O God of earth and altar, you gave G. K. Chesterton a ready tongue and pen, and inspired him to use them in your service: Mercifully grant that we may be inspired to witness cheerfully to the hope that is in us, through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Today we remember Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Apologist and Writer, who died on June 14, 1936. The full text of the homily preached at his Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral by the Rev. Ronald Knox can be found here. In this context I want to share just a few of what I consider to be the most interesting and relevant paragraphs.
The man whom we laid to rest the other day in the cemetery at Beaconsfield was one of the very greatest men of his time. If posterity neglects him, it will pronounce judgment not upon him, but upon itself. He will almost certainly be remembered as a great and solitary figure in literature, an artist in words and in ideas with an astounding fecundity of imaginative vision. He will almost certainly be remembered as a prophet, in an age of false prophets. He warned us, in spacious times, that human liberties were threatened, and today, human liberties are in debate. He warned us, in times of prosperity, against the perils of industrialism, and industrialism is labouring for breath. He warned us, when imperialism was a fashion, that nationalism was a force not easily destroyed; today nationalism is the shadow over men's hearts.
Whether he was a great author, whether he was a true prophet, does not concern him now-he lies deaf to the world's praise, and secure from its catastrophes-nor does it concern us here; we are met, as Christians, to say farewell in our own fashion to a fellow-Christian who has outstripped us in the race for eternity. The most important thing about Chesterton (he would have been the first to say it), the most distinctive quality in Chesterton, was a quality which he shared with some three hundred millions of his fellow-men; he was a Catholic. The public discovered him in the early years of the century; it was not till twenty years later that he discovered himself. ..
…the most salient quality, I think, of his writing is this gift of illuminating the ordinary; of finding in something trivial a type of the eternal. And it was a gift of vision he himself valued. In the first of his books which really made a name for him, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, the story opens at a moment when a Government clerk, walking behind two friends in town coats, suddenly sees the buttons on their coats as two eyes, the slit underneath as a nose-line; he has a vision of his two friends as two dragons walking backwards away from him. There is a law (he says in that connection) written in the darkest of the books of life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.
That was what happened, when Chesterton was converted. He had looked for the thousandth time at the Catholic Faith, and for the first time, he saw it. Nothing in the Church was new to him, and yet everything was new to him; he was like the man in his own story who had wandered round the world in order to see, with fresh eyes, his own home…