Wednesday, June 14, 2006

From Fr. Vincent McNabb


I keep on moaning this to myself. If I did not believe the things he believed, his death would be almost the death of hope. I should despair of everyone; and of myself most of all. For how could I again trust my judgment when it once misled me into hailing as one of the great men and major prophets of her country a man whose death has been announced amidst a thousand trivialities, with the banalities of praise? Yet in this hour of temptation to despair I re-enkindle hope by recalling how often I have said that sometimes even greater than the gift of prophecy is the gift of recognizing a prophet! In the night-hour of Chesterton's death despair seems treason for me as for all the group who knew the time of their visitation because they knew that in giving him to them God had visited His people.

I looked upon this child of London Town as one of the greatest sons born to England for four centuries. Londoners at their best like More and Chesterton do not look down on England; they look round on England and see its central place in Europe and the world. Their London River (as the seamen call it) after its long quiet sauntering through England's smiling meadow-land welcomes with a smile all nations of the Earth.

Londoner of Londoners. English of the English. Gilbert Chesterton towered shoulder high about his contemporaries. His massive body, crowned with a massive head, struck me as being only the well-proportioned outward visible sign of the massive intellectual, spiritual reality within. And this inward reality was in the sphere of memory, mind and heart. His memory was not just beyond the average, but far beyond the average. Had it not been balanced by equal powers of mind it would have been, as in lesser minds, a danger or even a disease. But Gilbert Chesterton's memory was a storehouse of such ordered facts that from it, almost at will and always at need, he could bring forth things old and new. In control of this vast, densely filled memory was a mind of more than average power. It was not just a power of reason - though few could reason better - it was an unusual power of instant intuition; which, the philosophers say, is to be found only in a few men; and, as the theologians say, is found in all the angels.

One of his books he called An Outline of Sanity. The title was the man. His was the same healthy mind that recognizes in the outline the first necessary line of thought received or thought expressed. His thought about things was always the deep philosophical recognition not of resemblance but of differences. Unconsciously he acted on the principle that "a philosopher is one who knows how to divide." His rapidly moving intelligence recognised in one principle a hundred conclusions; and in one phenomenon of nature or one fact of history recognised a hundred principles. This made him the best of listeners. But whilst he listened even to something he had already heard and perhaps knew better than the speaker knew, his giant mind was tracing within the accurate outline of the subject an elaborate diaper of thought. The myriad epigrams of his style were not carefully designed effects. But they were the irrepressible and spontaneous results of a clear mind always set with philosophic instinct on discerning differences.

It is terrifying to think what his extraordinary gift of memory and intelligence might have been and done had it been the supreme quality of his soul. Lesser intelligences amongst his contemporaries have risen from wealth to wealth or from power to power to a wealth and power that meant the impoverishment or the enslavement of their fellow men. But God's greatest gift to Gilbert Chesterton was a heart that could seek neither wealth nor power, so deeply did he love the people. Even those who knew him least - say, by the books he wrote and they read - were conscious that his heart was no little part of his manifest greatness. But those who knew him best and marvelled at his gifts of mind, knew that his still greater gifts of heart were needed and used to keep the balance of his soul. His was a richly furnished memory controlled by a brilliantly clear mind; but aove all a noble chivalrous heroic heart in full control of memory and mind.

I remember that once his instant chuckle of laughter showed how he understood the humour in the Preface of the Mass when the Priest says to the people: "Lift up your hearts," and the people reply almost testily, "We have lifted them up." Gilbert Chesterton's heart was never otherwise than "lifted up." He sought only the highest aims for himself, and for the England that he loved, and for his fellow men whom he loved, if that were possible, more than England.

A long life of battling came to end last Sunday at Top Meadow, Beaconsfield. We might well ask was his aim ever lower than towards the topmost? And in his knightly quest of the highest at all costs except the cost of honour, was his life and work ever less than a great beacon of light to England and the world? Here and there in the heavy harvest of his writings his pen becomes one of the angriest, sharpest swords in Europe. But you will search this angry sword-battling without finding that the swordsman was ever defending himself. A laugh was usually self-defence enough for him. But behind his angry swordsmanship you will find some of the most defenceless or destitute beings of the world - the poor, the persecuted, the unfit - or some of the greatest principles, like loyalty, or wedded love or the homestead or liberty.

Once upon a time I called a book of his poems "Bugle-Music." Now I know there is in truth no Bugle-music, but only Bugle-calls. Every word that came from Gilbert Chesterton's pen-hand (which I kissed in his unconsciousness last Saturday) was like a Bugle-call to some of those tops of human aim to which from boyhood he had never been disloyal. But


His great heart gave way. Our Beacon is burned out. And what was left of this great Beacon we have buried in God's field. But in our memory there is something of him that will never burn out, till our ashes are as his.


Anonymous said...


The 56th anniversary of Belloc's death is coming up in July. I'm wondering, does a similar eulogy, from Father Knox, for instance, exist for him?

Anonymous said...

Oops, that's the 54th anniversary.