PART III SOME MYSTICS WHO LANDED ON THEIR HEADS
TOLSTOY, THE FRATRICELLI, HUXLEY
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:
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:
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:
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:
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, 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:
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. The following could well stand as a summary of Chesterton's whole view of reality:
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.
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 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:
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:
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. 
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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." 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:
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
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:
"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:
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:
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 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:
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. 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.
Quoted in The Chesterton Review, Feb., 1994, 7.
"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.
(Rome, Capuchin Historical Institute, 1987)
 (The Chesterton Review (Vols XVI, No.3-4, Aug.-Nov., 1990, pp. 229-237.)
 "Matthew Fox: Lost in the Cosmos", Fidelity Magazine, January, 1989.
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