Sanctity in the Spectator


My dad was, I’m fairly sure, reading the August 24th issue of the Spectator in the bath, which is why the wonderful ink portrait of Chesterton that appears at the head of Melanie McDonagh’s article about him has been dripped on.  The paper has that crinkly dried-after-dripped-on quality which is the fate of so many magazines around this house, where I am visiting for Labor Day.  But I’m going to cut it out anyway (the picture, I mean) and I might even try to find a frame, because it really is excellent: there he is, looming, huge, with the hat and the hair poking out from under it and the little silly mustache and the sword cane.  The artist seems to be someone called Simpson.  Well done, Simpson.

Less so, McDonagh.  The title of the piece is “No Saint,” and she’s objecting to GKC’s Cause, which is being pushed by (among others) Dale Ahlquist (to whom I am very aware I still owe a hat.)  (I don’t know whether Pope Francis has weighed in, although his Chestertonophilia is making Richard Aleman very happy these days.)  Anyway, McDonagh:

The first argument against making him a saint [she writes] is that he was a journalist (the profession he called the easiest in the world); it’s a contradiction in terms.  And canonizing the man would make his output unreadable.  It would invest the pieces he wrote in railway waiting rooms and Fleet Street bars with the leaden quality of official sanctity.  He wrote some of the best literary criticism of the last century…and it would forever be burdened with the approbation of the Catholic Church, which would put a great fat halo between the reader and the text.

I am to a certain degree a Non-Player Character in this fight, because I’m an Anglican, but I know enough Catholic theology to know that, while in this piece McDonagh gets Chesterton right, she gets sainthood wrong.  Sainthood is not a special vocation, in Catholicism any more than in Protestantism: we are all called to be holy, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever; those the Catholic Church calls saints are only (She believes) a tiny subset of the totality of the communion of saints to which we all must ultimately belong because the alternative is to be cut off from God and from each other forever; canonization doesn’t set these people apart as different kinds of Christians, it just recognizes that yes, in these people’s cases, we’re quite sure that everything has turned out all right.  GK Chesterton may or may not be a saint: what is certain is that he was called to be one, and so are you.

But the main thing she gets wrong is not the Catholic teaching on canonization, but the quality of holiness.  First, there’s this matter of it interfering between the reader and the text.  This is sort of a minor point, but I’ve been thinking about reading lately– close reading, slow reading– and one thing that the best reading certainly does is to take you out of yourself: it is a true encounter with another mind.  It can be the occasion for not being curved in on ourselves, the way we so easily become: whether we are in the ecstasy of good fiction, living in the world the author has offered to us, or following along the steps of an argument in the best nonfiction, real reading of worthwhile books is in a sense only possible with the grace that takes us out of ourselves.  It is common grace–but it is grace all the same.  Holiness, then, doesn’t interfere between a reader and a text: it makes that encounter possible, just as it is the only thing that makes it possible for us to truly encounter other people, or truly see the natural world.

But there’s something even odder in McDonagh’s piece, especially for someone who– as she clearly is– is a veteran enjoyer of Chesterton.  Holiness, for her, is something that would be out of place in bars and railroad waiting rooms; above all, it is something that cannot coexist with hilarity of the kind that Chesterton represents.  And the fact that she is this off about holiness makes me wonder whether she has read Chesterton at all.  Because he was the writer who of all writers taught that holiness is the only true foundation of hilarity: it is the laughter at the heart of things, which invites us in to the serious business of joy.  “How little people know,” wrote Lewis, at his most Chestertonian, “who think that holiness is dull.  When one meets the real thing… it is irresistible.”

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