PART IV - THE SONS OF GOD SHOUTING FOR JOY
JOB'S RIDDLING GOD: CHESTERTON'S CONSOLER?
Several times throughout this book I have touched upon the severe crisis that Chesterton went through in his early manhood. In his Introduction to The Man Who Was Thursday, Garry Wills writes about the novel: "The tale is not an idle play with symbols. It gets its urgency and compression from the fact that it is the most successful embodiment of the seminal experience in Chesterton's life, his young mystical [Italics mine] brush with insanity - his depression and near-suicide as an art student in the decadent nineties."
If Chesterton was the recipient of a mystical grace, it could not have come through a mere philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality. Chesterton is often seen as a Pollyanna type, rollicking through life without any real experience of suffering. This is far from being the case. Whatever the pains of his later life -- the death of his brother, his own heroic battles against the forces of decay in the society of his time -- there is ample evidence to indicate that he did experience a very severe dark night in his early years. Many writers have depicted this period in sufficient detail. I only wish to allude to it briefly here in order to suggest that it may have been during these years he was saved by a mystical grace.
Leo Hetzler says that Chesterton's early poem (1892?), "Hymn to the Spirit of Religion," reveals that Chesterton was, at that time, not sure if the Spirit behind everything was "sweet or bitter":
The shapes and the forms of worship wherein the
There is an oft-quoted passage from his Autobiography where he speaks of his early crisis. It certainly reveals someone in the throes of personal chaos:
While we do not know exactly when Chesterton's dark night occurred or how long it lasted, Noel O'Donoghue beautifully sums up my own that a truly mystical grace was given to Chesterton during this time. He refers to Chesterton's "mysticism of the ordinary", saying that it could not have been born out of the "optimism of an expansive personality, of heartiness and good fellowship." Rather, it is "the optimism of the mystic":
No doubt many thoughts and experiences prepared for this grace. The one I wish to highlight here is the influence of the Book of Job or, more precisely, of Job's God. Job's "riddling God" (Wills), whom Chesterton encountered in his dark night, was one of the factors which prepared Chesterton's mind and heart for his mystical enlightenment.
It is Garry Wills' opinion that the Book of Job was a life-long preoccupation of Chesterton's, and that references to it "are everywhere" in The Man Who Was Thursday. He also claims that Job was the companion of Chesterton's troubled years and that Thursday is the description of those years of pain and confusion and searching. A fair expanse of years lies between Chesterton's bout with lunacy in his twenties and his Introduction To the Book of Job (1907), where he spelled out, in a more prosaic fashion, his thoughts about Job.
"This seems to me his most important essay, written on the book that most profoundly influenced him all his life. Composed just before The Man Who Was Thursday, it could almost stand as a commentary on the novel." (Wills, 221) Without trying to determine how much of the Introduction was part of his thinking during the dark years, I will simply draw on the Introduction to sketch out how the Book of Job consoled Chesterton. In those years of darkness he went mostly to the Old Testament for answers. In his Notebooks, moreover, there are several imitations of Job's speeches (Wills, 33).
The Book of Job would have appealed to him for many reasons, not least of them being its consummate art, which made it "the literary masterpiece of the Wisdom movement" (New Jerusalem Bible, 753). Many scholars claim it is the most beautifully written book in the whole bible. It contains a dramatic story too, with vivid scenes, which range from Satan's roaming about the earth, on to the destruction of Job's goods and family, then to the very lively discussions with his "friends," and finally to the superb speeches of God at the end. The whole book would have appealed to Chesterton's story-telling sense.
According to Chesterton, Job is the first biblical character about whom it can be said that he emerges as a distinct person. The first part of the bible is mostly about the personality of God, so much so that Chesterton is led to assert that "God is properly the only character in the Old Testament." In comparison with God, the human players in the Old Testament are like saws and hammers in the hands of the carpenter:
Then The Book of Job comes along, "the most interesting of modern books", as Chesterton piquantly puts it. Job is the first to ask questions of God, the same questions that Chesterton was asking in his darkness:
These are also philosophical questions, and Chesterton himself was in the throes of philosophical problems. "The first of the intellectual beauties of the Book of Job is that it is all concerned with this desire to know the actuality; the desire to know what is, and not merely what seems." (42) Impressionism was woven out of what seems, which is precisely what Chesterton was battling.
Chesterton doubts if the words "optimist" or "pessimist" mean anything, although, according to their superficial meaning, Job's supposed friends are pessimists, and Job himself is an optimist. Job's friends do not really believe in the goodness of God: "All that they really believe is not that God is good but that God is so strong that it is much more judicious to call Him good."
Chesterton was a good person, like Job. Like Job, he had countless questions he hurled at God. Like Job, he was not hurling these questions at the Unknown out of rage or anger or contempt or scepticism:
This is certainly a description of Chesterton's own period of doubt and anguish. His over-sized brain was churning out questions and doubts at a rapid and maniacal speed. But there's nothing wrong with doubting: "It is the root and reason of the fact that men who have religious faith have also philosophic doubt, like Cardinal Newman, Mr. Balfour, or Mr. Mallock. These are the small streams of the delta; the Book of Job is the first great cataract that creates the river."(46)
Nobody could have told Chesterton to stop doubting. This is not the way to satisfy questioning minds. From his own experience he learned that
This is the place where Chesterton himself arrived: he began to doubt himself, that is, the ability of his own rational powers to completely understand reality. It is the realization of this limitation which led Job -- and Chesterton -- to the frontiers of the religious sphere:
Job turned out to be Chesterton's comforting companion for most of his adult life. In 1905 (The Speaker) he articulated very exactly how the riddles and enigmas of the universe comforted him:
And Chesterton's sense of wonder too seems to have had its resonant echoes in this book of the Old Testament. He discovered, in Job, that God himself is astonished at what He has made:
Perhaps it is because I am priest, a believer in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, that I would like to believe that Chesterton's mystical grace came to him while reading the Word of God. For it is the Word of God that cuts finely, dividing between bone and marrow, spirit and soul (Hebrews, 4:12). It was through God's paradoxical answers to Job that Chesterton himself was comforted: "It is the lesson of the whole work that man is most comforted by paradoxes; and it is by all human testimony the most reassuring." (51)
It strikes me that the following remarks by Chesterton on Job serve as an apt description of his own spiritual condition, portraying one of the main "cracks" in his spirit through which God's merciful, mystical grace illumined his heart:
The conviction that the Spirit of Religion was sweet and not bitter, and that the blaze at the back of our minds -- at the back of everything -- was joy and not sadness, a daydream and not a nightmare, possibly came through Chesterton's identification with Job and his meeting with Job's God. Doubting everything until he finally doubted himself, God graced him with the gift of catching the clues he dropped about the joy of the act of creation. Chesterton loved this text (Job 38:7) and referred to it frequently. But this gift which God gave him amounted to much more than just a philosophical acceptance.
"The Only Serious Note In the Book": Beyond the God of the Whirlwind
I put a question mark after the title of this Chapter because I believe Sunday goes beyond the God of Job. Sunday certainly exemplifies many of the characteristics of Job's riddling God: "A cross between Job's riddling God in the whirlwind and the Deus Absconditus." But Chesterton's mysticism is Christocentric, and both Job and Sunday led him to Christ. Job is ultimately a type of Christ:
The crucifixion of Christ is the most comforting reality for us because here we have the paradox, the mystery, of a good Man suffering. We, of course, are one with the good thief who suffer justly for our sins. And no doubt, at the higher reaches of sanctity, one accepts all sufferings as justice for even one sin against the Father. But few of us are at those heights. There is much of our suffering that is incomprehensible. What do we do with it?
Christ on the cross does not explain suffering, but by being united with him we can endure it with some kind of meaning which is still in the shadows of our souls. Christ is with us in our sufferings, and he consoles and strengthens us there.
"Have You Ever Suffered?"
One of the perennial challenges hurled at God throughout the ages, and in our own time as well, is that God is sitting in his Olympian glory quite unconcerned about us. What does he know about our sufferings? What does he care?
I find the last few pages of Thursday the most profound of the whole book, as it deals with this problem of theodicy. (Is it the ultimate meaning of the novel?) When Chesterton was asked whom he meant by Sunday he said:
It is this apparent unconcern about our human sufferings that drives many people to atheism, or worse. When Sunday is finally asked by the Secretary,
" who and what are you," he says: "I am the Sabbath. I am the peace of God." It is precisely this seeming impersonal immobility of God (who spoke "without moving,") that enrages the Secretary, the type of all who shake their fist at an uncaring God:
This is basically the same charge which Gregory, the real anarchist and destroyer, hurls at the conspirators sitting on their almighty thrones:
Syme cuts him off and tries to articulate how they have suffered. But then, wondering himself about the Secretary's own complaint against Sunday:
The voice coming out of the blackness is not unlike the voice in Job coming out of the whirlwind. The blackness - the terrible doubts: Does God care? Does God understand? Does God suffer at all? Does he know what I'm going through? Are we simply puppets of a mad Pupeteer? - out of this blackness about to destroy his brain he hears the words of Christ.
In the above quote, where Chesterton is explaining who Sunday is, he concludes: "There is a phrase used at the end [of the book], spoken by Sunday: 'Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of,' which seems to mean that Sunday is God. That is the only serious note in the book, the face of Sunday changes, you tear off the mask of Nature and you find God." 
It is legitimate to conclude that for anyone reading this quote from the Gospel Chesterton is saying that the ultimate explanation of this question of God's indifference to us in his peaceful Sabbath rest can only be found in Christ. Christ is the final revelation of the God behind the mask of nature.
As part of his own dark night of the soul, when the blackness almost destroyed his own brain, surely Chesterton wrestled with this agonizing question of whether God cares or not. Job's God hurls a whole list of questions back at Job, but even this God still doesn't seem to care all that much. The question is only answered by the God who became one of us and now knows about suffering from his own experience. "He suffered, died, and was buried."
The God behind "the mask of Nature" is not simply the God of the Old Testament. He no longer remains aloof, hurling down stage directions from above. When the script of the perfect play God had written for Eden wasn't working out, "The Author (his head bursting out through an upper part of the scenery). 'And in the devil's name, what do you think you are doing with my play? Drop it Stop! I am coming down."
Chesterton's ultimate consoling God is not that of Job but the Just One who drank the cup to its dregs and could still say, "Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit."
And finally, with no little fear and trembling, I enter the area of literary criticism. My expertise in this field approaches that absolute zero which Chesterton found to be the beginning of wisdom. But I enter it, accompanied by the experts, especially Karin Youngberg.
Youngberg refers us to a chapter in The Defendant entitled, "In Defense of Nonsense", where the Book of Job is again mentioned in connection with viewing reality in a paradoxical way, which, as was seen above, Chesterton himself says was the essence of the response by the riddling God. It should be recalled once again that Chesterton says a mystic believes in two worlds. His use of paradox is his attempt -- partly inspired by Job -- to help us see reality in this dual way.
It is not to my point, or in keeping with my competence, to enter at length into his discussion in "In Defense of Nonsense" about the relative merits of Lewis Carroll's and Edward Lear's respective brands of nonsense. He simply says that Lear's is superior "because of the completeness of his citizenship in the world of unreason." (The Defendant, 66) Lewis is too mathematical, has too much of the "purely intellectual [whereas] Lear introduces quite another element -- the element of the poetical and even emotional. Carroll works by the pure reason, but this is not so strong a contrast; for, after all, mankind in the main has always regarded reason as a bit of joke." (Ibid., 66-67)
It may be that the young Chesterton, in his dark days, had not yet arrived at this common wisdom, held by "mankind in the main". Certainly, though, the Book of Job, in its profundity, helped him to achieve this insight. A great book is great because it presents, often in allegory, a view of the universe. As Chesterton explains: "The Iliad is only great because all life is a battle, the Odyssey because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle." (Ibid., 68)
He believes that the nonsense literature of Lear is something really new, "as original as the first ship and the first plough were original." (Ibid., 64) He believes that this kind of literature is the literature of the future, but "if nonsense is really to be the literature of the future, it must have its own version of the Cosmos to offer; the world must not only be the tragic, romantic, and religious, it must be nonsensical also." (Ibid., 68-69)
When Job was asking God, in his admittedly tragic and religious frame of mind, "Why am I, who am a good man, suffering all this?", the riddling God did not answer with a straightforward, tract-like response such as you might find in the theology books: "You are suffering because of original sin. This means that many people, and even the forces of nature, are not in complete submission to my will as they would have been in the garden of Eden. Trust that I love you in spite of these terrible things that are happening."
No. He answered, as we know, with many more questions. And in the section on the Leviathan (which my scriptural commentary says represents the chaos of the sea and any of its denizens), God's response is not prosaic but quite poetical:
As far as scripture is concerned, this is an astounding re-visioning of reality: sitting down with the primeval monster of chaos and discussing with him whether or not he might leave off his terrible and uncontrollable thrashings about in the deep and become a pet for one's daughters! God thought of it, using this kind of speech to awaken, in a way no other expression could do, the deeper sense of wonder in Chesterton:
This is the mystic view of reality we have seen which Chesterton expounds in Orthodoxy, having learned it partially from the God of Job. One of the reasons why Chesterton's mind has influenced millions of people is that through the inspiration and mystical grace he received from the Book of Job and other channels, he was able to help us, through paradox and his other forms of "nonsense," truly see reality. We are surprised, delighted, amused, awed, attracted -- converted even-- by his presentations, because he speaks to us as God spoke to Job out of that chaotic but life-giving whirlwind:
In the mid-1890's Chesterton outlined six chapters -- and wrote some of the text -- of a story called "The Human Club" 
At the request of his heart-throb Marion, Eric Peterson tells her the nature of his profession as a policeman: "The story is a very brief one. It has long been my belief that the greatest theoretic mistakes have arisen from the idea that the six days of Creation were over. The world is only half-quarried." What human life is all about is "the gradual victory of Creation over the void."
Later, Eric meets his friend Denis Marvell, who says: "Peterson! What good luck to meet like this. This is good luck." "`Do not blaspheme causation,' said Peterson. `Say rather that when the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy, a part of their exultation was this, that this meeting of us two at this crossing was made sure.'"(674-75)
Already in these early years (as we have seen in Chapter 2), Chesterton was mystically aware of God "immortally active" at every moment, continuing to create each day, indeed, each creature. And he was already using one of his favourite lines from Job to indicate the "blaze or burst of astonishment" behind every moment of life. (At the beginning of creation there was a burst of astonishment by the sons of God) It is very possible that this mystical grace, embodying the awareness of on-going creation proceeding from joy and song, was the fruit of the deep personal crisis he went through at that time.
In Chesterton's writings I have frequently come across the last line of the following quote from Job, which must have held special significance for him, highlighting as it does the hand of God taming and limiting the chaos:
In a very early (1896) short story entitled "The Picture of Tuesday," a group of artists are asked to draw the day of the week, Tuesday. The picture of Noel Starwood, the symbolist, is the largest:
Starwood excitedly explains his artistic creation: "The week is the colossal epic of creation. Why are there not rituals for every day? The Day of the creation of Light, the Day of the Waters, The Day of the Earth, the Day of the Birds,. the Day of the Beasts?"
Another artist, Middleton, thinks this is all a lot of religious nonsense. He asks Staunton, the realist, if he can think of a text for a simple, ordinary "at home day." To show that he was also thinking of his friend Job, Chesterton gives his irreligious inquirer something from Job's more pessimistic side, something more suitable to Middleton's present state of soul: "And Job lifted up his voice and cursed his day."(63)
Chesterton Not An Expert
It is a very common opinion of the "experts" that Chesterton was a poet, but not really that great; a novelist, but not really that great; a biographer, but telling more about himself than the person he was writing about; possibly a great writer of detective stories, but... and so on.
I think most would agree that he could have become great in these areas of literary endeavour, but he did not want to. He said so himself. Why? My opinion: Because he was mystically inspired by the God of Job to see this other side of things, which is really the source of wonder and religion and of all the other vital elements of the human spirit. He said of his art: "I have to carve the gargoyles because I can carve nothing else; I leave to others the angels and the arches and spires." 
A gargoyle, my dictionary says, "was a waterspout, often carved grotesquely, projecting at the upper part of a building, usually from the roof gutter." In my opinion, Chesterton did not only carve gargoyles. He carved angels and saints and spires too, but in the way God would have presented them to Job. He carved St. Francis tumbling around, and St. Thomas banging his fist on a table. Since Notre Dame Cathedral also has gargoyles, why not statues such as these!
In his early short story, Le Jongleur de Dieu (mid-1890's), the laughing prophet was stoned to death lest -- among other reasons --"the sweet twilight of ignorance in which all creeds live be shattered by this sudden and searching light." One of the prophet's followers had been found dead "in a great valley, amid heaps of rudely carved stones representing laughing saints, laughing prophets, laughing cherubim and seraphim, of which the maniac had been striving with his own hands to build a cathedral." 
Had Chesterton been a sculptor, these are the kinds of laughing figures he would have carved. But they also probably would not have been accepted as "perfect art," just as his poetry and novels are not seen as "perfect poems" or "perfect novels." But as in his criticism of Plato's standard of beauty, he might have replied: "Why should all poetry and novels have to conform to someone else's ideal? Who is it that creates these ideals of poetry and novel writing in any case?"
For the sake of the mystical visions granted him, he sacrificed the craft of the "expert" artist and sculptor to carve for us the life-giving truths which make our souls sing and dance and laugh as did those sons of God on the first morning of creation. Surely no writer has done so with more consummate genius.
In his small book, On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton In English Letters, Belloc ends with these words: "We (such as I who write this) who were his companions, knew him through his very self and not through his external activity, we are in communion with him. So be it. He is in heaven." (103)
In the debate -- which I hope continues -- about Chesterton's sanctity, I have not seen these words quoted. Belloc, in a flight of eulogistic fancy, took upon himself the charism usually reserved to the Holy Father in declaring someone to be in heaven, which in very truth is what canonization means. It is significant, nonetheless, that his last word about his friend is about his holiness.
I hope that some day in the new millennium Chesterton will be canonized. And I hope that the artists who sculpt statues of him and draw his "holy pictures" will represent him as he was. Not too fat, but heavy; not laughing, but smiling slightly; and I'd prefer him with his cape and sword cane.
Chesterton once said something to the effect that he did not desire to become immortal by writing a comprehensive master work on how the whole universe fits together. He preferred, as a journalist, to address himself to the actual situations of daily life rather than seeking the immortality of fame that comes with being a towering figure of the human mind, writing monumental works of philosophy or literature. He simply wanted to be faithful to his mystical grace by living humbly in the present moment. So he refused the intellectual urge (temptation?) to write with elaborate brilliance his version of the master plan that explains the whole universe.
This was the humble direction in which his mystical grace led him. By remaining faithful to his grace, he gave us the key to all plans and all philosophies and all religions. He showed us how to live in the present moment in wonder and thanksgiving, and how to see God there always "immortally active." And in this way he has indeed become immortal, winning through to his eternal goal of rest in the bosom of the riddling God and remaining a sure guide to those of us who follow in his wake.
 (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1975). Denis Conlon says that "One might argue over the 'near-suicide' while admitting, as the dedicatory verses tell us, that 'This is a tale of those old fears,' the 'blind spiritual suicide' of which Chesterton speaks in his Autobiography." The Chesterton Review, Vol.II, No.1, Fall-Winter, 1975, p.79.
 (Quoted in The Chesterton Review, "Chesterton's Teen-Age Writings," Vol.II, No.1, 75)
 The Chesterton Review, "Chesterton's Marvellous Boyhood", (VI,1, 106).
 Chesterton, Man and Mask (Sheed & Ward, New York, 1961)
 In G.K.C. As M.C. and Selected Essays, pp.34-52.
 "Leviathan and the Hook" (September 7, 1905), quoted by Wills, xxv-xxvi.
 Denis Conlon, "Introduction," The Collected Works, Vol.VI, 1991, p.44.
 Quoted by Denis Conlon, Ibid., p.45.
 Ibid., 45.
 G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, (J.W. Arrowsmith, Ltd., 1926), pp.322-323.
 Ibid., 322-329, passim.
 Ibid., Conlon.
 G.K. Chesterton, The Surprise, (Sheed & Ward, 1952), p.63.
 "Job and the Gargoyles: A Study of the Man Who Was Thursday," (The Chesterton Review, II,2, 1976).
 Collected Works, XIV, 670-692). Following quotes from here.
 Collected Works, XIV: 62)
 Alarms and Discursions, 18, quoted by Youngberg.
 Collected Works, XIV, 662.
 "Public Opinion," 29 September, 1905, in Conlon, Critical Judgments, p.18.
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