Chesterton for What Ails Us
We live in interesting, even dangerous, times. Take your pick of crises from the headlines: shootings; inflation; suicide epidemic; pandemic; opioid overdoses; looming war in the West; threats of violence if Roe v. Wade is overturned. There’s little good news or comfort anywhere.
It’s time, then, for a little Chesterton to keep up our spirits.
No, this is not escapism on my part. I have an impeccable source for seeking to revert to a cultural icon when times are bad. Pope John Paul II lived through Nazi and Communist occupations yet sought to keep Poland alive by appealing to cultural memory. Through plays, literature, and religion—practiced and performed underground when necessary—the Polish people would retain their dignity and reclaim their identity.
For English speakers, Chesterton is a one-stop shop of wisdom, humor, and sanity, which he expressed in plays, stories, poems, novels—and in his robust defense of tradition and religion.
Join me in contemplating a few precious Chesterton pronouncements. First: “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
We don’t often think of Chesterton as being a great lover—he writes so little of what passes today for “romance.” Yet he is a man of great sentiment, not sentimentalism. He is all about getting love right, and that means putting things in their proper place. Love is not merely an emotion; it is foremost an act of the will. Can a thing that is ugly and offensive be loved; can Beauty truly love the Beast? Chesterton says yes, and has it on the highest authority that it has happened in at least one most fortunate case. “Greater love has no man than to give up his life for his friends.” When God became man and died to redeem a low and disobedient creature, God made us worthy of his love. Often the most difficult thing for us to do is to receive a gift we do not deserve; we may feel that we need to do something to earn it. Yet there is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love except to be open to receive it. In the act of receiving his love, we become suddenly lovable; ultimately, we are made new, regenerated, born again. God loves us even when we love not ourselves or one another. As St. John writes, “Not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us first.”
What about faith? I think we all have heard this Chesterton nugget before: “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing; he believes anything.”
Faith is natural to mankind. Look up at the sky, and at the world around you, and you experience a natural sense of wonder and enchantment. There is something basic about the universe that does not explain itself, and that we can’t quite explain, despite our many advances in science. Yet, even if we reason belief in God out of ourselves, we don’t lose that primordial sense of there being something beyond us. We just tend to put ourselves at the center of things and seek to bring the heavens into our heads, where we can convince ourselves of the most ridiculous things—such as that, to take some recent examples, a man can get pregnant or a woman can become a man by some trick of thought, surgery, or hormonal regimen.
Chesterton struggled long and hard for faith, reading, writing, debating, reasoning everything out. When he finally came to the Catholic faith, he realized he had come a long way round to arrive at where he had started. So many had told him that faith and reason would never meet; but he found that they do indeed meet in their need and support for one another. He would have applauded Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. Faith goes beyond where reason can go, but it can never oppose reason. As Chesterton would say, when God is placed safely in heaven, free to be himself, man is most at liberty to explore the ineffable beauty of the natural world and to indulge the curiosity of the intellect—and to go where they (together) may lead. For man knows by his longing for more that he is searching for God, who holds his happiness.
Finally, something from a humble Chesterton, who nonetheless comes off a little cheeky in his humility: “Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly…”