Chapter 12 Contents List

            After I had finished this manuscript (except for revisions), I re-read Masie Ward's Return To Chesterton (1952). I had read it many years ago. She is still considered to be Chesterton's best biographer. In her Introduction she states, in different words, the main thesis of this book. Neither the references to the people she quotes, nor their identity, are necessary for my purposes here. I will simply let her speak for herself. The reader will see the parallels to what I have been arguing for. Needless to say, her views about Chesterton's mysticism delighted me.

            "A priest who had known Chesterton fairly well was surprised at the statement [by Chesterton in her first book Gilbert Keith Chesterton] that he was not an enthusiast for St. Therese of Lisieux. 'Their common vocation,' [he wrote to Ward] was to protest in every way they could against the mad self-sufficiency of our time. Anyhow if he did not realize that he had the same vocation as her while on earth, he is now rejoicing with her in it in heaven.'

            "That these two are rejoicing together in heaven, I can well believe, but surely in comparing two very different vocations. One of the most important things about Chesterton seems to me that he came at a moment when he was tremendously needed to restore an imperilled proportion in the Christian world, to emphasize for us an element in mysticism that is sometimes forgotten.

            "The especial danger today lies, I think, in the fact that one side of the Christian picture of life has been over-emphasized as part of a violent reaction against the bourgeois smugness of the last century. 'Kafka's mysticism of dejection,' wrote a reviewer, 'better suits the temper of the times than Chesterton's mysticism of happiness. It is one reason why the times are so desperately bad-tempered.'

            "Looking at men who chose the mountains and not the plains of life makes the gaze dizzy, fills the mind with turbulent thoughts. St. Anthony fighting Satan in the wilderness, St. Francis singing his way in nakedness and hunger and poverty, St. Catherine speaking to such purpose after three years' silence, the pilgrim on the frozen steppes of Russia with a bag of rusks for sole sustenance repeating the cry, 'Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me' with every breath he drew, the Cure d'Ars spending a long life in a quiet village where the devil found and fought him as he had fought Anthony in the wilderness: all these and thousands more flash into the imagination, which then turns its glance upon the daily life of millions of 'normal' people and asks: 'How can we and the saints ever live in the same heaven?'

            "'We are living,' comes the answer, ' on the same earth. We are living in the same world as the saints. Only they get more out of it.' [Chesterton]

            "One of the things they get out of it seems to be an unquenchable and vital gaiety. 'Saints are not sad.' It is the men who fail to reach sanctity who pour out upon us vials of their gloom. Are we really to prefer, as another reviewer would have us, 'the agonies of a Leon Bloy' to the cheerfulness of a Chesterton?

            "Here we have, of course, left the high altitude of sanctity. Neither Chesterton with his ready acceptance of life's normal pleasures nor Leon Bloy with his bitter uncharity ranks with the saints - yet both men are in their fashion spiritual geniuses. The question I should like at least to open is whether Chesterton had not both the deeper and greater mysticism, a mysticism closer to that of the saints, and a message far more valuable for the millions whose place is on the plains of daily effort and not on the mountains of asceticism and total renunciation.

            "One would fancy from some spiritual books that there were only two ways of dealing with life's pleasures: to refuse them or to abuse them. But in fact the task for most of us is to learn how to use them. Could we not occasionally translate the well-known phrase terrena despicere by the words of the Holy Ghost, 'God so loved the world'? If people try for a degree of asceticism beyond God's will for them, they ususally end in a fog of unreality. And in the Rosary, which shows us the life of man as lived by God, there are ten mysteries that are joyful or glorious, but only five that are sorrowful.

            "Chesterton's mysticism is a larger thing than the mysticism of suffering. It does not take the cross out of Christianity, but it sees the cross as the Tree of Life. Bloy is an introvert, a 'pilgrim of the Absolute' certainly, but a pilgrim whose own bleeding feet loom large in his consciousness. Chesterton is an extrovert: unconscious of himself to a most unusual degree.

            "In England and America, while the intelligentsia may seek out the man of gloom or near-despair, the broken and unhappy seek out Chesterton. Bernard Shaw discerned the 'noble passion' for the exploited and the poor which breathed through all his [Chesterton's] writing and life. 'Even if,' writes Charles Brady, 'his ringing laughter and generous rationalism seem temporarily out of fashion, he is the one literary man of our century who has been, and still is, loved this side of idolatry.'

            "Desmond MacCarthy in the Sunday Times noted how fully Chesterton's gratitude for existence was offered for the life that is, here and now. It is not only in the final Revelation that he sees God, but in creation: in a blade of grass, the sun in the heavens, the trees and the flowers, man and woman and the first and greatest gift of birth.

            "'I am the first,' says a strange figure in a very youthful story (A Crazy Tale), 'that ever saw the world. Prophets and sages there have been, out of whose great hearts came schools and churches. But I am the first that ever saw a dandelion as it is.'

            "'Wind and dark rain swept round, swathing in a cloud the place of that awful proclamation. I tell you religion is in its infancy, dervish and anchorite, Crusader and Ironsiade, were not fanatical enough or frantic enough, in their adoration. Some day a creature will be produced, a new animal with eyes to see and ears to hear, with an intellect capable of performing a new function never before conceived truly; thanking God for his creation.'

            "Now let us turn from the boy whose head was whirling with the sheer excitement of existence to the man writing of the great St.Thomas:

     There is a general tone and temper of Aquinas which is as difficult to avoid as daylight in a great house of windows. It is that positive position of his mind, which is filled and soaked as with sunshine with the warmth of the wonder of created things. There is a certain audacity in his communion, by which men add to their private names the tremendous titles of the Trinity and the Redemption; so that some nun may be called ' of the Holy Ghost'; or a man bear such a burden as the title of St. John of the Cross. In this sense, the man we are studying may specially be called St.Thomas of the Creation. And perhaps no man ever came so near to calling the Creaton by His own name, which can only be written I am.' (Return, pp.6-11, passim)"

            I simply note that Ward speaks of Chesterton's mysticism, and that it is "for the millions whose place is on the plains of daily effort." He has been given the grace of a lay mysticism for the whole Church.  It is, of course, for both men and women.

            However, there is some wound in Western Catholicism which makes religion very unattractive to many men. [1] One reason, perhaps, is the lack of a social Gospel, the failure to challenge men to serve Christ in the fields of public life. Or rather, a failure to preach that they are serving Christ in the fields of their work. Too much emphasis on "helping out at the parish," or performing pious practices, does not attract most men. It must be preached clearly and strongly that men serve Christ best by being a good doctor, teacher, husband, father, journalist.

            As is well known, Chesterton was not really a very church-going man, although he performed his prescribed Catholic duties. (Getting out of bed in the early morning for Mass was one of his greatest trials!) Certainly he was not over-involved in his parish. He became holy by deeply living his vocation as a journalist. He is especially a model for laymen today.

            Ward also says, referring to the many verdicts she received from her readers: "One is struck by two facts: a universal agreement that Chesterton is a very great man: the widest disagreement as to wherein that greatness lay" (6). My own opinion is that his greatness lies in his holiness and in his being a mystic. He saw the saints as the true heroes and heroines of history. Now he joins them.

            What will his name be when he is canonized? "St. Gilbert of the Flaming Sword, or Pen? St. Gilbert of the Presence?" This would make a good international contest. But he certainly wouldn't want any of these above "tremendous titles." I remember when he died, one of the local women at the funeral said something to the effect that "he was the real Lord of the manor." Chesterton thought that his greatest dignity was just to be an ordinary man. We have Julian of Norwich and John of Bridlington. So why not simply, "St. Gilbert of Beaconsfield"?


[1] Cf. The Church Impotent, The Feminization of Christianity, Leon J. Podles (Spence Publishing Company, Dallas, 1999)


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