Gilbert Keith Chesterton – the Child

Do you know Chesterton? Indeed, a living paradox! And that he certainly was.

He was as a man, a child. Childhood meant to him true life, real and unaffected. Children, he claimed, do not pretend, they actually live what we say and pretend; but man rather pretends what he pretends to actually live. It might be said, therefore, that the child lives a true life, while man lives but a pretended life.
01 G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) at the age of 17.

Man claims he knows all, and lives accordingly, as it were, perpetually "putting on the dog"; the child on the contrary is sincere in his living and does not fake. In this sense Chesterton is the child – that is, he never lived a life of pretense, nor faked, but insisted on remaining the child, sincere and true.

Chesterton the Child

The child Chesterton was not manifest in the faculty of his soul – the intellect – but in all his faculties, even in his exterior demeanor, as we shall see further. When a child, Chesterton lived the life of a child – he played "cops and robbers" or "Peelers and robbers," "hide and seek" and still other games that we as children played. Remember how sincere we were when playing these games, or were we not children enough to be sincere?

Then he grew among his relatives who were all stern bourgeois – nevertheless, all very humorous, all leading happy lives. He grew and to school he went, even as the child. His great principle, as he himself tells us in his "Autobiography," was to be the "dumb-bell" – ignorant. The child knows what he is, his sincerity tells him that he knows not all; in fact he knows that his knowledge is infinitely limited compared to the supreme knowledge of God. The child Chesterton knew what he was and only wanted to be known as such. The thanks, as he himself says, for his not being known as he wanted to be, go to two of his professors, Mr. T. R. Holmes and Mr. R. T. Cholmeley, who were the only two ever to get past his guard of ignorance.

Chesterton remembered:

"…one boy who was insanely sensitive on this point of honor, of being a dunce, that he could hardly bear to hear one of his friends answer an ordinary question right. He felt that his comrades really ought to have invented some mistake, in the general interest of comradeship. When information about a French epic, the Song of Roland, was torn from me, in spite of my efforts, he actually put his head in his desk and dropped the lid on it, groaning in a generous and personal shame and faintly and hoarsely exclaiming, ‘Oh shut it . . . Oh, shut up!’ He was an extreme exponent of the principle; but it was a principle which I fully shared."

The Games Children Play

Thus, paradoxically enough, the lad who is judged clever by the professor is deemed a dunce by his fellow students; and the one who plays clever before his schoolmates is dubbed a dunce by the professor. The child fairly revels to masquerade in a dunce cap. Yet he is quite sincere in his insistence to remain a dunce. In fact, if he is ever put off guard, and his intelligence, the little he has, happens to shine, he immediately feels like kicking himself all over, lest he might lose a peg in the esteem of his friends.

When I was a child….but when I became a man…

But soon Chesterton felt the man growing on the child, and experienced the man-child losing to the man-man. No longer did he live what he pretended, but rather pretended what he lived. However, a few years were sufficient to make him return to the real man, the child.

He realized that the man-man is far inferior to the man-child. The first, we might say, is the hypocrite who wants to appear brainy, clever, who hates to give in, who asserts his powers, who feels hurt when he finds out what he really is; the second, namely, the man-child, is sincere, knows his failings, admits his deficiencies, insists on what he knows as true and lets others know what he really is. Some may say that it is a poor policy to let others know what you really are, but it is the only policy. If you are the sinner admit that you are and you will be the greater saint for it.

In everything, did we say, Chesterton was the child, even in his demeanor. Often he confessed his untidiness in dress. There is a characteristic of the child. He was not ashamed to declare his failing, and in his sincerity he was as much the child as in his untidiness.

Again, he loved good food and preferred to eat in a little cafe where he had good wine for six-pence, than have "gold plaster" and "colored water" in the high rated "lieux de societe (surroundings of society)" where the "four hundred" try to keep alive by "putting on the dog." The people here, pretend, so he keeps away from these places. He, the child, does not pretend.

The child in him led Chesterton to the Catholic Church

In all, in politics, in patriotism, in his way of expression, is he the child – sincere. The child led Chesterton to the Church. His sincerity was the guide to God, and God guided the child Chesterton to God.

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (Matthew 18:2-4).

What a grace it was for Chesterton, that of staying a child putting off the old man. If for some reason or other we find stale the lives of certain Saints set for our imitation, why not turn to one of the greatest men of our day? To be sincere as a child is but one step from being a saint. That was Chesterton, the child.

(Reprinted from the La Salette publication, “The La Salette Missionary”, April 1939, pgs. 79-80)

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