Chapter 11 Chapter 9 Contents List

                  After considering some genuine mystics we turn to a few mystical tumblers who, in Chesterton's view, failed in some ways to arrive at a balanced mysticism.

Tolstoy: Fanatical Mystic

                  Chesterton was already thinking about mystics and mysticism in 1902 when writing about Tolstoy. The great man was still alive, and many people were considering him a mystic, as some still do. My Webster Dictionary, at any rate, gives this one line biographical sketch of Tolstoy: "1828-1910. Russ.nov.philos. & mystic." Tolstoy was writing books on the Kingdom of God, and preaching that love is the answer to all problems. Chesterton must have scandalized many as a brash and ignorant young man when he wrote:

                                                A great modern writer [Tolstoy] who erases theology altogether, denies the validity of the Scriptures and the Churches alike, forms a purely ethical theory that love should be the instrument of reform, and ends by maintaining that we have no right to strike a man if he is torturing a child before our eyes. He goes on, he develops a theory of the mind and the emotions, which might be held by the most rigid atheists, and he ends by maintaining that the sexual relation out of which all humanity has come, is not only not moral, but is positively not natural. This is fanaticism as it has been and as it will always be.[1]

            How appalling and frightening it is that even geniuses like Tolstoy can conjure up such intellectual monstrosities! Chesterton saw the Christian mystics as the true antidotes to such malformed mystics. He discovered that genuine mystics had a balance and a realism which people like Tolstoy lacked. Joan of Arc, for example:

                                                Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. Joan had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was tolerable in either of them.

                                                We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow. Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. (Heretics, 79)

            Already then, as early as 1905 with the publication of Heretics, there appears what will be the great theme of Orthodoxy (1908). A passage like the following leads one to suppose that Orthodoxy might have been partially inspired by Chesterton's horrified reaction to this truly great and internationally known writer at the turn of the century:

                                                The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic. It is significant that, with all that has been said about the excitability of poets, only one English poet ever went mad, and he went mad from a logical system of theology.  He was Cowper, and his poetry retarded his insanity for many years. So poetry, in which Tolstoy is deficient, has always been a tonic and sanative thing. The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, `the night-club and the lethal chamber,' has been mysticism -- the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem. (Ibid., 7)

            Here he defines mysticism as a kind of poetry, equating it also with an attitude that goes beyond logic and is open to mystery.

            In Chapter X of Heretics, entitled "On Sandals and Simplicity", this unmystical attitude on the part of Tolstoy is further elaborated. This chapter contains several of what I would call Chesterton's principles of mysticism as understood by him at this time of his life.

            First, mere logic, in matters where people are striving for holiness or for some ideal of human existence, often leads people astray. Basically, he says the Tolstoyans spend so much time thinking about how to be simple, that they not only cease to be truly simple, but come up with ideas which are quite untrue. "They would make us simple in unimportant things, but complex in the important things." (136) Giving up meat or wearing sandals or some such spartan regime is not the essence of simplicity:

                                                It does not so very much matter whether a man eats a grilled tomato or a plain tomato; it does very much matter whether he eats a plain tomato with a grilled mind. The only kind of simplicity worth preserving is the simplicity of the heart, the simplicity which accepts and enjoys. There may be a reasonable doubt as to what system preserves this; there can be no doubt that a system of simplicity destroys it. There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.  (136)

            What must be preserved is what he calls, in a beautiful phrase, "the virginity of spirit, which enjoys with astonishment and fear." (139) He doesn't say that the enjoyment of good things is the only method of preserving this virginity of spirit. Thus, he does not discount the legitimate asceticism of the saints. "But I will have nothing to do with simplicity which lacks the fear, the astonishment, and the joy alike." (139)

            He sees in the spontaneous intuitions of the child a sure guide to this "virginity of spirit":

                                                The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. (139)

            The child, in his wonder at things, does not distinguish between natural and man-made things. His is an intuition of being, of the it-is-thereness of things: whatever is there is astounding:

                                                The false kind of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are [sic] natural but both are supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. (Ibid., 139)

            I find quite interesting his point that for the child (and for the mystic?) everything is supernatural. It is "supernatural," in his view, because it is drawn forth from nothingness. Everything is equally astounding just for being.[2]            The following could well stand as a summary of Chesterton's whole view of reality:

                                                In this matter, then, as in all the other matters treated in this book, our main conclusion is that it is a fundamental point of view, a philosophy or religion which is needed, and not any change in habit or social routine. The things we need most for immediate practical purposes are all abstractions. We need a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society; and if we were living eagerly and angrily in the enthusiasm of those things, we should, ipso facto, be living simply seek. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.' Those amazing words are not only extraordinarily good, practical politics; they are also superlatively good hygiene. The one supreme way of making all those processes go right, the processes of health, and strength, and grace, and beauty, the one and only way of making certain of their accuracy, is to think about something else. (141)

            He will say later on in Orthodoxy that a healthy person does not think about his health. A person, for example, who plans to take a trip around the world must be very healthy indeed, or he would not be able to concentrate on planning such an enterprise, much less do it. In such a case, good health is simply a given. Applying this metaphor to the realm of the mystical, Chesterton is against people being preoccupied with an interior system of mysticism. If they are thus preoccupied, it often becomes a block to their ability to experience reality as it is. The interior system becomes a "mystification" which hinders true spontaneity and wonder.

                                                For the thing called `taking thought,' the thing for which the best modern word is `rationalizing,' is in its nature, inapplicable to all plain and urgent things.  Men take thought and ponder rationalistically, touching remote things -- things that only theoretically matter, such as the transit to Venus. But only at their peril can men rationalize about so practical a matter as health. (141)

            It could be added that only at their peril do men rationalize about a mystical theory. It would be bad for their spiritual health.

            In this matter of Tolstoyans being careful about what they eat and wear, we touch upon the notion of asceticism. The reader may be tempted to object: "All well and good for Chesterton to have a theory about the goodness of cigars and Burgundy and hansom cabs.  He is just working out a theory to fit his tastes -- and his weaknesses. Talk about a rationalization!"

            Chesterton would be the first to admit his weaknesses in these areas. But  he is fighting for a principle, for a way of relating to reality, for a way of being holy amidst material creation. He is concerned about the inside, the simplicity of the heart. This is more important than simplicity of life. He does not disparage the latter. He is not against the asceticism of St. Francis or of St. Simon Stylites, as long as such asceticism does not render them incapable of relating to real life with spontaneity and joy. He sums things up by saying, "Let us put a complex entree into a simple old gentleman; let us not put a simple entree into a complex old gentleman." (138)

            He is concerned about false asceticism. Mr. Lowes Dickinson (cf. Heretics, Chapter XII) said that the big difference between paganism and Christianity was asceticism. With great emphasis, stating his disagreement in five different ways, Chesterton says it is not so:

                                                I take historic Christianity with all its sins upon its head, and I say that the meaning of its action was not to be found in asceticism. I say that its point of departure from Paganism was not asceticism. I say that its point of difference with the modern world was not asceticism. I say that St. Simeon Stylites had not his main inspiration in asceticism. I say that the main Christian impulse cannot be described as asceticism, even in the ascetics. (155)

            I think he has made his point!

            The principal difference, he asserts by way of rebuttal, is between the natural, pagan virtues of justice and temperance, which are sad and rational, and the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are gay, exuberant, and "as unreasonable as they can be."(158) Chesterton found that the three mystical virtues were at the root of the simplicity of heart that protects the joy and exuberance of life from false asceticism. These three mystical and paradoxical virtues were exactly what he needed to live in elfland:

                                                As the word `unreasonable' is open to misunderstanding, the matter may be more accurately put by saying that each one of these Christian or mystical virtues involves a paradox in its own nature.

                                                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.

                                                Charity is the power of defending that which we know to be indefensible. Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is the undeserving who require [charity], and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them. For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment. (158-59)

            The clear, rational virtues stopped at the borders of elfland.  Paganism was really a world of common sense. But when men came to the "stress of ultimate need, and a terrible knowledge of things as they are" (161), new virtues were needed; and Christianity gave birth to them:

                                                Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of hope that is of any use in a battle is a hope that denies arithmetic. Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of charity which any weak spirit wants, of which any generous spirit feels, is the charity which forgives the sins that are like scarlet. Whatever may be the meaning of faith, it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove.  Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.  (162)

            These are the mystical virtues necessary for Chesterton's vision of reality. The neo-pagans of the modern world wish to go back to reason and the sane, sad virtues of paganism; but we cannot. They have proved insufficient for the human journey:

                                                For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity.  Let [Mr. Lowes Dickinson] ignore these great historic mysteries -- the mystery of charity, the mystery of chivalry [hope], the mystery of faith. But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end -- where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity. (170)

The Fraticelli

            Chesterton offers more reflections on false mystics when he treats of the sect called the Fraticelli in St. Francis. He does not say much about them.    But when I first read Chesterton's treatment of them, it struck me as rather harsh. Not knowing a great deal about them, I set about doing some research, trying to relate Chesterton's estimation of them with the historical realities. Accordingly, I discovered that the best historical study in English of the early centuries of the Franciscan Order (1226-1538) is Duncan Nimmo's Reform and Division in the Franciscan Order. [3]

            In examining this issue of the Fraticelli, I will look at Chesterton's evaluation first of all, and then some comments from Nimmo's book.  Chesterton describes them in this way:

                                                A sect that came to be called the Fraticelli declared themselves the true sons of St. Francis and broke away from the compromises of Rome in favour of what they would have called the complete programme of Assisi. In a very little while these loose Franciscans began to look as ferocious as Flagellants. They launched new and violent vetoes; they denounced marriage; that is, they denounced mankind. In the name of the most human of saints they declared war upon humanity. They did not perish particularly through being persecuted; many of them were eventually persuaded; and the unpersuadable rump of them that remained remained without producing anything in the least calculated to remind anybody of the real St. Francis. What was the matter with these people was that they were mystics; mystics and nothing else but mystics; mystics and not Catholics; mystics and not Christians; mystics and not men. They rotted away because, in the most exact sense, they would not listen to reason. And St. Francis, however wild and romantic his gyrations might appear to many, always hung on to reason by one invisible and indestructible hair. (228)

            The first thing that struck me about this passage was Chesterton's emphatic reiteration of the word "mystic" without any qualification, obviously in a pejorative sense: "They were mystics; mystics and nothing else but mystics; mystics and not men." As I remarked earlier, he probably did not agree with some of what is even considered to be orthodox Christian mysticism; certainly he couldn't identify with a lot of it, and shied away from aspects of it as uncongenial. I suspect he found too much mystification in many mystics, too many mirrors upon mirrors upon mirrors.

            It may be asked whether Chesterton was capable of a sort of intellectual disdain for an anonymous group of people. He did in fact go so far as to say one time that he hated individualists more than he hated Communists. Without a doubt this was an instance of typical Chestertonian hyperbole, used rhetorically to draw attention to his fervent ideological convictions. I, for one, do not believe he hated any particular individualist or Communist. It is fairly certain, however, that he did have certain intellectual antipathies, directed towards given groups of people on account of what they stood for.

            The foregoing passage about the Fraticelli, for example, contains a strongly negative attitude towards much of what goes by the name of mysticism. He does not treat the Fraticelli with any of his usual delicacy and understanding. They are total blackguards. Nevertheless, it must be asked whether this was true historically?

            They certainly were heretics. Here is Nimmo's listing of their major errors:

                                                Besides some views shared with other and earlier movements, notably the Waldensians, such as the beliefs that to take an oath was mortal sin, and that the sinful priest was powerless to administer the sacraments, the Fraticelli's characteristic major errors are defined [in the Bull Gloriosam Ecclesiam]: the Roman Church is the Carnal Church, wealthy and depraved, ruled by authority; whereas they themselves are the Spiritual Church, poor and virtuous, ruled on the basis of spiritual merit; true authority, and the power of the sacraments, has passed from the first to the second; and in the second resides the Gospel of Christ. (191)

            Chesterton's criticism of these errors, in which he explains what could have happened if they had not been opposed, is accurate.  Here again he is talking about the Fraticelli:

                                                Every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church. If the Franciscan movement had turned into a new religion, it would after all have been a narrow religion. In so far as it did turn here and there into a heresy, it was a narrow heresy. It did what heresy always does; it set the mood against the mind. The mood was indeed originally the good and glorious mood of the great St. Francis, but it was not the whole mind of God or even of man.  And it is a fact that the mood itself degenerated, as the mood turned into a monomania. (227)

            The Fraticelli movement encompassed a broad spectrum of men, including the very sincere and zealous, fanatics, sexual antinomians, and some who pillaged and destroyed a few convents of the Order. Many were honestly and wholeheartedly trying to live the rule precisely as Francis had done. They saw the subsequent evolution of the Order as a betrayal of the Gospel. Nimmo explains what happened:

                                                Placing this development in the historical context, we might say that, in his compact with Francis, Innocent III had appeared to promise the Christian world that the total `life of the Gospel', as literally construed, would be realised through the saint's followers; the subsequent evolution of his Order, directed by Innocent III's successors, progressively falsified that promise. The error of the poverty radicals was to see the fact as a `betrayal of the Gospel', and tantamount to heresy, but the fact cannot be gainsaid: during the 13th century there was a derogation from the evangelical ideal lived, with total commitment, by Francis himself, and the papal office largely directed it. (199)

            I cite this, not to get involved in the historical Franciscan controversy, but to foster a bit of mercy and understanding for mystics who go off the rails, or fall on their heads in their mystical tumbling. Chesterton had to come down hard on heretical moods which destroy the fabric of orthodoxy. But we can most certainly sympathize with people who have become overpowered by the mystical experience, and have failed to land on their feet. As Chesterton himself said, "the mood was indeed originally the good and glorious mood of the great St. Francis.

            The Fraticelli could not obey the Church because their pseudo-mystical intuitions told them that they were right and the Church was wrong. But in the spirit of the saintly Gilbert, I ask for a moment of silent prayer on behalf of all the misguided pseudo-mystics. Many of them were zealous and sincere, but not humble enough to obey. Their mystical tumbling made them dizzy, and they did not land on the firm ground of orthodoxy. They burrowed deeply into the divine darkness, but did not come out far enough to see the light of Christ shining on the face of his Spouse, the Church. Misguided zealots are not to be imitated. Still, one wonders whether the Lord will not judge them more leniently than those who are steeped in apathy, indifference, and fearful conformity in regards to the errors of the day. For all its pitfalls, enthusiasm has its attractive facets, while apathy, God knows, has none at all.

            At the very end of St. Francis, Chesterton gives what I would call "Directives For Fostering Genuine Mystics." They apply to Francis and to all the orthodox mystics of the Church. In fact, it is only by using these directives that the Church Herself is able to know if men and women "drunk with the Spirit" are genuine or not:

                                                The great saint was sane; and with the very sound of the word sanity, as at a deeper chord struck upon a harp, we come back to something that was indeed deeper than everything about him that seemed an almost elvish eccentricity. He was not a mere eccentric because he was always turning towards the centre and heart of the maze; he took the queerest and most zig-zag short cuts through the wood, but he was always going home. He was not only far too humble to be an heresiarch, but he was far too human to desire to be an extremist, in the sense of an exile at the ends of the earth. The sense of humour which salts all the stories of his escapades alone prevented him from ever hardening into the solemnity of sectarian self-righteousness.  He was by nature ready to admit that he was wrong.  (228-29)

A Contrast in Mysticism: Huxley and Chesterton

            It was only recently, several years after my own reflections on Chesterton's mysticism, and well into these present ramblings, that I came upon Anthony Grist's article, "A Contrast in Mysticism."[4]  It is always a delight to come across someone who agrees with you! It does not seem to me, moreover, that I am reading my own theory of Chesterton's mysticism into that of Grist. Whatever the case, let the reader judge. I do, however, think that Grist has reached the same conclusions about the essence of Chesterton's mysticism as I: 

                         And yet there is a kind of mysticism in Chesterton's work. It is manifested as a heightened awareness of the glorious otherness of things. It was almost certainly a natural gift, but he developed it into something like a philosophy in response to the spiritual crisis of his youth.

                         Chesterton's own kind of mysticism was the re-discovery that `at the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence' (Autobiography, 94); and, so far as one can judge, this `burst of astonishment' never left him. It is much more than an idea: it is a way of seeing and of feeling that puts him in the very English tradition of such born mystics as Thomas Traherne, William Wordsworth and Francis Thompson. In this tradition, the works of God do not veil their Creator, they proclaim Him.  (236)

            Aldous Huxley is one of my favorite biographers of religious personalities. I have read both his Gray Eminence and The Devils of Loudun several times. They are veritable gold mines of insight into true and false Christian mysticism. Gray Eminence is a very important study, for it furnishes a key chapter in the history of Catholic western mysticism. I refer to Chapter III of this book, entitled "The Religious Background," where he traces the mysticism of his tragic hero, the Capuchin Father Joseph, to the mystical doctrine of the Englishman, Benet of Canfield. 

            The subtitle of Gray Eminence is: "A Study in Religion and Politics." The book is a fascinating account of how a very generous and sincere mystic can become unglued by the intensity of his religious convictions, and thus lose the harmony and balance of the orthodox Catholic vision in his relationship to the two worlds of heaven and earth. Instead, Father Joseph became a "mere mystic," to use Chesterton's phrase. 

            I highly recommend Huxley's book, inasmuch as Chesterton was also involved in politics, to the extent, at least, of reflecting on how a believer should view political issues in the light of the Christian faith. In this respect, Chesterton could be considered a very "Bright Eminence." Like his great countryman Thomas More, Chesterton knew that there were lines one must not cross over in one's attempts to foster the kingdom of God upon the earth. 

            According to Huxley, at least, Father Joseph was carried away by his religious enthusiasm. Chesterton, for his part, considered enthusiasm the greatest virtue. Literally, this word, which comes from the Greek, means "in God." That is the trick: to keep one's mystical feet on the Ground, that is, in God, in the midst of the worldly turmoil of politics. Father Joseph became ungrounded. He lost his moorings.

            Huxley's work is a profound examination of the limits of religion in politics, especially in the case of mystics who participate in politics. His Chapter X, "Politics and Religion," coupled with Chesterton's own Catholic views on politics, would make a fascinating comparative study on the part of someone much more competent in these areas than the present author.

            All the same, it is sad to discover that all of Huxley's researches into Christian mysticism, as evidenced by the works cited above, did not lead him to Christ. At the end of his life he opted for Eastern modes of thought. Referring to The Perennial Philosophy, another of Huxley's books, Grist explains that it

                                                is an impressive, lucid work, which shows admirable mastery of a great range of materials. Huxley quotes from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, from Chinese poets and Sufi aphorists. He avoids the Bible, arguing that over-familiarity has dulled its impact, but he quotes widely from other Christian authorities. (Grist, 231)

            Grist says that Huxley's "mystical philosophy appears complex and esoteric only because it is not really a philosophy at all." (231)  Huxley pinpoints what all Christian mystics would agree with: that God is unknowable; that language is inadequate in speaking about God; that God is not "out there" but "is," and penetrates all reality, etc. But, unfortunately, he allows these agreed upon positions to lead him into what I could call "the perennial soup", the mistake of mixing all reality together indiscriminately and saying that all mystical experiences are at bottom the same. When I read end-of-life conclusions like this I say to myself, "There, but for the grace of God, go I. Without the Church, I probably would have ended up much worse!"

            Quoting a passage from a Father Brown story, "The Dagger with Wings," Grist says it is a pretty fair parody of The Perennial Philosophy:

                                                `You do believe it,' he said. `You do believe everything. We all believe everything, even when we deny everything. The deniers believe. The unbelievers believe. Don't you feel in your heart that these contradictions do not really contradict: that there is a cosmos that contains them all? The soul goes round upon a wheel of stars and all things return. Good and evil go round in a wheel that is one thing, and not many. Do you not realise in your heart, do you not believe behind all your beliefs, that there is but one reality and we are its shadows; and that all things are but aspects of one thing: a centre where men melt into Man and Man into God.' (233)

            "Father Brown merely comments that `it is the religion of rascals.'" (233)

            As a result of his own pilgrimage to Rome, Chesterton would come to say:

                                                Christianity is the religion of the Resurrection; in which it differs, for instance, from Buddhism, which is the religion of the Recurrence or Return, which in practice means little more than what men of science used to call the Conservation of Energy. That is, the idea that every elemental force or expression returns in some form; but the form does not return.

                                                Nothing but the Christian Creed has ever had the audacity to assert that a thing will actually recover its identity because it will recover its form.  (The Resurrection of Rome, 119-20)

            I agree with Grist that Chesterton probably disagreed with some Christian mysticism: "It is also true that he [Chesterton] had little sympathy with that mystical tradition within Catholicism which, in Huxley's view, is in agreement with the mysticism of the East. The Catholic writers whom Huxley values most, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, Francois Fenelon, scarcely figure at all in Chesterton's account of Catholic history, spirituality, and thought." (236)

            I have already remarked on the reason for his possible lack of interest in Julian of Norwich. Another of his compatriots, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, would, I suspect, have been too cloudy for his taste, as in the following passage:

                                                This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him as it may be here, it behoveth always to be in this cloud and this darkness. (Cloud of Unknowing, iii)

            Chesterton, I'm sure, would have bowed before the mystic author's experience and would not have presumed to judge him. But he also might have believed that the unknown author had entered a lofty cloud and could not find his way back to earth. It would have been too Eastern for Chesterton. He wanted the mystic's insight to illuminate the earth.

            Chesterton did not see much good in Eastern thought. This, however, is an understandable attitude, given the period he lived in. He was encountering and fighting against a great deal of pseudo-Eastern thought in the form of Theosophy, which was championed by people like Madame Blavatsky. He himself had dabbled in this and had had an experience of its darkness:

            "The Theosophical initiate strips away the veils of illusion one by one in order to discover, as the last of them is twitched off, that they have been concealing nothing at all. `It isn't a very cheerful philosophy that everything is illusion,' said W.B. Yeats -- and Chesterton agreed." (232)

            The many more accurate and intelligent modern studies which seek a greater clarification of the relationship between Christian and Eastern thought had not yet been done. For all that, Chesterton still serves as a penetrating and important guide into the real differences between the two worlds.

            Grist's conclusion is significant for my purposes. Alluding to one of Huxley's last books, which was called The Doors of Perception, he says:

            "To use a phrase of Blake's which Huxley liked, the doors of perception are cleansed. The cleansed perception which was Chesterton's birthright became for Huxley a state to be artificially induced as, in the last decade of his life, his hunger for mystical experience led him into experimentation with psychedelic drugs."  (236-37) 

            Huxley was a great man, a fighter, and a seeker after truth, "the sort of man Chesterton always respected, even when he deprecated his views." (237) What a great tragedy it was, however, that Huxley, who could have sought his mystical experiences through faith in Christ, chose instead to induce them through drugs. Since mystical experiences cannot be willed, he would, as a Christian, have needed an extraordinary infusion of grace to have them. Still, the first traces of this grace, the first intimations of our immortal destiny, come through that wonder of wonders, the sacrament of baptism, which gives us our birthright in the Kingdom.        

            There are, to be sure, aberrations in Christian mysticism. These are, however, a drop in the bucket compared to its many successes. It was the American philosopher, William Hocking, who said that mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are worth all the failures of Christian mysticism, because they have shown us the splendid heights of human existence.

            Chesterton had the grace to see that the doors of perception can be cleansed through grace. We do not need the elaborate techniques of the East. When Jesus was asked to teach his disciples to pray, the whole context of his instructions presumes that prayer is both possible and available to all. He did not give his disciples an intricate methodology and technique when he taught them to pray.  He simply said, "When you pray, say, Our Father...." Chesterton is a wise guide to the mystical spirituality which is possible and available to all of God's children.

Is This Another "Creation-Centered" Spirituality?

            Matthew Fox is probably familiar to most of my readers. He is a former Dominican priest and a former Catholic. His teachings have been judged by the Vatican to be unorthodox. Over 10 years ago I did a study of his book, Original Blessing, wherein he communicates the basics of his teachings. On the cover of this book is a beautiful red apple -- without a bite taken out of it. This image says it all. Fox denies original sin, which, Chesterton points out, is the only doctrine that needs no proof. In an attempt to emphasize the goodness and beauty of creation and the human race, Fox actually denies any fall from grace. His doctrine is too much of a good thing and for this reason is distorted and unbalanced.

            He constructs, mostly out of his own very fertile mind, a "tradition" in the Church that he calls "Creation-Centered," and he opposes this to the "Fall/Redemption" tradition, which he contends has been over-emphasized and distorted in the Church. He says he is the first to have discovered this "Creation-Centered" tradition. In my opinion, he is the first, because, quite simply, it exists for the most part only in his own mind. This being the case, it would have been difficult for others to discover it.

            It is not my intention here to go into an exposition of his teachings and why the Church disagrees with them. It is enough for me just to state that she does. I also want to make it clear -- in case some of my readers are wondering -- that there are radical differences between Chesterton's mysticism of the goodness of being and the errors of "creation-centered" ideology. And I am not making this clarification because I consider Matthew Fox a major thinker or an intellectual force to be reckoned with, but rather because his thinking represents a widespread "New Age" mentality from which I wish to completely disassociate anything I may be saying here about Chesterton.

            Needless to say, Chesterton's mysticism has no parallels with Fox's aberrations, except that both emphasize the goodness of all that the Lord has made. Chesterton would be perfect reading for anybody who wishes to accentuate the goodness of creation and at the same time to keep that vision within Catholic orthodoxy. The theology behind Chesterton's mysticism is absolutely orthodox. He is, after all, a "Defender of the Faith". Fox, for his part, is carried away by his enthusiasm into doctrinal error.

            The Lord can use any aspect of his creation, and any truth of the faith, in order to ignite an awareness of his Presence. Thus, by a touch of his Finger (which St. Irenaeus calls the Holy Spirit), God can illuminate one's whole life, whether it be through a powerful experience of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Christ's presence in a poor person (Martin of Tours), the starry heavens, the timelessness of a rock (Teilhard de Chardin), an awareness of his indwelling Presence (Elizabeth of the Trinity), or the solitude of a desert (St. Anthony) - to name just a few of the means God can use. This one touch, moreover, can be so strong that one then experiences his Presence everywhere. It's like an experience of first love, lighting up the whole world in its warm glow.

            The danger is that, if a person is not obedient to the faith and teaching of the Church, this experience can distort and minimize the other truths of the faith, even obliterate some of them altogether. Many mystics, both within and outside the Church, have been thrown off-center by their powerful experiences. They have run the risk of becoming too eccentric, which means, quite literally, "to be outside the center". In Fox's case, his eccentricity has distorted his relationship to, and understanding of, nature. I don't know if Fox has in fact had powerful mystical experiences; I do not judge the recesses of his heart. But the Church has judged his mind and his understanding of his experience to be altogether too eccentric,  outside the accepted tradition.

            The truth or object which God uses to manifest his Presence can become the center in a doctrinal way and distort the balance of orthodoxy. Chesterton's mystical intuition of the "it-is-thereness" of things and of the Presence shining forth in the astounding reality of creation, does not become the center of his faith. The center of his faith, as with all true Christian mystics, is Jesus Christ. But the Lord, in some definite way, ignited Chesterton's awareness of the Presence through the medium of creation. Unlike the teachings of Fox, such an appreciation of the goodness of creation did not throw the rest of Chesterton's faith out of kilter.

            Donna Steichen has written one of the best articles exposing the errors of Matthew Fox.[5] Prefacing her article are two excellent, illustrative quotes. The first is from Matthew Fox, (then still O.P.), who says that: "The divine name from Exodus 3:14, `I am who I am,' is appropriated by Jesus who shows us how to embrace our own divinity." The second, in pointed contrast, is from an author named G.K. Chesterton: "That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones."

            I can't resist mentioning here a news item that I saw a few years ago. A "Christian expert" was receiving an award from some New Age society or other. The presentation went something like this: "It is an honor to confer this award upon N., who, by his teaching, has illuminated the ultimate mysteries of the cosmos." The good Catholic reporting this said: "Gee, I thought this happened 2,000 years ago when God became a Man." Chesterton's mysticism was ignited by his awareness of the goodness and the reality of being. Even so, nature did not become the center of his life. Jesus Christ remained his Center. Rather, the Lord used the goodness of creation to lead Chesterton to His own goodness.

Chapter 11 Chapter 10 Contents List


[1]Quoted in The Chesterton Review, Feb., 1994, 7.

[2]"It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists." Ludwig Wittgenstein. Quoted by Edward T. Oakes, "Philosopy in an Old Key," First Things, Dec., 2000, 29.

[3](Rome, Capuchin Historical Institute, 1987)

[4] (The Chesterton Review (Vols XVI, No.3-4, Aug.-Nov., 1990, pp. 229-237.)

[5] "Matthew Fox: Lost in the Cosmos", Fidelity Magazine, January, 1989.


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