Red Booth Notes: Father Brown, Alec Guinness, and the Things of Eternal Moment
If G.K. Chesterton has taught me anything, it is this: we never know how the realm of the commonplace might be rich in things of eternal moment. A kind word, or act, might bear with it the weight of a life changing experience—or a treasured memory.
Many might dismiss this as a nice sounding cliché, but consider a story from the life of D.L. Moody. As a fatherless boy raised in rural poverty, he was once sent several miles from home to work alongside an elder brother on a local farm. No more than ten, perhaps younger, he was overwhelmed with homesickness. Forty years later, as a world famous herald of the gospel, Moody frequently told this story. “It seemed,” he said, “that I was then further away from home than I had ever been before, or have ever been since.”
But then, one day, Moody and his brother were walking down the street of the town where they’d been sent to work. As Moody remembered—
While we were walking down the street we saw an old man coming toward us, and my brother said, “There is a man that will give you a cent. He gives every new boy that comes into this town a cent.” When the old man got opposite to us…my brother told him that I was a new boy in the town.
The old man, taking off my hat, placed his trembling hand on my head. He told me I had a Father in heaven.
It was a kind, simple act, but I feel the pressure of the old man’s hand upon my head today. You don’t know how much you may do by just speaking kindly.
Returning to Chesterton, and his writings, we find a very similar story. It concerns the British actor Alec Guinness, whom we remember as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films. More than twenty years before taking up a light saber, Guinness brought Father Brown, Chesterton’s crime-solving priest, to life in a film that’s now considered a classic of British cinema.
But beyond this, Guinness had no way of knowing that this role set the stage for his finding faith. Indeed, it proved a catalyst for his embrace of Catholicism.
While on location in Burgundy for the starring role in the 1954 British motion picture Father Brown (released later in America as The Detective), Guinness had a chance meeting that stirred him profoundly. It was a story he later recounted in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise. Returning to his hotel one evening, still in wardrobe as Father Brown, Guinness met a young boy. As he recalled:
I hadn’t gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, “Mon père!” My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a non-stop prattle. He was full of excitement, hops, skips and jumps, but never let go of me.
I didn’t dare speak in case my excruciating French should scare him. Although I was a total stranger he obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted.
Suddenly with a “Bonsoir, Mon père,” and a hurried sideways sort of bow, he disappeared through a hole in a hedge. He had had a happy, reassuring walk home, and I was left with an odd calm sense of elation.
Continuing my walk, I reflected that a Church which could inspire such a confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out. I began to shake off my long-taught, long-absorbed prejudices.
It has been well said that “a gracious hand leads us in ways we know not.” God knows how the most seemingly trivial experiences might draw us to himself. He gives them to us.
Therein lies a profound truth.
Chesterton died nearly twenty years before Guinness witnessed all that he describes above. But had Chesterton lived to see and hear of these things, he would not have been surprised. Long years before, he had discovered a “submerged sunrise of wonder” in the commonplace. It took him to the place of faith.
Writing in 1943, Chesterton’s biographer and friend, Maisie Ward, described this time of his life. “Each day,” she wrote, “seemed a special gift; something that might not have been.” She took note of how Chesterton cast his thoughts in verse:
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
Kevin Belmonte is an award-winning biographer and literary historian. His anthology, The Quotable Chesterton, is the source of this story about Alec Guinness and The Father Brown mysteries. It is published by Thomas Nelson.
 Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), p. 62.