Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: G.K. Chesterton
By John Janaro (’85)
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874—1936) is widely appreciated as the brilliant Catholic convert who devoted all his wit and intellectual energy to writing unparalleled works of Catholic apologetics. The actual path of his personal conversion, however, is not often considered, and in fact it was more complicated than many Catholics realize. People are often surprised to discover that many of the basic and most beloved writings of the Chesterton “canon”—including Heretics, Orthodoxy, the Ballad of the White Horse, and most of the Father Brown mysteries—were written before he became Catholic. His entrance into full communion with the Church took many years.
Chesterton first experienced a very real conversion from the benevolent but vague Unitarian and secular-liberal outlook of his youth to the firm adherence to a historical, doctrinal, and practical Christianity that he began to profess openly in his late twenties. Drawn to poetic sensibility as a child, his early years were full of a kind of mystical sense of gratitude for the existence of things, which he referred to as “the thread” that connected him to God. As a journalist in London in the 1890s, he rejected decadent fads and was drawn to the common sense of simple people. He saw beyond socialism with its imposed utopian schemes, and began to sympathize with the Christian worldview. At this time, he also met and fell in love with the woman who was to prove his greatest friend and companion in life, Frances Blogg.
G.K. Chesterton had entertained “religious opinions,” but Frances was the first person he knew to actually “practice” a religion. By the time they married in 1901, she had brought him to a clear recognition of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and her native high church Anglicanism that saw itself as the English branch of the ancient Catholic tradition (albeit “independent” of Rome). He held this “Anglo-Catholic” faith for some twenty years, while he befriended and collaborated with many Roman Catholics, including Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, and Father John O’Connor (who was the model for Father Brown).
Chesterton himself was drawn to the fullness of the Catholic Church. He saw more and more converging evidence for the Catholic claim, but hesitated to make the step. There was certainly the drama of the “fight against conversion” that called for death to the old self. Also, Chesterton was an intellectual genius, but could be slow and even hapless in basic practical things like tying his own shoes. For daily life, he relied on the skillful help of his wife, and in this essential relationship he was afraid of creating distance. Even though Frances encouraged him to follow his conscience, she herself did not (yet) see the need to become Roman Catholic. It is impossible to fathom the tension this created for him. Yet Frances wanted his good even if it brought her suffering, and his other friends—including Monsignor Knox and Father O’Connor—gently helped him (without pushing him) until finally he entered the Church in 1922. Frances, from her own conviction, would follow him four years later.
Chesterton’s embrace of the Catholic faith greatly deepened his perceptive power and the universal scope of his understanding. Arguable, he wrote some of his greatest works (The Everlasting Man, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi) in the final fourteen years before his death in 1936.