The Reality of Evil in G.K.'s Vision of Life
or "The Devil Made Him Do It"
I am sometimes tempted to think -- and I have often had it expressed to me, as well as seen it in print -- that Chesterton is certainly a profound thinker but he just doesn't make it to the heights -- or depths -- of truth, holiness, or what life is all about. Why? Well, he's just too playful, too whimsical, and, yes, too funny to be seen as any kind of guide to ultimate things. Does he really take life seriously? Is he aware of the evil in the world, and does he come to terms with it? Even in his novel The Ball and the Cross, which I contend is about the spirit of the Antichrist, and about the end of an era (if not the end of the world), even when discussing these cataclysmic and apocalyptic matters, he insists on treating them in his fantastical, whimsical, and outlandish way!
After all, isn't life ultimately very serious? I mean, there is the Lord on the cross, and Buddha not exactly laughing about life (though he does, at times, have an enigmatic smile). And then there are all the serious desert fathers and mothers and the writings of the saints on the spiritual life and, well, you know, isn't it ultimately all very serious? And where is his "tragic sense of life" which is supposed to be one of the essential ingredients of human existence?
Perhaps -- the criticism continues -- G.K.'s attitude and style are due to the fact that he didn't really suffer all that much compared with other greats. The account in his Autobiography, Ignatius Press) of his suffering as a youngster is not exactly that of an abused child. He is serious here:
I was by no means unaquanited with pain, which is a pretty unanswerable thing: I had a fair amount of toothache and especially earache; and few can bemuse themselves into regarding earache as a form of epicurean hedonism. 57
His peaceful career (so the argument continues) of writing and thinking sheltered him from the many tragedies of life. He wrote and thought out of a serene and basically trouble-free existence. Who couldn't be playful leading such a life. He lived in a kind of fairy-land.
However, in my on-going reading of G.K. I keep coming across a theme that, to my mind, contradicts this view: G.K. had a profound awareness of the existence of a personal evil presence at work in the world. This awareness and belief was an essential and even causative factor in forming his vision (and especially his "battling" vision) of life. It is his awareness and experience of evil that is the ultimate argument against his supposed flippant, unreal, and rosy view of reality.
G.K., A Gnostic?
The criticism that G.K.'s approach to reality is rather gnostic and dreamlike, lacking the pain and sorrow and battle with evil which alone gives one the right to speak about the hidden glory of creation, is not new. Listen to a very early criticism of G.K,, which many people still continue to apply to his whole corpus [no pun intended] of thought. It is C.F.G. Masterman's review of G.K.'s book The Defendant. He entitled his comments "The Blasphemy of Optimism":
Mr. Chesterton holds that all things are very good. He may assert that he has a certain reputable precedent for such a statement. The plea cannot be entertained. God found all things `very good.' Such a discovery is a prerogative of divinity. No man can look on God and live; and no man can live who sees things as God sees them. Optimism in men is an indication of death. Genial acquiescence in intolerable things is the great conservative force of the world.
Mr. Chesterton, in effect, is attempting a short cut to Paradise. He would fain elude the effort of blood and tears by which alone that Paradise can be regained. That the world is full of glories to those who have eyes to see is a commonplace appealing to each generation as a grotesque and startling novelty. But the seeing eye is not attained by the manufacture of a joyful noise in the dark. (Quoted by D.J. Conlon, in G.K. Chesterton, The Critical Judgments, 40-45)
I believe G.K. is here being called a gnostic, although the word isn't used. "Gnostic" is a bad word now in the Christian tradition, although if you go back far enough, Clement of Alexandria called Christians the true gnostics. Gnostics concoct imaginary worlds unrelated to scripture, tradition, or sound philosophical thinking. G.K. was never accused of this extreme form of gnosticism. But an element of gnostic thought is that you can achieve reality merely by thinking about it. You can "get there" just by changing your mind.
G.K. "manufactures" reality also. He just thinks beautiful thoughts and presto! he is back in paradise. "The man with the muck rake, he [G.K.] would say, can obtain the golden crown, not by the painful effort to look upwards, but by weaving the sticks on the floor into a coronet and assuring himself that it is gold" (Ibid. 44). G.K.'s world may be true, but he gets there too easily. Thus, he is accused of attaining such a vision without a fight:
Persistent effort, the sweat and blood of men, wreckage of a thousand lives and a world travail of pain, has been the price men have paid for permission sometimes to whisper to each other in the darkness that all things are very good. The greatest tragedy in history, at which the sun veiled his face and the pillars of the earth were shaken, was necessary to enable humanity to cherish for nineteen centuries the desperate hope that God is Love. (Ibid., 45)
I shall try to show, however, that GK's vision was not born by simply making a joyful noise in the dark, but because he heard noises from the Prince of Darkness.
"The Sound of Battle"
Let us distinguish two levels in G.K.'s life, the theoretical and the practical.
Did G.K. think that this vision of the goodness of all things was attainable without a fight? Anyone who knows anything at all about him would find it incomprehensible how such a view could be maintained. Even as early as his review in 1902, Masterman would have had several volumes of G.K.'s poetry to examine. Charles Williams, a great literary artist himself, says that the basic theme of all G.K.'s poetry is "the sound of battle":
Mr. Chesterton's verse, even when it is not concerned with historic battles -- Ethandune, Lepanto, the Marne -- has generally the sound of a battle within it. There are drawn swords from the first page to the last: material, intellectual and spiritual; the swords of Arthur and Roland ... of the Mother of God and Michael the Archangel. Everything is spoken of in terms of war, either actual or potential. For even when there is no enemy the state of being described is a state where man is strung to a high pitch of expectation and his delight is already militant. The babe unborn in one poem looks forward to `leave to weep and fight', and his old men die either in conflict or in the joy or fear of conflict. Man must be either a hero or a coward. (The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, X, Collected Poetry, Part I, Ignatius Press, "General Editor's Introduction," 8.)
Masterman thought G.K. imaginatively turned bad things into good, disregarding the obvious evils of the world. Other people thought he saw focused too much on evil. It was a correspondent who signed himself the "Peaceable Optimist."
Dear Mr. Chesterton,
You have been called an optimist, but your characteristic tone is one of disagreement, quarrelling, disapproval, and censure. You live in a melancholy world surrounded by imagined evils. You call your rivals `heretics,' and fight them in a judgmental and combative spirit.
Why can you not see the good there is in everything? Why can you not emphasize the positive and be at peace?
Because you relish fighting, you are focused on the negatives, on `What's Wrong with the World,' and the `Devil.' Would not true happiness consist in more equanimity and the affirmation and approval of positive good?
(signed) Peaceable Optimist
Dear Peaceable Optimist,
If optimism means general approval, it is certainly true that the more a man becomes an optimist the more he becomes a melancholy man. If he manages to praise everything, his praise will develop an alarming resemblance to polite boredom. He will say that the marsh is as good as the garden; he will mean that the garden is as dull as the marsh. He may force himself to say that emptiness is good, but he will hardly prevent himself from asking what is the good of such good. This optimism does exist -- this optimism which is the very heart of hell.
Against such an aching vacuum of joyless approval there is only one antidote -- a sudden and pugnacious belief in positive evil. This world can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield. When we have defined and isolated the evil thing, the colors come back into everything. When all evil things have become evil, good things, in a blazing apocalypse, become good.
There are some men who are dreary because they do not believe in God; but there are many others who are dreary because they do not believe in the devil. The grass grows green again when we believe in the devil.
The true optimist can only continue as an optimist so long as he is discontented. For the full value of this life can only be got by fighting; the violent take it by storm. And if we have accepted everything, we have missed something -- war.
This life of ours is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce.
(Signed) Your Friend,
(Quoted in Midwest Chesterton News, June 10, 1995, 13. No date is given as to when the above was written.)
Bracing Mystical Insights
In the lives of the saints and mystics, an experience of darkness, or of evil, or of their own sinfulness, often immediately precedes their being launched into their true vocation. G.K. had some profound experiences of the Divine in a flower (a dandelion, I believe;) and he had other mystical flights into the goodness of all creation (as when he banged his head against a wooden post. "Wonder and the Wooden Post," in The Colored Lands. (He offers here, by the way, some penetrating insights into what he considers false or superficial mysticism.) But in his autobiography he tells us that his celebrated Optimism emerged, not from the power of positive thinking, but as a faint but steady beam amidst a rather terrifying darkness:
In truth, the story of what was called my Optimism was rather odd. When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incumbus or throw off this nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this:; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anythng was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.
What I meant, whether or no I managed to say it, was this; that no man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy. (Collected Works, XVI, 97)
What I wish to show is that his own elaboration of this "mystical theory" which helped him escape from his descent into his "blind spiritual suicide," was also born out of his experience of evil: "The grass grows green again when we believe in the devil." Most of Chapter IV of his Autobiography concerns his encounter with evil and the dark side of the spiritual world. A belief in the devil and in the reality of evil was an essential catalyst, both in clarifying who and what the enemy was, and in giving the battle the clang of reality and purpose. To offset the "aching vacuum of joyless approval" one needs "the pugnacious belief in positive evil." His experience of the existence of the Devil was one of the ingredients in fashioning his vocation and his approach to reality.
Liberation From the Dream World
Chestertonians will recall that section in his autobiography where he recounts his dabbling with evil. Maisie Ward says of this period (he was almost nineteen): "Surrounded by pleasant friendships and home influences he had never really become aware of evil. Now it broke upon him suddenly..."(GKC, 43). His friends asked one another : "Is Chesterton going mad?" (Ibid., 44) This evil was not only the Evil One, which we shall see shortly, but he was also going through an "extreme scepticism. As he expressed it, he `felt as if everything might be a dream,' as if he had `projected the universe from within.' The agnostic doubts the existence of God. Gilbert at moments doubted the existence of the agnostic" (43-44). He said that the spiritual significance of Impressionism in art contributed to this mental state:
Whatever may be the merits of this method of art, there is obviously something highly subjective and sceptical about it as a method of thought. It naturally lends itself to the metaphysical suggestion that things only exist as we perceive them, or that things do not exist at all. The philosophy of Impressionism is necessarily close to the philosophy of illusion.
................................................................. I felt as if everything might be a dream. It was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with its trees and stars; and that is so near to the notion of being God that it is manifestly even nearer to going mad.
In other words, GK was in a state of mental terror, uncertain as to whether he was or was not a real gnostic. More: not only afraid of making up reality in his mind, but wondering if those ideas were all that existed. And it is significant that, in his autobiograpy, before he relates the "rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of his own" which helped him escape from pure subjectivism, he mentions the devil. And a large part of this chapter, "How To Be a Lunatic," is taken up with his experiences in spiritualism. Is he not saying, by this emphasis, that his experience of evil was also a factor in freeing him from illusion?
My contention is that his experience of Evil was one of the very signifcant factors which knocked him into reality, just as bumping his head against that wooden post plunged him into the heart of his own mysticism:
I am interestd 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 marvelous in our eyes.
....................................................... 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 spirituaity is a testimony to this world as much as the other: the material universe does exist. (The Colored Lands, Sheed & Ward, 1938, 160-61)
The devil, as it were, over-played his hand: he knocked G.K. over the head and manifested his relity. By making himself known to GK, he also introduced G.K. into the existence of supernatural realities, and thus also realities outside the mind. The devil is stupid as well as sinister.
Spiritualism, ouija boards, seances -- whatever form his dabbling took --
the point is here that I dug quite low enough to discover the devil; and even in some dim way to recognize the devil. At least I never, even in this first vague and sceptical stage, indulged very much in the current arguments about the relativity of evil or the unreality of sin. Perhaps, when I eventually emerged as a sort of theorist, and was described as an Optimist, it was because I was one of the few people in that world of diabolism who really believed in devils. Collected Works, Vol. XVI, Ignatius Press,(96).
Maisie Ward again: "He told Father O'Connor some years later that `he had used the planchette freely at one time, but had to give it up on account of headaches ensuing..."after the headaches came a horrid feeling as if one were trying to get over a bad spree, with what I can best describe as a bad smell in the mind"'" (44-45). This was his encounter with Black Magic, which would afterwards supply the material for his play, Magic.
Chestertonians will also readily recall his article entitled "The Diabolist" where he met a man whose mind was permeated with that "bad smell" as a permanent atmosphere, a man who was totally without principles or scruples:
He had a horrible fairness of the intellect that made me despair of his soul. He only said, `But shall I not find in evil a life of its own?' `Do you see that fire?' I asked. `If we had a real fighting democracy, some one would burn you in it; like that devil-worshipper that you are.' `Perhaps,' he said, in his tired, fair way. `Only what you call evil I call good.' (Ward, 45)
As G.K. was leaving the building where this meeting took place, he overheard the Diabolist and his acquaintance talking:
I stopped, startled; but then I heard the voice of one of the vilest of his associates saying, `Nobody can possibly know.' And then I heard those two or three words which I remember in every syllable and cannot forget. I heard the Diabolist say, `I tell you I have done everything else. If I do that I shan't know the difference between right and wrong.' I rushed out without daring to pause; and as I passed the fire [fire place] I did not know whether it was hell or the furious love of God. (Ward, 45)
Maisie Ward says that "revulsion from the atmosphere of evil took Gilbert to no new thing but to a strengthening of old ties and a mystic renewal of them" (46). I wonder, though, if she does not significantly down play this youthful encounter with evil (since he had been innocent of evil before); if it was not some new and profound turning point in his life; the beginning of the radical cure for his scepticism; the foil that made his battle cry real. I venture this because this attitude of the Diabolist, as much as the headaches and bad smell from the planchette, proved to G.K. the radical existence of evil. In the very first sentence of the above-mentioned chapter, he says what he is about to relate "has left in my mind for ever a certitude upon the objective solidity of Sin" (81).
Patron Saint of Converts From Neo-Paganism
I am trying to show that G.Kk's encounter with evil, and especially with evil spirits, played a very important part in his understanding of reality. This influence appears again in his Chapter "The World Inside Out" in Catholic Church and Conversion, which is very autobiographical.
The word Ecclesia was only used of one reality, the Roman Catholic Church. When it fragmented into other "churches" the Catholic Church did not become one of the churches: it remains the Mother Church which contains the essence of all the fragmented tendencies. A Protestant is a Catholic who has gone wrong. And, if you trace what is good in each of the Protestant churches, you will eventually find its source in the Great Church. This is true of Calvinism and Quakerism and all the other churches. And this discovery -- that Catholicism contains all the truths -- "is perhaps the most towering intellectual transformation of all and the one that it is hardest to undo even for the sake of argument" (82).
But is this also true of modern tendencies? Yes. Which two does he choose to speak about? Socialism and Spirituaism. He chooses to speak about these two because he was involved in them, and he experienced that they were heresies cut off from the full truth of Catholicism. Only the latter concerns us.
I have suggested in another context that if G.K. were canonized he would make a good patron saint for converts, since he had worked through all the tangles of the modern mind to reach the truth of Catholocism. Yes, he can do that. Only here he says that many modern people are not thinking. They are involved in "free thoughtlessness." Our society is not now embroiled in controversies over Calvanism or Albigensianism or the 29 Articles. We live in a neo-pagan society. G.K. he says he was really converted from paganism. Many more in our neo-pagan society will find him a good guide through this tangle as well.
"I think I am the sort of man who came to Christ from Pan and Dionysus and not from Luther or Laud; that the conversion I understand is that of the pagan and not the Puritan"(89). He said that sometimes when he is in a melancholic and joking mood, and asks the question where he would go if he left the Church: "I certainly would not go to any one of those little social sects which only express one idea at a time.... The best I could hope for would be to wander away into the woods and become...a pagan. That at least would be beginning all over again" (88-89).
Many modern people are trying to re-invent religion, start all over again. They could identify with G.K. in his experience of evil and paganism. As he says in his concluding "Note on Present Prospects," modern people, especially the young, are not leaving the Church for an ism. "They abandon it for things and not theories... they leave it to have a high time. I know it is the cant phrase of the old rationalists that their [the youth's] reason prevents a return to the Faith, but it is false; it is no longer reason but rather passion" (113). He says such a revolt built on natural passion cannot last. We are in a sensate and pagan era. G.K. knows how to get out of it.
In speaking especially with young people over the years, I have heard stories of many who had been shaken out of their irreligion and scepticism precisely by an experience of evil, or because they were finally disgusted with their paganism and passions. Many do not really have profound intellectual problems. (One example which comes to mind is of a new-ager who one night was winging out in his astral space ship. He had such an experience of evil that he saw in a flash that his whole involvement in the new age movement for the past fifteen years was one gigantic deception.) This experience often leads people to a belief in the supernatural, and then to God (as, fortunately, it did for this young man; although it may not always have this felicitous outcome.)
Modern neo-pagans dabble in pagan things just as G.K. did. And as the young man in my example found out, G.K. can also witness that the pagan world is not neutral.
To us, Spiritualists are men studying the existence of spirits, in a blind and blinding oblivion of the existence of evil spirits. They are, as it were, people just educated enough to have heard of ghosts but not educated enough to have heard of witches. If the evil spirits succeed in stopping their education and stunting their minds, they may of course go on for ever repeating silly messages from Plato and doggerel verses from Milton.(83)
G.K. dabbled in this world of spiritualism, just as so many moderns continue to do so. He said when he was younger he had a revulsion for spiritualism, but he was "seduced by the world" into being a dilettante. If he had listened to the Catholic Church, or knew about Her teachng, he could have found the answers. He can witness, then, to the involvement of evil spirits in spiritualism (read New Age) and show how the experience (of what he calls here not the supernatural but the "unnatural") can lead to the Catholic faith.
And isn't it also very significant that Magic, the most popular and famous of G.K.'s plays, (even if he didn't consider it his best), is an "arguing the case for an unfashionable belief in the reality of the power of evil"? (Conlon's Introduction to "Magic" in Collected Works, XI, 98). G.K. himself said about this work that "all the people in Magic are purposely made good: so that there shall be no villain, except the great invisible Villain" (101).
A Conjurer, a magician, has been invited to a fashionable home to do his tricks for the entertainment of the guests. But when chairs start moving around, and, most mysterious of all, a red lantern across the fields turns blue, Morris, the Americanized English sceptic, starts to go slightly mad because he can't figure out how these tricks were done. (Only rationalists go mad.) His sister, doctor, and rich uncle beseech the Conjurer to tell his secret so that poor Morris ("I don't believe in religion") can be "cured."
The conjurer, after much persuasion, agrees to reveal his secret: ""I did it by magic. Doctor: But hang it all, there's no such thing. Conjurer: Yes there is. I wish to God I did not know that there is." And then the Conjurer says to an equally sceptic Anglican clergyman (for which G.K. was accused of a "sadly irreligious tendency" in his play):
I want you to be martyred. I want you to bear witness to your own creed. I say these things are supernatural. I say this was done by a spirit. The doctor does not believe me. He is an agnostic; and he knows everything. The Duke does not believe me; he cannot believe anything so plain as a miracle. But what the devil are you for, if you don't believe in a miracle? What does your coat mean, if it doesn't mean that there is such a thing as the supernatural? What does your cursed collar mean if it doesn't mean that there is such a thing as a spirit? [Exasperated] Why the devil do you dress up like that if you don't believe in it? [with violence] Or perhaps you don't believe in devils? (136, Vol.XI, Collected Works, Plays).
And was G.K. speaking of his own headaches as a young man when he has the Conjurer say:
I dabbled a little in table-rapping and table-turning. But soon had reason to give it up. Patricia: But why did you give it up? Conjurer: It began by giving me headaches. And I found that every morning after a Spiritualist seance I had a queer feeling of lowness and degradation, of having been soiled.... It wasn't long before the spirits with whom I had been playing at table-turning, did what I think they generally do at the end of all such table-turning. They turned the table. They turned the tables upon me. (138-39)
We do not know what the Conjurer finally told Morris. Not the truth: he makes up a lie so that Morris can swallow it. He refuses to tell anyone else the lie, because then they would deny the experience of evil they have had, and tell his lie to others: "Because God and the demon and that Immortal Mystery that you deny has been in this room to-night. Because you know it has been here. Because you have felt it here. Because you know the spirits as well as I do, and fear them as much as I do." Clearly, G.K. is saying that belief in the devil is part of spiritual and mental sanity. Morris -- and all the others -- would really have been cured of their more deadly disease -- scepticism -- if they would believe in the devil.
G.K.'s vision of reality was born not only of mystical insights into the goodness of ordinary things like dandelions, or the existence of ordinary things, like wooden posts. It was also born out of a meeting with the Devil: "But I am not proud of believing in the Devil. To put it more correctly, I am not proud of knowing the Devil. I made his acquaintance by my own fault; and followed it up along lines which, had they been followed further, might have led me to devil-worship or the devil knows what." (Autobiography, 85-86).
The Father of Lies
And what was his experience of the essence of this Evil?
The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power, is that it tells lies. The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world" (87).
Could not The Ball and the Cross, his first novel (and so chronologically close to his encounter with "the devil knows what"), be the expression and foreshadowing of his whole life's work? The Lord said that the devil was the father of lies. And St. John asks: "Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist..." (1 John 2, 22). And Origen, one of the great Church Fathers, simply called The Antichrist, "the Lie."
G.K. experienced that there was an invisible power in the world that is a lie-telling thing. (He would later call the Catholic Church a "truth-telling thing.") And the lie is that Jesus is not the Christ, and that the Church is not Christ's continuing presence. ("The Church really is like Antichrist in the sense that it is as unique as Christ. Indeed, if it be not Christ it probably is Antichrist" Catholic Church and Conversion, 67)
G.K.'s life's work, chillingly clarified by his encounter with the Devil, would be to fight against this lie about Christ and his Church under its multitudinous forms, ancient and modern, especially modern. (Whenever Frances was asked why Gilbert became a Catholic she said it was the work of the devil.)
The goodness and truth of the world -- the greenness of the grass -- can only blaze forth if one also believes in the reality of this Evil. Without this foil, life is melancholic, "an aching vacuum of joyless approval," dreary, "a miserable truce." Paradoxically, G.K.'s zest for life also came from his meeting with Anti-life.
His belief in the reality of the devil may also be a key to his celebrated virtue in being able to separate evil, harmful, erroneous opinions, from the holder of those opinions. He believed that people were good; but he believed that an Evil personage existed who tempted to evil. Just as a belief in evil brings out the greenest of the grass, so such a belief in the Devil highlights the essential goodness of those made in the Divine Image who are tempted to evil.
What Kind of Devils Were They?
The Colored Lands contains some of G.K.'s earliest writings. For my purposes here, "Half-Hours in Hades," written when he was only seventeen, holds a special fascination for us. Subtitled "An Elementary Handbook of Demonology," it antedates his actual encounter with evil spirits described above. The "Half-Hours" are very playful and humorous, too humorous, I believe, for the seriousness of the subject, even for G.K. He does not treat devils quite so lightly after he met them. It seems he really believed in them when he was seventeen, but perhaps they were still too much part of his fairy land and world of innocence:
In the autumn of 1890, I was leaving the Casino at Monte Carlo in company with an eminent Divine, whose name, for obvious reasons, I suppress. We were engaged in an interesting discussion on the subject of Demons, he contending that they were an unnecessary, not to say prejudicial, element in our civilization, an opinion which, needless to say, I strongly opposed. Having at length been so fortunate as to convince him of his error, I proposed to furnish him with various instances in which Demons have proved beneficial to mankind.... (Sheed and Ward, 1938, 60)
He proceeds, then, to catalogue the various species of demons.
There is Tentator Hortensis, the Common or "Garden" serpent, "so-called because its first appearance in the world took place in a Garden. Since that time its proportions have dwindled considerably, but its influence and power have largely increased; it is found in almost everything."
The Mediaeval Devil, Diabolus Faunalius. "The Mediaeval Demon is, of all the species, perhaps the one with which we are most familiar.... It is in a domesticated state the subject rather of playfulness and household merriment than of abhorrence...[it] is found at the present day as a general source of amusement, [but] it has of late somewhat failed to stir public interest...." (65)
Diabolus Paradisi Perditi. Mr. J. Milton was the primary discoverer of this species and "has discussed at some length the leading characteristics of ... the species. This species is an inhabitant of warm latitudes like most of its kind, being originally found in the burning lakes and dark wildernesses of the most remote parts of the world." (66)
The Red Devil, Diabolus Mephistopheles. It was discovered by Mr. Wolfgang von Goethe. "In a domestic state this creature is playful and active, but mischievous and impossible to trust. The learned doctor found it a useful and entertaining companion for many years, but was finally persuaded to part with it.... Its height is about six feet." (67)
Finally, there is the Blue Devil, Caeruleus Lugubrius.
Though formed by Super-Nature in their habits and exterior apparently for the filling of waste moors, mountains, churchyards and other obsolete places, these animals, like the Red Devil, have frequently been domesticated in rich and distinguished houses, and many of the wealthiest aristocrats and most successful men of commerce may be seen with a string of these blue creatures led by a leash in the street or seated round him in a ring on his own fireside. The noise made by this creature is singularly melancholy and depressing, and its general appearance is far from lively. But though less agile and intelligent than the Red Devil, the sobriety of its habits and demeanour have made it a suitable pet for the houses of clergymen and other respectable persons. 67
Caeruleus Lugubrius is my choice for the species G.K. met in the seances; Diabolus Mephistopheles for the species working in "the Diabolist." "When the young student grows older," writes the seventeen year-old G.K., " he will meet with others in his own experience." 72
G.K. a Modern St.Anthony of the Desert?
Was G.K. also remembering his own encounter with "ghosts" and the planchette when he ended his "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (1925) thus:
Time: You mean the New Religions do not tempt you?
Anthony: I mean I am waiting to see them.
Time: Do you mean to suggest as a general criticism that the New Religion ---
Anthony: [his voice ringing like a trumpet] Mine is The New Religion. We have waited nearly two thousand years and still its name is The New Religion. All this litter of old rags and bones you have swept in front of me is alone enough to prove that the Faith is the last thing of any importance that has happened in the world. I admit we have waited long for something new. I admit in that sense that the creed is something old. But it is newer than calling up ghosts or dancing without clothes, or healing people with spells, or believing in the transmigration of souls, or making up legends about men who lived to be hundreds of years old. It is newer than Egyptian mummies and Asiatic idols and omens and superstitions and dreams.
Go and tell your host [the devil?] and your friends and all the cities of the heathens that we are coming out of the desert with a New Religion. (Collected Works, XI, 213)
G.K.'s writings about the saints reveal his conceptions about sanctity. And he strove, I believe, to learn himself from their lives so he could be holy too. As a rather stocky journalist of Fleet street, he could not exactly identify with the emaciated hermit in the Egyptian desert. But, like Anthony, he could fight lies, especially any lie that pretended to supersede the gospel and its Author in power and truth. G.K., by experience, knew the demons were real, as real as they were for Anthony is his cave. And, like Anthony, he would fight them, and win.
As we approach the "blazing apocalypse" of the year 2,000, we want to recall G.K.'s distinction (some place) between a radical who believes in the goodness of the world, and therefore fights for it, and the mere conservative who believes that the world is bad and so allows it to go to the dogs, or to the devil. As the culture continues to deteriorate around us there is an enormous danger of becoming mere conservatives, of pulling up the drawbridges and waiting for the end.
The true radical continues to fight for goodness and truth because he believes in them, believes they are worth fighting for. Until the Lord comes, we want to continue to try and make this world as beautiful as we can for his arrival, and not have him come into a garbage heap. The oil in our lamps is this zeal for the battle.
Did G.K. Suffer?
The Greeks used to say that you couldn't learn anything without suffering. Was G.K.'s vision born out of any real suffering, anything beyond that of normal mortals? Did he "elude the effort of blood and tears" and regain paradise through the power of his mind alone, indeed a kind of gnosticism?
I would argue that precisely because he arrived at such truth he must have suffered. Real honest to goodness gnostics (read Irenaeus of Lyon) do not come up with the truth about life but only with rather silly imaginings. If you arrive at truth about life you must have suffered to get there.
G.K. suffered on the battlefields of the mind. A thought is a deed; thinking is also action. We tend to think that action is with the body and thinking is, well, it's not action, it's just thinking. Serious thinking is work. Writing is work. Constantly challenging falsehoods wherever you discover them is really work, real conflict, real battle, involving pain and suffering.
And the enormity of his output! Did he not perhaps work himself to death by being exposed too long and indefatigably on the ramparts of the mind? He arrived at the truth through battle. It must have taken its toll -- physically, emotionally, psychically, and spiritually. We think of a St. Vincent de Paul completely exhausted from tending his beloved poor. It is possible to become completely exhausted by taking up the sword of the pen every day and fighting to the death.
Yes, I believe G.K. suffered. I believe he won the right, through his sweat and blood, to whisper to us in the darkness that all things are good. But he encountered real darkness and real evil and real demons. And he didn't whisper: he shouted. And when he said that "perhaps we are still in Eden and only our eyes have changed," it was not the result of positive thinking. He won the right. Masterman again in the same review:
Once man apprehended that God walked with him in the garden in the cool of the day. Then he could lift his eyes to see the magical world about him and Heaven's eternal stars. Now the archangel stands at the entrance with the flaming sword in his hand: perpetually attesting on the one hand the effort needed for re-entrance, on the other the futility of acquiescence in any lesser aspiration. Mr. Chesterton would assuage the divine hunger by the pretence that outside the wilderness is equally fair. (44)
What Mr. Chesterton knew, and Mr. Masterman did not, is that, in Christ, the angel's flaming sword has been lowered; the Fathers explicitly say as much. And we have literally been restored to paradise in Christ. Christ has made the desert bloom, the desert where Anthony lived. Masterman thinks we are still outside the garden: "Man has wandered into the wilderness and solitary places -- well for him if here he finds no city to dwell in. Mr. Chesterton would urge him to build booths of boughs, assure him that Paradise is here or nowhere, expound to him the grandeur of the desert scrub, and the glory of the desert sand."
Yes, precisely. That's what St.Anthony discovered in his tomb, that he really was in paradise and didn't realize it. But he did not discover paradise through an imaginative twist of the mind. He discovered it through battle. The battle did not restore Anthony to paradise: Jesus did that. Anthony had to die to his old self to reach the paradise he was in through Christ. So did G.K.
And in this light of G.K.'s encounters with evil, does not Walter de la Mare's poem about G.K, which Frances put on his service sheet at his funeral, appear as an even more perfect epitaph:
Knight of the Holy Ghost
Wisdom his motley, Truth his loving jest;
The mills of Satan keep his lance at play,
Pity and innocence his heart at rest.
Gilbert, keep praying for us. Pray that we are not cowards, afraid of the war with evil. You wrote once: "And in your muddy souls you can't see that the one perfectly divine thing, the one glimpse of God's paradise given on earth, is to fight a losing battle -- and not lose it. " Pray that, as we approach the Third Millennium, we don't become bored and melancholy and dreary and discontented and miserable because we are afraid to fight, even if the battle seems hopeless. O Gilbert, pray that, having the courage to face the evil, we may see the good in our own blazing apocalypse.
From his play, "Time's Abstract and Brief Chronicle," Collected Works, XI, 62.
. . . o o o . . .