Monday, August 14, 2006

Pope Benedict Quotes GKC

Pope Benedict the Sixteenth has shown his true colors recently by knowingly and deliberately quoting—Chestertonianly misquoting, too, I might add—Chesterton.

Pope Benedict was interviewed on German television.

Fuchs: Stories with humor in them too? In 1989 in Munich you were given the Karl Valentin Award. What role does humor play in the life of a pope?

I'm not a man who constantly thinks up jokes. But I think it's very important to be able to see the funny side of life and its joyful dimension and not to take everything too tragically. I'd also say it's necessary for my ministry. A writer once said that angels can fly because they don't take themselves too seriously. Maybe we could also fly a bit if we didn't think we were so important.


  1. "The interview was conducted in German and translated and authorized by the Vatican."

    I wonder, do you think that Pope Benedict XVI read Chesterton in English or in German? If this wasn't a mistranslation for the website copy of the interview, do you think that maybe Chesterton's line was translated as "don't take themselves too seriously" when his work was made available in Germany?

  2. From the data-paths, there are at least three places where it could have gone wrong:

    1. When it was translated into German (either in a book, or by the native-German-speaking reader)
    2. When the line was recalled - even great and dedicated Chestertonians have been known to misquote this line!
    3. When the interview (in German) containing the quote was translated back into English.

    For fun, I ran it through the "google" tool:

    original: "Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly."

    German: Engel können fliegen, weil sie leicht sich nehmen können.

    Back again: "Angels can fly, because they can take themselves easily."

    Incidentally, for the mnemonic effect I have decorated this quote with the funny-looking tropical bird called the toucan, since there are TWO "can"s in it.

  3. You two have brought up something I hadn't considered: the translation effect. However, what I liked about it was that the Pope made it into an interesting quote, and then to the practical level, how we could apply that saying of Chesterton's to ourselves.

    I often see this quote in, for example, New Age kinds of shops, engraved on stones and such, but there, it has more to do with angels, and less to do with taking ourselves seriously or I like the Pope's interpretation and application.

  4. New Agers, of course, are not the only ones to have Wisdom engraved on stones. I think I remember once seeing a movie in which Charlton Heston hurled some stone tablets.

  5. Nancy and Joe are right, since Orthodoxy is about men, not angels!

    And we need to remember the lines which follow just after this quote, for pride was one of things warred against so valiantly by GKC:

    ...pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down" into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man "falls" into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity. [CW1:326]

    Bet you won't find that last line in a "new age" shop (which are rather quite old-age, i.e. pre-Christian).

    Here's the coordinate ref. from Heretics: of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy. [CW1:107]

  6. Oh excellent, Dr. T, the parts following this oft quoted Chestertonian saying is so important. It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light. It is easier to write an article for the Times than for Punch. It is easier to be serious than to take oneself lightly.

    This is where the saint part of Gilbert, I believe, comes into play. It is NOT easy to be light, NOT easy to be humble, NOT easy to laugh at oneself, Chesterton makes it all sound so easy, but we must remember that he must have WORKED at it, he must have made efforts to remain light and easy, and stay friends with people like Shaw and Wells whom he so disagreed with. If it were me (not being the saint Chesterton was) I find myself loathing the people I strongly disagree with, avoiding them, and trying NOT to talk to them (on my bad days, of course). Which is why Chesterton (and Frances, but for other reasons) should be known as a saint, for he is a great example to us of this very quality.

  7. this will definitely have to go in the next issue of the magazine. It certainly is a TREMENDOUS Trifle. :-)

  8. Nancy, there's a fantastic quote from a Chesterton essay that I don't have access to right now, and that I'm going to paraphrase. It bears on what you just said, however:

    "To be content is not easy. To be content is to get out of something everything there is to be found in it. It is arduous, and it is rare."

  9. Furor:
    Right. Being content is to be grateful, to see the wonder in everything. It is hard, it's like seeing the world new, like a child. Being with children helps, but it is easy to pretend that all isn't wonderous. We get busy doing things.

    There is a line in Harry Potter in the Goblet of Fire movie (I don't think it's in the book, but the feeling of it is) where Harry looks around inside the tent of the Weasley's, where on the outside, it looks like an ordinary tent, but inside, it's huge, it's a castle, it's a home (another aside, this reminds me of Chesterton's comments about the church being bigger on the inside than on the outside) and Harry looks at it in wonder and says: "I LOVE magic." and we should also look at the world and say, with awe, "I love everything!"

  10. Good one, Furor! Here's the context:

    True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare. The absence of this digestive talent is what makes so cold and incredible the tales of so many people who say they have been "through" things; when it is evident that they have come out on the other side quite unchanged. A man might have gone "through" a plum
    pudding as a bullet might go through a plum pudding; it depends on the size of the pudding - and the man. But the awful and sacred question is "Has the pudding been through him?" Has he tasted, appreciated, and absorbed the solid pudding, with its three dimensions and its three thousand tastes and smells? Can he offer himself to the eyes of men as one who has cubically conquered and contained a pudding?

    [GKC, "The Contented Man" in A Miscellany of Men]

    It has a Potter feeling to it... and as one who has made plum puddings, and eaten them, I agree. Harry, I think, would prefer treacle tart, but I think he would conquer it and contain it... Hee hee.

  11. Would Harry wash the treacle tart down with pumpkin juice, butterbeer, or elf-made wine? ;-)

    Nancy, that is in Goblet of Fire, and Rowling takes her time with the description too, not rushing it, but allowing the reader to soak in the effect. And yeah, as the tent represents a home away from home, and given the way Rowling thinks about such things (or, what I can glean from her writing how she thinks about such things), I'd say that the tent being bigger on the inside than the outside has at least some theological significance. :-)

  12. To clarify: the scene is in the Goblet of Fire book. I can't remember if the line is or not. But whatever Rowling had is bound to be better than the book version anyway.

  13. There's a cartoon about this quote at:

  14. Dale offered a prize at the time of Pope Benedict XVIs election for whoever found the first GKC quote by Ratzinger/Benedict. You need to collect, Nancy


  15. The Holy Father's German was a near literal translation of Chesterton's: die Engel können fliegen, weil sie sich leicht nehmen, that is, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." (Holy See Press Office bulletin; Deutsche Welle has corrected most of the Vatican English typos, but not this translation error.)

    The re-translation error is quite mild compared to the many non sequiturs his Vatican translators have placed on his lips of late.


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