The Tumbler of God
Chesterton as Mystic
In 2013 the Bishop of Northampton announced that he was appointing a priest to investigate the merits of opening a cause for the canonization of G.K. Chesterton. The announcement sent ripples of excitement, whether nervous or enthusiastic, through the ranks of Chesterton’s admirers. On the face of it, Chesterton would seem an odd candidate for sainthood: a gregarious, corpulent journalist, literary critic, controversialist, novelist, poet, and playwright who lived most of his life as a non-Catholic fits no standard template. He would seem to bear a closer resemblance to Falstaff than to St. Francis. Yet there are those who believe that Chesterton was not only an exemplary man, but a holy one, and Fr. Robert Wild’s book is a serious attempt to identify some of the reasons why.
The basic claim of the book is not that Chesterton was a saint, but that he was a mystic “in at least some of the traditional Christian meanings of the word.” In particular, Fr. Wild argues that he was, throughout his life, blessed with a special grace which gave him a heightened awareness of the dependence of the world on God for its existence. He had, in Wild’s words, a “Creator mysticism,” a steady apprehension of the “thereness-of-being-coming-forth,” in which the mystery of existence — “the wonder begotten of the contrast between something and nothing” — was habitually present to his consciousness. In his brilliant study — brilliant by reputation, for it is out of print and hard to find – Paradox in Chesterton, Hugh Kenner wrote:
“His whole habit of thought began with thankfulness, impelled him to see not lamp-posts but limited beings participating in All Being; he was accustomed to looking at grass and seeing God. And the consciousness of God introduces another dimension into consideration of grass.”
This primary awareness of Being, and of God as the ground or act of Being, is a mark of Christian mysticism. It is more than an awareness of the Presence of God in created things, and more than an affirmation of the ultimate goodness of all existing things — though it is those things too. It is, in addition, an awareness of “the dynamic power of God constantly creating, drawing the created reality into existence, from nothingness into being.” For it is central to Christian metaphysics that Creation is not an act that occurred at some specific time long ago, but a continual act by which all things are sustained in being, ceaselessly pouring forth from the plenitude of God’s own being.
Evidence that Chesterton experienced this wonder at the mystery of being and awareness of its contingency and gratuitousness is abundantly present in his writing. He was continually expressing astonishment at existence, at the sheer physical thereness of things. “I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles,” he wrote. “I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door; to hit me over the head, like a giant’s club in a fairy tale.” In poems like “By the Babe Unborn” or “A Second Childhood” he provokes us with a vision of the world that brims with wide-eyed wonder at its being and beauty. Fr. Wild draws particular attention to a profound passage from Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi in which he describes the saint’s perception of the whole of Nature being contingent and unnecessary:
“So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole of creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet [the mystic] does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity.
The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.”
Although this passage was written by Chesterton to describe a stage in the spiritual development of St. Francis, Fr. Wild takes it to be an a window into Chesterton’s own experience. That image of “the sons of God shouting for joy” at Creation was one to which Chesterton returned many times in his writings, and it seems to have been especially important to his own spiritual life.
St. Francis himself was important to Chesterton too, and the biography he wrote about the great medieval saint has long been recognized as one of his principal achievements. Fr. Wild reads it with some care for insight into Chesterton’s own views about the nature of mysticism. Chesterton uses the metaphor of “tumbling” to describe the progress of the nascent mystic, calling St. Francis “Our Lady’s Tumbler” (and it is the same metaphor, of course, which gives Fr. Wild’s book its title). Tumbling is — in Chesterton’s words — a “grotesque simile” for the profound interior conversion with a mystic undergoes. His world is upended before it comes right again, and during that period of crisis he is granted a view of “the earth hanging” — that is, contingent and dependent on something other than itself. There are some mystics who “land on their heads” (and into this group Chesterton put William Blake and Leo Tolstoy, among others) but others (like St. Francis) who “land on their feet”, seemingly unchanged but seeing all things now with “new eyes”.
It is because of this experience that the mystic voices praise for both the Creation and the Creator, and, interestingly, it is in the wake of this mystical conversion that a healthy and authentic asceticism arises, “as an attempt to pay the unpayable debt [of gratitude]; and as a means to keep God as the absolutely first love in one’s life (Wild, 105-6).” In Chesterton’s view, then, asceticism, so often associated with saintliness and mysticism, rightly arises not out of disdain for material things or pleasures, but out of gratitude for a vision of God’s glory manifest in material things.
The other saint to whom Chesterton was greatly indebted was St. Thomas Aquinas, and the similarities between the two men extended to more than just their portly frames. Observations of Chesterton’s “breathtakingly intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth” (J.J. Scarisbrick) and his “extraordinary comprehensive intuition of being” (Kenner) can startle the unsuspecting reader with their boldness. Out of context, the claim that “He never fumbles to reach a position because he never needs to reach a position. He occupies a central position all the time” might be taken as descriptive of St. Thomas rather than (as it is) of Chesterton (courtesy of Hugh Kenner again). Readers of the Summa and of Chesterton’s voluminous cultural journalism might be persuaded by the claim that there is a certain similarity between the two despite the very different audiences and contexts, for both Chesterton and St. Thomas routinely grasp the whole as they grasp the parts, arguing particular points while never losing sight of the architecture of the larger argument. Following up on this observation, Fr. Wild argues that Chesterton had a “charism of truth” in the form of the gift of knowledge, which St. Augustine distinguished from the gift of wisdom by applying the former to human affairs and the latter to divine. Certainly Chesterton was a man possessed of an unusually astute practical wisdom.
Summing up his central argument, Fr. Wild commends Chesterton to us as an exemplar of a “lay mysticism” that can thrive in the midst of an active life, aware of the fact that created realities reveal God to us:
“By remaining faithful to his grace, he gave us one of the great keys to understanding reality: how to live in the present moment, in wonder and thanksgiving, and how to see God there always “immortally active,” bringing everything forth instantaneously out of his unlimited power and beauty.”
Many books have been written about Chesterton, but this is the first that I know of to focus specifically on Chesterton’s relationship to God, and the argument it makes is both interesting and persuasive. The portrait of Chesterton which Fr. Wild draws is, at least, a faithful one, and the ways in which he connects the familiar “Chestertonian” qualities to the Christian mystical tradition are a good service. Whether these qualities are attributable to a special divine grace, as Fr. Wild contends, is harder to demonstrate and is, in any case, not my responsibility to judge. But I’d like to thank Fr. Wild for writing such a thought provoking and instructive book.
More of Kenner on Chesterton:
“Chesterton’s analogical perception of Being has led us from elementary wonder to the very heart of a paradoxical universe. It may be said without exaggeration that he ranks almost with St. Thomas himself in the comprehensiveness of that initial perception; and that very certainty and immediacy which makes it unnecessary for him to struggle at any time with any truth and so makes significant dramatic expression impossible for him, places him securely not in the hierarchy of the artists but in one not less distinguished: the long line of exegetists and theologians who have successively explored the same cosmos and the light of the same vision, seeing all things ordered and all things mirroring greater and lesser things: the Fathers, philosophers, and Doctors of the Church.” (quoted by Wild, p.7)
(I cannot imagine a nicer way of saying that Chesterton was a poor dramatist!)