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GK Chesterton: Architect of Spears

In my Potato Peel Pie book club we are reading a little Chesterton every week. And by “little,” I mean one essay every Sunday from
In Defense of Sanity. Each week we read and reflect on one short essay or article from G. K. Chesterton and play with the ideas he articulates. Some of the essay are hilarious, some astute, some poignant, and some artistic. Nearly all, however, pair well with a cup of coffee and seem to hit the spot on a Sabbath afternoon. In this article I am ruminating on “The Architect of Spears” from Miscellany of Men and my take on what he has said.

“It is said that the Gothic eclipses the classical by a certain richness and complexity, at once lively and mysterious. This is true; but oriental decoration is equally rich and complex, yet it awakens a widely different sentiment.” – The Architect of Spears


I emphatically agree. I love how he says things that we intuitively know, but don’t notice as being true. It seems inappropriate to say that there is something about Gothic architecture that inherently communicates something spiritual. It seems as though the modern philosopher would say that if we have any religious association with Gothic architecture it is because we were trained to do so. Perhaps that is right. None the less, I cannot change the fact that as early as sixth grade I knew that there was a spiritual difference between the Taj Mahal, a Chinese pagoda, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.


In my sixth grade social studies class my teacher took us on a world tour. In each region of the world we studied religious architecture. I remember being impressed by the peacefulness of the Taj Mahal. That beautiful rounded dome sat beside a serene pool with a cool sky as a backdrop. I remember thinking that that religion must be one of quietness, stillness, peace, and contemplation.


I remember studying a Chinese pagoda in detail so that I could build it out of sugar cubes. I remember thinking about how precise it was. How geometric. How organized it’s beauty was. I remember thinking that that must symbolize something organized and balanced and precise about the religion of those people. Something about order and the ordering of energy.


My parents took me to Europe when I was at the very end of my second grade year. We walked through a lot of cathedrals. We saw a lot of gargoyles. We heard stories about a lot of peaks and spires. I remember walking away from that experience with the clear understanding that cathedrals represent the war between heaven and earth. As man’s soul tries to climb towards heaven, it does so in a garish and assaulting way. It must pull free of all of the earthly trappings and become smaller as it goes higher. The gargoyles remind us that the spiritual world is all around us and both beautiful and hideous. Gothic cathedrals have an ugly kind of beauty. A poetry that communicates that man’s very best effort at beauty will always fall short of the ideal but be better than no attempt at all.


I really appreciate Chesterton’s short essays like this because they give me the opportunity to play with ideas. In this case, I was taken on a trip down memory lane. As he described the architecture, my mind was flooded with childhood memories of Cathedrals as well as other religious houses. Chesterton prompted me to revisit childish impressions with adult understanding. And exercises like that are satisfying on several levels. While he could not have known that this reader would be taken back to childhood, he probably assumed that many of his readers would be. Since Cathedrals are so commonplace in his homeland, this essay probably struck a childish nerve in many as it did in me. And that, really, is trademark Chesterton. Joseph Pearce’s biography of G.K. Chesterton is entitled Wisdom and Innocence because that was the hallmark of Chesterton’s writing. GKC put a high value on the wisdom and innocence of childhood that we, as adults, must strive to recover. Perhaps as we try to ascend to heaven like Gothic spires, we must become small again.


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The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton

“. . . a real life of anybody is a very difficult thing to write; and as I have failed two or three times in trying to do it to other people, I am under no illusion that I can really do it to myself.”


And really, what he wrote isn’t in the style we have come to expect of an autobiography.  There is no timeline of events.  I didn’t keep track, but it may be the case that the date of his birth on the first page is the last date he offers.  There is very little comment on the details of his life, no juicy details of the lives of anyone else he knew.  He seems downright reluctant to air his, or anyone else’s, dirty laundry.  He doesn’t try to blame his parents or his teachers for anything.

“I am sorry if the landscape or the people appear disappointingly respectable and even reasonable, and deficient in all those unpleasant qualities that make a biography really popular.  I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage; no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament.  I regret that there was nothing in the range of our family much more racy than a remote and mildly impecunious uncle; and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am.  I am not clear about what that is; but I am pretty sure that most of it is my own fault.”

What did I learn about Chesterton from himself?  It seems almost by accident that he relates a bit of the thinking behind the writing of The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which would have been good information to have had before I read them.  

I get the impression that he may have been one of the few Christians who has actually considered others more important than himself.  This book is more a catalog of people he knew and who influenced him than it is about him.  He may truly have believed that the famous people who were his friends were much more interesting than he was.  Perhaps it’s just the journalist in him.  Even in his autobiography, he’s still reporting.  One chapter is devoted to his brother.  Some of the chapter titles are, “Figures in Fleet Street,” “Friendship and Foolery,” “Some Political Celebrities,” “Some Literary Celebrities,” and “Portrait of a Friend.” Six of sixteen chapters almost exclusively about people he knew rather than about himself.  It’s almost as if he sees himself more as an observer of people than as a celebrity himself.

Chesterton dearly loved a good argument, but he had the rare quality of being able to argue ideas with a man yet still consider that man his friend.

“My brother, Cecil Edward Chesterton, was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue. . . I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarreled.”


“I have always had a weakness for arguing with anybody; and this involved all that contemporary nihilism against which I was then in revolt; and for about five minutes, in a publisher’s office, I actually argued with Thomas Hardy.”

In the last chapter, Chesterton refers to, “taking a serene review of an indefensibly fortunate and happy life.”  He seems never to have stopped seeing his life as a gift and the world as place of wonder.   

“The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”


“I have said that I had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness, which has not been killed by sin or even by sorrow; for though I have not had great troubles, I have had many.  A man does not grow old without being bothered; but I have grown old without being bored.”


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The Woman Who Was Chesterton


Who is not aware of the giant that was G.K. Chesterton? Even if we post-moderns haven’t read much or any of his brilliant writings, knowledge of the “Apostle of Common Sense” (a term used by Dale Ahlquist in a definitive Chesterton biography by that name) is inescapable. Chesterton was a lion for truth, and his writings were pivotal in the spiritual development of greats like CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Peter Kreeft. Chesterton, himself, is a classic and history will not quickly forget his wit, wisdom, and his sincerity.

What many of us may not be aware of, is that Chesterton owed much of his success, his faith and his writing style to the beautiful soul who shared his life. Mrs. Frances Chesterton, a deeply private woman, is The Woman Who Was Chesterton.

“This is a love story. But it is also a detective story. And best of all, it is a true story, told here for the first time.” – Introduction to The Woman Who Was Chesterton

A friend of Charlotte Mason, a tutor, and a secretary for the PNEU (Parents National Education Union), Frances Blogg Chesterton was a brilliant, sincere and passionate woman who lived a life of service in the pursuance of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Frances was a children’s playwright, a poet and a writer of her own accord but she was also deeply private, and insisted that family destroy her correspondence and journals upon her death. A childless mother, she and her husband lavished their love upon nieces, nephews, and neighbors with zeal.

“Frances and Gilbert worked together as a team; they were lovers and friends, writing coaches and companions. They worked, ate, laughed, and slept together for thirty-five years, dependent on each other physically, emotionally, and intellectually.” The Woman Who Was Chesterton

This biography was painstakingly compiled by Chesterton scholar, Nancy Carpentier Brown. Brown has climbed quite a mountain in researching and compiling an engaging and passionate portrait of Frances Chesterton. In The Woman Who Was Chesterton, Brown has drawn back the veil on a gorgeous, artistic and sensitive soul who has much to teach us, not least of all, how to love GKC even more.

In a way similar to how David McCullough celebrated the love between John and Abigail Adams, Brown invites the Chestertons into our lives and gives us a chance to fall in love with them as a couple and as individual souls who are made whole through true marriage. She highlights general and specific ways in which their writing became almost indistinguishable from each other, she paints a clear picture of how their spiritual lives were intertwined and she makes a compelling case that neither would have been successful without the other. Frances was plagued with excruciating health problems and Gilbert supported her in critical ways. Gilbert was very much the absent-minded professor and Frances gave his life structure and the management it desperately needed. Both were like iron being sharpened against the other in their spiritual walks.   

I am deeply indebted to Mrs. Brown for her scholarship and passionate work. It can be argued that Brown’s writing is uneven and sometimes awkward. Some places lag and others feel a bit disjointed. It simply isn’t the tight writing that we might expect if we compare her to someone like McCullough. That said, her love for the Chestertons and her voluminous research, covers many shortcomings. Frances has become a very special mentor for me because of NCB’s impressive work.

If you are like me at all, you may want to run out and buy How Far Is It To Bethlehem – a beautiful compilation of Mrs. Chesterton’s plays and poetry edited by Mrs. Brown. Also, my children and I are just about to begin reading The Chestertons and the Golden Key also by Nancy Carpentier Brown.


If you are wondering if Frances’s plays and poetry are in print, yes they are. Thanks to Mrs. Brown, How Far Is It To Bethlehem is a beautiful collection of the Christmas plays Mrs. Chesterton wrote, as well as some of her poetry.