It gives me great pleasure to welcome you once again to Uxbridge as you make this third Annual Chesterton Pilgrimage.
Your final destination is Beaconsfield , G. K. Chesterton’s home from 1909 until his death in 1936. A year or so after his wedding he and Frances went on an excursion which he described as ‘a sort of second honeymoon’. He later recalled in his Autobiography:
I saw a passing omnibus labelled “Hanwell” and, feeling this to be an appropriate omen [for Hanwell was the location of a notorious lunatic asylum], we boarded it and left it somewhere at a stray station, which I entered and asked the man in the ticket-office where the next train went to. He uttered a pedantic reply, “Where do you want it to go?” And I uttered the profound and philosophical rejoinder, “Wherever the next train goes to.” It seemed that it went to Slough; which may seem to be singular taste, even in a train. However, we went to Slough, and from there set out walking with even less notion of where we were going.
Without intending to, he reached Beaconsfield and realised that ‘this is the sort of place where someday we will make our home’.
That passage is very telling. Chesterton spent his life searching for the Truth. It involved, if you like, catching trains without knowing exactly where they were going, trying different routes, until he was led through agnosticism, sceptisicism, spiritualism and Anglicanism to the bosom of the Catholic Church – in a humble room at the Railway Hotel in Beaconsfield, then serving as the town's mission.
It was in Beaconsfield that Chesterton lived, far away from Fleet Street; there that he wrote some of his most famous works, and eventually there he died and was laid to rest. Beaconsfield and Catholicism perhaps came to be closely-intertwined – they were simply ‘home’.
Chesterton is still admired today not only for his writings but his holiness of life. Many hope that one day he will be raised to the altars of the Church. Perhaps the most appealing aspects of Chesterton’s holiness were his wit and his humility. He was not just a ‘funny man’ but even developed a sort of theology of Christian humour. He thought it very telling that ‘alone among the animals, he [man] is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter.’ Humour was linked to an appreciation of reality, of truth. ‘Honesty always laughs,’ he wrote, ‘because things are so laughable. Of course life is a serious business and we cannot shrug off important matters with a smirk or a laugh, but, on the other hand, to take everything seriously is to make everything into an idol.’ Chesterton thought that a common theme in comedy is ‘the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.’ Stand-up comedians are always observing the ridiculous side of human existence. And if we have the sense of the ridiculous in the things around us and, crucially, in ourselves then we are acknowledging that these things are not the centre of the universe, that (in most cases) these matters that consume so much of our time are passing away. Why can the angels fly?, Chesterton famously asked. Because they take themselves so lightly.
Closely linked to this gift of joy, this lightness of being is the virtue of humility. One of my favourite stories with regard to this is told by Maisie Ward:
During the [1932 Dublin Eucharistic] Congress an Eastern priest accosted G. K. with praise of his writings. His own mind full of the great ideas of Christendom and the Faith, he felt a huge disproportion in the allusion to himself. And when later the priest asked to be photographed at his side it flashed through G.K.’s mind that he had heard in the East that an idiot was supposed to bring luck.
Chesterton was a gentle giant, a man with a sharp intellect but completely without guile, who gave his gifts freely for the service of the Lord and knew exactly his place in the order of things. Let us pray that we defend the Faith with the same wisdom and live our life with the same innocence:
God Our Father, Thou didst fill the life of Thy 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. May his innocence and his laughter, his constancy in fighting for the Christian faith in a world losing belief, his lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and his love for all men, especially for the poor, bring cheerfulness to those in despair, conviction and warmth to lukewarm believers and the knowledge of God to those without faith. We beg Thee to grant the favours we ask through his intercession, the end of abortion in this Country so that his holiness may be recognised by all and the Church may proclaim him Blessed. We ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Fr Schofield 30th July 2013