Chesterton and the astonishment before the Eucharist

On September 24, 1922, Gilbert Keith Chesterton received his first communion from Father Thomas Walker at the parish of High Wycombe in the town of Beaconsfield. This anniversary is less remembered than that of his incorporation into the Catholic Church on July 30 of the same year, perhaps because conversions arouse much more interest in most people than the ordinary practice of faith, in which the Eucharist is a mainstay. From an apologist like Chesterton, his readers seek, above all, the decisive, and if possible paradoxical, argument against ideas contrary to Catholicism. They want a bold and ingenious pen more than spiritual considerations. However, if we reduce Chesterton to this facet, even though it is the best known and most cultivated by him, we would have a writer who would be continually exercising intellectual “fencing” and little else. Being a Catholic is much more than an accumulation of arguments. Without prayer and the sacraments, Catholicism would be reduced to an external patina, sometimes with bright and striking colors, although the passage of time would gradually fade it. It would be like the fig tree that did not bear fruit in the evangelical parable (Lk 13, 6-9).

Before receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist, Chesterton received catechism lessons in which he inquired about all kinds of details about the liturgy of the mass. One of them was wanting to know why a few drops of water are added to the chalice during the offertory. Father Walker would inform him, and Saint Cyprian already wrote about it in the third century, that those drops of water represent the Christian people, which would be nothing without the Blood of Christ. In this ritual the divine nature and the human nature are symbolized. As we can see, Chesterton lets himself be carried away again and again by wonder, because wonder is his essential way of understanding life and the world. His great sensitivity, which was ground for the sowing of grace, would make him exclaim after his first communion: “Today has been the happiest day of my life.” Some time later he referred to “the tremendous Reality of the altar”, which produces a certain awe in him and he confesses that he misses not having grown up with said Reality. It is the astonishment of the authentic convert, who does not understand that a large majority of Catholics have become accustomed to Reality, which has led to the fact that the lamp of piety, where the light of faith lives, has been extinguished.

In 1932 Chesterton attended the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin and collected his impressions in the work Christianity in Dublin. The title is well chosen because it was not just a celebration of Irish Catholics but of the universal Church, although those Catholics had every reason to be proud having achieved their independence from Britain eleven years earlier. Catholicism and national consciousness were then very united. For the rest, an anecdote collects the Chestertonian amazement with his usual sense of humor, in that great concentration of people, “an extravagant religious event” in the words of the writer. There he saw what he had not seen in all his trips to the United States. In that country he met many people, though never a single American Indian. The first found him in Dublin and he was a Catholic priest.

In the Irish capital, on June 24, 1932, thousands of bells rang during the consecration of a mass, and these praises appeared in the sky in gigantic Latin letters: “Adoramus, Laudamus, Glorificamus”. About five hundred thousand people gathered in the center of the city. All these details led Chesterton to write that Ireland was passionately religious, and that England, for all her good qualities, had become

become indifferent to religion. Today that Ireland does not exist. It has been eclipsed, like other societies in traditional Catholic countries. Material progress, with the consequent change in mentalities, has undoubtedly influenced this, although in the case of Ireland it may also be due to that usual symbiosis between nationalism and religion, in which politics, on the right and left, has ended up diluting faith.

I am convinced that Chesterton’s sensitivity, always attentive to the supernatural, would not reduce his astonishment to crowds and external pageantry. In the cited book there is a phrase about the Eucharist that attempts to distance itself from other beliefs: “There is a difference between the spirit of God that permeates the universe and that Jesus Christ is present in a place.” Indeed, Chesterton has embraced the religion of a near God, present in the Eucharist, and not that of a distant God who cannot be glimpsed in the stars. An incisive phrase to intuit that Chesterton’s amazement at the Eucharist accompanied him for the rest of his life.

Chesterton and the astonishment before the Eucharist