I have just begun reading The Tumbler of God: Chesterton As Mystic by Fr. Robert Wild, a book in which Fr. Wild makes the case for G. K. Chesterton having been given a mystical grace, which grace enabled him to sustain that basic position of constant amazement at the bare fact of existence for which he was and is so well known. I have only just begun the book, but so far Fr. Wild does make a compelling case: it is not hard to argue that Chesterton had such a vision of life – one can sense this outlook of awe and wonder in most everything he wrote – but within the first few chapters Wild has already dispelled some misunderstandings of what mysticism is (something which we often limit to particular, extraordinary experiences, and also with ascetical practices) and expanded our idea of what it can include.
Anyway, it is not my intention here to write a review of the book – as I have not even reached half way yet, I would not be qualified to do so – but to draw attention to an essay by Chesterton quoted by Fr. Wild in support of his thesis, and which serves as a particularly clear example of the kind of vision of the world that Chesterton had. The essay in question is entitled Wonder and the Wooden Post, and is available in a collection of prose and verse called The Coloured Lands (Sheed and Ward, 1938). Unfortunately I could not find a copy of the whole collection online, but a copy of the essay is available here. It begins with Chesterton hitting his head on said wooden post, and then pausing to reflect on his basic philosophy of life, comparing it with the many other philosophies and mysticisms popular in his day:
‘Now what I found finally about our contemporary mystics was this. When they said that a wooden post was wonderful (a point on which we are all agreed, I hope) they meant that they could make something wonderful out of it by thinking about it. “Dream; there is no truth,” said Mr. Yeats, “but in your own heart.” The modern mystic looked for the post, not outside in the garden, but inside, in the mirror of his mind. But the mind of the modern mystic, like a dandy’s dressing-room, was entirely made of mirrors. Thus glass repeated glass like doors opening inwards for ever; till one could hardly see that inmost chamber of unreality where the post made its last appearance. And as the mirrors of the modern mystic’s mind are most of them curved and many of them cracked, the post in its ultimate reflection looked like all sorts of things; a waterspout, the tree of knowledge, the sea-serpent standing upright, a twisted column of the new natural architecture, and so on. Hence we have Picasso and a million puerilities. But I was never interested in mirrors; that is, I was never primarily interested in my own reflection…or reflections. I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. 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. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.’
Chesterton’s basic contention here is that the range of modern mystics he found himself confronted with were not really concerned with reality at all, but with ideas – ideas floating around in their own minds, where the simple wooden post ‘looked like all sorts of things’ depending upon what kind of mirrors (with their particular cracks and curves) the mystic in question had; i.e.; what kind of philosophy he had imbibed. The spirituality and thought of the modern world had (and remains) intolerably solipsistic and gnostic (in that it denies or ignores the material world, preferring the comfort of the self or the purely spiritual). Chesterton on the other hand, and, as he consistently argued, the Church and those who benefit from her teaching, could not refrain from turning back to the startling reality of creation – to do otherwise would be both gravely sinful and a kind of insanity.
There is a real passion and sense of exhilaration in Chesterton’s words when he speaks of such things – of the sheer ‘is-ness’ of all that is. Conversely, when he talks of those who treat the solid and glorious reality of God’s creation as either mere data or as a pretext for their own self-indulgent esotericism, one senses a great frustration, and the closest thing one finds in Chesterton to sorrow – sorrow that they cannot, or will not, see the splendour of the world; that it is glorious simply because it is and might not be at all:
‘When the modern mystics said they liked to see a post, they meant they liked to imagine it. They were better poets than I; and they imagined it as soon as they saw it. Now I might see a post long before I had imagined it…and (as I have already described) I might feel it before I saw it. To me the post is wonderful because it is there; there whether I like it or not. I was struck silly by a post, but if I were struck blind by a thunderbolt, the post would still be there; the substance of things not seen. For the amazing thing about the universe is that it exists; not that we can discuss its existence. All real spirituality is a testimony to this world as much as the other: the material universe does exist…
…Now the mystics around me had not this lively faith that things are fantasies because they are facts. They wanted, as all magicians did, “to control the elements”; to be the Cosmos. They wished the stars to be their omnipresent eyes and winds their long wild tongues unrolled; and therefore they favoured twilight, and all the dim and borderland mediums in which one thing melts into another…in which a man can be as large as Nature and (what is worse) as impersonal as Nature. But I never was properly impressed with the mystery of twilight, but rather with the riddle of daylight, as huge and staring as the sphinx. I felt it in big bare buildings against a blue sky, high houses gutted or still empty, great blank walls washed with warm light as with a monstrous brush. One seemed to have come to the back of everything.’
Chesterton’s wonder at existence, that we did not bring ourselves into being or create (in the sense of being its originator) anything around us at all is deeply infectious, and one can see why Fr. Wild is so convinced of his having received a mystical grace – it is hard for most of us to sustain such a disposition, to remain as ‘little children’ (c.f.; Matthew 18:1-4). The view of those Chesterton criticises however, is something not only self-referential and world-denying, but is based on a philosophy of domination and manipulation – a philosophy of pride. The mysticism favoured then and now is popular not because it provides a more exhaustive account of or contact with reality, but because it allows us to believe what deep-down we love to believe – that we are gods, masters of our own destiny and of the world around us.
Chesterton’s worldview is instead a philosophy of thanks, a disposition of awe and gratitude. It is a position which we, fallen as we are, constantly have to recover, but it is the only sane and healthy position to take – it leads us out of ourselves, up and outwards into the ‘riddle of daylight, as huge and staring as the sphinx’, into a world which ‘is wonderful because it is there; there whether I like it or not’. To rail against the is-ness of things, or to hide from it within the dark folds of our consciousness, is to do violence to our own reality as created beings, who exist within that greater miracle of creation and continue to do so only according to the will of He who not only holds it all in existence, but is in a sense creating it every second – the belief that God was continually active in His creation was something key to Chesterton’s vision of life.
This way of seeing the world does not reduce its mystery – to know God through His creation does not make Him any less God, and for the greater details of our purpose within His world we must go to the revelation in Our Lord. But by reminding ourselves just how astounding a thing it is that we (or anything else) exist at all, we can be set well on our way to finding that revelation, for we will already be on our knees, and our hearts will be open to His grace. The miraculous nature of existence is something that most of us have to make ourselves return to, as we are too close to it to see what we knew in our youth afresh (see Chesterton’s poem The Sword of Surprise for a vivid expression of what it might be like to do this), but in the writings of G. K. Chesterton, who, however it came about, was beholden to such a vision throughout the majority of his life, we have a most inspiring and reliable guide.