Lecture 86: The Apostle and the Wild Ducks

In 1974, the centenary of G.K. Chesterton’s birth, there was a small but spirited attempt to create a Chesterton revival. Two or three books about Chesterton were published, The G.K. Chesterton Society was founded in England, The Chesterton Review was started, and, well, nothing else. As we all know, the 1970’s were The Dark Ages, probably the worst decade in the history of human existence. You just have to look at my high school graduation picture for proof.

One year later, Dorothy Collins released a collection of Chesterton essays under the title of The Apostle and the Wild Ducks. This would be the last book of his writings edited by someone who had a direct link with Chesterton. Hereafter, all the posthumous books must, I suppose, be considered second and third generation, even if they are pure Chesterton.

Dorothy’s excellent and well-integrated collection of essays span Chesterton’s entire career, but it is amazing how we cannot detect a difference in his voice in essays written decades apart, even when they are laid out side by side. The style is the same. The philosophy is the same. Though she was Chesterton’s personal secretary and his literary executrix, she did not know the original source of some of the essays, and even though she claims none of these essays have been collected before, one of them had actually appeared, ironically, in Chesterton’s very first book of essays, The Defendant, 75 years earlier.

The collection is divided into five different sections: on time and place (under the guise of history and travel), on literature, on reflection, and on that rich and wonderful Chestertonian topic: things in general. Reading each essay is like looking through a window. We see Christmas while looking at ancient pagan festivals. We see adults fighting while looking at children playing. We see the present while looking at the past.

While most all the essays flash brilliantly with Chesterton’s expected verbal fireworks, the title essay is actually quite subtle. Why this curious juxtaposition of an apostle and wild ducks?

Chesterton gives an account of visiting the fens of Norfolk, which are loved by sportsmen as an ideal setting for duck hunting. He is told of a medieval church that contains wall paintings of wild ducks, thereby demonstrating how ancient was this sport. He and his companions find their way to the remote church and views its impressive wall paintings of the apostles, but no one sees any ducks in the paintings. Disappointed, they are about to leave, when he suddenly notices something about the figure of St. Paul: on the interior of his embroidered garment is a design that is distinctly “ducks all over.” Ducks with dogs pursuing them, no less. The local artist had managed to include his favorite sport while depicting the Apostle to the Gentiles.

What is the point of this apparently pointless parable? It shows that common men, not just clerics, were connected to the Church. And the larger lesson is that it is only by studying the religious life of this period that we discover the secular life. “We have had to search the cathedrals to find the guilds.”

Of course, there is little interest these days in either cathedrals or guilds. “Modern men,” says Chesterton, “are less anxious to be men than to be modern.” In considering the Wife of Bath on her pilgrimage to the Canterbury Cathedral, Chesterton muses: “I suppose the whole stretch of history from the medieval to the modern world, might be summed up in the reversal of that journey.” Our present pilgrimage is away from the Church towards hygiene. We are no longer concerned with spiritual cleansing, only with health and beauty.

Man searches for the sacred. Because many different cultures find the sacred in many different things, it does not mean, as the modern skeptic concludes, that nothing is sacred; it means that something is sacred.

Why, for instance, is a home more sacred than a hotel? Because even though we have conveniences in a hotel, we do not have ownership. It is ownership that allows us to be creative, to carve something or cut up something the way we want it. Chesterton argues that where that power of ownership “is democratically distributed men are more than citizens, they are all artists.”

I need not repeat for the hundredth time that the case against communism is not a case for capitalism; indeed the case against communism is that it is much too like capitalism. It matters little whether our allegorical hotel is called by capitalists an hotel or by communists a hostel. The case against it is that it is not a home, and that the spirit of man will never feel at home in it.

The volume concludes with one of Chesterton’s most sublime essays, “What is Right with the World,” which would have remained hidden much longer if Dorothy Collins had not dusted it off and brought it out. It is fitting that this was her final contribution to her master’s books. But hidden within the text she may have captured Chesterton’s own humble assessment of his life’s work: “I wish I could claim that I had ever supplied poetry to anything; it seems to me that I am at the very best a humdrum scientific student noting it down.”

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