“I despise Birth-Control”: G.K. Chesterton on Babies and Distributism

I hope it is not a secret arrogance to say that I do not think I am exceptionally arrogant; or if I were, my religion would prevent me from being proud of my pride. Nevertheless, for those of such a philosophy, there is a very terrible temptation to intellectual pride, in the welter of wordy and worthless philosophies that surround us today. Yet there are not many things that move me to anything like a personal contempt. I do not feel any
contempt for an atheist, who is often a man limited and constrained by his own logic to a very sad simplification. I do not feel any contempt for a Bolshevist, who is a man driven to the same negative simplification by a revolt against very positive wrongs. But there is one type of person for whom I feel what I can only call contempt. And that is the popular propagandist of what he or she absurdly describes as Birth-Control.

I despise Birth-Control first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word; and is used so as to curry favour even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does notcontrol any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control. It cannot for instance, determine sex, or even make any selection in the style of the pseudo-science of Eugenics. Normal people can only act so as to produce birth; and these people can only act so as to prevent birth. But these people know perfectly well as I do that the very word Birth-Prevention would strike a chill into the public, the instant it was blazoned on headlines, or proclaimed on platforms, or scattered in advertisements like any other quack medicine. They dare not call it by its name, because its name is very bad advertising. Therefore they use a conventional and unmeaning word, which may make the quack medicine sound more innocuous.

Second, I despise Birth-Control because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly thing. It is not even a step along the muddy road they call Eugenics; it is a flat refusal to take the first and most obvious step along the road of Eugenics. Once grant that their philosophy is right, and their course of action is obvious; and they dare not take it; they dare not even declare it. If there is no authority in things which Christendom has called moral, because their origins were mystical, then they are clearly free to ignore all the difference between animals and men; and treat men as we treat animals. They need not palter with the stale and timid compromise and convention called Birth-Control. Nobody applies it to the cat. The obvious course for Eugenists is to act towards babies as they act towards kittens. Let all the babies be born; and then let us drown those we do not like. I cannot see any objection to it; except the moral or mystical sort of objection that we advance against Birth-Prevention. And that would be real and even reasonable Eugenics; for we could then select the best, or at least the healthiest, and sacrifice what are called the unfit. By the weak compromise of Birth-Prevention, we are very probably sacrificing the fit and only producing the unfit. The births we prevent may be the births of the best and most beautiful children; those we allow, the weakest or worst. Indeed, it is probable; for the habit discourages the early parentage of young and vigorous people; and lets them put off the experience to later years, mostly from mercenary motives. Until I see a real pioneer and progressive leader coming out with a good, bold, scientific programme for drowning babies, I will not join the movement.

But there is a third reason for my contempt, much deeper and therefore more difficult to express; in which is rooted all my reasons for being anything I am or attempt to be; and above all, for being a Distributist. Perhaps the nearest to a description of it is to say this: that my contempt boils over into bad behaviour when I hear the common suggestion that a birth is avoided because people want to be “free” to go to the cinema or buy a gramophone or a loud-speaker. What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word “free.” By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men. The cinema is a machine for unrolling certain regular patterns called pictures; expressing the most vulgar millionaires’ notion of the taste of the most vulgar millions. The gramophone is a machine for recording such tunes as certain shops and other organisations choose to sell. The wireless is better; but even that is marked by the modern mark of all three; the impotence of the receptive party. The amateur cannot challenge the actor; the householder will find it vain to go and shout into the gramophone; the mob cannot pelt the modern speaker, especially when he is a loud-speaker. It is all a central mechanism giving out to men exactly what their masters think they should have.

Now a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation. He is also a much more beautiful, wonderful, amusing and astonishing thing than any of the stale stories or jingling jazz tunes turned out by the machines. When men no longer feel that he is so, they have lost the appreciation of primary things, and therefore all sense of proportion about the world. People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life. They are preferring the last, crooked, indirect, borrowed, repeated and exhausted things of our dying Capitalist civilization, to the reality which is the only rejuvenation of all civilization. It is they who are hugging the chains of their old slavery; it is the child who is ready for the new world.


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In the last chapter I have dealt in a preliminary fashion with
the Protestant case in the conventional controversial sense.
I have dealt with the objections which I suspected very early
of being prejudices and which I now know to be prejudices.
I have dealt last and at the greatest length with what I believe
to be the noblest of all the prejudices of Protestantism:
that which is simply founded on patriotism.  I do not think
patriotism is necessarily prejudice; but I am quite sure it must
be prejudice and nothing else but prejudice, unless it is covered
by some common morality.  And a patriotism that does not allow
other people to be patriots is not a morality but an immorality.
Even such a tribal prejudice, however, is a more respectable
thing than most of the rags and tatters of stale slander and
muddleheadedness which I am obliged to put first as the official
policy of the opposition to the Church.  These stale stories
seem to count for a great deal with people who are resolved
to keep far away from the Church.  I do not believe they
ever counted with anybody who had begun to draw near to it.
When a man really sees the Church, even if he dislikes what
he sees, he does not see what he had expected to dislike.
Even if he wants to slay it he is no longer able to slander it;
though he hates it at sight, what he sees is not what he looked
to see; in that place he may gain a new passion but he loses
his old prejudice.  There drops from him the holy armour
of his invincible ignorance; he can never be so stupid again.
If he has a ready mind he can doubtless set his new reasons in some
sort of order and even attempt to link them with his lost tradition.
But the thing he hates is there; and the last chapter was wholly
devoted to the study of things that are not there.

The real reasons are almost the opposite of the recognised reasons.
The real difficulties are almost the opposite of the recognised
difficulties.  This is connected, of course, with a general fact,
now so large and obvious but still not clearly comprehended
and confessed.  The whole case of Protestantism against Catholicism
has been turned clean round and is facing the contrary way.
On practically every single point on which the Reformation accused
the Church, the modern world has not only acquitted the Church
of the crime, but has actually charged it with the opposite crime.
It is as if the reformers had mobbed the Pope for being a miser,
and then the court had not only acquitted him but had censured
him for his extravagance in scattering money among the mob.
The principle of modern Protestantism seems to be that so long
as we go on shouting "To hell with the Pope" there is room
for the widest differences of opinion about whether he should go
to the hell of the misers or the hell of the spendthrifts.
This is what is meant by a broad basis for Christianity and the statement
that there is room for many different opinions side by side.
When the reformer says that the principles of the Reformation
give freedom to different points of view, he means that they give
freedom to the Universalist to curse Rome for having too much
predestination and to the Calvinist to curse her for having
too little.  He means that in that happy family there is a place
for the No Popery man who finds Purgatory too tender-hearted
and also for the other No Popery man who finds Hell too harsh.
He means that the same description can somehow be made
to cover the Tolstoyan who blames priests because they permit
patriotism and the Diehard who blames priests because they
represent Internationalism.  After all, the essential aim of true
Christianity is that priests should be blamed; and who are we
that we should set narrow dogmatic limits to the various ways
in which various temperaments may desire to blame them?
Why should we allow a cold difficulty of the logician,
technically called a contradiction in terms, to stand between us
and the warm and broadening human brotherhood of all who are
full of sincere and unaffected dislike of their neighbours?
Religion is of the heart, not of the head; and as long as all our
hearts are full of a hatred for everything that our fathers loved,
we can go on flatly contradicting each other for ever about
what there is to be hated.

Such is the larger and more liberal modern attack upon the Church.  It is
quite inconsistent with the old doctrinal attack; but it does not
propose to lose the advantages arising from any sort of attack.
But in a somewhat analogous fashion, it will be found that the real
difficulties of a modern convert are almost the direct contrary of those
which were alleged by the more ancient Protestants.  Protestant pamphlets
do not touch even remotely any of the real hesitations that he feels;
and even Catholic pamphlets have often been concerned too much
with answering the Protestant pamphlets.  Indeed, the only sense
in which the priests and propagandists of Catholicism can really
be said to be behind the times is that they sometimes go on flogging
a dead horse and killing a heresy long after it has killed itself.
But even that is, properly understood, a fault on the side of chivalry.
The preacher, and even the persecutor, really takes the heresy more
seriously than it is seen ultimately to deserve; the inquisitor has
more respect for the heresy than the heretics have.  Still, it is true
that the grounds of suspicion or fear that do really fill the convert,
and sometimes paralyse him at the very point of conversion,
have really nothing in the world to do with this old crop of crude
slanders and fallacies, and are often the very inversion of them.

The short way of putting it is to say that he is no longer
afraid of the vices but very much afraid of the virtues
of Catholicism.  For instance, he has forgotten all about the old
nonsense of the cunning lies of the confessional, in his lively
and legitimate alarm of the truthfulness of the confessional.
He does not recoil from its insincerity but from its sincerity;
nor is he necessarily insincere in doing so.  Realism is really
a rock of offence; it is not at all unnatural to shrink
from it; and most modern realists only manage to like it
because they are careful to be realistic about other people.
He is near enough to the sacrament of penance to have discovered
its realism and not near enough to have yet discovered its
reasonableness and its common sense.  Most of those who have
gone through this experience have a certain right to say,
like the old soldier to his ignorant comrade, "Yes, I was afraid;
and if you were half as much afraid, you would run away."
Perhaps it is just as well that people go through this stage
before discovering how very little there is to be afraid of.
In any case, I will say little more of that example here,
having a feeling that absolution, like death and marriage,
is a thing that a man ought to find out for himself.  It will be
enough to say that this is perhaps the supreme example of the fact
that the Faith is a paradox that measures more within than without.
If that be true of the smallest church, it is truer still of the yet
smaller confessional-box, that is like a church within a church.
It is almost a good thing that nobody outside should know
what gigantic generosity, and even geniality, can be locked up
in a box, as the legendary casket held the heart of the giant.
It is a satisfaction, and almost a joke, that it is only in
a dark corner and a cramped space that any man can discover
that mountain of magnanimity.

It is the same with all the other points of attack,
especially the old ones.  The man who has come so far
as that along the road has long left behind him the notion
that the priest will force him to abandon his will.
But he is not unreasonably dismayed at the extent to which
he may have to use his will.  He is not frightened because,
after taking this drug, he will be henceforward irresponsible.
But he is very much frightened because he will be responsible.
He will have somebody to be responsible to and he will know
what he is responsible for; two uncomfortable conditions which his
more fortunate fellow-creatures have nowadays entirely escaped.
There are of course many other examples of the same principle:
that there is indeed an interval of acute doubt, which is,
strictly speaking, rather fear than doubt, since in some cases
at least (as I shall point out elsewhere) there is actually
least doubt when there is most fear.

But anyhow, the doubts are hardly ever of the sort suggested
by ordinary anti-Catholic propaganda:  and it is surely time
that such propagandists brought themselves more in touch
with the real problem.  The Catholic is scarcely ever
frightened of the Protestant picture of Catholicism; but he is
sometimes frightened of the Catholic picture of Catholicism;
which may be a good reason for not disproportionately
stressing the difficult or puzzling parts of the scheme.
For the convert's sake, it should also be remembered that one
foolish word from inside does more harm than a hundred thousand
foolish words from outside.  The latter he has already learned
to expect, like a blind hail or rain beating upon the Ark;
but the voices from within, even the most casual and accidental,
he is already prepared to regard as holy or more than human;
and though this is unfair to people who only profess to be
human beings, it is a fact that Catholics ought to remember.
There is many a convert who has reached a stage at which no word
from any Protestant or pagan could any longer hold him back.
Only the word of a Catholic can keep him from Catholicism.

It is quite false, in my experience, to say that Jesuits, or any other
Roman priests, pester and persecute people in order to proselytise.
Nobody has any notion of what the whole story is about, who does
not know that, through those long and dark and indecisive days, it is
the man who persecutes himself.  The apparent inaction of the priest
may be something like the statuesque stillness of the angler; and such
an attitude is not unnatural in the functions of a fisher of men.
But it is very seldom impatient or premature and the person acted
upon is quite lonely enough to realise that it is nothing merely
external that is tugging at his liberty.  The laity are probably
less wise; for in most communions the ecclesiastical layman is
more ecclesiastical than is good for his health, and certainly
much more ecclesiastical than the ecclesiastics.  My experience is
that the amateur is generally much more angry than the professional;
and if he expresses his irritation at the slow process of conversion,
or the inconsistencies of the intermediate condition, he may do
a great deal of harm, of the kind that he least intends to do.
I know in my own case that I always experienced a slight setback
whenever some irresponsible individual interposed to urge me on.
It is worth while, for practical reasons, to testify to such experience,
because it may guide the convert when he in his turn begins converting.
Our enemies no longer really know how to attack the faith;
but that is no reason why we should not know how to defend it.

Yet even that one trivial or incidental caution carries
with it a reminder of what has been already noted:
I mean the fact that whatever be the Catholic's worries,
they are the very contrary of the Protestant's warnings.
Merely as a matter of personal experience, I have been led to note
here that it is not generally the priest, but much more often
the layman, who rather too ostentatiously compasses sea and land
to make one proselyte.  All the creepy and uncanny whispers about
the horror of having the priest in the home, as if he were a sort
of vampire or a monster intrinsically different from mankind,
vanishes with the smallest experience of the militant layman.
The priest does his job, but it is much more his secular
co-religionist who is disposed to explain it and talk about it.
I do not object to laymen proselytising; for I never could see,
even when I was practically a pagan, why a man should not urge his
own opinions if he liked and that opinion as much as any other.
I am not likely to complain of the evangelising energy
of Mr. Hilaire Belloc or Mr. Eric Gill; if only because I
owe to it the most intelligent talks of my youth.
But it is that sort of man who proselytises in that sort of way;
and the conventional caricature is wrong again when it always
represents him in a cassock.  Catholicism is not spread by any
particular professional tricks or tones or secret signs or ceremonies.
Catholicism is spread by Catholics; but not certainly,
in private life at least, merely by Catholic priests.
I merely give this here out of a hundred examples, as showing once
again that the old traditional version of the terrors of Popery was
almost always wrong, even where it might possibly have been right.
A man may say if he likes that Catholicism is the enemy;
and he may be stating from his point of view a profound
spiritual truth.  But if he says that Clericalism is the enemy,
he is repeating a catchword.

It is my experience that the convert commonly passes through three
stages or states of mind.  The first is when he imagines himself
to be entirely detached, or even to be entirely indifferent,
but in the old sense of the term, as when the Prayer Book talks
of judges who will truly and indifferently administer justice.
Some flippant modern person would probably agree that our judges
administer justice very indifferently.  But the older meaning was
legitimate and even logical and it is that which is applicable here.
The first phase is that of the young philosopher who feels
that he ought to be fair to the Church of Rome.  He wishes to do
it justice; but chiefly because he sees that it suffers injustice.
I remember that when I was first on the Daily News, the great
Liberal organ of the Nonconformists, I took the trouble
to draw up a list of fifteen falsehoods which I found out,
by my own personal knowledge, in a denunciation of Rome
by Messrs.  Horton and Hocking.  I noted, for instance, that it
was nonsense to say that the Covenanters fought for religious
liberty when the Covenant denounced religious toleration;
that it was false to say the Church only asked for orthodoxy and
was indifferent to morality, since, if this was true of anybody,
it was obviously true of the supporters of salvation by faith
and not of salvation by works; that it was absurd to say that
Catholics introduced a horrible sophistry of saying that a man
might sometimes tell a lie, since every sane man knows he would
tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers; that it missed
the whole point, in this connection, to quote Ward's phrase,
"Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie
like a trooper," for Ward's argument was against equivocation
or what people call Jesuitry.  He meant, "When the child really
is hiding in the cupboard and the Chinese torturers really
are chasing him with red-hot pincers, then (and then only)
be sure that you are right to deceive and do not hesitate to lie;
but do not stoop to equivocate.  Do not bother yourself
to say, "The child is in a wooden house not far from here,"
meaning the cupboard; but say the child is in Chiswick or
Chimbora zoo, or anywhere you choose."  I find I made elaborate
notes of all these arguments all that long time ago, merely for
the logical pleasure of disentangling an intellectual injustice.
I had no more idea of becoming a Catholic than of becoming a cannibal.
I imagined that I was merely pointing out that justice should
be done even to cannibals.  I imagined that I was noting
certain fallacies partly for the fun of the thing and partly
for a certain feeling of loyalty to the truth of things.
But as a matter of fact, looking back on these notes (which I
never published), it seems to me that I took a tremendous amount
of trouble about it if I really regarded it as a trifle; and taking
trouble has certainly never been a particular weakness of mine.
It seems to me that something was already working subconsciously
to keep me more interested in fallacies about this particular
topic than in fallacies about Free Trade or Female Suffrage
or the House of Lords.  Anyhow, that is the first stage in my
own case and I think in many other cases:  the stage of simply
wishing to protect Papists from slander and oppression, not
(consciously at least) because they hold any particular truth,
but because they suffer from a particular accumulation of falsehood.
The second stage is that in which the convert begins to be
conscious not only of the falsehood but the truth and is enormously
excited to find that there is far more of it than he would ever
have expected.  This is not so much a stage as a progress;
and it goes on pretty rapidly but often for a long time.
It consists in discovering what a very large number of lively
and interesting ideas there are in the Catholic philosophy,
that a great many of them commend themselves at once to
his sympathies, and that even those which he would not accept
have something to be said for them justifying their acceptance.
This process, which may be called discovering the Catholic Church,
is perhaps the most pleasant and straightforward part
of the business easier than joining the Catholic Church
and much easier than trying to live the Catholic life.
It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers
and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable.
To give anything like a full account of that process would simply
be to discuss about half a hundred Catholic ideas and institutions
in turn.  I might remark that much of it consists of the act
of translation; of discovering the real meaning of words,
which the Church uses rightly and the world uses wrongly.
For instance, the convert discovers that "scandal" does not
mean "gossip"; and the sin of causing it does not mean that it
is always wicked to set silly old women wagging their tongues.
Scandal means scandal, what it originally meant in Greek and Latin:
the tripping up of somebody else when he is trying to be good.
Or he will discover that phrases like "counsel of perfection"
or "venial sin," which mean nothing at all in the newspapers,
mean something quite intelligent and interesting in the manuals
of moral theology.  He begins to realise that it is the secular
world that spoils the sense of words; and he catches an
exciting glimpse of the real case for the iron immortality
of the Latin Mass.  It is not a question between a dead language
and a living language, in the sense of an everlasting language.
It is a question between a dead language and a dying language;
an inevitably degenerating language.  It is these numberless
glimpses of great ideas, that have been hidden from
the convert by the prejudices of his provincial culture,
that constitute the adventurous and varied second stage
of the conversion.  It is, broadly speaking, the stage
in which the man is unconsciously trying to be converted.
And the third stage is perhaps the truest and the most terrible.
It is that in which the man is trying not to be converted.

He has come too near to the truth, and has forgotten that truth
is a magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion.
He is filled with a sort of fear, which makes him feel like a fool
who has been patronising "Popery" when he ought to have been awakening
to the reality of Rome.  He discovers a strange and alarming fact,
which is perhaps implied in Newman's interesting lecture on Blanco White
and the two ways of attacking Catholicism.  Anyhow, it is a truth that
Newman and every other convert has probably found in one form or another.
It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church.  The moment men
cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it.  The moment they
cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure.
The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it.
But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take
on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.  The man
has exactly the same sense of having committed or compromised himself;
of having been in a sense entrapped, even if he is glad to be entrapped.
But for a considerable time he is not so much glad as simply terrified.
It may be that this real psychological experience has
been misunderstood by stupider people and is responsible
for all that remains of the legend that Rome is a mere trap.
But that legend misses the whole point of the psychology.  It is not
the Pope who has set the trap or the priests who have baited it.
The whole point of the position is that the trap is simply the truth.
The whole point is that the man himself has made his way towards
the trap of truth, and not the trap that has run after the man.
All steps except the last step he has taken eagerly on his own account,
out of interest in the truth; and even the last step, or the last stage,
only alarms him because it is so very true.  If I may refer once
more to a personal experience, I may say that I for one was never less
troubled by doubts than in the last phase, when I was troubled by fears.
Before that final delay I had been detached and ready to regard all
sorts of doctrines with an open mind.  Since that delay has ended
in decision, I have had all sorts of changes in mere mood; and I think
I sympathise with doubts and difficulties more than I did before.
But I had no doubts or difficulties just before.  I had only fears;
fears of something that had the finality and simplicity of suicide.
But the more I thrust the thing into the back of my mind, the more
certain I grew of what Thing it was.  And by a paradox that does
not frighten me now in the least, it may be that I shall never again
have such absolute assurance that the thing is true as I had when I
made my last effort to deny it.

There is a postscript or smaller point to be added here
to this paradox; which I know that many will misunderstand.
Becoming a Catholic broadens the mind.  It especially broadens
the mind about the reasons for becoming a Catholic.  Standing in
the centre where all roads meet, a man can look down each of the roads
in turn and realise that they come from all points of the heavens.
As long as he is still marching along his own road, that is
the only road that can be seen, or sometimes even imagined.
For instance, many a man who is not yet a Catholic calls himself
a Mediaevalist.  But a man who is only a Mediaevalist is very much
broadened by becoming a Catholic.  I am myself a Mediaevalist,
in the sense that I think modern life has a great deal to learn from
mediaeval life; that Guilds are a better social system than Capitalism;
that friars are far less offensive than philanthropists.
But I am a much more reasonable and moderate Mediaevalist
than I was when I was only a Mediaevalist.  For instance,
I felt it necessary to be perpetually pitting Gothic architecture
against Greek architecture, because it was necessary to back up
Christians against pagans.  But now I am in no such fuss and I
know what Coventry Patmore meant when he said calmly that it
would have been quite as Catholic to decorate his mantelpiece
with the Venus of Milo as with the Virgin.  As a Mediaevalist I
am still proudest of the Gothic; but as a Catholic I am proud
of the Baroque.  That intensity which seems almost narrow
because it comes to the point, like a mediaeval window,
is very representative of that last concentration that comes
just before conversion.  At the last moment of all, the convert
often feels as if he were looking through a leper's window.
He is looking through a little crack or crooked hole that seems
to grow smaller as he stares at it; but it is an opening that
looks towards the Altar.  Only, when he has entered the Church,
he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside.
He has left behind him the lop-sidedness of lepers'
windows and even in a sense the narrowness of Gothic doors;
and he is under vast domes as open as the Renaissance and as
universal as the Republic of the world.  He can say in a sense
unknown to all modern men certain ancient and serene words:
Romanus civis sum; I am not a slave.

The point for the moment, however, is that there is generally
an interval of intense nervousness, to say the least of it,
before this normal heritage is reached.  To a certain extent it
is a fear which attaches to all sharp and irrevocable decisions;
it is suggested in all the old jokes about the shakiness of the
bridegroom at the wedding or the recruit who takes the shilling
and gets drunk partly to celebrate, but partly also to forget it.
But it is the fear of a fuller sacrament and a mightier army.
He has, by the nature of the case, left a long way behind him the mere
clumsy idea that the sacrament will poison him or the army will kill him.
He has probably passed the point, though he does generally pass
it at some time, when he wonders whether the whole business is an
extraordinarily intelligent and ingenious confidence trick.  He is not
now in the condition which may be called the last phase of real doubt.
I mean that in which he wondered whether the thing that everybody
told him was too bad to be tolerable, is not too good to be true.
Here again the recurrent principle is present; and the obstacle is
the very opposite of that which Protestant propaganda has pointed out.
If he still has the notion of being trapped, he has no longer any
notion of being tricked.  He is not afraid of finding the Church out,
but rather of the Church finding him out.

This note on the stages of conversion is necessarily very negative
and inadequate.  There is in the last second of time or hair's
breadth of space, before the iron leaps to the magnet, an abyss
full of all the unfathomable forces of the universe.  The space
between doing and not doing such a thing is so tiny and so vast.
It is only possible here to give the reasons for Catholicism,
not the cause of Catholicism.  I have tried to suggest here some of
the enlightenments and experiences which gradually teach those who have
been taught to think ill of the Church to begin to think well of her.
That anything described as so bad should turn out to be so good
is itself a rather arresting process having a savour of something
sensational and strange.  To come to curse and remain to bless,
to come to scoff and remain to pray, is always welcome in a spirit
of wonder and the glow of an unexpected good.

But it is one thing to conclude that Catholicism is good and
another to conclude that it is right.  It is one thing to conclude
that it is right and another to conclude that it is always right.
I had never believed the tradition that it was diabolical;
I had soon come to doubt the idea that it was inhuman, but that would
only have left me with the obvious inference that it was human.
It is a considerable step from that to the inference that it is divine.
When we come to that conviction of divine authority, we come
to the more mysterious matter of divine aid.  In other words.
we come to the unfathomable idea of grace and the gift of faith;
and I have not the smallest intention of attempting to fathom it.
It is a theological question of the utmost complexity; and it is one
thing to feel it as a fact and another to define it as a truth.
One or two points about the preliminary dispositions that
prepare the mind for it are all that need be indicated here.
To begin with, there is one sense in which the blackest bigots are
really the best philosophers.  The Church really is like Antichrist
in the sense that it is as unique as Christ.  Indeed, if it be not
Christ it probably is Antichrist; but certainly it is not Moses
or Mahomet or Buddha or Plato or Pythagoras.  The more we see
of humanity, the more we sympathise with humanity, the more we
shall see that when it is simply human it is simply heathen;
and the names of its particular local gods or tribal prophets or highly
respectable sages are a secondary matter compared with that human
and heathen character.  In the old paganism of Europe, in the existing
paganism of Asia, there have been gods and priests and prophets
and sages of all sorts; but not another institution of this sort.
The pagan cults die very slowly; they do not return very rapidly.
They do not make the sort of claim that is made at a crisis;
and then make the same claim again and again at crisis
after crisis throughout the whole history of the earth.
All that people fear in the Church, all that they hate in her,
all against which they most harden their hearts and sometimes
(one is tempted to say) thicken their heads, all that has made
people consciously and unconsciously treat the Catholic Church
as a peril, is the evidence that there is something here that we
cannot look on at languidly and with detachment, as we might look
on at Hottentotts dancing at the new moon or Chinamen burning
paper in porcelain temples.  The Chinaman and the tourist can be
on the best of terms on a basis of mutual scorn.  But in the duel
of the Church and the world is no such shield of contempt.
The Church will not consent to scorn the soul of a coolie or even
a tourist; and the measure of the madness with which men hate
her is but their vain attempt to despise.

Another element, far more deep and delicate and hard
to describe, is the immediate connection of what is most awful
and archaic with what is most intimate and individual.
It is a miracle in itself that anything so huge and historic
in date and design should be so fresh in the affections.
It is as if a man found his own parlour and fireside in the heart
of the Great Pyramid.  It is as if a child's favourite doll
turned out to be the oldest sacred image in the world,
worshipped in Chaldea or Nineveh.  It is as if a girl
to whom a man made love in a garden were also, in some dark
and double fashion, a statue standing for ever in a square.
It is just here that all those things which were regarded
as weakness come in as the fulness of strength.
Everything that men called sentimental in Roman Catholic religion,
its keepsakes, its small flowers and almost tawdry trinkets,
its figures with merciful gestures and gentle eyes, its avowedly
popular pathos and all that Matthew Arnold meant by Christianity
with its "relieving tears"--all this is a sign of sensitive and
vivid vitality in anything so vast and settled and systematic.
There is nothing quite like this warmth, as in the warmth
of Christmas, amid ancient hills hoary with such snows of antiquity.
It can address even God Almighty with diminutives.
In all its varied vestments it wears its Sacred Heart
upon its sleeve.  But to those who know that it is full
of these lively affections, like little leaping flames,
there is something of almost ironic satisfaction in the stark
and primitive size of the thing, like some prehistoric monster;
in its spires and mitres like the horns of giant herds or its
colossal cornerstones like the four feet of an elephant.
It would be easy to write a merely artistic study of the strange
externals of the Roman religion, which should make it seem
as uncouth and unearthly as Aztec or African religion It
would be easy to talk of it as if it were really some sort
of mammoth or monster elephant, older than the Ice Age,
towering over the Stone Age; his very lines traced, it would seem,
in the earthquakes or landslides of some older creation,
his very organs and outer texture akin to unrecorded patterns
of vegetation and air and light--the last residuum of a lost world.
But the prehistoric monster is in the Zoological Gardens and not
in the Natural History Museum.  The extinct animal is still alive.
And anything outlandish and unfamiliar in its form accentuates
the startling naturalness and familiarity of its mind, as if
the Sphinx began suddenly to talk of the topics of the hour.
The super-elephant is not only a tame animal but a pet;
and a young child shall lead him.

This antithesis between all that is formidable and remote and all
that is personally relevant and realistically tender is another of
those converging impressions which meet in the moment of conviction.
But of all these things, that come nearest to the actual
transition of the gift of faith, it is far harder to write than
of the rationalistic and historical preliminaries of the enquiry.
It is only with those preliminary dispositions towards the truth
that I claim to deal here.  In the chapters that follow I propose
to touch upon two of the larger considerations of this class,
not because they are in themselves any larger than many other
immense aspects of so mighty a theme, but because they happen
to balance each other and form a sort of antithesis very typical
of all Catholic truth.  In the first of the two chapters I
shall try to point out how it is that when we praise the Church
for her greatness we do not merely mean her largeness but,
in a rather notable and unique sense, her universality.
We mean her power of being cosmos and containing other things.
And in the second chapter I shall point out what may seem
to disturb this truth but really balances it.  I mean the fact
that we value the Church because she is a Church Militant;
and sometimes even because she militates against ourselves.
She is something more than the cosmos, in the sense of completed
nature or completed human nature.  She proves that she is some
thing more by sometimes being right where they are wrong.
These two aspects must be considered separately, though they come
together to form the full conviction that comes just before conversion.
But in this chapter I have merely noted down a few points
or stages of the conversion considered as a practical process;
and especially those three stages of it through which many a
Protestant or Agnostic must have passed.  Many a man, looking back
cheerfully on them now, will not be annoyed if I call the first,
patronising the Church; and the second, discovering the Church;
and the third, running away from the Church.  When those three
phases are over, a larger truth begins to come into sight;
it is much too large to describe and we will proceed to describe it.


The first fallacy about the Catholic Church is the idea that it
is a church.  I mean that it is a church in the sense in which
the Nonconformist newspapers talk about The Churches.  I do
not intend any expression of contempt about The Churches;
nor is it an expression of contempt to say that it would be
more convenient to call them the sects.  This is true in a much
deeper and more sympathetic sense than may at first appear;
but to begin with, it is certainly true in a perfectly plain
and historical sense, which has nothing to do with sympathy
at all.  Thus, for instance, I have much more sympathy
for small nationalities than I have for small sects.
But it is simply a historical fact that the Roman Empire
was the Empire and that it was not a small nationality.
And it is simply a historical fact that the Roman Church is
the Church and is not a sect.  Nor is there anything narrow
or unreasonable in saying that the Church is the Church.  It may
be a good thing that the Roman Empire broke up into nations;
but it certainly was not one of the nations into which it broke up.
And even a person who thinks it fortunate that the Church
broke up into sects ought to be able to distinguish between
the little things he likes and the big thing he has broken.
As a matter of fact, in the case of things so large,
so unique and so creative of the culture about them as were
the Roman Empire and the Roman Church, it is not controversial
but simply correct to confine the one word to the one example.
Everybody who originally used the word "Empire" used it of
that Empire; everybody who used the word "Ecclesia" used it of
that Ecclesia.  There may have been similar things in other places,
but they could not be called by the same name for the simple
reason that they were not named in the same language.
We know what we mean by a Roman Emperor; we can if we like
talk of a Chinese Emperor, just as we can if we like take
a particular sort of a Mandarin and say he is equivalent
to a Marquis.  But we never can be certain that he is
exactly equivalent; for the thing we are thinking about is
peculiar to our own history and in that sense stands alone.
Now in that, if in no other sense, the Catholic Church stands alone.
It does not merely belong to a class of Christian churches.
It does not merely belong to a class of human religions.
Considered quite coldly and impartially, as by a man
from the moon, it is much more sui generis than that.
It is, if the critic chooses to think so, the ruin of an
attempt at a Universal Religion which was bound to fail.
But calling the wreckers to break up a ship does not turn
the ship into one of its own timbers; and cutting Poland up
into three pieces does not make Poland the same as Posen.

But in a much more profound and philosophical sense this notion that
the Church is one of the sects is the great fallacy of the whole affair.
It is a matter more psychological and more difficult to describe.
But it is perhaps the most sensational of the silent upheavals or
reversals in the mind that constitute the revolution called conversion.
Every man conceives himself as moving about in a cosmos of some kind;
and the man of the days of my youth walked about in a kind of vast
and airy Crystal Palace in which there were exhibits set side by side.
The cosmos, being made of glass and iron, was partly transparent
and partly colourless; anyhow, there was something negative about it;
arching over all our heads, a roof as remote as a sky, it seemed to be
impartial and impersonal.  Our attention was fixed on the exhibits,
which were all carefully ticketed and arranged in rows; for it
was the age of science.  Here stood all the religions in a row--
the churches or sects or whatever we called them; and towards
the end of the row there was a particularly dingy and dismal one,
with a pointed roof half fallen in and pointed windows most broken
with stones by passers-by; and we were told that this particular
exhibit was the Roman Catholic Church.  Some of us were sorry for it
and even fancied it had been rather badly used; most of us regarded it
as dirty and disreputable; a few of us even pointed out that many details
in the ruin were artistically beautiful or architecturally important.
But most people preferred to deal at other and more business-like booths;
at the Quaker shop of Peace and Plenty or the Salvation Army store
where the showman beats the big drum outside.  Now conversion consists
very largely, on its intellectual side, in the discovery that all that
picture of equal creeds inside an indifferent cosmos is quite false.
It is not a question of comparing the merits and defects
of the Quaker meeting-house set beside the Catholic cathedral.
It is the Quaker meeting-house that is inside the Catholic cathedral;
it is the Catholic cathedral that covers everything like the vault
of the Crystal Palace; and it is when we look up at the vast
distant dome covering all the exhibits that we trace the Gothic
roof and the pointed windows.  In other words, Quakerism is but a
temporary form of Quietism which has arisen technically outside
the Church as the Quietism of Fenelon appeared technically inside
the Church.  But both were in themselves temporary and would have,
like Fenelon, sooner or later to return to the Church in order to live.
The principle of life in all these variations of Protestantism,
in so far as it is not a principle of death, consists of what remained
in them of Catholic Christendom; and to Catholic Christendom they
have always returned to be recharged with vitality.  I know that this
will sound like a statement to be challenged; but it is true.
The return of Catholic ideas to the separated parts of Christendom
was often indeed indirect.  But though the influence came through many,
centrest it always came from one.  It came through the Romantic Movement,
a glimpse of the mere picturesqueness of mediaevalism; but it is
something more than an accident that Romances, like Romance languages,
are named after Rome.  Or it came through the instinctive reaction
of old-fashioned people like Johnson or Scott or Cobbett,
wishing to save old elements that had originally been Catholic against
a progress that was merely Capitalist.  But it led them to denounce
that Capitalist progress and become, like Cobbett, practical foes of
Protestantism without being practising followers of Catholicism.  Or it
came from the Pre-Raphaelites or the opening of continental art
and culture by Matthew Arnold and Morris and Ruskin and the rest.
But examine the actual make-up of the mind of a good Quaker or
Congregational minister at this moment, and compare it with the mind
of such a dissenter in the Little Bethel before such culture came.
And you will see how much of his health and happiness he owes to Ruskin
and what Ruskin owed to Giotto; to Morris and what Morris owed
to Chaucer; to fine scholars of his own school like Philip Wicksteed,
and what they owe to Dante and St. Thomas.  Such a man will still
sometimes talk of the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages.  But the Dark Ages
have improved the wallpaper on his wall and the dress on his wife
and all the whole dingy and vulgar life which he lived in the days
of Stiggins and Brother Tadger.  For he also is a Christian and lives
only by the life of Christendom.

It is not easy to express this enormous inversion which I have
here tried to suggest in the image of a world turned inside out.
I mean that the thing which had been stared at as a small something
swells out and swallows everything.  Christendom is in the literal
sense a continent.  We come to feel that it contains everything,
even the things in revolt against itself.  But it is perhaps
the most towering intellectual transformation of all and the one
that it is hardest to undo even for the sake of argument.
It is almost impossible even in imagination to reverse that reversal.
Another way of putting it is to say that we have come to regard
all these historical figures as characters in Catholic history,
even if they are not Catholics.  And in a certain sense,
the historical as distinct from the theological sense, they never do
cease to be Catholic.  They are not people who have really created
something entirely new, until they actually pass the border of reason
and create more or less crazy nightmares.  But nightmares do not last;
and most of them even now are in various stages of waking up.
Protestants are Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant
by saying they are Christians.  Sometimes they have gone very wrong;
but not often have they gone right ahead with their own particular wrong.
Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea
of the sovereignty of God.  But when he makes it mean that God
wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all restraint
that he has become a rather morbid Catholic.  In point of fact he is
a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would be death
or madness.  But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not last long,
and is itself now practically dead.  But every step he takes back towards
humanity is a step back towards Catholicism.  Thus a Quaker is a,
Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of gentle simplicity and truth.
But when he made it mean that it is a lie to say "you" and an act
of idolatry to take off your hat to a lady, it is not too much to say
that whether or not he had a hat off, he certainly had a tile loose.
But as a matter of fact he himself found it necessary
to dispense with the eccentricity (and the hat) and to leave
the straight road that would have led him to a lunatic asylum.
Only every step he takes back towards common sense is a step back
towards Catholicism.  In so far as he was right he was a Catholic;
and in so far as he was wrong he has not himself been able to
remain a Protestant.

To us, therefore, it is henceforth impossible to think of
the Quaker as a figure at the beginning of a new Quaker history
or the Calvinist as the founder of a new Calvinistic world.
It is quite obvious to us that they are simply characters in our own
Catholic history, only characters who caused a great deal of trouble
by trying to do something that we could do better and that they
did not really do at all.  Now some may suppose that this can
be maintained of the older sects like Calvinists and Quakers,
but cannot be maintained of modern movements like those of
Socialists or Spiritualists.  But they will be quite wrong.
The covering or continental character of the Church applies
just as much to modern manias as to the old religious manias;
it applies quite as much to Materialists or Spiritualists
as to Puritans.  In all of them you find that some Catholic
dogma is, first, taken for granted; then exaggerated into an error;
and then generally reacted against and rejected as an error,
bringing the individual in question a few steps back again on the
homeward road.  And this is almost always the mark of such a heretic;
that while he will wildly question any other Catholic dogma,
he never dreams of questioning his own favourite Catholic dogma
and does not even seem to know that it could be questioned.
It never occurred to the Calvinist that anybody might use his
liberty to deny or limit the divine omnipotence, or to the Quaker
that anyone could question the supremacy of simplicity.
That is exactly the situation of the Socialist.  Bolshevism and
every shade of any such theory of brotherhood is based upon
one unfathomably mystical Catholic dogma; the equality of men.
The Communists stake everything on the equality of man
as the Calvinists staked everything on the omnipotence
of God.  They ride it to death as the others rode their dogma
to death, turning their horse into a nightmare.  But it never seems
to occur to them that some people do not believe in the Catholic
dogma of the mystical equality of men.  Yet there are many,
even among Christians, who are so heretical as to question it.
The Socialists get into a great tangle when they try to apply it;
they compromise with their own ideals; they modify their own doctrine;
and so find themselves, like the Quakers and the Calvinists,
after all their extreme extravagances, a day's march nearer Rome.

In short, the story of these sects is not one of straight lines
striking outwards and onwards, though if it were they would all
be striking in different directions.  It is a pattern of curves
continually returning into the continent and common life of their
and our civilisation; and the summary of that civilisation and
central sanity is the philosophy of the Catholic Church.  To us,
Spiritualists are men studying the existence of spirits,
in a brief and blinding oblivion of the existence of evil spirits.
They are, as it were, people just educated enough to have heard
of ghosts but not educated enough to have heard of witches.
If the evil spirits succeed in stopping their education and stunting
their minds, they may of course go on for ever repeating silly
messages from Plato and doggerel verses from Milton.  But if they do
go a step or two further, instead of marking time on the borderland,
their next step will be to learn what the Church could have taught.
To us, Christian Scientists are simply people with one idea,
which they have never learnt to balance and combine with all
the other ideas.  That is why the wealthy business man so often
becomes a Christian Scientist.  He is not used to ideas and one
idea goes to his head, like one glass of wine to a starving man.
But the Catholic Church is used to living with ideas and walks among
all those very dangerous wild beasts with the poise and the lifted
head of a lion-tamer. The Christian Scientist can go on monotonously
repeating his one idea and remain a Christian Scientist.  But if ever
he really goes on to any other ideas, he will be so much the nearer
to being a Catholic.

When the convert has once seen the world like that,
with one balance of ideas and a number of other ideas that
have left it and lost their balance, he does not in fact
experience any of the inconveniences that he might reasonably
have feared before that silent but stunning revolution.
He is not worried by being told that there is something
in Spiritualism or something in Christian Science.  He knows
there is something in everything.  But he is moved by the more
impressive fact that he finds everything in something.
And he is quite sure that if these investigators really are
looking for everything, and not merely looking for anything,
they will be more and more likely to look for it in the same place.
In that sense he is far less worried about them than he was
when he thought that one or other of them might be the only
person having any sort of communication with the higher
mysteries and obviously rather capable of making a mess of it.
He is no more likely to be overawed by the fact that Mrs. Eddy
achieved spiritual healing or Mr. Home achieved bodily
levitation than a fully dressed gentleman in Bond Street would
be overawed by the top-hat on the head of a naked savage.
A top-hat may be a good hat but it is a bad costume.
And a magnetic trick may be a sufficient sensation but it
is a very insufficient philosophy.  He is no more envious
of a Bolshevist for making a revolution than of a beaver
for making a dam; for he knows his own civilisation can make
things on a pattern not quite so simple or so monotonous.
But he believes this of his civilisation and his religion
and not merely of himself.  There is nothing supercilious about
his attitude; because he is well aware that he has only scratched
the surface of the spiritual estate that is now open to him.
In other words, the convert does not in the least abandon investigation
or even adventure.  He does not think he knows everything,
nor has he lost curiosity about the things he does not know.
But experience has taught him that he will find nearly
everything somewhere inside that estate and that a very large
number of people are finding next to nothing outside it.
For the estate is not only a formal garden or an ordered farm;
there is plenty of hunting and fishing on it, and, as the phrase goes,
very good sport.

For this is one of the very queerest of the common delusions
about what happens to the convert.  In some muddled way people
have confused the natural remarks of converts, about having
found moral peace, with some idea of their having found
mental rest, in the sense of mental inaction.  They might as
well say that a man who has completely recovered his health,
after an attack of palsy or St. Vitus' dance, signalises his
healthy state by sitting absolutely still like a stone.
Recovering his health means recovering his power of moving
in the right way as distinct from the wrong way; but he will
probably move a great deal more than before.  To become a Catholic
is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think.
It is so in exactly the same sense in which to recover from
palsy is not to leave off moving but to learn how to move.
The Catholic convert has for the first time a starting-point
for straight and strenuous thinking.  He has for the first time
a way of testing the truth in any question that he raises.
As the world goes, especially at present, it is the other people,
the heathen and the heretics, who seem to have every virtue except
the power of connected thought.  There was indeed a brief period
when a small minority did some hard thinking on the heathen
or heretical side.  It barely lasted from the time of Voltaire
to the time of Huxley.  It has now entirely disappeared.
What is now called free thought is valued, not because it
is free thought, but because it is freedom from thought;
because it is free thoughtlessness.

Nothing is more amusing to the convert, when his conversion has been
complete for some time, than to hear the speculations about when
or whether he will repent of the conversion; when he will be sick
of it, how long he will stand it, at what stage of his external
exasperation he will start up and say he can bear it no more.
For all this is founded on that optical illusion about the outside
and the inside which I have tried to sketch in this chapter.
The outsiders, stand by and see, or think they see, the convert entering
with bowed head a sort of small temple which they are convinced
is fitted up inside like a prison, if not a torture-chamber. But
all they really know about it is that he has passed through a door.
They do not know that he has not gone into the inner darkness,
but out into the broad daylight.  It is he who is,
in the beautiful and beatific sense of the word, an outsider.
He does not want to go into a larger room, because he does not know
of any larger room to go into.  He knows of a large number of much
smaller rooms, each of which is labelled as being very large;
but he is quite sure he would be cramped in any of them.
Each of them professes to be a complete cosmos or scheme
of all things; but then so does the cosmos of the Clapham Sect
or the Clapton Agapemone.  Each of them is supposed to be
domed with the sky or painted inside with all the stars.
But each of these cosmic systems or machines seems to him much
smaller and even much simpler than the broad and balanced universe
in which he lives.  One of them is labelled Agnostic; but he knows
by experience that it has not really even the freedom of ignorance.
It is a wheel that must always go round without a single jolt of
miraculous interruption--a circle that must not be squared by any higher
mathematics of mysticism; a machine that must be scoured as clean
of all spirits as if it were the avowed machine of materialism.
In living in a world with two orders, the supernatural and
the natural, the convert feels he is living in a larger world
and does not feel any temptation to crawl back into a smaller one.
One of them is labelled Theosophical or Buddhistic; but he knows
by experience that it is only the same sort of wearisome wheel used
for spiritual things instead of material things.  Living in a world
where he is free to do anything, even to go to the devil, he does
not see why he should tie himself to the wheel of a mere destiny.
One of them is labelled Humanitarian; but he knows that such
humanitarians have really far less experience of humanity.
He knows that they are thinking almost entirely of men as they are at
this moment in modern cities, and have nothing like the huge human
interest of what began by being preached to legionaries in Palestine
and is still being preached to peasants in China.  So clear is this
perception that I have sometimes put it to myself, as something
between a melancholy meditation and a joke.  "Where should I go now,
if I did leave the Catholic Church?"  I certainly would not go to any
of those little social sects which only express one idea at a time,
because that idea happens to be fashionable at the moment.
The best I could hope for would be to wander away into the woods
and become, not a Pantheist (for that is also a limitation and a bore)
but rather a pagan, in the mood to cry out that some particular
mountain peak or flowering fruit tree was sacred and a thing
to be worshipped.  That at least would be beginning all over again;
but it would bring me back to the same problem in the end.
If it was reasonable to have a sacred tree it was not unreasonable
to have a sacred crucifix; and if the god was to be found
on one peak he may as reasonably be found under one spire.
To find a new religion is sooner or later to have found one;
and why should I have been discontented with the one I had found?
Especially, as I said in the first words of this essay, when it
is the one old religion which seems capable of remaining new.

I know very well that if I went upon that journey I
should either despair or return; and that none of the trees
would ever be a substitute for the real sacred tree.
Paganism is better than pantheism, for paganism is free
to imagine divinities, while pantheism is forced to pretend,
in a priggish way, that all things are equally divine.
But I should not imagine any divinity that was sufficiently divine.
I seem to know that weary return through the woodlands; for I
think in some symbolic fashion I have walked that road before.
For as I have tried to confess here without excessive egotism,
I think I am the sort of man who came to Christ from Pan
and Dionysus and not from Luther or Laud; that the conversion I
understand is that of the pagan and not the Puritan; and upon
that antique conversion is founded the whole world that we know.
It is a transformation far more vast and tremendous
than anything that has been meant for many years past,
at least in England and America, by a sectarian controversy
or a doctrinal division.  On the height of that ancient empire
and that international experience, humanity had a vision.
It has not had another; but only quarrels about that one.
Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity
was larger; and everything else has been comparatively small.


The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from
the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.  I have compared
it with the New Religions; but this is exactly where it differs
from the New Religions.  The New Religions are in many ways suited
to the new conditions; but they are only suited to the new conditions.
When those conditions shall have changed in only a century or so,
the points upon which alone they insist at present will have
become almost pointless.  If the Faith has all the freshness
of a new religion, it has all the richness of an old religion;
it has especially all the reserves of an old religion.
So far as that is concerned, its antiquity is alone a great advantage,
and especially a great advantage for purposes of renovation and youth.
It is only by the analogy of animal bodies that we suppose
that old things must be stiff.  It is a mere metaphor from bones
and arteries.  In an intellectual sense old things are flexible.
Above all, they are various and have many alternatives to offer.
There is a sort of rotation of crops in religious history;
and old fields can lie fallow for a while and then be worked again.
But when the new religion or any such notion has sown its one crop
of wild oats, which the wind generally blows away, it is barren.
A thing as old as the Catholic Church has an accumulated armoury
and treasury to choose from; it can pick and choose among
the centuries and brings one age to the rescue of another.
It can call in the old world to redress the balance of the new.

Anyhow, the New Religions are suited to the new world;
and this is their most damning defect.  Each religion is produced
by contemporary causes that can be clearly pointed out.
Socialism is a reaction against Capitalism.  Spiritualism is a reaction
against Materialism; it is also in its intensified form merely
the trail of the tragedy of the Great War.  But there is a somewhat
more subtle sense in which the very fitness of the new creeds makes
them unfit; their very acceptability makes them inacceptable.
Thus they all profess to be progressive because the peculiar boast
of their peculiar period was progress; they claim to be democratic
because our political system still rather pathetically claims
to be democratic.  They rushed to a reconciliation with science,
which was often only a premature surrender to science.
They hastily divested themselves of anything considered
dowdy or old-fashioned in the way of vesture or symbol.
They claimed to have bright services and cheery sermons;
the churches competed with the cinemas; the churches even
became cinemas.  In its more moderate form the mood was merely
one of praising natural pleasures, such as the enjoyment
of nature and even the enjoyment of human nature.
These are excellent things and this is an excellent liberty;
and yet it has its limitations.

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right.
What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.
In these current fashions it is not really a question
of the religion allowing us liberty; but (at the best)
of the liberty allowing us a religion.  These people merely
take the modern mood, with much in it that is amiable and much
that is anarchical and much that is merely dull and obvious,
and then require any creed to be cut down to fit that mood.
But the mood would exist even without the creed.
They say they want a religion to be social, when they would
be social without any religion.  They say they want a religion
to be practical, when they would be practical without any religion.
They say they want a religion acceptable to science, when they
would accept the science even if they did not accept the religion.
They say they want a religion like this because they are like
this already.  They say they want it, when they mean that they
could do without it.

It is a very different matter when a religion,
in the real sense of a binding thing, binds men to their
morality when it is not identical with their mood.
It is very different when some of the saints preached social
reconciliation to fierce and raging factions who could hardly
bear the sight of each others' faces.  It was a very different
thing when charity was preached to pagans who really did
not believe in it; just as it is a very different thing now,
when chastity is preached to new pagans who do not believe in it.
It is in those cases that we get the real grapple of religion;
and it is in those cases that we get the peculiar and solitary
triumph of the Catholic faith.  It is not in merely being right
when we are right, as in being cheerful or hopeful or humane.
It is in having been right when we were wrong, and in
the fact coming back upon us afterwards like a boomerang.
One word that tells us what we do not know outweighs a thousand
words that tell us what we do know.  And the thing is all the more
striking if we not only did not know it but could not believe it.
It may seem a paradox to say that the truth teaches us
more by the words we reject than by the words we receive.
Yet the paradox is a parable of the simplest sort and
familiar to us all; any example might be given of it.
If a man tells us to avoid public houses, we think him
a tiresome though perhaps a well-intentioned old party.
If he tells us to use public houses, we recognise that he has
a higher morality and presents an ideal that is indeed lofty,
but perhaps a little too simple and obvious to need defence.
But if a man tells us to avoid the one particular public
house called The Pig and Whistle, on the left hand as you
turn round by the pond, the direction may seem very dogmatic
and arbitrary and showing insufficient process of argument.
But if we then fling ourselves into The Pig and Whistle and are
immediately poisoned with the gin or smothered in the feather-bed
and robbed of our money, we recognise that the man who advised us
did know something about it and had a cultivated and scientific
knowledge of the public houses of the district.  We think it
even more, as we emerge half-murdered from The Pig and Whistle,
if we originally rejected his warning as a silly superstition.
The warning itself is almost more impressive if it was not justified
by reasons, but only by results.  There is something very notable
about a thing which is arbitrary when it is also accurate.
We may very easily forget, even while we fulfil, the advice
that we thought was self-evident sense.  But nothing can measure
our mystical and unfathomable reverence for the advice that we
thought was nonsense.

As will be seen in a moment, I do not mean in the least that the
Catholic Church is arbitrary in the sense of never giving reasons;
but I do mean that the convert is profoundly affected by the fact that,
even when he did not see the reason, he lived to see that it
was reasonable.  But there is something even more singular than this,
which it will be well to note as a part of the convert's experience.
In many cases, as a matter of fact, he did originally have a glimpse
of the reasons, even if he did not reason about them; but they were
forgotten in the interlude when reason was clouded by rationalism.
The point is not very easy to explain, and I shall be obliged
to take merely personal examples in order to explain it.
I mean that we have often had a premonition as well as a warning;
and the fact often comes back to us after we have disregarded both.
It is worth noting in connection with conversion, because the convert
is often obstructed by a catchword which says that the Church crushes
the conscience.  The Church does not crush any man's conscience.
It is the man who crushes his conscience and then finds out that it
was right, when he has almost forgotten that he had one.

I will take two examples out of the new movements:
Socialism and Spiritualism.  Now it is perfectly true that when I first
began to think seriously about Socialism, I was a Socialist.  But it
is equally true, and more important than it sounds, that before I
had ever heard of Socialism I was a strong anti-Socialist. I was
what has since been called a Distributist, though I did not know it.
When I was a child and dreamed the usual dreams about kings and clowns
and robbers and policemen, I always conceived all contentment
and dignity as consisting in something compact and personal;
in being king of the castle or captain of the pirate ship or the man
who owned the shop or the robber who was safe in the cavern.
As I passed through boyhood I always imagined battles for justice as
being the defence of special walls and houses and high defiant shrines;
and I embodied some of those crude but coloured visions in a story
called The Napoleon of Notting Hill.  All this happened, in fancy
at least, when I had never heard of Socialism and was a much better
judge of it.

Shades of the prison-house began to close and with them came a merely
mechanical discussion as to how we were all to get out of prison.
Then indeed, in the darkness of the dungeon, was heard the voice
of Mr. Sidney Webb, telling us that we could only conceivably
get out of our Capitalist captivity with the patent Chubb key
of Collectivism.  Or to use a more exact metaphor, he told us that we
could only escape from our dark and filthy cells of industrial
slavery by melting all our private latchkeys into one gigantic
latchkey as large as a battering ram.  We did not really like giving
up our little private keys or local attachments or love of our
own possessions; but we were quite convinced that social justice
must be done somehow and could only be done socialistically.
I therefore became a Socialist in the old days of the Fabian Society;
and so I think did everybody else worth talking about except
the Catholics.  And the Catholics were an insignificant handful,
the dregs of a dead religion, essentially a superstition.
About this time appeared the Encyclical on Labour by Leo XIII;
and nobody in our really well-informed world took much notice of it.
Certainly the Pope spoke as strongly as any Socialist could speak
when he said that Capitalism "laid on the toiling millions a yoke
little better than slavery."  But as the Pope was not a Socialist it
was obvious that he had not read the right Socialist books and pamphlets;
and we could not expect the poor old gentleman to know what every
young man knew by this time--that Socialism was inevitable.
That was a long time ago, and by a gradual process, mostly practical
and political, which I have no intention of describing here,
most of us began to realise that Socialism was not inevitable;
that it was not really popular; that it was not the only way,
or even the right way, of restoring the rights of the poor.
We have come to the conclusion that the obvious cure for private
property being given to the few is to see that it is given to the many;
not to see that it is taken away from everybody or given in trust
to the dear good politicians.  Then, having discovered that fact
as a fact, we look back at Leo XIII and discover in his old
and dated document, of which we took no notice at the time,
that he was saying then exactly what we are saying now.
"As many as possible of the working classes should become owners."
That is what I mean by the justification of arbitrary warning.
If the Pope had said then exactly what we said and wanted
him to say, we should not have really reverenced him then
and we should have entirely repudiated him afterwards.
He would only have marched with the million who accepted Fabianism;
and with them he would have marched away.  But when he saw a distinction
we did not see then, and do see now, that distinction is decisive.
It marks a disagreement more convincing than a hundred agreements.
It is not that he was right when we were right, but that he was
right when we were wrong.

The superficial critic of these things, noting that I am no longer
a Socialist, will always say, "Of course, you are a Catholic and you
are not allowed to be a Socialist."  To which I answer emphatically,
No. That is missing the whole point.  The Church anticipated
my experience; but it was experience and not only obedience.
I am quite sure now from merely living in this world, and seeing
something of Catholic peasants as well as Collectivist officials,
that it is happier and healthier for most men to become owners
than for them to give up all ownership to those officials.
I do not follow the State Socialist in his extreme belief in the State;
but I have not ceased to be credulous about the State merely
because I have become credulous about the Church.  I believe
less in the State because I know more of the statesmen.
I cannot believe small property to be impossible after I have seen it.
I cannot believe State management to be impeccable after I have
seen it.  It is not any authority, except what St. Thomas calls
the authority of the senses, which tells me that the mere community
of goods is a solution that is too much of a simplification.
The Church has taught me, but I could not unteach myself;
I have learned because I have lived.  and I could not unlearn it.
If I ceased to be a Catholic I could not again be a Communist.

As it happens, my story was almost exactly the same in connection
with Spiritualism.  There again I was modern when I was young,
but not when I was very young.  While I had a vague but innocent
nursery religion still hanging about me, I regarded the first signs
of these psychic and psychological things with mere repugnance.
I hated the whole notion of mesmerism and magnetic tricks with the mind;
I loathed their bulging eyes and stiff attitudes and unnatural
trances and the whole bag of tricks.  When I saw a girl I admired
set down to crystal-gazing, I was furious; I hardly knew why.
Then came the period when I wanted to know why, when I examined
my own reasons and found I had none.  I saw that it was inconsistent
in science to revere research and forbid psychical research.
I saw that men of science were more and more accepting these things and I
went along with my scientific age.  I was never exactly a Spiritualist,
but I almost always defended Spiritualism.  I experimented with
a planchette, quite enough to convince myself finally that some
things do happen that are not in the ordinary sense natural.
I have since come to think, for reasons that would require too much
space to detail, that it is not so much supernatural as unnatural
and even anti-natural. I believe the experiments were bad for me;
I believe they are bad for the other experimentalists.
But I found out the fact long before I found out the Catholic Church
or the Catholic view of that question.  Only, as I have said,
when I do find it out, I find it rather impressive; for it is not
the religion that was right when I was right, but the religion
that was right when I was wrong.

But I wish to note about both those cases that the common
cant in the matter is emphatically not true.  It is not true
that the Church crushed my natural conscience; it is not true
that the Church asked me to give up my individual ideal.
It is not true that Collectivism was ever my ideal.
I do not believe it was ever really anybody else's ideal.
It was not an ideal but a compromise; it was a concession
to practical economists who told us that we could not prevent
poverty except by something uncommonly like slavery.
State Socialism never came natural to us; it never convinced us
that it was natural; it convinced us that it was necessary.
In exactly the same way Spiritualism never came as something
natural but only as something necessary.  Each told us
that it was the only way into the promised land, in the one
case of a future life and the other of life in the future.
We did not like government departments and tickets and registers;
but we were told there was no other way of reaching a better society.
We did not like dark rooms and dubious mediums and ladies tied up with
rope, but we were told there was no other way to reach a better world.
We were ready to crawl down a municipal drain-pipe or through
a spiritual sewer, because it was the only way to better things;
the only way even to prove that there were better things.
But the drain-pipe had never figured in our dreams like a
tower of ivory or a house of gold, or even like the robbers'
tower of our romantic boyhood or the solid and comfortable house
of our matured experience.  The Faith had not only been true
all along, but it had been true to the first and the last things,
to our unspoilt instincts and our conclusive experience;
and it had condemned nothing but an interlude of intellectual
snobbishness and surrender to the persuasions of pedantry.
It had condemned nothing but what we ourselves should have come
to condemn, though we might have condemned it too late.

The Church therefore never made my individual ideal impossible;
it would be truer to say that she was the first to make it possible.
The Encyclical's ideal had been much nearer my own instinct
than the ideal I had consented to substitute for it.
The Catholic suspicion of table-rapping was much more like my own
original suspicion than it was like my own subsequent surrender.
But in those two cases it is surely clear that the Catholic Church
plays exactly the part that she professes to play:
something that knows what we cannot be expected to know,
but should probably accept if we really knew it.  I am not
in this case, any more than in the greater part of this study,
referring to the things that are really best worth knowing.
The supernatural truths are connected with the mystery of grace
and are a matter for theologians; admittedly a rather delicate
and difficult matter even for them.  But though the transcendental
truths are the most important they are not those that best illustrate
this particular point, which concerns the decisions which can
be more or less tested by experience And of all those things
that can be tested by experience I could tell the same story:
that there was a time when I thought the Catholic doctrine
was meaningless, but that even that was not the very earliest time,
which was a time of greater simplicity, when I had a sort of glimpse
of the meaning though I had never even heard of the doctrine.
The world deceived me and the Church would at any time have
undeceived me.  The thing that a man may really shed at last like
a superstition is the fashion of this world that passes away.

I could give many other examples, but I fear they, would inevitably
tend to be egotistical examples.  Throughout this brief study
I am under the double difficulty that all roads lead to Rome,
but that each pilgrim is tempted to talk as if all roads had been
like his own road.  I could write a great deal, for instance,
about my early wrestlings with the rather ridiculous dilemma
which was put to me in my youth by the optimist and the pessimist.
I promptly and properly refused to be a pessimist; and I
therefore fell into the way of calling myself an optimist.
Now I should not call myself either, and what is more important
I can see that virtue may be entangled in both.  But I think it
is entangled; and I think that an older and simpler truth can loosen
the tangle.  But the point in the present connection is this:
that before I had ever heard of optimists or pessimists I was
something much more like what I am now than could be covered
by either of those two pedantic words.  In my childhood I assumed
that cheerfulness was a good thing, but I also assumed that it
was a bad thing not to protest against things that are really bad.
After an interlude of intellectual formalism and false antithesis,
I have come back to being able to think what I could then only feel.
But I have realised that the protest can rise to a much more divine
indignation and that the cheerfulness is but a faint suggestion
of a much more divine joy.  It is not so much that I have found
I was wrong as that I have found out why I was right.

In this we find the supreme example of the exception that proves
the rule.  The rule, of which I have given a rough outline in
the previous chapter, is that the Catholic philosophy is a universal
philosophy found to fit anywhere with human nature and the nature
of things.  But even when it does not fit in with human nature it
is found in the long run to favour something yet more fitting.
It generally suits us, but where it does not suit us we learn
to suit it, so long as we are alive enough to learn anything.
In the rare cases where a reasonable man can really say that it cuts
across his intelligence, it will generally be found that it is true,
not only to truth, but even to his deepest instinct for truth.
Education does not cease with conversion, but rather begins.
The man does not cease to study because he has become convinced
that certain things are worth studying; and these things include
not only the orthodox values but even the orthodox vetoes.
Strangely enough, in a sense, the forbidden fruit is often
more fruitful than the free.  It is more fruitful in the sense
of a fascinating botanical study of why it is really poisonous.
Thus for the sake of an example, all healthy people have an instinct
against usury; and the Church has only confirmed that instinct.
But to learn how to define usury, to study what it is and
to argue why it is wrong, is to have a liberal education,
not only in political economy, but in the philosophy of Aristotle
and the history of the Councils of Lateran.  There almost always
is a human reason for all the merely human advice given by the Church
to humanity; and to find out the principle of the thing is,
among other things, one of the keenest of intellectual pleasures.
But in any case the fact remains that the Church is right
in the main in being tolerant in the main; but that where she
is intolerant she is most right and even most reasonable.
Adam lived in a garden where a thousand mercies were granted to him;
but the one inhibition was the greatest mercy of all.

In the same way, let the convert, or still more the semi-convert,
face any one fact that does seem to him to deface the Catholic
scheme as a falsehood; and if he faces it long enough
he will probably find that it is the greatest truth of all.
I have found this myself in that extreme logic of free will which
is found in the fallen angels and the possibility of perdition.
Such things are altogether beyond my imagination, but the lines
of logic go out towards them in my reason.  Indeed, I can
undertake to justify the whole Catholic theology, if I be granted
to start with the supreme sacredness and value of two things:
Reason and Liberty.  It is an illuminating comment on current
anti-Catholic talk that they are the two things which most people
imagine to be forbidden to Catholics.

But the best way of putting what I mean is to repeat what I
have already said, in connection with the satisfying scope
of Catholic universality.  I cannot picture these theological
ultimates and I have not the authority or learning to define them.
But I still put the matter to myself thus:  Supposing I were
so miserable as to lose the Faith, could I go back to that
cheap charity and crude optimism which says that every sin
is a blunder, that evil cannot conquer or does not even exist?
I could no more go back to those cushioned chapels than a man who has
regained his sanity would willingly go back to a padded cell.
I might cease to believe in a God of any kind; but I could
not cease to think that a God who had made men and angels
free was finer than one who coerced them into comfort.
I might cease to believe in a future life of any kind; but I could
not cease to think it was a finer doctrine that we choose and make
our future life than that it is fitted out for us like an hotel
and we are taken there in a celestial omnibus as compulsory
as a Black Maria.  I know that Catholicism is too large for me,
and I have not yet explored its beautiful or terrible truths.
But I know that Universalism is too small for me; and I could
not creep back into that dull safety, who have looked on the dizzy
vision of liberty.


On reconsidering these notes I find them to be far too personal;
yet I do not know how any conception of conversion can be anything else.
I do not profess to have any particular knowledge about the actual
conditions and calculations of the Catholic movement at the moment.
I do not believe that anybody else has any knowledge of what it will be
like the next moment.  Statistics are generally misleading and predictions
are practically always false.  But there is always a certain faint
tradition of the thing called common sense; and so long as a glimmer
of it remains, in spite of all journalism and State instruction,
it is possible to appreciate what we call a reality.  Nobody in his
five wits will deny that at this moment conversion is a reality.
Everybody knows that his own social circle, which fifty years ago
would have been a firm territory of Protestantism, perhaps hardening
into rationalism or indifference but doing even that slowly and without
conscious convulsion, has just lately shown a curious disposition
to collapse softly and suddenly, first in one unexpected place and
then in another, making great holes in that solid land and letting
up the leaping flames of what was counted an extinct volcano.
It is in everybody's experience, whether he is sad or glad or mad
or merely indifferent, that these conversions seem to come of themselves
in the most curious and apparently accidental quarters; Tom's wife,
Harry's brother, Fanny's funny sister-in-law who went on the stage,
Sam's eccentric uncle who studied military strategy--of each of these
isolated souls we hear suddenly that it is isolated no longer.
It is one with the souls militant and triumphant.

Against these things (which we know as facts and do not merely
read as statistics) there is admittedly something to be set.
It is what is commonly called leakage; and with a paragraph
upon this point I will close these pages.  Father Ronald Knox,
with that felicity that is so good that the wit almost seems
like good luck, has remarked that the Catholic Church really
does have to get on by hook or crook.  That is, by the hook
of the fisherman and the crook of the shepherd; and it is the hook
that has to catch the convert and the crook that has to keep him.
He said in this connection that the conversions to the Church just
now were so numerous that they would be obvious and overwhelming,
like a landslide, if it were not that they were neutralised in
mere numbers, or rather lessened in their full claim of numbers,
by a certain amount of falling away in other directions.
Now the first fact to realise is that it is in other directions,
in totally different directions.  Some people, especially young people,
abandon practising Catholicism.  But none of them abandon it
for Protestantism.  All of them practically abandon it for paganism.
Most of them abandon it for something that is really rather
too simple to be called an -ism of any kind.  They abandon it
for things and not theories; and when they do have theories
they may sometimes be Bolshevist theories or Futurist theories,
but they are practically never the theological theories
of Protestantism.  I will not say they leave Catholicism
for beer and skittles; for Catholicism has never discouraged
those Christian institutions as Protestantism sometimes has.
They leave it to have a high old time; and considering what a muddle
we have made of modern morality, they can hardly be blamed.
But this reaction, which is only that of a section, is in its nature
a reaction of the young and as such I do not think it will last.
I know it is the cant phrase of the old rationalists that their
reason prevents a return to the Faith, but it is false:
it is no longer reason but rather passion.

This may sound a sweeping statement, but if it be examined it
will be found not unjust, and certainly not unsympathetic.
Nothing is more notable if we really study the characteristics
of the rising generation than the fact that they are not acting
upon any exact and definite philosophy, such as those which have
made the revolutions of the past.  If they are anarchical,
they are not anarchist.  The dogmatic anarchism of the middle
of the nineteenth century is not the creed they hold, or even
the excuse they offer.  They have a considerable negative revolt
against religion, a negative revolt against negative morality.
They have a feeling, which is not unreasonable, that to
commit themselves to the Catholic citizenship is to take
responsibilities that continually act as restraints.
But they do not maintain anything like a contrary system of
spiritual citizenship, or moral responsibility.  For instance,
it is perfectly natural that they should want to act naturally.
But they do not want to act naturally according to any intellectual
theory of the reliability of Nature.  On the contrary, their young
and brilliant literary representatives are very prone to press
upon us the crudity and cruelty of Nature.  That is the moral
of Mr. Aldous Huxley, and of many others.  State to them any of
the consistent theories of the supreme claim of Nature upon us,
such as the pantheistic idea of God in all natural things;
or the Nietzschean theory that nature is evolving something
with superior claims to our own; or any other definable defence
of the natural process itself, and they will almost certainly
reject it as something unproved or exploded.  They do not want
to have an exact imitation of the laws of the physical universe;
they want to have their own way, a much more intelligible desire.
But the result is that they are, after all, at a disadvantage
in face of those other young people who have satisfied their
reason by a scheme that makes the universe reasonable.

For that is the very simple explanation of the affair.
In so far as there is really a secession among the young, it is
but a part of the same process as that conversion of the young,
of which I wrote in the first chapter.  The rising generation
sees the real issue; and those who are ready for it rally,
and those who are not ready for it scatter.  But there can
be but one end to a war between a solid and a scattered army.
It is not a controversy between two philosophies, as was the Catholic
and the Calvinist, or the Catholic and the Materialist.  It is
a controversy between philosophers and philanderers.
I do not say it in contempt; I have much more sympathy
with the person who leaves the Church for a love-affair than
with one who leaves it for a long-winded German theory to prove
that God is evil or that children are a sort of morbid monkey.
But the very laws of life are against the endurance of a revolt
that rests on nothing but natural passion; it is bound to change
in its proportion with the coming of experience; and, at the worst,
it will become a battle between bad Catholics and good Catholics,
with the great dome over all.

The Diabolist – G.K. Chesterton

“Man is most comforted by paradoxes.”

Every now and then I have introduced into my essays an element of truth. Things that really happened have been mentioned, such is meeting President Kruger or being thrown out of a cab. What I have now to relate really happened; yet there was no element in it of practical politics or of personal danger. It was simply a quiet conversation which I had with another man. But that quiet conversation was by far the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me in my life. It happened so long ago that I cannot be certain of the exact words of the dialogue, only of its main questions and answers; but there is one sentence in it for which I can answer absolutely and word for word. It was a sentence so awful that I could not forget it if I would. It was the last sentence spoken; and it was not spoken to me.

* * *

The thing befell me in the days when I was at an art school. An art school is different from almost all other schools or colleges in this respect: that, being of new and crude creation and of lax discipline, it presents a specially strong contrast between the industrious and the idle. People at an art school either do an atrocious amount of work or do no work at all. I belonged, along with other charming people, to the latter class; and this threw me often into the society of men who were very different from myself, and who were idle for reasons very different from mine. I was idle because I was very much occupied; I was engaged about that time in discovering, to my own extreme and lasting astonishment, that I was not an atheist. But there were others also at loose ends who were engaged in discovering what Carlyle called (I think with needless delicacy) the fact that ginger is hot in the mouth.

I value that time, in short, because it made me acquainted with a good representative number of blackguards. In this connection there are two very curious things which the critic of human life may observe. The first is the fact that there is one real difference between men and women; that women prefer to talk in twos, while men prefer to talk in threes. The second is that when you find (as you often do) three young cads and idiots going about together and getting drunk together every day you generally find that one of the three cads and idiots is (for some extraordinary reason) not a cad and not an idiot. In these small groups devoted to a drivelling dissipation there is almost always one man who seems to have condescended to his company; one man who, while he can talk a foul triviality with his fellows, can also talk politics with a Socialist, or philosophy with a Catholic.

It was just such a man whom I came to know well. It was strange, perhaps, that he liked his dirty, drunken society; it was stranger still, perhaps, that he liked my society. For hours of the day he would talk with me about Milton or Gothic architecture; for hours of the night he would go where I have no wish to follow him, even in speculation. He was a man with a long, ironical face, and close and red hair; he was by class a gentleman, and could walk like one, but preferred, for some reason, to walk like a groom carrying two pails. He looked liked a sort of Super-jockey; as if some archangel had gone on the Turf. And I shall never forget the half-hour in which he and I argued about real things for the first and the last time.

* * *

Along the front of the big building of which our school was a part ran a huge slope of stone steps, higher, I think, than those that lead up to St. Paul’s Cathedral. On a black wintry evening he and I were wandering on these cold heights, which seemed as dreary as a pyramid under the stars. The one thing visible below us in the blackness was a burning and blowing fire; for some gardener (I suppose) was burning something in the grounds, and from time to time the red sparks went whirling past us like a swarm of scarlet insects in the dark. Above us also it was gloom; but if one stared long enough at that upper darkness, one saw vertical stripes of grey in the black and then became conscious of the colossal facade of the Doric building, phantasmal, yet filling the sky, as if Heaven were still filled with the gigantic ghost of Paganism.

* * *

The man asked me abruptly why I was becoming orthodox. Until he said it, I really had not known that I was; but the moment he had said it I knew it to be literally true. And the process had been so long and full that I answered him at once out of existing stores of explanation.

“I am becoming orthodox,” I said, “because I have come, rightly or wrongly, after stretching my brain till it bursts, to the old belief that heresy is worse even than sin. An error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes. An Imperialist is worse than a pirate. For an Imperialist keeps a school for pirates; he teaches piracy disinterestedly and without an adequate salary. A Free Lover is worse than a profligate. For a profligate is serious and reckless even in his shortest love; while a Free Lover is cautious and irresponsible even in his longest devotion. I hate modern doubt because it is dangerous.”

“You mean dangerous to morality,” he said in a voice of wonderful gentleness. “I expect you are right. But why do you care about morality?”

I glanced at his face quickly. He had thrust out his neck as he had a trick of doing; and so brought his face abruptly into the light of the bonfire from below, like a face in the footlights. His long chin and high cheek-bones were lit up infernally from underneath; so that he looked like a fiend staring down into the flaming pit. I had an unmeaning sense of being tempted in a wilderness; and even as I paused a burst of red sparks broke past.

“Aren’t those sparks splendid?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“That is all that I ask you to admit,” said I. “Give me those few red specks and I will deduce Christian morality. Once I thought like you, that one’s pleasure in a flying spark was a thing that could come and go with that spark. Once I thought that the delight was as free as the fire. Once I thought that red star we see was alone in space. But now I know that the red star is only on the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. That red fire is only the flower on a stalk of living habits, which you cannot see. Only because your mother made you say ‘Thank you’ for a bun are you now able to thank Nature or chaos for those red stars of an instant or for the white stars of all time. Only because you were humble before fireworks on the fifth of November do you now enjoy any fireworks that you chance to see. You only like them being red because you were told about the blood of the martyrs; you only like them being bright because brightness is a glory. That flame flowered out of virtues, and it will fade with virtues. Seduce a woman, and that spark will be less bright. Shed blood, and that spark will be less red. Be really bad, and they will be to you like the spots on a wall-paper.”

He had a horrible fairness of the intellect that made me despair of his soul. A common, harmless atheist would have denied that religion produced humility or humility a simple joy: but he admitted both. He only said, “But shall I not find in evil a life of its own? Granted that for every woman I ruin one of those red sparks will go out: will not the expanding pleasure of ruin …”

“Do you see that fire ?” I asked. “If we had a real fighting democracy, some one would burn you in it; like the devil-worshipper that you are.”

“Perhaps,” he said, in his tired, fair way. “Only what you call evil I call good.”

He went down the great steps alone, and I felt as if I wanted the steps swept and cleaned. I followed later, and as I went to find my hat in the low, dark passage where it hung, I suddenly heard his voice again, but the words were inaudible. I stopped, startled: then I heard the voice of one of the vilest of his associates saying, “Nobody can possibly know.” And then I heard those two or three words which I remember in every syllable and cannot forget. I heard the Diabolist say, “I tell you I have done everything else. If I do that I shan’t know the difference between right and wrong.” I rushed out without daring to pause; and as I passed the fire I did not know whether it was hell or the furious love of God.

I have since heard that he died: it may be said, I think, that he committed suicide; though he did it with tools of pleasure, not with tools of pain. God help him, I know the road he went; but I have never known, or even dared to think, what was that place at which he stopped and refrained.

(from Tremendous Trifles, 1909)

Lepanto – A Poem By G.K. Chesterton

White founts falling in the Courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard;
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips;
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young.
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain–hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.
Mahound is in his paradise above the evening star,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
He moves a mighty turban on the timeless houri’s knees,
His turban that is woven of the sunsets and the seas.
He shakes the peacock gardens as he rises from his ease,
And he strides among the tree-tops and is taller than the trees;
And his voice through all the garden is a thunder sent to bring
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.
They rush in red and purple from the red clouds of the morn,
From the temples where the yellow gods shut up their eyes in scorn;
They rise in green robes roaring from the green hells of the sea
Where fallen skies and evil hues and eyeless creatures be,
On them the sea-valves cluster and the grey sea-forests curl,
Splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl;
They swell in sapphire smoke out of the blue cracks of the ground,–
They gather and they wonder and give worship to Mahound.
And he saith, “Break up the mountains where the hermit-folk can hide,
And sift the red and silver sands lest bone of saint abide,
And chase the Giaours flying night and day, not giving rest,
For that which was our trouble comes again out of the west.
We have set the seal of Solomon on all things under sun,
Of knowledge and of sorrow and endurance of things done.
But a noise is in the mountains, in the mountains, and I know
The voice that shook our palaces–four hundred years ago:
It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate;
It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey at the gate!
It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.”
For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still–hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar.
St. Michaels on his Mountain in the sea-roads of the north
(Don John of Austria is girt and going forth.)
Where the grey seas glitter and the sharp tides shift
And the sea-folk labour and the red sails lift.
He shakes his lance of iron and he claps his wings of stone;
The noise is gone through Normandy; the noise is gone alone;
The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,–
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
    Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships.
King Philip’s in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck.)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in.
He holds a crystal phial that has colours like the moon,
He touches, and it tingles, and he trembles very soon,
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day,
And death is in the phial and the end of noble work,
But Don John of Austria has fired upon the Turk.
Don John’s hunting, and his hounds have bayed–
Booms away past Italy the rumour of his raid.
Gun upon gun, ha! ha!
Gun upon gun, hurrah!
Don John of Austria
Has loosed the cannonade.
The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign–
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)