Several years ago, the president of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, served as a member of a panel of eminent Catholic converts on one of EWTN’s Catholic Family Conferences. The panel was asked a variety of questions, and the members engaged in a long and lively debate and discussion on a wide range of topics, about conversion and obstacles to faith, all coming from different backgrounds. In the natural course of the discussion, it became obvious that no matter what the subject matter of his comment, Ahlquist almost invariably prefaced his opinion with the gently apologetic remark, “Do you mind if I quote G. K. Chesterton?” Soon it became a running gag, and the amused audience began to smile each time, realizing that Ahlquist really did have a Chesterton quote for virtually every situation or point of discussion.
As a Chestertonian myself, I can aver that this is not just something Dale Ahlquist does. In fact, it seems that once people start really reading G.K. Chesterton, and begin to fall in love with this colossus of a writer, mystic, and possible saint, they begin to quote him right and left, side and center, and cannot seem to stop. Among my own circle it has become something of a laughable cliché that in normal, everyday conversation, I usually quote my beloved GKC at least once, often more than once. From coffee to Catholicism, from puddles to perdition, from sunrise to sunset, there is always a GKC quote to fit whatever I encounter. I began to puzzle over this, and wondered if I could start quoting other people; I tried, but other authors just weren’t nearly as quotable—not to mention they were far more narrow and limited. I gave up, and diagnosed myself as just another hopeless case of the Dale Ahlquist Syndrome.
The problem is, of course, that Chesterton is simply so quotable. A king of quips, prince of paradox, tremendous trifler, Chesterton has, as Ahlquist once put it, “said something about everything and said it better than any one else.” He was a tremendously prolific writer who really did write on just about everything—and wrote about it the right way. It’s the fact that he’s right: he expresses huge fundamental truths and quiet common sense better than the vast majority of writers and speakers in the English language.
However, there is still another reason why Chesterton is so often quoted, and a very important one. At the end of the conference panel, the members were presented with the final question: “If you could say just one thing to persons who are seeking the truth and considering the Catholic faith, what would you say?” What a finale! There it was, the most basic, nitty-gritty, hard-core question the panel had yet encountered. The other panelists all gave their responses, most of them profound and compelling, in an off-the-cuff fashion. When it came to Ahlquist’s turn, however, he began sheepishly, “Mind if I quote…” and paused, as the audience and the other panelists chuckled, thinking they knew precisely what he was going to say. “—The Gospel of John?” he finished, smiling himself. The room suddenly grew silent with respect. “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man,” he continued, “And drink his blood, you shall not have life within you.”
Chesterton is so quotable not just because he’s witty and clever; he’s quotable because he speaks the truth, and if we let him, he can lead us to the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life