Sunday, June 10, 2007

Vita Sine Termino Nobis Donet in Patria...

My readers (if I still have any) may or may not be aware that I will be traveling this Thursday to Minneapolis/Saint Paul for the annual conference of the American Chesterton Society. The date of this much-anticipated trip is June 14.

As I prepared for the journey, it more and more began to take on the feeling almost of a religious pilgrimage. There is something Providential about me going to this particular conference, in this particular year. Down to the very date, something has seemed important about the whole matter, yet I have until today been unable to put my finger on it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew there were important connections to be drawn - but what were they?

Now, bear with me here if I sound like a conspiracy theorist. But, to my mind, the whole crazy story begins about a year ago. It was on June 8, 2006, when I launched on my blog (and my still out-of-date sidebar bears testimony) a book club reading of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. Fittingly, June 8 was itself a Thursday. It was also around that time that I first heard about the Chesterton Society's Annual Conference and vowed that I would attend sometime. That year, the conference kicked off one week after my blog discussion, on June 15th: the Thursday of Corpus Christi.

The conference was a success that year, and I followed its news via magazine and blogs, green with envy. In the meantime, my own reading of Thursday with my friends occupied the whole of that summer and really brought me to a greater appreciation of Chesterton.

Fast forward to this year. I began planning to attend this year's conference a while back. I learned that I had an unexpected connection at the Seminary where it was being held, which connection carried with it an increased affordability for my trip. It was only after this that I learned of this year's conference theme: The Man Who Was Thursday. The choice of theme was appropriate, after all - this year being the hundredth anniversary of the work's publication, as I noted below. Nevertheless, I remember that I had an eerie sense when I heard the theme announced that it was almost too fitting. I thought then, and have thought many times since, that there was something Providential in it all. As I moved through this past sememster, growing ever more familiar with and devoted to Chesterton, I began to feel almost giddily excited about the prospect of attending an entire conference on the great writer. I gave a talk at my Seminary to try to spread appreciation to others; I even found two individuals crazy enough to make the trip to Minnesota along with me.

As June 14th approached, I felt that I really needed to get down to business. I just knew there was something significant in all of this, and it was like one of Chesterton's puzzles trying to figure it out. I read the exploits of Father Brown to try to sharpen my wit and finally decided to dive into Thursday for another go, and to refresh my memory of the novel before the conference.

This past week, I spent a few days in New Jersey, and returned on Thursday late in the evening. Wide awake from the coffee during my drive, I decided to finish off the remaining chapters of The Man Who Was Thursday before turning in. I reached the novel's end with a renewed sense of awe at God's mysterious love for us: and my thoughts came around to the fact that it was, that very day, the traditional celebration of Corpus Christi (although we celebrate the feast today - Sunday - in America). And suddenly, like lightning, everything came together in my mind.

Corpus Christi has always been one of my favorite feasts - and it was one of Chesterton's, too. In his last days, he would repeat to himself over and over lines from Aquinas's Corpus Christi hymn: O Salutaris Hostia. Part of the last stanza is the epitaph on his gravestone. Chesterton said that the final two words, "in patria," sum everything up. Heaven is our patria - our homeland - and we are sojourners, exiles waiting to return. We have hung up our harps and wait for Sion where we will sing again our song to the Lord.

This theme of exile and sense of strangeness is the very theme of anarchy in Chesterton's novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. It is the import of Syme's great speech at the end:
Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe?... So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, 'You lie!' No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, 'We also have suffered.'
This is the paradox of Corpus Christi: had Israel never been captive in a strange land, they never would have experienced the triumph of freed men (so much better than the comfort of merely free men); had Israel never hungered in the desert, they never would have experienced the fulfillment of the heaven-sent manna. Likewise, had we never been captives to death, we would have no share in the fullest glory of the One who conquers death; had we not suffered hunger and pain, we would have no share in Christ's glorious Body and Blood and the fulness of life.

Chesterton died on June 14th, 1936: Sunday after the Thursday of Corpus Christi. I will make my pilgrimage this June 14th, 2007: Thursday after the Sunday of Corpus Christi. On pigrimage (for that is what I know my trip will be), from Thursday to Sunday, my prayer, study, and fellowship will center on a novel all about what happens between a man named Thursday and a person named Sunday. And quite a lot can happen, as we know, between a Thursday and Sunday... quite a lot, indeed.

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