I was intrigued to find a paperback copy of G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" in the Airbnb we stayed at in Nashville over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
The book, with an inscription thanking someone for "a good conversation," lay on the night table in our bedroom. Nearby on a shelf I discovered C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity."
Were Chesteron and Lewis the new variation on the Gideon Bible?
I'd read the Lewis book years ago, but had never looked at Chesterton's defense of Christianity, written in response to some now obscure late Victorian agnostic. Old Gilbert Keith wanted to stem the currents generated by Darwin.
Once in the library, a solemn, well-dressed lady asked me to help her find books by Chesterton. It was summer, when smoke from wildfires in the North Georgia mountains drifted into Atlanta's already unpleasant air.
Perhaps the woman thought I was a librarian. I wanted to ask her why she so wanted to read Chesterton, whether she was undergoing a spiritual crisis, but didn't inquire further. After searching English literature sections and a couple of anthologies, I found nothing, and she shuffled away, disappointed.
Outside, the smoky air stirred childhood memories of staying at my grandmother's house, when she entrusted me with burning the trash in an old metal barrel in her backyard. I also remembered the time my friends and I set a vacant lot on fire. Before the fire department arrived, we battled to put out the blaze, and I ruined a coat my mother had just bought me.
During the drive home through Sandy Springs' sex shops, apartments, Mexican restaurants and laudromats, I thought about Chesterton and my own religious journey. I later wrote a poem about the day, called "Orthodoxy."
Now, in Nashville for the holiday, I decided to peruse Chesterton's book. Sitting on the airbnb's back porch beneath a perfect blue autumn sky, I tilted with the old polemicist's irony-glazed sentences. Chesteron's layered Victorian rhetoric was entertaining for a while, but required more concentration than I was willing to muster. His words were weighted with certainty, which I found oppressive, more style than substance.
On Black Friday, I walked with others down Nashville's trendy 12 South. At the crowded White's Mercantile, I was surprised to find copies of a small book called "The Pocket Thomas Merton" among the Southern memorabilia, cookbooks and cowboy boots.
In contrast to Chesterton, Merton is one of my central writers. His sentences set a small contagion inside me, a thirst for a higher existence that I continue seeking.
As I gave my credit card to the young woman behind White's cash register, or whatever it's called these days, I heard for the first time this holiday season "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen," my favorite Christmas carol, along with Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper."
Down 12 South, urban hipsters lined up at Frothy Monkey, and young families searched for Christmas trees at a lot next to the Muslim Center, where a sign called for prayers for First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Finding Merton here didn't seem so strange after all.