A review of Father Robert Wild’s The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic
Not every saint is a mystic. Not every mystic is a saint. And not every 300-pound, cigar-smoking journalist is both a saint and a mystic. But I’m quite sure at least one of them is. And I’m not alone in that opinion.
Father Wild’s book is especially well-timed. I was recently taken to task by a reviewer because I had suggested in my book The Complete Thinker that G.K. Chesterton is a mystic. And so it is convenient to have suddenly at my disposal an entire book written in defense of that one statement. But the book is well-timed for another reason. Father Wild not only argues quite convincingly that Chesterton is a mystic, but by the end of the book he also makes the case that Chesterton is a saint. Things appear to be heating up in that regard, too. And Father Wild is not just blowing holy smoke. He knows what the Church requires for sainthood. He is the postulator in the cause for Catherine de Houck Dougherty, who, incidentally, was also a mystic.
Like any good writer, including like Chesterton himself, Father Wild takes the trouble to define his terms. He surveys the work of the leading writers on mysticism and shows how they converge but also where they part ways. Mysticism has to do with a direct experience of the divine truth, an “acute awareness” not only of the Creator but of his creation. Certainly the mistake about mysticism is that we associate it with remoteness from the rest of us, a hermit in a cave, or a prophet on a mountain top. Mysticism may make a stop there, but it does not stay there. For almost every reason, Chesterton damages most of our preconceptions about mysticism, even going so far as to say that the common man is a mystic, because mysticism is sane. It grasps reality. It rejoices in the sunlight. It knows the balance and proportion of things, including the importance of important things and the unimportance of unimportant things. Or to put it in Chesterton’s own words (in a passage which unfortunately does not appear in the book):
The common man is a mystic. Mysticism is only a transcendent form of common sense. Mysticism and common sense alike consist in a sense of the dominance of certain truths and tendencies which cannot be formally demonstrated or even formally named. Mysticism and common sense are like appeals to realities that we all know to be real, but which have no place in argument except as postulates.
Chesterton tells us the things we already know, only we did not know that we knew them. The difference between him and us is that he is trying to give us the same vision he has, what Father Wild calls his “contagious happiness and inner peace…he was imbued with a kind of unpretentious beatitude that tended to convey itself to those around him.” He is trying to share his sense of wonder, his thankfulness, his joy. And the source of all these things is God.
Indeed, Robert Hugh Benson, whose too-short life and writing career just overlapped with Chesterton’s, perceived as early as 1905 that Chesterton was a mystic because of his joy, his confidence, and his common sense. It would be almost another 20 years before Chesterton would become Catholic. The odd thing about Chesterton’s conversion is how little his perspective changed, and how little his writing changes. He knows he is finally at home in the Church, but it is, in one sense, merely taking the official position of all the things he has been defending all along. He knew he had ceased being a Protestant many years before, and he admitted that he was even standing at the door of the Church ushering other people in without having entered himself. Still, the final step was an extremely difficult one. He had to do it alone, without the accompaniment of his beloved helpmate, his wife Frances (who would take another four years to cross the threshold.) But how is it that Chesterton can think like a Catholic, write like a Catholic, fight like a Catholic (and eat, drink, and smoke like a Catholic!) without being a Catholic? Credit his mysticism.
Hugh Kenner, a great American man of letters who wrote his first book on Chesterton, says that Chesterton has a “comprehensive intuition of being.” He does not fumble to reach a position. He simply “occupies a central position all the time.”
The transition from non-Catholic to Catholic was much less dramatic than an earlier experience that Chesterton went through as a young man. He suffered a very dark period where he first had to come face-to-face with the blankness of non-existence before coming face-to-face with God. It was something similar to what St. Francis of Assisi went through (which Chesterton writes about in his book on that saint), passing through the “moment when there is nothing but God.” And what arises from this abyss is “the noble thing called Praise.” The endless thankfulness for the unexpected, undeserved gift of existence. Father Wild surmises that it was in coming through experience that Chesterton received a mystical grace.
Astonishment has consequences. Chesterton not an ascetic mystic who gains his spiritual insight through the exceptional self-denial that is associated with those who embrace the religious life. He is a lay mystic who has gained his amazing insight through an “acute awareness” of God himself and an appreciation of God’s good gifts. Even in a cloud of cigar smoke, he can still see clearly, perhaps more clearly because he knows how to make each pleasure part of his praise. We recite in the Mass that it is right and just always and everywhere to give God thanks, that it is our duty and our salvation. We say those words. We hear those words. But here is someone who lives out those words, someone whose childlike wonder fills his words, fills the room, who tosses off the line, buried like a gem deep in a paragraph about history: “Thanks is the highest form of thought.”
Father Wild’s great Chestertonian insight: “Reason alone is capable of such mysticism.” Or as Chesterton says, “If you think wrong, you go wrong.” The corollary is that if you think right, you go right. Right reason leads to mystical insight. What does mystical insight lead to?
Contrast Chesterton’s view with that of Plotinus, for whom the mystical goal is “to be alone with the alone.” Chesterton’s mystical insight fills him with a deep and joyful compassion; he says he wants to throw a party and invite the whole world. And he realizes that one of his tasks is to teach the world “how to enjoy enjoyment.”
Father Wild builds his case for Chesterton’s mysticism by getting us to take another look at his most familiar books. Any Chesterton book can be re-read with great benefit. In fact, the main purpose of reading a Chesterton book the first time is so you can read it again. There is simply no way to read a book like Orthodoxy too many times. It always yields more fruit. Father Wild demonstrates this by getting us to see new things in the text, things that have always been there but now jump off the page completely new. He is simply using the Chestertonian technique of getting us to see the familiar things with a fresh set of eyes and the wonder of welcome.
Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, “What we want is not the universality that is outside all normal sentiments; we want the universality that is inside all normal sentiments.” This points to his thesis that mysticism is actually a normal condition. It is the sane condition of man. It is simply the ability to see what is really there, the glory of creation but also its strangeness. It is the loss of mysticism that leads to insanity. Modern philosophy is off kilter because it is detached from reality. Though Orthodoxy is a recognized tour de force of philosophical argument and intellectual fireworks, the great effectiveness of the book is that Chesterton constantly appeals to life; he takes his proofs from actual experience. It is a truth we can touch.
But then Chesterton plunges deep, contrasting Christianity with Buddhism, with Islam, with explanations of God that are too shallow, too simple. The Trinity is not a simple idea, but it is an essential one. The cross may be a simple symbol, but the contradiction at its center represents the collision of time and eternity, of life and death.
The theme of seeing familiar things as if for the first time continues in The Everlasting Man, where we encounter Christ, not as we have in our Christian and post-Christian civilization, encumbered with our pre-conceptions, but as he must have appeared when he stepped onto the stage, the most extraordinary character in history, appearing at the precise intersection of the great cultures of the world. And Father Wild points out a truth so obvious that we have missed it: if ever there has been a model mystic, it is Christ. He refers to things unseen, but his reality is enfleshed. He is a constant revelation. Chesterton says: “The moral of all this is an old one; that religion is revelation. In other words, it is a vision, and a vision received by faith; but it is a vision of reality. The faith consists in a conviction of its reality.”
The image of “the tumbler of God” comes from Chesterton’s book on St. Francis of Assisi, in the chapter, “Le Jongleur de Dieu.” St. Francis, in his humility, is not only willing to be a fool for Christ, but an acrobat. The mystical experience, the pure encounter with God, is akin to being turned upside down, and seeing everything upside down, giving the shocking perspective that everything is hanging on the mercy of God, but then landing on one’s feet with a new appreciation of things, including of one’s feet. Francis goes from poet to saint. Both the poet and the saint have a universal vision and both tell truth, but Chesterton makes the distinction between the two: “For one the joy of life is the cause of faith, for the other a result of faith.” Faith sees things in their proper perspective and their proper proportion. It is a vision informed by overflowing joy and bottomless thankfulness.
It is one thing to have a mystical encounter with truth. It is quite another to explain it to someone who has not had it. But this is what the real mystic tries to do. He does not keep the truth to himself. He does not speak in riddles that only he understands. The true mystic, says Chesterton, does not conceal mysteries; he reveals them. Chesterton’s entire life as a writer is a constant outpouring of his powers of expression to make the truth understandable. He makes it surprising with his paradoxes, he makes it delicious with his epigrams, he makes it wonderful with his poetry and even his poetic prose. He also makes it uncomfortable with his cries for justice and inescapable with his relentless reason.
It is safe to say, though it is still sounds surprising to say it, that Chesterton could not write about the mystical vision of St. Francis without being a mystic himself. He writes not as a mere appreciative spectator. He writes as an insider. But he also writes about St. Francis’ holiness. He even muses that perhaps only a saint can write about a saint. This is only his humility speaking and his sense of inadequacy. But he has ironically told the truth.
Father Wild says he wrote this book because there is no book about the most important thing about Chesterton: his friendship with God. He is a model of lay spirituality, but also of lay mysticism. The main argument of the book is that Chesterton is a mystic. But the ultimate argument is that he is a saint.
Father Wild is one of many of a growing number of people who believe that G.K. Chesterton should be raised to the altars. And yes, I have been active in this movement. We think he is a saint for our times, who epitomizes his own line from The Everlasting Man: “A dead thing goes with the stream, only a living thing can go against it.” Chesterton is an eloquent voice against everything that is wrong in the world. But even better, he is a joyful voice in defense of what is right. What draws people to Chesterton and what changes their lives is his goodness.
I have been petitioning the bishop of Northampton for years to open Chesterton’s cause. And after a series of very interesting events in the past few months, not the least of which was the election of Pope Francis, who happens to be a big Chesterton fan, I had the privilege of making the following announcement at our national Chesterton Conference on August 1: The Rt. Rev. Peter Doyle, the Bishop of Northampton has given us permission to say that he “is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for Chesterton.”
And nothing pleased me more than the fact that Father Robert Wild was in the audience when I made the announcement and no doubt lent his voice to the loud cheering that followed. It was a mystical moment.
The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic
By Father Robert Wild
Angelico Press, 2013
By Father Robert Wild
Angelico Press, 2013