G.K. Chesterton: Mary and the Church

In a chapter of The Well and the Shadows, entitled Mary and the Convert, G. K. Chesterton relates how it is that throughout his life, even before his conversion to Catholicism, he associated the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Church. He instinctively saw her as a universal symbol of what the Church essentially is:

…whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself–I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity.

The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her; when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi, that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.

from The Well and the Shallows, Chapter VI

            He also wrote a poem – The Black Virgin – which goes even further in describing this universal appeal, though this time by relating the wealth of forms Our Lady has appeared under throughout history. Whilst running through a panoply of different images, Chesterton roots them all in the recurrent appeal of the essential dignity and humanity that shines forth from Our Blessed Mother, a humanity that shines with the glory of perfect discipleship and is tinged with the light of heaven:


One in thy thousand statues we salute thee

On all thy thousand thrones acclaim and claim

Who walk in forest of thy forms and faces

Walk in a forest calling on one name

And, most of all, how this thing may be so

Who know thee not are mystified to know

That one cries “Here she stands” and one cries “Yonder”

And thou wert home in heaven long ago.


Burn deep in Bethlehem in the golden shadows,

Ride above Rome upon the horns of stone,

From low Lancastrian or South Saxon shelters

Watch through dark years the dower that was shine own:

Ghost of our land, White Lady of Walsinghame,

Shall they not live that call upon thy name

If an old song on a wild wind be blowing

Crying of the holy country whence they came?


Root deep in Chartres the roses blown of glass

Burning above thee in the high vitrailles,

On Cornish crags take for salute of swords

O’er peacock seas the far salute of sails,

Glooming in bronze or gay in painted wood,

A great doll given when the child is good,

Save that She gave the Child who gave the doll,

In whom all dolls are dreams of motherhood.


I have found thee like a little shepherdess

Gay with green ribbons; and passed on to find

Michael called Angel hew the Mother of God

Like one who fills a mountain with a mind:

Molten in silver or gold or garbed in blue,

Or garbed in red where the inner robe burns through,

Of the King’s daughter glorious within:

Change shine unchanging light with every hue.


Clothed with the sun or standing on the moon

Crowned with the stars or single, a morning star,

Sunlight and moonlight are thy luminous shadows,

Starlight and twilight thy refractions are,

Lights and half-lights and all lights turn about thee,

But though we dazed can neither see nor doubt thee,

Something remains. Nor can man live without it

Nor can man find it bearable without thee.


There runs a dark thread through the tapestries

That time has woven with all the tints of time

Something not evil but grotesque and groping,

Something not clear; not final; not sublime;

Quaint as dim pattern of primal plant or tree

Or fish, the legless elfins of the sea,

Yet rare as this shine image in ebony

Being most strange in its simplicity.


Rare as the rushing of the wild black swans

The Romans saw; or rocks remote and grim

Where through black clouds the black sheep runs accursed

And through black clouds the Shepherd follows him.

By the black oak of the aeon-buried grove

By the black gems of the miner’s treasure-trove

Monsters and freaks and fallen stars and sunken-

Most holy dark, cover our uncouth love.


From shine high rock look down on Africa

The living darkness of devouring green

The loathsome smell of life unquenchable,

Look on low brows and blinking eyes between,

On the dark heart where white folk find no place,

On the dark bodies of an antic race,

On all that fear thy light and love thy shadow,

Turn thou the mercy of thy midnight face.


This also is in thy spectrum; this dark ray;

Beyond the deepening purples of thy Lent

Darker than violet vestment; dark and secret

Clot of old night yet cloud of heaven sent:

As the black moon of some divine eclipse,

As the black sun of the Apocalypse,

As the black flower that blessed Odysseus back

From witchcraft; and he saw again the ships.


In all thy thousand images we salute thee,

Claim and acclaim on all thy thousand thrones

Hewn out of multi-colored rocks and risen

Stained with the stored-up sunsets in all tones-

If in all tones and shades this shade I feel,

Come from the black cathedrals of Castille

Climbing these flat black stones of Catalonia,

To thy most merciful face of night I kneel.


In all these pictures we see what God saw before all ages, when He chose Mary to be the one who would bear His Son into the world. We see that under all these images, she remains a universal symbol of perfect faith directed towards God, a faith which emanates from a heart that is wholly integrated by its love for Him. We see her as being sent out into the world as a symbol of the Faith, encapsulating what it means to be a disciple. We see her as Chesterton did all his life, as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – a perfect symbol of the Church.


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