The Chesterton Society of Baton Rouge
I heard about this several months ago, I believe through the American Chesterton Society Facebook feed. I signed up for it immediately and have been looking forward to it ever since. I was not disappointed – well, not by anything that could be controlled by the sponsors, mainly Mrs. Karen Hornsby and the Chesterton Society of Baton Rouge which she organized a few years ago. They did a fantastic job – everything else was wonderful. And the venue was outstanding. Who would have ever thought that a “Chesterton Square and Banquet Hall” would be near the center of little Ponchatoula, Louisiana, right across the street from the old railroad station, complete with the world’s only life-size statue of G. K. Chesterton? That is, apparently, thanks to the efforts of a devout fan of the man, Dr. Robert Benson. Ponchatoula – Louisiana! – has thus become something of a pilgrimage destination for fans of G. K. Chesterton. Wow!
The one disappointing part of the day, although as I said it could not be helped, was the absence of the man himself – G. K. Chesterton, as portrayed by Chuck Chalberg perhaps most famously on the EWTN series, G. K. Chesterton, The Apostle of Common Sense. Reportedly he had made the journey from Minnesota and was in Ponchatoula, but had taken ill overnight and was in no shape to put on his part of the show. One hopes his malady is of a short nature and he recovers quickly! Even with “Mr. Chesterton’s” absence, the day was a smashing success.
I had spent the night in Lafayette at my sister-in-law’s so that I could get to Ponchatoula during the registration hour from 08:00-09:00, which I did early enough to be able to browse a couple of the earlier erected display tables of books being sold by authors who were presenting, or groups associated with G. K. Chesterton’s legacy, or just of a similar traditionalist Catholic sentiment. I ended up spending far too much money, but managed to pick up several things I’d thought about over the past year or so and manage to have some of the items signed by the authors. I’d taken a hardcover edition of The Christian Writings of G. K. Chesterton that I was thinking of asking Chalberg to sign as Chesterton (parentheses his own name), but that was of course not possible. But I did get book dedications from both Dale Ahlquist and Joseph Pearce on a couple of their books each that I picked up, plus Pearce’s biography of G. K. Chesterton which I also brought with me (a good thing, because it was unavailable at the conference itself). I also sprang for the audio CD set of the presentations of the day, which were being recorded and burned pretty much immediately upon each session being concluded. I look forward to listening to them again sooner rather than later, as well as sharing them with some friends who were not able to make it today.
Just to run down the day, Brian Daigle, another local Chestertonian, led off with some “housekeeping,” crediting the New Orleans Chesterton Society with providing the coffee, donuts, and drinks for the day, as well as Mrs. Hornsby for her work in putting the conference together, before introducing Louisiana State Representative Steve Pugh, who declared that the Louisiana House of Representatives had granted Chesterton honorary citizenship as well as designated this day “G. K. Chesterton Day in Louisiana.” Then Daigle introduced Dale Ahlquist, most famous as the founder of the American Chesterton Society and for the aforementioned series on EWTN, who served as the emcee for the day. Ahlquist led off with his own presentation, “Being Introduced to G. K. Chesterton,” basically the story of how a Baptist encountered the man’s writings and the deep effect they had on his life – leading to his conversion to Catholicism and devoting his life to bringing the undeservedly obscure early 20th-century author back into the public eye. Considering just how obscure Chesterton was in the early 1980s when Ahlquist first read The Everlasting Man, I’d say that he has done a fine job, including being an important advocate for the man’s now very active cause for canonization.
The presentations each lasted about 45 minutes to an hour, and were separated by short breaks for “coffee-in, coffee-out.” The second was by Joseph Pearce, whose own personal story is fascinating – once a “racist, agnostic, neo-Nazi,” he first encountered Chesterton during his second incarceration for inciting racial violence in his native England. “That’s a conversation stopper,” he quipped (a paraphrase since I’ve not listened to the CDs yet), “when someone asks me, ‘So when did you first read Chesterton?’” But as he said several times through the day, “God brought me to G. K. Chesterton, and G. K. Chesterton brought me to God.” Also several times through the day, he reiterated that he considers himself to be working off a great debt that he can never truly repay. His life radically changed, Pearce has become a respected literary critic focusing on the 20th-century Catholic literary revival which he considers Chesterton to have been an inspiration and driving force in. His current topic was “Chesterton and the Power of Paradox,” a frequent theme for the day. G. K. Chesterton was “full of paradox.” So was Chesterton's personal bete noire, Oscar Wilde. As well as the Bible, and other great works of literature. He gave a few examples, which included Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as a parable of childishness, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as parables of growing up, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a parable of both – “growing up” and striking out on his own in a childish way and then truly growing up to return to his father in a childlike way. That’s my interpretation of what he was saying – I don’t think he put it exactly that way.
I didn’t catch who, other than the conference organisers themselves, to credit for the lunch, which was jambalaya, beans, and salad. During the hour and a half or so that we had lunch, it so happened that the Ponchatoula St. Patrick’s Day Parade marched by the front of Chesterton Square. It was during lunch that I first overheard mention of Chuck Chalberg’s indisposition, which made the variances from the announced schedule perhaps a bit more explicable to me than to others. I’m not sure I ever heard the reason for his non-appearance explained to the room at large.
And the rest of the day’s sessions were likewise pulled forward, as well as expanded somewhat with slightly longer breaks in between. Next up was Brian Daigle, who began by thanking Robert Benson for use of the facilities and then gave a talk on “The Literate Chesterton,” Chesterton as an important literary theorist and critic, albeit sadly overlooked as such today. “He could look past the book and exegete the man.”
|O'Brien, Pearce, and Ahlquist,|
with moderator Brian Daigle
The day essentially ended with a round table panel discussion moderated by Daigle – Ahlquist, Pearce, and O’Brien first answering in turn a series of questions from Daigle then a long period of fielding questions on a variety of topics from members of the audience. The questions ranged from expansions on their own relationships with Chesterton to Chesterton’s philosophy on a variety of subjects and relevance for today, as well as considerations of wider issues and ills in modern culture that Chesterton would doubtless have weighed in on were he still living. I took a lot of notes, but do not intend to try to compose an account of this long and enlightening part of the day. I will say it may have been the best part of the program, however.
When the conference wound down, about 16:00, Mass at the nearby church was still an hour away, so I opted to head on back toward Lafayette. I had a great time and if another such day is planned so conveniently located for me, I definitely intend to be part of it.
Cheers! … and Thanks for reading!