Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. A native and lifelong resident of England, Chesterton wrote nearly a hundred books during his lifetime, and literally thousands of essays in newspapers and magazines. He did not transcend all of the prejudices of his time (none of us do) yet he was concerned with social justice and was a witty, intelligent and insightful defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, and especially of the family. The website of the American Chesterton Society notes that the writings of this lover of good beer, good wine and good cigars are credited with leading a young atheist named C.S. Lewis to the Christian faith, inspiring Michael Collins to lead a movement for Irish independence and encouraging Mohandas Gandhi to challenge British colonial rule in India. Perhaps his most famous quote is, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
On my bed stand is a thick volume by Chesterton, The Complete Father Brown Stories. The introduction to the volume, written by David Stuart Davies, tells us that Father Brown is a “gentle, quiet little cleric, with ever-furled umbrella, ‘face round as a Norfolk dumpling’ and ‘eyes as empty as the North Sea’.” He is to all appearances unremarkable. Yet, he solves some of the most bizarre crimes ever recorded: a killer who can’t be seen (“The Invisible Man”); a man’s head virtually crushed by one blow of a small hammer (“The Hammer of God”); and a famous man who commits ‘a fearful sin’ by figuratively growing a forest to hide a leaf (“The Sign of the Broken Sword”). Father Brown, who hears many confessions, has great insight into human nature which enables him to see motives, solve mysteries, and send many a culprit on the path to redemption.
Father Brown represents Chesterton’s perspective on life, faith, human failings and human strivings. As such, he is a very quotable character. One of Brown’s great abilities is to differentiate between faith and superstition. In the story titled “The Doom of the Darnaways,” Father Brown is confronted with a family that is convinced that an ancient curse undermines them at every turn. A family representative wails, “It is no good. We are dealing with something too terrible.” Father Brown replies, “Yes, we are dealing with something terrible; the most terrible thing I know, and the name of it is nonsense.” A few lines later he continues, “You can’t be made to do wicked things against your will because your name is Darnaway, any more than I can because my name is Brown.”
In an age in which nonsense reigns, wreaking havoc on individual lives, on the lives of families and communities and on the earth itself, I find myself grateful for the gentle feistiness of literary characters like Father Brown. I find myself grateful for characters, both fictional and historical, who remind us that nonsense can cause as much lasting damage as terrorism, as much lasting harm as militarism, as much lingering pain as organized hate. When we deny science, ignore history and disparage goodwill, it is nonsense and nonsense, in the words of Father Brown, is the most terrible thing we know.
“Jesus instructs us to love our enemies as well as our neighbors, probably because they are often the same people.”