|01-12-2012 - Traces, n. 11
Prophet for Our Times
Growing up in a house jammed to the rafters with G.K., in the quintessentially Chestertonian Canadian Plains, IAN BOYD (speaker at the upcoming New York Encounter) reveals the reason for his life's academic work: not nostalgic historical revival, but the absolute contemporaneity of a brilliant author who, like a "human seismograph," helps us to judge today's culture.
BY PETER STOCKLAND
In his majestically funny essay On Lying in Bed, Gilbert Keith Chesterton marks the aesthetic, mechanical, and domestic challenges of drawing on the ceiling from a mattress in the room far below.
A long pencil or a broom on an extended handle with its bristles full of paint would do, he suggests whimsically, though each has its drawbacks. As the essay proceeds, however, Chesterton moves its lines forward from artistic amusement to a meditation on perspective, creation, and freedom.
"I am sure that it was only because Michelangelo was engaged
in the ancient and honourable occupation of lying in bed that
he ever realized how the roof of the Sistine Chapel might be made
into an awful imitation of a divine drama that could only be acted
in the heavens," Chesterton writes.
Something of the same powerful realization must have come upon Father Ian Boyd many decades ago when he took up the task of drawing out the life, literature, and apologetics of G. K. Chesterton not just on a bedroom ceiling or a church roof, but across the globe and through time itself. The project has stretched from a village in rural northwestern Saskatchewan to Aberdeen on the northeast coast of Scotland and found its terminus at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
More impressive than its geographic scale is Father Boyd's commitment to presenting Chesterton, who died in 1936, as a prophetically contemporary writer, thinker, and Catholic convert.
"I don't believe [reading] Chesterton should be a belletrist thing, just trying to revive nostalgic literary interest in some Edwardian figure," Father Boyd says.
"Chesterton's warnings about culture must have seemed like fantasies when he wrote them. But we live in an age in which those prophecies have been fulfilled so we're in a position to really understand how wise he was. We're his real readers, his real audience."
An audience at the New York Encounter will get the chance to weigh that reality on Saturday, January 19th, when Father Boyd presents a conversation and staged reading called "Freedom in G. K. Chesterton."
A Basilian priest and professor of English, Father Boyd has been busy since 1974 growing the world's supply of Chestertonians in his capacity as Editor of the The Chesterton Review and, more recently, as President of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture based at Seton Hall.
For almost 40 years, he has been an integral part of the "little community" of scholars and writers linking Chesterton's English-speaking devotees to the rotund London journalist who was born in the Victorian era, came to fame as an Edwardian, and insisted throughout his life that he was a medievalist, not a modern. Since 2006, interest in Chesterton, The Review and the Institute has increased to the point where it now also publishes in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
Such work may seem so distant as to be entirely disconnected from Father Boyd's origins in tiny Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, on the Canadian Prairies.
FATHER BROWN AND DISTRIBUTISM. In fact, he grew up in a household filled with Chesterton's writings, including back issues of G.K.'s Weekly. His dad had been an avid Chestertonian since the 1920s. It was a teenage encounter with the Father Brown detective stories that, in part, led the future Father Boyd to do his doctoral thesis on Chesterton at Scotland's Aberdeen University, ultimately leading to publication of a book on G.K.'s novels.
"The other part of it was that growing up on the Canadian Prairies, you were growing up in a Chestertonian setting. In and around the village where I grew up, people either owned their own land or ran their own business. It was the sort of society Chesterton talked about. It was a distributist dream, in a way."
Distributism, of course, is the economic system championed by Chesterton and his great friend Hilaire Belloc that is traced to Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum and fuelled into the 1930s by Pope Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno. It holds that between the individualist ravages of capitalism and the collective oppressions of socialism is an alternative that relies on the primacy of private property in the hands of small holders living out the principles of subsidiarity.
Growing up at a time and in a place where distributism was native and structural, not formally economic and theoretical, left Father Boyd naturally intrigued by Chesterton's sensitivity to the power of gigantic systems to deform human lives.
"Chesterton understood that structures are important because most people borrow their ways of thinking and behaving from the cultures they're immersed in. If the culture becomes toxic, you find people who, 40 years earlier would never dream of approving of abortion, suddenly unable to see what's wrong with it. They haven't become worse. The culture has."
From that understanding, Chesterton warned that totalitarianisms were less of a threat to human flourishing than attacks on traditional morality, particularly sexual morality.
"He warned that the locus of that would be Manhattan rather than Moscow. He was like a human seismograph in sensing rumblings of what was going to happen."
As Chesterton's writings make evident, he was a human seismograph who never lost his God-given sense of humor even when faced with his era's Kafkaesque tossing off of sanity.
"Kafka himself, after reading The Man Who Was Thursday, said he did not know who Chesterton was but 'he is so happy that you can almost believe he has found God,'" Father Boyd says.
"It's what Chesterton meant by the sacramental principle: the best religious teachers don't talk about religion, they just teach people how to discover God in the part of their life they once thought of as being profane. His wife Frances once asked him why he didn't write more about God and he explained to her that he never wrote about anything else."
Over the decades of reading, re-reading, studying, teaching, and proselytizing Chesterton, Father Boyd most admires G.K.'s irrepressible cheerfulness and hope. Indeed, he compares him in that regard to the poet Charles Péguy.
"Like Péguy, he keeps teaching people the importance of hope. In his last broadcast on BBC Radio, he made the point that he thought people should be a little more cheerful, that they should learn to be happy in the quiet moments when they remembered they were alive."
STEALTH EVANGELIZATION. It is the kind of Chestertonian appeal, Father Boyd says, that has led countless thousands to follow him through the door to the Church, or back to the Church. Even many evangelical Christians find in Chesterton a companion who makes Catholic teaching convertible. It is, he adds, a "stealth evangelization" that leads to the ultimate freedom of faith. It is rooted, above all, in the simultaneously practical and creative wisdom of that faith.
Chesterton cautioned, for example, that while it is wonderful to throw oneself into a hammock in a fit of divine abandon, it is also prudent to pray that the artisans of the hammock did not make it in the same fit of divine abandon.
Likewise, near the end of On Lying in Bed, he warns that the art of getting up or staying put turns on wise recourse to faith-filled freedom, not on the moralizing imperatives of the day. "Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before," Chesterton writes. "It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle."
Grows more fickle, perhaps, but can never grow overwhelmed as long as there is Chesterton to draw upon, and committed members of "little communities" such as Father Ian Boyd to draw him out for us.