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G.K. Chesterton
Common Sense Apostle
& Cigar Smoking Mystic

Dale Ahlquist, author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and president of the American Chesterton Society, reflects on the robust, timeless faith of the rotund, timely G.K. Chesterton

There comes a time in the life of any artist, any writer or poet, when he reaches the end of his abilities, when he finds himself wrestling all night with an angel. It is the moment when he tries to think the thought which thought cannot think, to visualize the invisible and describe the indescribable. He can arrive early or late at that moment in his career, but it changes everything. It is an encounter with the Absolute. It means either an end or a beginning. Either the artist limps away with discouragement at not being able to rise above himself, his creativity exhausted and extinguished. Or else, when grappling with the angel, the artist grabs hold and refuses to let go until he is given a blessing, and with it a new name and a new vision. At that moment filled with eternity, his art and his words pass from one realm into another. They become immortal.

A Giant Shadow Cast by an Illuminating Mind

Anyone who has ventured across the great shadow of Gilbert Keith Chesterton has discovered that Chesterton's angel was no match for him. The wrestling match is a hard one to imagine, but perhaps what happened was the giant artist and apologist finally sat on the angel’s head, and the angel was only too happy to give that special blessing which enabled G.K. Chesterton to rise forever above mere art or polemics. Chesterton’s poetic prose (and poetic poetry) overflows with eternal truth. His defense of Christianity bursts with logic and insight. His words are as wise and wonderful, as vital and as far-reaching today as when they were first written.

Chesterton could take on any subject and get to its essence, exposing the hidden core, and illuminate it with heavenly light. Any essay by Chesterton on any subject is not only pertinent, but transcendent. He can write about losing a piece of chalk, and point to a profound eternal truth: in this case, that white is a color; it is not the absence of color. Virtue is not merely the absence of vice; it is something pure and positive. Chastity is not merely abstention from sexual wrong, "it means something flaming, like Joan of Arc."

G.K. Chesterton was a master of every literary genre he tried—poetry, fiction, theology, philosophy, history, literary criticism—yet he considered himself nothing more than a mere journalist. But his chalk dust provides more content than most of today's newspaper essays, which rival even television in terms of vapidity. The typical essay, the op-ed piece, the supposedly well-carved, well-polished idea offered by our current critics is, more often than not, often trite, pointless, banal. It is no wonder that today's readers don't read because today's writers cannot even find anything to write about.

"There is Only One Subject!"

The world, you would think, should be full of subjects, but today’s journalists seem to be groping in the dust and in the dark. There is a reason, however, why they aim so low and still miss. They are avoiding something. Chesterton, who wrote about everything, said "There is only one subject." But most columnists and criers haven't figured out what that subject is. Consider the subjects to which we are subjected, the yawning range of yawns: Public Access. Recovering Prairies. Playing Survival. Surviving Playtime. Inclusive Language. Intrusive Non-Language. Deconstructed Dialects. Designer Dogs. De-neutered Dolls. Deadbeat Dads. Deadend Kids. Drug-dealing Doctors. Disgruntled Doctors. Disgruntled Drug-dealers. Even though they don't promise much, they still promise more than they deliver.

The points they make are so small and so insignificant that it hardly matters that they are wrong—which they usually are—and trying to take them on in meaningful debate would seem to be a waste of time and effort. But avoiding the debate is to play into their hands, because avoiding the argument is a way of avoiding the truth. Their arguments as they stand are a conscious and studied avoidance of the truth, words calculated not to deceive so much as to distract.

They avoid the truth because they avoid God. When Chesterton said, "There is only one subject," he was of course referring to that subject that today's wordsmiths go out of their way to avoid: God. Avoiding God as a subject leaves one with very little else to talk about. In fact, with nothing else to talk about. Which is why it all seems so insipid. Because it is.

But pursuing God rather than avoiding God opens up the whole creation and sheds light on every other subject, every other care, every other concern under the sun.

However, the danger of pursuing God is where it leads. To God—and nothing else. All those other concerns which seemed so important, so momentous, simply drop out of sight.

A Cigar-Smoking, Wine-Drinking Mystic

Thus, the avoidance of God leaves us with nothing else to talk about. The pursuit of God leaves us…with nothing else to talk about.

But the former is vanity; the latter is mysticism.

Chesterton says that the mystic "passes through the moment when…there is nothing but God." That is not a conclusion that one can reach merely by reading books, even books about the saints. Chesterton was able to write with authority about profound ideas, to write with an insider’s understanding of mysticism because he clearly passed through that moment when there was nothing but God.

As we said, the image of Chesterton wrestling with an angel is a striking one, but all the more striking because it is true. The three-hundred pound, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking journalist was nothing less than a mystic. A paradox, you say? Well, Chesterton specialized in paradoxes.

The paradox about mysticism is that it is not mysterious. The real mystic is down to earth. Chesterton says the real mystic reveals mysteries; he does not conceal them. Mysticism, he says, is simply a transcendent form of common sense. Both appeal to realities that we all know to be real even if we cannot prove them. Both appeal to something basic and fundamental. Common sense is about what we have in common. The ultimate thing we have in common is our Creator. Thus, common sense is a religious truth. At the other end of the spectrum, mysticism is about facing the ultimate, undiluted truth, which is God. So reality begins and ends with God, who is beginningless and endless. Everything in between is the glory of his creation, which glorifies the Creator.

G.K. Chesterton understood this, and this explains why he was so persistently right, and why we can read him today with such enormous benefit.

It is no exaggeration to say that Chesterton dealt with all the problems that plague modern society, and he provided the antidote. But the most amazing thing about his medicine is how sweet it is to swallow. Chesterton is the most quotable writer of the twentieth century. But there is reason he turns a phrase so well. It rings because it has the ring of truth. As the great Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson said, "Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed. He was deep because he was right."

A Taste of G.K.’s Greatness

Chesterton’s quotations are condensed depth and rightness. They go to the heart of the matter and stick in the mind:

I should think that the worst moment for the atheist comes when
he is really thankful—and yet has nobody to thank.

Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.

It is a very common phrase of modern intellectualism to say that
the morality of one age can be entirely different to the morality
of another. And like a great many other phrases of modern
intellectualism, it means literally nothing at all.

The decline of the strong middle class…has left the other
extremes of society further from each other than they were.
When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be
long before they begin to ignore human rights.

Some new scientists are only interested in the beastly side of men.
Instead of making the ape and tiger mere accessories to the man,
they make man a mere accessory, a mere afterthought to the ape
and tiger. Instead of employing the hippopotamus to illustrate their
philosophy, they employ the hippopotamus to make their
philosophy, and the great fat books he writes you and I, please
God, will never read.

The essence of medical cure is that a man is a patient. But the
essence of moral cure is that the patient must be impatient.
Nothing can be done unless he hates his own sin more than
he loves his own pleasure.

The fact that a chaotic and ill-educated time cannot clearly grasp
that truth does not alter the fact that it always will be the truth.
Our generation, in a dirty, pessimistic period, has blasphemously
underrated the beauty of life and cravenly overrated its dangers.
As for our own society, if it proceeds at its present rate of progress
and improvement, no trace or memory of it will be left at all.

It is possible to get quite drunk on Chesterton quotations. They come in endless supply, and one doesn’t ever know when to stop. Each marvelous thought opens up whole worlds: the world that is and the world that should be.

So, how did he do it? How did he see our modern dilemmas so well and see also the solution to them? Because he saw the truth first and the lie afterwards. The lie is the problem, whether it is an open attack on the truth or a mere distraction. We tend to see the lies and the distractions first as we grope towards the truth.

For Chesterton the truth is recognizable by the fact that it is attacked from all sides and attacked for opposite reasons. Liars hate the truth so much that they don’t mind contradicting themselves.





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