I am intrigued by an article by Christopher Howse in the Telegraph of Saturday 17th August. Entitled “Is Chesterton to be made a saint?” it discusses the great GKC’s particular qualification for this singular honour: his optimism – “no facile cheeriness but a deep conviction that the world was fundamentally good”.
This is a significant attribute. St Teresa of Avila asked God to preserve her “from sad-faced saints” and you only have to look about you to see that there is a lot of gloom and doom about these days to cause existential anxiety and pessimism. Sometimes I think that Pope Francis has the only cheerful face in the Vatican. Under-population has overtaken over-population as a future nightmare scenario, alongside the ever-present fears over climate change; there is the power and confidence of Islam compared with the western collapse of Christian belief; the unerring capacity of the new computer technology to tempt us into moral turpitude and so on.
Chesterton would have understood all this – and indeed he predicted some of the factors that have brought about the moral chaos of the western world. But, as Howse infers, his almost mystical insight into the power of divine love to transform the world saved him from the temptation of gloom. I learnt from Howse that Chesterton took the name of Francis of Assisi as his confirmation saint, recognising “an ascetic who fasted and did penance not because he hated the world, but because he loved it.”
Chesterton was a genius – not itself a requirement of sanctity – a prophet and a great-hearted, large-spirited man. As William Oddie, GKC’s biographer has mentioned in a recent blog, the Bishop of Northampton, the Right Reverend Peter Doyle, in whose diocese Chesterton lived and died, is agreeable for someone to start the process of the writer’s cause for canonisation. Howse reflects that there might be an impediment here: “One cannot help thinking that Chesterton’s reliance on his wife had an element of self-infantilisation that was unfair on her…Again, this should not debar Chesterton from heaven. But though saints have their faults – which are not to be imitated – canonising Chesterton would risk his faults being imitated by mistake.”
My response to this is to say that Chesterton is inimitable. No-one is going to copy his married life. There are probably a lot of lazy and selfish spouses about (of both sexes) but Chesterton is not in their category. Who can really know the dynamics of his marriage to Frances? In my view they present a model of a devoted married couple, mutually sacrificing their own interests for love of the other. It is speculated that GKC delayed his conversion for many years out of consideration for his wife, who was not of his mind. And Frances’s constant care and love kept her famously absent-minded husband going.
Far from “self-infantilisation”, one could argue that because they did not have children – a great sorrow for them both – Chesterton allowed his wife to exercise her maternal gifts mothering him, knowing that this brought her some solace. Perhaps he was fat because Frances loved to feed him and he didn’t want to deny her that pleasure, like some skinny, cranky George Bernard Shaw type? St Thomas Aquinas, about whom Chesterton wrote with uncanny insight, was also very large (“obese” would be the word used today to describe his body mass index). Absent-minded like his biographer, he simply ate what was put in front of him, in child-like obedience and docility.
I would love Chesterton to be canonised – not least because he could then be the new patron saint of journalists. His statue could be erected in Fleet Street as a reminder that the not quite pukka occupation of journalism is still a fit occupation for a saint – alongside fervent Christian belief and love of the created world. Indeed, everything about Chesterton is subversive and as politically incorrect as it is possible to be: his girth, his faith, his gusto for life, his refusal to conform and his vigorous independence of mind. What an excellent role model for journalists (especially the over-solemn eco-warrior variety).