PART I - ESTABLISHING CHESTERTON'S MYSTICISM

CHAPTER THREE

CHESTERTON'S  MAKESHIFT  MYSTICAL THEORY

Chapter 4 Chapter 2 Contents List

                  It would be opportune at this point to present, in his own words, Chesterton's vision of reality, which I claim flowed from a mystical grace.

                  "Real mystics," he once wrote, "don't hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you've seen it, it is still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in the darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it's a platitude." [1]

                  As a real mystic, what did Chesterton reveal? It was his central preoccupation to unveil the realities we see with our eyes. His mystical doctrine concerns seeing reality with open eyes, the eyes of faith. He experienced God mostly in created reality itself. He believed there was something wrong with our eyes which blocked our vision of reality. It was his sublime calling to open our eyes again.

                  Very early, through his encounter with Impressionism (which was for him a kind of dark night of the soul), he says that he formulated, in the throes of this darkness, his own "makeshift mystical theory". I don't know which came first, the theory or the mystical experiences, but here is what he said:

                                                In truth, the story of what was called my Optimism was rather odd.  When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.

                                                What I meant, whether or not I managed to say it, was this; that no man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains, so to speak, there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy.[2]

                  This is the heart of his mysticism, and it arose out of his own encounter with nothingness - and grace.

Wonder and the Wooden Post

                    I find Chesterton's reflections on mysticism in "Wonder and the Wooden Post",[3] especially helpful for my purposes.

                  One day he accidentally banged his head against a post. This experience helped him to see "a truth about the mysteries and the mystics which I have half known all my life." It was an encounter with reality that led him to reflect upon mysticism and mystics.

                  First of all, he lists attitudes in his own life which indicate

                                    stars of the seventh heaven, stars of the secret and supreme firmament: a genuine feeling of beauty and wonder; the power of seeing plain things in a kind of sunlight of surprise; the power of jumping at the sight of a bird as if at a winged bullet. (Ibid., 157) 

                  He does not claim that this is a spiritual gift, or that these experiences are due to mystical graces, although I believe they were. His perceptions of wonder and his power to see plain things "in a kind of sunlight of surprise" were out of the ordinary. They were at the root of his awareness of the Presence; at the root, therefore, of his mysticism.

                  He then begins a discussion of what we might call "mystics who do not see what he sees."

                  "There are men who are religious in a sense too sublime for me." They cannot see "the pebble in the pathways, the twig on the hedge. It may truly be said that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see these things and have not seen them." In his opinion, there is a kind of religiousness -- "mysticism" -- which is oblivious to the beauties of nature. His own gift, he explains, "is a small and special gift, but an innocent one."

                  People began reading his early poems, with the result, Chesterton said, that "I was told that I was a mystic and found myself being introduced to whole rows and rows of mystics." He met "professional quacks and amateur asses," as well as "many men whom history and literature will rightly remember." But "there was something inside me telling me, with what I can only call a stifled scream, that they were quite wrong." What he says was wrong with them is the great key to his own mystical vision:

                                                      Now, what I found finally about our contemporary mystics was this. 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. (159-160)

            Here Chesterton is not denying spiritual disciplines such as meditation and contemplation. His difficulty is with the people who are more enamoured of the conception of reality in their minds than with the reality itself. They don't see the "pebbles on the pathway." He is decrying the failure of these "mystics" to return to the world after giving leeway to their inward focus. Chesterton elaborates further:

                                                But the mind of the modern mystic, like a dandy's dressing-room, was entirely made of mirrors. Thus glass repeated glass like doors opening inwards for ever; till one could hardly see that inmost chamber of unreality where the post made its last appearance. (160)

            The reflection of reality in the mind is not the same as the reality itself. There is a danger - not often avoided - that the more a person gazes upon this inner reality, the more it can dwindle into insignificance, to the point where one is no longer moved by it, for good or ill. One of the perennial criticisms of mysticism is that it cuts one off from outer reality, makes one live in an unreal world -- or at least removes one from this outer world. The inner world becomes so absorbing that the outer world dwindles away into a fine point of abstraction and/or unreality.

            Not only that, but this inner world poses a further danger for the modern mind which is not penetrated by faith. The realities of the world actually become something else in the mirrors of the mind that is cracked, curved, and distorted.

                                                And as the mirrors of the modern mystic's mind are most of them curved and many of them cracked, the post in its ultimate reflection looked like all sorts of things; a waterspout, the tree of knowledge, the sea-serpent standing upright, a twisted column of the new natural architecture, and so on. [4]

            As for himself, Chesterton asserts:

                                                But I was never interested in mirrors; that is, I was never primarily interested in my own reflection -- or reflections. I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant's club in a fairy tale. [5]

            It should be noted that Chesterton is concerned in these passages with the false mystic observing himself. Elsewhere he says that the saints emphasized two things in looking inward: that the self was a window -- not a mirror --letting through the face of God; and that they were primarily interested in cleaning the window through repentance.

                                                All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on still upstanding wood: it is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.[6]

            "All my mental doors open outwards." What a refreshingly strange and unexpected statement to come from an intellectual! For all his intellectual brilliance, Chesterton was in dread of having his mental powers disconnected from reality; in dread of not returning to actual reality -- the thing that is marvellous in our eyes. For this reason it would be a misnomer to describe him as an "intellectual mystic."

            Chesterton goes on about the wooden post:

                                                When the modern mystics said they liked to see a post, they meant they liked to imagine it. They were better poets than I. To me the post is wonderful because it is there; there whether I like it or not. For the amazing thing about the universe is that it exists; not that we can discuss its existence.  All real spirituality is a testimony to this world as much as the other; the material universe does exist. [7]

            This paragraph also reveals the essence of Chesterton's mysticism. In his view, we cannot explain why anything is; we are aware that we are neither creating it nor keeping it in existence; we do not know where anything comes from; it is simply stupendous that anything at all exists. This is why, as he says, "facts are fantasies":

                                                Now the mystics around me had not this lively faith that things are fantasies because they are facts. They wanted, as all Magicians, to be the Cosmos. They favoured twilight. But I was never properly impressed with the mystery of twilight, but rather with the riddle of daylight, as huge and staring as the sphinx. I felt it in big bare buildings against walls washed with warm light as with a monstrous brush. One seemed to have come to the back of everything. [8]

            Chesterton was amazed at existence itself -- the it-is-thereness of things, the fact that things simply are. I'm sure that the as yet unrecognized Presence was in his heart when, as a young man of 20, in 1894,  he penned the following poem, entitled "In the Evening":

            It is the little brown hour of twilight
            I pause between two dark houses,
                        For there is a song in my heart.
            If I could sing at this moment what I wish to sing,
            The nations would crown me,
                        If I were dumb ever afterwards.
            For I am sure it would be the greatest song in the world,
            And the song every one has been trying to sing
           Just now!
            But it will not come out.
[9]

            Even after Chesterton tears the veil away from the realities that stare us in the face, they remain mysteries. By showing us the splendour of existence, he does not explain away its mystery. On the contrary, actual realities become a most surprising sacrament of the Presence. Even the organs through which we apprehend reality are more astounding than what we apprehend. What we need is a grace of distance, something sharp and powerful that will cleave us from the miracles that are so close we cannot see them:

The Sword of Surprise

           Sunder me from my bones, O sword of God,
           Till they stand stark and strange as do the trees;
           That I whose heart goes up with the soaring woods
           May marvel as much at these.

           Sunder me from my blood that in the dark
           I hear that red ancestral river run,
           Like branching buried floods that find the sea
           But never see the sun.

           Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes,
           Those rolling mirrors made alive in me,
           Terrible crystal more incredible
           Than all the things they see.[10]

            The Word of God is called a "sword" in the scriptures.  Chesterton prays that the Lord, the Word of God, act as a sword and sever him from the blindness which prevents his seeing the splendour of immediate reality. The concluding stanza is a beautiful prayer for a compassionate love of oneself, that is, for the grace to see ourselves as we see our neighbor:

            Sunder me from my soul, that I may see
            The sins like streaming wounds, the life's brave beat;
            Till I shall save myself, as I would save
            A stranger in the street.[11]

Rose-Colored Glasses

            That our eyes are sundered from the marvels of immediacy is a theme of one of Chesterton's very early writings in Coloured Lands (1912).

            Tommy is sitting outside and is bored with the bare, white-washed wall of the cottage; bored with the blank blue of the summer sky; bored with the dull yellow of the thatched roof; bored with the irritatingly straight row of flower pots; bored with the red of the flowers; bored with the greenness of the grass. Grown-up people in this state of mind "go away and write books about their view of the whole world." But Tommy was just ten years old, and couldn't do that.

            A strange-looking young man comes along and says he's Tommy's brother (his deeper self?) He says he knows how Tommy feels because he felt like that once himself. He thought if he could make the world all one colour, his favourite colour, he wouldn't be bored.  (The Magicians want to "control the elements.") A Wizard gave him different colored glasses of his choice, but he still wasn't satisfied.

            And then the miracle happened. The Wizard was tired of the young man's grumbling and told him to make things the colour he liked.

                                                `So I just made a row of little blobs of bright red on the white just above the green; and as I went on working at the details, I slowly discovered what I was doing; which is what very few people ever discover in this world. I found that I had put back, bit by bit, the whole of that picture over there in front of us. I had made that white cottage with the thatch and that summer sky behind it and that green lawn below; and the row of the red flowers just as you see them now. That is how they came to be there. I thought you might be interested to know it.'

                                                And with that he turned so sharply that Tommy had no time to turn and see him jump over the hedge; for Tommy remained staring at the cottage, with a new look in his eyes. [12]

            One of the causes of our boredom is the belief that reality has just randomly been thrown together, without any rhyme or reason; or that it is like a machine that is getting old and rusty. If we believed that each colour was the choice of a Great Artist, we would see everything with new eyes of wonder, as if we were looking at pictures at an exhibition. 

            Chesterton's mystical doctrine is not a romantic, humanistic materialism. There is an Artist behind the colours, just as there is a Director behind the play. Objects are not hard, like bolts, but fluid, like paint. The things we see with our eyes are immediate dabs of the Artist's brush, and events the spontaneous directives from the Director. We are involved in an on-going drama, immersed in a play which is in the process of being acted out. When Tommy realized that the colours he was seeing were the result of an actual choice on somebody's part, he had a new look in his eye.

            The poem Chesterton singles out in his Autobiography to exemplify the dawning of this luminous realization "was one called `The Babe Unborn,' which imagined the uncreated creature crying out for existence and promising every virtue if he might only have the experience of life." "The Babe Unborn" occupied the first place in The Wild Knight. Here are the last two, poignant verses:

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born. [13]

            If we can speak of a "born again Gilbert", this rebirth probably happened during his time of darkness, when, as a young man, he realized -- I contend through a mystical grace -- that simply being born, his own passage from nothingness to being, was the greatest miracle of all.

Chapter 4 Chapter 3 Contents List

References

[1]Quoted by Marshall McLuhan in G.K. Chesterton: A Half-Century of Views, ed. Denis Conlon, 1.
[2] Autobiography, 94-95.
[3] The Coloured Lands, 1912.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 160-161.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 86.
[10] The Works of G.K. Chesterton, The Wordsworth Poetry Library, 49.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Lands, 29-30.
[13] Wordsworth Poetry Library, 243.