PART I - ESTABLISHING CHESTERTON'S MYSTICISM
THE MYSTICISM OF ORTHODOXY
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton is using the word "mystical" not in the technical sense of Western mysticism, but to describe what the basic human outlook on reality should be. He calls it a "common mysticism," his "makeshift mystical" approach to the world. Evidently this was the best word he could find to express his world view. It is significant, as I've said, that he chose this word in his attempt to describe an attitude which reaches beyond the rational, beyond the logical. Nevertheless, he defines the word in his own way. It is quite striking how often the word "mystical" appears at key places in the book. Indeed, as we have seen, he goes so far as to say that it is this mysticism which keeps men sane.
In the first pages of Chapter VI, "The Paradoxes of Christianity," Chesterton says he is going "to continue the current arguments of the last Chapter, which was concerned to urge the first of these mystical coincidences, or rather ratifications." (153) This chapter describes how Christianity is able to reconcile seemingly opposite tendencies in human existence. It is often remarked by other writers that the "reconciliation of opposites" is a feature of true mysticism. Christianity is a welter of contradictions:
I point out that he says Christianity "had apparently a mystical talent (emphasis added) for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other."(155) Any stance towards life must be able to reconcile paradoxes and seeming contradictions. This is partly what his kind of mysticism aims at achieving. By returning to his thoughts about the suicide and the martyr, about optimism and pessimism, he is led to see how Christianity reconciles other opposites as well.
Another important passage illustrating what he means by mysticism is where he quotes the Lord's teaching, "He that will lose his life, the same will save it, is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes." (170) He uses the word "mysticism" here to describe a paradoxical saying, hinged on the words "lose" and "save". Also, it is not a truth merely for saints and heroes. "It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage." (170)
I pause here. You can understand this saying of the Lord in the way in which Christian tradition certainly understands it, as meaning that if you try and live in too human and earthly a way, neglecting the higher supernatural principles of the Gospel, you will lose your true life in God. The significant thing here is that Chesterton, through his immediate childlike intuitions of life, had already arrived at another depth of the truth enshrined in this saying: that risk is often necessary to preserve one's life even on a merely physical plane:
This is another example of the principle discussed earlier: that his intuitions from childhood were confirmed in the Gospel. And they apply to many areas of human endeavour, not simply the seeking of the Kingdom.
Because Chesterton was a genuine mystic, he was never satisfied with the rationalist position of resignation to the world, like Matthew Arnold:
All the intellectual positions he had come across to resolve the paradoxes of human existence did not square with his ethics of elfland. The Gospel did. But he had intuited the marvels beforehand.
A mystic must have some concept of the human person:
A person enmeshed in the toils of a false mystical tendency tries either to get outside the world -- to escape from it -- or to become enclosed in the self, in order to protect the self from the world. Hence reality comes to be experienced as a problem, as an obstacle to being at home with ourselves.
These utterances also arise from Chesterton's mysticism; equally they are pretty heavy philosophy; and certainly solid spiritual teaching. Some mystics have thought of themselves as imprisoned in their bodies, or in the world. One escape is a "universality that is outside," that is, a view, a stance, towards reality that erects an inner world that abstracts from the outer world. The "universality that is inside all normal sentiments" is what I believe Chesterton achieved and is another way of describing the mystical grace he received.
If my understanding is correct, this means having the freedom to unleash noble sentiments upon the exterior world. You do not simply have your noble sentiments in your relationship with the "sustaining principle," but rather are able to express them in the world. You have a freedom from within to give vent to them, keeping the seeming contradictions in exquisite balance. "How can a man be approximately free of fine emotions, able to swing them in a clear space without breakage or wrong? This was the achievement of this Christian paradox of the parallel passions, their optimism and pessimism, as pure poetry, could be loosened like cataracts." (176-77)
The final proofs which Chesterton offers for many of his arguments are not what you would find in works of apologetics: quotations from scripture, citations from the Church Councils and Fathers, as well as other approved theologians. Here, as in many instances, he turns to the lives of the saints, the Christian mystics:
His proofs are from the saints, not from dogmatic theology. You could say these are mystical proofs, because his conclusions are based on the lives of those who experienced the Presence, living the Christian life to a heroic degree. Their lives are more convincing proofs than rational or theological arguments.
Likewise, the final insight of the Chapter -- that Orthodoxy is the one angle at which one can stand, while there are many angles at which one falls -- is demonstrated from the Church's life and not from abstract arguments. It is this constant appeal to life, to actual experience, for his proofs, that makes Orthodoxy much more a book of Christian spirituality than of dogmatics. Dogma alone would refer to the truths of the faith. But when he said that mysticism keeps men sane, I believe he meant this combination of the creed with an expansive, passionate, adventuresome approach to reality. "Elfland" alone does not say what he means. "Spirituality" or "faith" does not communicate his meaning either. He needed the word "mystical" to convey what he was trying to say. And it is the lives of the saints that exemplify what he means, precisely because many of them were also mystics.
Whose Voice Was It?
The main point of Chapter VII, "The Eternal Revolution," is that we must have some fixed vision of the world if notions like progress, reform, etc., are to make any sense:
This fits in perfectly with his definition of a mystic as one who lives in two worlds. He finally received the form in the Church's Creed. What I want to call your attention to now is the nature of his final arguments.
Note that he adopts the style of a voice speaking. Such an approach clearly betokens an intuition rather than a rational argument. It comes close to delivering some personal prophetic word he has received in prayer:
I do not say Chesterton heard a voice, as some mystics do. But surely it is significant that, in his final statement, he describes himself as having "felt once again the presence of something". Yes, you could say this is merely a poetic device: he makes Christianity or the Church into a Voice speaking the final truth. My point, however, is that his final truth comes from an intuition in the form of a voice. The heart of his proof is not a syllogism or a dogmatic exposition, but a "presence" which speaks to him the affirming word.
This portrayal of truth as a personal voice speaking to us is not mere fancy, or beyond the scope of normal Christian experience. The Lord said that the Spirit would bring to our minds everything he said to us. We are not alone. The Spirit is intimately involved in our thought processes. That the Lord can speak directly to us is a principle that lies at the heart of our faith. Chesterton's "voice" is a manifestation of the Spirit speaking to him: "You have the Anointing, and you do not need anyone to teach you." (1 John 2:27)
Besides being fixed, the ideal of reform must be composite, that is to say, beautiful. What is Chesterton's final argument for this? Again, a voice comes into play:
Chesterton understands this voice, now as Christianity, now as the Church: "I said secondly, `It must be artistically combined, like a picture'; and the Church answered, `Mine is quite literally a picture, for I know who painted it.'" (211-12)
The third element which a real Utopia would need is "watchfulness lest we fall from Utopia as we fell from Eden." (212)
And the Chapter ends also with the voice. Chesterton is speaking about the necessity for vows: "If I bet, I must be made to pay. If I challenge I must be made to fight. If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful. For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable." (228)
The Voice gives the final argument:
"The Eatable Hero"
Chapter VIII, "The Romance of Orthodoxy," highlights the dramatic, story-like nature, of the Christian vision. We are real actors on a real stage, and the final act is not predictable. We have romance and danger and excitement because we believe in hard and definite realities such as a Creator distinct from us, a mind that can know that it knows, a will that can will what it wants, a history that can be shaped for better or for worse -- in short, human destinies that are not "damned but damnable":
On several levels, therefore, Chesterton attacks attitudes that deny the Christian verities about God, world, and man, and that turn existence into something about which you really needn't take too seriously. Any doctrine which melts you into the All, or denies there is a world, or says to you, "Why bother, when the end is predestined anyhow" -- all such muddled views he is absolutely against. Any thinking which takes the romance and danger and thrill out of life is -- to use that ancient and unequivocal word of the Church -- anathema to him. Some of these areas touch the question of mysticism.
Tibet and Christendom
Chesterton often used Buddhism as a foil to expound more clearly his Christian views. In "Omar and the Sacred Vine", Chapter VII of Heretics, he detests the Eastern use of wine as a medicine to escape from reality. Wine should be used to celebrate your happiness, not to fill up your gloom. That way lies danger. All the real enjoyments of life presuppose definite and strong human realities:
He says he used to believe what everyone was saying, that Buddhism and Christianity were the same, until he looked into the arguments and discovered that they were not: "I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity." (242) Recent studies may have found a few more faint similarities than Chesterton knew about. Still, the huge differences between orthodox Buddhists and orthodox Christians have not changed.
Recently Pope John Paul II received some curious opposition from Buddhists in the form of demonstrations during his visit to Sri Lanka. I found this curious, as I believed the popular prejudice that Buddists are pacifists. In his book, On The Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul had characterized Buddhism as a "negative soteriology." Apparently the Buddhists took offence at that, and demonstrated when his plane landed in Columbo. This shows that the gulf between Christianity and Buddhism is still very much with us.
Buddhist and Christian statues portray the difference: "The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards. If we follow that clue steadily we shall find some interesting things." (243)
Is God within us or outside of us? Both, of course, inasmuch as God penetrates all of reality. It would be heretical to say that God is not immanent in the human soul. The Christian doctrine does not mean God is not within. It means that even though he is within he is still transcendent: he is not identifiable with the self. There is not one undifferentiated Big Self. This is why the Psalmist can often bemoan God's absence or apparent unconcern, or experience God being far away. This is because there are areas in the psalmist's soul which, for whatever reason, cannot experience the Presence. God is totally, actually present, but "experientially" absent.
Transcendence, in the Christian view, is not a spatial category, but a dogmatic statement about the Otherness of the One who is totally present. Surely it is the height of mystery to have the totally Other totally present. What could be more mysterious!
And when the mystics of all traditions enter deeply into the "interior castle", they do in fact experience the greatness of the human spirit which has become a "sharer of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). What even the Buddhists and Hindus witness to, I believe, is the exalted nature of the deep self. Orthodox Buddhism may deny there is a self; Hinduism may see this self as an illusion. But both are reaching for something which we, in the Christian tradition, express as "sharing in the divine nature," and being "a little less than the angels."
If we over-emphasize the totally immanent Reality or identify it too much with the self, we get the kind of mysticism Chesterton detested:
Christian mystics, of course, also seek the God within; Augustine, for example:
Augustine fought the heretics, the intellectual barbarians seeking to subjugate the Christian mind. This combative spirit flows from a true experience of the Transcendent God: "The truth is that the western energy that dethrones tyrants has been directly due to the western theology that says, `I am I, thou art thou.'" (248)
Chesterton speaks of the difference between far eastern and Christian mysticism:
When mystics turn inward, they seek to contemplate God. The kind of God they contemplate is determinative of their mysticism. Here Chesterton is comparing the Allah of Islam with the Christian Trinity:
From this conception of the Trinity comes a social instinct. We believe that Ultimate Reality is a communion of Persons; that God himself is a society. And, although it bewilders the intellect, the doctrine of the Trinity quiets the heart. A lonely God can beget some terrifying reactions in the human heart:
Christian mysticism can sometimes become too infected with Eastern thought, with platonism, or with "vast and shallow philosophies, the huge syntheses of humbug, all talk about ages and evolution and ultimate development. The aeons are easy enough to think about, any one can think about them." (252) False mystics can then lose the danger and precarious nature of human destinies and settle into false hope for themselves and others:
The phrase "all will be well," no doubt, comes from Chesterton's compatriot, Julian of Norwich. He probably was not too keen to use her as an example of Christian mysticism because he found her too passive, or too socially indifferent to the drama of life. There is always danger of ultimate ruin. Being absorbed with the God within can anesthetize the soul to the peril other souls are in; indeed, the peril the soul herself may be in. I am not claiming that this is the mysticism of Julian; I don't know enough about her. But indifference to the needs of others, a failure to be involved in the drama of the world, are perennial criticisms of mysticism.
However, in defence of Julian's outlook, we should note that Chesterton did say that the "triple enigma [of the Trinity] is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside."(251) And, in The Everlasting Man, he says of St. Athanasius: "He was fighting for that very balance of beautiful interdependence and intimacy, in the very Trinity of the Divine Nature, that draws our hearts to the Trinity of the Holy Family. His dogma, if the phrase be not misunderstood, turns even God into a Holy Family." (227)
Some mystics are called to witness to our relationship to the Divine Mystery within. One day we will be forever feasting at the hearth of the Holy Family of the Trinity. The gentle maid of Norwich witnesses to the intimacy to which we are called. Our conception of God is "that idea of balance in the deity, as of balance in the family, that makes the creed a sort of sanity, and that sanity the soul of civilization." (228) Mystics like Julian are called to witness to this dimension of our relationship to God, to the peace and calm which flows from sitting in the presence of Divine Sanity and Peace.
It is a further mark of the mystical "reconciliation of opposites" in the Church that the maid of Norwich and the maid of Orleans can both be inspired by the same mysticism of the Gospel. Chesterton probably thought that Dame Julian just sat too long in the comfort of the Fire's Presence (like Mary, Lazarus's sister in the Gospel, who, when Jesus came on the occasion of her brother's death, "stayed at home" (John 11:20).)
"If we want, like the Eastern saints, merely to contemplate how right things are, of course we shall only say that they must go right. But if we particularly want to make them go right, we must insist that they may go wrong." (255). He preferred the maid of Orleans attacking the battlements to the maid of Norwich contemplating the final victory feast.
By way of a slight digression here, I would like to draw attention to Chesterton's almost offhand comment in the passage above: "to hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable." These words really leapt out at me, for I had just finished reading Balthasar's Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? There is nothing in the book contrary to Catholic doctrine. He answers the question posed by his title in the affirmative. He simply concludes that it is deeply Christian to hope that all people will be saved and stops his speculation there. He does not try to figure out who is saved and who is not, how many are to be saved, whether anyone is lost, etc. We leave all this to the inscrutable designs of God.
However, I was once again amazed at the genius of Chesterton who, in a few short phrases, summed up the entire burden of Balthasar's thought on the subject. Chesterton would simply say that there is an infinite difference between hope and presumption. A certain kind of mystic has to be careful of falling into the trap of presumption when it comes to the question of salvation and thus refusing the battle for souls.
Another cautionary point: I'm sure Chesterton was not against the total hermit and contemplative who prays and fasts in solitude for the world, nor against the gentle recluses who were scattered around Norwich. He would most certainly be concerned if they prayed only for themselves and not also for the world.
Having written fragments of a play on St.Anthony, he would not be against the hermit in the cave. But he would undoubtedly be concerned if the hermit, after his enlightenment, started teaching that social relations with others are bad, or that sexuality is bad, or that everyone should live in a cave. Chesterton is always concerned with the inner attitudes of the mystics, the principles they deduce from their experiences. He is watchful lest their gazing produce attitudes and theories which are contrary to the basic instincts of all humanity. He would have appreciated St. Paul the Hermit, first to dwell in the Egyptian desert, but he was more attracted to mystics like Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and Catherine of Siena, who were engaged in the great battles of their day. His preference was for the battling mystics.
I still remember how taken aback I was when I read, in Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas, that the Poverello and St. Thomas had saved us from a dreadful doom, namely, spirituality.(28) I think that the shock of encountering this passage was one of the factors that launched me on this study of Chesterton's mysticism. "Franciscan Spirituality," "Carmelite Spirituality," "Jesuit Spirituality" - these were labels I had heard all my life. What was wrong with spirituality? Aren't we trying to be spiritual, lead a spiritual life? What does he mean: save us from spirituality?
Well, even before the appearance of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton, after stating his belief in spiritual phenomena such as miracles, had written the equally shocking words in Orthodoxy:
As I made my way through his comments on mysticism, I began to see that the above quote was one of the keys to his thought. It's quite a claim: that the greatest disaster of the nineteenth century was the encouragement of mere spirituality. In the early centuries of Christianity, platonism and neo-platonism had a "spiritualizing effect," and the debates still rage whether this was good or bad for Christianity.
Karl Rahner, in one of his books, said that the increasingly rarefied nature of prayer in the early centuries was due to the Greek theory of knowledge: the more knowledge abstracted from the physical world, the purer it was. Thus, "more perfect" came to mean "more abstract." The more one's prayer was free of sensory images, the purer it was. Accordingly, to have no images or ideas at all would amount to the highest form of prayer. But this kind of prayer was a far cry from the earthiness of the psalmist, who exclaims: "I lift my eyes to the mountains, whence shall come my help?"; or the practical groundedness of the prayer of prayers: "Father, give us this day our daily bread."
Chesterton asserts that, in the nineteenth century, this spiritualizing was a direct result of the theory of evolution. Men thought that they were evolving more and more from the animal to the angelic. "But," Chesterton explains with his customary aplomb, "you can pass from the ape and go to the devil." (284) This is a syndrome that can occur in prayer and mysticism as well. You can pass from a sound divine-human encounter to "mere spirituality."
What he is saying, in effect, is that you can encounter all kinds of spirits in the spirit world, but you have to discern the good from the bad: "There are, one must suppose, spirits of all shapes and sizes. So, if we see spiritual facts for the first time, we may mistake who is uppermost. We must have a long historic experience in supernatural phenomena -- in order to discover which are really natural." (285)
In The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), he says spiritualism was seen as "the only way into the promised land, a future life. We did not like dark rooms and dubious mediums and ladies tied up with rope, but we were told there was no other way to reach a better world." (103) These excursions into the spiritual world led people to a false spirituality, a mere spirituality, making people despise the good things of the world. The spiritual became an unqualified replacement of the good.
Chesterton found the true spirituality under the guidance of the Church, which believed "in living in the world with two orders, the supernatural and the natural." (88) We always come back to the same vision, which calls for us to live in two worlds:
In his treatment of St. Francis, Chesterton would come to use the image of tumbling to speak of his mysticism: Francis made a complete somersault and landed on his feet a new man. That image is introduced at the very end of Orthodoxy, sixteen years earlier:
Orthodoxy is Chesterton's account of how he tumbled around in the confusion of the world and was able to land on his feet through his discovery of Christianity, which had, of course, already been discovered. In the following passage he uses the word "sceptic," but we could construe it to stand for "modern man," or "everyman" really. We are born with our feet somewhat on the ground because of our childlikeness. Sooner or later, however, all of us are turned on our head by the destabilising of the Fall. It is only the mysticism of Christianity which enables us to stand upright again as children of God, kings and queens: