I can't hope to give an adequate description of my experiences at the 2008 Chesterton Conference (my first) without writing some kind of book, I can only - by way of apology - say with Inigo Montoya "Let me 'splain… No, there is too much... Let me sum up...".
I'll try to sum up by giving some sense of what it was like on the last night of the conference, after all the speakers had spoken, the presenters had presented, the toasters had toasted.
The weather was iffy in Minnesota last Saturday night, so the ending celebration - the after-party - was moved indoors. Now, "indoors" in this case means into a college cafeteria... not exactly the kind of place that oozes atmosphere or encourages warm conviviality. We had enjoyed earlier some nearly perfect evenings drinking and visiting under the stars late into the night, but we would have to cap the conference milling around folding tables under fluorescent light fixtures and acoustic tile. Blecch, right?
A weird thing happened though. People began to talk, and beer and wine and cheese were brought forth, and very quickly it began to be so noisy that we all had to shout to be heard.
I wandered around a bit, drifting into and out of the orbits of ongoing conversations... comparing notes with a futurist (David Zach)... trying to get a grip on the importance of beauty (Dale Ahlquist)... watching a very spirited discussion between an ebullient Englishman (Joseph Pearce) who seemed to be actually defending the legendary obtuseness of Americans to an American (Scott Richert) who had apparently grown impatient with it. The thing is, these last two were arguing like brothers argue. They could be perfectly honest and passionate in their argument without fear of offending the other, because (really) they loved one another. Their differences were real, but what they had in common was much more real, and made the differences safe to argue with passion, and they knew this. It was a joy to watch.
One could be tempted in such a circumstance to think "These must be important people", but that's not the case. It wasn't a matter of "important people talking about things", it was just "people talking about important things"... the only things that ultimately matter; Life, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Joy - things such as that - and all of us deeply grateful for the opportunity. It was a truly liberating thing to know that most everyone you met - even if they were very different from you - shared the same common root, that grounding in the love of Truth which is the love of God. This made our differences come alive, in a way. As Dale Ahlquist had said earlier, "We don't strive for diversity... we just achieve it.".
In the various talks given throughout the weekend, there had been in the audience always a joy bubbling just under the surface, the readiness to laugh out loud or to interrupt (like one might interrupt a family member without rudeness or worry) with a joke or comment. These Chestertonians were (by worldly standards) just confoundingly happy and indefensibly content. No one has the right to be that well adjusted.
You could hardly hear yourself think for all the laughter in the cafeteria that last night.
Imagine; You are standing with a cup of home brewed beer (or wine) in one hand, a hunk of good cheese in the other, talking with new friends about things that really matter, surrounded by laughter. There are children ducking in and out and under the tables, squealing and playing hide and seek. There is a group of teens and young people (a surprising number, to me, given that we're spending all weekend ostensibly talking about a dead Englishman) off in a corner where they have cleared a sufficient space, wheeling in some kind of wild, improvised dance, like pairs of figure skaters who wandered in from an Olympic ice rink (a little later, the teens are flipping the younger children upside down, or swinging them around in great, breathless arcs).
Then a man (Mark Pilon?) produces, seemingly out of thin air, a hammered dulcimer and sets it up in a corner and begins playing; The Rights of Man, Star of the County Down... and he's really good. Spontaneous hoots of applause and gratitude erupt from the crowd after every tune.
It's a delightful, almost raucous scene... good drink, friendship, music, dancing, and none of it planned (well, the drinks were certainly planned, but you can't leave everything to chance). This jovial spirit just seemed to rise up out of the floor like a mist and coalesce into little pockets and eddies of good feeling.
It reminded me for all the world of Tolkien's descriptions of the revelry of elves. It was like being in the House of Elrond, "The Last Homely House east of the Sea... A perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.".
This was a group drawn together not so much by ideas, but by an idea... The Idea that was in the mind of God in the beginning. We were all just feeling around the edges of it together, and even that was - I believe - better than any of us thought we deserved. We had had the great privilege, for three days, of learning more about this Idea, the foundational idea of creation, from G.K. Chesterton, a clear-eyed observer and merry servant of the Idea... the Word, the Logos. He, I believe, had a somewhat less obstructed view of the Idea than most. I think it's clear he was a saint. In fact, I'm now following the example of one of the speakers (Geir Hasnes, a towering Norwegian) by asking Mr. Chesterton to pray for me.
I'll try to give my impressions on some of the featured speakers in subsequent posts. I never was much for note taking, but I hope I soaked in enough of their brilliance to give at least a rough sketch of the conference highlights.