Lecture 65: Christendom in Dublin

Like all of G.K. Chesterton’s best writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, Christendom in Dublin reads like a good mystery story. The opening pages drop us into the midst of a flutter of flags. Chesterton vividly describes their differences, but we really have no idea what he is talking about or, more importantly, why. Finally he reveals that all these flags are flying at an international event he is attending in Dublin, Ireland: the World Eucharistic Congress of 1932. But the mysteries then unfold in a new way as he describes the people that he sees. Chesterton, who after two extended trips to America has spent well over a year in our country, admits that he never saw an American Indian in America. He does see one, however, in Dublin. And that American Indian happened to be a Roman Catholic priest. He also sees other exotic people who come from all corners of the world. Apparently the Catholic Church had this diversity thing figured out a long time ago. Diversity is not something to strive for; it is something easily achieved if everyone strives for the truth.

The book, like a good mystery, has surprising twists. Just when we expect to hear more about this extravagant religious event, Chesterton suddenly begins to expound on politics, specifically, democracy, which he defines as “the crowd ruling itself, like a king.” He argues that democracy is only possible among a people who believe in God. Self-government is freedom. The alternative is tyranny, which is inevitable in a secular government:

Lenin said that religion is the opium of the people… [But] it is only by believing in God that we can ever criticize the Government. Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God. That fact is written all across human history; but it is written most plainly across that recent history of Russia; which was created by Lenin…Lenin only fell into a slight error: he only got it the wrong way round. The truth is that irreligion is the opium of the people. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world.

The only reason we believe in law is that we believe in justice, which is beyond the law. It can only mean “a justice beyond the land of living men.” So all political arguments become theological arguments. Actually, all political arguments begin as a theological arguments. If they do not, they will only end as “the most horrible, the most hopeless, the most endless, the most truly interminable quarrels: the untheological quarrels.”

Chesterton ties it all together with the event he is attending when he muses that “even political democracy would…be a little more practical if people prepared for the General Election as they did for the Eucharistic Congress, with prayer and penance rather than with publicity and lies.”

The Eucharist is indeed practical. It is an Act. It is what sets the Catholic Church apart from the vague modern religious attempts to replace rituals with abstractions. The Eucharist represents a continuity with the past, with the fundamental religious act of the ancients. The modern pagans are not even pagans. As Chesterton points out: “If all the Pagans who ever worshipped strange gods had strayed into Ethical Societies or Unitarian Chapels, their very first word would be: ‘But where is your altar?’”

The altar is a place of sacrifice. But this is an altar like no other. Only in the Eucharist does God sacrifice himself to himself. This profound mystery is reflected lightly and humorously in the inside-out logic of an old Irish woman who is worrying that bad weather might ruin the festivities in Dublin: “Well, if it rains now, He’ll have brought it on Himself.”

Yes, that’s it. That is the “contradiction in the core of the Christian mystery…the God without seeming to sacrifice the God within; the very world of the Creator turned against the unworldliness of the Crucified; the Father accepting the death of the Son. The remark of the woman in the Dublin tram, among other things, was a remark that might very well have been made by Caiaphas or Pilate. He has rather a way of bringing it on Himself.”

If this revelation about ultimate things does not provide enough of the payoff that we hope for in a good mystery, Chesterton gives us one more on the final page:

I heard a story in Ireland years ago about how someone had met in the rocky wastes a beautiful peasant woman carrying a child. And on being asked for her name she answered simply: “I am the Mother of God, and this is Himself, and He is the boy you will all be wanting at the last.” I have never forgotten this phrase, and I remembered it suddenly long afterwards.

I was looking about for an image of Our Lady which I wished to give to the new church in our neighbourhood, and I was shown a variety of very beautiful and often costly examples in one of the most famous and fashionable Catholic shops in London… But somehow I felt fastidious, for the first time in my life; and felt that the one kind was too conventional to be sincere and the other too primitive to be popular… and I ended prosaically by following the proprietor to an upper floor, where there was a sort of lumber room, full of packages and things partially unpacked, and it seemed suddenly that she was standing there, amid planks and shavings and sawdust, as she stood in the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. I said something, and the proprietor answered rather casually: “Oh, that’s only just been unpacked; I’ve hardly looked at it. It’s from Ireland!”

She was a peasant and she was a queen. She was barefoot like any colleen on the hills; yet there was nothing merely local about her simplicity. I have never known who was the artist and I doubt if anybody knows; I only know that it is Irish, and I almost think that I should have known without being told. I know a man who walks miles out of his way at regular intervals to revisit our church where the image stands. She looks across the little church with an intense earnestness in which there is something of endless youth; and I have sometimes started, as if I had actually heard the words spoken across that emptiness: “I am the Mother of God and this is Himself, and He is the boy you will all be wanting at the last.”

The original is available in Vol.20 of The Collected Works.

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