"We need a new kind of mystic," writes Fr. Robert Wild; and in The Tumbler of God, he presents a spiritual portrait of G.K. Chesterton that convincingly shows why he is precisely the new kind of mystic we need. Chesterton's mysticism was grounded in an experiential knowledge that existence is a gift from God, and that the only response is a spirituality of gratitude and praise for the unveiled beauty of creation.
Franz Kafka said of Chesterton, "He is so happy one might almost think he had discovered God." And Fr. Wild adds that "indeed he had, and he was doing his best to live in the light of that discovery. What was his 'secret'? It was to love the splendor of the real, and to live in adulthood the innocence and wonder of the child who sees everything for the first time. The Gospel tells us we must become again like little children in order to enter the kingdom. Chesterton shows us how."
I like Kafka's ironic comment. It's especially pointed in light of his own relentlessly pessimistic oeuvre; indeed, he was so unhappy one might almost think he had been turned into a horrible insect or something.
One could scarcely conceive of two more divergent writers; Prof. Wiki accurately characterizes Kafka's work as typically featuring "isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers," and "exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity."
I wonder how their paths ever even crossed? Wiki adds that Kafka was "tortured by sexual desire," and "feared that people would find him mentally and physically repulsive."
There's more, but he seems to have been a thoroughly unhappy person, whereas Chesterton was relentlessly cheerful. Is it just a matter of character, or did Chesterton possess the cure for what ailed Kafka? The latter "was at times alienated from Judaism and Jewish life" and in his adolescence "declared himself an atheist." Could it be that he simply drew out the implications of his own godforsakeness in a completely unflinching way?
There's no doubt that outside certain Christian circles, Kafka is considered by far the greater writer. I'm guessing that most literary types would dismiss Chesterton as a kind of lightweight. I've never read any of Chesterton's fiction, but have read most of Kafka's. This was back when I regarded myself as more or less of an existentialist atheist. Thus, I immersed myself in the depressing canon of 20th century existentialist literature -- all these guys, including Sartre, Camus, Rilke, et al.
But I was existentially unfit to be an existentialist. As Leonard Cohen remarked in another context, "cheerfulness kept breaking through."
Transfiguration. Transmogrification. The former is the "place" where "human nature meets God: the meeting place of the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth."
As to transmogrification, one could hardly do better than this: "One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous verminous insect." I hate when that happens.
We can't really know, can we? We can live in the faith that we are nothing more than randomly evolved insects crawling around the planet; or we can live with the idea that we are created in the image and likeness of the God who created us. Since we can't know, why not choose the fun path? You have nothing to lose except not being taken seriously by unemployed lit majors and clinically depressed existentialists.
Men who think they are too modern to understand this are in fact too mean to understand it. --GKC
The question is, who is looking at the world right-side up, Chesterton or Kafka? And again, there really is no alternative if you're going to be intellectually consistent: if things are bad, then they are really, really bad. And if they're good, then they're... well they can't be perfect, since that is reserved for paradise. But as good as existence can be and still be an existence distinct from God.
Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised (GKC). The other evening I was trying to explain to a young lady -- the daughter of a friend -- why this was the optimistic attitude, but she seemed to regard it as an existential downer. But that's not the point at all. Rather, if you expect life to be perfect, then you are bound to be disappointed.
I am reminded of something Bailie says, to the effect that fallen man's perpetual hope is of Resurrection without Cross.
"Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot recognize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing" (GKC).
"[T]here are two principal sides to everything, a practical and a mystical..." (McLuhan, ibid.). This thought has been rattling around in my brain for the last several days, but it is really just another way of saying what we always say about the nature of complementarity and orthoparadox. So yes, you are an insect or a god, depending upon how you look at it. But ultimately, our common sense empirico-rationalism must be complemented by the uncommon nonsense of mystico-phenomenology.
"Basically, [Chesterton] was trying to define an attitude of mind which preserves the sense of mystery about life and does not try to reconcile or explain rationally the paradoxical nature of reality."
So we are insect and god; I just googled it to try and find an arresting image, but we already have a perfectly suitable one at hand: the butterfly.
Let's say you're in the chrysalis, living in the ambiguous state between ugly caterpillar and beautiful butterfly. With which will you identify?
Limiting yourself to personal experience, you will no doubt choose the insect. Indeed, you probably couldn't even conceive of, much less hope for, the butterfly. Yes, you've seen butterflies, but they must have just been born that way.
"The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand" (GKC).
I can top the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly. How about the transformation of nothing into everything, "the dynamic power of God constantly creating, drawing the created reality into existence, from nothingness into being"? Chesterton was constantly aware "of the passage from non-being to being, as if every moment was the moment of Creation in the Garden."
Interestingly, both insect and man are created on the 6th day, when God has the earth bring forth creeping things before it occurs to him to create a being "in our image and likeness," who shall -- ironically -- have dominion "over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
But this is always happening now: "Creation is not only the beginning, but is always the beginning" (Wild). So, "Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed" (GKC, ibid.).