Thursday, November 19, 2009

Opening Meeting of the YIM Catholic Book Club, "Orthodoxy," Chapter 1

Katie belongs to a book club that meets once a month on Thursdays. Oprah—well, we know about Oprah and books. I think it's high time for YIM Catholic to host a book club, and I propose meeting every Thursday evening. So let's begin immediately, with Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton.

The YIM Catholic Book Club (YIMCBC) will take one chapter a week, nothing too strenuous. The format is simple: I'll provide a very brief summary and then offer some personal comments, reflections, and so on. Then you'll use comments to keep the discussion going until next week. Sound good?

Chapter 1, Introduction, "In Defense of Everything Else"

Chesterton begins and ends this short opening chapter laughing at himself—as someone “only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation,” and as the author of “a sort of slovenly autobiography.” He claims the book is being written in response to a critic. It all seems like a pose.

But inside the pose and at the heart of the chapter is an evocative tale that can be read on several levels of meaning: A British yachtsman, Chesterton writes, “slightly miscalculated his course” and, in search of an exotic port of call, landed in England, where he began. According to Chesterton, the yachtsman thought England both exotic and familiar.

Chesterton is the yachtsman. Like every thinking, feeling human, Chesterton and the yachtsman want a life of what he calls “practical romance,” one in which one feels simultaneously “astonished” and “at home.” Also, like other English intellectuals of his era (late 19th–early 20th century), like H. G. Welles and G. B Shaw, for two examples, Chesterton confesses that he wanted to be in the avant garde of modern thought. Instead he found himself embracing the oldest, most orthodox creed of all, the Apostles' Creed. The book, he says, will explain why.

My comment here is brief: Like Chesterton in the late 19th century, I took such a journey, in the late 1960s, setting out for the exotic only to find myself, 40 years later, back home in England. I left the known confines of the Episcopal Church when I went away to boarding school, and I began to sample the spiritual smorgasbord then available. I read, and in some cases tried to apply the insights of (in alphabetical order) Baha’i, the Gurdjieff Work, Sufism, Swedenborgianism, Yoga, and Zen. I know I'm leaving things out, but I promised brief.

Now, 40 years later, I find myself very much back in England, though Rome is more to the point. Where Episcopalianism offered a cheeseburg and fries, Catholicism provides a full gourmet dinner built around filet mignon (medium, please) and capped off with my favorite dessert, angel food cake, whipped cream, and fresh strawberries. But the main course is still just beef.

Not only do I find myself back where I started, but drawing on Chesterton's great metaphor, I find tremendous romance in the ordinary dailiness of my Catholic life. I used to look at the red brick façade of my church (left) from a mental distance and think, Oh, nice. I used to watch parishioners streaming into St. Mary Star of the Sea every Sunday and think, Oh, Catholics.

Today, I understand that this Church and these parishioners—all on the main street of the town I've called home for 35 years—offer me greater riches than the caves of Ali Baba. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it's true, and what's more I'm tired, and I'm turning over the rest of this meeting to you, fellow YIMCBC members!

Have you read Orthodoxy? If so, what do you think of Chesterton's opening chapter? (And if not, it's only six pages long and you have a week to catch up!)