G.K. Chesterton on the True Mystic

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Detail from William Blake, “The Prophecy”

“A verbal accident has confused the mystical with the mysterious. Mysticism is generally felt vaguely to be itself vague—a thing of clouds and curtains, of darkness or concealing vapours, of bewildering conspiracies or impenetrable symbols. Some quacks have indeed dealt in such things: but no true mystic ever loved darkness rather than light. No pure mystic ever loved mere mystery. The mystic does not bring doubts or riddles: the doubts and riddles exist already. We all feel the riddle of the earth without anyone to point it out. The mystery of life is the plainest part of it. The clouds and curtains of darkness, the confounding vapours, these are the daily weather of this world. Whatever else we have grown accustomed to, we have grown accustomed to the unaccountable. Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key; with every step of our lives we enter into the middle of some story which we are certain to misunderstand. The mystic is not the man who makes mysteries but the man who destroys them. The mystic is one who offers an explanation which may be true or false, but which is always comprehensible—by which I mean, not that it is always comprehended, but that it always can be comprehended, because there is always something to comprehend. The man whose meaning remains mysterious fails, I think, as a mystic … ”

~G.K. Chesterton, William Blake, 1910

“The Mortal Answers” a Poem by G.K. Chesterton

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Arthur Rackham, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” 

“The Mortal Answers” by G.K. Chesterton

“⁠. . . . . . Come away—
With the fairies, hand in hand,
For the world is more full of weeping
⁠Than you can understand.”  ~W. B. Yeats.

 

FROM the Wood of the Old Wives’ Fables
⁠They glittered out of the grey,
And with all the Armies of Elf-land
⁠I strove like a beast at bay;

With only a right arm wearied,
⁠Only a red sword worn,
And the pride of the House of Adam
⁠That holdeth the stars in scorn.

For they came with chains of flowers
⁠And lilies lances free,
There in the quiet greenwood
⁠To take my grief from me.

And I said, “Now all is shaken
⁠When heavily hangs the brow,
When the hope of the years is taken
⁠The last star sunken. Now—

“Hear, you chattering cricket,
⁠Hear, you spawn of the sod,
The strange strong cry in the darkness
⁠Of one man praising God,

“That out of the night and nothing
⁠With travail of birth he came
To stand one hour in the sunlight
⁠Only to say her name.

“Falls through her hair the sunshine
⁠In showers; it touches, see,
Her high bright cheeks in turning;
⁠Ah, Elfin Company,

“The world is hot and cruel,
⁠We are weary of heart and hand,
But the world is more full of glory:
⁠Than you can understand.”

“The Divine Detective” by G.K. Chesterton

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Notre Dame Cathedral

“The Church is the only thing that ever attempted by system to pursue and discover crimes, not in order to avenge, but in order to forgive them.”

“The Divine Detective” an essay by G.K. Chesterton, 1909

“Every person of sound education enjoys detective stories, and there are even several points on which they have a hearty superiority to most modern books. A detective story generally describes six living men discussing how it is that a man is dead. A modern philosophic story generally describes six dead men discussing how any man can possibly be alive. But those who have enjoyed the roman policier must have noted one thing, that when the murderer is caught he is hardly ever hanged. “That,” says Sherlock Holmes, “is the advantage of being a private detective”; after he has caught he can set free. The Christian Church can best be defined as an enormous private detective, correcting that official detective—the State. This, indeed, is one of the injustices done to historic Christianity; injustices which arise from looking at complex exceptions and not at the large and simple fact. We are constantly being told that theologians used racks and thumbscrews, and so they did. Theologians used racks and thumbscrews just as they used thimbles and three-legged stools, because everybody else used them. Christianity no more created the mediaeval tortures than it did the Chinese tortures; it inherited them from any empire as heathen as the Chinese.

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“The Nightmare” by G.K. Chesterton

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Arthur Rackham, Peter Pan 

“Man, the central pillar of the world must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose. All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul.”

(Originally appeared in The Daily News, Oct. 16, 1909, and in Alarms and Discursions, NY: Dodd, Mead. 1911)

A SUNSET of copper and gold had just broken down and gone to pieces in the west, and grey colours were crawling over everything in earth and heaven; also a wind was growing, a wind that laid a cold finger upon flesh and spirit. The bushes at the back of my garden began to whisper like conspirators; and then to wave like wild hands in signal. I was trying to read by the last light that died on the lawn a long poem of the decadent period, a poem about the old gods of Babylon and Egypt, about their blazing and obscene temples, their cruel and colossal faces.

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“The Philosophy of Gratitude” by G.K. Chesterton

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“When existence destroys the flower it is not sufficient for us to say that we admired it. The question is not whether we admired the flower; the question is whether we could in the primal darkness of nonentity have imagined a flower, and then by the spasm of divine creation, made it.”

“The Philosophy of Gratitude”

by G.K. Chesterton

This uncollected Chesterton article first appeared in The Daily News, June 20, 1903.

Chesterton: “I received a little while ago a letter, to which no name or address was attached, which touched me beyond expression. A great deal of it was too personal to treat of here, and for this reason especially I regret the concealment of its origin. But the more generally discussable part concerned itself chiefly with a query as to my meaning when I said in this paper something to this effect: “No one can be miserable who has known anything worth being miserable about.” The remark was written as remarks in daily papers ought, in my opinion, to be written, in a wild moment; but it happens, nevertheless, to be more or less true. What I meant was that our attitude towards existence, if we have suffered deprivation, must always be conditioned by the fact that deprivation implies that existence has given us something of immense value. To say that we have lost in the lottery of existence is to say that we have gained: for existence gives us our money beforehand. It is quite impossible to imagine ourselves as really calling, as Huxley expressed it, the Cosmos to the bar.

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“Fairy Tales” by G.K. Chesterton

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Arthur Rackham, Cinderella

Not only can these fairy-tales be enjoyed because they are moral, but morality can be enjoyed because it puts us in fairyland, in a world at once of wonder and of war.

by G.K. Chesterton, from All Things Considered, 1915

“Some solemn and superficial people (for nearly all very superficial people are solemn) have declared that the fairy-tales are immoral; they base this upon some accidental circumstances or regrettable incidents in the war between giants and boys, some cases in which the latter indulged in unsympathetic deceptions or even in practical jokes. The objection, however, is not only false, but very much the reverse of the facts. The fairy-tales are at root not only moral in the sense of being innocent, but moral in the sense of being didactic, moral in the sense of being moralising. It is all very well to talk of the freedom of fairyland, but there was precious little freedom in fairyland by the best official accounts. Mr. W.B. Yeats and other sensitive modern souls, feeling that modern life is about as black a slavery as ever oppressed mankind (they are right enough there), have especially described elfland as a place of utter ease and abandonment—a place where the soul can turn every way at will like the wind. Science denounces the idea of a capricious God; but Mr. Yeats’s school suggests that in that world every one is a capricious god. Mr. Yeats himself has said a hundred times in that sad and splendid literary style which makes him the first of all poets now writing in English (I will not say of all English poets, for Irishmen are familiar with the practice of physical assault), he has, I say, called up a hundred times the picture of the terrible freedom of the fairies, who typify the ultimate anarchy of art—

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Chesterton on Love

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“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” ~G.K. Chesterton 

 

I need not say I love you yet
You know how doth my heart oppress
The intolerable tenderness
That broke my body when we met.
I need not say I love you yet.

But let me say I fear you yet
You the long years not vulgarise,
You open your immortal eyes
And we for the first time have met.
Cover your face; I fear you yet.

—G.K. Chesterton, writing to his wife Frances to commemorate their silver anniversary