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The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce | From Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration In An Age of Unbelief | IgnatiusInsight.com

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In 1908 Chesterton produced one of his most influential books. Orthodoxy, published on 25 September, was written in response to a reviewer of his earlier book, Heretics, who had complained that Chesterton had condemned the theology and philosophy of others without clearly stating his own. 'With all the solemnity of youth,' Chesterton wrote, 'I accepted this as a challenge; and wrote an outline of my own reasons for believing that the Christian theory, as summarised in the Apostles' Creed, would be found to be a better criticism of life than any of those that I had criticised. [1]

Orthodoxy was Chesterton's first explicitly Christian title and his biographer Maisie Ward considered it so important that 'more must be said of it than his other published works'. [2] Her father, Wilfrid Ward, whose talk at Oxford had done so much to stimulate Christopher Dawson's interest in Newman, proclaimed it as a major milestone in the development of Christian thought. In an article on Orthodoxy and its author in the Dublin Review, Ward wrote:
I class his thought — though not his manner — with that of such men as Burke, Butler and Coleridge ...

The spectacle of this intensely active and earnest modern intellect ... reminds us how much that is indispensable in the inheritance of Christendom our own age has ceased adequately to realise and is in danger of lightly abandoning? [3]
The strength of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and the key to its success, was the way the author made the subject attractive to his readers. Dorothy L. Sayers was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl when she first read the book and was inspired and excited by Chesterton's image of the Church as a heavenly chariot 'thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect'. [4] This invigorating vision rekindled her faith at a time when adolescent doubt and growing disillusionment with the low-church puritanism to which she was accustomed was threatening to extinguish it. 'In the book called Orthodoxy,' she wrote, 'there were glimpses of this other Christianity, which was beautiful and adventurous and queerly full of honour. [5] She told a friend in later years that, but for Chesterton's vision of Orthodoxy, she might in her schooldays have abandoned Christianity altogether. [6] In 1952 she put the matter more eloquently: 'To the young people of my generation G. K. C. was a kind of Christian liberator. Like a beneficent bomb, he blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period, and let in gusts of fresh air in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady's Tumbler. [7]

A few years later Arnold Lunn made the same point. The modern world, he wrote in 1956, was in danger of overlooking the debt so many people owed to Chesterton, of forgetting the impact which his books made on the minds of the young men who were infected by the fallacy of Victorian rationalism'. [8]

Another writer who was affected profoundly by Orthodoxy was Theodore Maynard who had first read the book as a nineteen-year-old: 'It still seems to me a most extraordinary work and it sank deeply into my mind ... Chesterton did not himself enter the Church until thirteen years later ... long before that he had made a Catholic of me.' [9]

Theodore Maynard was a minor literary light, never destined to gain the international reputation of either Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers, although he enjoyed a period of renown as both poet and biographer stretching from the beginning of the First World War until the end of the Second. Throughout his literary career he continually acknowledged 'the great influence of G. K. Chesterton upon his thought and writings and to a lesser extent that of Hilaire Belloc'. [10] Other minor literary figures gathering round the flame of orthodoxy around this time included Ernest Messenger, received in 1908, who gave up his career as a Fleet Street journalist under T. P. O'Connor to study for the priesthood before becoming a writer of popular theology and a translator of philosophical works from the French; Naomi Jacob, who converted the previous year as an eighteen-year-old, and who was destined to become one of the most prolific and popular of novelists, writing light fiction chiefly concerned with the delineation of character; and Lewis Watt, received in 1906 and later becoming a Jesuit, the author of several books on Catholic social teaching.

It is not clear whether Chesterton's Orthodoxy had any direct influence on Maurice Baring's imminent conversion but considering his admiration for Chesterton's earlier works, and his growing fondness for the author, it would be surprising if Baring had not read Orthodoxy in the months immediately preceding his reception into the Church on 1 February 1909.

Although Baring had written to Vernon Lee from St Petersburg in January 1906 asking whether Lee had read Chesterton's books, The Napoleon of Notting Hill and Heretics, and stating that 'I like his ideas', [11] it seems that Chesterton and Baring did not become good friends until as late as 1907. Considering that they had both been friends of Belloc since the turn of the century, this is surprising. As late as March 1908 Baring was writing to Chesterton from Moscow requesting a greater intimacy in their relationship:
Dear Gilbert may I leave out the Chesterton?
(Prince, may I call you by your Christian name?)
(Your surname is so solemn & so long:-
Prince may I call you by your Christian name?)
I hope to be back in London this week.
(Prince, let us meet & swallow wine & beer.)
I hope to see you very soon on my return.
(Prince, there is no one like you in the East.)
I hope you & I & Hilaire may meet. [12]
The slow development of their relationship had a lot to do with Baring's long absences from England in places as diverse as Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Moscow and Manchuria, but, once formed, their friendship grew stronger as the years passed. Eventually Frances Chesterton was to say that 'of all her husband's friends' there was none he loved better than Maurice Baring.

Baring was received into the Catholic Church at Brompton Oratory by Father Sebastian Bowden, the same priest whom Oscar Wilde had approached over thirty years earlier. The event was recorded in Baring's autobiography, The Puppet Show of Memory, with the simple statement that it was 'the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted'. [13] Apart from the candour of this solitary statement the event is passed over without further comment.

Such uncharacteristic reticence is surprising from an author who later fear- lessly used the medium of his fiction as a means of expressing his faith. However, the feelings he felt unable or unwilling to express in prose he expressed admirably in verse, particularly in his sonnet sequence 'Vita Nuova'. Divided into a chronological trinity, the first sonnet deals with the initial approach to conversion: 'I found the clue I sought not, in the night, While wandering in a pathless maze of gloom...'

The second sonnet describes the act of conversion itself:
One day I heard a whisper: 'Wherefore wait?
Why linger in a separated porch?
Why nurse the flicker of a severed torch?
The fire is there, ablaze beyond the gate.

Why tremble, foolish soul? Why hesitate?
However faint the knock, it will be heard.'
I knocked, and swiftly came the answering word,
Which bade me enter to my own estate.

I found myself in a familiar place;
And there my broken soul began to mend;
I knew the smile of every long-lost face -

They whom I had forgot remembered me;
I knelt, I knew - it was too bright to see -
The welcome of a King who was my friend. [14]
The final sonnet deals with hopes of eternity beyond the grave where 'That tranquil harbour shines and waits ...' [15]

Endeavouring to explain his reasons for conversion he wrote that 'directly I came to the conclusion inside that life was for me divine, and that I had inside me an immortal thing in touch with an Eternal Spirit, there was no other course open to me than to become a Catholic'." He explained to Ethel Smyth, a close friend and confidante, that his faith was a fusion of want and need: 'I feel that human life which is almost intolerable as it is, would be to me quite intolerable without this which is to me no narcotic but food, air, drink."' It is not surprising, therefore, that Smyth should describe Baring's conversion as 'the crucial action of his life' and that when she had been informed of the event she 'had the feeling that the missing piece of a complicated puzzle, or rather the only key wherewith a given iron safe could be unlocked, had at last been found'. [18]

A similar view was held by the French writer Raymond Las Vergnas. In his critical study of Chesterton, Belloc and Baring, translated into English by Father Martindale, Las Vergnas wrote that Baring's Christian faith was the 'powerful unifying force' responsible for 'harmonising the complex tendencies' in his artis- tic temperament. [19]

News of Baring's conversion was greeted with jubilation by Hilaire Belloc who had observed his friend's slow but steady progress over more than a decade. Three years earlier, on 19 April 1906, Belloc had written a rhyming letter to Baring offering encouragement as his friend fumbled his way faithwards:
My ardent love
Accompanies your soul and on the whole
I doubt if all the saints could roll your soul
One tittle faster to the Faith than He
Who made your soul is rolling it. H.B. [20]
Emma Letley, Baring's biographer, gave her study the title Maurice Baring: A Citizen of Europe and it is not difficult to see why. Baring travelled widely throughout Europe as diplomat, journalist and man of leisure. He knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian and Russian and he was widely read in the literatures of all these languages. He was the quintessential European. With this in mind, Belloc's words in An Open Letter on the Decay of Faith, published in 1906, must have struck Baring with a particular resonance:
I desire you to remember that we are Europe; we are a great people. The faith is not an accident among us, nor an imposition, nor a garment; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh: it is a philosophy made by and making ourselves. We have adorned, explained, enlarged it; we have given it visible form. This is the service we Europeans have done to God. In return He has made us Christians. [21]
Following Baring's conversion, Belloc wrote a celebratory letter to Charlotte Balfour, who had been received into the Church herself in 1904: 'They are coming in like a gathering army from all manner of directions, all manner of men each bringing some new force: that of Maurice is his amazing accuracy of mind which proceeds from his great virtue of truth.' [22]

Belloc's profound gratitude at the gathering army of converts belonged, at least in part, to the work of his friend G. K. Chesterton. More than any writer in the first decade of the century Chesterton had taken on the secularists, doing battle with 'heretics' such as Shaw and Wells with a good-natured joviality which was infectious. Chesterton's Christianity was catching and through his piercing paradoxes and quixotic enthusiasm many were beginning to discoved the attraction of orthodoxy.


[1] G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography, London, 1936, p. 177.
[2] Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, p. 181.
[3] Maisie Ward, Resurrection versus Insurrection, London, 1937, p. 206.
[4] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, London, 1908, p. 169.
[5] Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, London, 1993, p. 57.
[6] ibid., p. 74. [7] Dorothy L. Sayers, Preface to Chesterton's play, The Surprise, London, 1952, p. 5.
[8] Arnold Lunn, Now I See, London, 1956, p. 51.
[9] John A. O'Brien (ed.), The Road To Damascus, London, 1949, p. 114.
[10] ibid., p. 105.
[11] The Chesterton Review, Vol. XIX, No. 1, February 1988, p. 2.
[12] Emma Letley, Maurice Baring: A Citizen of Europe, p. 140.
[13] Maurice Baring, The Puppet Show of Memory, London, 1922, pp. 395-6.
[14] Maurice Baring, Collected Poems, London, 1925, pp. 65-6.
[15] ibid., p. 67.
[16] Emma Letley, Maurice Baring: A Citizen of Europe, p. 144.
[17] ibid., p. 144.
[18] Ethel Smyth, Maurice Baring, London, 1938, pp. 39-40.
[19] Raymond Las Vergnas, Chesterton, Belloc, Baring, London, 1938, p. 95.
[20] Robert Speaight (ed.), Letters from Hilaire Belloc, London, 1958, p. 7.
[21] Karl G. Schmude, Hilaire Belloc: His Life and Legacy, Melbourne, Australia, 1978, p. 5.
[22] Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc, London, 1957, p. 245.

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British author Joseph Pearce has firmly established himself as the premier literary biographer of our time, especially in interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary tradition. He has written biographies of Chesterton, Belloc, Oscar Wilde, and several others. His new book, The Quest for Shakespeare, is a provocative biography of the world's most revered writer. He is also the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions.

For more about Pearce and his books, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.

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