Chesterton As Mystic

By Robert Wild

Table of Contents
PART I - Establishing Chesterton's Mysticism
PART II - True Mystics or Landing On One's Feet
PART III - Some Mystics Who Landed on Their Heads
PART IV - The Sons of God Shouting For Joy
Key to Symbols
Next Chapter
Previous Chapter
Contents List


Chapter 1 Contents List Contents List

John Saward is one of the translators of the works of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, whom many consider to have been the greatest Catholic theologian of our century. He was the favourite theologian of Pope John Paul II, who made him a Cardinal, although Balthasar died before he could receive the red hat. The Pope allowed that he had gone to a higher reward. In an article comparing Chesterton and Balthasar, Saward affirms that they are

two of the greatest Catholic minds of our century. Balthasar and Chesterton are two modern fathers of the Church, with the power to regenerate minds and hearts wearied and wounded by the modern world. If there is to be a renewal of Christian culture, then these two hold the seeds of Spring.

Not only do I feel a kinship with Saward's extravagant claim (which I wholeheartedly agree with), but I would also add that Chesterton a mystic. Saward prefaced his thesis with an indulgent line of reasoning which I am tempted to use for my own purposes:

Were they with us in the flesh, Balthasar would doubtless demur and Chesterton would roar with laughter at what I am about to say.But I am going to ignore the hypothetical protest. Where these noble souls are now, there is no embarrassment, and consequently the extravagant thesis can be stated boldly. [3]

With this in mind, I, too, conscious that I may be pelted derisively with buns from the audience, state boldly: Chesterton was a mystic.

Saward points out that Balthasar, in Volume II of his masterwork, The Glory of the Lord [4] , describes how he had to make a selection of certain authors to be studied in his volumes on clerical and lay styles of theology. After listing those he has chosen -- Hopkins, Péguy, Soloviev -- Balthasar then goes on to list other thinkers he could have opted to write about: a gallery of pre-eminent figures in the history of Christian thought. Within the English tradition he mentions Newman and Chesterton as writers he could have studied besides Hopkins. It is remarkable, says Saward, that Chesterton is included in such august company, a "short list" that consists of Newman, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and Bernard. To be numbered in these ranks, among the giants of Western thought, is a supreme honour. Indeed, in speaking of all those he did not include, Balthasar uses words like "all these great ones," and "the great names". Chesterton is considered one of these "great ones."

What an immense loss to Chesterton studies that Balthasar did not write that essay on him. I was surprised and delighted, however, by the number of references to Chesterton in Balthasar's works cited by Saward. It made me wonder to what extent the great Swiss theologian was influenced by the English journalist. If Balthasar was contemplating an essay on Chesterton, he must have read widely in his writings. Perhaps someone like Saward will grace us some day with a deeper study of Chesterton's influence on Balthasar.

In any case, Chesterton is clearly one of those thinkers who, in Balthasar's opinion, had "an original perception which breaks out from a point beyond history." He had the power of a "total vision." Saward says Chesterton was a "master in Israel," and one of the most luminous examples of "the lay style in Catholic theology."

Balthasar also has this to say about Chesterton:

Again, other Christian thinkers may possess a strong sense of the harmony of the truth of revelation (for example, Erasmus or Francis de Sales) but without being able to give it expression in a structured aesthetics, or may have an experience of the fullnessand many-sidedness of the truth (italics mine) in which the Christian can romp without a care (like Chesterton), without feeling any necessity to give to this fullness any other than a paradoxical expression. (Glory, 22)

Saward thinks this last comment "is not quite fair.Chesterton does much more than affirm the fullness of the faith through paradoxes. He also shows the disastrous consequences of the selections and imbalances of heresy." (Saward, 314) Surely Chesterton is renowned, as well, for having that "symphonic vision of the faith" which harmonises all the truths in a marvellous concert of heavenly music.

The significant point here is that Chesterton is numbered in the ranks of all these greats of the Catholic tradition. Note also Balthasar's opinion about the quality of Chesterton's experience of the truth, which will play an important part in my attempt to establish his mysticism.

Those familiar with Chesterton's writings may feel a twinge of boredom at reading again the following quote from Etienne Gilson, one of the foremost Catholic Thomists of this century. Nonetheless, it is cited so often precisely because it is so very important, and one of the most remarkable tributes ever paid to Chesterton. I repeat it here because I believe quite simply that Chesterton's sense of truth, which Gilson extols so very highly, was due to a mystical grace no less than to an intellect of towering genius.

After the publication of Chesterton's book on St.Thomas Aquinas, Gilson said it was the finest book ever written on the Angelic Doctor, indulging in the following paean of praise for Chesterton:

Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable; so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologised for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him. [5]

To placate Chestertonians for having had to read this quote yet once more, I refer to another perhaps less well-known remark by Gilson, compliments of Ian Boyd:

In an unpublished letter, written in 1966, to a priest in England, Gilson recalls his meeting with Chesterton in Toronto some thirty years earlier. `Everything which I heard him say,' Gilson writes, `was an intellectual revelation. With Chesterton, more than literature is at stake. Here, in Toronto, we value him first of all, as a theologian.' [6]

My thesis is that Chesterton's "rightness," his not being able to "help being right," and the "intellectual revelations" of his insights were the fruit of a mystical grace.

Mystics do not have protégés: the graces they receive are not communicable as such. However, the spirituality/teaching engendered by powerful mystical experiences can be promoted, as we see in the various spiritual movements that saintly mystics have spawned in the Church throughout history. God gives genuine mystical graces to whomever he wills, whenever he wills, and however he wills. Ages of crisis, such as ours, are also quite often ages of mysticism, as if God, in his great mercy, keeps the awareness of his Presence alive in times of darkness.

And I believe, with Saward, that the truth of Chesterton's vast literary output is meant to be one of the sources of the "Second Spring" which we all hope is not too far off, weighed down as we are at the moment by the snow and ice of a cultural winter. But it is not only his thoughts that are invaluable: we need to see that his mysticism is one of the paths of wisdom which will lead many to union with God.

In Chapter One we shall be considering some of the ideas proposed by Hugh Kenner in his book, Paradox in Chesterton, [7] which many (Garry Wills, for example) consider one of the best books ever written on Chesterton's mode of thinking. At the conclusion of Chapter V of his book, Kenner makes a statement which encourages me to believe that an ever deeper and far-ranging exploration of Chesterton's mind -- and his spirituality -- is extremely important for our Christian tradition. Kenner, like Saward, puts Chesterton in the exalted company of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church:

Chesterton's analogical perception of Being has led us from elementary wonder to the very heart of a paradoxical universe. It may be said without exaggeration that he ranks almost with St.Thomas himself in the comprehensiveness of that initial perception; and that very certainty and immediacy which makes it unnecessary for him to struggle at any time with any truth and so makes significant dramatic expression impossible for him, places him securely not in the hierarchy of the artists but in one not less distinguished: the long line of exegetists[sic] and theologians who have successively explored the same cosmos and the light of the same vision, seeing all things ordered and all things mirroring greater and lesser things: the Fathers, philosophers, and Doctors of the Church. (Kenner, 102)

Another authoritative text which encouraged me to pursue this theme of Chesterton's mysticism was Quentin Lauer, S.J.'sstudy, G.K. Chesterton, Philosopher Without Portfolio, he writes:

There is in faith, not only as Chesterton saw it but also as it happened in him, more than just a hint of mystic vision (italics mine), a seeing of what rational mind all by itself could not fathom. Not only was he constant in his praise of mysticism, whether the poetical mysticism of Francis of Assisi, the theological mysticism of Thomas Aquinas, or what we might call his own `intellectual mysticism,' but he saw commitment to Jesus Christ in faith as essentially a mystical venture. [8]

I will have something to say later on about whether Chesterton was an "intellectual mystic" or not. But it is precisely this "hint of mystic vision" in Chesterton that is the topic explored in this book.

One final opinion about Chesterton's mysticism which has helped to stimulate this brief study comes from L. Garnet Thomas in his article entitled "Mysticism in the Ballad of the White Horse."He cites what to him are some extraordinary (and often quoted) lines from the Ballad, and then comments on them:

`I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher.'

This, and many another inspired stanza, seem to me to suggest that not only was Chesterton, as we already know, a poet of outstanding gifts, but that he was also a mystic.

What is a mystic? The Oxford Dictionary says it is someone who has access to spiritual truths beyond the grasp of the ordinary processes of human reasoning and understanding. Chesterton seems to have had these insights into the vast movements of history and equally into the significance of those apparently trivial events we all experience every day. [9]

For the sake of the Church and its future, a thinker of such stature must not be neglected. The younger generation needs to know about him, in order to feed off his teaching which nourishes not only the mind, but the spirit as well. Indeed, his mysticism has the potential to become one of the shining paths to God for the Third Millennium.

Chesterton, says Kenner, often did not use the word "mystic" in the technical, traditional sense of Christian mystical theology. We shall, however, attempt to specify how in fact Chesterton did use the word "mysticism" to describe his basic view of reality.

My thesis -- quite unprovable, although I don't think it can be disproved either! -- is that Chesterton used this word precisely because he had received some kind of real mystical grace, and that it was out of this personal mystical experience that he spoke. "Mysticism" was the word which he thought best approximated his own experience, his own vision.

I hope to show that Chesterton was preoccupied with communicating a proper understanding of mysticism, at least in his own terms. If we shall not find in Chesterton a technical theology of mysticism such as we discover in the works of John of the Cross, my contention is that we have in his writings a description of what he called his "makeshift mystical theory." (Autobiography, 93)

Just to mention John of the Cross is to conjure up notions of terrible trials and dark nights of the soul. No doubt all very great mystics have to undergo awful journeys into the caverns of the spirit. However, I do not think this is necessary in order to receive a particular mystical grace. God can give such a grace to anybody he wants to, even if that person has not achieved any exalted degree of holiness. Even when we turn to the saints, we find that they are called to various depths of mystical experience, not all equally painful and harrowing.

This being the case, couldn't some persons be given a mystical grace without a prolonged dark night such as described by the great mystical writers like John of the Cross? I think so. And could not a person receive a mystical grace without being very holy? I think so. I will have something to say later on in this discussion about the "dark night" he underwent in the early part of his life.

Many people will not accept a mystical spirituality unless its main exponent is a canonized saint. In Chesterton's case, this is something that still needs to be accomplished. In May, 1994, I began writing a series of articles in All Things Considered, the former newsletter of the Ottawa Chesterton Society, proposing Chesterton for canonization in the Catholic Church. I hope and pray that this happens some day. Only the Church can finally pronounce on a person's sanctity. On the other hand, someone could be a mystic, in several legitimate senses of that word, and not be a saint.

Let me explain.

One rather modern meaning of "a mystic" is someone who experiences extraordinary phenomena, Bernadette at Lourdes, for example. The Church pronounced on the validity of her visions before declaring her a saint. Chesterton thought William Blake really had some truly mystical visions; I doubt if Chesterton thought he was a saint. In a broad rendering of the term, Clement of Alexandria said that every baptised person is a mystic, precisely because he or she shares in the divine life; but we would not consider every Christian a "saint" in the Church's canonical sense of the word.

Some people receive mystical graces which, by the more commonly understood, narrow definition, are extraordinary and not part of the normal journey to God. They may or may not be saints, and oftentimes their graces can be validated apart from their sanctity. Chesterton, I will argue, received such a mystical grace, and it is the purpose of this book to describe it, argue for it. His mystical grace is not bound up with his being a saint, although I believe he was also that. He once said, "We need a new kind of saint." I say, "We need a new kind of mystic," and this is what Chesterton was.

I hope to show that Chesterton "fits" into at least some of the traditional definitions of mysticism, and that he is as much a mystic as Plotinus or Tauler or Ruysbroeck. I make special mention of these three men for the sake of comparison precisely because they are not canonized. Indeed, Plotinus was not even a Christian. The Church can approve someone's mystical teaching while leaving open the question of his or her personal sanctity. We have many teachers of mysticism in our tradition who have not been canonized.

When we think of "mystical graces", our minds turn to St.John of the Cross or St.Theresa of Avila. These people were Religious in the canonical sense of the word. Nevertheless, because they achieved holiness, many people -- laity included -- seek to adapt this Carmelite spirituality to their everyday lives in order to achieve holiness.

But for too long lay people have been striving to adopt the mystical spirituality of the cloister or monastery, and have not believed in the authentic paths of lay mysticism which are open to them through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Chesterton has a clear doctrine of a lay mysticism whose time has come. There are many kinds of mysticism, and Chesterton, for one, has been given the grace of an authentic lay mysticism for the Church.

We have to be careful here. In a real sense there is only one mysticism, that of the Gospel.Just as there are many kinds of saints who lived the gospel in a variety of ways, so there are many mystically inspired ways to God. Chesterton was an authentic lay mystic. If he is canonized, it will be an invaluable recognition, on the part of the Church, that his particular path of a lay mysticism is also a way of holiness.

After Chesterton had been in the throes of a very serious illness from which he almost died, and during which he had lain in a state of unconsciousness, his wife Frances was watching at his bedside. One day, when he opened his eyes, she said to him: "Do you know who has been taking care of you?""Yes, God," he answered her.

We'll never know what transpired during those days of his utter aloneness with God; nor will we ever know many of the deeper communications he had with God. Actually, Chesterton was a very private person when it came to speaking about any of his intimate communications with the Deity. But I believe that for much of his life he was in a profound union with God, with the One who took care of him at every instant. He was aware of the God who is always "immortally active" (his wonderful phrase), of the miracle of existence itself. This is at the heart of his mysticism.

My thesis is that Chesterton had a mystical grace in one of the technical senses of that word, and that a brief analysis, especially of his statements about mysticism, points to the conclusion that his entire consciousness proceeded from more than just philosophical reflection. Chesterton not only has profound ideas that are vital for the future of Christianity, but he also has a spirituality for the common man that is an outgrowth of his mysticism.

How can one even attempt to prove he had a mystical grace? Well, it certainly cannot be proven, although a good case can be made for it. That is what this book is about.

In a statement in his Autobiography (which we shall consider in greater detail later on), he spoke of "this way of looking at things, with a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude," which arose out of a "new and fiery resolution. In fact, I had wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather, when he said that he would thank God for his creation if he were a lost soul. I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of gratitude." (94-95)

And two years before he died, he reflected on his emergence from his "darkest depths":

Before the Boer War had introduced me to politics, or worse still to politicians, I had some vague and groping ideas of my own about a general view or vision of existence.It was a long time before I had anything worth calling a religion; what I had was not even sufficiently coherent to be called a philosophy. But it was, in a sense, a view of life; I had it in the beginning; and I am more and more coming back to it in the end. My original and almost mystical conviction of the miracle of all existence and the essential excitement of all experience. [10]

This book is an attempt to argue that this "mystical conviction," and what Lauer called "more than just a hint of mystic vision," were at the source of his "new and fiery resolution," pointing, I believe, to a mystical grace in one of the technical senses of the word.He said once of Omar Khayyam that "he was one of those who cannot get out of the Presence. Religion had hold of the man. He could never be alone." [11] I hope to make such a case for Chesterton himself.

Finally, my plan has been to use many quotes from Chesterton. I want to highlight Chesterton's stellar brilliance rather than my own limping commentary. Also, this is not a book especially for Chestertonians, who may not find too many quotations they haven't seen before. I hope, however,they may find this topic of interest. Chesterton's mysticism has not, to my knowledge, received anything like a sustained treatment.

It has been said wittily that Chesterton is not so much unknown as unpublished. This book is part of a growing effort to make him better known and understood. My hope is essentially twofold: in the first place, that those who are unfamiliar with Chesterton may, by becoming familiar with the depth of his vision of reality, be drawn to a love and appreciation of him; and, secondly, that specialists may find some new approaches here worthy of further study.


    [3] Ibid.

    [4] (St. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1984)

    [5] Quoted by David Rooney, Fidelity, (October, 1990), 43.

    [6] Ian Boyd, "Chesterton: A Prophet for Today," in Christ To the World, 1989, 31.

    [7] (Sheed & Ward : New York, 1947). Hereafter referred to as Kenner.

    [8] (Fordham University Press: New York, 1988), 166.

    [9] The Chesterton Review, VI, 2, 206.

    [10] Maisie Ward, G.K. Chesterton (Sheed & Ward), 539.

    [11] Ibid., 235.

Chapter 1 Introduction Contents List