G. K. Chesterton: Some Prophetic (and Comforting) Words on Modernity

Today I would like to share a couple of passages from G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The book contains many memorable soliloquies, but the following bear particularly acute witness to the puzzling condition of modernity, and this witness is coupled with a prophetic tone which mitigates the essentially dispiriting diagnosis of our current state. Chesterton manages to simultaneously uncover with great precision the distressing banality and cultural confusion of our age and bring his observations to their resolution with a sense that recovery is not only possible, but in some sense inevitable:

What a farce is this modern liberality. Freedom of speech means practically in our modern civilisation that we must only talk about unimportant things. We must not talk about religion, for that is illiberal; we must not talk about bread and cheese, for that is talking shop; we must not talk about death, for that is depressing; we must not talk about birth, for that is indelicate. It cannot last. Something must break this strange indifference, this strange dreamy egoism, this strange loneliness of millions in a crowd. Something must break it. Why should it not be you and I?

taken from The Napoleon of Notting Hill (2001), p.87, House of Stratus.

                The second passage, this time from the end of the book, counters more specifically the weaknesses of progressivism – the school that believes we must rip it up and start again, reject tradition to bring about renewal and sally forth intoning the creed ‘change for the sake of change’. There are many arguments that can be levelled against such a position, but here Chesterton specifically critiques its existential aspect – the enervating effect that the progressivist worldview has on the soul of both culture and individual – and does so by invoking his perennially present (and perennially uplifting) philosophy of thanks for the simple things in life; the things which are also most noble, most human:

It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who has been in love thinks that anyone has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.

ibid, pp.177-178.

                Prophetic words, as are many that fell from Chesterton’s pen. However, not only is his analysis of our cultural condition as relevant to our age as it was in his own, but, as is also often the case with Chesterton, the analysis is accompanied by a profound and very real sense of hope – he sees things according to the long view, and recognising that the woes of our age are rooted in inconsistency, that our supposed march forward is based on the presupposition that we pick apart the road we are walking on, he knows that it cannot last. ‘Something must break’ as he has Adam Wayne say in Napoleon – a culture that finds its only point of consensus in denying the heritage which alone provides it with all it finds to be agreeable, that is built on contradiction papered over by triviality and empty rhetoric, really cannot last.

Moreover, people will eventually begin to tire of such a world, given that its contradictions fail to bring forth anything that truly nourishes or sustains, and that it continually tries to deny those simple gifts of creation that provide us lasting joy, preferring instead various simulacra that tick boxes but subvert any real sense of what made the original so blissful and life-giving. Indeed, there are signs to suggest that people are already tired of the world we have made for ourselves, even if they sometimes do not know why they feel so, or what the roots of the banality and hollowness that they intuit really are. It is thus not so much a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and also ‘who’. As to the time when change occurs, God alone knows, but as to the identity of those who help to return us to sanity, why indeed should it not be you and I?

Candlemas: A Feast of Light, Hope and Memory

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, where we remember the presentation of the Holy Child at the Temple in Jerusalem, performed forty days after His birth – this completed Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth and redeemed the first-born son, so that the Mosaic Law could be observed (c.f.; Leviticus 12; Exodus 13:11-16) and all righteousness fulfilled (c.f.; Matthew 3:15; Galatians 4:4-5). Our Lady too, as faithful handmaiden of the Lord, sought no exemption from the requirements of the Law, though no purification was actually required on her part; in fact, there was no need for women to journey to the Temple for purification, nor did Saint Joseph require any, and so Saint Luke presumably only mentions all these legal fulfilments together (c.f.; 2:22 – ‘their purification’) in order to arrange his material in a way that has more theological impact, and to underline the unity of the Holy Family.

What has traditionally been given most significance in this narrative though, is the Nunc Dimmitis of Saint Simeon, who, in a moment of revelation after years of waiting for the authentic fulfilment of God’s promises, recognises the Christ-child as the One in whom that fulfilment has arrived. Simeon asks that now he be allowed to depart from this world, as he has seen in Jesus its salvation, the ‘light to enlighten the Gentiles’ – he sees further than Saint Zechariah does in his Benedictus, which ends with the theme of light shining in the darkness (c.f.; Luke 1:76-79) and so lays the ground for the later insight. Simeon’s prophecy is actually what gave rise to the tradition of Groundhog Day, which is observed in North America (via an earlier tradition in Germany), as it came to be believed that February 2nd was in some way connected to the increase or decrease of sunlight.

What Simeon of course really meant (and which the folk tradition by no means denies, merely connecting the primary meaning with the deeply symbolic rhythms of nature) is that Christ would bring the light of salvation to all nations – that God’s promises were more universal than had heretofore been imagined. This enlightenment – the bringing of saving truth to the nations – has traditionally been symbolised by the blessing and lighting of candles, and this is why today’s feast is also known as Candlemas. What is interesting is just how powerful such symbols can be, and how important the commemoration of the events of salvation history, with the various symbolic acts and rituals that accompany such commemoration, is for faith; how important it is to sanctify memory by the repeated encounters with the dates of the Church’s calendar.

In a reflection on the season of Advent, Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) considers the part that this engagement of ours with the sacred calendar has in general, and the role that memory plays in the sustenance and deepening of faith:

The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope. All the feasts in the Church’s calendar are events of remembrance and hence events of hope. These events, of such great significance for mankind, which are preserved and opened up by faith’s calendar, are intended to become personal memories of our own life history through the celebration of holy seasons by means of liturgy and custom. Our personal memories are nourished by mankind’s great memories; in turn, it is only by translating them into personal terms that these great memories are kept alive. Man’s ability to believe always depends in part on faith having become dear on the path of life, on the humanity of God having manifested itself through the humanity of men.

Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through The Year (1986), pp.11-12, Ignatius Press.

                In what Pope Benedict writes here we see the way in which the liturgical year helps to make the events of salvation history combine with our own personal history, so that the way we see our lives is coloured by those sacred events and our hopes gradually become aligned with the hopes of people like Simeon, Zechariah and Our Lady. Commemoration of these holy events, year by year, is indeed a way of nourishing our souls, and is so because of our internalising them, by ‘faith having become dear on the path of life.’ Just as we use sacramentals to bless and sanctify the ordinary acts of our day and thus remind us of the greater context in which we live, the observance of the sacred calendar by means of rituals like that of the lighting and procession at Candlemas brings the events of our daily lives into a grander narrative, so that our hopes become transfigured, more oriented to our ultimate ends.

Referring directly to the feast of Candlemas in another address, Pope Benedict first laments the fact that such an ancient festival, which used to have deep roots in rural communities, has become to a certain extent forgotten in our time. In considering the biblical roots of the feast though, he again connects its theme with hope – that in the meeting with Saint Simeon at the Temple, we see not only a particular encounter, but the transition from the Old Covenant, which was limited to one people in a certain place and time, into the New, where the Church shares the light of Christ to all nations. He then goes on to connect this universal hope to the theme of light which is so vividly celebrated at Candlemas:

This brings us to a second aspect of this day which the liturgy illuminates. It takes up the words of Simeon when he calls this Child “a light to enlighten the Gentiles.” Accordingly this day was made a feast of candles. The warm candlelight is meant to be a tangible reminder of that greater light which, for and beyond all time, radiates from the figure of Jesus. In Rome this candle-lit procession supplanted a rowdy, dissolute carnival, the so-called Amburbale, which had survived from paganism right into Christian times. The pagan procession had magical features: it was supposed to effect the purification of the city and the repelling of evil powers. To remind people of this, the Christian procession was originally celebrated in black vestments and then in purple – until the Council’s reform. Thus the element of encounter, again, was evident in this procession: the pagan world’s wild cry for purification, liberation, deliverance from dark powers, meets the “light to enlighten the Gentiles”, the mild and humble light of Jesus Christ. The failing (and yet still active) aeon of a foul, chaotic, enslaved and enslaving world encounters the purifying power of the Christian message…

…The candle-lit procession in black garments, the symbolic encounter between chaos and light which it represents, should remind us of this truth and give us courage to see the supernatural, not as a waste of time, distracting us from the business of ameliorating the world, but as the only way in which meaning can be brought to bear on the chaotic side of life.

ibid, pp.26-27.

                The particular hope we remember in this feast is hope in the light of Christ – what we celebrate at Candlemas is that the desire for deliverance felt by all peoples is made available in and through the Child presented at the Temple to Simeon, and that He, the very logos of creation, can alone truly provide right order and integrity to our lives again, connecting us to a deeper truth and greater context so that we can be freed from the chaos and evil in the world. What Pope Benedict mentions regarding the surviving pagan festivals could equally be applied to our own time – there is still a desire to be delivered from the darkness, and yet still we look in all the wrong places. It is only the light of Christ which truly liberates and purifies, and yet we remain mired in other things.

The tradition of lighting candles at Candlemas thus remains a powerful reminder of what is offered to us in the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him there is freedom from real darkness – from a ‘chaotic, enslaved and enslaving world’ – and He is the way to a life that can be lived in harmony with the will of God, which, as it is the will ordained for all of creation, will bring us into right relation with all things. This reordering of self to God is the only way that we can find peace within our own selves, or with others, and it can only come about by surrendering our rebellious wills to Him. The chaos in the world around us is not a separate thing from the chaos which exists within us – they are profoundly interconnected, and the only way the world can be brought to balance is if we are made so first (c.f.; Matthew 6:33). For the promise that Simeon saw (and which we, by remembrance, marry with our own hopes) to be fully realised, we must let that light of Christ in, and let it work through us unto our neighbour.

Henry Vaughan: ‘They Are All Gone Into The World Of Light’

Looking forward to tomorrow’s Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (also known as Candlemas) in which light plays a predominant theme, the following poem seemed fitting. Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695) was a physician who, after much time examining the ills of others and a protracted period during which he came close to death himself, converted to Christianity, and thereafter began to write poetry, becoming one of the most notable of the metaphysical school. Vaughan also credited his conversion to the writings of George Herbert, and the former certainly owes the latter a good deal in terms of style and outlook; however, Vaughan can be seen as providing a valid and original contribution to poetry himself, his reflections on the natural world setting him apart in particular, and laying much of the ground for romantic poets such as William Wordsworth.

In the poem ‘They Are All Gone Into The World Of Light’ Vaughan meditates on the loss of those who have been close to him, and the bitter transience of our earthly existence. He uses the image of light to represent the fading memories (‘faint beams’) of the life of dead loved ones, which retain their lustre and clarity only as seen in light of a greater and more permanent luminescence – that of Eternity. Though their memory ‘doth trample on’ the poet’s days, bringing to mind again the pain of loss, the intensity of that memory is also due to the identity of the deceased having been taken to the place of final transformation, where they walk ‘in an air of glory’ animated by the divine light of Love. The weight of loss is paradoxically both intensified and qualified by the knowledge that the dear departed are with God in this new and wondrous glory.

For Vaughan though, and for us, the knowledge of that bright new world remains something that, though we might desire it deeply, and that brings us comfort to know of our loved ones being in its midst, is a mystery – that, as Vaughan writes in The Night, another of his poems, ‘there is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness, as men say it is late and dusky, because they see not all clear.’ This mystery is perhaps, in part at least, what lies behind the strength of our desire for Heaven – not only do we see in it the fulfilment of all we have found good and true here and now, but the knowledge that what we hope for will exceed our every expectation also adds profoundly to that initial sense of longing. Such a spirit animates this poem, in which grief for the departed is married to a spirit of intense desire to be with them, bathed as they are in the eternal light of God, which feeds and warms the souls, and surpasses every earthly hope:


They are all gone into the world of light!

And I alone sit ling’ring here;

Their very memory is fair and bright,

And my sad thoughts doth clear.


It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast

Like stars upon some gloomy grove,

Or those faint beams in which this hill is dressed,

After the sun’s remove.


I see them walking in an air of glory,

Whose light doth trample on my days:

My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,

Mere glimmering and decays.


O holy hope! and high humility,

High as the Heavens above!

These are your walks, and you have show’d them me

To kindle my cold love,


Dear, beauteous death! the jewel of the just,

Shining no where, but in the dark;

What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust;

Could man outlook that mark!


He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know

At first sight, if the bird be flown;

But what fair well or grove he sings in now,

That is to him unknown.


And yet, as Angels in some brighter dreams

Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:

So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,

And into glory peep.


If a star were confin’d into a tomb

Her captive flames must needs burn there;

But when the hand that lockt her up gives room,

She’ll shine through all the sphere.


O Father of eternal life, and all

Created glories under thee!

Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall

Into true liberty.


Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill

My perspective (still) as they pass,

Or else remove me hence unto that hill,

Where I shall need no glass.

G. K. Chesterton and the Book of Job

Probably the most persistent theme in all of G. K. Chesterton’s vast literary output is his sense of wonder (one could also make an excellent case for paradox too, but I would class that more as a device, something he used to express the inexpressible, as opposed to an actual theme that ran through what he eventually expressed). One criticism of the Chestertonian worldview however, is that it doesn’t take suffering and evil seriously enough – that Chesterton’s philosophy of thanks does not leave enough room for the reality of pain and loss, experiences which so often inhibit a spirit of gratitude. Some would even go further and claim that Chesterton did not know much real suffering in his life either – this latter claim is much the easier to negate, as apart from losing his brother (an event which affected Chesterton deeply), he and his wife Frances struggled all their life with the great sorrow of not being able to conceive a child; this was a particularly grievous card to be dealt, given how much they both loved children.

On top of this Chesterton relentlessly engaged with some of the most unhappy problems of his age (e.g.; poverty, war, eugenics and political corruption) – he did not shy away from the darker side of life in others, as well as dealing with some hard experiences in his own life. Moreover, the whole worldview which he has become so well known for was itself born out of a period of deep despair – little is known of the precise nature of this episode, but we do know that Chesterton was brought to the very brink (partly due to the influence of the nihilistic schools of thought then doing the rounds) and eventually coming to think life a malign illusion at best, very seriously considering taking his own life. It is precisely because of the dark places he entered into during that period of intense scepticism and pessimism that he came to abhor such things – his philosophy of thanks delivered him from darkness, and he remained ever thankful for that deliverance, as well as ever cognisant of the dangers of evil.

It is in his Introduction to the Book of Job that we can see Chesterton’s philosophy meeting the problem of evil head-on, and the biblical book itself seemed to have meant a great deal to him in general – his notebooks from this time are filled with imitations of Job’s speeches to God, suggesting that Chesterton saw himself in a similar role, questioning his Creator, and there are many references throughout his literary output to what G. K. saw as being the secret to the Book of Job as a whole – this extract from Saint Francis of Assisi is a particularly good example (as well as quite possibly a good description of how Chesterton made it through his own dark night of the soul):

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 creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name. 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.

Saint Francis of Assisi (2008), p.63, Dover.

                There are two things in this passage which are key to the what Chesterton saw as providing a way through darkness and into light – firstly, the miraculous nature of existence itself, the great wonder that anything is at all; and secondly, that in the apprehension of that time when God moved to make something that was not Him, one feels it to be characterised by sheer joy, motivated by nothing else but delight in freely giving. Job 38:4-7 thus became something of a touchstone for him, as in its verses he saw a reminder of the foundations upon which creation has ultimately been built – joy and love. This conclusion comes towards the end of the Book of Job though; for the riddle itself, Chesterton provides some important context:

The central idea of the great part of the Old Testament may be called the idea of the loneliness of God. God is not the only chief character of the Old Testament; God is properly the only character in the Old Testament. Compared with His clearness of purpose, all the other wills are heavy and automatic, like those of animals; compared with His actuality, all the sons of flesh are shadows…

…There are, indeed, in those scriptures innumerable instances of the sort of rugged humor, keen emotion, and powerful individuality which is never wanting in great primitive prose and poetry. Nevertheless the main characteristic remains: the sense not merely that God is stronger than man, not merely that God is more secret than man, but that He means more, that He knows better what He is doing, that compared with Him we have something of the vagueness, the unreason, and the vagrancy of the beasts that perish…

…The book of Job stands definitely alone because the book of Job definitely asks, “But what is the purpose of God? Is it worth the sacrifice even of our miserable humanity? Of course, it is easy enough to wipe out our own paltry wills for the sake of a will that is grander and kinder. But is it grander and kinder? Let God use His tools; let God break His tools. But what is He doing, and what are they being broken for?” It is because of this question that we have to attack as a philosophical riddle the riddle of the book of Job.

Introduction to the Book of Job (1907)

                Chesterton also makes sure to rectify a common misconception about the character of Job himself – that he is merely a pessimist, lamenting the unfairness of his predicament, or a sceptic, trying to catch God out to prove a point. Rather, Job’s interrogation of God is based on his essential trust in his Creator; he pleads with God to make sense of the suffering that he has endured because he has a prior conviction that God is good and can be trusted:

He wishes the universe to justify itself, not because he wishes it be caught out, but because he really wishes it be justified. He demands an explanation from God, but he does not do it at all in the spirit in which [John] Hampden might demand an explanation from Charles I. He does it in the spirit in which a wife might demand an explanation from her husband whom she really respected. He remonstrates with his Maker because he is proud of his Maker. He even speaks of the Almighty as his enemy, but he never doubts, at the back of his mind, that his enemy has some kind of a case which he does not understand…

He is anxious to be convinced, that is, he thinks that God could convince him. In short, we may say again that if the word optimist means anything (which I doubt), Job is an optimist. He shakes the pillars of the world and strikes insanely at the heavens; he lashes the stars, but it is not to silence them; it is to make them speak.


                But the main thing to which Chesterton wishes to draw our attention in his essay is what kind of a response it is that Job eventually gets. When God does reply, it is not with the kind of platitudes or neat solutions that Job’s friends envisage but with a continuation and a deepening of that questioning that Job began:

A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number of questions on His own account. In this drama of scepticism God Himself takes up the role of sceptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some question which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners…

…And He carries yet further the corrections of the legal parallel. For the first question, essentially speaking, which He asks of Job is the question that any criminal accused by Job would be most entitled to ask. He asks Job who he is. And Job, being a man of candid intellect, takes a little time to consider, and comes to the conclusion that he does not know.


                Furthermore, when Job is directly asked what kind of being he is and directly realises the extent of his creaturely limitations, God then takes things another step further, making the riddle even more puzzling than before and going beyond Job’s initial queries:

This, I say, is the first fact touching the speech; the fine inspiration by which God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them. The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.


                As Chesterton notes, this deepening of the mystery is, paradoxically, what actually comforts Job – not only has no explanation been provided, but the world is shown to be even more perplexing than Job had even first thought, and yet he recognises in this deepening of the mystery of creation some kind of assurance of divine providence. The ‘riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of men’ because the riddles of God bring us face to face with the incurable strangeness of our own existence – we are creatures that can discern meaning, but in that discernment are always led beyond ourselves to something greater and altogether different in kind. God, as Chesterton goes on to say ‘insists on the inexplicableness of everything…will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe’ – He provides a litany of inexplicable grandeur and oddity, so that a sense of wonder can be woken again, so much so that ‘The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has Himself made’ (ibid).

Finally, Chesterton leads us to the chinks of light intimated in the aforementioned passage about the secret joy in and behind the act of creation. As well as having revealed to Job that His true nature and the depths of His purposes are something beyond our comprehension, and drawing his attention to that sense of profound mystery which already gives us intimations of the divine transcendence, God reveals small hints of that glory which is the essence of His eternal life:

Lastly, the poet has achieved in this speech, with that unconscious artistic accuracy found in so many of the simpler epics, another and much more delicate thing. Without once relaxing the rigid impenetrability of Jehovah in His deliberate declaration, he has contrived to let fall here and there in the metaphors, in the parenthetical imagery, sudden and splendid suggestions that the secret of God is a bright and not a sad one – semi-accidental suggestions, like light seen for an instant through the crack of a closed door…

…For instance, there is that famous passage where Jehovah, with devastating sarcasm, asks Job where he was when the foundations of the world were laid, and then (as if merely fixing a date) mentions the time when the sons of God shouted for joy (38:4-7). One cannot help feeling, even upon this meagre information, that they must have had something to shout about. Or again, when God is speaking of snow and hail in the mere catalogue of the physical cosmos, he speaks of them as a treasury that He has laid up against the day of battle – a hint of some huge Armageddon in which evil shall be at last overthrown.


                This, as Chesterton summarises it, is the essence of the Book of Job – the mystery we feel about our own lives is itself a faint inkling of the mystery of the very life of God, and rather than being confounded to pessimism or despair by this fact, we (via those glimmers of joy that shine through to us from the text) can be assured that it is a mystery founded upon something more wonderful than we could ever imagine. We can take comfort not only in the surpassing glory of God, but that the things we cannot know due to our creaturely limitations are things all good, things all joyous and splendid – an early hint of the later revelation that God is Love.

On top of this, we have another hint of Christian revelation in the Book of Job, and it is on this note that the essay ends. Chesterton has gleaned many insights from the biblical text, but there still remains the question of whether God, glorious and joyous as He is, can really be said to care about us and our sufferings. In a book full of paradoxes, Chesterton thus saw the figure of Job as the most paradoxical of all – the eminently good man given over to great suffering – and yet ultimately found this to be the greatest comfort of all, precisely because of what was prefigured in Job: ‘I need not suggest what high and strange history awaited this paradox of the best man in the worst fortune. I need not say that in the freest and most philosophical sense there is one Old Testament figure who is truly a type; or say what is prefigured in the wounds of Job’ (ibid).

When James and John asked Our Lord if they could sit with Him in His glory, it was then that he said to them ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ It is in the draining of that terrible cup that we can know just how much He cares, how greatly He desires to share with us the glory and joy of His life, and what lengths He has gone to that we might so share it. When we ask ourselves whether or not God cares, we can look to the greatest paradox of all – that in the heart of God, who is Love, there rests eternally a Cross; that His desire to share the depths of His joy with us was and is so great that He chose to suffer with us in order that one day we may rejoice with Him.

Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Formation of the Catholic Mind

Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day it is today, is an enormously important figure – despite the many attempts to undo his influence on Catholic theology (either by associating him with the more pedantic end of Scholasticism and throwing him out with it, or by simply claiming to have found more ‘up to date’ ways of approaching questions of theology, philosophy and ethics) his work remains a (perhaps the) key reference point for anyone who wants to know how to do systematic theology. On top of this, one might add that he remains the ‘go-to man’ for anyone who wants to know how to do philosophy (again, this is considered to be an outdated view today, but remains true nonetheless). Quite simply, his legacy is both colossal and undeniable, as G. K. Chesterton, describing the end of Aquinas’ life in what is considered by many Thomists to be the introduction to Saint Thomas par excellence, puts beautifully:

Those men must have known that a great mind was still labouring like a great mill in the midst of them. They must have felt that, for that moment, the inside of the monastery was larger than the outside. It must have resembled the case of some mighty modern engine, shaking the ramshackle building in which it is for the moment enclosed. For truly that machine was made of the wheels of all the worlds; and revolved like that cosmos of concentric spheres which, whatever its fate in the face of changing science, must always be something of a symbol for philosophy; the depth of double and triple transparencies more mysterious than darkness; the sevenfold, the terrible crystal. In the world of that mind there was a wheel of angels, and a wheel of planets, and a wheel of plants or animals; but there was also a just and intelligible order of all earthly things, a sane authority and a self-respecting liberty, and a hundred answers to a hundred questions in the complexity of ethics or economics.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (2009), p.91, Dover Publications.

                What Chesterton captures so marvellously well here is not only the complexity of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ thought, but the unity of it – he brought the whole range of data that the world presented to him, and unified it in one great system of thought. It is with reference to this power of unification and integration which is Aquinas’ great legacy that I wish to discuss the formation of our thought, both our conscience and intellect – how it is that we enter into and are shaped by any system of thought, and moreover how the unity and consistency of the Catholic way of seeing things affords a uniquely liberating means of formation, and a potent antidote to our confused age.

Our minds are not blank slates, and they do not receive information impartially, but according to what they have already been predisposed to select from the range of data before them – we tend to admit what is consonant with what we already know, and reject things that contradict it. We do not operate according to reason alone, but our reason is directed by our will, which is itself shaped by a sense of what is fitting or conducive to the way we have come to see the world. Saint Thomas explains thus in the Summa Theologiae thus:

Now “moral” virtue is so called from “mos” in the sense of a natural or quasi-natural inclination to do some particular action. And the other meaning of “mos,” i.e. “custom,” is akin to this: because custom becomes a second nature, and produces an inclination similar to a natural one. But it is evident that inclination to an action belongs properly to the appetitive power, whose function it is to move all the powers to their acts, as explained above (Question [9], Article [1]. Therefore not every virtue is a moral virtue, but only those that are in the appetitive faculty…

…the appetitive faculty obeys the reason, not blindly, but with a certain power of opposition; wherefore the Philosopher says (Polit. i, 3) that “reason commands the appetitive faculty by a politic power,” whereby a man rules over subjects that are free, having a certain right of opposition. Hence Augustine says on Ps. 118 (Serm. 8) that “sometimes we understand [what is right] while desire is slow, or follows not at all,” in so far as the habits or passions of the appetitive faculty cause the use of reason to be impeded in some particular action. And in this way, there is some truth in the saying of Socrates that so long as a man is in possession of knowledge he does not sin: provided, however, that this knowledge is made to include the use of reason in this individual act of choice.

   Accordingly for a man to do a good deed, it is requisite not only that his reason be well disposed by means of a habit of intellectual virtue; but also that his appetite be well disposed by means of a habit of moral virtue. And so moral differs from intellectual virtue, even as the appetite differs from the reason. Hence just as the appetite is the principle of human acts, in so far as it partakes of reason, so are moral habits to be considered virtues in so far as they are in conformity with reason.

Summa Theologiae, I-II, 58, 1-2.

                Saint Thomas is making two key points here – firstly, that whilst our intellect is involved in the act of apprehending the range of data presented to us, it is our appetites or desires (i.e.; the will) that moves the intellect to accept such things or not; and secondly, that therefore to become truly wise we must not only form our intellects in right understanding, but form our moral life in terms of right action and intention, for if we lack the latter, our progress in the former will be hindered. I.e.; if we do not want the Good and the True because of a disordered conscience, it will be a lot harder for us to allow our intellects to accept them. This is particularly true when it pertains to articles of faith, in which the object of our assent is not manifest before us:

Sometimes, however, the understanding can be determined to one side of a contradictory proposition neither immediately through the definitions of the terms, as is the case with principles, nor yet in virtue of principles, as is the case with conclusions from a demonstration. And in this situation our understanding is determined by the will, which chooses to assent to one side definitely and precisely because of something which is enough to move the will, though not enough to move the understanding, namely, since it seems good or fitting to assent to this side. And this is the state of one who believes. This may happen when someone believes what another says because it seems fitting or useful to do so…

…in faith, the assent and the discursive thought are more or less parallel. For the assent is not caused by the thought, but by the will, as has just been said. However, since the understanding does not in this way have its action terminated at one thing so that it is conducted to its proper term, which is the sight of some intelligible object, it follows that its movement is not yet brought to rest. Rather, it still thinks discursively and inquires about the things which it believes, even though its assent to them is unwavering.

De Veritate, 14, 1.

                Now, whilst Saint Thomas is discussing faith and assent (his writings on which bear some striking similarities to that of Blessed John Henry Newman in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent) in a Christian context, as with everything Aquinas wrote he does so by addressing the fundamental nature of belief, knowledge, intellect, will, etc, so that his investigations are applicable to any case wherein assent is placed in an object or concept that cannot be verified empirically – thus his findings are as applicable to Catholicism as they are to atheism. What we must conclude therefore is that all thought is conditioned by moral and intellectual custom, and so, contrary to the claims of some secularists, it is never possible to educate children in an ideological vacuum. People’s minds will be formed according to some way of seeing the world, and we all (whether we like to admit it or not) take a great deal that is foundational to our worldview on faith. There is no neutral ground here, and the real question is, which worldview is it best to be formed in?

Basically, whilst we may like to think that we can discern everything from the right way to tie our shoelaces to the meaning of life itself by ourselves, and can do so purely according to the lights of our reason, the reality is that we learn most of the things we know on authority – from parents, teachers, respected friends and books. What we receive from these sources will form our approach to learning in the future, and limit the kinds of things our appetite will present to our intellect for retention and absorption. What then, is the best worldview to imbibe; what is the system of thought that provides the most expansive, enriching and humanising vision of life? Clearly Saint Thomas Aquinas would advocate the Catholic worldview as meeting the brief, but given there is not the space to lay out a full apologetic for the Catholic Faith here, what is the most essential reason why one should be formed in such a worldview?

As an aside, I should note that the recognition of the role of custom in receiving and filtering information does not entail relativism. All Saint Thomas is acknowledging here is that the notion of a naked, autonomous self, collecting and assessing data impartially without being affecting by cultural context or personal history is an illusion. There is such a thing as objective truth, and we could not get off the ground thinking about things sensibly if there were not; but similarly, we could not have a fully functioning and fully flourishing culture (intellectual or otherwise) if we refused to listen to or acknowledge the role that other people and existing ideas play in our development. Given that this is the case though, what is it about Catholicism that makes it the most compelling candidate for a worldview through which to form one’s intellectual and moral life?

An answer to this question itself depends upon what value we put on knowing the truth, and whether or not we truly believe that truth is liberating or that virtue provides real freedom. If we do believe such things (as all cultures prior to our own to some extent have), then we will want to form ourselves and our children in a context that does not misdirect the intellect or lead the will away from the good things in life. This is particularly the case in our present cultural context, where, as Eric Voegelin wrote some sixty-three years ago:

We live in the world of the dialogue, where the recognition of the structure of reality, the cultivation of the virtues of sophia and prudentia, the discipline of the intellect and the development of theoretical culture and the life of spirit are stigmatised in public as reactionary, while disregard for the structure of reality, ignorance of facts, fallacious misconstruction and falsification of history, irresponsible opining on the basis of sincere conviction, philosophical illiteracy, spiritual dullness, and agnostic sophistication are considered the virtues of man, and their possession opens the road to public success.

The New Science of Politics (1952), p.178, University of Chicago Press.

                The situation described by Voegelin has since become not only more extreme, but more widespread and more deeply entrenched in our culture. For anybody disconcerted by such a turn of events, Catholicism represents the only really viable alternative in terms of a permanent philosophy that continually engages with changing circumstance but that has the means by which it can discern and authoritatively define what is or isn’t a desirable development. Furthermore, it is not simply a philosophy, and very much not an ideology – it really is, as Chesterton wrote of the mind of Saint Thomas Aquinas, something that proclaims a ‘a just and intelligible order of all earthly things’; the Catholic Church presents a holistic worldview that integrates its theology with its anthropology, its anthropology with its social vision and aesthetic sense, and these back with its theology again.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church presents itself as something divine as well as human – it has the guarantee of being guided by the Holy Spirit. To return to Aquinas’ discussion of the act of faith in De Veritate, the will desires its object when ‘it seems good or fitting to assent’ – when the will is presented with what seems, through investigation and assessment, to be infallibly guaranteed, one can rest in what the Church proclaims with a great deal of assurance – the nature of the object secures the strong assent. If we are convinced that the Church is the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15) and that the Spirit continues to guide her into all truth (c.f.; John 16:12-15) then we are highly justified in assenting to her authority. It is this guarantee of divine guidance that warrants a firm assent and sets the Church apart from other mere philosophies or sources of knowledge.

If one is convinced by the claims of the Church in this regard then, it seems clear that the only sensible thing to do is to ensure all under our care (children in particular) are formed within its folds, in order that they may better receive the breadth and richness of its teaching and so be better equipped to live a life of virtue and intellectual clarity in an age that values neither. We cannot leave the situation to sort itself out, so to speak – if we do not educate our children in the Faith, and do not continue to immerse ourselves in it, that our intellect and will are led to habitually gravitate towards the Good and the True (i.e.; towards God) then the surrounding culture will fill the gap we leave; and it is not a neutral culture, particularly where religion is concerned. Catholicism offers a worldview that is rich, consistent, inclusive and all-encompassing – rightly is Saint Thomas Aquinas considered to be its universal Doctor, as his capacious mind mirrors its expansive and generous vision, and his love of truth reflects the Spirit of Truth who resides at its heart.

Jesus Christ: The Original Mystic

Fr. Robert Wild’s The Tumbler of God has opened several doors for me – not only has it helped to deepen my appreciation of just how important a thinker G. K. Chesterton is, but it has made me reconsider just what it is that I believe Christian mysticism to be all about. Fr. Wild spends a good deal of time in the earlier chapters of the book assessing the different ways in which we commonly view mysticism, in order that he may show that Chesterton was someone who had received a mystical grace, but after this he takes a look at Our Lord Himself, pointing out that our assessment of whether or not someone is a true mystic is more often than not based on the lives of any number of saints that have already had that title bestowed upon them, whereas a safer guide in making such an assessment might actually be to return to the Gospels:

We have developed, over centuries of Christian reflection and experience, a certain technical conception of what mysticism is. Now, armed with these studies, we go back to the Gospels to see if Jesus was a mystic! Of course, it should be the other way round: the Lord’s Person, life and teaching should be seen as defining true mysticism – what it means to be immediately penetrated with the Presence – since he was the Presence Incarnate. He is the True Mystic, and our theories about mysticism should be based on his life, teachings, and approach to reality.

The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic (2013), p.71, Angelico Press.

                When we try to ascertain whether or not someone is a genuine mystic, we look at the visions and/or spiritual experiences they have had – how closely they tally up with revealed truth, how representative they are of what we know to be true about God as revealed in Jesus Christ. But we do this because in Our Lord we have the case of a human being living constantly in the closest communion possible with God the Father; Jesus is the original mystic because it is His inner life by which we judge the inner lives of all other mystics, He who shows us the way to the Father by so embodying a life lived in harmony with His will that we can say He is the Way. It is perhaps easy to separate out the life of Our Lord from the mystical saints because it was not attended by levitations, or by ecstasies that notably removed Him from ordinary affairs; but the lack of these things is due to the fact that His communion with God is normal – He speaks to the Father as if it were the most natural thing in the world, because for Him, it is.

Mysticism is about purifying the vision and will in order that we might reach the state that Our Lord lived in by virtue of who He is – the attainment of union with the Father. It is the recovery of the natural state that was intended for all of us, but which we lost during the Fall. That we see in the lives of the saints much strain and sometimes great drama in the achievement of this state is because there is a tension between what we are and what we should be, a tension which must be worked through before that union with God can be achieved. It is not just that we are creatures that holds us back, as Our Lord was truly human as well as truly God – it is that our humanity is disordered, whereas His is in perfect alignment with the will of God. His mysticism, therefore, is simple, so as He is the original mystic by which all other mysticism should be judged, perhaps simplicity is what all mystics should be aiming for – perhaps this is the more excellent way which I mentioned at the end of my post on good and evil last week:

If you met a person at this stage you might not know that you were meeting a mystic. And the person surely would not know, or even care, if he was a mystic or not. After all the spiritual tumblings and experiences, the true mystic comes round again with simply being a person, although now everything is wonderfully different. Jesus in Nazareth at least fits the definition of a mystic: utter simplicity of life. He started out that way; it was not the termination of a long journey.

ibid, p.75.

                The above description suggests that someone living at the peak of spiritual existence, and atop the heights of mystical insight, would be living in such close agreement with the way we are all intended to live, that it would not be apparent we were meeting a mystic at all. I do not think Fr. Wild means that we would see such a person as ordinary, because the everyday for us is marked by contradiction, disharmony – sin. What I think he is getting at is that our idea of what a mystic should be like is often so removed from the utter simplicity and integrity of life as embodied by Our Lord, that the word ‘mystic’ would not occur to us in the presence of such a person. Perhaps it was for the same reason that the people of Nazareth did not recognise the true identity of Our Lord – they certainly saw Him as being different, but their wider expectations were all out of kilter.

Yet we should also see such people (those who have achieved a state of perfect union with God) as being different too – that sense of dislocation and of unrest which is our lot due to the Fall should be absent, and this would indeed make them stand out. A life animated by love of God, rooted in the Tree of Life and turned away from the temptations of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil should stand out not by being wild or self-consciously different, but in its purity – its close correspondence between desire, intent and action. This is not to say that the great mystics of the Church’s history who have been transported by ecstatic visions or gone through great trials of purgation were not genuine mystics – far from it – only that it is not in these moments that we judge their mysticism to be genuine. It is the state of heart and mind that resulted which is key:

In prayer, the Lord was surely totally absorbed in intimacy with his Father. But this absorption is not like that of many of the mystics, totally insensitive to what is going on around them; or even lifted above the ground in levitation. The Gospel often tells us he prayed while in the company of his disciples. It’s a very probable theory that unusual manifestations such as ecstasy and levitation are due to the weakness of human nature, unable to sustain the Presence. Christ manifests the perfection of our nature, at home with the Presence.

ibid, p.78.

                To be at home with the Presence of God, and to enjoy the simple trust in and love of God that accompanies such a state of affairs – that is a good summary of the goal of all mysticism, and is what we see in the life of Our Lord. It is also what is made possible by reception of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, as they ‘adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature…They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity…They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life’ (CCC: 1812-1813). Seen this way, Christian mysticism is no more than the continual cooperation with these gifts of God, so that we evermore grow to see our whole life as seen in the light of His grace; in other words, so that we become at home with the Presence of God.

It is this possibility of closeness to God, and the opportunity to live in harmony with what the world sees as weakness and foolishness (c.f.; 1 Corinthians 1:25) that proved the greatest point of distinction between Christianity and the pagan world. Because through Christ a way was laid open to be at home with God (and thus with our own nature) through the gifts of faith, hope and love, the response to this offer amongst Christians made them conspicuous by the same kind of ‘abnormality’ noted in the simplicity of the true mystic above. Chesterton himself describes this difference between the two systems in the twelfth chapter of Heretics, where he counters the suggestion that it was in asceticism that Christianity differed from paganism:

The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope and charity. Now, much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact, I say, is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope and charity, are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be…

…Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.

Heretics (2001), p.67, House of Stratus.

                To trust always, to hope against hope and to be truly charitable (i.e.; to give completely of oneself, regardless of whether the recipient deserves it or not) are sane ways to behave for one who lives continually in the light of God; but to the world they are madness. However, it is these three theological (note that Chesterton refers to them as mystical) virtues which animated all that has been achieved by Western culture – its hospitals and hospices, orphanages and almshouses, the recklessness of its art and aspiration of the universities, and the continual resurrection of all that it held dear after each setback from within and without. Nowadays, faith has nearly disappeared, charity has grown cold and inconsistent, and if we hope at all, we do not know why or where to place it – it is no wonder therefore, that what is left of our culture is slowly petering out.

Nevertheless, the important point here is that these three theological/mystical virtues, which lie at the heart of what it is to enjoy the mystical experience, are essentially simple. At the end of all ascetic endeavour, after all the ecstasies have passed, what characterises authentic Christian mysticism is the calm acceptance that God is God, we are His creatures, and that our good lies in loving Him and obediently following His will for us. To achieve this is of course not a simple thing at all – but if any of us are to attain this state (which is also the same thing as authentic holiness) then we must always have before us the simplicity of the goal. To guide us towards that goal and nurture us on our way, we only have to turn the pages of the Gospels, and follow the life of Our Lord, the original mystic. There is a good reason that the prayer He left us is so uncomplicated, for so is the life that He lives adoring the face of the Father, and so did He mean our lives to be again.

John Keble: The Conversion of Saint Paul

This is a re-blog of a post from last year’s Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul – John Keble’s magnificent poem detailing the events of the Apostle’s encounter on the road to Damascus.

Journey Towards Easter

John Keble’s The Christian Year is a wonderful resource for reflecting on the feasts and memorials of the liturgical year. It seems to me to be a work that can provide great spiritual edification in a structured way that is deeply rooted in Scripture, and so is something I would recommend to Christians of any stripe. It is also a good example of the notoriously hard to pin down ‘Anglican patrimony’ that Anglicanorum Coetibus was created to try and preserve within a Catholic context. This patrimony has more to do with the textures and character of a lived heritage of music, poetry and liturgy than with any theological distinctiveness, and so Keble’s work speaks more eloquently of what is unique about Anglicanism than any doctrinal formulations proffered could do.

With respect to the piece below, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and Keble’s poem reflects upon…

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