“I began by being what the pessimists called an optimist; I have ended by being what the optimists would very probably call a pessimist. And I have never in fact been either, and I have never really changed at all. … The thing that I was trying to say then is the same thing that I am trying to say now; and even the deepest revolution of religion has only confirmed me in the desire to say it. For indeed, I never saw the two sides of this single truth stated together anywhere, until I happened to open the Penny Catechism and read the words “The two sins against Hope are presumption and despair”.
It is a classic Chestertonian formulation: Having completed a journey, we find to our amazement, that we are back where we started! But with one crucial difference – that which was old and familiar is now, thanks to our travels, made and seen anew. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, the prolific writer and journalist, was known and loved as a master of such paradoxes. His autobiography, however, makes apparent that rather than mere cleverness or wordplay, such ideas were precious discoveries gleaned from his own lived experience.
He writes of his childhood as a time of ‘strange daylight’, recalling his captivation at the toy-theatre made by his father, and his love of fairy-tales.
“What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world”.
However, leaving for art school at University College London had thrown the young Chesterton into a period of crisis, full of doubts and temptations.
“I had an overpowering impulse to record or draw horrible ideas and images; plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind suicide.”
He was to write about this time as a period of “madness”, in which the surrounding atmosphere of pessimism dragged him into a dramatic, personal battle for the true nature of things. With characteristic openness and honesty, he tested such ideas to their logical, terrible conclusions. The period inspired his famous novel, “The Man Who Was Thursday”, to which Chesterton added a subtitle: “A nightmare”. His emergence from this darkness, was through following what he later called ‘a thin thread of fancy about thankfulness’:
“Even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing”
In 1909, Chesterton moved with his wife Frances to Beaconsfield, Berkshire. Even as he wrote some of his most loved work, he continued to grapple with the ‘morbid but vivid problems of the soul’ raised in his youth. An encounter with the Catholic priest, John O’Connor, inspiration for the character of Father Brown, proved decisive. He writes of his astonishment in discovering in this ‘quiet and pleasant celibate’ a man who had plumbed ‘abysses far deeper than I’.
“I was surprised at my own surprise. That the Catholic Church knew more about good than I did was easy to believe. That she knew more about evil than I did seemed incredible“.
It was the need ‘to get rid of my sins’, and the discovery of a religion that ‘dared to go down with me into the depth of myself’ that led Chesterton, in 1922, to convert to Catholicism. It was simultaneously, of course, an end and a beginning.
When a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world… He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. … These doctrines seem to me to link up my whole life from the beginning… and especially to settle simultaneously the two problems of my childish happiness and my boyish brooding.
And they specially affected one idea; which I hope it is not pompous to call the chief idea of my life. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.
In 1936 Pope Pius XI sent a telegraph to Westminster expressing his deep grief at the death of Mr. Gilbert Keith Chesterton “devoted son of Holy Church” and “gifted Defender of the Catholic Faith”. In recent times many have wondered whether Chesterton might have been a saint. The opening of his cause is currently being investigated by the Catholic Diocese of Northampton.