The title of this post may take some among us aback. After all, who is St. Gilbert of Battersea? Well, truth be told there is no such person (yet). The "proposed" St. Gilbert is G.K. Chesterton -- I didn't know his first name. Apparently there are Chesteron aficionados who are pushing his sainthood. I must confess to not reading much of his works, but of course I know of him. Anyway, I thought it proper to share with you Ian Gerdon's reflections upon the possibility that the journalist and novelist, who delved deeply into theology -- writing biographies of such luminaries as St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas. I will leave it to Ian, a doctoral student at Notre Dame to tell the rest of the story.
Saint Gilbert of Battersea
-- Ian Gerdon
You’ve never seen a blockbuster movie based on a book by G.K. Chesterton. Perhaps you’ve stumbled across one of the many television adaptations of his Father Brown mysteries; and if you’re fortunate enough to live in Chicago, maybe you saw last fall’s staging of The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton’s secret-agent-novel turned heartbreaking-Christian-allegory. Unlike C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien (both of whom adored him), Chesterton didn’t write larger-than-life fantasy tales easily transferred to the screen. But in his own day, he was more a man of the people than either of those Oxford dons – a journalist, novelist, and poet of tremendous wit and notable width, whom Lewis later called the best Christian apologist in the English language.
Like Lewis and Tolkien, Chesterton is venerated by many, a practice that may someday be legitimated by ecclesial approval. At a conference last July on “The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton,” the Chesterton Society decided to get the ball rolling on what is hoped will be his eventual canonization in the Roman Catholic Church. Make no mistake: Though he made his living as a journalist, Chesterton was no theological lightweight. Open the standard edition of the collected works of St. Francis of Assisi and you’ll find Chesterton’s biography cited on the first page of the introduction; read any review of twentieth-century Thomism and you’ll find that one of the most highly recommended studies of Aquinas is, again, the biography Chesterton wrote. And rumor has it he was halfway through before he thought it wise to send his assistant to London to bring him some books on St. Thomas.
But it wasn’t biographies that made Chesterton’s name. The apologetic works Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are perennial favorites. Novels like Manalive andThe Ball and the Cross continue to delight. And then there are the innumerable newspaper essays, perhaps Chesterton’s best medium, concentrated doses of his brilliance that exemplify the qualities that make him venerated. Those qualities are, first, love and enjoyment of humanity and the world in all their finitude and concrete particularity; second, a belief in the fundamental health and sanity of ordinary human beings and ordinary human life; and third, a passionate devotion to reason and its roots in religion. He found the contemporary world basically set against these themes, and so became a tireless controversialist who nevertheless won the affection of his opponents through humor, self-deprecation, earnestness, and generosity. In short, there is much in Chesterton’s views and attitudes to commend him: He shows us how to be deeply engaged in the social world without becoming crippled by strife and bitterness.
Granted, there are snares that may catch up Chesterton’s canonization. Some have suggested that funding will be an issue (going through all the preliminary steps required for canonization isn’t cheap, and the Church isn’t going to pay for it), as will the sheer volume of his works to be sifted through. More likely, questions will arise from two sources: his late remarks regarding Jews, and the way in which holiness is defined.
Chesterton supported wide-spread private ownership for the sake of personal freedom and dignity, and felt that the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few was detrimental to this. For that reason, late in life he had barbed remarks for the very wealthy – among them, Jewish financiers. It will be noted in his defense that he criticized Hitler’s racial policies before his death in 1936, but it’s to be hoped that the Catholic Church (which has dropped the ball on Jewish-Christian relations in the near past) will give Chesterton’s comments serious consideration and qualification.
Furthermore, at the heart of Catholic canonization lies not the oft-mentioned miracles, but the more subtle idea of heroic sanctity. Before the question of miracles and persons’ eschatological status even arises, it must be established that they possessed essential Christian qualities in a degree definitively surpassing the ways those qualities are lived out by the less spectacular of us – as was declared in December regarding Pope John Paul II (of course) and Pope Pius XII (to some surprise and controversy). How to do so in the case of Chesterton, a man notoriously impulsive and astoundingly corpulent, who sang the merits not only of Francis and Thomas, but also of beer and cigars?
But that, it will be argued, is exactly the point. That he relished the world should not disqualify Chesterton from consideration for the highest pedigree of sanctity: If his holiness can be ascertained from his devotion to truth, his humility, most of all from his faith, hope, and charity, then he recasts for us what it means to enjoy the world. He gives us a larger-than-life example of how to live on this earth, involved in its struggles yet not controlled and limited by it. Chesterton, it could be said, consumed the world; but the world did not consume Chesterton. For that gustatory miracle, canonization may be the best digestif.
Ian Gerdon received a Master of Divinity from the University of Chicago in 2009 and a M.A. in Monastic Studies from St. John's University, a Benedictine abbey, in 2008. He is currently a doctoral student in patristics at the University of Notre Dame.
On April 6, 2010 Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke at the University of Chicago Divinity School in an event sponsored by the university’s Theology Workshop. This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum brings audio from Land’s discussion, titled “Christians, Public Policy, and Church and State Separation,” and offers reflections on the event in an introduction by David Newheiser, Ph.D. student and coordinator of the Theology Workshop at the University of Chicago. http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/index.shtml
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.