Chapter 8 Chapter 6 Contents List

      One of the aspects of Chesterton's life and thought which eventually led me to ask about his mysticism was what I call his "charism of truth."

      Many observations about Chesterton center around the truth-quality of his mind.  In 1986, Cardinal Carter of Toronto, commenting in his homily at the Chesterton Anniversary Conference Mass, mentioned Chesterton's "truly prophetic gift." Writing from England, J.J. Scarisbrick wrote in response:

We all know that he was an enormously good man as well as enormous man. Above all, there was that breathtaking, intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth and awareness of the supernatural which only a truly holy person can enjoy. This was the gift of heroic intelligence and understanding - and of heroic prophecy. He was a giant spiritually as well as physically. Has there ever been anyone quite like him in Catholic history?[1]

      Chesterton's mysticism reveals itself most especially in the realm of the mind. People often know very little about him personally, but they are drawn to him by the depth of his insights. Some of the Church's great minds such as  Origen, Augustine and Aquinas have spoken with such depth that the Church has concluded that they were close to God. Would they have been canonized if they had not written those profound things? To be canonized one must have lived the gospel to a heroic degree. Can this heroic virtue be manifested and authenticated through the gospel quality of one's mind? The Church answers yes.

      The mystical grace I am agruing for in Chesterton - an immediate awareness of the Presence in and through created reality - affected, of course, his whole person.[2] But it was through the quality of his mind that this grace was principally manifested. In theological terms, it was the gift of knowledge:

      St. Augustine: according to the distinction which the apostle made when he said, 'to one is given the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge,' that definition must be divided: the knowledge of divine things is properly wisdom, and that of human things is properly called knowledge. It is one thing to know only what a man ought to believe in order to attain to a blessed life, which is none other than eternal life, and another to know how this may be of assistance to the pious, and be defended against the wicked, what the apostle seems to call by the special designation of knowledge.[3]

      Chesterton's wife Frances once asked him why he didn't write more about God. He replied, "I am always writing about God." But his gift was not that of theological wisdom properly so-called, writing explicitly about the mysteries of the faith. His was the gift of a sort of sacred practical theology, to treat of human affairs in the light of faith. He wrote of St. Francis: "[He] cast a new supernatural light on natural things, the ultimate recovery, not refusal, of natural things." That's exactly the gift Chesterton had through his mystical grace.

      This grace of immediacy with the Presence gave a certain definite quality to his thinking. Another kind of grace impels one (Aquinas, for example) to sit down quietly and contemplates the large, eternal plan of things. Chesterton's grace riveted him on present realities, what journalists are interested in:

I have no feeling for immortality. I don't care for anything except to be in the present stress of life as it is. I would rather live now and die, from an artistic point of view, than keep aloof and write things that will remain in the world hundreds of years after my death. [4]

      Mackey comments that in spite of this wish, Chesterton has withstood the test of time extremely well. This "test of time" is another proof of the profundity of his grace. Although he was immersed in the issues of his day, his insights, you might say, are eternal and have a lasting value.       This does not mean, of course, that he was right about everything. But he was right about a great deal.

      I don't know about the present reader, but when I read Chesterton I find myself saying, "It's true. It's true." Chesterton said that the Church was a "truth-telling Thing." Chesterton was a truth-telling mystic.

Do Mystics Study and Use Their Minds?

      There is a disputed question as to the place of study in mysticism which is relevant to our discussion of whether Chesterton was a mystic or not. Don't mystics turn their minds off and remain in the darkness of faith? Some do, and some don't. While St. Francis saw dangers in the use of the mind, St.Thomas saw dangers only in how to use it. Thomas did not doubt that the mind should be used.

      It is a matter of debate among the schools of mysticism whether or not learning and study should have a place in the mystical, contemplative life. There is one ancient and strong tradition which says that books, learning, and study are not only not necessary for the deeper life with God, but positively an obstacle.   It would be very easy to marshall hundreds of quotations from the desert fathers, from the monks of East -- especially from the East -- and West, and from the writings of some of the mystics, to the effect that learning is an obstacle to the final ascent of the spirit to God. All that is necessary is the Holy Scriptures. For the rest, the mind should be free from the interference of intellectual activity, as it seeks to live entirely by the inspirations of the Holy Spirit:

      As oft I say 'all the creatures that ever be made' are [to be eliminated,] so oft do I mean, not only the creatures themselves, but also all the works and conditions of the same creatures. I except not one creature, whether they be bodily creatures or ghostly; good or evil. But, so speak shortly, all should be hid under the cloud of forgtting in this case.[5]

      Although this text does not specifically mention study, the presupposition is that the heights of contemplation do not admit of rational thinking about any creatures. When the mind is in use, contmplation is imperfect.

      This question is especially relevant in the case of Chesterton who, as we know, read voraciously. (He was looking for something on the floor one day, found a book, and stayed there and read it.) How can Chesterton be a mystic if he didn't stop his mind and enter the Cloud of Unknowing?

      However, there is definitely another tradition - Irenaeus, Justin, Origin, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Jerome, Maximus the Confessor, Aquinas, Anselm and countless other fathers -- many or most of whom were certainly mystics. They evidently hadn't heard of this problem, since they had no difficulty with the intellectual life as such. For them it was a matter of how to use the mind, not whether or not to use it. Their libraries were often enormous, and study did not lessen their union with God. They believed, of course, that all knowledge had to be subject to the light of Christ ("all truth comes from the Holy Spirit" was a common patristic saying), but they did not see knowledge per se as hindering the mystical life.

      Chesterton has a brief section on this subject in St. Francis. As is well known, St. Francis was not all that enthusiastic about books. He himself wrote: "Let the illiterate not worry about learning to read, but consider that above all things they should desire to have the spirit of the Lord and its holy working."[6]

      Nimmo's studied conclusion is this:

                  The truth would seem to be that, although not categorically opposed to learned study by the friars, he had the gravest reservations about it, for the good reason that it was a threat to all four prime characteristics of Franciscan life - poverty, humility, simplicity, the spirit of devotion.  (Ibid.)

      It's interesting to see how Chesterton handles this topic in relation to Francis. Basically he says that Francis was unique, and that as the one who stands at the origin of the medieval age, it was not necessary for him to know what went before:

                  There is not a trace in the poetry of this first Italian poet of all that pagan mythology which lingered after paganism. The first Italian poet seems the only man in the world who has never even heard of Virgil.  This was exactly right for the special sense in which he is the first Italian poet. It is the essence of the story that he should pluck at the green grass without knowing it grows over a murdered man or climb the apple tree without knowing it was the gibbet of a suicide. It was such an amnesty and reconciliation that the freshness of the Franciscan brought to all the world.  [7]

      But Chesterton is very grateful that the Fratricelli, who would have turned this grace of Francis into a principle, did not prevail. He is glad Dante knew of Virgil; glad, too, that the Franciscans produced Bonaventure, Raymond Lull, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus. "It is not merely true that these were great men who did great work for the world; it is also true that they were a certain kind of men keeping the spirit and savour of a certain kind of man, that we can recognise in them a taste and tang of audacity and simplicity, and know them for the sons of St. Francis." [8]

      Chesterton's voracious appetite for knowledge. therefore, is not opposed to authentic mysticism: his vocation required it. He had the gift of knowledge, which precisely is reflection on the practical aspects of life in order to illumine them with the light of faith. One needs open eyes for this task. He did not see the things of earth as distracting him from a mystical vision of the Presence. His experience of the Presence was mediated precisely through the stimuli which the five windows of his nature could afford him.

       Similarly, he experienced the Presence, as St. Thomas did, in the truths his mind was able to assimilate, for God is Truth as well as Love. It follows that, if God is Truth, when your mind knows truth, you are also, in some real sense, touching God, the First Truth. In the same way, if you love, you touch God, seeing as God is Love.

      It was this "First Truth" Who  spoke to St. Catherine of Siena in her Treatise on Divine Providence. Passages frequently open thus: "The First Truth showed her;  then the Eternal Truth seized and drew more strongly to Himself her desire; the Sweet Truth continued." In another passage she explains: "He used to say: `Open the eye of thy intellect, and gaze into Me, and thou shalt see the beauty of My rational creature.'" Coming, as it does, from one of the great mystics of the Middle Ages, this is an inspired corroboration of an attitude towards the life of the mind which many learned Christian Fathers and teachers had.

St. Thomas: "Taste and See"

      Thomas Aquinas - the mystical mind - completes Chesterton's Christian understanding of mysticism.

       It is hard to say exactly when Chesterton first heard of Aquinas (there is a reference to him in Heretics), or really seriously studied him. We do, however, know that his brilliant, book-length study of Saint Thomas Aquinas[9] appeared late in his life, three years before his death in 1936. Nor is it easy to say where or when he conceived his exalted notion of Aristotle, whom he called the wisest and greatest mind that ever existed (cf. The Everlasting Man). Whatever the case, in both Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle he found the philosophical position which explained his own mystical intuition of Being. Aquinas is the philosopher of ens, of the it-is-thereness of being. And Chesterton is the mystic of the goodness of whatever is. The Presence was manifested most of all in the goodness of the good things the good God had made.

      In the Chapter in St. Thomas entitled "The Aristotelian Revolution," Chesterton has the following description of St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian of the Middle Ages:

                  The Franciscan may be represented as the Father of all the Mystics; and the Mystics can be represented as men who maintain that the final fruition or joy of the soul is rather a sensation than a thought. The motto of the Mystics has always been, `Taste and see.'  (73)

      In mentioning "final fruition" Chesterton is referring briefly to the interminable question of which has ultimate finality, love or knowledge. The question is not of immediate concern to us here, although it must be said that Chesterton does come down gently on the side of knowledge: " the appetite for truth may outlast and even devour all the duller appetites of man." (74)  My main concern is this other statement that occurs in the same context, where Chesterton compares St. Thomas, the Dominican, with St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan:

                  The motto of the Mystics has always been, `Taste and see.' Now St. Thomas also began by saying, `Taste and see'; but he said it of the first rudimentary impressions of the human animal. It might well be maintained that the Franciscan puts taste last and the Dominican puts it first. It might be said that the Thomist begins with something solid like the taste of an apple, and afterwards deduces a divine life for the intellect; while the Mystic exhausts the intellect first, and says finally that the sense of God is something like the taste of an apple. (73)

      What does Chesterton mean here, when he refers to Bonaventure as a mystic, in seeming contrast to Thomas? Indeed he calls Bonaventure the "Father of all the mystics". I'm sure he considered Thomas a mystic no less than he did Bonaventure and his followers. When he uses the term "mystics" here, he is speaking about the more broadly accepted definition of mysticism, about people who devise elaborate theories about the Presence behind sensible reality. In this vein, for example, many consider Plato a genuine mystic. As noted above (Chapter 2), these theorists can generally be called "intellectual mystics", who "exhaust the intellect" in profound speculations about the nature of things, and then conclude that the sense of God -- the Presence -- has "tastes" or "vestiges" in our tangible world. Aquinas, as well as Chesterton, who banged his head on that post, contend that human consciousness begins with the taste of the intuition of being:

                  St. Thomas says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens. Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), `There is an Is.' That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us to believe at the start.  (166)

      Thomas and Chesterton begin their journey with the extraordinariness of ens itself. They believe we first "taste," with the totality of our faculties, the elementary existence of things, and "see" afterwards. Their mysticism is not a reposing "in the peace of timeless being," in the interior vision, but in the actual tasting of reality, the "it-is-thereness" of the good creation.

      In summing up the essence of Thomism, Chesterton says:

                  He [Aquinas] is arguing for the popular proverbs that seeing is believing; that the proof of the pudding is in the eating; that a man cannot jump down his own throat or deny the fact of his own existence. (156)

      We have seen that another tag Chesterton uses for mystics who are more fascinated by the inner world they construct than by the amazing world they can see is mere mystic:           

                  `Everything that is in the intellect has been in the senses.' This is where he began at the opposite end of enquiry from that of the mere mystic. The Platonists, or at least the Neo-Platonists, all tended to the view that the mind was lit entirely from within; St. Thomas insisted that it was lit by five windows, that we call the windows of the senses. But he wanted the light from without to shine on what was within.    (161)

                  Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.  (164)

      The last paragraph of the Chapter entitled, "The Permanent Philosophy," tries to sum up St. Thomas. It is also as succinct a statement of the philosophy undergirding Chesterton's own mysticism as you will find anywhere. As spirit in matter, we have an insatiable longing for pure beauty, pure being, pure truth. Yet, here we are in this land of shadows and change and limitations.  (For his epitaph Cardinal Newman chose Ex Umbris in Veritatem.) What we see is real being, only it is not, as Chesterton said, all it could be. 

      Because of this tension between the "limited seen" and the "infinite unseen," we both underestimate and undervalue what we do see. We think, moreover, that we know more than we do about what we can't see. And what we can't see becomes more fascinating than what we can see. Of the all too many decadent scholastics, Chesterton said: "The world was cumbered with countless tomes, proving by logic a thousand things that can be known only to God." I think he would say the same about many "mere mystics." Here is his final statement:

                  The deceitfulness of things which has had so sad an effect on so many sages, has almost a contrary effect on this sage [Thomas]. If things deceive us, it is by being more real than they seem. As ends in themselves they always deceive us; but as things tending to a greater end, they are even more real than we think them. If they seem to have a relative unreality (so to speak) it is because they are potential and not actual; they are unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks. They have it in them to be more real than they are. (18)

      Because of his mystical intuition of the goodness of what he could see with his eyes, Chesterton was content to wait for the fireworks of eternity. Meanwhile, he did not want to miss this world in some kind of premature anticipation of the next. He knew that what he saw with his eyes was not all that he could reason to with his mind. But he found the actual goodness more captivating than an imagined or rational construct of the mind.

      This is perfectly in keeping with his whole mysticism: penetration and insight into the present were more real for him than constructing an abstract theory about how the whole universe fits together and runs. His mysticism illuminates things as they are; he does not give us theories to help us abstract from what we can see, although he does acknowledge an ultimate manifestation of the structure of reality:

                  And there is an upper world of what the Schoolman called Fruition, or Fulfilment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality; in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame. (180)

      For Chesterton -- at least in this present life -- the light from without was more brilliant than the light within. He did not wish to go up into the sky in a balloon before his time. The highest branches of his tree did almost reach the stars anyhow. He would rather wait for the real flowers, see the actual explosions, than try to picture them in his mind.

      The mind conquers a new province like an emperor; but only because the mind has answered the bell like a servant. The mind has opened the doors and windows, because it is the natural activity of what is inside the house to find out what is outside the house.  If the mind is sufficient to itself, it is insufficient for itself. For this feeding upon fact is itself; as an organ it has an object which is objective; this eating of the strange meat of reality. (184)

      One of my favorite passages from Chesterton, and one which describes his own inner mind working on the stuff of creation, comes from St. Thomas. Chesterton is describing the saint's closing hours, and speaks of those standing around his bed:

      They must have felt that, for that moment, the inside of the monastery was larger than the outside. It must have resembled the case of some mighty modern engine, shaking the ramshackle building in which it is for the moment enclosed. For truly that machine was made of the wheels of all the worlds; and revolved like that cosmos of concentric spheres which, whatever its fate in the face of changing science, must always be something of a symbol for philosophy; the depth of double and triple transparencies more mysterious than darkness; the seven fold, the terrible crystal. In the world of that mind there was a wheel of angels, and a wheel of planets, and a wheel of plants or of animals; but there was also a just and intelligible order of all earthly things, a sane authority and a self-respecting liberty, and a hundred answers to a hundred questions in the complexity of ethics or economics. But there must have been a moment, when men knew that the thunderous mill of thought had stopped suddenly....

      Chesterton's mysticism included his own "thunderous mill of thought." The Presence was mediated to him through all the lovely things He had made. The only mirror Chesterton didn't mind was the reflection of  the truth of reality in his intellect, where, as Eternal Truth said to Catherine of Sienna,  he could gaze on the beauty of the Creator's creatures.


Chapter 8 Chapter 7 Contents List

[1] The Chesterton Review, November, 1986, p. 564.

[2] I have written elsewhere of his other virtues such as charity, humility, etc. All Things Considered (former) newsletter of the Ottawa Chesterton Society, 1994, passim.

[3] Quoted Benedict XIV, On the Beatification and Canonization of the Servants of God.

[4] Quoted by Aidan Mackey in 30 Days, "Chesterton, Fidei Defensor," October, 1989.

[5] The Cloud of Unknowing,  Ch. 5, p.11. Ed. Dom Justin McCann, Burns & Oates (1943)

[6] Duncan Nimmo, Reform and Division in the Franciscan Order, 22.

[7] St. Francis, 225-226.

[8] Ibid., 230.

[9] (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1933). Page references refer to this book unless otherwise noted.

. . . o o o . . .