Tag Archives: GK Chesterton

12 January, Brownings XXVI: The soul in the city

I dwell amid the city,
And hear the flow of souls in act and speech,
For pomp or trade, for merrymake or folly:
I hear the confluence and sum of each,
And that is melancholy!
Thy voice is a complaint, O crownèd city,
The blue sky covering thee like God’s great pity.

.
From The Soul’s Travelling by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The City of God is a common theme in the Bible, Zion or Jerusalem, the earthly place where he lives among his people, or the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. A city was, and remains, a convenient setting for a more cultured life that would not have been possible in the hinterlands. Although the airwaves bring us radio, television and the internet – and of course internet shopping – the city remains a magnet for entertainment, dining out, medical care, employment. What is Elizabeth’s problem?

Perhaps it is the flow of souls looking for pomp, trade, merriment or folly: self indulgence in other words. But whether in her 19th Century London as in the first picture, or the 21st Century city, by no means all arrivals flock there for the extras London has to offer, at a price. The city may be a relatively safe haven from war or other troubles but people still have to find a welcome; somewhere affordable to live, familiar food or the sound of their mother tongue.

Chesterton has Mary tell King Alfred about the heavenly city: “The gates of Heaven are lightly locked”, continuing:

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

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

The sky in both of our pictures is more iron cope than blue cloak; we can well believe that it grows darker yet as the sea indeed rises higher. It is for each one of us to have joy without any apparent cause, and faith in God when all comfort is taken away from ourselves or the people we meet. Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom!

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24 December: The Greatest Gift

Merry Christmas, Eddie!

By Eddie Gilmore

Thank you again, Eddie, for your wise words! From the Irish Chaplaincy blog.

There are some Christian movements that shun the giving of Christmas presents. One such is Christian Science, whose founder Mary Baker Eddy told in a paper ‘The Theology of Christmas Presents’ how, instead of giving them gifts, she sat still and thought about ‘Truth and Purity’ for her friends till they were much better for it. This was derided by G.K. Chesterton who declared Eddy’s stance to be ‘un-Christian’ and who points out that ‘Christ Himself was a Christmas present’. He writes as well that, ‘A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed.’

Admittedly, the consumer spending spree that begins ever earlier in the year can get a bit out of hand, and even lead to some people ending up in debt. But how lovely it can be to both receive and to give presents, especially ones into which a lot of thought and love has gone. And the gifts don’t have to be expensive. We do ‘Secret Santas’ at the Irish Chaplaincy (a fine tradition; and one enjoyed as well, by all accounts, in 10, Downing Street!). There is a £5 guideline and people interpret that in a variety of ways. I hit the jackpot this year. I received a large white furry Christmas stocking emblazoned with the letter ‘E’ and containing a string of flashing lights (which I love) and a glass container with a Christmas scene inside that snows when you shake it (which I also love) and lights up when you press a button on the bottom! And can be hung on the tree! The Secret Santa in question had, in addition, bought a large box of chocolates for all the team and a signed photo of Jamie Carragher for Declan’s son who is a Liverpool fan. I was so touched by that.

My furry stocking has duly been hung up next to the fireplace and I wait in anticipation of it being filled with little treats when I come downstairs on the morning of December 25th. I’m aware that I might find it empty but that’s the thing about present giving, and, I suppose, life in general: sometimes you’re in luck, sometimes you’re not! But in luck or out of luck, we may never know, through our own giving, how we may have touched another person.

Chesterton argues in his riposte to Mary Baker Eddy that if the three kings had simply brought ‘Truth and Purity and Love’ to that stable in Bethlehem then there ‘would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.’ Rather they brought actual, physical gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. OK, they may not have been the most practical things to give to the mother of a new-born, but how many of us want practical gifts at Christmas? Don’t we want instead something to make us smile, to feel special; to feel known and valued and loved: in short, thoughtful gifts, which is precisely what the gifts of the kings were.

In the words of Handel’s Messiah, ‘For unto us a child is born’, and that, surely, remains the greatest Christmas gift of all.

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26 March: lightly locked, Gates VIII.

“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

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

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Even as she spoke she was not,
Nor any word said he, 
He only heard, still as he stood
Under the old night’s nodding hood,
The sea-folk breaking down the wood
Like a high tide from sea.

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24 March: Alfred at Heaven’s gate; Gates VII.

Alfred-jewel-ashmolean.jpg (1536×2048)
The Alfred Jewel by Mkooiman, CC BY-SA 4.0

In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.

          Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
          Like the child's book to read,
          Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
          He looked; and there Our Lady was,
          She stood and stroked the tall live grass
          As a man strokes his steed.

          Her face was like an open word
          When brave men speak and choose,
          The very colours of her coat
          Were better than good news.

          She spoke not, nor turned not,
          Nor any sign she cast,
          Only she stood up straight and free,
          Between the flowers in Athelney,
          And the river running past.

          One dim ancestral jewel hung
          On his ruined armour grey,
          He rent and cast it at her feet:
          Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
          Men came from hall and school and street
          And found it where it lay.

          "Mother of God," the wanderer said,
          "I am but a common king,
          Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
          To see a secret thing.

          "The gates of heaven are fearful gates
          Worse than the gates of hell;
          Not I would break the splendours barred
          Or seek to know the thing they guard,
          Which is too good to tell.

          "But for this earth most pitiful,
          This little land I know,
          If that which is for ever is,
          Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
          Seeing the stranger go?

          "When our last bow is broken, Queen,
          And our last javelin cast,
          Under some sad, green evening sky,
          Holding a ruined cross on high,
          Under warm westland grass to lie,
          Shall we come home at last?"

This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs:
          "I tell you naught for your comfort,
          Yea, naught for your desire,
          Save that the sky grows darker yet
          And the sea rises higher."

Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'. 

                                                                      Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.


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13 November: Should Stevenson ever have been born?

This follows on from Robert Browning’s courting of Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid likely to produce an invalid child. On the other hand, had there been testing for potential diseases and disabilities, would – should – Robert Louis Stevenson have been allowed to live? Chesterton knew his answer. (RLS was born this day in 1850)

What is the good of telling people that if they marry for love, they may be punished by being the parents of Keats or the parents of Stevenson? Keats died young; but he had more pleasure in a minute than a Eugenist gets in a month. Stevenson had lung-trouble; and it may, for all I know, have been perceptible to the Eugenic eye even a generation before. But who would perform that illegal operation: the stopping of Stevenson?

Intercepting a letter bursting with good news, confiscating a hamper full of presents and prizes, pouring torrents of intoxicating wine into the sea, all this is a faint approximation for the Eugenic inaction of the ancestors of Stevenson. This, however, is not the essential point; with Stevenson it is not merely a case of the pleasure we get, but of the pleasure he got. If he had died without writing a line, he would have had more red-hot joy than is given to most men. Shall I say of him, to whom I owe so much, let the day perish wherein he was born? Shall I pray that the stars of the twilight thereof be dark and it be not numbered among the days of the year, because it shut not up the doors of his mother’s womb? I respectfully decline; like Job, I will put my hand upon my mouth.

from “Eugenics and Other Evils” by Gilbert Keith Chesterton.

GKC took the writers Keats and Stevenson as examples of the unhealthy humans that the Eugenicists of his day would have aborted but it was illegal. As for today … I only have to think of our bridesmaids, now departed, who lived a full life with Down’s syndrome, to know how wrong it would have been to prevent their birth; and also the men who were locked away in ‘subnormality hospitals’, yet came out and contributed greatly to the founding of L’Arche Kent.

Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and much more, after years of illness and travelling to find a cure for his lung condition, died in Samoa aged 44 in 1894, where he was buried with this epitaph:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
 the hunter home from the hill.

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16 September: Skeleton in the cupboard

The society is heavy with unconfessed sins; its mind is sore and silent with painful subjects; it has a constipation of conscience. There are many things it has done and allowed to be done which it does not really dare to think about; it calls them by other names and tries to talk itself into faith in a false past, as men make up the things they would have said in a quarrel. Of these sins one lies buried deepest but most noisome, and though it is stifled, stinks: the true story of the relations of the rich man and the poor in England. The half-starved English proletarian is not only nearly a skeleton but he is a skeleton in a cupboard.

From Eugenics and Other Evils by G. K. Chesterton

GKC was writing a century ago; he would surely have hoped, if not expected, that working – or willing to work – people would not have needed to use food banks to feed their families. One thing that concerns me about the Black Lives Matter campaign is its potential to divide people, poor people especially. When West Indians’ ancestors were slaves, some of mine were nominally free, but ground down by poverty, their land enclosed and stolen by the rich. Far better than being liable to be sold but definitely not to be spoken about in our constipated national condition. Things only changed through pressure and legislation such as the Factories Acts.

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4 March. Desert VII: Relative progress.

Jack Lonnen Meadows in costume 1

Today we visit a different desert. Chesterton is writing about relativism in 1905, a century before Pope Benedict warned of its dangers. The passage is from Heretics, Project Gutenberg edition. GKC’s argument is that there actually is something we can call good. It leads nowhere to speak of ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’, but rather the truth, which is always imperfectly grasped, as any scientist would tell you. Relative truth is not what we go into the desert to seek. While avoiding obvious dangers, it is good to search for the truth, to sweat and even to be crucified for it.

An enormous unspoken disappointment has fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

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September 4: In praise of Rain III.

light in dark rainy window

As I prepare this post we are hoping for rain; apart from a thunderstorm a few days ago, we have not seen any rain for weeks. The nightly bathwater is shared with the lawn and flowerbeds. It keeps them green.

As for the local forests, they could do with a drop, though their roots run deep. GKC enjoyed the forest in the rain; a hundred years ago, in an apparently light-hearted but also very serious remark, he quotes Jesus in favour of rain for ‘all living things’. (Matthew 10:44)

A cup of cold water

It is the water drinker who ought to be the true bacchanal of the forests; for all the forests are drinking water. Moreover, the forests are apparently enjoying it: the trees rave and reel to and fro like drunken giants; they clash boughs as revellers clash cups; they roar undying thirst and howl the health of the world. All around me as I write is a noise of Nature drinking: and Nature makes a noise when she is drinking, being by no means refined. 

If I count it Christian mercy to give a cup of cold water to a sufferer, shall I complain of these multitudinous cups of cold water handed round to all living things; a cup of water for every shrub; a cup of water for every weed? I would be ashamed to grumble at it. As Sir Philip Sidney said, their need is greater than mine—especially for water.”

Today’s image came from SJC.

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July 2: Sleep is an act of faith

IMGP1797

“Sleep!” cried Father Brown. “Sleep. We have come to the end of the ways. Do you know what sleep is? Do you know that every man who sleeps believes in God? It is a sacrament; for it is an act of faith and it is a food. And we need a sacrament, if only a natural one.”

Even if we were ten in the bed, each one of us would always sleep alone, except for the one who feeds our mind and soul all through the night.

Not everyone sleeps soundly, physical or mental pain, or others’ unthinking noise may prolong our wakefulness. Sleep, like all the sacraments, is a gift. Let us hope that all wil be able to receive it.

But it’s time for me to partake of that natural sacrament. Good Night to all, and we’ll see you tomorrow.

And as the Compline prayer says:

MAY THE LORD GRANT US A QUIET NIGHT AND A PERFECT END. AMEN.

from The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton.
available on Kindle.
More Chesterton to come in the next weeks.
Stiperstones, Shropshire. MMB

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June 6: Beauty in ignorance.

rose.wild.scot1
Chesterton had a good stab at understanding Robert Browning and his work, which at times can be as densely obscure as at others it rings out clear. But I am not sharing this as an exercise in literary criticism, rather as an insight into a creative view of the world. By that I mean one where we have an awareness of creation as still on-going, even if we just miss hearing the Word creating;  and a world where we have an awareness of ourselves as responsible co-creators. Laudato Si!
“It is well sometimes to half understand a poem in the same manner that we half understand the world. One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”
from “Robert Browning” by Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Wild Rose in June, near Edinburgh MMB

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