(Sunday, May 29 marks the one-hundred and forty-second birthday of G.K. Chesterton. This article serves as means whereby the author may remember a man that should never be forgotten and as a reminder to those who may have done just that.)
“The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” ~G. K. Chesterton
If ever there was a thirsty man Gilbert Keith Chesterton was that man. His thirst was not that of a parched mouth seeking water, but rather that of a pious mind seeking wonder. For Chesterton, the whole world was a cooling stream which needed to be drank in through thoughtful appreciation. So he tasted the universe one sip at a time and was swallowed up by its simple profundities. Or perhaps it was its profound simplicities. In any event, he found that the world in which he lived was an astonishing thing filled to the brim with astonishing things. It mirrored its Maker by being to him a fount of perpetual novelties. Lapping it up drop by drop was his antidote for the desiccated soul. This would quench that base desire that longs to be free from holy dissatisfaction. The thirst is natural; God-given, sacred. We don’t drink to be free from it, we drink to acquire a taste for it. If this all seems rather paradoxical then welcome to Chestertonia. By reading any number of his prolific works one soon discovers that true satisfaction only comes through a certain kind of insatiability—a longing for awe.
Though he would certainly not appreciate my saying so, Chesterton would have made a jolly Calvinist. Though he often likened the theology of the Reformers to that of the pagans who lived according to the “Fates and the Furies,” he agreed wholeheartedly with the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to worship God and to enjoy him forever.”
In A Short History of England he writes, “I do not, in my private capacity, believe that a baby gets his best physical food by sucking his thumb; nor that a man gets his best moral food by sucking his soul, and denying its dependence on God or other good things. I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Happiness. Gratitude. Wonder. These are the cardinal tenets of the Chestertonian creed, though the logical order always runs in reverse.
Consider his words from his autobiography,
“The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.” In other words, worship and wonder are the “chief ends” of human existence. He personalizes this thought even more when writes, “The chief idea of my life … is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted…When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”
It was such a fascination with the sublimity of the mundane—the miraculousness of the monotonous—that drove to him to pen some of the most stimulating prose and inspirational poetry that are available to us in the English language. He incites us to be overwhelmed by the simple things precisely because there are no such things. He found profundity in a piece of chalk, hilarity in chasing one’s hat, and serenity in lying in a comfortable bed. He has been known to make a muse out of a lump of cheese. The only thing which he refused any serious contemplation was austerity. He was even able to think of misery in a way that brings a smile to the downcast soul, “No one can be finally miserable who has ever known anything worth being miserable about.” He said elsewhere,
“I feel grateful for the slight sprain which has introduced this mysterious and fascinating division between one of my feet and the other. The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost. In one of my feet I can feel how strong and splendid a foot is; in the other I can realize how very much otherwise it might have been. The moral of the thing is wholly exhilarating. This world and all our powers in it are far more awful and beautiful than even we know until some accident reminds us. If you wish to perceive that limitless felicity, limit yourself if only for a moment. If you wish to realize how fearfully and wonderfully God’s image is made, stand on one leg. If you want to realize the splendid vision of all visible things– wink the other eye.”
Thus, he found felicity even amid his misery.
Though he is mostly known (where he is known at all in our time) for his prose, many of my favorite lines of Chestertonian wit and wisdom are found in his poetry. His short piece, Saying Grace, gracefully says that which I have been stumbling over in these few paragraphs.
“You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
Chesterton calls upon all of his readers to do more than look, he calls upon them to see. To see with wide-eyed wonder. To behold every ordinary thing as an extraordinary treasure given to us from our Father in heaven. To see everything as a gift. This requires open eyes, open hearts, and open minds. “The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.”
If you have never read G. K. Chesterton then recognize that this is a sort of poverty. It is said of horses that they won’t stop eating because they don’t know that they are full. It may be said of men that we do not fill ourselves because we do not realize that we are empty. Most of us aren’t aware that our souls have shrank since we were small children brandishing our wooden swords while running through a dozen imaginary worlds. Remedy this soul hunger by returning to wonder. If you need a good guide to lead you on a tour of the “greatest of all impossible worlds” then Chesterton is your man. He was the man who was thirsty. His lot was not to quench thirst in men, his aim was to create it. He wanted men to wonder at the wonders of God with mouths agape. This is the posture that best receives the fullness of eternal blessing.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” ~Psalm 81:10