Have a Chestertonian Marriage

A few years ago, a former student invited me to lunch. He was discerning the married life and he wanted my advice as a married man. I was shy to give it. It is not because I have a bad marriage. I have an awesome marriage. I had some reluctance because as wonderful as my marriage is, I really don’t take any credit for it.

I married someone who is in every way my better.  She brought to our relationship all of the virtues that people tell us that they see in us. I have hitched my wagon to her star. So in terms of advice, there is little I can give, except maybe this:

Have a Chestertonian marriage.

GK Chesterton is a mountain among men, not only in intellect and spirituality, but in stature.  Chesterton’s writings are filled with irony, paradox, and delight.  As a young man he dabbled in irreligiosity until he met Frances Blogg, whom he married in 1901.

In his letter to her in which he proposed marriage, his last paragraph began (speaking of himself in the third person) But there are four lamps of thanksgiving always before him.  I shall now go through each of these four lamps of thanksgiving as Chesterton’s model for marriage.

“The first is for his creation out of the same earth with such a woman as you.“  

Chesterton understood his unworthiness before his wife.  My brother and I were both gymnasts, though I blush to use that term in reference to myself.  Compared to his Olympian skills, I was a sad sack of flesh and bones tossing myself across gym.  And when I look at my wife, I can hardly believe that we are made of the same stuff.  If humans are made of earth, then I must be mud and she gold.   

We must, of course, avoid an idealism that is out of contact with reality.  My wife would be the first to say that she is a woman who struggles with faults and sins like any other.  But when choosing a spouse, it should be someone who makes you better.  Or at least you can see a way that the two of you together could become better.  Frances made GK a better man, and I am sure she would say that GK made her a better woman.  But the realization of unworthiness must be placed before us.

This is not a false humility that berates the value of the self.  But it is a check against selfishness.  Perhaps you, dear reader, are made of more moral strength than those like me.  But even with my wonderful wife, I struggle against feelings of selfish desire, seeking my needs over her own.  One thing that helps keep this in check is the constant realization that she outclasses me in love and holiness and it would be shameful of me to think of her less.

“The second is that he has not, with all his faults, ‘gone after strange women.’ You cannot think how a man’s self restraint is rewarded in this.“

This second point is connected to the first.  Not only am I unworthy to be with my wife, I understand that I could easily have never been with her.  This world makes it so that from a young age we are seeking romantic interests that do nothing more than please us emotionally or lustfully.  I see it all the time, couples who have nothing to hold them together except their mutual possessiveness.  And how many, after these failed relationships, find significant others based on those same shallow merits.

Chesteron was in awe that in all the world of billions of women, Frances found him.  If he had a mindset of simple lustful conquest, she would never have fallen in love with him.  And if he followed his lusts and “gone after strange women” he would have closed himself off to the love he now enjoyed.  On their first meeting, GK said to himself, “‘If I had anything to do with this girl I should go on my knees to her: if I spoke with her she would never deceive me: if I depended on her she would never deny me: if I loved her she would never play with me: if I trusted her she would never go back on me: if I remembered her she would never forget me.“  Notice there is not one mention here about her physical attractiveness.  That isn’t to say that it is wrong to be attracted to someone looks.  But Chesterton saw all of her virtue as most attractive.

I have only dated one woman in my life.  Sometimes my students ask me if I ever feel sad because I never dated more.  I know for many of my guy students, they have a strong desire to engage in amorous activity with a variety of women.  But I was fortunate.  I always say to them, “Of course not.  I’m a guy who won the lottery on my first ticket!”

“The third is that he has tried to love everything alive: a dim preparation for loving you.“

If there is one word to sum up Chestron’s view of life it is “wonder.”  He was in constant awe of everything in the world.  I read once (I forget where) that if we could only see the stars once every century, how we would be in awe of the thing.  But because we see them every night, we forget how amazing they are.  It is the same with everything else in this world.  Chesterton saw the romance of everyday life.  In his letter to Frances he wrote, “I have sometimes thought it would be very fine to take an ordinary house, a very poor, commonplace house in West Kensington, say, and make it symbolic. Not artistic – Heaven – O Heaven forbid. My blood boils when I think of…  aesthetic pattering prigs who can look on a saucepan without one tear of joy or sadness: mongrel decadents that can see no dignity in the honourable scars of a kettle.

Everyday life is amazing!  Chestron knew it was a gift.  He knew that the great heroes who went to war did so to defend normal life.  Normal life is the reward for the hero’s heroism, not parades and statues in their honor.  That is what it was for Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings.  That is what it is for Harry Potter.  

Normal life is our reward and it is glorious, with its common pleasures and trials.  I try to take time whenever I can to tell my wife how much I love our life together and all of its large and small joys.

“And the fourth is – but no words can express that. Here ends my previous existence. Take it: it led me to you.“

And this is the final thing.  Some joys are too large to put into words.  All you can do is surrender to them.  And Chesterton surrendered to Frances.  He followed the instructions of Paul from Ephesians 5:25 (which was read at my wedding), “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved His Church and handed Himself over for her.”  

To have Chestertonian marriage, the husband must be the Christ-hero and die each day for his lady love.  And this must be done every day.  “Here ends my previous existence” is not a statement to say only at marriage, but every morning, every moment.  All that I have done is over.  I must begin again to lay down this life which has led me to my wife.

Chesterton’s love and delight of his wife was so intense that it can be seen even in his last words.  He looked up from his deathbed to see Frances.  Upon seeing this woman who had been by his side nearly every day for 35 years of marriage, he perked up as if seeing her was an unexpected treat and said, “Hello, my Darling.”

There is much we can learn about marriage by the way Chesterton died.

But let us learn all that we can about marriage by the way he lived.

Copyright 2017, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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