Afterword Chapter 10 Contents List

                  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."[1]

                  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
                                    divine was seen,
                  Are shattered and cast away on the fields of the
                                    things that have been.
                  A terrible stir of change and waking through all
                                    the land.
                  Will we know what things to believe, or what
                                    knowledge be near at hand?
                  Therefore I turn unto thee, the nameless infinite
                  Mother of all the creeds that dawn and dwell and
                                    are gone.
                  Voice in the heart of man, imperative, changeless,
                  That calls to the building of faiths through the
                                    ages of all mankind
                  Fathomless mystical impulse, that is and forever
                                    has been...
                  Thou art more than all the faiths, or false or true
                                    that befall
                  For thou art the unseen force that is under and
                                    shapeth all...
                  But a doom that is sweet or bitter has bound us forever
                                    to thee

                  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:

                                                I had thought my way back to thought itself. It is a dreadful thing to do; for it may lead to thinking that there is nothing but thought. At this time I did not very clearly distinguish between dreaming and waking, not only as a mood, but as a metaphysical doubt.  I felt as if everything might be a dream. It was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with all its trees and stars; and that is so near to the notion of being God that it is manifestly even nearer to going mad. (92)

                  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":

                                                The mystic is the man who is illuminated by a light, warmed by a fire, strengthened by a power that is somehow from beyond or from outside himself. At least this is one way of describing the mystic, a way that can find ample support from some of the greatest mystics of west and east. Usually the mystic has suffered greatly and has passed through something that may be called a conversion experience. It is not difficult to find a basis for this formula in Chesterton's own account of his boyhood and early manhood. He came out of great darkness into marvellous light.

                                                The darkness was the darkness of the alien and uncanny, of a paradise utterly lost, of limitless desert and unending night. The experience might also be an alien land of strange inhuman inhabitants. Yet the voyage ended in a landfall in his own land, among his own people.

                                                Was the voyage then unnecessary? By no means. It was necessary to go away in order to return. It was essential to be utterly deprived of the light of common day in order to receive this higher light that was yet but a recovery of the light of childhood. It was as if he had to turn round in order to share the light in its source.

                                                This experience was also warmth and power, infusing and energising his natural genius. That inner glory which his writing expressed in a thousand ways, was also the source of that vigour and skill with which he expressed it.[3]           

                  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[4] 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)[5], 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:

                                                The main characteristic remains; the sense not merely that God is stronger than man, but that He means more, that He knows better what He is doing, that compared with Him we have something of the vagueness, the unreason, and the vagrancy of the beasts that perish. (40)

                  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:

                                                The Book of Job stands definitely alone because the Book of Job definitely asks, `But what is the purpose of God?' Is it worth the sacrifice even of our miserable humanity? Of course it is easy enough to wipe out our own paltry wills for the sake of a will that is grander and kinder. But is it grander and kinder? Let God use His tools; let God break His tools. But what is He doing and what are they being broken for? (41)

                  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:

                                                [Job] does it in the spirit in which a wife might demand an explanation from her husband whom she really respected. He remonstrates with his Maker because he is proud of his Maker. He even speaks of the Almighty as his enemy, but he never doubts, at the back of his mind, that his enemy has some kind of a case which he does not understand.  In a fine and famous blasphemy he says, `Oh, that mine adversary had written a book!' It never really occurs to him that it could possibly be a bad book. He is anxious to be convinced, that is, he thinks that God could convince him. In short, we may say again that if the word optimist means anything (which I doubt) Job is an optimist. He shakes the pillars of the world and strikes insanely at the heavens; he lashes the stars, but it is not to silence them; it is to make them speak.  (43)

                  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

                                                In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself. (46)

                  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:

                                                The other great fact which, taken together makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical, is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

                                                God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as men are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained.  He insists on the inexplicableness of everything; `Hath the rain a father?   Out of whose womb came the ice.' (46-47)

                  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:

                                                Job's friends attempt to comfort him with philosophical optimism, like the intellectuals of the eighteenth century. Job tries to comfort himself with philosophical pessimism, like the intellectuals of the nineteenth century. But God comforts Job with indecipherable mystery, and for the first time Job is comforted. Eliphaz gives one answer, Job gives another answer, and the question still remains an open wound. God simply refuses to answer, and somehow, the question is answered. Job flings at God one riddle, God flings back at Job a hundred riddles, and Job is at peace. He is comforted with conundrums.  For the grand and enduring idea in the poem, as suggested above, is that if we are to be reconciled to this great cosmic experience, it must be as something divinely strange and divinely violent, a quest or a conspiracy or some sacred joke. The last chapters of the colossal monologue are devoted, in a style superficially queer enough, to the detailed description of two monsters. Behemoth and Leviathan may or may not be the hippopotamus and the crocodile. But whatever they are, they are evidently embodiments of the enormous absurdity of nature. They typify that cosmic trait which anyone may see in the Zoological Gardens, the folly of the Lord which is wisdom. And in connection with one of them, God is made to utter a splendid satire upon the prim and orderly piety of the vulgar optimist. `Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? Wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?'  That is the main message of the Book of Job.  Whatever this cosmic monster may be, a good animal or a bad animal, he is at least a wild animal and not a tame animal. It is a wild world and not a tame world.[6]

                  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:

                                                He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made. (Introduction, 48)

                  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:

                                                Without once relaxing the rigid impenetrability of Jehovah in His deliberate declaration, he has contrived to let fall here and there in the metaphors, in the parenthetical imagery, sudden and splendid suggestions that the secret of God is a bright and not a sad one -- semi-accidental suggestions, like light seen for an instant through the cracks of a closed door. It would be difficult to praise too highly, in a purely poetical sense, the instinctive exactitude and ease with which these more optimistic insinuations are let fall in other connections, as if the Almighty Himself were scarcely aware the He was letting them out.  For instance, there is that famous passage where Jehovah with devastating sarcasm, asks Job where he was when the foundations of the world were laid, and then (as if merely fixing a date) mentions the time when the sons of God shouted for joy. One cannot help feeling, even upon this meagre information, that they must have had something to shout about.

                                                Nothing could be better, artistically speaking, than this optimism breaking through agnosticism like fiery gold round the edges of a black cloud.  (48-49)

                  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."[7] But Chesterton's mysticism is Christocentric, and both Job and Sunday led him to Christ. Job is ultimately a type of Christ:

      The Book of Job is chiefly remarkable, as I have insisted throughout, for the fact that it does not end in a way that is conventionally satisfactory. Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins or a part of any plan for his improvement. But in the prologue we see Job tormented not because he was the worst of men, but because he was the best. It is the lesson of the whole work that man is most comforted by paradoxes. Here is the very darkest and strangest of the paradoxes; and it is by all human testimony the most reassuring. I need not suggest what a high and strange history awaited this paradox of the best man in the worst fortune. I need not say that in the freest and most philosophical sense there is one Old Testament figure who is truly a type; or say what is pre-figured in the wounds of Job.[8]

            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:

       I think you can take him to stand for Nature as distinguished from God. Huge, boisterous, full of vitality, dancing with a hundred legs, bright with the glare of the sun, and at first sight, somewhat regardless of us and our desires. (Italics mine) [9]

            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:

       'I know what you mean,' he cried, ' and it is exactly that that I cannot forgive you. I know you are contentment, optimism, what do they call the thing, an ultimate reconciliation. Well, I am not reconciled. If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy? We wept, we fled in terror; the iron entered into our souls -- and you are the peace of God! Oh, I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.' [10]

            This is basically the same charge which Gregory, the real anarchist and destroyer, hurls at the conspirators sitting on their almighty thrones:

       The unpardonable sin of the supreme power [the Government] is that it is supreme. I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe! You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them. You are the seven angels of heaven, and you have had no troubles. Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I----'

            Syme cuts him off and tries to articulate how they have suffered. But then, wondering himself about the Secretary's own complaint against Sunday:

       He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile. 'Have you,' he cried in a dreadful voice,' have you ever suffered?'

       As he gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the awful mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, 'Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?' [11]

            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." [12]

            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."[13]

            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.[14]

            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:

                                                Leviathan, too! Can you catch him with a fish hook or hold his tongue down with a rope?  Can you put a cane through his nostrils or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he plead lengthily with you, addressing you in diffident tones? Will he strike a bargain with you to become your slave? Will you make a pet of him, like a bird, keep him on a lead to amuse your little girls? (Job, 40: 25-39)

            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:

                                                And here we may fancy that nonsense will, in a very unexpected way, come to the aid of the spiritual view of things. Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exalt in the `wonders' of Creation; but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular that we take off our hats, to the astonishment of the park-keeper.  Everything has in fact another side to it, like the moon, the patroness of nonsense.  Viewed from that other side, a bird is a blossom broken loose from its chain of stalk, a man a quadruped begging on its hind legs, a house a gigantesque hat to cover a man from the sun, a chair an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two.

                                                This is the side of things which tends most truly to spiritual wonder. It is significant that in the greatest religious poem existent, the Book of Job, the argument which convinces the infidel [read Chesterton] is not (as has been represented by the merely rational religionism of the eighteenth century) a picture of the ordered beneficence of the Creation; but, on the contrary, a picture of the huge and undecipherable unreason of it. (69-70)

            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:

                                                `Hast Thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is?' This simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of nonsense. Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook. The well-meaning person who, by merely studying the logical side of things, has decided that `faith is nonsense,' does not know how truly he speaks; later it may come back to him in the form that nonsense is faith. (70)

            In the mid-1890's Chesterton outlined six chapters -- and wrote some of the text -- of a story called "The Human Club" [15]

            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:

                                    Who pent up the sea behind closed doors when it leaps tumultuous from the womb, when I wrapped it in a robe of mist and made black clouds its swaddling bands; when I cut out the place I had decreed for it and imposed gates and a bolt? `Come so far,' I said, `and no further; here your proud waves must break!' (38:8-11)

            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:

                                                The whole was a huge human figure. Grey and gigantic, it rose with its back to the spectator. As afar as the vast outline could be traced, he had one hand heaved above his head, driving up a load of waters, while below, his feet moved upon a solemn, infinite sea. It was a dark picture, but when grasped, it blinded like a sun.

                                                Above it was written `Tuesday,' and below, `And God divided the waters that were under the firmament from the waters that were above the firmament: and the evening and morning were the second day.' [16]

            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." [17]

            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." [18]

            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.[19]  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.

Afterword Chapter 11 Contents List


[1] (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.

[2] (Quoted in The Chesterton Review, "Chesterton's Teen-Age Writings," Vol.II, No.1, 75)

[3] The Chesterton Review, "Chesterton's Marvellous Boyhood", (VI,1, 106).

[4] Chesterton, Man and Mask (Sheed & Ward, New York, 1961)

[5] In G.K.C. As M.C. and Selected Essays, pp.34-52.

[6] "Leviathan and the Hook" (September 7, 1905), quoted by Wills, xxv-xxvi.

[7] Denis Conlon, "Introduction," The Collected Works, Vol.VI, 1991, p.44.

[8] Quoted by Denis Conlon, Ibid., p.45.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, (J.W. Arrowsmith, Ltd., 1926), pp.322-323.

[11] Ibid., 322-329, passim.

[12] Ibid., Conlon.

[13] G.K. Chesterton, The Surprise, (Sheed & Ward, 1952), p.63.

[14] "Job and the Gargoyles: A Study of the Man Who Was Thursday," (The Chesterton Review, II,2, 1976).            

[15] Collected Works, XIV, 670-692). Following quotes from here.

[16] Collected Works, XIV: 62)

[17] Alarms and Discursions, 18, quoted by Youngberg.

[18] Collected Works, XIV, 662.

[19] "Public Opinion," 29 September, 1905, in Conlon, Critical Judgments, p.18.


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