PART II         TRUE MYSTICS, OR LANDING ON ONE'S FEET

CHAPTER EIGHT

GEORGE MACDONALD: CHESTERTON'S INSPIRING MYSTIC

Chapter 9 Chapter 7 Contents List

                  As part of this brief study of Chesterton's mysticism I would like to extend a tribute, as Chesterton does, to George MacDonald, the mystical man of letters of the nineteenth century. He was one Chesterton's inspirations.

                  In his Introduction to George MacDonald and His Wife (1924), Greville MacDonald's book about his parents, Chesterton pays supreme literary homage to a novel by MacDonald which, he says, changed his whole life. Often the question is posed to us: "What is the best book you have ever read?" Chesterton, for his part, says that this is not a realistic question to ask, since "our minds are mostly a vast uncatalogued library". Nevertheless, he does answer the query in his own case:

                                                But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald, the man who is the subject of this book. [1]

            In order to put Chesterton's comments about MacDonald's influence within a certain framework, it is well worthwhile to turn to C.S. Lewis's Introduction to MacDonald's fantasy novel, Lilith, in which he makes some very salient observations about the kind of literature MacDonald wrote. It is widely known that MacDonald was a fundamental inspiration for Lewis, who maintained that he never wrote a book without quoting him. He even went so far as to say that MacDonald's novel Phantastes converted and baptised his imagination at a time when Christianity was furthest from his mind:

                                                The whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of death, good death. The quality which enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live. [2]

            What kind of literature did MacDonald write? From a literary point of view, Lewis rates it as third class. But in the kind of literature MacDonald wrote, the literary style is not the most important thing. MacDonald, Lewis points out, wrote

                                                fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoetic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. This art of myth-making does not essentially exist in words at all. In a myth -- in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters -- any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, `done the trick.'  After that you can throw the means of communication away. (Ibid.ix)

            In his Autobiography, Chesterton recalls how the truths of fairy tales endured as the foundational truths of his inner world.  George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblins was instrumental in preparing Chesterton's mind for Christian dogma. It would be a fascinating study, if it has not already been done, to draw parallels between the Christian truths in MacDonald's writings and Chesterton's own religious thinking. 

            Chesterton describes for us the "home" truth, so to speak, with which his own imagination was baptised when he read The Princess and the Goblins. Through this book he was given an imaginative appreciation of the doctrine of original sin - which was fertile soil for the Holy Spirit to begin the process of his conversion:

                                                When I say it is like life, what I mean is this. It describes a little princess living in a castle in the mountains which is perpetually undermined, so to speak, by subterranean demons who sometimes come up through the cellars. She climbs up the castle stairways to the nursery or the other rooms; but now and again the stairs do not lead to the usual landings, but to a new room she has never seen before, and cannot generally find again. Here a good great-grandmother, who is a sort of fairy godmother, is perpetually spinning and speaking words of understanding and encouragement. When I read it as a child, I felt that the whole thing was happening inside a real human house, not essentially unlike the house I was living in, which also had staircases and rooms and cellars. This is where the fairy-tale differed from many other fairy-tales; above all, this is where the philosophy differed from many other philosophies. I have always felt a certain insufficiency about the ideal of Progress, even of the best sort which is a Pilgrim's Progress. It hardly suggests how near both the best and the worst things are to us from the first; even perhaps especially at the first.             I am speaking of what may emphatically be called the presence of household gods -- and household goblins. And the picture of life in this parable is not only truer than the image of a journey like that of the Pilgrim's Progress, it is even truer than the mere image of a siege like that of the Holy War. There is something not only imaginative but intimately true about the idea of the goblins being below the house and capable of besieging it from the cellars. When the evil things besieging us do appear, they do not appear outside but inside. (Ibid. 164-65)

            Chesterton had read in the gospel the Lord's words about hatred, adultery, greed, murder, etc., coming from within, from the heart, and that "nothing outside a man can defile him"(Mk.7:20). This experience of the goblins coming from within is universal, only denied by people who will not take responsibility for their own actions. We do not "progress" away from the goblins; nor do we launch a final and successful attack upon the castle. To our dying day, we experience the goblins within and are called to an eternal vigilance. What Lewis said of himself could be applied to Chesterton:

                                                Now Phantastes was romantic enough in all conscience, but there was a difference.  Nothing was at that time further from my thoughts than Christianity and I therefore had no notion what this difference really was. I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble, that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant.... ("Introduction," xi)

            George MacDonald, through his Christian fantasies, buried deep within Chesterton's mind the seeds of truth. When Chesterton finally read the gospels, the simple images of The Princess were "more corroborated than corrected when I came to give a more definite name to the lady watching over us from the turret, and perhaps to take a more practical view of the goblins under the floor." (166)

            Throughout the course of writing this book I have been aware of MacDonald's gentle, mystical spirit. I believe, as Chesterton did, that he was a mystic. Whether he was in all respects an orthodox Christian is another question. Nonetheless, it is very probable that, if Chesterton has become one of our spiritual fathers of the 20th century, it is partially thanks to the spiritual fatherhood of George MacDonald. The Father from whom all fatherhood proceeds used MacDonald's wisdom to sow some of the first seeds of the gospel in Chesterton's mind. 

            As was mentioned in the Introduction, mystics cannot communicate their experiences to others. In this sense they have no  pupils: there are no formulas or propositions that guarantee a mystical contact with the Presence. In the realm of the actual mystical experience, the Finger of God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, touches each chosen vessel anew, in every age, with an unusual awareness of the Presence.

            MacDonald was such a man, touched by the Spirit. While the actual mystical experience cannot be communicated to others at second hand, the insights derived from the mystic's primary contact with the Presence can be shared with others to their great spiritual profit. Often these insights re-emphasize some key truth about God or the deposit of faith that has fallen into abeyance on account of the temper of the times. In this way, MacDonald kindled others with the warmth of his mystical fire. God can raise up mystics like him in any place and in any time, out of his tender mercy for his wayward children, to transcend the darkness of the times. I believe he has raised up Chesterton for this reason. The 20th century has surely been in need of genuine mystics.           

            Both Chesterton and Lewis point to the fact that MacDonald transcended his times. Lewis describes this uplifting action of the Holy Spirit in MacDonald's mysticism in terms of his escape from the Freudian formulas for dysfunction:

                                                We have learned from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man's early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing that we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central. He reports that he never, as boy or man, asked [his father] for anything without getting what he asked. Doubtless this tells us as much about the son's character as the father's. `He who seeks the Father more than anything he can give, is likely to have what he asks, for he is not likely to ask amiss.'[3]

            Contrast this understanding of the Father with Blake's distorted visions of Urizen, that "tyrannical personality and resemblance to traditional depictions of Jehovah, that aged tyrant, propping up a discredited social order"[4] and you can readily discern who the genuine mystic is.

            It is common knowledge that Chesterton too was blessed with a deep and humanely good relationship with his own father. Joseph Pearce, in his  biography, quotes E.C. Bentley, Chesterton's best friend, as saying that Chesterton "never met `with greater kindliness -- to say nothing of other sterling qualities -- than that of his father, the businessman whose feeling for literature and all beautiful things worked so much upon his sons in childhood.'" [5]

            Chesterton, drawing no doubt on his own balanced appreciation of fatherhood, commented on one of my own favorite sayings from MacDonald: "God is easy to please but hard to satisfy." He explains that some mystics who have not completed their tumbling try to satisfy God, and become too harsh, "just as some optimists are doubtless too much occupied with insisting that He is easy to please." [6]

            MacDonald could easily have become a forerunner of the New Age movement, like Blake; or a forerunner of the complete reduction of the Christian faith to anthropology, like Feuerbach; or a forerunner of the denial of God and the reduction of all inner life to the psyche, like Freud. But he became, as Chesterton asserts, a forerunner of the reunion of Christendom:

                                                MacDonald made for himself a sort of spiritual environment, a space and transparency of mystical light, which was quite exceptional in his national and denominational environment. He said things that were like the Cavalier mystics, like the Catholic saints, sometimes perhaps like the Platonists or the Swendenborgians, but not in the least like the Calvinists. And when he comes to be more carefully studied as a mystic, as I think he will be when people discover the possibility of collecting jewels scattered in a rather irregular setting, it will be found, I fancy, that he stands for a rather important turning-point in the history of Christendom. As Protestants speak of the morning stars of the Reformation, we may be allowed to note such names here and there as morning stars of the Reunion.  (Blake,168-69)

            Chesterton, too, I believe, was a mystic, a bright morning star of authentic Catholic mysticism in the 20th century. Not only is his teaching a guide to orthodox faith, but his mysticism is a light guiding our path through the dark forest. And perhaps the greatest blackness in that forest has been the erroneous belief, born of fear, that to love the good things of the earth is an obstacle to God and Christ, and that we must choose between the two realities.    

            Not so! Rightly understood, these created realities are the very place where the Good God can be especially experienced.  Chesterton had a vivid, uncommon appreciation of the Presence in the good things he could see with his eyes: "I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do."

            In his "Prayer in Darkness", in which he frames this "fierce pleasure" of his in the poignant language of poetry, Chesterton caps his thoughts, in the last stanza, with an extraordinary allusion to Christ on Calvary:

            This much, O heaven -- if I should brood or rave,
            Pity me not; but let the world be fed,
            Yea, in my madness, if I strike me dead,
            Heed you the grass that grows upon my grave.
            If I dare snarl between this sun and sod,
            Whimper and clamour, give me grace to own,
            In sun and rain and fruit in season shown,           
            The shining silence of the scorn of God.
            Thank God the stars are set beyond my power,
            If I must travail in a night of wrath,
            Thank God my tears will never vex a moth,
            Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.
            Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had
            Thought it beat brightly, even on -- Calvary:
            And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree
            Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.
[7]

Chapter 9 Chapter 8 Contents List

References

[1] In G.K.C. As M.C., Ed. J.P. de Fonseka, 163-64.

[2]  Introduction to Lilith, xi-xii, Eerdmans, 1981.

[3] Introduction to Lilith, v-vi.

[4] Binden, 17.

[5] Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, 4.

[6] (G.K. Chesterton, Blake, 168)

[7] The Works of G.K. Chesterton, Wordswoth Poetry Library, (Hertfordshire, 1995) 117.

 

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