PART I - ESTABLISHING CHESTERTON'S MYSTICISM
SQUEEZING CHESTERTON INTO THE DEFINITIONS
After this summary introduction to Chesterton's experience (which will be elaborated upon in the following chapters), it may be helpful at this point to present some of the traditional senses of mysticism, in order to appreciate that his mysticism is within the boundaries of orthodoxy, a path at the heart of his own genius. I will then attempt to relate Chesterton's experience to the definitions cited.
"Mystical," "mystic," and "mystical phenomena" are not words that can be found in Scripture; not even the word "mysticism" appears there, being as it is a product of 17th century France. Rather, the Greek word we find in Scripture is mysterion sometimes translated as "mystery", but meaning more precisely "secret". It is used to designate the secret purpose of God's plan which has now been revealed in Christ: "Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: `He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory'" (1 Tim. 3,16).
Just as the pagans, who believed in their "secret mysteries," were called "mystics," so, later on, the Fathers of the Church began to call the early Christians "mystics." In this sense, every Christian can be called a mystic because he is a believer in the mysterion of Christ.
More specifically, among the Fathers, the word "mystic" came to be used in relation to the liturgy, where the mystery of Christ was not only remembered but celebrated as present. It was a frequent saying that "when Christ ascended into heaven, his presence passed over into the mysteries" (Leo the Great), that is, into the liturgical celebration. The Christian mystery was not simply a secret of God revealed to us. It was infinitely more than that: a Presence that was real, but not seen with the physical eyes.
Therefore, the best way to think of a mystical teaching is to conceive of it as an attempt to speak about the hidden presence of God or Christ. In this broad sense, theology is mystical teaching, an attempt to describe the Presence behind the realities we can see.
In a much later stage of the western Christian tradition, mystical theology came to mean the extraordinary manifestations of the Presence in one's personal life with God, graces that were not given to everyone. (Volumes have been written on whether or not every Christian is meant by God to receive such graces.) Thus, St.Theresa of Avila, when writing about prayer, described her experiences as mystical theology:
I used sometimes, as I have said, to experience in an elementary form, and very fleetingly, what I shall now describe. When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned, and sometimes even when reading, I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in him. This was in no sense a vision: I believe that it is called mystical theology. (Autobiography, 119)
Ian Boyd, the editor of The Chesterton Review, and surely one of the most knowledgeable of Chestertonian scholars, says that
what is most needed for an understanding of [Chesterton's] work is a definition of the special religious quality which permeates it. (Italics mine) Like George MacDonald, from whom he learnt the Sacramental view of life which altered his entire existence, he evolved a biblical spirituality which is fundamentally mystical. (Italics mine) Whatever the variety of his topics, his underlying subject is always the same: the presence of God in created being. 
I claim this for Chesterton's consciousness of the Presence of God: that was out of the ordinary -- fundamentally mystical, like Theresa of Avila's. A mystic, in this sense, is someone who has an intense awareness of the Presence of God. I contend that Chesterton had an enduring sense of this Presence, that this is evident in his writings, and that his writings contain a teaching about access to the Presence which can serve as a path of holiness to others.
It is to be presupposed that a genuine mystical teaching flows from an experience of God, but the experience is not communicable. Much of the strangeness of mystical language is due to the fact that one is trying to describe the indescribable. A mystical teaching attempts to describe those human experiences wherein one has met the Presence.
Also, in seeking to describe this Presence, one is often drawn, by grace, to particular aspects of the faith. Thus there are many kinds of mysticism: Christo-centric; Eucharistic; of the Crucified; of the indwelling Trinity; of Christ in the poor, etc. What was at the heart of Chesterton's experience of the Presence? Ian Boyd has already expressed it: the presence of God in created things. The following response of Chesterton to a critic is his own articulation of his awareness of the immediateness of the Presence in created reality.
In a Daily News article, dated March 24, 1903, Chesterton answered an antagonist named Rix who had evidently accused him of subscribing to some sort of pantheism:
Mr. Rix has pointed out that I have often maintained all things to be Divine. Of course, I entirely agree, or, rather, I passionately maintain, that there is a divinity in all things. It is quite clear that in this absolute metaphysical sense all things have a common divine origin; all things are symbols; all points are equally distant from the centre. Obviously the same omnipotent wisdom which said, `Let there be light,' said, `Let there be an umbrella belonging to Mr. Rix.' If that is his meaning, that in the last resort all things are beautiful and awful, since all things exist, I am altogether with him. But the difficulties raised by this position are entirely obvious: I know all about them because the position is one I have been defending night and day. It is evident that though all things are divine, all things are limited. And among other divine things, man himself is limited. He has not the memory, nor the imagination, nor the vigilance, nor the sheer physical health to realize the Godhead in every atom or object that passes under his hands. A person who never neglected a divine object; a man who burst into religious tears as he fastened a divine collar with an inspired collar stud and continued thus with everything he looked at, would go mad in five minutes: he would see God and die. The only things which man, a limited animal, can do in this matter, are two: first, he can believe (as an absolute thing of faith) that there is this divinity in things, whether he sees it or not; second, he can leave himself reasonably open to those sudden revelations whereby one or two of these things, a cloud, a man's face, a noise in the dark, may for some reason no one has ever been able to offer, capriciously reveal its divinity. 
In his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James has documented how frequently quite ordinary people have these "capricious revelations of divinity" in things like a sunset, a human experience, or a flower. I appeal to my readers on the grounds of their own experiences: Surely it happens that everyone, on certain occasions at least, has experienced these revelations of Divinity in some area of creation. I believe it is a common occurrence.
Clearly these are "sudden revelations" that lie beyond us and arise from truly supra-rational graces, the kind Kenner says belong to true mysticism. These are not moments that we can manufacture in and of ourselves. They come to us as sheer gifts. We can exercise our faith at each moment, but this in itself is not mysticism. Mysticism describes a state of affairs in which an unusual grace of God breaks into our consciousness in a regular (or even permanent) fashion. Chesterton seems to have had "sudden revelations" most of the time, as a quasi-permanent state of experience. The teachings and attitudes flowing from his experience are a gift to the faithful, promoting a sacramental view of reality that modern man dearly needs to recapture.
From the way Chesterton speaks and writes, I believe he was very often the recipient of these revelations. I would go further: He seems to have had some perduring experience, so much so that he can truly be called a mystic, that is, that he had some definite supernatural grace to always be aware of the Presence in being itself. He had some uninterrupted awareness of everything constantly coming forth from the divine Being. This vision was beyond philosophy and metaphysics: it was a product of a mystical grace. The intensity and brilliance of his mind were due to the fact that he had "the sheer physical health to realize the Godhead in every atom or object that passes under his hands," as he described it to Mr. Rix. (Was he describing his own experience? I believe yes.) But also, grace protected him: he saw God and did not die -- a mercifully small portion of God, so that he would not go mad.
The extraordinary significance of his mysticism, as I hope to show, is this: in its communicable aspects, its teachable focus, it is a truly lay mysticism. So much of traditional mystical theory calls for solitude, abstraction from the senses, and an entrance into the divine darkness. This gives it an arcane, almost unreachable character. The Lord, however, has revealed through his servant Gilbert, a new emphasis on mysticism: a person can look at everything with open eyes and experience the Presence. Everything can be a symbol, an icon, of the Divine. It is a mystical path to God centred in the realization that at every moment God is saying, "Let there be a tree, let there be a sky, let there be Mr. Rix, let there be you." At any given moment, everything is equally distant from the Centre and in the Centre.
Surely this kind of mysticism is more germane to that which is revealed in the Gospel by Christ, the Model for mystics (Chapter 6): "Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of field." He pointed us to the actual artefacts of his creation and invited us to gaze on them and thus be lifted to the contemplation of his Father's goodness and providence.
One of the pleasant advantages of arguing with an author who is not present is that he cannot argue back. But I think Kenner would certainly agree that in Chesterton we are dealing with some kind of extraordinary consciousness.
Consciousness is one category some modern scholars are using to express the nature of mysticism. Bernard McGinn is a world recognized authority on mysticism and is presently completing a multi-volume work on the history of Western Christian mysticism. In the "Introduction" to his first volume, he makes some preliminary remarks on his understanding of mysticism and how he plans to approach the subject. Besides the categories of "the Presence of God" and "experience," he says that consciousness can also serve as a method of interpretation:
Mystics continue to affirm that their mode of access to God is radically different from that found in ordinary conscious-activities of prayer, sacraments, and other rituals. What differentiates it from other forms of religious consciousness is its presentation as both subjectively and objectively more direct, even at times as immediate. Many of the greatest mystics [emphasize] the new level of awareness, the special and heightened consciousness involving both loving and knowing that is given in the mystical meeting. 
Kenner's description of Chesterton's mode of thinking, which we examined earlier, seems, indeed, to point to a special, heightened level of consciousness, as characterised by McGinn. Again, even though it cannot be proven, I believe it is a legitimate position to hold that Chesterton's consciousness of God's presence through his continual act of creating was of an extraordinary degree and can be called mystical.
What specifies Chesterton's mysticism, and gives it its distinctive character, is brought out in another statement by McGinn, where he explains the general way in which mystics gain access to the Presence:
There is also an objective difference to the extent that this mode of the divine presence is said to be given in a direct or immediate way, without the usual internal and external mediation found in other types of consciousness.
McGinn is saying here that the distinguishing mark of the mystic's mode of access to the divine presence is that it tends quite literally to be immediate, that is to say, not mediated. In truth, however, there cannot be a completely unmediated experience of God. At the very least, we must undergo any given experience through our faculties, no matter how rarefied such an experience may be. Even in those cases, God uses the media of our internal composition. McGinn acknowledges this when he explains in another place that, "Human consciousness in its total activity is always mediated both by the subject's previous history and by the mediations necessarily found in all thought and speech. What the mystics are talking about is what lies `between' these necessary mediations."  In other words, McGinn is saying that mediation is a peripheral necessity in the experience of the mystic, dross mixed in with the pure gold of gleaming vision.
It is my contention that Chesterton's sacramental mysticism represents a significant departure from the principles established by McGinn, inasmuch as it is precisely in and through created realities, in and through external mediations, that God granted Chesterton his mystical graces. The external mediations are a key component of his mysticism: through a special grace his consciousness encompassed the two worlds of heaven and earth, melding them together in an altogether brilliant and original way. Everyone experiences external created realities, but not many have an enduring and intense experience of the Divine through them.
This straddling of two worlds means, of course, that Chesterton did experience the divine presence as it manifests itself "between these necessary mediations", irrupting like a blaze into his consciousness and building on the raw material of his sense perceptions. It was in this regard that he experienced, to an extraordinary degree, the dynamic power of God constantly creating.
He was intensely aware, almost continually, of the passage from non-being to being, as if every moment was the moment of Creation in the Garden. This is the ultimate metaphysical paradox, in Kenner's sense, which Chesterton experienced as a permanent feature of his consciousness. By an extraordinary infusion of grace, he felt in the marrow of his being that at every moment everything is actually proceeding from the abyss of the creativity of God.
Chesterton, very early in his life, (because of this grace?) was preoccupied with the truth of on-going creation. The Garry Wills, in his Introduction to The Man Who Was Thursday, quotes the following from Chesterton's notebooks in the nineties:
The week is a gigantic symbol, the symbol of the creation of the world:
Monday is the day of Light.
Tuesday the day of waters.
Wednesday the day of the Earth.
Thursday: the day of stars.
Friday: the day of birds.
Saturday: the day of beasts.
Sunday: the day of peace: the day for saying that it is good.
Perhaps the true religion is this, that the creation is not ended yet.
And that what we move towards
Is blinding, colossal calm
The rest of God.
Chesterton opposed the chaos in himself and the life around him by considering each man's life a re-enactment day by day, of the first verses of Genesis. Chesterton took as the ground of his hope that very sense of dissolution that threatened his sanity. By the energy of existence things keep re-emerging from dissolution. Creation uses chaos as its working material. Creation is not only the beginning, but is always beginning. Once one has experienced that nothingness, the emergence of any one thing into form and meaning, [there is] a triumph, the foundation for a `mystical minimum' of aesthetic thankfulness.
It is well known that Chesterton went through a period of profound mental and spiritual anguish during this early period. ( I mentioned earlier that mystics often go through a dark night of the soul, more or less intense.) Is it possible that it was precisely in this dark period of his early manhood that he received the mystical grace which forever afterwards became the foundation of his whole life and thought? Perhaps it was when he had experienced something of nothingness that it was revealed to him that it is out of nothingness that the Creator works. It was the realization of the wonder of this passage from nothingness to something which was his "mystical minimum."
A few years after his crisis he would write:
It is at the beginning that things are good, and not (as the more pallid progressives say) only at the end. The primordial things -- existence, energy, fruition -- are good so far as they go.
We do praise the Lord that there are birch trees growing amongst the rocks and poppies amongst the corn; we do praise the Lord, even if we do not believe in Him. We do admire and applaud the project of a world just as if we had been called to council in the primal darkness and seen the first starry plan of the skies. We are, as a matter of fact, far more certain that this life of ours is a magnificent and amazing enterprise than we are that it will succeed. 
Perhaps Chesterton knew from personal experience what he describes here as occurring in the case of St. Francis:
So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism. When we say that a poet praises the whole of creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet [the mystic] does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity.
The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else. He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made. In a fashion he endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy.
Truly this passage soars to the heights of genuine mystical language. Indeed, I contend that it stands as a description of Chesterton's own mysticism. One wonders whether he entered into this "nothing" as a young man and was led thereby to enjoy a constant intuition of the amazing it-is-thereness of being, the marvellous existence of beings which have sprung from non-being. He seems, moreover, to be standing at every moment at the "beginningless beginnings" of things. He is aware of things originating at every moment from God. For this reason he is always present at the foundations of the world, since every instant bears witness to the act of God's creating power. (Notice, incidentally, Chesterton's reference to the Book of Job. In my last chapter, I shall be looking more closely at the influence this book exerted on his mysticism.)
Albert Schweitzer On Mysticism
Another authority I would like to draw on in my attempt to forge a specific view of Chesterton's mysticism is the great Albert Schweitzer. In the opening Chapter of his profound (but unfortunately little known) work, The Mysticism of St. Paul, he gives a brief classification of the various kinds of mysticism. It is not an exhaustive list; more recent scholars would doubtless consider it deficient. But I find it helpful for my purposes in trying to specify Chesterton's kind of mysticism.
Here is Schweitzer's definition of mysticism:
We are always in the presence of mysticism when we find a human being looking upon the division between earthly and super-earthly, temporal and eternal, as transcended, and feeling himself, while still externally amid the earthly and temporal, to belong to the super-earthly and eternal. 
This definition is quite useful in helping to specify the kind of mystic Chesterton was not. He did not feel himself as belonging to the super-earthly realm. Rather, he felt he belonged to both realms. It is this integration of both worlds which characterises his mysticism. Chesterton's basic intuition of the Presence was in the earthly coming into being at every moment. This was his sure foundation of the super-earthly realm. It is not a question, of course, of his denying the super-earthly, the super-natural. He felt himself as belonging to both: "A mystic is someone who believes that two worlds are better than one."
He was amazed at the existence of anything at all, and this was, for him, the "existential proof," if you will, of the Presence; the proof also of the super-earthly. He would have experienced his belonging to the eternal in and through the temporal. Nothing explains why anything at all should be, and that anything at all exists was the truly amazing thing for Chesterton. The "immortally active" God was sustaining the creatures Chesterton saw and felt. This was marvel enough for him.
Schweitzer, after describing a kind of primitive mysticism by which one attempts, through magical rites, to both get into the supra-sensible world and to "become a partaker in the immortality for which he yearns", describes a kind of mysticism which to some extent has influenced Christian mysticism.
With the birth of truly metaphysical speculation about reality, exemplified best of all by thinkers such as Plato and Plotinus, "the conception of the universal is reached and a man reflects upon his relation to the totality of being and to Being in itself". Schweitzer continues:
The entrance into the super-earthly and eternal then takes place through an act of thinking. In this act the conscious personality raises itself above that illusion of the senses which makes him regard himself as in bondage in the present life to the earthly and temporal.
Recognizing the unity of all things in God, in Being as such, it passes beyond the unquiet of becoming and disintegration into the peace of timeless being, and is conscious of itself as being in God, and in every moment eternal. 
Schweitzer calls this intellectual mysticism, and applies it
to Hinduism and Buddhism, Plato, Hegel, and, really, much of Christian mysticism. Recall, from above, Lauer's opinion that we could label Chesterton's thought "intellectual mysticism," though certainly Lauer would not understand it in the way that Plotinus describes it in the following passage:
Now it is because you approached the All and did not remain in a part of it, and you did not even say of yourself `I am just so much,' but by rejecting the `so much' you have become all. You will increase yourself then by rejecting all else, and the All will be present to you in your rejection. 
This kind of mysticism is intellectually fascinating, but it is a theory of reality -- "mirrors upon mirrors upon mirrors," -- an image Chesterton often used pejoratively, not only in reference to mysticism but in regards to certain aspects of modern psychology as well. Plotinus shows profound intellectual subtlety; and, if you live with such thoughts, you certainly can somehow raise yourself above the flowing material world. But you don't necessarily need a mystical grace to do this. You just have to be a subtle thinker, and live in this world of positive thinking.
Hundreds of books have been written in an attempt to explain the way in which this intellectual mysticism of Plato and Plotinus has influenced Christianity. Most scholars would agree that, to some extent, Christian mysticism was platonized: "When the Fathers think their mysticism, they platonize" (Festugière). I merely use Schweitzer's description of intellectual mysticism as a rather clear expression of what I think Chesterton's mysticism was not.
Pure, unadulterated intellectual mysticism is the misguided variety of mysticism which Chesterton meant when he wrote: "When they said that a wooden post was wonderful, they meant that they could make something wonderful out of it by thinking about it. The modern mystic looked for the post, not outside in the garden, but inside, in the mirror of his mind."
Schweitzer says: "The mystic thinks of his existence under the pure undifferentiated conception of Being, and sinks himself therein". Chesterton, I contend, is not amazed at, and does not experience, the divine in his own wonderful conceptions of the divine, and lose himself therein. He is not "looking into the mirror of his own mind," thus raising himself above the sensible. He experiences the Presence in the astounding reality of the existence of things which he sees with his eyes and feels with all his other senses.
Schweitzer mentions the "bondage in the present life to the earthly and temporal." Some of the Greek philosophers thought of the soul as imprisoned in the body. Chesterton did not think of himself as being imprisoned in the body so much as being in a house -- a rather large house -- that the children had ransacked in a wild party when their parents were not at home. He was too much at home in his body to think of it as a prison.
But there was something wrong. Why did he not feel completely at ease in the home of his body? Because of the Fall. This doctrine would explain to him the reason for his disorientation. But what was the Fall? Chesterton explains it as a kind of forgetfulness of our true nature and destiny:
The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.
This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.
The Holy Spirit led Chesterton in a quest to regain his sight and overcome "this weird and horrible humility". This was done not by constantly seeking to escape from the body, or to dwell in a world of eternal ideas. His mysticism led him to a proper relationship with his body, by becoming more at home in it, and by trying to put order back into the house of the world. We are more like princes and princesses who, when their parents left for a night out, ruined the house with a wild teen-age party.
A passage from McGinn's treatment of Plato is helpful for seeing some similarities and differences between Plato and Chesterton. Commenting on Plato's mysticism, McGinn writes:
In our fallen condition it is beauty entering in by means of sight,`the sharpest of the physical senses,' that begins the philosopher's return. Plato emphasizes the shock and suddenness of the appearance of beauty in the beautiful boy. `But he who is newly initiated, who beheld many of these realities, when he sees the godlike face and form which is a good image of beauty, shudders at first, and something of its old awe comes over him.' 
Like Plato, Chesterton too was shocked through his sensible eyes, not precisely by the beauty of forms, but by the existence of any form, by even an ugly boy, or a dirty, little, poor girl with flaming red hair.
In The Defendant he has a chapter entitled "On the Defence of Ugly Things," espousing a view even Plato might not have readily understood! Chesterton thought that
the Greeks have committed us to a horrible asceticism
of the fancy, a worship of one aesthetic type alone.
To insist that one type of face is ugly because it differs from that of the Venus of Milo is to look at it entirely in a misleading light. It is strange that we should resent people differing from ourselves; we should resent much more violently their resembling ourselves.
But to call another man's face ugly because it powerfully expresses another man's soul is like complaining that a cabbage has not two legs. (116)
It is Chesterton's mystical intuition of the goodness of being itself, and not of some ideal standard to which reality must conform, that causes him to shudder. He does not judge everything by ideal standards but, being amazed at existence itself, is able to penetrate into the goodness of everything, even if it is just a kernel of goodness, covered over and obscured by human sin and physical distortion. He said, for example, that everything was wrong about Shaw except the man himself.
Since the industrial revolution it has been fashionable to decry the terribleness of the city in contrast to the Arcadian bliss of the countryside. Chesterton was sensitive to the destructive forces of the modern city. Nevertheless, who else but he could have written the following words of praise for the London of his day, which was already smogged up by the factories:
The city is, properly speaking, more poetic even than a countryside, for while nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones. The crest of the flower or the pattern of the lichen may or may not be significant symbols. But there is no stone in the street and no brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol -- a message from some man, as much as if it were a telegram or a post card.
Chesterton was not blind to the harmful forces at work in the modern city. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is proof positive of that. Rather, his sanguine outlook is an example of his mystical ability to equate existence and goodness, affirming and corroborating what the philosophers say: bonum et ens convertuntur, goodness and being are the same. Even before a building is judged as beautiful or ugly, even before it is considered as a obstacle to true progress or a sign of progress, it is the handiwork of someone:
The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in his grave. Anything which tends to assert this romance of detail in civilisation, to emphasise this unfathomably human character in flints and tiles, is a good thing. 
Because Chesterton was amazed at existence itself, he was able to find some goodness in all things and in all people.
The Chesterton Review," Chesterton and the Bible," XI, 1, 22/31.
Quoted by Gary Wills in "Introduction," The Man Who Was Thursday, Sheed and Ward,1975, xxix.
The Foundations of Mysticism, xviii-xix.
New York: Sheed and Ward, 1975, xv. Note: in his actual text, Wills has "Monday is the day of Lent." In a personal correspondence, Denis Conlon said: "Transcription error by Gary Wills: Monday is the day of LIGHT! GKC's handwriting was never easy to decipher.
 T.P.'s Weekly, 1910, cited by Wills, xvii.
 St. Francis, pp.112-113..
 Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of St. Paul, p.1.
 Ibid., 1-2.
 The Enneads, 6.5.12.
 The Cloured Lands, 159-60.
St. Paul, 2.
The Defendant, 13.
The Defendant, "A Defense of Detective Stories," 159.