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On Pride, Pearl-Clutching and Owning our Own Mess: Musings on G. K. Chesterton’s One Sermon


Paul Rowan


Dr Paul Rowan is Assistant Head (Director of Catholic Life and Formation) and Director of BITL (Beaulieu Institute for Theological Literacy) at Beaulieu Convent School, Jersey, Channel Islands

<strong>On Pride, Pearl-Clutching and Owning our Own Mess:</strong>
<strong>Musings on G. K. Chesterton’s One Sermon </strong>

Having been invited to contribute something ‘on the inspiration of Chesterton for the preacher…The theme of the issue is on preaching and novels…around 1800 words in length,’ and aware that there are plenty of potential pearls of wisdom in one of the most quoted writers in English literature (not least of all in his novels), I knew I would have to be highly disciplined. In the end I decided to take Chesterton at his word and limited myself to exploring the topic he said he would speak about if ever invited to preach. In this one shot in the pulpit, what would he have said? ‘If I had only one sermon to preach, it would be a sermon against pride’.[1] In the final line of this same response, Chesterton shrewdly observes that we find reminders of this vice in our own spiritual make-up most unwelcome: ‘If I had only one sermon to preach, I should feel especially confident that I should not be asked to preach another.’[2]


For Chesterton the sin of pride is located in any attitude by which one considers oneself superior.


The more I see of existence, and especially of modern practical and experimental existence, the more I am convinced of the reality of the old religious thesis; that all evil began with some attempt at superiority; some moment when, as we might say, the very skies were cracked across like a mirror, because there was a sneer in Heaven.[3]


Pride is all about comparison, feeling oneself better. As C. S. Lewis (who was deeply influenced by Chesterton’s writings) puts it, ‘Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature.’[4] As I shall endeavour to show here, pride, sneering, considering ourselves better than others, is a vice that afflicts us all at times and the surest sign of this is that we are often blind to its presence in ourselves, yet all too sensitive to evidence of it in others. Lewis again: ‘There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.’[5]


A few years ago, I was eating in a Roman trattoria with a couple of friends. Having been together about fourteen years now, they have no kids and remain adamant that they do not want any. I used to find that attitude a pretty strange outlook - probably a sign of having been brought up in a Church that views any marriage closed to the possibility of children as invalid. As a younger man, I wondered why a couple committed to each other would not wish to express their mutual love in a lifelong adventure of raising a family together. Nowadays, in my fifties, and with a grown-up daughter of my own, I have met enough good childless people with huge, generous hearts to convince me that people who do not want kids of their own still often live the selfless, generative and generous lives of saints. Furthermore (let’s be frank) it does seem a little odd to many people that a group of men that requires its pastoral leaders to embrace celibacy should also feel free to label unreal the marriages of those who do not feel called to have children. Anyway, a little lad was making a lot of noise in the restaurant, flicking a little rubber ball at his younger brother and constantly asking, nay demanding, that his brother flick it back! I could see both of my friends raising their eyebrows at each other. The decibel levels of the shrieks were admittedly a little high, but I have always rather enjoyed the repetitive racket made by kids, whether it be while I was preaching during the Sunday liturgy or having a pint in a pub. I interpret it as a sign of God’s life, imagination and creativity. As Chesterton puts it,


Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.[6]


My decidedly grown-up friends clearly did not share this Chestertonian hermeneutic! To be fair, little kids are not emotionally subtle. If, like the older brother under discussion, they want something, they insistently shout, cry or moan in an attempt to get it. They feel no embarrassment and offer no apologies for this ‘id-centred’ selfishness, which as undeveloped human beings, kids share with other species of the animal kingdom. There are no masks or ludicrously false rationales offered by children. In other words, they are not yet grown-ups! As human beings become adults, passing through the curve of learning to accommodate the expectations of the super-ego and moving onwards into the development of the ego, we become emotionally more disciplined, realise we can no longer shout ‘I want!’ or ‘Give me now!”’ and so start to become more creative about getting our way! Our id has not simply disappeared. As adults we now put on masks and are more dishonest and less open about our self-centredness. Our sins are sneakier, cleverer, more concealed.


In Christian tradition, pride is often seen as the most dangerous of the seven deadly sins. Lewis viewed the sin of pride as ‘the complete anti-God state of mind’ in comparison with which, ‘Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness and all that, are mere fleabites’.[7] According to Lewis, pride leads to every other vice. So, if we grown-ups are cleverer in the way we sin, how do we sneak in the sin of pride? We see one example of it in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the Temple. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not sinful like other people, especially the tax collector whom he spies ‘over there’. He points out how he carries out his religious duties faithfully, fasting and tithing as the Law required. The Tax Collector, on the other hand, all too aware of his sinful mess of a life, simply beats his breast and asks God to have mercy on him. We are told by Jesus that the latter, not the Pharisee, is the one that goes home at rights with God. As with any parable, there are several layers of meaning, but chief among them is the danger of pride for religious people.


Religion comes from the two words re-ligare, which mean ‘to bind again,’ ‘to link again.’ Religion is meant to connect us once more to God and to each other. Sadly, as the parable points out, it often does the opposite. Instead of connection, community and communion, religion can lead to comparison, competition and division. Religious practitioners can come up with ladders of success and failure, distorted perceptions of higher and lower, superior and inferior - rather than seeing one another as siblings in God’s unfolding plan. One of the potential problems with religion is that the more some people practise it, the more they then perceive how much better they practise it than others, which leads to pride. Many well-intentioned Christian people tend to forget that it is orthodox Christian theology to hold that: 1) God is the source of all goodness; and that therefore two correlatives of this are 2) that only God is the source of his own goodness and 3) any goodness in us is only there by God’s grace. There but for the grace of God go any one of us.


The real truth is that genuine holiness, likeness unto God, is evident not in the proud but in the humble and in the virtues displayed by the humble – compassion for others, a desire to help others, and gratitude for having had certain experiences in life (even sin) that God has used to help bring us closer to God (which may be part of the reason theology refers to the ‘economy’ of salvation - God saves up/wastes nothing in our life to bring us home). Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 4:7) also bears witness to the primacy of grace when he asks us to consider what any of us have that was not given to us? Any way in which we come closer to God is grace, a gift from God. If Lewis is correct that pride is the anti-God state, religious practice should never lead to supposing that we are superior to others through any merits of our own. Even if we are objectively closer to God than others, we are wise to remember that none of us come up to scratch before God – we are all a mess and imperfect in the divine light.


I suspect Chesterton was right when he wrote to an angry prohibitionist that, ‘The wickedest work in this world is symbolised not by a wine glass but by a looking-glass.’[8] There are people in the Church who often despise (smugly, secretly and never officially, of course) the weaknesses of others when it comes to the wine glass or sex. They do the right things for what seems to be the right reason, although deep down they may be deceiving themselves if ultimately they are doing these things as an act of service to their own superiority. I have a friend who was once asked to be a bishop and he was quite naturally tempted. Through honest sessions with his excellent spiritual director, he realised that such a move may have satisfied the ever-present ambitious streak in him, but his own sinful past probably wouldn’t do a lot for the People of God when they found out! He turned it down. Fair play to him. That’s holiness. Not every episcopal nominee has made the same decision, even with far more chequered histories.


When discussing the messiness of the world, GK Chesterton once said, ‘The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.”’[9] Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.’ In other words, we are playing at it, pretending to improve the world, or the Church, or our family or workplace, if we do not first look at ourselves, rather than at others. We all need to start telling the truth and shaming the devil. We’ve all got some skeleton in the closet, something we would rather others did not know about. It’s very liberating when we can own that, because people no longer have a hold over us. A good start to combatting pride is to stop clutching our pearls, pursing our lips and gossiping about people’s less than perfect lives and, instead, start to own our own mess. Not one of us has got this holiness lark sorted. Every member of the Church and every person on this planet has got something in their life which they wouldn’t want others to know about, yet relatively few and far between are those who do not prefer to confess other people’s sins instead. People like their life, religion and God neat and tidy, but there’s nothing squeaky clean about cooperating with grace, learning to love, becoming a saint.



[1] G. K. Chesterton, “If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach”, On Lying in Bed and Other Essays, ed. A. Manguel, Calgary: Bayeux Arts Inc., 1999, 507.

[2] Ibid., 516.

[3] Ibid., 507.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Fount, 1977, 107.

[5] Ibid., 106.

[6] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 1 (Heretics; Orthodoxy; The Blatchford Controversies), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, 263.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 107.

[8] G. K. Chesterton, Temperance and the Great Alliance, London: True Temperance Association, 1916, 11.

[9] Daily News, 16th August 1905, personal collection of D. Ahlquist, President of The American Chesterton Society, cited in Paul Rowan, The Scrappy Evangelist: Chesterton and a New Apologetics for Today, Charlotte, NC: The American Chesterton Society, 2017, 346.

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