Tag Archives: G.K. Chesterton

The Childlike Appeal of Murder Mysteries

15 Jul

The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.
~ G.K. Chesterton

“Just what kind of movies do you like?”

We were sitting around the dinner table discussing cinematic tastes. Katharine, my youngest, was being a bit evasive; Benedict, my oldest, was drawing her out.

Kath paused, looked straight at Ben, and then blurted, “I like murders.”

Maybe not the answer you’d expect from a 12-year-old, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been treating my kids to a steady summer diet of sleuthing and homicide. First it was a DVD season of “Murder She Wrote” from the library, and then on to Agatha Christie – Miss Marple, yes, but especially the ITV version of her Belgian eccentric, Hercule Poirot (David Suchet). His accent and fastidiousness have grown on us, along with the wide-eyed, perpetual bewilderment of his sidekick, Captain Hastings.

Our routine involves popping in the disc, getting settled with our snacks, and then launching into speculation as soon as the principals start showing up on the screen. Often, I’m trying to finish up the dinner dishes as the proceedings commence. “Is there a corpse yet?” I’ll call out from the kitchen.

“Nope, not yet,” Kath or somebody calls back. “But hurry – there’ll be one soon!”

By definition, murder mysteries will have a victim – at least one, sometimes more. The murder method also varies: a stabbing here, an electrocution there, gunshots, poisons, blunt trauma – who knows? Regardless of how or how many, death sets the stage – it’s the unquestioned given, the backdrop before which the narrative unfolds.

Yet, the TV murder mysteries we enjoy don’t involve anything grisly or shocking. These aren’t slasher flicks, so the deed itself is a muted part of the drama. When it’s over and done with, we get to the real fun: joining up with the sleuths to solve the crime. We gasp and laugh, talk to the screen and each other, and amend our conjectures along the way – sometimes twice, sometimes more. By tale’s end, the family score is tallied – who was right, who was wrong – and we head off to bed.

Sweet dreams!

That might sound a bit weird, but my follow-up with Kath after dinner confirmed my intuition that our familial enjoyment of the genre was pretty healthy. “Why do you like murder?” I asked.

“I like guessing who’s going to be killed – and who’s the killer,” Kath explained. “I don’t like killing, but I like figuring it out – it’s a puzzle, and the obvious ones are never right.”

In this, Kath instinctively paid tribute to Chesterton’s observation that “mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes,” and kids love jokes. A good joke, like a good mystery, fools us. We fall for an unseen juxtaposition or association that both surprises and satisfies.

Chesterton further argues that a mystery is like

a toy, a thing that children ‘pretend’ with…. From this it follows that the reader, who is a simple child and therefore very wide awake, is conscious not only of the toy but of the invisible playmate who is the maker of the toy, and the author of the trick.

And since the “innocent child is very sharp and not a little suspicious,” a good mystery creator will gift his audience an experience that simultaneously confounds and confirms. It’ll make sense in the end, no matter how bewildering the preceding series of events. “The climax must not be only the bursting of a bubble,” Chesterton insists, “but rather the breaking of a dawn.”

This enlightenment was referenced by Katharine in a further reflection on her murder mystery enthusiasm. “And I like seeing the bad guy get caught,” she said, adding this astute assessment: “It’s always money – always greed. I want money, too, but I’m not going to kill for it.” Although her nuanced insight regarding mammon and avarice made me beam with paternal pride, I was especially alert to her appreciation of justice served. Unlike some modern thrillers and horror films, we expect – no, we demand – that traditional murder mysteries have a happy ending: the good guys get the bad guys, and the bad guys are held accountable.

Here, too, Kath’s comments made me think of Chesterton, but this time it was his splendid defense of fairy tales. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination,” he writes. “What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” There’s a big difference between fairy tales and mysteries, I know, but I think there’s an edifying overlap between St. George and Hercule Poirot. Whether it’s a monster or a murderer, the graphic depiction of its sure defeat reinforces the idea, in Chesterton’s words, “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

By accompanying our teens and pre-teens into the moral universe of murder mysteries, whether on the screen or on the page, we foster their grasp of important catechetical truths: that God brings order out of chaos, that good triumphs over evil, and that death is never, ever the end of the story.
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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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A Bibliochaotic Encounter with 3 Celtic “M” Saints

24 Jun

“There is nothing Celtic about having legends.
It is merely human.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

“When are we going to get rid of some of these books?” is the complaint I hear from time to time at my house. “We’ll never read them all.” Yes, I know, that’s the point! There will always be something to read, always a new find, always something to surprise and delight.

I hear that complaint a lot, especially from my older kids. They grew up with our bibliochaotic interior decorating scheme, but they’ve come to appreciate that it’s nowhere near normative or typical – that it’s not even an infrequent alternative. Most of their friends don’t live with overflowing bookcases in every room; most families of their acquaintance don’t double-shelve their volumes to accommodate them all. Actually, even the word “most” there is generous. The truth is that their domestic experience of bookish squalor is pretty extraordinary.

But no apologies here. I’ve always been a big believer in quantity over quality when it comes to our home library. That’s the essential approach of big academic libraries, isn’t it? And the Library of Congress? So why should it be any different at home? It seems like our family book collections shouldn’t just be showcases for favorites, but more like dense jungles of the unfamiliar and surprising in which our kids can get lost, explore, and make discoveries of their own. A decent library less a museum than a magical meeting place.

And that goes for the grown-ups as well.

Case in point: I was rooting around in the living room for something or other recently, and there in the stacks was a bright orange picture book I’d never seen before – or else I don’t remember ever seeing it before. I snagged it off the shelf: The Saint and His Bees (2013), written by Dessi Jackson and illustrated by Claire Brandenburg. Where did it come from? How did we acquire it? Who knows, but here it was in my hands – providence! Serendipity!

The magic caught me and I dove in.

The book relates the tale of St. Modomnoc, a 6th-century Irish monk who studied in Wales under St. David, who put the young novice in charge of the community’s hives. Modomnoc’s enthusiasm for his vocation was such that he eagerly acquiesced to David’s directive and threw himself into his apiary role – something his skittish confreres in the Welsh community were all too happy to surrender to him.

The young monk and his bees developed a strong mutual affection, and when it came time for Modomnoc to return to his Irish monastery, the bees insisted on accompanying him. According to Jackson’s retelling, St. David gave way to the inevitable and happily bestowed his blessing on the departing Modomnoc and his buzzing friends. It’s the legendary flipside to St. Patrick’s role in ridding the island of snakes, for Modomnoc is credited with introducing the honey-producing insects to the Emerald Isle.

Reading through The Saint and His Bees was time well spent. It’s an edifying tale well told, and Brandenburg’s rough-cut illustrations capture the story’s primitive monastic ethos perfectly. Besides, I’d never heard of St. Modomnoc before, and I’m anxious to share his history with my beekeeping friends. Moreover, I made a mental note about this saint’s fearlessness in obedience and embrace of duty – and the unseen ramifications of such courage. With that in mind, I decided to track down a bit more about this new holy friend.

Since I was in a library frame of mind, I turned to the stacks instead of a screen, and I pulled down David Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5th ed., 2003). Not surprisingly, the entry on St. Modomnoc confirmed the basic outline of Jackson’s narrative, but there was no additional information – and so my eye wandered on the page.

More providence – more serendipity. More magic and meeting.

First, my attention was drawn to St. Modan, the entry immediately preceding St. Modomnoc. Modan, too, was a Celtic monk that hailed from the 6th century, but his life centered on Scotland instead of Ireland and Wales. It seems that St. Modan was given to long hours of prayer and solitude, but that didn’t prevent his being pressed into abbatial service at Dryburgh. He also had a knack for coaxing the rains during times of drought – which is ironic since his name means “little flame.”

Modan’s meteorological miracles led to some confusing associations with an 8th-century Scottish saint and bishop of the same name. The latter’s feast is observed on November 14, and on that date in Fraserburgh, according to Farmer’s Dictionary, “his silver head-relic was formerly carried in procession to bring down rain or improve the weather in other ways.”

Not exactly the honey-coated legacy of St. Modomnoc, but holy beggars can’t be choosers.

After Modan, I scanned the page for other curious hagiographic tidbits, and I came across the story of St. Mochta, another Irish abbot, but this time from the 5th century. “Reputed to be of British origin and to have become a disciple of Patrick in Ireland,” Farmer writes, “he is supposed to have been educated and consecrated bishop in Rome.” Not only was Mochta a close collaborator of St. Patrick, he is said to have founded a celebrated monastery at Louth.

But what I found especially diverting was a bit of Mochta lore from Farmer – that the saint “lived for 300 years because he doubted the ages of the Old Testament patriarchs.” Now, whether that actually happened or not is less important than the preservation of the suggestion that it had happened. I couldn’t help smiling when I read it. “It would be just like God to do something like that,” I thought to myself. “And it’s so great that the Irish would keep such a yarn alive over the centuries.” It’s an example of the kind of weirdness in our traditions that I’ve always found invigorating as a Catholic convert – not only diverting, but also reassuring. A religion of 300 yearlong object lessons, not to mention Pied Piper beekeepers and rainmaking relics, is a religion that enraptures and enthralls, and can accommodate even the likes of me.

The same goes for a voluminous pandemonium. How else would I have met such fascinating saints? We are blessed in our bookish bedlam.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Ice Skating, Down Syndrome, and Ordinary Time

31 May

“Brave men are vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

Read more…

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Shopping for a Terminal Address

29 Apr

“For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we will find one another again
in the same place.”
~ St. Simeon of Thessalonica
(CCC 1690)

My students thought it was sketchy. Several of them had seen me standing on a curb near the campus service entrance earlier in the day – just standing there. “What’s up, Mr. Becker?” one of them called out as she drove past. “I’m waiting for my wife to pick me up,” I called back. “I’m taking her someplace to show her something.”

Someplace. Something. So mysterious. “What was all that about?” my students ventured later that afternoon before our evening hospital clinical. I was happy to explain. “We went to the cemetery so I could show her our grave plots.”

What?

Not the most romantic of dates, I suppose, but you have to admit that it’s a solid confirmation (in real estate) of our ultimate shared abode. And it was joyful, for I’d purposely picked out spots close to dear friends who’d also reserved plots. We laughed as we wound our way between the tombstones and graves to find our designated places along the fence – “here’s where we’ll be; here’s where they’ll be.” Permanent neighbors – what fun! There was a cemetery worker nearby setting up for an imminent burial, and he seemed perplexed by our joviality – probably even a bit offended. “Don’t these people know where they are?” his scowl implied.

Let him scowl!

Look, why kid ourselves? Short of the Parousia, we’re all going to die – something my nursing students know well. And while it can happen to us any day, at any moment, it’s a reality that comes into sharper focus as we get older…er, rather, to be honest here, it’s a reality that’s coming into sharper focus for me as I’m getting older. Muscles I didn’t even know I had are starting to ache, obscure joints regularly alert me to their presence, and my chronic illnesses get all the more chronic-er.

You too?

But these are all good things, I think. Despite the hassles, getting old is a gift – truly! We have regular physical reminders that there’s an endpoint on the horizon along with daily opportunities to avail ourselves of divine aid and maybe get things right, maybe set things in order once and for all. “Death puts an end to human life,” the Catechism makes plain, “as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (1021). Increasingly these days, when the morning alarm goes off, my prayer takes the form of, “Excellent – another shot at inching toward heaven. Thanks, God! Help me not screw it up today.”

What’s more, there’s also the fact that the older we get, the more funerals we end up attending – family, friends, co-workers. We grieve their departure, we comfort their surviving loved ones, and, unlike in our youth, we can’t help thinking to ourselves, “That’ll be me sooner rather than later.”

Is that morbid? Naah – I’m a Christian! Death is the point, after all – death to sin, death to self, dying that leads to rising and new life. It’s built right into our baptismal dignity – something we might forget when we’re watching cute babies get doused and sprinkled. It’s not simply a washing away of original sin, but also a sacramental entombment followed by a resurrection. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” St. Paul wrote the Romans, who were familiar with the stark symbolism of full immersion, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

That newness of life begins immediately upon receipt of baptism, of course, but it won’t see its full flourishing until our earthly walking days are over. At that moment, God willing, the moment of our deaths, we’ll hear the welcome of the Good Shepherd and we’ll know, either immediately or in time, the blessed relief of joining the company of heaven.

Yet there’s still more to come, for we believe in the final resurrection of the dead, “when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life…” (Jn 5.28-29). Redeemed souls will be reunited with their bodies, and they’ll have arrived at what Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue (drawing on Chesterton) described as the “Tavern at the End of the World,” full of feasting and cheer and riotous mirth. They’ll gather round with the saints of their holy cards and devotions, but also all the hidden saints whose paths might’ve only glanced theirs in this life. Imagine the craic and camaraderie! “Of course, you’re here!” they’ll cry to each other. “And I? I’m here, too? Thank God! Praise God! Another round!”

That’s the part that has me so jazzed about our grave plots and their juxtaposition to our holy friends. I envision my wife and I greeting them as the general resurrection commences – a back slap, perhaps, a hand shake and a hug – and then rising with them to the Pearly Gates. And if St. Peter should glance at his book and raise an eyebrow at me in hesitation, I’ll pipe up: “But, listen, I’m with her” (pointing to my wife), “and we’re with them” (indicating our friends).

I know it doesn’t work that way, but I can’t help smiling when I think about it. In truth, as Mr. Blue puts it, “It is only Catholicism that would ever allow the like of me to hope some day to be there,” but if I do make it, I’d love to have some pals along – especially during orientation and those awkward ice-breakers. Wouldn’t you?

All kidding aside, by setting down our markers in that cemetery, we’re concretely acknowledging our mortality – to ourselves, to our kids, to the world. Like a religious habit or a large family, making such grave reservations well before they’re needed is an implicit declaration of faith and abandonment. Plus, for my part at least, just knowing it’s there waiting for me just might spur me on to “work out my own salvation” with increased diligence and fervor (Phil 2.12).

I tried to relate all this to my students, but they just shook their heads. It was all too weird for them…so I went for broke. “Now that we have our grave plots,” I casually related, “I’m going to try talking my wife into purchasing Trappist caskets – maybe set them up at home as bookcases or end tables.”

OK, maybe that was taking things a bit too far…perhaps.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Hour of Our Death.

Of Bridgebuilding, Barriers, and Fatherhood

14 Apr

“In the breaking of bridges is the end of the world.”
~ G.K. Chesterton

Read more…

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Of Blade Runner, Barchester, and Father Brown

22 Jan

“He’s simply a good man, without guile, believing humbly in the religion he has striven to teach, and guided by the precepts he has striven to learn.”
~ Dr. Theophilus Grantly

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Of Sports Radio, Squabbles, and Signs of Life

14 Jan

“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.”
~ Walker Percy

I’m what you’d call a “fair-weather runner” – which means I’m not running these days. Come spring, however, and the thaw (God willing), you’ll find me out there on the street almost daily: Putting in my miles, getting ready for my 5Ks, running my 5Ks, chasing my younger kids on their bikes when they let me. It’s my annual endorphin spree, and just enough aerobic workout (averaging out the year) to stay in decent shape (again, God willing).

Otherwise, my athleticism is entirely derivative and vicarious.

And since we live in South Bend, that means football – Notre Dame football to be precise. Rooting for the Irish has always been an integral part of our family culture every fall, and that only intensified when my two oldest kids matriculated there. We watch the games on TV, we faithfully read the South Bend Tribune’s game day pull-out in anticipation, and we listen to post-game analysis on the radio. Frankly, that’s my favorite part. In fact, I generally skip watching altogether and rely instead on the radio broadcast. It allows me to work on other things (like dishes or the garage), and it reduces my stress when it’s a close game. Plus, the television broadcast is about 15 seconds behind the radio, so I get to hear the touchdowns and interceptions before everybody planted in front of the screen – much to their dismay. “Dad,” I’m regularly reminded, “don’t shout out when you see stuff! It ruins it!” (Sorry, guys.)

Anyway, the other part I like about the radio broadcast is that there’s nothing to distract me from the commentators and their analysis. Beforehand they’ll give me their Keys to the Game – stuff like “establish the running game, protect the football, and watch for the big play on special teams” – and I’ll nod my head vigorously in agreement. Following kickoff, I happily depend on the voices of IMG’s Don Criqui and Allen Pinkett to verbally sketch out the action for me. They’re my Notre Dame football gurus, and I accept their every aside and throwaway without question. “If you turn it over three times, you oughta’ lose,” Pinkett has repeatedly emphasized over the years. “If you turn it over four times, you gonna’ lose.” As a dedicated Pinkett disciple, I’ve come to consider that maxim a self-evident dogma.

Once football season is over, my radio listening habits largely revert to the dulcet tranquility of NPR, but I’ll still fire up CBS sports from time to time just to hear them rant and rave.

And, boy, do they ever rant and rave. Baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey – even tennis. Even golf, believe me! Most of the time, I have no absolutely no idea what they’re talking about – minutiae related to coaching techniques or on the field strategies or contract negotiations, whatever – but that’s part of the fun. As a near-total outsider, I can enjoy listening to the hosts, guests, and callers exchange shots regarding issues of great import to them, secure in the knowledge that it has no bearing on my life whatsoever. They’re strident; they’re uncompromising; they’re combative. “There’s no way this team is coming out on top” followed by “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about!” I love it.

Why? I tell you, it’s the vehemence that’s so appealing. It’s the fight; it’s the undeniable evidence that these people are passionate about something and willing to make a stand. My family and I watched The Treasure of Sierra Madre last night, and there’s that scene near the beginning when Humphrey Bogart and his partner are brawling with the crooked boss who bilked them. As the fight ensues, you see other denizens of the bar casually nursing their drinks while observing the fracas. That’s me when I listen to sports radio. I listen to the sports guys duke it out and revel in their passions. Something has them riled up, and it’s good to see folks riled up – riled up enough to go at it with their opponents.

In other words, the fight itself is what I find satisfying, the disagreement and its manifestation in the form of conflict. Since it’s just radio talk, there’s no physical violence, praise God, but the verbal assaults can be vociferous and brutal. All the better.

There’s evidence that fighting about stuff is not only entertaining to others (me, at least), but healthy in itself. I heard mathematician Hannah Fry’s TED talk on NPR recently about the application of statistical analysis to the vitality of love relationships and marriage. Contrary to what we might expect, the researchers found that the most successful marriages – the ones least likely to end in divorce, in other words – were those that include more conflict and confrontation rather than less. Here’s Fry from her talk:

I would’ve thought that perhaps the most successful relationships were ones…where couples let things go and only brought things up if they really were a big deal. But actually, the mathematics and subsequent findings by the team have shown the exact opposite is true. The best couples, or the most successful couples, are the ones…that don’t let anything go unnoticed and allow each other some room to complain.

It seems that bringing hurts and perceived slights, no matter how insignificant, to the fore is much healthier than simply overlooking them to keep the peace. Better to get the tensions and differences out in the open, that is, hash them out, bicker and fret, than to “go placidly” – Desiderata notwithstanding.

I think that’s the reason I found Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday so appealing when I first read it as a young Catholic-wannabe. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it (and I urge you to do so if you haven’t), there’s a delicious disorientation at the novel’s core that involves would-be Victorian bomb-throwers who are surprisingly sympathetic figures. Aside from their enchanting personalities as individuals, their very radicalism appeals, and by the end of the novel you’re rooting for them and derivatively swept away by the allure of Sunday, their ostensible, yet elusive, anarchist leader.

It’s clear that Chesterton, in Thursday, isn’t advocating actual physical violence as a remedy to society’s ills, but he is making a compelling case for violence nonetheless – a violence of conversion, that is, a no-holds-barred upheaval – in persons, in societies – that can lead to redemption and sanctity. “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness,” C.S. Lewis observed, “would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world – and might even be more difficult to save.” As in marriage, goodness and holiness cannot be approached by merely being amiable. Indeed, amiability that glosses over conflict serves only to obstruct the very revolutions that usher in true change of heart.

“Would that you were cold or hot!” St. John records the Lord telling the Laodiceans. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Nothing doing. I’ll take my cue from the heat of sports radio and stay clear of lukewarm. So please forgive me if I’m cranky. I’m just working out my salvation.
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