A touch of whimsy for Catholics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 17, 2019

I don’t know about you, but there are days when I just want to enjoy myself. It is unhealthy to spend all of our time moaning about the state of the Church and the world when so many other pursuits are possible. There was once a young priest in our parish who, according to legend at least, ran into the pastor while skateboarding—in the rectory. This example may be more slapstick than whimsy, but it is a well-known principle that one man’s whimsical flourish is another man’s entertaining anecdote.

Of course, one does not have to jettison the Faith to take some enjoyment in life. Quite the contrary. But since there are liabilities in recommending anything from skateboarding to skiing, I will write today about those paged beasts we call books, in three separate categories of whimsicality.

Chesterton

G. K Chesterton is, of course, always a category unto himself. Columnist, essayist, poet, writer of detective stories, novelist, defender of the Faith, biographer and autobiographer, Chesterton was a prodigious writer, always good-humored, directly on target, and supremely entertaining. Whether you read his poem “The Donkey” or his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, his essays on America or his stories about his priest-detective Father Brown, wild novels like The Napoleon of Notting Hill or brilliant introductions to Christianity such as The Everlasting Man—not to mention his absorbing biographies of St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens—you will find a penetrating vision of reality, full of insight expressed in language as delightful as it is startling.

Where, then, to begin? Happily Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute are here to help with Dale Ahlquist’s “short history of G. K. Chesterton”, entitled Knight of the Holy Ghost (191 pp, paperback). The president of the American Chesterton Society and host of a long running television series called The Apostle of Common Sense, Ahlquist has done more to spur the contemporary revival of interest in GKC than perhaps any other admirer. In this “short history”, Ahlquist surveys first the life of “The Man”, next the work of “The Writer”, and finally the evidence of “The Saint”. Wisely, he also peppers the text with plenty of Chesterton quotations. After all, as GKC himself said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Chesterton also liked his food, his beer, and his cigars, though he was a giant of a man who actually ate surprisingly little. Still, in his honor, let us turn to:

Cooking

Cooking, obviously, is not a book but an activity, or even a way of life. Still, recipes and suggestions about cooking are often found in book form, so permit me to introduce Cooking with the Saints (323 pp., hardback) by Alexandra Greeley and Fernando Flores, from Sophia Institute Press. This is a gorgeous coffee-table book full of recipes, pictures, cooking commentary, and, well, saints. It provides yet another reason to enter into the enjoyment of cooking, not only for itself, but for what family meals can do to make a house a home, make a collection of individuals a family, and make life, like its neglected Author, both enjoyable and very good.

There is a degree of very acceptable license in this volume. One suspects that some of the recipes are rather arbitrarily named for saints, and certainly many of them are associated with particular feasts only in order to showcase the traditional dishes of the region in which each saint lived. However, this very human technique prompts deeper reflection, and keeps us thinking about every good thing. It is only when I see something like “Italian Christmas Cake” associated with the feast of St. Catherine of Siena—on April 29th!—that I wonder how much poetic license is appropriate even in a cookbook. But then: Why yes, St. Catherine really did celebrate Christmas.

What this cookbook does is to associate appropriate regional recipes with the feasts of various saints throughout the year, five per month (except somebody lost count in April, adding that Christmas Cake as a sixth—so really, who can complain?). In each month there is one full “Saintly Meal”, each from a different world region, with the other selections being individual dishes, from meatloaf to scones. At the end there is an equally strong section on “Celebratory Cookies”, each of which has a real association with a particular feast.

You will learn about the saints here, too, including a few reflections on food and faith at the end, and there is a very good index. With cookie firmly in cheek, then, on to a final bit of whimsy:

Mystery

The somewhat deliberately whimsical character of the great detective Lord Peter Wimsey was created by Dorothy Sayers, a noted English Anglican scholar with deep Catholic sympathies—a playwright, poet and novelist of the first half of the twentieth century (1893–1957). Among other things, Sayers did a fine translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, though the third volume (Paradise) had to be finished after her death. But inevitably she is most well-known for her series of twelve detective novels featuring Lord Peter—great detective stories which still manage to be fine novels.

Sayers also co-authored three detective novels with fellow members of the Detection Club, which included such luminaries as G. K. Chesterton and Msgr. Ronald Knox, plus several collections of short stories, including some that feature that mild-mannered sleuth and purveyor of wines and spirits, Mr. Montague Egg. But the motto of the fictional Wimsey family, as emblazoned on its coat of arms, is “As my Whimsy takes me”, and the enduring popularity of its favorite son may be seen not only in the sales of the Peter Wimsey books but in their video adaptations.

One of the novels, Busman’s Honeymoon, actually began life as a stage play, and was both made into a movie (unfaithful to Sayer’s portrayal of the character) and broadcast with two different actors by BBC television, once in 1947 and again in 1957. Ian Carmichael played Wimsey in a BBC series based on the novels in the 1970s, and Edward Petherbridge played the same role in another BBC series in 1987. Both series were made available on DVD, but they can be hard to find now.

You can usually find the complete Peter Wimsey novels in libraries. They also continue to be sold in paperback, and for Kindle.

Sick of worrying?

If you are sick of worrying about the Church and the world, it is time for a little relaxation—and just a touch of Catholic whimsy!


Dale Ahlquist, Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G. K. Chesterton

Greeley and Flores, Cooking with the Saints

The Lord Peter Wimsey novels (availability shown on Amazon)

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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