PART II TRUE MYSTICS, OR LANDING ON ONE'S FEET
THE EVERLASTING MAN: MODEL FOR MYSTICS
Chesterton early in life had been amazed at the splendor of the humble dandelion. The Lord confirmed the elegant clothing of the lilies of the field, and then related it to God's care for his children. Chesterton was already living in two worlds, but it was Christ who revealed to him the true nature of both. Many truths in the Gospel were not so much discovered as confirmed for him. Here is another example of what I mean:
He will say later on in Orthodoxy that a healthy person does not think about his health. A person who plans to take a trip around the world must be very healthy indeed, or he would not be able to concentrate on planning such an enterprise, much less able to enjoy it. In such a case, good health is simply a given.
Applying this metaphor to the realm of the mystical, Chesterton is against people being preoccupied with an interior system of mysticism. If they are thus preoccupied, it often becomes a block to their ability to experience reality as it is. The interior world becomes a "mystification" which hinders true spontaneity and wonder.
He would certainly agree also that only at their peril do men rationalize about a mystical theory. It would be bad for their spiritual health.
In this matter we touch upon the notion of asceticism. The reader may be tempted to object: "All well and good for Chesterton to have a theory about the goodness of cigars and Burgundy and hansom cabs. He is just working out a theory to fit his tastes -- and his weaknesses. Talk about a rationalization!"
Chesterton would be the first to admit his weaknesses in these areas. But he is fighting for a principle, for a way of relating to reality, for a way of being holy amidst material creation. He is concerned about the inside, the simplicity of the heart. This is more important than simplicity of life. He does not disparage the latter. He is not against (as we shall see) the asceticism of St. Francis, or of St. Simon Stylites, as long as such asceticism does not render them incapable of relating to real life with spontaneity and joy. He sums things up by saying, "Let us put a complex entree into a simple old gentleman; let us not put a simple entree into a complex old gentleman." (138)
He is concerned about false asceticism. Mr. Lowes Dickinson (cf. Heretics, Chapter XII) said that the big difference between paganism and Christianity was asceticism. With great emphasis, stating his disagreement in five different ways, Chesterton says it is not so:
I think he has made his point.
The principal difference, he asserts by way of rebuttal, is between the natural, pagan virtues of justice and temperance, which are sad and rational, and the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are gay, exuberant, and "as unreasonable as they can be."(158) Chesterton found that the three mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity were at the root of the simplicity of heart that protects the joy and exuberance of life from false asceticism. These three mystical and paradoxical virtues were exactly what he needed to live in elfland:
I find these insights into the Gospel from a lay journalist of Fleet Street simply astounding.
The clear, rational virtues stopped at the borders of elfland. Paganism was really a world of common sense. But when men came to the "stress of ultimate need, and a terrible knowledge of things as they are" (161), new virtues were needed; and Christianity gave birth to them:
These are the mystical virtues necessary for Chesterton's vision of reality. The neo-pagans of the modern world wish to go back to reason and the sane, sad virtues of paganism; but we cannot. They have proved insufficient for the human journey:
When I turned to Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, his book about Christ, to see what I could discover about mysticism, I did not find very much. Instead, what I found was a Mystical Person, a portrait of a human nature perfectly penetrated with the Presence, living very "naturally" in two worlds. In short, I found the model mystic.
We have developed, over centuries of Christian reflection and experience, a certain technical conception of what mysticism is. Now, armed with these studies, we go back to the Gospels to see if Jesus was a mystic! Of course, it should be the other way round: the Lord's life and teaching should be seen as defining true mysticism -- what it means to be penetrated with the Presence -- since he was the Presence Incarnate. He is the True Mystic, and our theories about mysticism should be based on his life, teachings, and approach to reality.
There is a debate about whether or not there is any mysticism in Christ's teachings. (If there isn't any, then who would want to be a mystic!) There are only, it is said, a few illustrative texts to draw on -- mostly in John - but encompassing also the famous "John-like" texts of Matt. 11:27 and the similar text of Luke 10:22. There is, moreover, the "mystical scene" of the Transfiguration, as well as some elements of his teaching: "Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God." All these were texts which were later glossed in the Christian mystical tradition.
Christ worked miracles - for some a sign of a mystic. But he performs them effortlessly; one could say almost naturally. And when he prays, he is not transfixed in ecstacies, like many mystics. He prays quite normally, speaking to God as his Father; and probably with his eyes open. So, for some students of mysticism, Jesus does not appear to have had the required "mystical characteristics" possessed by so many of his saintly followers down through the centuries.
Chesterton would have been delighted with the ironies of this debate. He often expressed, throughout his writings, many reservations about traditional mystics and mysticism. There was altogether too much mystification swirling around them. That is why he would have certainly come down on the side of the argument which says: "Of course there is mysticism in Christ's life and teaching. But let us look at the Gospel with new eyes and see what mysticism really is, not what the theorists have decided it should be."
In The Everlasting Man he makes this pithy observation: "Relatively speaking, it is the Gospel that has the mysticism and the Church that has the rationalism," (189) meaning (in my words): "Christ is the true Mystic. It's the pseudo-mystics who have built up rationalistic constructs which they then gaze upon in spellbound fascination."
The whole approach of The Everlasting Man is an attempt to see Christ as if for the first time, with the eyes of a modern person who has no previous knowledge of Christ. If we also look with these new eyes at the mysticism of Christ, we may find a number of things which do not fit many of our preconceived notions. This is because the eyes of many modern persons are clouded over by a dense fog of rationalism about the interior life.
Let us posit a statement with which no orthodox Christian would disagree: "Christ was the perfect embodiment of union with the Presence, since he was the second Person of the Trinity." As he says, "I and the Father are one." However one wishes to express the tension in the human attempt to live in this Presence -- between the active and contemplative life, the natural and the supernatural, time and eternity, the absolute world of ideas and the temporary flux -- Christ was the perfect living harmony of these seeming dichotomies, since he was God in the flesh. One would suppose, therefore, that it ought to be his life and actions that set the standard for mysticism rather than some abstruse theory which even he does not fit. The life of Christ, who was true God and true Man, provides us with the perfect picture of the true mystic.
In his attempt to see Christ through the eyes of a modern reader, Chesterton suspends his own faith. The intent of his presentation is that if you have a preconceived notion that Christ is only human, the gospels themselves, at face value, belie that estimation.
What Chesterton says about Christ in The Everlasting Man provides a striking contrast with popular views of mystics and mysticism. It is useful, at this stage of our inquiry, to review some of the passages in The Everlasting Man, not in order to arrive at a mystical doctrine, but to show what a true mystic is and draw some trenchant comparisons.
During his life we find that Jesus grew in his humanity. Meanwhile, in his divine nature, there was no growth. He was always in immediate contact with the Presence -- with his Father and with the Holy Spirit. The question that arises is: what did such a perfect mystic in our world look like? For my purposes, Chesterton begins with "unmiraculous and even unnoticed and inconspicuous parts of the story" (188), which is to say, the hidden life of Nazareth.
When Chesterton spoke about mystics like St. Francis and St. Anthony of the Desert, he mentioned how they went into caves and had their initiations into the mystical life. The Buddha, also, in order to be enlightened, left his family to enter a stage of deep detachment under the Bodhi tree. Humanly speaking, we would expect Jesus to go through some such period of discipline and purification, like all the other great religious founders. This is not what happened:
A myth-maker would be more likely to say that Jesus, after about twenty years or so in Nazareth, went into the Judaean wilderness for ten years, and that there, through extreme fasting and detachment from all worldly things, he achieved an enlightenment for his public mission. (Incidentally, John the Baptist is often considered to fit the requirements of this traditional ascetical way. And some would make Jesus a member of the Qumram ascetic community in the Judaen desert. But our whole tradition is against it.) After that, according to this familiar path of the great religious founders, he would have gone forth to teach what he had learned in his wilderness cave, once he had been purified and enlightened.
This is not at all what happened. We don't see the Lord going through a rigorous monastic formation with the Essenes; nor does he spend ten years wandering the world in search of wisdom, like the Buddha. The tradition is that he lived such an ordinary, human existence at home that, when he did start to preach, his own townspeople wondered "where he got it all." Even they couldn't believe he got it all in their own home town. They, better than anyone else, knew the straitened levels of religious and cultural attainment in Nazareth.
Christ did not have to go through all the mystical tumblings of a St. Francis. He did not have to rise into the center of the divine cloud and descend again, nor did he have to burrow so deeply into the human condition as to come out on the other side. From the moment of his conception, he was in union with the Father. At the age of twelve he says things like, "Did you not know I must be about my Father's business," which completely baffled his holy parents. His comment indicates that he was living in some other realm. Or rather, he was "naturally" living perfectly in both realms, which is precisely Chesterton's definition of a mystic.
It has often been remarked, in a variety of ways, that the final stage of true mysticism is a great simplicity:
But one thing is clear; namely, that the higher stages of the mystical life are very ordinary. There is no ecstasy, no rapture, no flash of light, no bells, no incense. It is a very quiet and simple realization that God is my Father and I, another Christ, am truly his son or his daughter, and that the Holy Spirit dwells in me.
If you met a person at this stage, you might not know that you were meeting a mystic. And the person surely would not know or care if he was a mystic or not. After all the spiritual tumblings and experiences, the true mystic comes round again with simply being a person, although now everything is wonderfully different. Jesus in Nazareth at least fits the above definition of a mystic: utter simplicity of life.
Chesterton cites some examples of the Lord's teachings - the Unjust Steward, "not peace but a sword", virginity, the indissolubility of marriage -- and characterizes these sayings thus:
It should be noted that he uses the word "mysticism" not about a teaching of Christ which proceeds from an experiential contact with the All, or about a method of how to become absorbed into union with God. No. Chesterton uses the word in reference to a teaching that points to another world, while being enmeshed very much in this one. The Lord said, "What God has joined together no man must separate":
Once again, it is fascinating to see how Chesterton uses the word "mystical." It certainly refers to things unseen, but also to realities very much enfleshed: a man and a woman forming one sacramental substance. Christ spoke about things in a way independent of his own culture and times:
The truth about Christ that emerges from Chesterton's presentation is that Christ lived effortlessly in the two worlds of the earth and the Kingdom. With deft ease, Christ creates masterpieces of literature by going, for example, in a consummate, threefold movement from the lilies of the field to a crowning utterance: "and if God so clothes the grass that today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven - how much more you". By means of this stunning progression of images, Chesterton points out, man is "lifted by three infinities above all other things." (200) Christ's "far-flung comparisons suggest something very vast, subtle and superior, something that is capable of long views and even double meanings." (200) No one, be it Moses or Mahomet or Buddha, ever said, "before Abraham was, I am"; and yet he says it "calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder." (197)
He casts out demons, again, effortlessly: "Come out of him." He is not wrestling with the demons as Jacob wrestled with the angel. There is no combat taking place, but deliberate, calm authority. "The Jesus of the New Testament seems to me to have in a great many ways the note of something superhuman; that is, of something human and more than human." (203) And contrasting him again with the Buddha, Chesterton highlights the essential difference between the two mysticisms:
This is emphatically not the mysticism of Christ. Jesus does not teach us, nor does his life exemplify, how to escape into a life of peace and aloofness from the world. ("Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth. Not peace, I tell you, but a sword.") Rather, Chesterton notes:
In prayer, the Lord must have been totally absorbed in intimacy with his Father. But this absorption is not like that of many of the mystics, totally insensitive to what is going on around him, or even lifted above the ground in levitation. The Gospel often tells us he prayed while in the company of his disciples. It's a possible theory that unusual manifestations such as ecstasy and levitation are due to the weakness of human nature, unable to sustain the Presence. Christ manifests the perfection of our nature, at home with the Presence.
I've often remarked that one of the criticisms of mystics is their neglect of the world. Christ's life and prayer did not make him neglect the earth, or disregard the doing of the Father's will on earth as in heaven.
Chesterton, in the quote above, characterized Christ's life as a "military march." He said the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. This suggests an offensive manoeuvre, an attacking movement, parried by a greater force, active in its resistance.
His public life constituted the greatest armada in history, setting out to do battle with all the forces of evil arrayed against him. Buddha, on the other hand, was passive before evil (which perhaps did not even exist for him). Christ actively confronts Satan and all his minions, who are very real. Christ has come to do battle with them. Christ's is a mysticism of combat against evil in the name of God.
In a Chapter of The Everlasting Man entitled "The Witness of the Heretics" (Part II, iv), Chesterton shows how modern criticisms of early Christianity really apply most aptly to the very heresies which the Church defeated. It was precisely the Church which stood fast against the grotesque distortions of the heresiarchs, defying the spirit of the age. The Church had the key. If platonists or anybody else thought of the human person as being in a prison, the Church had "the key that could unlock the prison of the whole world; and let in the white light of liberty." (213)
As we have seen (Chapter 4) Chesterton often brings up the matter of asceticism when speaking of mystics, since the two are closely related: asceticism is one of the primary ways through which people seek an experience of the Presence. Asceticism is one of the examples Chesterton uses to illustrate his point about the Church as keeper of the keys. His comments clarify his understanding of the difference between false and true asceticism.
Chesterton rehearses some of the objections urged against the Church and then points out that the Church was not the guilty party:
Chesterton is always concerned with the inner world of the ascetic. He admits that Christianity had its desert dwellers and phenomenal feats of asceticism, but its inner world was different from that of the heretics: "The early Church was indeed very ascetic, in connection with a totally different philosophy; but the philosophy of a war on life and nature as such really did exist in the world, if only the critics knew where to look for it." (222) In the early centuries there really was
The "Escape From Paganism", as Chesterton called it, using the term as a Chapter heading in The Everlasting Man (II,v), was an utterly unique escape from the prisons of all the mythologies and philosophies of the world, for it was not accomplished by a new mythology or a new philosophy. It can only be called a truly mystical event, the penetration of the world from the outside by the Presence: the Incarnation of God. In this sense Christianity is a mystical religion in its very essence, for by his absolute graciousness God revealed himself to our poor human race:
When Chesterton accepted, by faith, the Incarnation of the Son of God, all the pieces of the human puzzle came together for him. It was the key. In other words, it was a mystical vision which illuminated all of reality for him:
Does this insight, "that it [the vision] probably comes once and for all" flow from his own experience?
Acceptance of the Incarnation brings together the two worlds in which the mystic ought to live:
The Everlasting Man is a brilliant argument from history, showing the distinctiveness of Christianity, which is completely unlike all the other religions and philosophies. Just as people were saying in the nineteenth century that there really was not much difference between Christianity and other religions, between Christ and other great religious founders, so they were saying -- and many are still saying this today -- that at the deepest level there really are not any differences in the mystical experiences of people from various traditions. At bottom ( the argument goes) all these experiences of the Presence are the same.
Not so, says Chesterton: "The religion of the world, in its right proportions, is not divided into fine shades of mysticism or more or less rational forms of mythology. It is divided by the line between the men who are bringing that message [of the gospel] and the men who have not yet heard it, or cannot yet believe it." (267)
This is an important point to emphasize: not even all authentic mysticisms are the same. Although Chesterton deals mostly with true and false ways of envisioning reality, and not so much with the content of the mystic vision, his comment above about mysticism not being divided into "fine shades" merits a brief discussion at this point. I believe he would agree with the following conclusions.
Stephen T. Katz is a world recognized scholar in this area of comparative mysticism. He has written several books on the topic. I shall be referring to his article, "The Conservative Character of Mysticism."
First of all, he emphasizes that there are no pure, unmediated religious experiences of the divine. (We would except only Christ from this theory.) We have mystical experiences through the medium of who we are and what we think. These experiences, moreover, are conditioned by the religious and/or metaphysical concepts we have. As the scholastics used to say: "Whatever is received, is received through the medium of the receiver." People do not have a pure, unfiltered experience of the Presence and then give it an interpretation. They have a mediated experience:
At that point in his journey Chesterton probably did not have a total Christian ontology with which to interpret his early experiences. But gradually he did arrive at it by discovering the key of Catholic orthodoxy. Here is Katz's broadly typical description of that Christian ontology:
In the case of Chesterton, Katz's general description here must be qualified, tempered by the unique aspects of Chesterton's gift. It needs to be stressed that Chesterton's mystical grace was more precisely a reflexive turning from the Creator towards the world in amazement, rather than a turning away from it. It was precisely a this-worldly grace,a celebration of the wonder and glory of material existence as reflecting the "immortally active" God.
It is important to note here also that we are not talking about moral differences in the variety of mystical experiences. Only God knows who is really closer to him, the Hindu mystic or the Christian mystic. The grace of Christ can come to people in mysterious ways, and the Church has never denied this. The point is that mystical experiences, because of the ontologies of the mystic, are certainly not identical. And the theoretical conclusions and/or practical consequences of the various mystical experiences are certainly not identical, nor guaranteed to be true.
Chesterton also has much to say about the effects of the different views of reality. The burning, desert monotheism of Islam drives one to passionate conquest and to an all-embracing, uncompromising religio-cultural unity. The Buddhist experience of nirvana has an inhibiting effect, conditioning a person to leave the world pretty much as it is. The Christian experience of the Trinity, however, if rightly understood, impels believers to strive for the unity of mankind and the socializing of the world in justice and truth.
But the main point here, to repeat, is that the mysticisms of the world are not the same; they are not on some sliding scale, different in degree, but not in kind, merely shading off into each another on one and same spectrum. Instead, a radically different ontology lies behind each of them. Once again Katz explains:
But perhaps even more significant for my purposes is Katz's main thesis:
He says that the more common characteristics of mysticism are to "see the older tradition in a new guise; to give a personal confirmation of existing doctrine; to give a legitimate extension of traditional teaching, or a new but authoritative stage of tradition." (22) In short, most of the time, mysticism is deeply rooted in one's traditional religious tradition; it is, therefore, basically conservative.
In the following passage, Katz describes the impact of Teresa of Avila, although what he says about her could be applied to Chesterton as well. (It should be remembered, incidentally, that, like Katz, Chesterton himself preferred the word "reform.")
Popularly we think of mystics as going "beyond good and evil," as having visions beyond all concepts and structures, and thus in practice dispensing with the need for orthodox dogmas and/or religious structures. Katz's conclusions -- which Chesterton saw decades ago -- indicate that this is simply not so. The genuine mystics are deeply centred in their religious traditions. They enrich them from the inside by interiorizing and deepening them. By no means do they do away with, or counsel a disregard for, the ontological structures within which they live.
In this sense, Chesterton's orthodoxy is a further argument for his having been a very genuine mystic. His mysticism did not propel him "beyond doctrine and structures." It led him to the heart of orthodoxy. His mystical grace was rooted in humility and wisdom and openness to the truth. In due course, St. Francis and Thomas Aquinas served to complete his Christian understanding of true mysticism.
 It is important to remember that the material of many of his books antedate, sometimes by years, the date of publication. And how long were the thoughts with him even before the first articles?
 "All things have been entrusted to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (Matt.)
 William Johnston, The Inner Eye of Love, Mysticism and Religion,(San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), 37-38.
 Cf. the end of The Napolean of Notting Hill, where Chesterton describes each of the two main characters as representing one lobe of the brain.
 Mysticism and Religious Traditions, Edited by Steven T. Katz (Oxford University Press, 1983)
 Ibid., 4-5,13.
 We've discussed something of Chesterton's possible understanding of God early in life in Chapter 2 above.
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