PART II TRUE MYSTICS, OR LANDING ON ONE'S FEET
ST. FRANCIS: LE JONGLEUR DE DIEU
Chesterton's discussion of the mysticism of St. Francis will serve to clarify in a particular way the true mystic's relationship to nature and the elements, exemplified so beautifully by his regard for Brother Sun and Sister Moon. (Chesterton points out, incidentally, that Francis never called the earth his mother, but rather his sister.) As I hope to show, St. Francis will also expand our understanding of Chesterton's own mysticism. I submit that it is his most mystical book, especially the Chapter entitled "Le Jongleur de Dieu." It is indeed so mystical, and in some ways so intellectually compact, that many people, myself included, miss a great deal of its profundity the first time through.
As an aid to understanding the book, I would like to attempt to unpack what it contains. If it is read with the optic of what I am saying about Chesterton's mysticism -- that his is a mysticism of the elemental and primary "it-is-thereness of being"-- it makes more sense. From the point of view of ideas, it is as profound as anything you will read in Plotinus or any of the "intellectual mystics." Along with the mysticism of St. Thomas, which will be considered more briefly in the next Chapter, it contains some of his most profound thoughts about what he called, towards the end of his life, "my original and almost mystical conviction."
The Mystic As Tumbler
In this magnificent Chapter, "Le Jongleur de Dieu," Chesterton gives some background on the troubadours in Provence and Languedoc, who influenced St.Francis. The Little Poor Man called his followers the "jongleurs de Dieu". As Chesterton explains:
A jongleur was not the same thing as a troubadour, even if the same man were both a troubadour and a jongleur. The jongleur was properly a joculator or jester; sometimes he was what we should call a juggler. Sometimes he may have been a tumbler; like that acrobat in the beautiful legend who was called `The Tumbler of Our Lady'. And when St. Francis called his followers the Jongleurs de Dieu, he meant something very like the Tumblers of Our Lady.
Chesterton uses the image of tumbling, and of the mystic as a tumbler, to explain what happened to Francis:
My contention is that the following description by Chesterton of what happened to Francis under the metaphor of tumbling could be applied to all genuine mystical experiences, his own included. Perhaps I should say that it stands as a description of what Chesterton would have desired to happen to all mystics. As we shall see shortly in reference to the Fraticelli, some "mystics" attempt their somersault, but do not land back on their feet; they land on their heads. And the stars created by such a fall (I experienced these stars once when I knocked myself out while ice-skating) blind them to the fullness of Catholic truth.
Happily, I am not concerned with whether or not this account of Chesterton's accurately describes the mysticism of St. Francis. It is frequently commented that Chesterton's writings about others are often more about himself. The question of accuracy is the task of Franciscan scholars to sort out. What I have been delighted to discover is that this image describes the mysticism of Chesterton according to my theory! As always, the discerning reader will judge. In any case, when St. Francis landed back on his feet, he was a different man, and he saw the world - well, like Chesterton:
This is one of Chesterton's key images for the mystical experience and its effects. It could be applied to anyone who has experienced a mystical touch from God. As I have been emphasizing, this touch can occur through almost any medium or any devotional act. It can occur anywhere - in a cave, in a prison, in the forest, before the Blessed Sacrament - anytime.
The people we call mystics are those for whom such an experience perdures as a more or less constant awareness, if not with the same intense tonalities as the original one, at least with the same depth of God-Presence which was communicated to them initially. And, most importantly of all, the effects of such an experience remain part of their permanent spiritual consciousness.
I am most concerned with these effects of the tumbling experience on Francis. They are similar to the same effects which formed part of Chesterton's own mystical awareness. Much of what he relates in St. Francis could be interpreted as a description of the effects, on him, of his own mystical tumbling:
The "walking on his hands" is significant also, for later on Chesterton will use another related image for the mystical experience, that of seeing the world upside-down. What were some of the other effects caused by Francis' spiritual tumbling?
First of all, Francis did not enter the cave and stand on his head as a technique to acquire a new experience. "Our Lady's Tumbler did not stand on his head in order to see flowers and trees as a clearer or quainter vision. He did not do so; and it would never have occurred to him to do so. Our Lady's Tumbler stood on his head to please Our Lady." (104)
Part of the pseudo-mystical scene today involves the use of techniques in order to achieve some kind of experience of God. Francis' new vision occurred after the fact of seeking to please Our Lady. "That is why it is not true to represent St. Francis as a mere romantic forerunner of the Renaissance and a revival of natural pleasures for their own sake." (104) Francis's motive was "of a purely supernatural thought." (103) "The whole point of him was that the secret of recovering the natural pleasures lay in regarding them in the light of a supernatural pleasure." (104). From first to last, Francis's mysticism is bathed in a supernatural light, both in his original motives and as a background to his vision of reality.
A second effect of Francis's tumbling was the illumination of how foolish he was: "It was a solid objective fact, like the stones in the road, that he had made a fool of himself. And as he stared at the word `fool' written in luminous letters before him, the word itself began to shine and change." (106) "When Francis came forth from his cave of vision, he was wearing the same word `fool' as a feather in his cap; as a crest or even a crown. He would go on being a fool; he would become more and more of a fool; he would be the court fool of the King of Paradise." (107-08) We have from Francis's own lips the testimony that "the Lord asked me to be a fool the likes of which the world had never seen before."
Then Chesterton uses another image of the mystical experience which, again, could be applied to all such experiences. He recalls the story from the nursery about a man boring a hole through the center of the earth and going down so far that eventually he begins to come up. He says he has never done this himself and so cannot really verify it. Francis went so far down in humiliation that he came up in complete holiness or happiness. "It was so far analogous to the story of the man making a tunnel through the earth that it did mean a man going down and down until at some mysterious moment he begins to go up and up. We have never gone up like that because we have never gone down like that." (107)
I believe Chesterton did "go down like that," even though, in his humility, he says "of the intrinsic internal essence of the experience, I make no pretence of writing at all." (107) His whole vision of reality testifies to the fact that he did go down and down, and that he did come up and up. He was a humble man.
Another effect of the mystical tumbling, of seeing the world while standing on your hands, is a profound experience of dependence, which is very closely allied to the virtue of humility, discovered by Chesterton very early in life.
"Humility," as is well known, comes from the Latin word for earth, humus. You really do become humble after the mystical somersault, that is to say, "grounded," when you land back on the earth on your feet, but now with new eyes. In the upside-down phase of your mystic orbit, you see an extraordinary thing: the earth hanging. What Chesterton says here about the town of Assisi applies to every single creature, animate or inanimate, that God has made, and to every bit of culture on the whole earth:
Chesterton is giving here some benchmarks for determining genuine mysticism. One sees the same things as before, but because of the "new and divine light, " that is, the illuminative aspect of the mystical experience, one realizes everything's total dependence on God. One becomes humble when one realizes one's creaturehood, namely, that one is being upheld at each moment by a golden thread.
Experiencing this absolute dependence of everything on God, one receives a deep understanding of the true meaning of things:
People speak about the meaninglessness of life. They have not seen life's absolute origins in God. They have not understood Chesterton's profound insight into the essence of life's meaning, that, like all of creation, "their origin is a part of them".
The vision of everything depending upon God has another illuminative aspect. Mystically aware that Someone is holding everything up (or down), you see this Someone everywhere. Chesterton uses the difference between a poet and a mystic to define this distinction between ordinary and extraordinary consciousness. The following passage also describes the priority in Chesterton's mysticism of it-is-thereness over a secondary reflection on what is there.
A minor poet is once removed from reality, and may say that the sun is like a huge bonfire on the fourth of July. The saint and the mystic see primordial fire flaming forth emblematically from all of creation. Or, to draw closer to Chesterton's example, do you remember your first emotional, adolescent infatuation with someone, the glow of first love? For a time, anyhow, everyone is seen as an emanation of the beloved; everything is suffused and colored by the beloved, so that you can see nothing else. The beloved "illustrates and illumines all things", so to speak. Chesterton continues to elaborate this universal vision:
It is important to see the crucial distinction he makes here and its deep significance. What he is saying is that a direct intuition of the dependence of all things on God, a vivid appreciation that their origin derives from him, resulting in an experience, for example, of God present in flowers, actually causes faith in the saint. The poet, on the other hand, who represents us ordinary mortals, has faith first and then sees God's presence in the flower.
Some clarifications are in order here.
Chesterton is not speaking here about the origins of Christian faith. This is not a kind of nature mysticism. Francis was a Christian before his divine tumbling, and most assuredly his faith in Christ and in his Father was an ingredient in his new mystical vision of the world. What Chesterton is talking about is a permanent way of seeing the world. For the poet the world is a kind of hazy background to individual things. Not so for the mystic. To get to the depth of this distinction, Chesterton utters what to many modern admirers of Francis may seem like a blasphemous statement by claiming that St. Francis was not a lover of nature:
Before continuing with this quotation, I note Chesterton's slight dissatisfaction with both the romantic author of the imagined scene and the hermit's relationship to nature. I believe he saw too much of what he calls "mystification" even in Christian mysticism. To continue:
When I was in Assisi in 1986, there were huge pictures of a polar bear on every post. An international environmental meeting was being held there at the time. Even the Duke of Edinburgh came. St. Francis seems to have become nowadays the patron saint of lovers of the earth, the patron saint of Greenpeace. To be sure, I think Francis would have been delighted with Brother Bear's picture displayed all over his town. But I'm afraid some of the people involved in this meeting were probably what Chesterton would call pantheists, people who believe in everything as part of the evolutionary energy of things.
There is a "Gaia" doctrine current these days which holds that the world itself and everything in it are one immense living and breathing organism. There really is a great deal of sentimentality that underlies this whole trend of thought, as when animals, for instance, are proclaimed to have similar rights to those of humans. This is mawkish, sloppy thinking.
The next passage directly addresses some of these modern pantheists who, having lost a deeper, philosophical view of the nature of reality, lump it all together indiscriminately:
Ready examples of this type of "oriental visionary" alluded to by Chesterton can be found in most forms of Hindu or Buddhist mysticism. Some of these systems actually do deny material reality: their adherents cannot land back on their feet after their mystical tumbling because there is nothing really to land on. They remain suspended in mid-air.
Chesterton calls these "mere mystics" or, in this case, "only mystics." These terms carry the same pejorative sense as the word "mystification". What he means (and we shall see a Christian instance of it when we come to the Fraticelli) is that these people have not come out of their somersaults. To repeat the images: they have landed jarringly on their heads instead of their feet; or they have not gone down far enough into the divine darkness to start the journey back up. They have gone inward without coming out again to see the actual world with new eyes. They have not striven to acquire a correct appreciation of outward reality. Hence, they often have a distorted vision of truth. In Christian tradition we call such mystics - if their visions are too distorted - heresiarchs, and their obscure visions heresies.
In yet another profound paragraph Chesterton makes a very subtle distinction between seeing things in their ever-present pristine origin from God -- "their origin is a part of them" -- and meeting them second-hand, as it were. Speaking again of the effects of mystical tumbling, he explains:
The genuine, saintly mystic, who has completed the somersault and landed back on his feet, is spiritually and psychologically "on the other side of things." His intuition of things coming forth from God is a constant daylight affair; he sees this all the time.
The poet, meanwhile, only gets lightning flashes (levin-blaze) once in a while. For the genuine mystic, created things are like children constantly coming forth from the creative being of God. As for us ordinary mortals, who are not in immediate touch with the emergent being of things, we wait on the road of life for them to reveal themselves at some special and privileged moments: "For us the elements are like heralds who tell us with trumpet and tabard that we are drawing near the city of a great king." (112)
In contrast, the mystic, on account of his immediate intuition of the origin of the elements at every moment, "is more familiar, more free and fraternal, more carelessly hospitable than we. He hails them with an old familiarity that is almost an old frivolity. He calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water." (112)
This intuition on the part of Francis - that he and all things are emerging at every moment from the same Father of all - is the source of a characteristic which Chesterton calls courtesy. Speaking of the time when Francis had his eyes cauterized, he says: "When they took the brand from the furnace, he rose as with an urbane gesture and spoke as to an invisible presence: `Brother Fire, God made you beautiful and strong and useful; I pray you be courteous with me.'" (137)
Francis's brotherhood was not of the back-slapping type, given to bluff, boisterous camaraderie: "That was not the equality which Francis of Assisi encouraged; but an equality of the opposite kind; it was a camaraderie actually founded on courtesy." (139)
At every moment everything is actually proceeding from the abyss of the creativity of God. The mystic has entered this abyss and returned from it through his spiritual tumbling.
This abyss is so dreadful and formidable, so utterly fathomless, that Chesterton makes bold, in the following passage, to call it an "almost nihilistic abyss". This is one of the best and most moving explications of Chesterton's own mysticism, another striking keynote of which is praise:
In this exquisitely mystical language we have a superb overview of Chesterton's mysticism. Quite evident is his constant intuition of the amazing it-is-thereness of being. Equally, he is very much aware that at every moment creatures are originating from God. Since every moment is witness to the action of God's creating power, it is no mere hyperbole to say that the true mystic is ever present at the very foundations of the world. What is more, he even appreciates "the nothing of which everything was made."
I would like to make a comment about the following two phrases that occur in this passage: "the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else," and "the nothing of which everything was made."
I prefer Chesterton's first phrase; the second is the traditional one about God making things out of nothing. Actually, nothing doesn't exist. What we mean when we say "out of nothing" is that at one time, in the aeons of God's eternity, there was only God. While there was nothing created - God didn't need some formless material to make things - still, everything was filled with God. Chesterton's phrase "the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else" means "the beginingless beginnings in which there was nothing else but God."
His mysticism consists of being aware that at every moment, and not just "in the beginning", God is creating and suspending everything by his creative act. This intuitive awareness that all is hanging on his power and proceeding from his pure graciousness lies at the source of Chesterton's mysticism. How much his mysticism overlaps with that of Francis is another question. Whatever the case, the immediacy and vigor of his sense of mystic dependence arise obviously from the fruits of his own passionate experience of the Presence:
By "the contemplative life" I understand him to mean the making of an interior vision enabling a person to gain some notion of "the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God". Everyday consciousness, on the other hand, uses the imagination to cover up "with the illusion of ordinary life" our sense of everything depending on God. To live with the abiding consciousness of the truth that creation depends on God is to be filled, he says, with gratitude: "The great painter boasted that he mixed all his colours with brains, and the great saint may be said to mix all his thoughts with thanks. All goods look better when they look like gifts." (114)
But lying even deeper than seeing everything as akin to a birthday present is the realization that we are in debt: "The shortest statement of one aspect of this illumination is to say that it is the discovery of an infinite debt."
To be debtors to the Lord is not a new idea. We read in St. Paul: "Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation, but it is not to the sinful nature"(8:12). Older translations say, "we are debtors", rather than "we have an obligation". In the Latin rendering of the Bible, this passage is translated by recourse to the word debitores, which echoes the exact meaning of the Greek term in the original text. The singular of debitores is debitor, which means: "a debtor, one who owes, one who is indebted".
Perhaps modern people have too many unpleasant memories of owing money to the banks, which makes "having an obligation" a less painful translation. In any case, Chesterton thinks being in debt to God (which is what St. Paul implies in the rest of that passage) can be a joyful experience flowing from the intuition that we all hang on God's boundless love and creativity:
The Key To Asceticism
When, earlier in this Chapter, Chesterton was quoted as saying that St. Peter saw the world upside-down when he was crucified, he did not elaborate on the subject of suffering and asceticism. Certainly St. Peter was suffering then, as he looked out on the world from this fresh, new perspective. It is, indeed, quite possible for an initial mystical experience to be all joy and light and bliss, but not necessarily so. In the main, however, it must be said that there is an ascetical, purifying dimension which is absolutely essential in sustaining the new view of reality that results from the tumbling. As Chesterton points out, the mystical experience drives one towards asceticism for principally two reasons: as an attempt to pay the unpayable debt; and as a means to keep God, as the absolutely first love in one's life among all our other loves:
George MacDonald, whom both Chesterton and C.S. Lewis acknowledged as their teacher in story telling (and whom we shall consider later), has one of his Christ-figures say, "Well, you know, God is easy to please but hard to satisfy."
In spiritual direction, I often quote this to people if I think they are too scrupulous, or trying to satisfy, in an impossible way, some demanding, taskmaster image of God. I tell them that the slightest act of love pleases the Lord.
But the saints are not satisfied with this. They know God's love is insatiable, that the debt is unpayable -- but they try to repay it all the same. Their immense love seeks to repay love for love. Impossible, of course, but loves does such things:
Chesterton calls this magnanimous attitude "romantic love," and suggests that, if we ever lose it, we will have lost chivalry in love just as we have lost chivalry in war. "They will have lost the clue to all that lovers have meant by love; and will not understand that it is because a thing was not demanded that it was done." (118)
He says that because some have lost this key to love, they cannot understand the asceticism of the saints. They call it gloomy. And I have often heard people call asceticism masochistic, sadistic, and other such pejorative terms. It certainly can be that. Indeed, it might have been that in some of the "mere mystics." But not so in Francis, not in the real mystics:
A further reason, therefore, for what is variously called detachment or ascetical distance from things and relationships lies in the glorious humiliation that comes with the vision of dependence on the divine love, which is linked, of course, to the intuitive sense that everything hangs on God's creative action at every moment.
Saints are often said to be "detached." This distance can often cause others to perceive them as impersonal or not fully human. No. It's just that the vision of the divine Presence has put everything into proper perspective, and the mystics must strive to keep it that way. If they are really immersed in God, they need to order their lives in such a way that they can continue to experience everything in relationship to him:
What wonderfully deep spirituality! All of us struggle with the tension between loving God and loving neighbor. The problem lies in keeping these loves in proper order. Although saints can sometimes strike us as distant and impersonal, this is because they have experienced their absolute dependence on God and are not seeking human relationships or resting in them. They can no longer take them too seriously.
This deep spirituality brings about a similar lack of seriousness in relation to social structures and in relation to our very selves:
People often refer to an experience of the divine reality as a new birth. St. Paul speaks of being a new man in Christ. Such experiences often give one a totally different view of oneself:
These are the positive effects of the mystical intuition, of the divine tumbling, of the boring into the center of the divine Love and coming up again. Chesterton exemplifies these character traits in his own life. They flow from his having completed the mystic circle.References
 G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis, pp.108-109. All page numbers in this Chapter, unless otherwise noted, are from this book. As regards this first quote, Denis Conlon, in a private communication, said that, "GKC is not quite right in his definition. The jongleurs did sing the Chansons de geste and the Romans d'Aventures."
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