G.K. Chesterton was one of the heaviest men you could ever meet…and one of the lightest. Fully six feet, four inches and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, his figure could be quite imposing. But Chesterton is perhaps best known for his kindness, astuteness, and child-like frivolity. Hearty laughter and absent-mindedness flowed from his character. Mystery fiction and poetry flowed from his pen. A man deprived of having his own children, Chesterton possessed a keen understanding of youngsters who found their way to his home. And through the demands of book-writing, journalistic deadlines, speaking engagements, and endless social obligations, Chesterton wistfully yearned to return to his childhood’s quiet play with his toy puppet theater.
And yet in the midst of this endearing lightheartedness, G.K. Chesterton could be deadly serious. In spite of his winsome ways, Chesterton’s convictions were rock-solid and his arguments razor-sharp. While he could jest about novelists, motor-cars, and cheese, he would simultaneously proselytize on faith, culture, and politics. After debates with Chesterton, even the greatest thinkers such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells would walk away on terms of friendship and mutual respect. But that only perplexed Chesterton’s adversaries all the more – that so congenial a man could simultaneously spar with incomparable logic and measureless passion. It was enough to leave the likes of Shaw and Wells a bit smitten, shaken, and stirred. It was this logic, this passion, this…seriousness… that G.K. Chesterton brought to his conversion to Catholicism.
G.K. Chesterton’s biography is rich with parries and thrusts. Depression and ecstasy, failure in school and success on the world stage, an enduring marriage and a devastating childlessness, moments of carelessness and hours of brilliance. His life is a turbulent, tumultuous, delightful ride. But it seems indisputable that the moment of greatest solidity was his Catholic conversion.
Seriousness and solidity. A mirthful character deeply grounded in a conversion experience. When Chesterton converted, it was evident to all what it meant. Friend and mentor, Father Ronald Knox would write,
“He had found his home… Chesterton probed all the avenues of thought and tasted all the philosophies, to return at last to that institution which had been his spiritual home from the first…”
Friend and mentor, Maurice Baring celebrated,
“I was received into the Church on the Eve of Candlemass 1909, and it is perhaps the ONLY ACT in my life, which I am quite certain I have never regretted. Every day I live, the Church seems to me more and more wonderful; the Sacraments more and more solemn and sustaining; the voice of the Church, her liturgy, her rules, her discipline, her rituals, her decisions in matters of Faith and Morals more and more excellent and profoundly wise and true and right, and her children stamped with something that those outside Her are without. There I have found Truth and reality and everything outside Her is to me compared with Her as dust and shadow.”
And the irascible, but devoted intimate, Hilaire Belloc, would intone,
“The thing I have to say is this…The Catholic Church is the exponent of REALITY. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statements of what is. This it is which the ultimate act of the intelligence accepts. This it is which the will deliberately confirms. And that is why Faith through an act of the Will is Moral. If the Ordinance Map tells us that it is 11 miles to Wookey Hole then, my mood of lassitude as I walk through the rain at night making it FEEL like 30, I use the Will and say ‘No. My intelligence has been convinced and I compel myself to use it against my mood. It is 11 and though I feel in the depths of my being to have gone 20 miles and more, I KNOW it is not yet 11 I have gone.’
I am by all my nature of mind skeptical, by all my nature of body exceedingly sensual. So sensual that the virtues restrictive of sense are but phrases to me. But I accept these phrases as true and act upon them as well as a struggling man can. And as to the doubt of the soul I discover it to be false: a mood: not a conclusion. My conclusion – and that of all men who have ever once SEEN it – is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”
His respectful atheist sparring partner, H.G. Wells, would lament,
“I love [G.K. Chesterton] and hate Catholicism of Belloc and Rome…If Catholicism is still to run about the world giving tongue, it can have no better spokesman than [G.K. Chesterton]. But I begrudge Catholicism, [G.K. Chesterton]!”
And atheist adversary George Bernard Shaw would fuss,
“My dear [G.K. Chesterton], this is going to far.”
And what did the man, the convert, the silly and serious G.K. Chesterton have to say?
“I think…that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by [the] one fighting form of Christianity…I have thought this thing out for myself and not in a hurry of feeling…I believe it is the truth.”
and upon his First Communion,
“I have spent the happiest hour of my life.”
G.K. Chesterton, heavy and light, rambunctious and reflective, mirthful and grave took conversion and faith very seriously. So did his friends and adversaries…Do we?