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The Sacramental Principle of G.K. ChestertonThe Sacramental Principle of G.K. Chesterton

The Sacramental Principle of G.K. Chesterton

Father Ian Boyd's 40 years of dedication to the great Edwardian writer.

Ian Boyd
12 minute read

In January, Father Ian Boyd, a Basilian priest originally from Saskatchewan, addressed the New York Encounter cultural fair on “Freedom and G.K. Chesterton.” Before his speech, Father Boyd, now based at Seton Hall University, where he is a professor of English as well as president of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture and editor of The Chesterton Review, spoke to Convivium Publisher Peter Stockland

Convivium: You've got quite a milestone coming up for The Chesterton Review and the Chesterton Institute this year.

Father Ian Boyd: We're almost 40 years old. In 2014, we'll be 40. The other nice development is that we're now publishing in five different languages – all the Latin languages and, of course, English. But no German. Chesterton would understand that, I think.

C: Chestertonian humour just wouldn't carry over into German?

FB::Germans are famous for their lack of humour. But I don't know. Perhaps someone will come along who can make it work.

C: I'm interested in how you 'met' Chesterton, and your own personal engagement with his writing and thinking.

FB:: I grew up in a Chestertonian family. My father subscribed to G.K.'s Weekly in the '20s, so when he died, I inherited his copies. He always was a Chestertonian in his thinking. The other thing is that growing up on the Prairies, you're growing up on a Chestertonian setting. In the little village where I grew up, in Saskatchewan, people either owned their own land or ran their own business, so it was kind of distributist dream in a way. It was the sort of society Chesterton talked about. And in all those villages on the Prairies you had a kind of replication of Europe in terms of the racial mix and the faith communities: the German Catholics with the Benedictines and the French Canadian settlements. In fact, I grew up in an area that was Doukhobor. They were, if you like, rural anarchists and distributists. They didn't believe in government very much, if at all. They were good farming people.

C: Trust Queen Victoria to bring rural anarchists to the colonies. [Laughter.]

FB:: There was a Tolstoy connection, too. Tolstoy and the Quakers were the people who helped bring about the Doukhobor immigration from Russia. Chesterton actually made fun of Tolstoy….

C: But the famous Tolstoy story, 'How Much Land Does a Man Need,' really does reflect distributist ideals about the importance of limits, doesn't it?

FB::That's true. It's a parable about human greed.

C: Tolstoy aside, how does someone from Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, become one of the world's greatest authorities on, and champions of, an Edwardian journalist who died in 1936?

FB::As I say, I had my father's interest in Chesterton and I did my doctoral studies in Scotland, with a thesis on Chesterton that eventually resulted in a book on Chesterton's novels. I was there in 1974 for the centenary of Chesterton's birth. There was a Chesterton conference at a Dominican retreat centre, Spode House. There was the idea that there should be some sort of Chesterton journal, so when I got back to Canada, I got in touch with some people, and thanks to my community, the Basilians. I started the review in the fall of 1974.

C: It must have been almost otherworldly to be wora king on this genius from the Victorian and Edwardian eras in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most people would say he was not exactly a man of that time.

FB::Well, it's almost a cliché to say that after their death, writers go through a period of neglect. But if they matter, there's always a recovery of interest in them. I always thought the Chesterton work we did helped in a way to create the taste whereby it was enjoyed, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge would say. There were a lot of Chesterton's silent people, people who had kept on reading Chesterton, so really it was just tapping into an interest that was already there, organizing it through conferences and so on.

C: I suppose the whole Digger movement and the hippy back-to-the-land movement, although a lot of it was very silly, the people who were serious about it really were living out essentially distributist ideals, weren't they?

FB::That's very true. There was a good element in that reaction. Doesn't Chesterton say the sign of a classic is to be quoted by people who've never read you? Chesterton's aphorisms contain his complete philosophy. Everything is in every part of him. So he survived that way not only through the people who quietly kept on reading him but through people who scarcely knew him who still knew his sayings.

There was a prophetic element in Chesterton where he warned that people should not be too preoccupied with totalitarian menaces such as socialism, and so because the next great heresy was going to be an attack on morality, and especially sexual morality, he said the locus of that would be Manhattan rather than Moscow. He also said that before the liberal idea was either dead or triumphant, people would see conflict such as they'd never seen. During the Edwardian era, at the beginning of the 20th century, Chesterton was like a human seismograph in sensing the rumblings of what was going to happen.

C: He saw what was coming. In terms of an apostolate of Chesterton, if I can put it that way, did you find it difficult to get over the resistance a lot of people have to his kind of paradoxical approach to writing? Paradoxically, of course, he hated being called a paradoxical writer, but many people, when they do try to read him, are put off by what they perceive as his paradoxes.

FB::It's significant that Chesterton always said truth could be expressed only in parables. His imaginative writings, rather than his argumentative ones, were always the most popular. Each of his 'Father Brown' stories is a kind of parable. His poetry, naturally. Take what I think is his best novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. That book had an appeal right across the political spectrum, and for people who had no particular interest in religion. Kafka's comment about it is ironic. He didn't know who Chesterton was, but when he read that novel, and this is the irony because the book – like the Book of Job, is a meditation on the problem of suffering – he said: 'I don't know who he is, but he is so happy that you can almost believe he's found God.'

It's what Chesterton meant by the sacramental principle: the best religious teachers don't talk about religion; they teach people how to discover God in the part of life they thought of as being profane. Chesterton's wife, Frances, who was a devout Anglo-Catholic long before Chesterton became a Catholic, once complained to him, 'Gilbert, why don't you write about God?' and he explained to her that he never wrote about anything else.

C:I always try to explain Chesterton's writing by saying he is like a man you see carrying a bowl of milk as he enters the front door of a house and who, a few minutes later, you see backing out a window of the same house carrying a white cat. That's the way his sentences work, and you have to follow them as though there is something miraculous and logical going on inside. Your role is to observe and recognize that something has happened.

FB::You are invited to make connections between things that seem disconnected. His humour has a lot to do with his appeal. In Heretics he points out that people illogically imagine that humour and seriousness are opposites. He said the opposite of being funny isn't being serious; it's being not funny. It's like stealth evangelization of a kind: through a joke or through humour, he taught people to think seriously about things.

It's what he meant in Orthodoxy about joy being the gigantic secret of the Christian. His public image was so attractive. Everybody liked him. He's sort of their Chesterton.

C:Is there a central aspect that speaks to you most strongly, that you could qualify as the essence of Chesterton? Is it his generosity? Is it his humour? Was it his sense of justice?

FB::You think right away of what people regard as his two greatest works, almost treatises: Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. But the Chestertonian appeal is really his cheerfulness in a way. He's like [poet Charles] Péguy. He keeps teaching people the importance of hope. In his last broadcast on BBC Radio, Chesterton made the point that he thought people should be a little more cheerful and learn to be happy in the quiet moments when they remembered they were alive. That has an immense appeal. Of course, there is also, referring to distributist ideas, the importance of the common place, the ordinary, his dislike of bigness and gigantic systems of any kind.

C:I always loved what he says in The Everlasting Man about our modern belief in humanity moving from barbarism to civilization, but in fact civilization and barbarism have always existed in parallel. The thing to do is to recognize that barbarism need not overwhelm civilization as long as you attend to what civilization needs.

FB::It's almost the Christopher Dawson insight, isn't it? The earliest societies were actually deeply religious; the maneaters and so on that was rather the decadence of these groups rather than the early phase.

C: He discusses the cave paintings and talks about how the art that was painted on the side of the cave was not more barbaric, just because it came earlier, than the art that hangs in London galleries.

FB::Art being the signature of man. And Chesterton trained first as an artist, so he noticed what fine art the cave art was.

C: Speaking of the parallel relationship between civilization and barbarism, you started your work as a Chestertonian in Saskatchewan but moved to New Jersey some years ago to produce The Chesterton Review and run the Chesterton Institute. How has that worked out?

FB::This is very Chestertonian, but what we're doing is the work of a little community. We have a little Chestertonian cell of good living here.

C: You were in Saskatchewan until the mid-2000s, isn't that right?

FB::That is where we began it, somewhat improbably.

C: It doesn't seem to matter where you are geographically or even, in some way, theologically. Chesterton endures and appeals.

FB::It's true that Chesterton's appeal to the non-Catholic world is worth noting. Evangelicals with their love of C.S. Lewis often, from Lewis and his love for Chesterton, discover Chesterton themselves. When he was in a military hospital after being wounded in the First World War, Lewis made a great comment about Chesterton. Lewis was an atheist then, and as he pointed out, atheists have to be very careful about their reading because God can be so unscrupulous as to put a book into your hands that can change your life. For Lewis, The Everlasting Man was the book. I think J.R.R. Tolkien helped him with that. Lewis always thought of Christianity as a myth, but Chesterton said, 'Yes, of course, but a true myth, the fulfillment of the dreams of the poets and the thinking of the philosophers in the Incarnation.'

C: And Lewis turned on that. Is there a difference in the way evangelicals – or other Protestants – and Catholics would approach Chesterton? Obviously, he made the turn in his own life to become Catholic.

FB::I find it striking that Chesterton is so straightforward in presenting Catholic truth, and I would have thought that would have frightened evangelicals somewhat, but it's again a kind of stealth evangelization. Chesterton is so reassuring that they accept from him Catholic teaching that they wouldn't accept from anyone else. I remember years ago an old priest from my own community, Father Basil Sullivan, saying that an interest in Chesterton meant you weren't far from the kingdom of God. He brought many people into the Church.

There was a very prominent American evangelical some years ago who compared Lewis and Chesterton by borrowing from Saint Paul and saying that 'Lewis is milk for children; Chesterton is meat for grown men.'

[English priest and theologian] Ronald Knox always said when he would ask newcomers to the Church if they had read any Catholic authors, invariably they would say Chesterton.

C: So he really is a doorway to the Church.

FB::It would be an interesting study to see how many people Chesterton brought into the Church.

C: If someone were approaching Chesterton for the first time, what would be the best door to go through? Would it be Orthodoxy? Would it be the 'Father Brown' stories because they are such a seamless read?

FB::It would depend on the temperament of the individual. Those who are drawn to him as what [philosopher Etienne] Gilson called “the powerful thinker” might be swept off their feet by Orthodoxy. That might be the key book. For people who love imaginative writings – as people come to love Lewis by being introduced to him through his 'Narnia' stories or his science fiction – I think the 'Father Brown' stories would be good. Or maybe a good biography of Chesterton would be the best place to start. Maisie Ward's biography is still, in my opinion, the best. That would be a good way to encounter him because biographies always contain lots of quotations and examples of the writing.

C: Is there anything that you find frustrating or difficult in Chesterton?

FB::I think he does repeat himself. The repetitions are sometimes improvements on the original, but occasionally they are less good. For someone who wrote as much as he did, it is, of course, uneven. He wrote a couple of things for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was invited to write an entry on humour and one on [Charles] Dickens. It required really concise writing and Chesterton did that, and I think it was better for that. He was always a journalist and the discipline of the deadline and writing for a particular journal brought out his best writing, whereas he's more diffuse when he's just providing another article for the Illustrated London News. Those went on from 1905 or 1906 until the end of his life, but he was told to avoid discussing religion and politics; therefore, I think those are his weakest articles.

When he was in an argument or dealing with some urgent current question such as on eugenics, he was at his best when he was writing his controversialist writings. Even his imaginative writings could have a cutting edge to them.

The 'Father Brown' story Invisible Man is really a sharp criticism about the invisible members of society, the people who are taken for granted. [British writer] Charles Williams said that Chesterton in the end had two great allies, God and the people. Both of his allies were silent and without weapons, so Chesterton became their voice and their weapons. He was always speaking for the inarticulate. Even his jokes make that point.

In one of his essays, he says it's wonderful to fling yourself into a hammock in a fit of divine abandon, but when you do so, say a little prayer that the people who made the hammock didn't make it in a fit of divine abandon.He respected the people who kept things going.

He was aware of structures and their importance. That is one of his great differences from evangelicals who talk about individual conversion. Chesterton, of course, believed in individual conversion, but he also understood that structures are important, that most people borrow their ways of thinking and behaving from the cultures they're immersed in. If the culture becomes toxic, then you find people who 40 years ago would never have dreamed of approving of abortion who suddenly can't quite see what's wrong with it. They haven't become worse. The culture has.

C: We believe in the infallibility of choice as an end in itself…

FB::He does make it a central point that the consumerist culture has this incredible power to undermine traditional morality. Cultures have to be evangelized as well as the individuals.

C: And that is where The Chesterton Review and the Institute come in?

FB::I don't think an interest in Chesterton should be a belletrist thing. It is not trying to revive an interest in some Edwardian literary figure. Chesterton's warnings must have seemed like fantasies when he wrote them, but we live in an age in which these prophecies are fulfilled; so we're in a position really to understand how wise he was. We're his real audience, his real readers.

C: Even in the age of Twitter and social media? The culture of everything being on some kind of screen?

FB::Well, there is a problem with people not reading books today, it's true. But he had the idea that the imagination was an organ of perception. The exuberance of his imagination will have perennial appeal.

C: It's a paradox in that his writing is, as we've said, difficult for many in this culture to follow, and yet in many ways it's tailor-made for the Twitter culture because his sayings fit perfectly into a world of 140-character communication.

FB::In his day, as now, the world was divided into two groups: progressives and conservatives. And he said the problem is that the progressives spend all their time making things worse and the conservatives spend all their time stopping anyone from doing anything about it. His sayings do suddenly illuminate current problems. That's why his appeal remains.

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