I’ve never been much of a church-goer though I enjoy the rituals and the singing of hymns (“A serious house on serious earth it is”). I understand that a church service of any faith is not primarily an aesthetic event, which severely limits the experience of those not among the faithful, but I’ve consistently drifted off during the sermons, Catholic or Protestant. I can’t attest to whether most sermons are dull, but it seems like an opportunity squandered. The priest or minister has, in effect, a captive audience, and his subject -- God and man -- is of mortal interest to every congregant. But no cleric I’ve heard has rivalled Father Mapple. In fact, my appreciation of homiletics is largely literary. I love the prose of Donne and Andrewes (not to mention the King James Bible), which makes me a dilettante when it comes to religion.
I have found another literary exception to the sermonic rule of dullness. G.K. Chesterton published an essay in 1928 in the London Daily Telegraph under the title “A Sermon Against the Sin of Pride.” It was republished posthumously in The Common Man (Sheed and Ward, 1950) under a new and better title: “If I Had Only One Sermon to Preach.” Chesterton’s essential point is easily stated: “all evil began with some attempt at superiority,” about which he says: “No truth is now so unfamiliar as a truth, or so familiar as a fact.” Chesterton’s formulation is classically Chestertonian:
“Pride is a poison so very poisonous that it not only poisons the virtues; it even poisons the other vices. This is what is felt by the poor men in the public tavern, when they tolerate the tippler or the tipster or even the thief, but feel something fiendishly wrong with the man who bears so close a resemblance to God Almighty.”
Who wouldn’t agree? The know-it-all, wise-guy, pundit, trivia freak, anal retentive, op-ed writer and self-anointed bet-settler are species universally despised. Of course, Chesterton has a sermon to preach, proposing an alternative to indulgence in Pride, and he gets around to it near the end of his essay (or lay sermon):
“. . . I should begin my sermon by telling people not to enjoy themselves. I should tell them to enjoy dances and theatres and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; to enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if they can enjoy nothing better; to enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to this other alternative; but never to learn to enjoy themselves. Human beings are happy so long as they retain the receptive power and the power of reaction in surprise and gratitude to something outside.”
In Chesterton’s essay you’ll find common sense, love of paradox, vivid prose and a memorable sermon: “Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making the truth the test.”