chesterton or Sayers, please don’t hesitate to write!

  5. Hmm. And interesting question. Why, in the flood of canonizations, was G. K. not a candidate? Perhaps no one has come forth with a miracle to attribute to him. Therefore, I shall pray to G. K. and ask for a miracle. But it will have to be something truly spectacular to advance his cause, something truly Chestertonian and beyond the realm of possible natural explanation. Something like men of reason becoming reasonable, or conservatives finding something worth conserving, or liberals discovering liberality, possibly even with their own money rather than the public’s.

  6. As our society shows time and time again, the prelude to severe persecution is the making of persons into unintelligible commodities; once we cease to read a person as a person we feel freer to read him as a menace worthy of extermination.

    Scary, but true, considering the time we live in. Among other things, we are grimly prosecuting the War On The Unexpected. Any oddball doing something unintelligible is at least suspected of harboring ill intent, if not of being outright dangerous. Eccentricity is becoming out-of-bounds.

    In my earlier comment, I kind of latched on to the general idea of eccentricity apart from the notion of saintliness, and perhaps I implied that eccentricity, in and of itself, was some sort of absolute good. Not so. The saints are not saintly because they are eccentric, but they are eccentric because they are saintly. Nonetheless, I think the general experience of the eccentric can illuminate the more rarefied experience of the saint, and make the saint more intelligible.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts! Well said. It made me think of the one Saint who was truly “normal”, yet was murdered for his testament: Jesus Christ. In a fallen world, pursuing after the footsteps of Christ will always seem foolish and incomprehensible. When people start to “whisper in corridors and rear back our heads like furious pack horses…” that’s when we know we are on the right track. I wonder if non-conformity is the goal, or should it rather be, conformity to the Word of God and person of Christ?

    Thanks again.


  8. Weasley: I think your just thoughts came through clearly.

    Justin: Surely most of what you say gets to the very heart of my argument; it is not mere pedantry that requires me to point out, however, that Christ was not a Saint. If Christ is the Logos, who forms all things, then it must be the very defintion of a saint to conform to Him. If He were merely a saint, in imitating Christ we could be Christ, and if we could be Christ He would not have had to become incarnate and die for us, nor would there have been any humiliation in His having done so. But he did and there was. In a manner of speaking, the more closely we conform ourselves to the figure of Christ, the more we shall resemble Mary.

  9. “But he did and there was. In a manner of speaking, the more closely we conform ourselves to the figure of Christ, the most we shall resemble Mary.”

    I am not being snarky, but could you explain the above sentence…a blog if necessary and feel free to be as theological as you will and please go into the Co-Redemption (doctrine/dogma?) if necessary. I believe you just opened a thread.

  10. Hi, Bob,

    I see there was a typo in my last comment, which I have corrected. The relevant sentence should read “In a manner of speaking, the more closely we conform ourselves to the figure of Christ, the more [not most] we shall resemble Mary.”

    I can see you are looking for a more interesting answer that I can give; for this claim does not enter into questions of Co-Redemption (at least so far as I can see, or rather, at least not directly) but of the uniqueness of Christ as God and on the limits of our final communion with the divine, our sanctification, in which we would join the Communion of Saints itself and contemplate the face of God.

    To be brief, saints imitate Christ; indeed the Christian life is formed on the form of Christ, as a sketch of a chair is formed on a chair itself, but is not in fact the chair. When Christ died on the cross, he literally died with our sins upon him and for those sins. When a martyr died, thereby becoming a saint, his death does not in itself accomplish anything; however as a witness (which is what “martyr” means), his death testifies, witnesses, in a word, signifies the death of Christ. He does not become Christ, but becomes merely a sign of him.

    All Christians recognize this as a noble act. We respect it indeed, technically, we venerate him for it. Hence the great fittingness of the canonization of saints, where we offer our dearest veneration to those whose lives in a particular way signal Christ to us. This is distinct from, and infinitely less than, being Christ.

    If we do not make this radical distinction, then we are confronted with a number of heretical conclusions: a) if I could become Christ rather than just Christ-like through martyrdom or any action, then that would mean I could redeem myself by my own will (Pelagianism); b) or we would reduce the life of Christ to strictly human actions, i.e. calling Christ a Saint rather than the very source and end of our sanctification (Arianism); and c) we would lose a means of appreciating the rich mediating reality of Sainthood, which connects all creation into one pageant performed in the love of God, and thus would fail to distinguish adequately between worship and veneration, would miss the singularity of Christ as well as the imitative goodness of the life of infused virtue. There’s a grave confusion that has been introduced into a lot of non-Catholic Christian theology because of its inability to make these distinctions; human life gets devalued by being inadequately venerated, while sometimes we see this tendency unfold in the lowering of what should be the worship of Christ to the mere veneration of Jesus as man (or “Saint”).

    And so, my phrasing: clearly, we are called to take up our cross and follow Christ. But when we do that, what we resemble most closely is Mary, the one who was absolutely docile before the order of God’s love, who was united with God, not as the Son is with the Father, but as as a mother is with her child (He was in her, and she was of Him without Being him). And so our imitation of Christ makes us, at our best, to look spiritually like Mary (the nuances required here because of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and consequent Assumption are another day’s work, but not essential to clarifying my point).

    I hope that helps.

  11. Prof., that was the best explanation of the concept of “saint” I’ve ever read. The final paragraph is exceptional and needs a little contemplation because of the depth and breadth of the differentiation. I should mention Mgsr Sokolowski is a favorite.
    Someday, if you would be so kind, I’d really like to read an explanation of the Co-Redeem thingy. When the wife and I visit Univ. of STeub. (Franciscans) I see a number of books on the matter but haven’t gotten one yet and can’t find any Micks that wanna talk about it. Back in my day in the RCChurch I don’t remember it being a subject, of course that was prior to 1967, and we did the Mass in Latin.
    Again, thanks for your response.
    The Irishtown Jacobin

  12. …”that hygienic arm of the modern State, mass education”….luvlay.
    To the eccentric, we owe much….if not all.

  13. Here I am trying to spread cheer and the spirit of inquiry and there you are p**ing on my little parade!
    Is it me, or have the firey blogs slowed to a trickle? No fight to be fought, no error to be corrected,…. we are all PoMoCons now?
    And you the most significant, because of those foul cigars with imported tobaccos, harvested by slave labor, hand made by craftsmen imprisoned for participating in the collectivized Catholic Distributist movement; for no crunchy, kumbaya singin,’ furrow hopin’, Back-to-the-Lander would ere do that unless he were from Kentucky and was ingesting the foul weed as a service to the local economy!

  14. Cheeks,
    Every time I light the Cheroot, it is a solemn act in beloved tribute to local commerce because the only proper wrapping is Connecticut Shade Grown. As a globalist, the innards might be Cuban Seed Dominican or Honduran but the crowning glory is always a spotless and most voluptuously chocolate-toned Connecticut Leaf. The last time the local elementary school site was the venue for productive work was when it was a tobacco field somewhere around 1902. Tobacco once sucked the floodplain soils dry of nutrients and now the school continues the tradition by sucking every last original thought from an originality-averse student body of innocent victims.We are down to our last Tobacco Barns along the Connecticut River, north of Hartford. Unfortunately, we are not down to our last government program…those seem to grow like blight in the humid air.

    Not that schooling is bad mind you, it just aint quite schooling no more. It is that thing we lovingly refer to as “self-esteem building” where the day used to begin with the Pledge of Allegiance but now starts with some collective notion that everybody is GRAND as long as the Federal Standards for the non-leaving behind of children are met.

    It is the Dog Days of August my “cheer-spreading” friend, time for lemonade, a dip in the ocean or maybe gathering the second cut of hay on the off chance that it wasn’t dusted with mold by the relentless and unceasing deluge this year. The other day, I watched a Great Blue Heron perched on a vanishing boulder in the middle of the Housatonic River as it muddily reached the top of its banks and he had a look of helpless disappointment that reminded me of an honest man disembarking the train at the Washington D.C. station. Not that there are no honest men or woman in Washington, they’re just perched precariously on a boulder watching a flood of hustlers and mountebanks rush by.

  15. Thanks, I needed that.
    Spending the day in the deep and dark primordial woods; little critters squirreling about, a copperhead-impressive beast-challenges me but I halt and change course, it’s his domain. Deer sign everywhere.
    The trees are thick and fat and time for harvest, the creeks’ dried up in the August heat but pools lie in anguish awaiting the fall rains. It’s thirty years and I haven’t taken many trees and all that were cut were for my wood; heat and greenwood buildings. Two great oaks blown down in the storms that course along the valley; one is 32″ girth, the other 35″ and both forty or fifty foot before a branch and when the Amish men are done with the woods and my share is at hand, it’ll pay for the land purchased in 1975. And, the growth will begin again.
    And, next spring, God willing, I’ll plant a few hundred oaks, maples, populars, ect. on the hill and that’ll be my legacy…Cheeks’s Woods!
    And, we got Great Blue Herons too, down in the swamp along the Mattix Road, but I never go in that swamp, not even the coon dogs will go in…particularly when the lights failin’.

  16. A great piece — hopefully it stuck with a few of the students @ Notre Dame. The last couple paragraphs are especially zingers. Ideally every Catholic school in the country would have a writer of Mr. Wilson’s calibre providing thought-provoking, eye-opening, and complacency-breaking commentary in the school’s paper on a regular basis, to let kids know there is a serious alternative to the Left/Right charade.

  17. Here’s an appropriate coda, from the CNA site:

    From the cross, Jesus sees his mother and the beloved apostle, an important individual, but more importantly a prefigurement of loved people and especially all priests.

    “The Second Vatican Council invites priests to see Mary as the perfect model of their existence,” the Pope added.

    “The Curé d’Ars, who we think of this year especially, loved to repeat that after Jesus Christ gave us everything he could give, he wanted to make us heirs of what was most precious to him, his holy mother,” the Pope continued. “This applies to all Christians, but especially for priests.”

    Thanks, JD, for the kind words.

  18. Kierkegaard was the first to levy this type of critique of modern man. He did so implicitly in nearly all of his writings, but explicitly in The Two Ages. Here, he points out that modern society, founded on a notion of democracy or equality as opposed to hierarchy, no longer idealizes the saint as such, but tries to level him/her to the crowd. In this book, he talks about the changes in modern man, a lack of passion, a lack of devoutness, a increase in eccentricity/individuality/conformity- all things you noted.

  19. Fascinating point. Although I certainly know that many devout Christians have been remarkably eccentric, from Dorothy Day to the confessed sinner Eric Gill to Sara Maitland today, I never knew in any way that the word “eccentric” actually came about from a religious source. Yet, the description does fit in with what I know about people who are called eccentric” so well that it is hard for me to reject it.

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