Sydney Seymour Lucas’ 1911 frontispiece to G.K. Chesterton's The Wisdom of Father Brown
Literary priests like Father Brown and Father Elijah bless us with their sanctity and sagacity.
“All roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters: and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.” —G. K. Chesterton
One wonders what Chesterton’s Father Brown and Graham Greene’s whisky priest would say to each other were they to meet in Chesterton’s fantastic tavern at the world’s end. What would these two unforgettable individuals, who would appear to have absolutely nothing in common except their priesthood, say to each other? What would we see and hear if we were flies on the wall at such a meeting?
Perhaps we would see the whisky priest sitting disconsolately over his flagon of ale, wishing that he could exchange it for a bottle of cheap Kentucky bourbon. Looking up, his tired, bloodshot eyes might meet those of Father Brown. “You know,” he mumbles, “we are more inclined to regret our virtues than our vices, but only the most honest will admit this.” Father Brown might place his own tankard on the table between them, his gratitude for the foam flecked nectar reinforcing a profound sense that he is unworthy of the gift he is imbibing. In the presence of such undeserved blessings, the whisky priest’s words seem almost blasphemous. “I don’t regret any virtues except those I have lost,” mutters Father Brown.
His thoughts are at least as sad as those of the whisky priest but his sadness is of a very different sort. His is the sadness of humility, the sorrow that leads to contrition; the whisky priest’s is the sadness of pride, the sadness of Milton’s Satan whose greatest sorrow is that he cannot escape from himself: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.”
The abyss between these two types of sadness is as wide as the chasm that separates the inferno from paradise. Never the twain shall meet. But this begs an unsettling question: If the sorrow of the whisky priest is akin to the sadness of Satan does this mean that the whisky priest belongs in hell? Heaven forbid; or heaven forbid, at least, that we should ever have the pride and audacity to place him there. His near heroic death and grudging acts of self-sacrifice might be said to have snatched him from Satan’s grasp and the reader is surely meant to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Nonetheless, one can’t help feeling irritated by the whisky priest’s unrelenting joylessness, which is as unbelievable in a work of fiction as it is in the world of fact. The witness of real-life martyred priests, such as St. Edmund Campion and St. Robert Southwell, illustrate and illuminate the joy-filled courage with which these real men of faith met their martyrdom. A cursory perusal of Campion’s famous “Brag” or Southwell’s glorious poetry disperses the acrid aroma with which Greene surrounds his fictional martyr.
Let’s leave the whisky priest in the company of Father Brown, his literary and priestly antidote, and let’s fly to another part of Chesterton’s apocalyptic tavern. Passing over Chesterton himself, deep in conversation with Dickens amidst the motley company of the latter’s fictional characters, we might alight on the ceiling above another gathering of literary priests. There we might see the impeccably spoken Jesuit, Father Mowbray, conversing convivially with the gritty Glaswegian, Father Mackay. Perhaps their discussion centres on the flightiness of the Flytes as they revisit Brideshead, reminiscing about their respective roles in the novel in which Waugh had placed them.
Flying on a little further, we come across Father Elijah discussing apocalyptic intrigues with several priests from the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson. At the next table, Biersach’s Father Baptist confers with Father Luke Scott, from Piers Paul Read’s Death of a Pope, about the dangers of modernism and liberation theology. Standing at the bar, a large group of men in Elizabethan garb are laughing heartily. Amongst them is the fictional martyr, Father Robin Audrey, from Benson’s Come Rack! Come Rope!, but the others are real historical figures, including the aforementioned Campion and Southwell, along with a host of other jovial English Martyrs. The joviality increases as Father Brown joins the company having just heard the whisky priest’s confession.
At this point, our vision fades. It was, after all, only a dream, albeit a dream inspired by the imagination of G. K. Chesterton, who was very much awake when he imagined or “dreamed” it. Such dreams, in some manner or form, may come true but not presumably in every detail. It is, for instance, hardly likely that there would be any flies on the wall of such a heavenly tavern! If we were ever admitted to such a tavern we would presumably have to join the conversation like everyone else and not seek to become entomological eavesdroppers.
Having descended to earth with an unceremonious bump, our thoughts fall and falter from the heavenly sphere of the poetic to the mundane worldliness of the prosaic; settling finally on the level of the banal. We are reminded, for instance, that literary priests are like library books, which is to say that they can be categorized as fiction or non-fiction. Having taken our fictional flight of fancy with the fictional priests, we should not omit to mention those non-fictional priests who have given us such good literature. In our heavenly tavern, mingling with the fictional guests, we would surely find John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins; Robert Hugh Benson and Ronald Knox.
Since there are no flies in such a tavern, and since we are not able to fly there ourselves, we will have to see Chesterton’s tavern through the same eyes that he saw it; through the visionary eyes of the imagination. These are the eyes through which Chesterton first saw Father Brown and through which Michael D. O’Brien first saw Father Elijah. These are the eyes through which we also see these literary priests, and through which we see the deep truths that they convey to us. Like their non-fictional counterparts, these literary priests are ministers of grace blessing us with their sanctity and sagacity. Thank God for such blessings.