Apocalyptic Conversion in a Sacramental World: The Meeting of Heaven and Earth in Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross
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Apocalyptic Conversion in a Sacramental World
The Meeting of Heaven and Earth in Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross

G. K. Chesterton's 1922 reception into the Roman Catholic Church took place after an extended, eventful process of conversion. As biographers and critics have related, this conversion involved a number of milestones, including Chesterton's embrace of "optimism" that occurred after his experience at the Slade School of Art from 1892–1895 and his acceptance of Christianity as expressed in the Apostles' Creed, which he discusses in his 1908 Orthodoxy.1 A smaller but also significant milestone can be identified in the publication of Chesterton's third novel, The Ball and the Cross, in which a Roman Catholic character and Atheist fight a duel with swords and words. The story ends with the Atheist's conversion. As Adam Schwartz has suggested, this novel clearly indicates "Chesterton's attraction to Roman Catholicism."2 Indeed, the years surrounding his composition of The Ball and the Cross were a crucial period in the author's conversion, in terms of both personal development and public perception of his views. The first eight chapters were serialized in The Commonwealth from 1905–1906, and the novel was published as a whole in 1909. Ian Ker reports that in this same year, Chesterton told his friend Fr. O'Connor that he had made up his mind to become Catholic but was [End Page 66] waiting to take the final step because of his wife.3 Chesterton's intention, although deferred, became so apparent after the publication of The Ball and the Cross and Orthodoxy that several of his contemporaries thought he had already entered the Catholic Church.4

Although some critics, such as Schwartz and William Oddie, have noted the connection between The Ball and the Cross and Chesterton's own conversion, there have been no comprehensive studies of how conversion functions within the thematic and structural composition of the novel.5 The central aim of my essay is to argue that thematic and structural elements of The Ball and the Cross create and reflect a certain model of conversion, a model that I will describe as an apocalyptic meeting between heaven and earth. My analysis will show that Chesterton's novel, which marks an important phase in his own conversion, informs and is informed by an idea of conversion that reveals a fundamental element of his worldview: by the time he wrote The Ball and the Cross, Chesterton had come to understand the world as sacramental, that is, as a world in which material things signify the presence of divine realities—a world in which earth and heaven are inextricably entwined. In The Ball and the Cross, the sacramental relationship between the earthly and the heavenly is also connected to the Apocalypse, that fearful yet fulfilling clash between earth and heaven in which the destruction of the old world will make way for "a new heaven and a new earth."6 As Chesterton tells a story of conversion in The Ball and the Cross, his creation of a sacramental vision works together with his literary echoes of the Apocalypse.

This story of conversion begins with the meeting of two oppositional characters who represent contradictory views of earthly and heavenly realities. James Turnbull, a humanistic Atheist, believes only in the material world, whereas Evan MacIan, a Roman Catholic, focuses almost completely on the supernatural. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that both men are in need of conversion regarding these views, although Turnbull requires a more drastic change than MacIan. When the two meet at the beginning of Chesterton's novel, their differences lead them to engage in what the author described in [End Page 67] his 1936 Autobiography as "a duel about the collision of blasphemy and worship."7 MacIan reads a profane article about the Virgin Mary displayed in the window of Turnbull's newspaper office; he then breaks the window and challenges the atheist to a duel. A large part of The Ball and the Cross portrays these two men as they seek to complete their duel while being pursued by the authorities, who endeavor to suppress...