CatholicismChristianityFeaturedG.K. ChestertonLiteratureSainthood

Return to Chesterton ~ The Imaginative Conservative

The question I should like at least to open is whether G.K. Chesterton had not both the deeper and greater mysticism, a mysticism closer to that of the saints, and a message far more valuable for the millions whose place is on the plains of daily effort and not on the mountains of asceticism and total renunciation.

Looking at men who chose the mountains and not the plains of life makes the gazer dizzy, fills the mind with turbulent thoughts. St. Anthony fighting Satan in the wilderness, St. Francis singing his way in nakedness and hunger and poverty, St. Catherine speaking to such purpose after three years’ silence, the pilgrim on the frozen steppes of Russia with a bag of rusks for sole sustenance repeating the cry, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” with every breath he drew, the Curé d’Ars spending a long life in a quiet village where the devil found and fought him as he had fought Anthony in the wilderness—all these and thousands more flash into the imagination, which then turns its glance upon the daily life of millions of “normal” people and asks: “How can we and the saints ever live in the same heaven?”

“We are living,” comes the answer, “on the same earth. We are living in the same world as the saints. Only they get more out of it.”

One of the things they get out of it seems to be an unquenchable and vital gaiety. “Saints are not sad.” It is the men who fail to reach sanctity who pour out upon us the vials of their gloom. Are we really to prefer, as another reviewer would have us, “the agonies of a Léon Bloy” to the cheerfulness of a Chesterton?

Here we have, of course, left the high altitude of sanctity. Neither Chesterton, with his ready acceptance of life’s normal pleasures, nor Léon Bloy, with his bitter uncharity, ranks with the saints—yet both men are in their fashion spiritual geniuses. The question I should like at least to open is whether Chesterton had not both the deeper and greater mysticism, a mysticism closer to that of the saints, and a message far more valuable for the millions whose place is on the plains of daily effort and not on the mountains of asceticism and total renunciation.

One would fancy from some spiritual books that there were only two ways of dealing with life’s pleasures: to refuse them or to abuse them. But in fact the task for most of us is to learn how to use them. Could we not occasionally translate the well-known phrase terrena dispicere by the words of the Holy Spirit, “God so loved the world”? If people try for a degree of asceticism beyond God’s will for them, they usually end in a fog of unreality. And in the Rosary, which shows us the life of man as lived by God, there are ten mysteries that are joyful or glorious, but only five that are sorrowful.

Chesterton’s mysticism is a larger thing than the mysticism of suffering. It does not take the cross out of Christianity, but it sees the Cross as the Tree of Life.

This phrase is used in his St. Thomas Aquinas—one of his later books. And I want to try here the experiment of spinning the thread of an idea that links Chesterton’s very earliest thought with this book on St. Thomas that comes so late.

Malcolm Cowley was probably right in thinking that his earlier fantastic stories were the most gloriously creative work of Chesterton’s life (though it may be maintained that his sheerly philosophic thought deepened later). But there is in all the early work something overlooked by the critic who considered Léon Bloy a more “apocalyptic” writer. The Apocalypse is a terrifying book, but it terrifies by blazing light and the thunderous sound of many waters, not by an overhanging gloom. It is the apocalyptic quality in Chesterton that other critics have found alarming, even unhealthy.

Hugh Kingsmill in the New Statesman speaks of his awareness of evil things as a “decadent quality of his imagination. One moves in an evil, oppressive twilight, swelling to a horror which only some sudden act of violence can dissipate. It was this internal tension which conditioned his picture of the external world. Whatever his theme, he simplified it into a conflict between an evil oppression and a liberating champion.”

Is this the same man seen by Arland Ussher as having “an almost naive lack of realization of the dark irrational element in existence”?

Surely the comparison between Léon Bloy and Chesterton is rather like comparing Francis Thompson with Shakespeare. Bloy is a man of one theme and one atmosphere, he sees the dark side of life, evil men, his own suffering. God becomes largely the avenger of these sufferings. Bloy is an introvert, a “pilgrim of the Absolute” certainly, but a pilgrim whose own bleeding feet loom large in his consciousness. Chesterton is an extrovert: unconscious of himself to a most unusual degree.

True, Bloy’s life was an unhappy, Chesterton’s a happy one. Also Bloy hated and Chesterton loved nearly everybody. And to love does, as E. C. Bentley points out to his “conscientiously hard-boiled” friends, make for happiness.

But at this moment I am speaking less of the external circumstances or of the characters that created a philosophy than of the philosophy they created. And Graham Greene has noted that in Chesterton’s three greatest religious books “inspired by a cosmic optimism…”

It is significant that with all his stormy greatness, all his effect upon the literature of Catholicism, it is not Léon Bloy but Péguy who reaches today the poor, the disinherited, the young and struggling Catholics of his country. Priests have told me how he inspires them, restoring hope through Joan of Arc and the mystery of her charity.

In like manner in England and America, while the intelligentsia may seek out the man of gloom or near-despair, the broken and unhappy seek out Chesterton. Bernard Shaw discerned the “noble passion” for the exploited and the poor which breathes through all his writing and his life. The spiritual help given by him to many will be partly seen in this book, part we can only guess at until all things are revealed. “Even if,” writes Charles Brady, his “ringing laughter and generous rationalism seem temporarily out of fashion…he is the one literary man of our century who has been, and still is, loved this side of idolatry.”

Chesterton was no less aware than Bloy of the dark forces of evil: but he saw in them not the waking vision of reality but an oppressive nightmare. Hugh Kingsmill speaks of a “child’s nightmares,”—than which nothing could be more despairing. But the child wakes to sunshine, and in the face of its mother sees the face of God. The lost soul never wakes. Its eternity is a nightmare.

If you are a Christian, this is true. The Apocalyptic vision reveals unimaginable vistas of grief or delight—with the human will choosing by faith, that sight may become possible. The Apocalypse is blazing light against darkness, and no philosophy can be called apocalyptic in which light does not conquer darkness.

A minor point, yet important, is that Bloy and most of the school that have followed him lack the saving sense of humour that so greatly helped Chesterton not to take himself too seriously. Life he felt to be so desperately serious that living could not be serious all the time. All mankind, not he alone, are faced with that ultimate choice of the will, that question whether they will break through the nightmare and become wide awake in the real world of God and their fellows—or remain baffled, darkened, separated from one another and from reality by choosing the nightmare for eternity. To read again the Book of Revelation is to feel how almost uncannily Chesterton has caught its atmosphere in his fantastic tales.

Desmond MacCarthy in the Sunday Times noted how fully Chesterton’s gratitude for existence was offered for the life that is, here and now. It is not only in the final Revelation that he sees God, but in creation: in a blade of grass, the sun in the heavens, the trees and the flowers, man and woman and the first and greatest gift of birth.

Living among men who never dreamed of giving thanks for the portents of existence, he realized that the visions of a supreme sanity may appear close to madness.

“I am the first,” says a strange figure in a very youthful story,

that ever saw the world. Prophets and sages there have been, out of whose great hearts came schools and churches. But I am the first that ever saw a dandelion as it is.

Wind and dark rain swept round, swathing in a cloud the place of that awful proclamation… “I tell you religion is in its infancy; dervish and anchorite, Crusader and Ironside, were not fanatical enough or frantic enough, in their adoration… some day a creature [will] be produced, a new animal with eyes to see and ears to hear; with an intellect capable of performing a new function never before conceived truly; thanking God for his creation.”

This essay serves as the Introduction to Return to Chesterton.

Republished with gracious permission from Cluny Media.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is “Still life with pears and wineglass” (c. 1915) by Samuel John Peploe, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Source link