Chapter 2 Introduction Contents List

         No doubt it would be more logical to begin with some definitions of mysticism and then try and fit Chesterton's grace into them. But Chesterton doesn't fit any definitions. Indeed, one of my conclusions was to find in Chesterton, if not a completely new kind of mysticism, at least a consistent and intensified expression of a path others only occasionally experienced: the Presence in created realities. Since, I argue, there is something unique about Chesterton's mysticism, I proceed by looking at the quality of his mind and experience, so that when we come to the definitions, allowances can be made for his specific grace. That is to say: to see how his experience can be understood in terms of the definitions.

 Hugh Kenner: "What's on Chesterton's Mind?"

          My argument will be that Chesterton was a true mystic in at least one of the traditional Christian meanings of the word. Before I embarked on my own early studies of this question, I had not come across anyone who called him a mystic. However, much as Chesterton himself set out like some doughty explorer to discover the already discovered Isle of Wight, my research soon revealed others already calling him such. Nevertheless, to date, I have not seen any sustained treatment of this aspect of his life. 

          Perhaps the most notable of the early opinions about Chesterton as a mystic was that of Marshall McLuhan in an essay entitled, "G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic," which first appeared in 1936 in The Dalhousie Review, being subsequently reprinted in Conlon's Half-Century of Views. McLuhan explained that

                             When it is seen that there are two principal sides to everything, a practical and a mystical, both exciting yet fruitful, then the meaning and effect of Chesterton can become clear even to those who delight to repeat that he stands on his head.

                             It is necessary to define the sense in which Chesterton is a mystic (italics mine) before the relation of this to the practical side can be judged. (Conlon, 1)

          This book is an attempt to take up the challenge that McLuhan laid down in that article by sketching out a definition of the sense in which Chesterton was a mystic.

          Hugh Kenner's Paradox in Chesterton[1] is considered one of the best books ever written about Chesterton's mode of thinking. In his "Introduction" to this book, Marshall McLuhan cites approvingly some of the phrases and ideas that Kenner, a prominent literary critic and theorist, uses to describe Chesterton's thinking: "a metaphysical intuition of being"; "connaturality with every kind of reasonableness"; "his primary awareness of things"; "metaphysical moralist". It is my thesis that Chesterton's mind was indeed "connatural with every kind of reasonableness" and that "his primary awareness of things" can be attributed to a mystical grace, something beyond philosophical reflection.

           In Kenner's last Chapter entitled "The Word and the World," he begins with the following statement:

                             The essential Chesterton is the man with the extraordinarily comprehensive intuition of being. There is a sense in which his enormous literary production is a by-product; what must be praised in Chesterton is not the writing but the seeing. (103)

          At the heart of Kenner's thought is the attempt to show that Chesterton's writings "are not excogitated illustrations of the vision but ingredients of it."       

          Throughout his exposition Kenner emphasizes the source of Chesterton's thinking: "He never fumbles to reach a position, because he never needs to reach a position. He occupies a central position all the time."  Again: "Chesterton's writing at its best is concerned with fixing exactly a statement of a metaphysical vision, by indicating relationships of word and example within that vision." And later on he reiterates the central preoccupation and argument of his whole book, which is to "explore [Chesterton's] unique metaphysical intuition."

          From a slightly different angle, in 1986, the eminent Dominican scholar, Aidan Nichols, argued that Chesterton's proof for the existence of God flowed from his "sheer wondering joy before the face of existence." In other words, his was not a thought-out position resulting from a philosophical bent of mind. Rather, Chesterton's proof for the existence of God flowed from the same intuition of being of which Kenner spoke. 

          Even before I read these eminent thinkers, I had concluded that Chesterton had enjoyed some kind of extraordinary intuition of being, and that it was through this intuition that he met God. In short, I surmised that Chesterton had what I believe is the essence of mysticism: a profound, intuitive awareness of the Presence.

          I contend that "mystical" can also be substituted for the way Kenner uses the word "metaphysical". Indeed, it should be.  Chesterton himself used the word "mystical" to describe the nature of his seeing, but defines it in his own way. Kenner says Chesterton's gifts "fit him pre-eminently for philosophical discourse." My argument is simply that this central clarity that Chesterton enjoyed, whether it be called metaphysical or philosophical or intuitive, should be understood as arising from a truly mystical experience of reality, the fruit of a mystical grace. This conclusion can be valid, even though Chesterton's use of the word "mystical" is not in accord with technical theological language as regards mysticism.  He certainly would not have thought of himself as a mystic in any technical Christian sense of that word; and yet, as we shall see, he uses the word to describe his vision of reality.

          I am going to use the groundwork of Hugh Kenner's authority and expertise to establish, you might say, the essence of Chesterton's mind. As mentioned earlier, Kenner concludes that Chesterton had a "metaphysical intuition of being." He gives it as his opinion that this is not mysticism in the proper sense of the word.

          It would never cross my mind to disagree with Hugh Kenner on literary matters. Indeed, I wouldn't even know where to begin. But I think it is well within the realm of rational discourse and sanity (on my part) to disagree with him about whether or not this intuition of Chesterton's was the result of reason, of insight, or of a mystical grace. The purpose of this book is to argue for the latter. But first I will use Kenner's reflections to establish the nature of Chesterton's mind. What follows is a summary of Kenner's insights interwoven with my own commentary and illustrations from Chesterton himself.

          Kenner speaks about several kinds of paradox. (Of these I am only interested in what he calls "metaphysical paradox.")  According to Kenner, Chesterton's perceptions were metaphysical rather than aesthetic. Paradox is at the heart of his thinking and writing. He did not make paradoxes; he saw them. "His cardinal metaphysical principle was to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), `there is an is'." His "paradox is rooted in the world-stuff which a contemplative sees, and Chesterton was first of all a contemplative."

          A paradox is a contradiction and derives its shock value from that. It can be implicit or explicit. An implicit paradox is essentially verbal. It obtains its effect through the juxtaposition of unlikely words. Its goal is to persuade by an explosive play on words. Here is an example from Chesterton: " [Companionate Marriage] so-called because the people involved are not married and will very rapidly cease to be companions."

          An explicit paradox is essentially metaphysical, "because the intrinsic contradiction is not in the words but in the things. One cannot get around the mystery of the Trinity no matter how he tries. The principle of metaphysical paradox is something inherently intractable in being itself; in the Thing."            "Paradoxical stuff, then, is for Chesterton the raw material of thought; and the paradoxes arise either out of our own confusion, which thinking can more and more nearly resolve, or from the nature of Being which is unresolvable."

          Paradox is the child of analogy. "Analogy has to do with comparison, as paradox has to do with contradiction; for putting things side by side is a necessary preliminary to having them clash." Likeness is at the core of difference. When it comes to reality, we are tempted to think that if only our minds were bigger we could express a clear idea of being. Not so. There is another reason why being cannot be plumbed: "The trouble, the heretical mystic thinks, and the unsuspecting critic thinks, lies in the mind. The trouble, however, lies in reality itself; and is summarized in the statement that being is intrinsically analogical." Kenner goes on to explicate what he means by analogical:

                             One may thus put the analogical principle in its simplest form by saying that Chesterton, like the Fathers and the medieval allegorizers, perceived the world as a `divine animal', a network of analogies; had, it may be said, an instinct for Being: without which instinct men are not philosophers, conscious of what is, but mere logicians.

          Chesterton was consumed by an instinct for being in all its analogical splendor: "Too much cannot be made of the continual rapture with which the contemplation of things inspires him: trees and lamp-posts and hackney cabs and horses and all the other works of God. And the reason that they are wonderful is that they are: they participate in being."

          In this vein, Chesterton states enthusiastically that

                             I like the cyclostylic ink; it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me; the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud.   (ref?

          That things change, or die, does not lead Chesterton to scepticism or nihilism. Changing things simply mean that what we see does not have the fullness of being:

                    There is no doubt about the being of being, even if it does sometimes look like becoming; that is because what we see is not the fullness of being; or (to continue a sort of colloquial slang) we never see being being as much as it can. It only means that its being is limited to being one thing at a time. But the fullness of being is everything that can be. Thus, while most sages come at last to nothing but naked change, [Aquinas] comes to the ultimate thing that is unchangeable. The defect we see, in what is, is simply that it is not all that is. God is more actual even than Man; more actual even than Matter; for God with all His powers at every instant is immortally in action. (St. Thomas Aquinas, 170)

          "It is in this way that Chesterton sees paradox rooted in being, and the created world rooted in God." He called this "common human mysticism." In Chesterton this was an intuitive insight, its primary facet articulated as a concern for Being and non-being, the most central of paradoxes:

                             Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness, we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightning, sudden, blinding, and divine. Until we picture nonentity, we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is one of the million wild jests of truth, that we know nothing until we know nothing. (Heretics) p?

          Chesterton's primary intuition concerns "this wonder begotten of the contrast between something and nothing."

          Since I am going to be looking at the various ways in which Chesterton speaks of mysticism, and arguing that he was speaking out of the experience of a grace he had received, the following comments by Kenner are important as bearing on his (Kenner's) own understanding of mysticism.

          Kenner says that, in his early writings, Chesterton used the word "mysticism" in an improper way, until he came across the more precise language of Thomism. Kenner explains that

                             Mysticism properly denotes an altogether supra-rational mode of supernatural experience, and Chesterton never was nor claimed to be a Mystic, in the sense that St. John of the Cross was a mystic, or St.Theresa.  His use of the wrong word to express something of which he was acutely conscious, but for which he did not yet know the right word, has given critics cause to align him with the deniers of reason. 

          My own gloss on this statement yields the following comments and propositions:

1) Mysticism certainly is a supra-rational mode of supernatural experience;

2) True, Chesterton never claimed to be a mystic in the sense of St. John of the Cross or St. Theresa;

3) He did, however, claim to be a mystic according to his own definition;

4) Consequently, In his early writings he did use the word "mysticism" in a non-traditional sense. 

          My contention is that this "acute awareness" of Chesterton's was a spiritual outlook that came to him as the fruit of a mystical grace no less significant than that of St. John of the Cross or St. Theresa. What was he describing which he early on labelled "mysticism"?      

          Basically, he used the word "mysticism" to describe an attitude of mind which preserves the sense of mystery about life and does not try to reconcile or explain rationally the paradoxical nature of reality. He seems, in fact, to have equated mysticism with the sense of mystery (but not mystification). Chesterton's own explanation from Orthodoxy (which we will consider further in Part II) confirms Kenner's claim that Chesterton used "mysticism" to describe an outlook on reality that is deeply tempered by this "acceptance of mystery":

                             Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane, because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He had permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot on earth and the other in fairyland. He had always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.

                             It was exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. (Orthodoxy) p?

          In another place Chesterton claims that, "it is only the Mystic, the man who accepts the contradictions, who can laugh and walk easily through the world." (Quoted in Cecil Chesterton's book on his brother.)

          Certainly, this is not what the modern western Catholic tradition would understand by mysticism, which specifies mysticism as the reception of extraordinary, infused graces.

          That Chesterton misused the word "mysticism" in his early writings does not invalidate the primary source of his insights, nor prove, somehow, that they were not the fruit of a genuine mystical grace. I believe they were. In his own mind, he could have misused the word "mysticism" while the source of his vision was truly mystical. He used the word "mysticism" to describe his vision of reality, what Kenner calls an immediate vision about being. Kenner adds that, "his wonder is directed not towards mathematical accidents, like two-headed calves, but at things in their analogical existence."

          As Chesterton himself explained, he subscribed to

                    an inchoate and half-baked philosophy of my own, which was very nearly the reverse of the remark that where there is nothing there is God. The truth presented itself to me, rather, in the form that where there is anything there is God. I should have been amazed to know how near in some ways was my Anything to the Ens of St.Thomas Aquinas."  (Autobiography, 150-151)

          "It became natural and indeed habitual for Chesterton to see that all Being is in God; from which it is but a step to the logical and theological proposition that God sustains all Being.  He saw, be it repeated, before he started to reason; and recorded not his reasonings but analogues of his visions." Kenner's strong insistence on the metaphor of "vision" here points to what I would consider a mystical grace rather than a metaphysical conclusion. 

          Indeed, Kenner himself seems to intimate as much in passages such as the above, as well as in the following: "He saw the relevance of God from the beginning and knew where he was going before he got there."

          Drawing on the strength of certain passages, Kenner states "that Chesterton has been loosely termed a `mystic.' It should be plain by now that the analogical perceptions these paradoxes reflect and exploit is altogether different not in degree but in kind from the mode of super-natural experience that constitutes mysticism proper."

          If I understand Kenner correctly, he claims that Chesterton's perceptions are just as powerful and intense as those of acknowledged mystics - different not in degree -  but that they are of a different kind. Kenner adduces no proof that this is the case. Indeed, it seems quite possible, and equally reasonable, to assert the opposite: that Chesterton's perceptions are the same in kind as those of the mystics. As I've said above, it's quite impossible to prove what kind of intuitions a person has, or their ultimate source. But one can believe in a certain theoretical position. I believe Chesterton's vision came from a mystical grace.

          To sum up: Kenner says that Chesterton had a profound metaphysical intuition of being, of existence itself. He was smitten by this great paradox: that anything at all should exist. Kenner maintains that this was not mysticism, inasmuch as we are not dealing here with supra-rational forms of knowledge. I seek to make a case, however, for the position that such an intuition was indeed the product of a mystical grace.[2]

          Kenner holds the following two propositions to be true:

1) Chesterton uses the word "mysticism" in his early works to describe the acceptance of mystery in the face of reality.

2) This is not really the technical meaning of "mysticism."

We shall see whether these propositions are in fact true and, if so, examine the ways in which Chesterton does use the word "mysticism."

          In this book my thesis will be that when Chesterton speaks of mysticism, he is being autobiographical, that is to say, he is trying to articulate his own experience in the face of the mystery of life. Furthermore, I wish to argue, as I have mentioned earlier, that his view of life actually flowed from a genuine mystical grace in the technical sense of the word. His mystical view of life constitutes a great gift to the Church, prompting the rest of us to look on the created world around us with new eyes of wonder as a way of relating to God.

Chapter 2 Chapter 1 Contents List


[1](Sheed & Ward, New York, 1947). Subsequent citations, Kenner, and page.

[2]Of course, I am not basing my "proof" of Chesterton's mysticism on the content of his intuition about being, or about anything else.(I base my argument on his total relationship to reality as a person.) One could come to the same intuition about being and not have a mystical grace. For example, a contemporary philosophher, Bryan Magee, relates a teen-age intuition of his: "Being, it seemed to me, was the ultimate mystery, the ultimtely unconceptualizable. And yet there wasn't anything that wasn't. Everything was. So how could it be a mystery? Here, it seemed to me, was the last word in paradoxes." Confessions of a Philosopher,  Phoenix/Orion Books, London: 1997), p.13.


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