I see a door, a multitude near by,
In creed and quarrel, sure disciples all!
Gladly they would, they say, enter the hall,
But cannot, the stone threshold is so high.
From unseen hand, full many a feeding crumb,
Slow dropping o’er the threshold high doth come:
They gather and eat, with much disputing hum.
Still and anon, a loud clear voice doth call—
“Make your feet clean, and enter so the hall.”
They hear, they stoop, they gather each a crumb.
Oh the deaf people! would they were also dumb!
Hear how they talk, and lack of Christ deplore,
Stamping with muddy feet about the door,
And will not wipe them clean to walk upon his floor!
But see, one comes; he listens to the voice;
Careful he wipes his weary dusty feet!
The voice hath spoken—to him is left no choice;
He hurries to obey—that only is meet.
Low sinks the threshold, levelled with the ground;
The man leaps in—to liberty he’s bound.
The rest go talking, walking, picking round.
If I, thus writing, rebuke my neighbour dull,
And talk, and write, and enter not the door,
Than all the rest I wrong Christ tenfold more,
Making his gift of vision void and null.
Help me this day to be thy humble sheep,
Eating thy grass, and following, thou before;
From wolfish lies my life, O Shepherd, keep.
The Diary of an Old Soul; April 16-19
When it comes to Chesterton, somewhere in the back of my mind that lyric wants to come sneaking in – “Do it to me one more time,” although of course there is something not quite right about it, or something that is just out of place so that I don’t want to use it in this context – not in this place. But I do want Chesterton to fill me with wonder again, set my head spinning again, and re-ignite the passion and mystery of life in my heart. Thankfully he has himself provided the adequate line, where he speaks of one so inexhaustible that he never tires of repetition.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
But I digress. Here is the thought that captivated me.
I have made a discovery: or I should say seen a vision. I saw it between two cups of black coffee in a Gallic restaurant in Soho: but I could not express it if I tried.
But this was one thing that it said–that all good things are one thing. There is no conflict between the gravestone of Gertrude and a comic—opera tune played by Mildred Wain. But there is everlasting conflict between the gravestone of Gertrude and the obscene pomposity of the hired mute: and there is everlasting conflict between the comic—opera tune and any mean or vulgar words to which it may be set. These, which man hath joined together, God shall most surely sunder. That is what I am feeling . . . now every hour of the day. All good things are one thing. Sunsets, schools of philosophy, babies, constellations, cathedrals, operas, mountains, horses, poems–all these are merely disguises. One thing is always walking among us in fancy—dress, in the grey cloak of a church or the green cloak of a meadow. He is always behind, His form makes the folds fall so superbly. And that is what the savage old Hebrews, alone among the nations, guessed, and why their rude tribal god has been erected on the ruins of all polytheistic civilisations. For the Greeks and Norsemen and Romans saw the superficial wars of nature and made the sun one god, the sea another, the wind a third. They were not thrilled, as some rude Israelite was, one night in the wastes, alone, by the sudden blazing idea of all being the same God: an idea worthy of a detective story.
GK Chesterton, Letter to Frances Chesterton
It is hard to read Chesterton without wanting to take notes (on practically everything) – without wanting more of whatever it is that makes his soul so pure, his heart so true, and his thoughts so good. His way of always turning things back to goodness, back to reason and back to reality. Thank you, that there is such a man as Chesterton, and that I get to see the world through his eyes!
I am so glad to hear you say . . . that, in your own words “it is good for us to be here”–where you are at present. The same remark, if I remember right, was made on the mountain of the Transfiguration. It has always been one of my unclerical sermons to myself, that that remark which Peter made on seeing the vision of a single hour, ought to be made by us all, in contemplating every panoramic change in the long Vision we call life–other things superficially, but this always in our depths. “It is good for us to be here–it is good for us to be here,” repeating itself eternally. And if, after many joys and festivals and frivolities, it should be our fate to have to look on while one of us is, in a most awful sense of the words, “transfigured before our eyes”: shining with the whiteness of death–at least, I think, we cannot easily fancy ourselves wishing not to be at our post. Not I, certainly. It was good for me to be there.
~GK Chesterton, From a letter to Frances
“Our Father (for whatever we poor sin-bound creatures may think or do to the contrary, Thou art still our Father), come into our hearts to-day. Give us that deep yearning which finds voice in the cry ‘Our Father!’ . . . We want more of Thy divinity in us, but Thou knowest all we want, and why we want it.”
– George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons
If I felt my heart as hard as a stone; if I did not love God, or man, or woman, or little child, I would yet say to God in my heart, “O God, see how I trust You, because You are perfect, and not changeable like me. I do not love You. I love nobody. I am not even sorry for it. You see how much I need You to come close to me, to put Your arm round me, to say to me, my child; for the worse my state, the greater my need of my Father who loves me. Come to me, and my day will dawn; my love will come back, and, oh! how I shall love You, my God! and know that my love is Your love, my blessedness Your being.”
The truth is that the tradition of Christianity (which is still the only coherent ethic of Europe) rests on two or three paradoxes or mysteries which can easily be impugned in argument and as easily justified in life. One of them, for instance, is the paradox of hope or faith– that the more hopeless is the situation the more hopeful must be the man. Stevenson understood this, and consequently Mr. Moore cannot understand Stevenson. Another is the paradox of charity or chivalry that the weaker a thing is the more it should be respected, that the more indefensible a thing is the more it should appeal to us for a certain kind of defence. Thackeray understood this, and therefore Mr. Moore does not understand Thackeray.
Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy. The Christian tradition understands this; therefore Mr. Moore does not understand the Christian tradition.
For the truth is much stranger even than it appears in the formal doctrine of the sin of pride. It is not only true that humility is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. It is also true that vanity is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. Vanity is social–it is almost a kind of comradeship; pride is solitary and uncivilized. Vanity is active; it desires the applause of infinite multitudes; pride is passive, desiring only the applause of one person, which it already has. Vanity is humorous, and can enjoy the joke even of itself; pride is dull, and cannot even smile. And the whole of this difference is the difference between Stevenson and Mr. George Moore, who, as he informs us, has “brushed Stevenson aside.” I do not know where he has been brushed to, but wherever it is I fancy he is having a good time, because he had the wisdom to be vain, and not proud. Stevenson had a windy vanity; Mr. Moore has a dusty egoism. Hence Stevenson could amuse himself as well as us with his vanity; while the richest effects of Mr. Moore’s absurdity are hidden from his eyes.
If we compare this solemn folly with the happy folly with which Stevenson belauds his own books and berates his own critics, we shall not find it difficult to guess why it is that Stevenson at least found a final philosophy of some sort to live by, while Mr. Moore is always walking the world looking for a new one.
Stevenson had found that the secret of life lies in laughter and humility. Self is the gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.
GK Chesterton, Heretics, The Moods of Mr. George Moore
I have recently been reading Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who Was Chesterton, and an interesting pair of poems caught my attention. The poems highlight some of the differences between Gilbert and Frances Chesterton, and I enjoyed seeing the contrast, and the glimpse of their relationship the poems provided. The first poem was written by Gilbert, to his wife, after what seems like a faux pas on Gilbert’s part. Introducing the poem, brown says: “He describes her as calm, reasonable, wise, and thoughtful; while he himself is a wild, swaggering fool:
The House of Charity
I know that Wisdom is throned among you –
Our Lady of laurels, Our Lady of scrolls.
You take heed of your ways and ponder –
The choosing of roads, the weighing of souls
In the new calm air of the age of reason
I swagger foolishly unafraid
With one poor tune amid all your music,
The tinkling tune of a man and a maid.
Ye that are wise – ye are also pitiful
Though I have smitten you – you can smile,
Thus I have walked from the womb of my mother
Never reeking of ditch or stile.1
Waste it is in the well-laid garden
When into its boundaries breaks the sea
But the old wild ocean hath one law only –
Ponder a little: and pardon me.
Ah, love, I love in the old plain fashion,
With the old god’s curse on this coward’s head.
Heeds any eyes less bright than the dearest
Hears any words out of lips less red.
I sinned: I fell: and all about me
Is darkness: Can you forgive me, dear?
I loved old Love to ride with banners
And blow the trumpet and shake the spear.
I lie in the wreck of my own strange folly
With a faint, fierce hope – that far within
In the shade of your face may be God’s own secret
A hidden smile and a pardoned sin.
GK Chesterton 2
Apparently Chesterton was forgiven, and he and Frances were happily married shortly afterward. But things had not been easy on a personal side for Frances; her sister had recently passed. Not long afterward, her brother is found drowned.3 Brown says:
“Once again, intense suffering flooded into Frances’s life, and she struggled to understand. She felt suddenly lost, floundering, not knowing how to handle yet another family crisis. Inconsistent with her usual response, Frances consulted with a medium in an attempt to contact the spirits of her dead brother and sister. Why did she do this? She wanted to know where they were. She needed assurance: were they at peace or not? In heaven or not? Whatever she saw in the glass ball made her scream. Gilbert wrote a poem, “The Crystal.”
I saw it; low she lay as one in dreams,
And round that holy hair, round and beyond
My Frances, my inviolable, screamed
The scandal of the dead men’s demi-monde.
Close to that face, a window into heaven,
Close to the hair’s brown surf of broken waves
I saw the idiot faces of the ghosts
That are the fungus, not the flower, of graves.
You whom the pinewoods robed in sun and shade
You who were sceptered with thistle’s bloom,
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these
The lying crystal and the darkened room.
Leave the weird queens that find the sun too strong,
To mope and cower beneath Druidic trees,
The still, sweet gardens of the dastard’s dream,
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these?
Low fields and shining lie in in crystal-land
Peace and strange pleasure: wonder-lands untrod,
But not plain words, nor love of open things,
Truth, nor strong laughter, nor the fear of God.
I will not look: I am a child of earth,
I see the sun and wood, the sea, and grass.
I only saw one spirit. She is there
Staring for spirits in a lump of glass. 4
In The Crystal, Chesterton is clearly chiding Frances for going about things the wrong way, and for looking for answers in the darkness of dead crystal balls and mediums, instead of in the light of a living and good God. (Man desiring and seeking the gods that “got things done” was an idea he explores to more depth in other works, like The Everlasting Man.5)
In the light of these two poems, there seemed to glow a quiet and natural portrait of the traits and strengths of a woman, and of a man – at least of the man and woman who shared the name of Chesterton. Here was a man who saw ideas with such a startling power of focus and clarity, that other things occasionally got left in the dust of his “trek for truth.” (Like his clothes, money or train tickets.) But Frances – according to Gilbert himself – also saw certain things clearly; she was “wise and thoughtful,” while he sometime lay in the wreck of his “own strange folly.” She saw to all the forgotten things left by Gilbert, and cared lovingly for Gilbert as well. I saw what a good and beautiful thing it was that Frances had Gilbert, and that Gilbert had her; each filled a place in the other that was lacking. Perhaps it could be said they were not a perfect pair, but they came together and made a beautiful whole, and together they have blessed us all.
“I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.” 6
There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. 7
- Stile; A series of steps or rungs by means of which a person may pass over a wall or fence that remains a barrier to sheep or cattle.
- GK Chesterton, The House of Charity; Courtesy of John M. Kelly Library Rare Books, Archival & Manuscript Collections of G.K. Chesterton Microfiche Collection (Note from Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who was Chesterton.)
- “Found drowned” was the polite term used in those days for suicide. G.F. Watts, the painter whom Gilbert wrote a biography of in 1904, painted “Found Drowned,” picturing a young lady, lying half out of the sea, clutching a locket in her hand (Note from Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who was Chesterton.)
- GK Chesterton, The Crystal, Collected Works, vol. X
- GK Chesterton , The Everlasting Man, The War of the Gods and Demons
- GK Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World
- GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare
“The modern world, when it praises its little Caesars, talks of being strong and brave: but it does not seem to see the eternal paradox involved in the conjunction of these ideas. The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong.…But the old hero was a being who, like Achilles, was more human than humanity itself. Nietzsche’s Superman is cold and friendless. Achilles is so foolishly fond of his friend that he slaughters armies in the agony of his bereavement. Mr. Shaw’s sad Caesar says in his desolate pride, “He who has never hoped can never despair.” The Man-God of old answers from his awful hill, “Was ever sorrow like unto my sorrow?” A great man is not a man so strong that he feels less than other men; he is a man so strong that he feels more. And when Nietszche says, “A new commandment I give to you, `be hard,'” he is really saying, “A new commandment I give to you, `be dead.'” Sensibility is the definition of life. “~GK Chesterton