Monday, June 16, 2008

The Body of Christ

Home now, after having to take a three hour detour yesterday because of Cedar Rapids and the devastation from flooding in Eastern Iowa. Please pray for those people.

But I thought one more post was called for.

It has struck me when I'm in the most Christian and selfless communities, those groups of people in full communion with the Catholic Church, such as EWTN, the Southwell Institute, and the American Chesterton Society, that this is how the Church ought to be. In fact, this is how the Church IS.

St. Paul tells us much about the Body of Christ, and I think I'm beginning to understand a little better what he means. The Body of Christ is Christ’s members on earth. He works through us sacramentally in building His Church. The Body of Christ is both Our Lord’s continued presence since the Annunciation and also the beginning of the transformation that culminates in his second coming, which is the Kingdom.

This means that the Body of Christ is holy, and since we are the members of his body, we must become holy; for in holiness there is more than happiness, there is joy. This is why we must all stay in full communion with the Body of Christ, so that we may receive him in communion at the Eucharist and bring him forth to others who are not blessed with full communion in his Church.

And so, Chestertonians, both those who were with us last weekend and those who were not – love our Gilbert, love the Society, love Dale and his writings, love all those wonderful people who make up this blessed group – Geir, Joseph, Fr. Dwight, Ann, Nancy, David, Peter, Dominique, Mary Ashley, Julian, Chuck, Laura, and so many more. We are none of us holy just yet, but when we join a group that serves the Lord, as the ACS does, we are part of Christ’s Body.

May we all strive to stay in full communion with his body, for the one thing that separates us from him is sin. Love one another, flee from sin, and keep serving the Word by reading the words that glorify his name.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

From Banqueting to Braving the Floods

My final report - sheer exhaustion kept me from hearing the last three speeches, though I was hearing good reports on all of them.

The banquet was tremendous! It was a combination banquet and 50th Birthday Party for Dale. A child prodigy Guitar Playing Latin Language Rapper was featured as was a wonderful poem by Shakespeare and David Zach which summarized the conference, and a surprise reading by Sean Dailey and Yours Truly of Clerihews from Dale's friends in honor of his birthday, including from many who could not make it to the conference. David has promised to send me or Nancy his poem for blog posting; meanwhile here's one I discovered - a lost poem by Belloc - which thrilled both Dale and the revellers in attendence when read aloud.

About a Don I told a tale,
Yet now I write about a Dale,
For as I trod my path to Rome
To seek some friends and find a home
O’er hill and dale I trod until
I found a Dale, now o'er the hill.

Dale good, Dale true, Dale fair and fine,
Dale bigger than life, Dale elephantine
Dale smart, Dale sure, Dale kind and keen
Dale gigantesque, Dale elephantine
Amazing Dale, Dale really nifty
Dale old and spotted, Dale now fifty
Eternal Dale, not of this gross age
Ancient Dale, Dale in his dotage
Dale lover of our GKC
And member of AARP
Dale by the works of Gilbert tutored
Dale decrepit, spayed and neutered
Dale faithful, firm; Dale brave and bold
Dale getting younger – scratch that - old

Dale different than that hill and dale
Encountered on our life’s travail
That spreads itself beneath our feet
As we in faith advance, retreat
That dale is a vale of shadows and fear
Depressed, a hollow, bleak and blear
A place without fraternity
A place we call modernity
But this Dale is the way I wend
For this Dale is a man, a friend
Who selflessly in love anon
Leads us to our Chesterton.


Thank God for this conference! And may we all be blessed with safe travel home.

As for Tom Leith, Colin O'Brien and I, we will be braving the floodwaters of Iowa on our way back to Missouri. And also braving the floodwaters of the suicide of thought in the modern world, now that we won't be on the high and dry island of Chestertonian sanity.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Flag of the World - Loyalty to Life

The challenge to any literary critic is how best to explain a great text to an audience. And with a book as tremendous as Orthodoxy, you've got a real challenge on your hands.

Today at 9 am Geir Hasnes did the best job of explicating the text of Orthodoxy of anyone I've ever seen. How? By using himself as the example of the Flag of the World, of the loyalty to life, that defeats the suicide of thought and the culture of death.

Geir told the story of his biological mother who was raped, and who in the rape conceived twins, one of whom was Geir. Abortion in the cases of rape was legal in Norway in those days, but Geir's mother refused to take the path of death. She brought these children, the fruits of the rape, to term. And despite a difficult labor that nearly killed her, she gave birth to Geir and his twin sister, who were immediately placed with their adoptive parents.

Geir broke down many times on the podium, and it was difficult to watch him struggle to tell his story. He ended, in tears, with Chesterton's poem "By the Babe Unborn", a masterpiece that ties in all the themes of Orthodoxy and all the themes of Chesterton - especially the lines

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

My friends, this was the highlight of the conference and elicited an immediate standing ovation from a very appreciative crowd.

The powers of death dwell upon the suicide of thought; but loyalty to life, to the Flag of the World, will save us from this self-slaughter. "We are sent to this world to make good come out of bad," Geir said - which is the sacramental life.

Thanks be to God for this brave Norweigan who gave this wonderful talk! Thanks be to God for his brave and loving mother and to his adoptive parents. And thanks be God for Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

Heaven, Headaches and the Heterodox Heart

And then there was the party in the cordoned-off area - a much better gathering than anyone could imagine.

But how we men are prone to fall! Such brilliance! Such faith! And such ridiculous creatures, especially after a few drinks.

Chesterton says the frog's prayer is, "Lord, how you made me jump!"

And I add that a man's prayer is, "Lord, how I make myself fall." Which is a prayer of repentance. Lord, we try to serve You with all the gifts You have given us, but a few drinks and a cool Minnesota night and joy stumbles into an early morning hangover. I am the poet, you know, we all are - finding ourselves drunk in a ditch and unworthy of the princess who shows us mercy.

"I am in heaven, and I have a slight headache." - The Surprise Act II.

The Great Adventure

Enter Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Bob Jones fundamentalist turned Anglican priest turned Catholic priest.

Fr. Dwight took a creative turn at Orthodoxy. Since he was speaking on the Romance of Orthodoxy, he gave us, not a literary analysis or an academic parsing of the text - he gave us his own tale of romance. As anyone who has read Fr. Dwight's blog will tell you, this is a man with a strong literary gift and the heart of a poet.

Among Father's praise of Romance, we gleaned the following ...

"Heroes must take the risk to be admirable and laughable. Since all heroes are human, all heroes are like Cyrano de Bergerac, noble and ridiculous at once."

"The spell of the storyteller makes all of our cynicism happily melt away."

"Despair and depression come from the disappointment of losing the hope that truth, beauty and goodness are possible."

"Despair is the compliment paid to the romantic (for without frustrated ideals we would not despair)."

"When a heretic settles on Mere Christianity he should push on toward More Christianity."

"Heresy kills curiosity, not the cat."

"Dogma is not a goal, it is a map. The rubrics and doctrines are the map for the journey, the journey of the hero, the great adventure."

He quoted the Little Flower - the Little Flower of all saints! - who said, "Sanctity must be won at the pont of the sword," and "I will die with my weapons in my hand."

"The challenge [to essay forth into heroic adventure] comes to each individual in a totally unique way. But the challenge is always as Christ's was to Peter - to step out of the boat onto the water. This challenge may come in your life in a large thing or in small things. But the hero who steps forth will say, 'By God's grace I was able to take that step and everything has been Provided.'"

But the conference - and the great adventure - is not yet at an end.

Pearcing Comments on Shakespeare

Joseph Pearce was the keynote after-dinner speaker and was marvellous as usual.

He mainly summarized the arguments of his new book, The Quest for Shakespeare, which everyone on earth should read.

But along the way he came up with some great quotes and gave in passing the best overview of the theory of literary criticism that I have ever heard. When asked by an audience member what he thought of Claire Asquith's book which saw coded Catholic language in all of Shakespeare, Pearce said the following ...

"A work of art should not be looked at through a microscope as Claire Asquith does, studying a myriad of disconnected details; nor should it be looked at through a telescope as Fr. Millwood did when he read beyond a work to vast things the work was implying or aiming at. A work of art should be seen as a whole - a work of literature should be examined on the basis of its primary story, not its hidden message."

He went on, "And since the inspiration for a work of art comes from Grace or the Muse, and passes through the artist, who is the sub-creator, the purity of the gift is transformed by the prism of the artist. If the artist is twisted, he twists the inspiration and comes up with a perverse work; if he intends better things, then his work will shine forth some of God's glory. So to begin to study the work, one should study the artist."

Which is what Pearce has done with his case for the Catholic Shakespeare. In volume one, he examines the documentary evidence of whether Shakespeare was Catholic (and the evidence is overwhelming that he was); and in volume two he will examine several of Shakespeare's plays themselves for their Catholic point of view.

All in all, unlike the bulk of literary critics at work in the academy today, Joseph Pearce brings common sense to bear.

And thus, in reading as well as in writing (as any Chestertonian will tell you) the glory of God shines forth.

No Vacuums Allowed

But the fun didn't stop there.

James Woodruff followed Ross Arnold with a brilliant presentation on Chesterton and Pascal - "Not All Mathematicians go Mad". In his talk, Woodruff often referred to Aristotle's principle "Nature abhors a vacuum", a principle Pascal disproved, incurring thereby the wrath of the Jesuits.

Woodruff lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, a town between Springfield and Boston - which reminds me of a vacuum joke. Why is it so windy in Worcester? Because Boston sucks and Springfield blows. Hat tip to the unnamed source who gave me that joke.

In Woodruff's talk, he gave the overall argument of Orthodoxy, a brave thing to do. Woodruff said that Orthodoxy is about the human soul, which is the lock, on the one hand, and Christian doctrine, which is the key, on the other. Chesterton discovered that when you bring these two odd mysteries together, they fit point for point - and Christianity is the key to our lock. This great book is about how GKC discovered that this ancient faith was the only way to hold the paradoxes of our nature together; and that the paradoxes of the Faith were the paradoxes of life and of our deepest natures.

As Woodruff put it, "The God-shaped vacuum of our souls is filled by Christianity, the shape of God."

He said that both Pascal and Chesterton were astounded at "the sheer contingency of the world", which was a part of "The Ethics of Elfland" that Miss Overkamp also noted. Not only is this world glorious, it also need not ever have existed! But Woodruff said that while Chesterton responded to this contingency with joyful gratitude, Pascal found himself more unsettled. It alarmed him that the world was contingent, and his response was, in Woodruff's words, "proto-existentialist". He therefore placed Pascal with the great curmudgeons of the faith, Kierkegaard, Belloc, St. Jerome, those who add "the dash of bitters to the great cocktail known as the communion of saints."

The Paradox and the Orthodox

Ross Arnold gave a very solid presentation on "The Paradoxes of Christianity", filled with quotes from Chesterton many of which were projected onto the screen.

One of the best quotes was not by Chesterton. Arnold quoted William F. Buckley on reading Chesterton: "You frequently must simply close the book lest you be overwhelmed."

Arnold defined paradox quite aptly. Contrasting paradox with Hegel's notion of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, a process by which a kind of compromise comes about between two positions that transends the two positions, thereby replacing them, Arnold said that paradox is when two seemingly contradictory truths are held at the same time, revealing a deeper truth that ties the two together. And Chesterton's paradoxes are not mere literary devices, but descriptions of reality. "Chesterton did not create paradox. He observed paradox." Arnold told me later that he got much of his handle on this subject from the book "Paradox in Chesterton" by Hugh Kenner.

In one of his most effective moments, Arnold, contrasting paradox with compromise - "Paradox is maintaining two truths, red and white, not pink; hot and cold, not lukewarm," - flashed a quote on the screen from the Book of Revelations, where God says to the church in Laodecia, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." To which Arnold added, "God does not like pink." And a smattering of applause spontaneously broke out.

And while Arnold deftly showed how this is part of Chesterton's finding Christianity to be the key that fit the lock of the riddle of paradox, he stumbled just a bit at the finish line. After his talk, he got a handful of great questions from the audience, one of which was, "Why are you not Catholic?"

Arnold, a Presbyterian, answered that question in his answer to the following question, which was about free will vs. predestination. That question was, "What is the greater truth that the paradox of free will and predestination leads us to?"

Arnold pleaded a certain ignorance, as any sane man would, in the face of such an awesome paradox. "If God has predestined things, why does he want us to pray?" Arnold asked rhetorically, and then, slapping his forehead said, "We just don't know! But if I had to choose between the two sides of the free will / predestination paradox, I would tend to choose the divine providence and omniscient will of God."

Now I hope I can point out the fallacy of this answer with Chestertonian charity, for GKC always honored his intellectual opponents, and I must begin by saying that Ross Arnold's intelligence and faith are both inspiring; his love for Christ and his joy over Chesterton were both evident in the care and polish he gave his speech. And yet his answer above is so Protestant that it begs a correction.

The correct answer to "What is the greater truth that the paradox of free will and predestination leads us to?" is not, "I don't know, but it's in God's hands."

The correct answer is, "Sacramentalism."

We work out our salvation in fear and trembling. God's destiny is not separate from who we are and what we want and the world He has made - and that's what the incarnation was all about. We pray because the Body of Christ exists in this world and we are His members, and our destinies play out not ineffably beyond us but through us and through our dialogue with God in prayer and works.

And when dear Mr. Arnold sees this more clearly, he will no longer be answering the question, "Why are you not a Catholic?"

Friday, June 13, 2008

Elfland Explained

A cerain elfish young woman by the name of Jennifer Overkamp tackled the big chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" after lunch. She did a marvellous job, though she had to stand on a box so everyone could see and hear her over the podium. Honest.

She avoided the implications of Chesterton's scientific worldview latent in the chapter, and instead focused on Chesterton's concept of the Fairy Tale and how some of his own fairy stories spell that concept out. Her analysis of this central theme in Chesterton was quite admirable.

Jennifer pointed out that in GKC WONDER leads to GRATITUDE which leads to OBEDIENCE which leads to GOD. She explained how Chesterton saw in all of life four fairy tale characters, THE DRAGON which is evil, ST. GEORGE, who is the active response to evil, THE CAPTIVE PRINCESS, who is the passive suffering of evil, and the FATHER who stands for the permission of evil. "Life is a fight, not a conversation," as Chesterton said, showing that the quest is the story at the heart of all healthy life and literature. Jennifer also pointed to the connection for Chesterton of Wonder and the Ordinary, which brings us to his love for ordinary and common men and his regard for democracy.

She said that in all of GKC's fairy tales we have ordinary people in surprising situations which are in fact parts of the ordinary world viewed in a new and surprising way; and that if the ordinary world is viewed with wonder, the heroes of these stories begin to respond to the quest as they ought. The best example of this is Manalive, in which the worldview of wonder brought about by Innocent Smith transforms the gray boarding house to a microcosm of the universe, and changes its dull and suicidal inhabitants into living and grateful men and women.

Jennifer looked at Manalive, "A Crazy Tale" and "The Trees of Pride" in illustrating her analysis of Chesterton's fairy tale philosophy, though a friend and I both thought that she would have done even better had she included The Surprise in her evidence. Still, as I have said before, her presentation was very well done, and you can never include enough Chesterton anyhow.

Thus GKC in "The Ethics of Elfland" turns the tide in "Orthodoxy" and his writing begins to function as the antidote to the suicide of thought.

But the sacramental mentality that springs from "wonder at the ordinary" (and by that I meant the notion that this created world is not only good but good as a gift, good in a way we could never have deserved) - this is a concept that is crucial to both Chesterton and to Catholic teaching. And sacramentalism is a point that came up in the Q&A to the next speech, "The Paradoxes of Christianity" by Ross Arnold. And while Arnold's presentation was excellent and right on target, his less-than-Catholic non-sacramental answer to this questioner was telling.

But more on that later ... it's time to eat.

Death by 10,000 Cuts

One of the speeches my son and I most wanted to see was Tom Martin on Chesterton & Nietzche, but we overlsept! We missed Holy Mass, Breakfast, and the first speech. How dreadful is our human weakness.

Much complaining in the air about the 10,000 indignations the attendees are enduring. For example, we are staying in the dorms and the college has failed to provide towels, soap, or blankets in most rooms. Sean Dailey spoke on this in his talk at 10:30 this morning. One of the profesors at the Southwell Writers' Conference that I just came from last week spoke about how Solzenitzen wrote of the Soviets use of this tactic, asking over and over again for minor concessions, none of which appears worthy enough to do battle over, until finally the victim is dead of 10,000 cuts. And so in this atmosphere of totalitarian oppression Sean Dailey speaks ...

"Of course the university is afraid to let us drink without security present. You know how those Chestertonians are. There may be a riot. Though it would be a riot of laughter."

Many more quotable lines from an excellent talk by Sean, who has lost 80 pounds and is looking very good, but the notes I took indicate the best lines were "God made dinosaurs because they're cool," and "Those devoted to pity without truth are ultimately pitiless and those devoted to truth without pity are ultimately untrue," but the gist of his speech, which covered "Juno", "Harry Potter" and the mindset of a certain midwestern nominally-Catholic college was, as is the chapter in Orthodoxy to which he was referrring, a strong yet restrained condemnation of the Suicide of Thought.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Night that was Thursday

There are two options that explain what's going on here at the University of St. Thomas. Dale explained them to me thus: either the college doesn't know what sort of conference they have and so in their lack of care they're making things very difficult for us; or the college knows exactly what sort of conference they have and are very carefully making things very difficult for us.

We begin with the fact that you can't find any mention of the Chesterton conference anywhere. There are many signs directing people to the hall where the talks are being given, but the signs say ENDANGERED CHILDREN'S CONFERENCE. Beyond that, there's no non-sanctioned wine, mead or ale allowed, and even the juice machine at dinner was dispensing water instead of lemonade or fruit punch. I am not making any of this up.

It also seems hard for the university to get climate control quite right. At 45 degrees north latitude you wouldn't think it would be hard to keep buildings cool, but apparently it is.

Anyway, in the midst of this apathy or persecution, in this midst of this modern heartlessness and mindlessness, there remains the miracle of hundreds of people coming from all over the world to celebrate a man whose writings are lighting bolts and whose understanding of what's wrong with the world is equalled only by his love for Our Lord and His Church. We have here again Joseph Pearce, originally from England, Geir Hasnes, still from Norway, and tonight I met a very nice man, soon to be a deacon, who came to the conference all the way from near Anchorage, Alaska!

Our Acting Czar, Dale Ahlquist, gave a typically engaging opening speech, an Introduction in Defence of Everything Else, and in typical Ahlquist manner he pointed out that Chesterton not only writes about everything, he also writes about everything else - that is to say he explains not only this world but also that which is beyond this world. Some highlights of Dale's talk:

"Welcome to the Endagered Children's Conference."

"I'm getting ahead of myself. Which is not typical for me. I'm usually beside myself."

"The ultimate destination of any journey is home. And when Chesterton discovered Romance, he disovered not only Rome, but also a greater home than he had imagined."

"The axiom that Chesterton discovered in struggling with his depression, the truth that the whole book springs from is - existence is better than non-existence. While this appears obvious, for Chesterton Orthodoxy was his 'elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious'. That's a great adjective - elephantine. You don't hear that adjective much. I expect every one of you to use it at least once during this conference."

"Bad theology eventually leads to madness. Good theology is the basis of sanity."

"Orthodoxy is a perfect piece of rhetoric, a statue that can be approached from any direction."

"When the One Thing is right, everything else falls into place - and thus everything else can be defended. But we have not chosen that One Thing. We are Martha; we have chosen the lesser good - political causes, social issues, gender issues - in choosing the wrong thing we risk losing everything. Defend the right thing and you can defend everything else."

"Why don't critics of big business apply that same criticism to government - and vice versa? Our big business is insane, our government is Caesar on Steroids."

"Insurance companies are in control of our daily lives. That's why the biggest buildings in the major cities are offices of insurance companies. When we see life in terms of profit or liability, then people are viewed not as people but as things to be used."

"Shouting at an insane world is not nearly as effective as laughing at it."

And meanwhile the madness rages just outside the lecture hall.

Dale's talk was followed by that of futurist David Zach, who spoke with lots of aplom and used all sorts of Power Point slides and pictures. In fact, his use of audio visual aids was elephantine. The crowd found David entertaining and he even charmed some giggling teenage groupies who fluttered about him for his autograph and pictures afterwards.

My son and I were far too tired to visit the Official Area of Alcohol at the end of the evening. Tellingly, the area is marked off by police tape. I swear I am not making that - nor any of this - up.

More tomorrow. We may not catch and review every speech, but my son wants to catch the one on Nietzche, and everybody wants to see Joseph Pearce on "Chesterton and Shakespeare" and I happen to know from an inside source that Geir Hasnes' talk on Saturday morning will be a profound and personal pro-life speech in defence of his own life - and everything else.

Thanks to Nancy, blogmistress for the Society, who has encouraged me to post and who helped straighten out in my mind yellow journalism from just being yellow, and of course we all miss Dr. Thursday, who must know that my son is crestfallen. But this is not a place to be crestfallen - unless you're a student or administrator at the university.

But we don't go here, do we? We go to Chesterton University, which is as big as the cosmos itself. And everything else.

Friday, June 6, 2008


As the pre-eminent member of the global literati, your humble correspondent shall soon be winging his way to the northern prairie, to the site of the annual G. K. Chesterton Conference and Winemaking Symposium. Ah, the posh urbane conversation! Ah, the ineffible desuetude! Ah, the mosquitos - where's my repellent?

This year we discuss one of the most formidable books in the Chestertonian canon - Orthodoxy, written 100 years ago in 1908.

All I can honestly say as a preparation for the conference is this true anecdote. Many years ago two ex-seminarians came to our local Chesterton society to participate in a discussion of Orthodoxy. They proceded to knock the book, and when I said to one of them, "It sounds as if you haven't even read it!" he replied, "I haven't!"

"Then why are you here?" I inquired.

"I object to the title!" he replied.

I am not making this up. Well, in a week or less the conference begins, and we'll go deeper, I trust, than objecting to the title.