Through what fierce incarnations,
furled in fire and darkness, did I go,
Ere I was worthy in the world
To see a dandelion grow?
We get pulled in, reeled like flopping fishes to the light and the air we don’t think we want.
I gave in, and admitted that God was God … perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,
wrote C.S. Lewis of his own encounter with the Day. This concept of the unwilling convert, the one knocked about and cast down and brought utterly low in order to be brought higher up and further in, was one with which Lewis seems to have been very familiar. He asked in another place,
Who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?
But there was another mighty man of letters – a man influential in Lewis’ own life – who came to the surface in rather a different way. He was not chased in by the snapping dogs or the wrecking ball but rather came up gasping from the many waters to exclaim about how wonderful everything was. Beginning with the miracle of existence.
“Anything [is] magnificent as compared with nothing,” this man said. “You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.”
It was this conviction that brought Gilbert Keith Chesterton out of the hideous darkness of pessimism. He called it “a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude.” He expressed it on reams of paper.
Chesterton went on to write some of the finest poetry that has come out of the British Isles in any era. He wrote fiction also, and literary criticism and biographies, philosophical and ontological commentaries and apologetics and plays. But Chesterton was by nature a poet, for he was a man with a mind fixed on cosmic subjects, a quintessential optimist, a writer given to bold generalizations, and a thinker whose highest virtue was his ability to praise everything in flaming colors.
The fact that Chesterton’s poetry is so little appreciated in academic circles today is a sad reflection on academic circles. One of my copies of his “Complete Poems” bears this melancholy blip on its back cover:
[Chesterton] remained a Victorian throughout his life and his poetry admittedly reflects that age. He rejected the modernist movement that developed after World War I, holding fast to his own standards. ‘Quite clearly,’ writes Professor Daniel B. Dodson in an introduction to the Chesterton poems, ‘this is the expression of a very ancient poetic mission, primitive, indeed bardic, in its appeal.’ Chesterton is not for readers who seek complex ambiguities in poetry; he is for those who enjoy the traditional and the heroic.
It’s hard not to be discouraged by the disdain that drips from the lips of these scholars when they are confronted with Chesterton’s persistent belief in an enduring and all-encompassing ideal. It’s also difficult to imagine how anyone acquainted with Chesterton’s writings could say that they lack “complex ambiguities,” for Chesterton was a man fascinated by the greatest complexities and ambiguities of all. His weakness, of course, in their eyes, was that he believed in a light at the end of the tunnel of murky complexities and ambiguities, and all displays of hope are insufferable to those who have none.
Chesterton, of course, had an answer prepared for these critics before they were even born. In 1905 he wrote scathingly in Heretics,
We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything. There are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.
One can picture Chesterton responding to his antagonists of our era by leaning back in his chair with a profound look of amusement on his face and removing his wire spectacles for a good laugh. “What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy,” he once said.“Not upon the clock or the century.”
For the followers of Christ in this present age, these words ring truer than ever. We are beset by a thankless scurry of consumerism, by the deceit that there is something other than Jesus which we must acquire, by the anxiety of many improperly oriented aims. We inhabit a washed-out world that is grappling with the wages of sin, and, unlike Hercules in the old story, is losing. It is not so hard for us to be other than wholly satisfied, to be outside of the peace that passes understanding. We need Chesterton’s exuberant vision now more than ever, for all around us the citizens of the world are thumbing their noses at the suggestion that things are worth celebrating.
At a time and in a culture where material wealth abounds more widely than at any time in the past, our possessions, our comforts, our little amenities become sometimes, in a very real sense, more trouble than they are worth. They do much to distract us from fixing our eyes, much to make us weak and unfit for the war that is ahead and closing in all around. To approach these objects with a grateful and an awestruck heart is wholesome, certainly, and does much to put them back into the place they should occupy. Our gratitude, however, may endure longer if it finds a more lasting, a more universal foundation.
Chesterton was convinced he had found this. He called it The Great Minimum, and he outlined it in one of his most beautiful poems.
THE GREAT MINIMUM
It is something to have wept as we have wept,
It is something to have done as we have done,
It is something to have watched when all men slept,
And seen the stars which never see the sun.
It is something to have smelt the mystic rose,
Although it break and leave the thorny rods,
It is something to have hungered once as those
Must hunger who have ate the bread of gods.
To have seen you and your unforgotten face,
Brave as a blast of trumpets for the fray.
Pure as white lilies in a watery space,
It were something, though you went from me to-day.
To have known the things that from the weak are furled,
Perilous ancient passions, strange and high;
It is something to be wiser than the world,
It is something to be older than the sky.
In a time of skeptic moths and cynic rusts,
And fatted lives that of their sweetness tire,
In a world of flying loves and fading lusts,
It is something to be sure of a desire.
Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard;
Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
Let thunder break on man and beast and bird
And the lightning. It is something to have been.
This Thanksgiving holiday I hope to look hard at the particular things. At the shimmer of the light on the thick, aromatic casings of citrus fruit. At the red trees lining the drive in front of my house. At the enduring joyousness of The Sound of Music, which is a Thanksgiving tradition in my family. At my little brother and my little sister and their being children while they still are. I plan to be grateful for the unexpected gifts which no on one else has except for me.
Beyond all of that, though, I plan to be especially glad about some things that the loneliest orphan and the most bereaved widow have also. I plan to be glad that I am here, glad that He was here, glad that He will be here again.