Is there room in the pantheon of Roman Catholic saints for a six-foot four-inch, 300-pound mustachioed writer, who loved (possibly in this order) his wife Frances, cigars, a good meal, a stiff drink, his walking stick, his cape and his sombrero, and who produced a prodigious amount of words, including plays, novels, literary and social criticism, poetry, essays, and examinations of faith?
Considering the gusto with which G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) approached life, art, and social communication, there may be no more appropriate place to seek the answer to this question than in a Los Angeles neighborhood famed for indulging in all three.
It’s a summer Saturday night in Hollywood, where one can partake in an endless array of food, booze (and other intoxicants), visual entertainment and personal… experiences. It’s also home to lots of current and aspiring performers who want to live close to opportunities in order to get exposure and possibly find work.
On this particular August evening, a group has gathered in a Hollywood apartment to share snacks, drinks, a movie, and conversation. There’s a broad ranges of ages among the guests, but it’s weighted in favor of attractive young adults. The leader is actor Kaiser Johnson, who appears in the film being shown. It’s well received by the group, which moves into a lively discussion.
Johnson also has an announcement to make, followed by the handing out of prayer cards (since this is a Catholic bunch). After the prayer is read out loud, the formal part of the meeting is adjourned. Attendees scatter to talk, eat, drink, and, for Johnson and some of the other men, smoke pipes outdoors.
Welcome to the monthly meeting of the Hollywood Chesterton Society. Among those who love the British journalist, author, and convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism (and a couple other -isms before that), it’s a very exciting time.
For Johnson, it’s especially thrilling, since he’s the son-in-law of respected Chesterton scholar and author Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society and host of the EWTN series “G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense.”
Here’s a clip of Johnson speaking Chesterton’s words on war and peace (somewhat apropos as conflict with Syria looms):
The movie at the meeting shown was a faithful adaptation of one of Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories, starring frequent Ahlquist collaborator Kevin O’Brien in the lead role of the mystery-loving Catholic cleric.
The announcement concerned another announcement made Aug. 1 at the American Chesterton Society National Conference at Assumption College in Worcester, MA, at which Johnson was present.
Apparently, many Chesterton devotees believe he should be canonized as a Catholic saint. There are doubters, but Bishop Peter Doyle of the author’s home diocese of Northampton has confirmed he is seeking an appropriate priest to make “tentative enquiries” into the matter.
If the priest determines that Chesterton may indeed be worthy of sainthood, a “cause” will be opened, starting with the author being named a “Servant of God.”
As quoted in the U.K. Independent, Ahlquist said, “Then the real work begins. There would be thorough investigations into his work and life and whether he meets the Church’s standards of heroic virtue. This could take years, especially considering how much he wrote. We would hope that, at that point, the Church would declare him venerable.”
After that, if at least two miracles can be confirmed as having happened after a person sought the intercession of Chesterton with God on his or her behalf through prayer, then he could be canonized. If not, he could be beatified, earning the title of “Blessed.”
Chesterton already has one title, “defensor Fidei,” or “Defender of the Faith,” bestowed on him posthumously by Pope Pius XI.
If part of earning that title is reaching out to those who don’t share your views, then Chesterton certainly qualified.
Sitting in a Sherman Oaks, CA cafe the day before the meeting, Johnson says, “He was a man without any enemies, because even people who disagreed with him on everything became his best friends. George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were some of his best friends.”
Both Shaw and Wells were harsh critics of organized religion (Wells, in particular, disliked the Catholic Church), so those conversations must have been interesting.
“I wish I could just have been a fly on that wall,” says Johnson.
In fact, in a 2010 article, the U.K.’s Catholic Herald discussed Chesterton as the “saint of the blogosphere,” citing his ability to debate with conviction but without rancor, a trait little seen on Twitter and in blog-comment threads.
The piece includes a quote from Chesterton regarding the productivity of St. Thomas Aquinas, which Chesterton asserts could not have happened “if (Aquinas) had not been thinking even when he was not writing; but above all thinking combatively. This, in his case, certainly did not mean bitterly or spitefully or uncharitably, but it did mean combatively.”
“As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.”
Says Johnson, “Every time he would correct someone or even chastise them, it was always coming from a true position of love. That’s something that must have come across to all of his contemporaries.”
Asked what relevance Chesterton and Catholicism has to a young actor in Hollywood, Johnson says:
I fancy myself an artist of sort, and what the Catholic Church stands for, and what G.K. Chesterton stands for, are truth, beauty and goodness. Those are so indelibly linked to each other and to Catholicism and God, that at some point, if you’re really honest with yourself as an artist, it’s inescapable.
People are hungry. They hunger and thirst for truth, beauty and goodness. They want to do work that exemplifies that. That’s something that Chesterton stands for. He wanted to make a true, beautiful, good religion (at one point in his life), and he accidentally invented Catholicism. Through his whole life, he’s always trying to find truth, always trying to find beauty. It’s in the way he looks at the world.
You can read any one of his little essays about something, and suddenly the world makes more sense and is more beautiful and more wonderful because you’ve read what he wrote about it. He really epitomizes what Jesus says, “Unless you come as a little child into the Kingdom…” He’s like a little child; everything is wonderful to him that he sees.
He draws you closer to himself, and more importantly, he draws you closer to gratitude, to love and ultimately to God.
At the very least, Chesterton drew Johnson’s circle of friends away from all the other amusements of Hollywood on a Saturday night.
“They could be doing anything,” he says, “but they show up. There’s an absolute panoply of places they could be. I’ve got three strip clubs within a mile of my house; there are more bars than you can count within a mile of my house, plenty of clubs.
“But, yeah, people show up, Saturday nights, to talk about Chesterton and love every minute of it.”
As for the prayer–approved by Pope Francis for private devotion–the full text can be found here, along with rare video of Chesterton. This is how it begins:
God, our Father, you filled the life of your servant Gilbert Keith Chesterton with a sense of wonder and joy, and gave him a faith which was the foundation of his ceaseless work, a charity towards all men, particularly his opponents, and a hope which sprang from his lifelong gratitude for the gift of human life.