“Have you ever read a book that changed your life?”
Have you heard this question before? I have. I wonder how often it is the case that between the lines, the real question is: “can you name for me a book that will reinforce what I already profess?”There are in fact several books that have changed my own life, by which I mean I have been influenced to make important life decisions after having read them. There is even one particular author who penned several of these books. I am a Catholic today. Prior to 2012, I was a member of a Presbyterian Church. Prior to that, I had a brief stint of being merely a theist. And I was raised as a devout Muslim. In my own unorthodox religious journey from Islam to the Catholic Church, there was one particular fellow, though he passed away in 1936, who influenced me as much as any living person to go ahead and take that next step: G. K. Chesterton.
G.K. Chesterton was an eccentric man, to say the least. He was tall and weighed in at around three-hundred pounds. I have heard it said that when he died his casket was so huge that instead of being carried down the stairs of his Beaconsfield home, it had to be thrown out of the window. He was fond of wearing a cowl and carrying a sword stick. His tiny glasses hung from the tip of his bulbous nose. Oftentimes a cigar would be hanging out of his mouth.
This particular author has cast an impressive shadow. He is known to have influenced both Alfred Hitchcock and C.S. Lewis. Alan Watts has lectured about him. Neil Gaiman honored him with a character in the highly imaginative Sandman comic book series, and dedicated the novel Good Omens (which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett) to him, going so far as to describe him as “a man who knew what was going on.”
But he is largely obscure today. When Catholic peers have asked me “how did you go from Muslim to Catholic?” and I bring his name up as one of my influences, I have come to expect a follow-up question of “who?” I do not fault my fellow millennial Catholics when they have no idea who G.K. Chesterton is. Although I firmly believe he is one of history’s great wits, and perhaps the most quotable writer in the English language after the Bard himself, I never heard of him until three years after I graduated college. Perhaps it is the case that some authors, and certain subjects, are simply too challenging for academics to be up to the task of grappling with.
I first learned of G.K. Chesterton in 2007, while contemplating whether I should be baptized as a Christian.
My year between leaving Islam and being baptized as a Christian had rendered me spiritually rudderless. I had subscribed to the view that all religions were equally useless. At the time I was working in a marketing company, under a boss who helped me to realize that evil really does, in fact, exist. There are some among us who lie, to ourselves and to others, so routinely that all bearing of truth gets lost, and the most fitting description for such a state is evil. My life had become something of a mess in the other few aspects as well. I was depressed and eager for some sort of a fresh start. For the first time in my life, I was willing to lend an ear to the Gospel message, to consider what life would be like as a born again.
A desire to learn the basics of Christianity led me to begin reading the works of C.S. Lewis, whom I learned was profoundly impacted by a book titled the Everlasting Man, an explanation of human history with Jesus Christ as the great turning point, by a man named G.K. Chesterton. It was said that Lewis even referred to the reading of this particular book as the “baptism of his intellect.” So I decided to go ahead and pick it up. For several years, I had been at peace with the popular notion that believing Christians were dense. This was one of many presuppositions that I had picked up over the years. Chesterton’s work began challenging this notion in only the first few sentences: he was clearly more intelligent than me, and he was a believing Christian.
It was this book, more than any other, that helped me realize that the Incarnation and the Resurrection of our Lord were plausible.
I was baptized in 2007, joined a Presbyterian church in 2008, and swiftly involved myself in Evangelical Christian circles. On occasion, a fellow Christian would explain to me that Catholics believed in certain doctrines that were “out there,” such as transubstantiation, the Sacrament of Confession, Purgatory, beliefs, and practices surrounding the Virgin Mary, and the Magisterium. Most of my fellow Christians considered Catholics to be fellow Christians. Some did not. Being relatively new to the faith, and still largely unfamiliar with the arguments for or against any such beliefs, I would simply nod along.
I was also an avid reader, one who was very eager to learn more about this Christian faith that I had impulsively embraced. And there was one particular author who I just could not get enough of. I went on to read more of Chesterton’s apologetic: Orthodoxy, Heretics, What’s Wrong With the World, St Francis of Assisi, and St Thomas Aquinas. A few of these works I even re-read. I also read some of Chesterton’s fiction: the Father Brown mysteries, the Man Who Was Thursday, the Ball and the Cross, and Manalive.
This man had something, and something of profound humor and clarity, to say about seemingly any subject; theology, politics, literature, economics, art and architecture, and even cheese. Even more impressive than the sheer diversity of subjects that he wrote about was the sheer consistency with which he wrote about them. He was an author who had very clearly spent time meditating on the “first things,” that he could see the big picture and let his thoughts about any and every subject fall into place from there. He went to pains to contextualize events, such as the Punic Wars and the Crusades, that I began to view history less in terms of the content of events, and more in terms of the movement of ideas. He was a sincere seeker of Truth.
We are each and all battered by various ideas from infancy onward about what is true. Whether it be from our families, our circle of friends, our communities, religious or nonreligious circles, schools, the people we admire, the music we listen to, what we choose to read, what we watch on television…etc., everyone and everything seems to want to have a say in the matter of “what is true”. We do not have ideas; ideas have us. Going even deeper, there may well exist spiritual realities that give form to the ideas that become our gods. Navigating through all of our presuppositions, and finding whatever truth is, is very challenging. But it is a challenge that we are each individually called to engage in. Tragically, all too many of us are not up to this task. And those among us who are must face the daunting question: Where does one even begin?
The works of G.K. Chesterton suggest that there is indeed an answer, one echoed by many of history’s wise men and women, of where to begin: we begin with common sense.
Common sense still remains uncommon enough to truly test our cognitions. I cannot count the number of times he has challenged my own previous assumptions. He had the very Catholic habit of seeing a touch of the divine in simple things. He was often a sharp critic of what was deemed “higher culture.” This “Apostle of Common Sense” raved about medieval thinkers, and routinely deconstructed so many of the contentions of his contemporaries. By giving consideration to context, rather than merely content, he pointed out how often it is and has been, the case that ideas we call “new” are really just recycled heresies.
Chesterton, this “Prince of Paradox,” led me to suspect a very odd notion that truth and humor go hand-in-hand, that a child’s perspective is clear because it is fresh, that there may well be an intimate bond between sainthood and sanity.
There was also one glaring fact about G.K. Chesterton that I had come across several times: he was a convert to the Catholic Church, having formally joined in 1922, at the age of 48. The Church is where his deep thinking led him to.
By 2011, I realized that my own Christian journey was yearning for some sort of change. New York is a very transient city, and most of the friends I had made in my church had moved on, whether to another city or to another church. My Presbyterian church was very outstanding at teaching a truth, that I still consider it the right church for me in my spiritual infancy. But I began to wonder if others truths were being neglected in its teaching if there was perhaps some balance of truths. I had listened to the same message during sermons, about being a terrible sinner desperately in need of the gift of God’s grace which I did not deserve, so many times that it began to seem like a monomania. I could no longer sit near the front pews, or the pastor would catch me sleeping. The categorizing of all people as either “believers” going to Heaven or “unbelievers” going to Hell seemed oversimplified. Even if this particular church molded its members into solid theological Christians, my confidence in its ability to mold psychological Christians was wavering. It was clear that a change was wanting in my journey, but: Where does one even begin?
As usual, I began with books.
I had unwittingly, on several occasions, run into Chesterton’s thoughts on some of those “out there” Catholic matters and found myself thinking: “well that actually makes a great deal of sense.” I was compelled by his writings to take into consideration the historical role of the Catholic Church as a guardian of truth. This particular church had withstood countless philosophical assaults over the course of two-thousand years. When the rest of the world told the church that it must give in, that a “new” idea has rendered her obsolete, she remained firm and survived. That in itself is a miracle. This particular church remains today a firm voice, maybe even a last stand, against the many heretical assaults of our modern era, as we witness in the issue of abortion, among many other things.
G.K. Chesterton’s writings helped me to understand much of the positive historical impact of the Catholic Church. To write a thorough list would require far more words than any blog would dare hold, but I do wonder how many of those who would consider themselves too “rational” for any faith even know, historically speaking, the great patron of their reasoning instincts. I wonder how many of those who relish in their own individuality understand what message formed our concept of the individual. We Westerners often take the Church for granted all too easily.
Of course, coming to the decision to find a home in the Catholic Church took more than just books. But it was G.K. Chesterton who, almost singlehandedly, satisfied the question “does joining the Church intellectually make sense for me?” with a resounding “yes!”
By the summer of 2011, I proverbially threw my hands in the air and said: “fine! I’ll join the Catholic Church!” And during the Easter Vigil of 2012, I was confirmed.
My personally monumental decisions to be baptized as a Christian, and later on to be confirmed as a Catholic, were both largely in thanks to the influence of G.K. Chesterton’s body of work. But the influence of his works has been the catalyst for other personal decisions as well. His biography of St. Francis of Assisi was my introduction to the beloved saint, the reason I even heard of such a thing as Third Orders. Today I am a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. I have also self-published some works of fiction on Kindle. All of these works have very much been touched by Chesterton’s musings, but the idea for one, Another Day in Kansas, was directly inspired by a quote in one of Mr. Chesterton’s essays.
I am one, of many, people whose life has changed as a result of picking up one of G.K. Chesterton’s books.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Words are powerful. Our ability to speak and name things with words, something Man does apart from all of the other species, may well be one of the valid proofs that we are, in fact, divine beings. When we arrange our words, whether by mouth or by pen, we form sentences that have the power to confuse, the power to coerce, the power to articulate that which we know in our hearts is eternal and true, and a million things in between. A life-long failure like Abraham Lincoln ascended to the presidency, and escorted our nation through its greatest crisis, by the power of the words he spoke. The written works of William Shakespeare can still touch our souls, four centuries after his death because he arranged his words so very thoughtfully. And an eccentric and heavyset man once arranged his words in a certain way, that someone born more than a century after him would be persuaded to take a look at the Catholic Church. Never underestimate the power of words.
I have heard that G.K. Chesterton’s cause for sainthood was opened by an English bishop in 2013. Last I heard, it is at the prayer-card stage. I do not spend time speculating on any miracles that will be worked out through my friend’s intercession. The words he penned helped open my own arrogant and stubborn mind, that I would eventually find a home in the Church. That is enough of a miracle for me.
“Have you ever read a book that changed your life?” You bet I have!
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