|Belloc in his old age.|
The three writers who led me from atheism into the Catholic Church were, in chronological order, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. Reading one will lead you to the other. The final piece of the puzzle that led Lewis to Christ was Chesterton; Chesterton is the great giant of the Catholic Literary Revival (and in my opinion of the New Evangelization); and Belloc (Chesterton’s close friend) is a kind of destination. If you haven’t hit the rock – the rock of Christ – by the time you get to Hilaire Belloc, the solid, foundational, confident, healthy, sane rock of Christ – you never will.
That Rock – Jesus Christ - is the foundation for all three writers. But the differences between them are really quite amazing. The houses they built on this rock are very different sorts of houses, architecturally and even functionally. Grace perfects nature, and the nature of these three men – their characters, their insights, their styles – are quite distinct and separate.
I’m going to attempt to explain what I mean, but I’m hesitant – hesitant because I love these three men, as writers, but also as men. I ask them to pray for me. I aspire to write as well as they do, and though I never come close, having them as my models and mentors has been the greatest intellectual blessing of my life.
“There’s no need to read C. S. Lewis,” Dale Ahlquist’s brother-in-law Larry Norman (famed Christian musician) told him. “Everything in Lewis is also in Chesterton, and Chesterton says it better.”
There is much truth to that.
Indeed, Lewis has a kind of diffidence about him. There is a shy withdrawn quality about some of his work. His fascination with fantasy worlds does not have about it what Tolkien’s did. Tolkien’s fantasy world was more manly and solid, as it was based on a faith that was Catholic, that was there whether you liked it or not, and that served as a grounding for all of the intricate fiction that Tolkien built up.
Lewis’ fantasy worlds were based on a Protestant faith. That may sound like nit-picking, but it makes all the difference in the world. A Catholic may ignore the reality that underlies his faith; it’s there whether he acknowledges it or not, whether he sins against it or not, whether he creates a fictional elaboration of it or not, whether he “feels” it or not. A Protestant must, to some extent, keep pumping up the reality behind his faith; he must gin it up and he ends up doubting how solid it is. Lewis was occasionally scrupulous in prayer, wondering if he had prayed with enough emotion or focus. Such is typically a Protestant fear, since “faith alone” cuts the believer off from the moorings. “Faith alone” puts us afloat without the ropes that tie us to the dock. It makes one suspect, even darkly and subconsciously, as one floats untied, that the shore is no longer there, and that the bark of faith and the anchor of hope are the most important things about the vessel. The reality of the solid land – of the destination for which the boat was built – becomes in the mind more sandy and shifting than solid, more like a mirage and less like a Rock.
This is not to say that Lewis was a bad Christian – but it is to say that there was something a bit squeamish about him. Fantasy for him, when he was a child, had about it the unhealthy aspect that it does for those among us we call “nerds”; it was a make-believe world compensating for loneliness, a small child’s unwillingness to play outside or scuffle in the sandbox. I’m not saying that this element defines everything Lewis wrote, but that element was always present. We see this played out in his adult “marriage” to Joy Davidman, a word I put in quotes because there was little about it – at least at first – that was the solid, sacramental union of two bodies and souls in Christ, and much more that was make-believe, playing house, pretending. Yes, “Jack” and Joy loved one another, and their marriage and short life together ended up being blessed, but early on they were both simply working the system – and this willingness to manipulate spiritual things out of fear or diffidence is never wholly absent from the writings of C. S. Lewis, brilliant as those writings are.
On the other end of the spectrum is Hilaire Belloc. Belloc was the kid in the sandbox “Jack” Lewis wouldn’t want to scuffle with. A bloody nose might ensue. Belloc’s prose has a quality that can only be described as “virile”. There is something simple, unaffected, and insistent about it. But Belloc’s poetry takes that same virile sensibility and opens up to a world of feeling and an ocean of melancholy longing; his poetry is tremendous and shows that this man was not the bully or the boor some make him out to be. Still, Belloc is not the evangelist CSL or GKC are. He has no interest in your conversion, or even in diplomacy. Join him if you’d like, but if you can’t stand the pace of the hike, or if you don’t know where you’re headed, or if you can’t bother to stop and enjoy some beer at an inn along the way, you’ll simply be left behind and he won’t mind the loss. You were a difficult companion to begin with. Consequently he is the least appreciated of the three writers, for we live in a world that loves to be cajoled and convinced and pitched to, in a world that loves advertizing and flattery, in a world that demands more attention to our precious doubts and sensitivities than Belloc is willing to pay. Belloc would say “to hell with that” and hop on his sailboat while saying his prayers.
Still, there is something you’ll find in Belloc that you won’t find in the other two. There is a kind of unadorned worship. The thrill of his prose and the beauty and delicacy of his verse is not an adornment for Belloc; he doesn’t play with words as Chesterton does, or delight in metaphor and analogy as Lewis does. He simply looks at God and honors him; admires Our Lady and praises her. And from this comes Belloc’s ability to prophecy, from this comes his insight into history. From this comes his humor, his great and wry humor, missed by most readers, especially when they’re not familiar with him. From this comes, even, his sadness.
But the greatest of these is Gilbert.
I will say little more here, for I stand a bit speechless before a man of loquacious wit and profound philosophy. I stand in awe - joyful awe (which he taught me), but awe. Not only was G. K. Chesterton the greatest writer of the 20th Century, and the greatest of the three here mentioned, but he was much more than that.
For I, too, can prophesy.
In 300 years, when Chesterton has been canonized, and historians look back at the dark days of the Culture of Death, they will see that the Church began to rise again, even though it had appeared, like the Titanic, to sink and send mere bubbles up from below. They will note that a kind of “under water” movement began with John Henry Newman, a movement called by Newman himself the Second Spring. And they will see that amidst the Catholic Literary Revival – something which began with Newman and ended with Waugh or Greene, but which perhaps transmutes itself into things like the American Chesterton Society and the St. Austin Review – they will see a gigantic figure – physically big when he was living, spiritually big after his death. They will see G. K. Chesterton, and they will see an influence spreading. They will see something take root in darkness and sprout into light – they will see something rise from the depths that appeared to have sunk and rusted away – they will see a new expression of the Spirit: an expression of love for God and for life that is intelligent, joyful, funny, witty, grateful, profoundly philosophical and profoundly sane. And they will see that the foremost figure of this Second Spring, this New Evangelization, a figure who influenced C. S. Lewis, Hilaire Belloc, and many more after them, was Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
And they will see in his life, in his work, and after his death in his patronage and prayers, the beginnings of a new and at first hidden resurrection; arising from the cold dark waters, they will see the Church alive again, when we needed it the most.