Today — Sunday 14 June — is G.K. Chesterton’s anniversary of death. It is an excellent occasion to start blogging again, with a new found dedication to the controversial questions of our time.
Chesterton is often called a ‘master of paradox’ and ‘apostle of common sense,’ but what most attracts me to him is his unfailing charity in the midst of controversy. Chesterton never sought to defeat his opponent. He sought only to defeat their arguments. I would go so far as to say Chesterton never employed personal criticism at all, but that’s not quite true:
During a public debate between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton observed, “I see there has been famine in the land.”
Shaw replied, “And I see the cause of it.” He continued: “If I was as fat as you, I’d hang myself.”
Chesterton didn’t hesitate: “If I were to hang myself, I’d use you as the rope!”
The fact is, Shaw and Chesterton were close friends, and Shaw was deeply grieved by Chesterton’s death 79 years ago today. Chesterton endeared himself to very many people, friends and foes alike.
Philip Yancey evokes an appealing image of Chesterton on a rope bridge:
We could use another Chesterton today, I think. In a time when culture and faith have drifted even further part, we could use his brilliance, his entertaining style, and above all his generous and joyful spirit. When society becomes polarised, as ours has, it as if the two sides stand across a great divide and shout at each other. Occasionally, a prophet like Martin Luther King Jr arises with power and eloquence enough to address both sides at once. Chesterton had another approach: he walked to the centre of a swinging bridge, roared a challenge to any single-combat warriors, and then made both sides laugh aloud.
I don’t have Chesterton’s wit, much less his intellectual talent, but I’ve tired of staying on the sidelines of controversy, seeking common ground. The times call for more controversialists I think, who foster thoughtful and passionate debate, rather than polite agreement.
Last Tuesday, Archbishop Hart sent a letter to Melbourne parishes, warning against the Maria Divine Mercy messages I’ve previously blogged about.
The action elicited a surprisingly global response online. I think this is the first time Archbishop Hart has made headlines at Spirit Daily. The response in other quarters has been less edifying, and I won’t reproduce or link to them here.
The incident has revealed to me just how quickly and deeply the MDM messages have penetrated. I’ve exchanged e-mails and messages with many devotees — good, faithful Catholics with active prayer lives — who are honestly mystified that their family and friends are dubious of the messages, and object to bishops’ expressing their opinion on the matter.
I’ve heard it again and again. “The Archbishop has no right to condemn these messages.” “If the Archbishop must speak, he should state his opinion only, not impose his will.” “The Archbishop of Melbourne is outranked by Jesus, so we must ignore him.”
I’m mystified myself. These aren’t like other apocalyptic revelations. They explicitly reject the reigning pontiff. In this, they are categorically different to Garabandal, Međugorje and other disputed apparitions. There’s not a bishop in the world who wouldn’t instinctively object to them, and it’s easy to see why Archbishop Hart acted as he has.
Even if these messages are true, and Francis really is an anti-pope who has usurped Benedict, it’s unconscionable that Our Lord would want us to disobey and malign bishops when they are exercising their legitimate authority. That’s not how the Catholic Church works. It’s not how our Lord works!
There are many reasons for losing faith in the Church. The apostasy of recent decades. The evil inflicted on children. The consequent cover-up. The hypocrisy of church leaders.
But loss of faith in the Church is a temptation we must resist. To lose faith in the Church, I think, is to lose faith in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Church’s “guarantor.”
It simply isn’t coherent for a Catholic to confess faith in Jesus while abandoning faith in the Church. When a person does this, they cease to be Catholic and instead become Protestant — not in the historical sense of the word, but in its literal sense.
As always, GKC says it better than I can:
I don’t ask MDM devotees to reject her messages. I ask them to discern prudently, mindful of the Church’s teaching authority. Authority invested by Christ, and manifested by the Holy Spirit. That means obeying legitimate episcopal authority — a leap of faith in the Holy Spirit — even while believing that MDM’s messages are authentic.
Incidentally, St John of the Cross, one of the Church’s greatest mystics, relates this counter-intuitive advice to anyone who discerns that visions are impacting their prayer life — for better or worse:
It is always well, then, that the soul should reject [visions], and close its eyes to them, whencesoever they come. For, unless it does so, it will prepare the way for those things that come from the devil, and will give him such influence that, not only will his visions come in place of God’s, but his visions will begin to increase, and those of God to cease, in such manner that the devil will have all the power and God will have none.
So it has happened to many incautious and ignorant souls, who rely on these things to such an extent that many of them have found it hard to return to God in purity of faith; and many have been unable to return, so securely has the devil rooted himself in them; for which reason it is well to resist and reject them all.
For, by the rejection of evil visions, the errors of the devil are avoided, and by the rejection of good visions no hindrance is offered to faith and the spirit harvests the fruit of them.
It is clear, then, that these sensual apprehensions and visions cannot be a means to union, since they bear no proportion to God; and this was one of the reasons why Christ desired that the Magdalene and Saint Thomas should not touch Him. And so the devil rejoices greatly when a soul desires to receive revelations, and when he sees it inclined to them, for he has then a great occasion and opportunity to insinuate errors and, in so far as he is able, to derogate from faith; for, as I have said, he renders the soul that desires them very gross, and at times even leads it into many temptations and unseemly ways.
Here’s something for people who like G.K. Chesterton’s writing. Or Christopher Hitchens’ writing. Or European history and politics.
Perhaps you’re like me, and you like all of the above. In that case, you really must read this.
It is a cliché of pop psychology that we are least able to tolerate people who remind us of our own selves. There’s only room for one Life Of The Party and we feel a twinge of antagonism toward anyone whose excellence threatens to outshine our own. I was reminded of this when I read Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published review of a biography of the great British journalist G.K. Chesterton.
Some posts write themselves. And some posts are practically written by others. This is such a post.
I received the following e-mail yesterday, in response to the comment thread below my previous post. (I hope the contributors to that discussion – I’m one of them! – will receive this with the good humour intended!)
The comment Pieman has made on your last post on celibacy was fantastic. A fitting end to a com-box debate that was going nowhere.
(At this point, I might interrupt and reply to the Pieman’s enquiries. I’m not a big fan of fried fruit Simon, so I’ll pass on the frittata. But it would by privilege to make you a hot chocolate on my beloved Miss Silvia. I’m quietly confident it will be every bit as good as anything you get at the Westpac Centre!)
[The Pieman’s intervention] reminds me of a story Chesterton tells of his sister-in-law (also a journalist). H.G. Wells had written an article on racial segregation in the deep south.
A man from Bexley wrote a letter to the editor stressing that inter-racial marriages would be the end of society and no integration could be possible. He signed his letter ‘White Man.’ Wells replied to ‘The White Man of Bexley’ that he was not generally inclined to marry everyone and anyone he met on the street, and that within the circles he frequented “the ettiquette was calmer.”
This correspondence sparked off one letter signed by ‘Black Man,’ and another from an Asian noting that discrimination isn’t limited to Africans alone, signed ‘Brown Man.’
The exchange of views was capped off by a letter calling for everyone to work hand in hand for the common brotherhood of humanity, signed ‘Mauve Man with Green Spots.’ Chesterton attributed this to his sister-in-law.
In the case of Simon the Pieman, the green spots might be replaced with black and white stripes!
Chesterton imagines how news of the resurrection first filtered through to Rome, which 2,000 years ago was the centre of the world.
The members of some Eastern sect or secret society or other seemed to have made a scene somewhere; nobody could imagine why. One incident occurred once or twice again and began to arouse irritation out of proportion to its insignificance. It was not exactly what these provincials said; though of course it sounded queer enough. They seemed to be saying that God was dead and that they themselves had seen him die. This might be one of the many manias produced by the despair of the age; only they did not seem particularly despairing. They seemed quite unnaturally joyful about it, and gave the reason that the death of God had allowed them to eat him and drink his blood. According to other accounts God was not exactly dead after all; there trailed through the bewildered imagination some sort of fantastic procession of the funeral of God, at which the sun turned black, but which ended with the dead omnipotence breaking out of the tomb and rising again like the sun.
Eating and drinking God? Rising from our graves just as Jesus rose from his? These claims are utterly fantastic. It’s no wonder atheists like Richard Dawkins laugh at them. They are laughable. But they’re not irrational. The Christian faith is internally coherent, and though its claims can’t be scientifically proven, nor can they be disproven.
Our faith isn’t irrational, but it is fantastic. And I think Chesterton is right when he says it wasn’t these claims which caused the stir, but the way these claims were made. What was true then, is true now. Doctrine alone won’t attract people to Christ; the joy of Christians will attract them.
We should relish the joy of the Resurrection always, but especially now. A good way to foster joy, I think, is to treat Easter a bit like Lent. For the forty days of Lent, we gave up something. For the fifty days of Easter, perhaps we can take up something.
So, for example (and here I’m indebted to ePriest), on the Sundays of Easter we could invite a different friend to cooked breakfast — and include an invitation to join us at Mass. Or a family could agree to get together each week in Easter for a DVD night.
Through these sorts of ‘Easter resolutions,’ we foster joy and also be apostolic. And Easter resolutions are faithful to the eschatological horizon of Easter. The resurrection isn’t restricted to a single time and place; the world has changed, and us with it. As Chesterton (again so inimicably) wrote:
On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.