Note: we have included here only those essays in the Omnibus which were not therein attributed elsewhere and which we do not anticipate will appear elsewhere in the Archive.
Fortitudo et Laetitia
The Metaphysics of Chesterton
The Old Man
Water at Work
This combination of respectful greeting and affectionate courtesy is a delightful one, as all must agree. Frankly, our title “Father” is one which ministers of non-Catholic religions sometimes envy us. I know this because they have told me so.
I remember one day walking in New York with a very distinguished and companionable minister of a religion not mine. He was one of those ministers who wear the same kind of turned-about collar I wear, and the same general cut of clerical clothes. His black suit was not quite as black as mine because of the weave of the cloth, and my black suit was not quite as black as it should be for want of a good brushing. But, on the whole, we looked very much like two priests taking a stroll in the avenue together, and I dare say everyone who saw us thought we were two priests. But, of course, we were not two priests, we were only one priest, and one minister.
We were talking about religion, a subject to which, may I say, we clergymen invariably turn when we are together, and a subject we discuss among ourselves a bit more informally than when we are endeavoring to edify the laity with our learning or oratory. And, as we walked and talked, a man passed us, raised his hat ceremoniously, and said “Good afternoon, Fathers!”
The minister was pleased to be called Father by this passerby, and did not hesitate to say so. He said: “I wish I could be called Father all the time; except when I meet a man who is intoxicated. When an intoxicated man addresses me as Father, I am tempted to say to him, ‘You are no son of mine in that condition!’ Don’t you feel that way, too?”
“Well, no,” I said, “I do not. Naturally I do not enjoy seeing a man intoxicated. But I realize that if I do not take him drunk, I cannot have him sober. If I am to be his true father, I must be his father all the time, no matter in what condition I find him.”
And that is why one finds the Fathers of the Catholic Church going up and down the streets of the land, night and day, winter and summer, to minister to their children wherever they are needed. In hospitals, in jails, in pest houses, in burning buildings; on street corners at the scene of an accident. No matter how pitiable or regrettable is the condition of our children, we never abandon them, never disown them, or feel that there is any emergency of their lives to which we are not equal with a Father’s compassion, a Father’s reverence, and a Father’s love.
Nobody could ever deserve the affection and respect we Catholic priests receive from our people. Nobody could ever earn the title we are given by so many thousands of loving hearts. But, as far as we can, we try to deserve it, by never forgetting the preciousness of the immortal souls entrusted to our care, whether they be saint or sinner, old or young, well or ill, whether they be dining sumptuously in a mansion, or lying, bleeding and forsaken, in the gutter.
The first time the Catholic priest becomes acquainted with his spiritual child-to-be is when the child is an infant, about a week old, and is brought to the parish rectory to be baptized.
Now, all babies a week old look pretty much alike. Parents, of course, deny this, and so do fond uncles and doting aunts. A baby’s relatives, when they scrutinize him in the incubator, invariably put on some sort of invisible opera glasses that disclose an abundance of good looks, potential intelligence, shapeliness of head, or extraordinary amount of hair, not always visible to the naked eye of a neutral observer. Love always magnifies the value of its own possessions, and it is beautiful that this is so.
But to the general run of eyes, each little infant a week old looks pretty much like every other week-old infant in the world; so much so, that if you let him out of your arms for a few moments, and allowed him to be mixed with other babies, you would be at your wits’ end trying to identify your own child again, for all the supposed superiorities you thought he had before you lost him.
The one who can assess your child at his real value, the value he has in the sight of Almighty God, is Father, the priest. And so to the priest he is brought in the very first stages of infancy. Father does not bother to ask if he be a high-born or low-born baby; if he be a peasant, an aristocrat, or one of the bourgeoisie; if he be a strong, healthy baby destined to live a score of years or a little weakling who may not survive a single season. All Father asks is that he be a baby. And with the sacred waters of Baptism, in the name of the Most Blessed Trinity, Father imparts to that little nobody identification marks which he may never lose: the redemptive Grace of Christ, the inhabitation of God’s eternal love in the person of the Holy Spirit, and a title to the Beatific Vision of All Truth, in Heaven, with God and forever. How’s that for generosity if generosity is to be taken as one of the credentials of a true father’s heart?
Father’s next association with his child is when that little boy or girl is about seven years of age, the age at which — as all Catholic children are proud to tell you — they “have reached the use of reason.” Now it is Father’s business to honor that little mind, which, after its long apprenticeship with the things it could see and hear and touch in the nursery, has at last arrived at the intangible realities of the spirit, and is now possessed of the power of making intelligent judgments, and free choices in the matter of right or wrong.
It is at this stage of his life that Father tells his child in clear, kindly, unmorbid language what his purpose in life is. Father does not hesitate to tell his child that he was not made for this world, and that out of it, sooner or later, every child must go. You may say: “Why tell a child these things at such an early age?” The answer is that a child needs to know these things at an early age, if he is to stand the strain of intelligence and conscience, both of which powers he now possesses. For at the age of seven a young mind has questions to ask about the world outside it, for which there are no answers except those which God Himself has given. And at the age of seven the child has problems to settle in his own heart, for which there are no solutions, unless they be in the acceptance of personal responsibility in the matter of what it is lawful and unlawful to do.
But, side by side with making him aware of his responsibilities at the age of reason, the Catholic priest offers the child rare privileges as well. Rarest of all these privileges comes on the morning of his First Holy Communion, when he sees Father leave the altar of Sacrifice, and come down to the altar-rail in full vestments, to put the very Holy of Holies, the Blessed Sacrament, the full Christ under the species of bread, in the child’s mouth, to be eaten as its food. The mystery of this sacred privilege no child can fathom, nor is he asked to. But the intimacy of it, no child ever misses. And the priest, who is willing to share God with the child in such sacred intimacy, is looked upon by the child as a Father, indeed.
Another lovely day in the child’s life, in his happy and holy association with the priest, is the grand day when Father proudly presents his young boy or girl to the Bishop, to receive from the head of the diocese, arrayed in mitre, crozier and solemn robes, the dedication to a life of Christian courage in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
And lo, before Father realizes it, on another beautiful morning, likely to be in June, he may find two of the infants he first met at the Baptismal font coming in the full bloom of young manhood and womanhood, to the altar, to unite romance and religion in another Sacrament, the Sacrament of Christian Love. Father dare not be absent on that morning, for it is a morning for which he has long prayed for his children, and for which he has tried so hard to make them worthy.
Sunday after Sunday his children see Father at the altar, the leading visible actor in a great Sacrifice, the Sacrifice of the Mass, preserved, week after week, year after year, sacrosanct, integral, perfect, on every Catholic altar in the world. There is nothing the human spirit craves so much as certitude and security. There is nothing a Father is asked more to give. The Catholic priest offers his children both. Father may let his children down in little things, for he is human, and sometimes forgets how human he is. But he will never let his children down in such a big thing as the Sacrifice of the Mass. Father can be counted on to offer it just as Christ offered it at the Last Supper. His children are sure of this. And that’s why they come.
As to Father’s sermon at the Mass, it is not always a terribly good one, though it is always founded on a terribly reliable text. But in the matter of mere rhetoric or oratory, Father’s sermon is likely to be fairly middling one Sunday, and perhaps not too much better the next. Sometimes when he is fatigued, or worried, or ill, Father may make a verbal mistake as he preaches. He may even split an infinitive. But one thing his children can count on Father never to do. He will never make a mistake in doctrine, or ever split a Christian truth and offer half of it to his children, by way of improving, rationing, or streamlining the Holy Gospel of Our Lord.
Many times in the course of their lives, his children will have met Father in the Confessional, where defects, faults, even willful and serious sins may be, if one is truly repentant, forgiven and forgotten, because the surety of Father’s absolving power and the infinite mercy of Christ.
And when a lifetime has passed, as lifetimes will, more rapidly than one could ever suppose, the last time you will see Father and his child together in this world is at the hour of death. If Father has not been warned to come in time to the deathbed of his child, he will never believe he has come too late. When the doctor has given the patient up and says he can do no more for him, and the nurse says he is in a coma and will not regain consciousness, even then will Father come. As long as there is a spark of life in his child’s body, it is not too late for Father to arrive; and often through the fogs of fever, the ravings of delirium, or the last wanderings of the human mind at the threshold of eternity, his child will hear Father praying, still trying to reach him with the graces of the Sacraments, never willing to leave him until his soul has departed for another world.
And when the soul of his child has at last gone, for sure, Father will expect that the body be brought to the Church, and Mass said over it, and blessings showered on it, and prayer poured all around it, knowing that it was, in life, the sacred temple of an immortal soul.
Father must even go to the grave to see where his child is buried, and bless the very dirt and grass that covers the remains of his loved one.
And, the morning after the funeral, back at the altar, when there is not a shred left on this earth of what was once Father’s child, you will find him still praying: praying to a saint in Heaven, or at least for — a soul in Purgatory.
Father will never admit that any soul to whom he has ministered is lost — never — until he hears Christ say so on the day of Last Judgment — a judgment which will be more merciful to Father’s child than any of the cruel judgments made about him in this world.
And so, as we go along the streets of the land, “Good morning, Father! Good afternoon, Father!” a nice lady will say as she nods her head reverently; a little girl will say as she makes a curtsey; a poor old beggar will mutter as he raises his hat.
This is the Catholic and his priest.
The Catholic soldier not only fights for the right cause, he knows how to fight for it in the right way.
The Catholic makes a good soldier. Every general will tell you that; every captain and corporal. So will every draft board when the eligibles for service are being conscripted. So will every war citation when the heroes in battle are being counted.
The call to be a soldier comes to the Catholic boy with less surprise, less shock, less need for psychological adjustment than it does to most. For even in the days of peace, he has always been a soldier, always at war. The Bishop made him a soldier when he was a little boy. The Bishop anointed him with oil, signed him with the Sign of the Cross, even gave him a slight blow on the cheek, to remind him firmly in Sacrament that he must be — and had the Grace to be — a strong and perfect Christian and a soldier of Jesus Christ.
If anyone thinks this warfare of the spirit, waged to preserve the Christian certitudes and moralities in the face of a hostile opposition, is not a soldier’s task, let him have tried it from childhood and see.
Nobody bothers very much with your Christianity if you confine it to a few pleasant, aesthetic opinions about Christ. But once you dare to phrase it in the adamantine truths of the Apostles’ Creed, you find yourself under siege, a soldier, and at war.
Even the simple certitudes of a prayer as innocently and essentially Christian as the Hail Mary will expose your theology to attack, turn you into Our Lady’s defender, and surround you with foes. I do not refer to our small foes, either: the sceptics, the sophisticates, and the snobs. I refer to our large enemy: Lucifer and the Powers of Darkness.
You may say: are not all men — and not merely Catholics — at war with the Powers of Darkness? And the answer is: all men are. But what will you say of making a strong fight against an enemy you do not believe exists? Suppose the generals of the United Nations, deceived by the effectiveness with which Hitler sticks to his hideouts, should persuade themselves that no Hitler exists. How would they go on from there?
“Holy Archangel Michael, defend us in the battle!” is the prayer every Catholic boy says, on his knees, with his priest, at the end of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He always knows he is at war, and with whom.
And even when the Catholic soldier falters — even when his sins are grievous — he takes both the shame for them and the blame for them. He believes that Heaven — God’s beautiful home “where the forgiven meet” — is a city to be taken by storm. He does not believe it is a refuge for irresponsibles who are allowed no share in their own victory.
When he turns his energies from a spiritual to a material war, the Catholic soldier completely disavows in his heart those two well-exploited, but thoroughly unmilitary sentiments: hatred and fear. Hatred and fear are weaknesses. Hatred and fear are oratorical emotions. But wars are not won on the radio.
Let us put the matter in its simplest terms. Suppose you do make the enemy “bleed and burn.” Suppose you even boil him in oil! Do you thereby unbleed, unburn and unboil the millions of innocent lives he has already destroyed?
Vengeances of such a kind were best left to God, Who alone is equal to the task of vengeance with dignity.
Hatred and fear are for the unconfident. The soldier’s task is not a butcher’s job. It requires a mind, and nerves, and a technique as clear, cool and collected as those of a surgeon. The soldier’s assignment is not to avenge his enemy, but to outsmart him by completely destroying his opportunities.
And when victory comes — as it is sure to come, eventually, to those who are without hatred and without fear — the soldier retires from his triumph as gloriously and gracefully as he entered it. He goes back to a civilian’s life still civilized. His mother, his sweetheart, his wife, his little daughter, find him undegenerated by the sentiments of a savage: hatred and fear.
Bad nerves, hysterics, high blood-pressure — these may be the symptoms of epilepsy, but they are not the signs of patriotism. How many victories do they achieve, even when provoked by propaganda? A mouthful of expletives to hurl at your foe! Are these as fine — or effective — as a good gun in your hands and a good song in your heart?
Fortitudo et laetitia. Courage and gaiety. These are the soldierly emotions. Who tells us so? David, the royal psalmist does, constantly, in his one hundred and fifty Psalms, those divinely inspired songs written to motivate a soldier for any kind of war life has to offer.
Fortitudo et laetitia. I started to count, the other day, the number of times these two words, or their equivalents, go together in the Book of Psalms. And the number was so great, I stopped counting.
Courage and gaiety. The soul must have its resources in time of war, just as the body must have its food and drink. Courage and gaiety are the soul’s best resources. They are — among the realities of the spirit — like brother and sister, full of striking resemblances. They are more. Courage and gaiety are like bridegroom and bride.
Fortitudo et laetitia. When they wed and become one, in the holy citadel of a soldier’s soul, they bear fruits, not the least of which is to give war — all war — a meaning and a memory. A meaning of what it is for. And a memory of — for whom.
Michael Costello is a young author who is always on the verge of writing a book. It is a pity he doesn’t write one, because some of his ideas are stimulating. But, as is often the case with young authors, Michael has so many theories on writing they get in the way of his performance. He spends far too much time being displeased with the way other writers write.
Let us take, for instance, his criticism of John Galsworthy, the great English novelist.
John Galsworthy, so Michael maintains, died of exhaustion, from having tried to be in sex, singularity and sentiment every member of the Forsyte family. No artist, according to Michael, should attempt to be so fatuously vicarious.
A poet, willing to submit his observations, sympathies and insights to the purifying disciplines of meter and rhyme, might have given us the whole of the Forsyte saga in a few discreet stanzas. A dramatist, grouping the family on the stage, and arranging them around a central incident capable of eliciting a sufficiently varied and valuable number of human responses, might have settled their complications and told us all we ever needed to know about the Forsytes in less than three hours of acting time. But the novelist by whom the family was fabricated required hundreds and hundreds of pages, sequel after sequel, in order to show us that he could eat, walk, sleep, dream, even bathe like one of his characters.
Michael insists that all personality, even in literature, resists such intrusions. For personality is the principle of uniqueness in us that will allow us to savor in detailed experience no ego but our own. How one of the Forsytes felt when he looked up at the stars, or listened to his mother’s voice, or was told some very bad news, even Shelley or Shakespeare might have guessed. But what he was thinking of when he picked his fingernails, gargled his throat, or digested his dinner, nobody else ever realized, not even Mr. Galsworthy. And so his death marked the end not only of his fiction, but also of his pretense.
Michael Costello warns his readers-to-be that when he writes his book, he will make no novelist’s effort in it. And if he dies before it is finished, it will be of his own diseases, not of his heroine’s hypertension or his hero’s heart-trouble. Every single thought expressed in Michael’s book is going to be his own. And if he agrees, as he does, with Aristotle’s dictum that each individual soul is somehow all things (anima est quodamodo omnia) Michael insists on the somehow, lays stress on the quodamodo, even wanting to include in this disclaimer the strength of the Latin sound.
There follows a brief account of how Michael almost wrote one of his books.
“I beg your pardon!” said Michael to an attractive young girl who was coming out of Symphony Hall in Boston at the close of a concert by its celebrated orchestra.
It was late afternoon in April, very near to the end of the official season of full programs, chief conductor and complete personnel. The young lady was twenty years old, or thereabouts. She was tall and marvelously molded. She had a sure head, an abundance of unhindered hair, a notable neck, conspicuous elbows, and feet large enough to be worth standing on. Hers was that unique mixture of majesty and athletics made famous by the almost mythological daughters of the first families of Boston. She was dressed in blue and white, with the first touches of summer in her attire. She wore a suitable hat. Her ears, and eyes, were filled with music as she walked out of Symphony Hall, only to have her reverie rudely interrupted by the voice of a male stranger, saying to someone whom the circumstances demanded to be herself:
“I beg your pardon! Are you a Unitarian?”
She stopped and put her hand to her head, as if to discover with which of her powers she might cope with this situation. Finding it to be a problem of insolence, pure and simple, and beyond the reach of her lighter social graces, she dropped her long arm to her side, stretched herself to full height, and proceeded to give her questioner a sustained, devastating, aristocratic stare.
“I know your name,” he went on quickly and nervously, “because I heard someone say it as you went in for the concert. Your name is Mary Favorite. I think it is the loveliest name I ever heard. I was wondering about your religion. Because yours is a name just made for religion. Its religious overtones are tremendous. I am interested in such things because of the nature of my religious training. I am also a writer, and I sometimes fancy I can do a lot with a good idea if I ever get one. And you are a wonderful idea: you and your name. I am going to write a book about you. I do not need many details in order to do so, because an artist likes to create a person rather than copy one. But it would help if I knew your religion. I am making a guess that you are a Unitarian. Are you a Unitarian?”
She listened to this long apostrophe while breathing deep, indignant breaths. It must have seemed to her that it was some weird coda added to the concert, and that she had left the hall before the program inside was finished.
After another long stare, full of legitimate resentment and exquisite reserve, in which she fully established her credentials as a lady by not even letting it occur to her to call a policeman, she averted her head and stepped aside into the stream of exiting music-lovers pouring out of Symphony Hall. She departed, not by way of her limousine, which had been jacked up in a garage, as part of her contribution to the War effort of 1943. Instead, she walked resolutely, patriotically along the sidewalk, and disappeared in a nearby subway.
Michael has not seen or heard from her since.
And so his book, from there on, had to go on being a book about a supposed Mary Favorite, instead of about a real one.
But the slightest, most fleeting remembrance of the real Mary Favorite was going to be preserved in it, so Michael said.
For an artist, unlike God, cannot create out of nothing.
When Mary Favorite, in a state of calm consternation, took leave of Michael at the door of Symphony Hall, frankly he had no way of following her. To be sure, he had now seen her at close range, and would recognize her again in any crowd. To be sure, he had often traveled in the subway into which she had descended, and during the rush hours too. To be sure, he knew what it was like not to be able to find a seat, to hang on a strap, and, while making a vertiginous study of street-car advertisements, to be jostled by the swaying of the other passengers. He was even familiar with the route she would take: down to Park Street, and back again to Kenmore Station. Could he not throw all these disparate experiences together and make one imaginary journey: that of accompanying Mary Favorite home the evening he had asked her that very pertinent, impertinent question?
Michael supposed he could; and by a judicious use of literary tricks he might make it seem that everywhere that Mary went her author was sure to go. But these detective tactics, other than to unearth what murders she had committed or what money she had stolen, would reveal very little of her intrinsic character. The problem Michael proposed to himself, once he decided to launch Mary Favorite in literature, was to get inside her mind, listen with her ears, and see with her eyes, and try to discover why she was avoiding the celestial implications of her pretty name.
Identification of spirit with another Michael knew to be impossible. But union of spirit with another was achievable, it was said, through love and, he often felt, through prayer. Perhaps prayer, and the mutual amity of Michael’s and Mary Favorite’s Guardian Angels (neither of whom could fail to be interested in this fantastic, momentary meeting of their charges) might establish lines of communication between their thoughts, and turn them, for at least the space of a book, into a satisfactory heroine haunted by an author. Perhaps was all Michael could be sure of. But relying on that perhaps he was prepared to go on, in his own fashion, with the rest of her story.
And so, when Mary Favorite deposited her dime in the automatic turnstile through which one makes entrance to Symphony subway station, she did not hear the mysterious click of another little dime dropped in an instant later by Michael. It was a shame, thought Michael, to charge himself admission to his own subway, operating entirely in his own memory, built out of the masonry of his own mind. But even in matters of the imagination Michael felt it was better to observe all the routine procedures so as to keep the worlds of fact and fancy as closely allied as possible.
The platform on which they both stood in the subway station was packed. And so was the Park Street car when it came in. By dint of being pushed into it, they both got on. And, in the manner of vertical sardines, incarcerated in their own dimensions, pressed on all sides by various shoulders, elbows and shoes, they rolled, in a state of semi-suffocation, through a long tunnel of darkness held up by steel girders.
There was nothing to look at outside the window. Inside, one had a good view of a cross-section of someone’s back, a portion of someone’s chin, a number of bobbing, perspiring foreheads, and the rim of a lady’s hat trying to protrude itself into one’s eye.
Whatever else this journey was the time for, it was not the time for creative observation. And so Michael closed his eyes, held on to a strap for dear life, and proceeded to utilize the time till they got to Park Street, and thence till they reversed their direction in the forked route that leads back to Kenmore Station, by indulging in a serious and somewhat surgical reverie, calculated to pierce the religious smoke-screens which divided their cultures, his and Mary Favorite’s, and which kept him from seeing his heroine clearly focused in the light of her divine destiny. It was fair business, Michael thought, for an author to do this objectively, honestly, and in the open; not insinuate it in a story, as a novelist would, and let it be all mixed up with emotional trivialities and petulant details. For Heaven comes clear when it comes at all. There are no nostalgias so great as those caused to a nation by religious confusion. And there is no loneliness so poignant as to be aware of an admired one who does not believe in your God.
The generic religion of the United States of America is meeting-house Christianity. Its ritual requires three items: a pew, a pulpit, and a preacher. Add to that a small organ, to assist in its single devotional indulgence: a hymn.
The meeting-house itself is a sacred edifice which looks something like a church, partly like a library, and a little like a bank. It is often covered with ivy, and in more cultivated sections of our country, as in New England, is usually rich in historical reminiscences.
Meeting-house Christianity discourages an intellectual outlook on the subject of salvation, and thrives on sincerities rather than on certitudes. Its theories in the field of Christian Doctrine are so diverse that its disciples have fairly run out of hyphens trying to link them all together. This program leaves it with a confused Christology, and even with a theology which is sometimes a matter of conjecture. The lifework of a devout meeting-house parishioner is to be a perpetual seeker after truth, whose proper chastisement comes from never being permitted to find it. Such asceticism, especially in the rural areas, has been responsible for untold heroisms: witness those shy-eyed farmers and sweet-visaged housewives, with countenances full of deep spiritual appeal, whose joyless humility and resolute resignation Grant Wood, the artist, has patiently commemorated in portraits as haunting as they are instructive.
Lacking system, even in its morals, meeting-house Christianity was bound to have an explosion of pride somewhere in its ranks, and it had one about a hundred years ago in the State of Massachusetts, by way of an eccentric doctrine known as Unitarianism. The Unitarians, many of whom were men of abstemious habits and great wealth, finding the Christianity they were experiencing too complex to be a reflection of God, delved into Deism and discovered a God too fastidious to become man. As a result, the divinity of Christ went overboard in Boston as lightly as tea had gone overboard in an earlier revolt. But the genius of Christ, like the excellence of the flavor of tea, has never been questioned there. In Boston, Christ continues to be quoted by Unitarians, more at tea parties than in church, and not for what He said but for what He “put so well.”
Having unburdened itself of this lofty heresy, meeting-house Christianity went on at Biblical levels to evangelize the upper and lower middle-classes of our nation. But it was noticeable henceforth that its clergymen assumed their vocation to be less for the task of teaching than for the arts of preaching and edification. Texts from the Old and New Testament were chosen for their slogan value rather than for their inspired content, and if possessed of sufficient rhetorical resonance and literary allure, were mingled in sermons indiscriminately with the moralizings of good men. The hagiographer, the poet, the essayist, the historian and the statesman, all combined to supply the meeting-house minister with spiritual enthusiasm, and in communities in which there has been continuity and some sense of tradition, the result has been the best written and spoken English ever produced in our land.
In the more exclusive churches of middle-class Christianity, the meeting-house exhortation offered at Sunday Service has, during the last half century, differed so slightly from the academic instruction offered daily at some nearby sectarian college that there have been mistaken vocations among parsons and professors, and satisfactory exchanges made later in life to the benefit of both pulpit and lecture platform. And whereas many a college curriculum has thereby been loaded with more disguised religion courses than it bargained for, many a congregation has reaped the reward of a much more liberal education than it contracted to receive in return for the slight tuition fee of a coin dropped on a collection plate.
Of liturgy, meeting-house Christianity (with the exception of one decorative outburst which is its own explanation) has none. Its liturgy has entirely escaped into subsidiary fraternal organizations, some with impressive names like the Knights of Pythias; some with curious names like the Odd Fellows; and others, under a more secular ritual, with nomenclatures held over from the hunting season: e.g., the Moose, the Elks and the Lions. One such movement went completely aboriginal and called itself the Red Men. But the majority of these sash-and-sword enterprises, being unreliably religious and therefore not effectively fraternal, have disintegrated into mere groups of good-fellowship, and many of them are now on the verge of becoming extinct.
The last loud echo of meeting-house liturgy subsiding among the elements can be heard in the splashes of athletic Christians nakedly swimming in pools constructed in Young Men’s Christian Association buildings where Bible classes are held; or in the open-air cornet solos of over-coated evangelicals standing on street corners in the middle of winter and summoning the world to repentance.
Among remaining Americans, and on an indiscriminate basis, a collective effort to revive the liturgical impulse of Christianity was made some years ago in several semi-civic, semi-convivial crusades, whose members were invited to dine in community once a week, greet each other vigorously, and submit to being called by their Christian names. The recent War effort has somewhat curtailed the routine of these brotherhoods. Their spirit remains undaunted; their members continue to be fond of one another; but the caterers are complaining that they do not lunch as often as they used to.
“At what point in your thoughts did you give up all further quest of Mary Favorite?” Michael was asked by one of a group to whom he had been expatiating.
“At Copley Station, two stops before Kenmore. I decided it was no use to go on. So I got out at Copley, and went over to the public library. And there, under one of the green reading lamps, I settled with Mary Favorite for a poem. Would you like to hear it?”
We said we would. And Michael took a paper out of his coat pocket, his inside one, and read:
Mary Favorite gives one the impression“That girl haunts you, doesn’t she, Michael?” said one of his listeners.
That God is both good and gay,
But how she does it, or with what expression
Is more than my mouth can say,
But infinitely less than my mind can see
Whenever I am in Mary Favorite’s company.
Thought after thought in beautiful interpretation
Of human hardship and human frailty,
Store upon store of exquisite sensation
In things that are pure and free,
Have textured in Mary Favorite’s eyes
Something I had no word for, were I wise.
“Frankly, she does,” Michael replied. “I’ll worry about that lovely creature, worry a lot about her, with a name like ... with a name like ... ”
“With a name like what?”
“Oh, if you don’t know, never mind.”
“Isn’t her coldness part of her charm?”
“Frankly, it is,” Michael again replied. “You know, blood tells, gentlemen, blood tells. It always achieves a chastity, the kind mongrels never dream of. Even when it goes to the dogs, it goes their aloofly, so to speak. Patuit incessu dea. ... But what about my poem?” he added abruptly, looking more pleased about it than we thought he should be. “Didn’t you like my poem?”
“Moderately good,” said one.
“Fair,” said another.
And a third added: “You’ll have to do better than that, Mr. Artist, before you start taking cracks at Galsworthy.”
In person Chesterton was a large man who was something of a strain on his clothes. Tidiness he persistently ignored in favor of comfort. Everyone who got near him was tempted to rearrange him, or at least to giving thought as to how it could be done. Eventually Chesterton gave up the idea of expecting to be held together in ordinary attire by ordinary threads and buttons, and went around wearing a cloak. The simplicity with which one could secure a sort of stylish seclusion by the tying of a single knot or the fastening of a single hook appealed to Chesterton. A cloak was a garment calculated to reveal not how he was fashioned, but where he was to be found.
In point of kindliness, Chesterton had one of the biggest hearts that has ever lived. And yet I am told the doctors found it undersized physically when they examined him in one of his illnesses. Nothing daunted, he went right on using what share of heart he had to love the world largely and lavishly until the hour of his death. This is what is known as a paradox.
When Chesterton stood up he was impressive. But it was even more marvelous to watch him sit down. He sat down with an air of supreme humility, as if totally collapsing in the arms of God. In the difficult assignment of being both huge and human he needed lots of support. Once seated, he would doze and dream a great deal, and seemed constantly distracted by the incessant rush of his own thoughts.
As humility was Chesterton’s outstanding moral virtue, so what he chose to call “sanity” was what he wanted most for the mind. He was far too humble to suppose that one could appropriate sanity as an assured possession without offering plenty of credentials. And so he undertook to outline what he meant by sanity perhaps more carefully than any man of his generation. One of his contemporaries, George Bernard Shaw, said sanity was the specialty of the superman. This pseudo-preternaturalism annoyed Chesterton, and his reply was devastating. “Shaw criticizes human nature,” he said, “as though he himself did not possess it.” Another contemporary, H. G. Wells, offered hope that sanity might blossom in some brain of the future. Chesterton was quick to analyze this mixture of biology and guesswork masquerading as prophecy, and he exposed it to relentless ridicule. In the end he made more of a monkey out of Wells than Evolution ever had.
The sanity which interested, and indeed fascinated, Chesterton was the sanity which has already occurred in the world, whose proof is in tradition, whose roots are in the past, whose record is in history. That welter of things which men of all times have accepted as lovable and true he labeled Orthodoxy. Of this Orthodoxy he was prepared to act as Defendant. He did so in one hundred and two books,* writing as many as eight in a single year. He felt Orthodoxy to be a cause to which one should be loyal. He called it the Flag of the World. He thought laughter was a good air in which to float the Flag of the World. He conceived laughter as something more than a human roar that went rollicking up to the skies; he believed it to be a divine delight that had descended to Earth and was shaking it. He was prepared to trace its tremors everywhere and said its source was in the mirth of God. When criticized on this and other points for not being serious, he made his brilliant and never-to-be-forgotten distinction between the serious and the solemn man.
So much for the “physics” of Chesterton.
It will surprise many of my readers to find me associating the notion of metaphysics with the name of Chesterton. One is wont nowadays to associate it more readily with a name like Maritain, perhaps because of the alliteration. But it is my conviction that Chesterton could destroy many of our so-called metaphysicians right in the territory of their own thinking. By way of becoming “pure mentalities” they pretend to have gotten rid of all emotion in thought. They tolerate Chesterton only because of the scintillation of his ideas. They do not approve of him, as is evidenced by the fastidious way in which, kid-gloved with logic, they handle realities which he was prepared to rush at with bare hands, and in the full panoply of his powers. One or other of them will occasionally quote Chesterton, but it is always with a smile — a little, soft, academic smile, as if to say: “Pardon this fantastic interruption in my otherwise reliable ratiocination. It will allow us to indulge in the delicate pleasure of depreciation. It may also serve to relieve the tension of the classroom.”
By way of defending Chesterton against these intellectual isolationists, I may say that his laughter was not an emotion in the sense in which they take the word unfavorably. It was not a frivolous attitude of mind which prejudiced thought, as in the case of a mere comedian. It was rather the fruit of thought — often of some very grim thought — and it occurred to him by way of a spontaneous explosion which he thought it unwise to resist. When he described himself as “a well-meaning hippopotamus,” he did not do so by way of ridiculing the notion of “rational animal,” but by way of showing that ideas which get on very well together in the abstract order do so less sociably when outfitted to exist. Logic deals with essences, laughter with existences. Essences may be proved, but existences must be affirmed. Once affirmed, existences can never be identified by definition, only by description, and if description be forbidden to touch them, then something metaphysical gets lost. Laughter is one way of restoring it. When a reality has been reached which is prepared both to define and describe itself with the triumphant affirmation: “I am Who am!” then logic and laughter both subside in an eternal stillness. The mind has at last arrived at the world’s most serious secret. There is nothing left to do but blindly deny or boldly adore.
If it be objected against laughter that it is more of an observer than a critic, it must also be said of it that it leaves ideas fully delineated as the mind first found them, completely focused for action. Under such a favorable spotlight what takes place is something in the nature of a prizefight. But whereas logic wants to follow the contestants around in the rôle of referee shouting rules, laughter is content to sit back as a spectator and cheer for whatever happens. For ideas in action are not only never fully sociable, but there are times when one idea threatens to knock out another so completely as to leave no mystery between them. Laughter enjoys this hugely, for it is utterly a fanatic, known in sports parlance as “a fan.” Chesterton was not only willing to admit he was a fanatic, he boasted of it. For a fanatic is merely an enthusiastic witness giving testimony. A fanatic is not a partisan making a perverted report. That Chesterton was never a partisan, I am prepared to show.
It is clear from the early pages of his Autobiography that Chesterton’s home was not a place notably given to despondency. His parents were kindly, lovable people, and nothing in his early training drove him to despair. Puritanism of a sort was there, but it was not that extreme Puritanism which makes everything pleasurable a sin. Puritanism had done much more harm to houses in Chesterton’s neighborhood than it had to his own. Puritanism had, for instance, transferred conviviality from the village tavern to the village bar-room; from a place where a man might sleep off his intoxication to a place where he gets thrown out for being drunk. Puritanism was the cause of Chesterton’s “hell-instructed grocer” who ruined the business of innkeepers by making customers of over-bibulous duchesses furtively drinking in their dressing-rooms. Nothing of this coarseness had touched Chesterton’s own household. It was a household in which he was reasonably contented and to whose inhabitants he was always scrupulously loyal. In this last he differs greatly from those debunkers of Puritan culture lately derived from Boston, Mass., U. S. A., who air their grudges in melancholy novels that ruin the reputations of their families.
But if Chesterton’s home was, on all simple, substantial counts, a happy one, it had not nearly as much happiness as he wanted to put there once he became an adolescent and had begun to read. As soon as he found from his reading what European homes in general, and English homes in particular, had been in the past, he sought to improve his own, not in the manner of an interior decorator with a new motif, but rather as one who would refurnish it with things that had wrongfully been taken from it by that sad trick of history known as the Protestant Reformation. Within the four walls in which Chesterton proposed to live, he wanted more dining done, more dancing, dreaming and diversion, even more drinking, and particularly more religious devotion. What that devotion was to be in terms of dogma he was not at once ready to say. But that some chill between man and God had occurred right at his own fireside, he was alert and generous enough to see. If this be called partisanship, then the word has no decent meaning.
Later in life, when Chesterton married and made a home of his own, he restored to it much of what he had been deprived of in his youth. But there was one bright item which, by the strange will of God, he was not able to restore. And that was a child. And yet never once, by the slightest petulance or resentment, did he make his own childlessness the measure of a home’s true worth. With every talent in his power — by story, by treatise, by poetry, by apostrophe, by prayer, by the writing of nursery rhymes and the drawing of pictures — he sought to please, and pay tribute to, the child. He even went boldly to the defense of the child unborn. He literally blasted Dean Inge of London for his moral stand on the prevention of children. “The trouble with the Dean of St. Paul’s,” he wrote in words as accurately as I can recall them, “is not that he is merely anti-Catholic, he is anti-Christian. He thinks pride is a virtue and humility a vice. This temper of mind governs all he does, and lately when he brought it to bear on the subject of birth-control, it never even remotely occurred to him to consider that his own birth might have been prevented.”
So certain was Chesterton that partisanship had never influenced his own thought, that he was prepared to criticize it vigorously when he saw it tampering with the thought of others. Arnold Lunn, some time before his conversion to the Catholic Church, wrote a book called Roman Converts. It was a very patronizing book in which Lunn sought to make nice adjustments between the motives which led men like Newman and Ronald Knox into the Church, and those which drove men like Tyrrell out of it. In one unfortunate paragraph, Lunn, who boasted otherwise of being a sportsman, so forgot his sense of fair play as to call God’s Mother “the patron of a party,” remarking that Christ was “never a party leader.” Chesterton fairly leapt at this cheap remark and tore it to shreds. In a burst of magnificent indignation, he wrote a poem called “A Party Question.” “Who made that inn a fortress?” he shouted in defense of Our Blessed Lady. And he ended by calling the phrase Lunn had used, “That little hiss that only comes from Hell.” Chesterton could afford to be chivalrous on this particular subject, because twenty-five years before his own conversion to Catholicism, in the days when he was religiously no more than a young agnostic, he paid the “Party Question” this youthful and pathetic tribute:
Hail, Mary! Thou blest among women;Chesterton is classified in literature most frequently as a controversialist. Some prefer to label him simply: a journalist. “Defendant” would be a good name for him, but hardly a genre in which to put a writer. “Literary man” is far too loose a term to fit him. True, he excelled in many and varied styles of literature, particularly as an essayist, and very valuably in the field of literary criticism. T. S. Eliot, for instance, believes there has never been a better critic of Dickens than Chesterton. But Chesterton was scarcely a literary man in the sense in which Maurice Baring is one, or Max Beerbohm, or the late F. V. Lucas. One archbishop, even during Chesterton’s lifetime, was all for calling him a Doctor of the Church. However unofficial, this compliment may be taken as more than a mere pleasantry. For if the requirements of a Doctor of the Church are eximia scientia et sanctitas, surely something perilously near to both must be ascribed to a man who could roam without an imprimatur through all Catholic theology, hagiology and apologetics and never make a statement which the most meticulous Ultramontane could suspect of heresy; and who could fill a hundred books with an almost beer-garden joviality and never write a line that would cause a child to blush. It would be nice to have a St. Gilbert taking rank with St. Augustine, St. Bernard and St. Thomas, but the proposal, however exciting, had best be left to the justice and generosity of the Pope.
Generations shall rise up to greet.
After ages of wrangle and dogma,
I come with a prayer to thy feet.
Where Gabriel’s red plumes are a wind
In the lanes of thy lilies at eve,
We pray, who have done with the churches;
We worship, who may not believe.
And so, for want of a better rating, Chesterton must fall back into classification either as a poet or a philosopher. By way of escaping this “dilemma,” we might make a third choice and say he was a mystic. Indeed, there are in Orthodoxy (his most brilliant book) abundant passages that illustrate the mystical quality of his mind. But his was an imaginative rather than an illuminative mysticism. It was not achieved — and it is no criticism of his morals to say so — by that rigid asceticism of the senses which leaves the mind devoutly dark and patiently prepared to receive the pure light of the supernatural. Chesterton’s was the colorful approach to mysticism: to mystery by way of magic, to angels by way of fairies, to God the Father by way of Mother Goose. Chesterton saw, and rightly, a serious psychological necessity in Mother Goose; but she is hardly the sacred religious need expressed in the Lord’s Prayer. True, there is, as Chesterton points out, a marvelous asceticism achieved in every simple choice of charity (a man who chooses one woman to be his wife renounces all other women), but this is the choice of charity in the moral order, more properly called charitableness. It is not the infused, supernatural Charity spoken of by St. Paul, which is strictly theological and in which no choice is given: no choice but the pure surrender to the terror and bewilderment of being chosen.
It is also to be noted about the mysticism of Elfland, that it can devise no clear symbol even for what it wants to say in the order of poetry. It is a damnable business to undo a beautiful piece of imaginative writing by pointing out its logical flaw, but that is what we must do with Chesterton precisely at the point where he is trying to show the superiority of imagination over reason. He says, in Orthodoxy, at the end of his well-known chapter on “The Maniac”:
That transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much of the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.This, however fascinatingly spoken, is arbitrary symbolism of the very worst kind. For it is not the visual clarity of the moon — that soft clarity which is the delight and companionship of lovers — which causes lunatics. It is rather the imperceptible gravity of the moon, that tugs at temperaments as it does on tides. But inasmuch as relatively few temperaments are as unstable as water, the weight of the moon may be disregarded while the wonder of the moon remains. True, the moon may not light up the rest of the world as brilliantly as the sun does, but in all its shapes, from crescent to full disc, it is the best form in which to look at light itself. The real lunatic is not the moon-gazer nor the star-gazer, but the one who tries to outstare the sun. Furthermore, in Christian mysticism, the moon is Our Lady. “Pulchra ut luna” is God’s own phrase for her: a symbol with a divine guarantee.
If one could go through the whole of Chesterton’s works and gather together the great number of brilliant and accurate things he has said on the subject of epistemology, psychology, cosmology and ethics, one would have a book full of philosophic wisdom which no philosopher could afford to ignore. But unfortunately the journalist in Chesterton clouded much of what was the true philosopher. In his effort to study the universal within the local — which is the philosopher’s task — he frequently became too local, and at times hopelessly insular. Chesterton is in great part untranslatable, which no philosopher can afford to be. His deepest thought is sometimes so bound up with superficial English idiom, or manners, or even politics, that one is often required to know the inside of the mind of some nonentity like J. H. McCabe or F. E. Smith before one can get to what Chesterton himself is saying. The discriminating reader will, of course, make allowances for these provincialisms, especially since they occur within the orbit of such large and valuable thinking. But, alas, philosophy is a science that cannot be safely entrusted to the discriminating mind. It is at once the philosopher’s strength and weakness that he must safeguard his most tenuous judgments with a sort of universal language, which at its best can travel instantaneously from mind to mind independently of time and place, and at its worst is a jargon of such words as: virtualiter, potentialiter, aequivalenter, eminenter, that capture a minimum of idea and are almost the ruination of speech.
Some criticism similar to that which I have made of Chesterton as a philosopher, must also be made of him as a poet. No poet of the twentieth century (with the exception of Hilaire Belloc) had a better command of the traditional forms and subsidiary styles of verse than had Chesterton. He could write a ballade or a rondeau as well as any man who ever lived. In satire, burlesque and parody he was superb. Likewise the number of utterly wonderful things he has said about poetry (not in any one place, but scattered throughout his work, sometimes in a detective story, sometimes in a treatise on economics) ought to be collected and put in one book. Mr. F. J. Sheed told me he thought of making such a collection some day. I hope he will. It might well begin with the accolade Chesterton gives the poet for being “the only man in the world who knows what he wants to say, and can say it.”
But when it came to writing poetry himself, in serious fashion, Chesterton was altogether too committed to a single manner: the grandiose. He was often sublime in his verse, but rarely exquisite. He was constantly the troubadour thumping out a great theme. When the material suited his mood, as it did in Lepanto or The Ballad of the White Horse, all went well. But all did not go well in his simpler verse, or rather I should say, in his verse that ought to have been simpler.
When fishes flew and forests walkedis, I protest, utterance too apocalyptic to suit the plain fact of a donkey, even the humble little beast who carried Our Lord in triumph through the streets of Jerusalem. I myself once wrote a poem on a donkey, so I may be presumed to know his requirements in verse. At least my donkey is a creature who may be more calmly recognized.
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born
Hitched by a halter to a rail,Let my stanza be only the tribute from one donkey to another; at least a donkey remains somewhere in the arrangement, not merely a nightmare on the subject of Palm Sunday.
He twitched his ears and twirled his tail;
In every lineament and line
He was completely asinine.
Poor Chesterton! If he be, in the unrestricted sense, neither poet, nor philosopher, nor mystic, then where shall we place him? Must he be the “tattered outlaw” of all categories simply because none could contain him? No. I believe there is one rating he deserves, without any reservation. Chesterton was one of the world’s greatest metaphysicians.
If it be objected that metaphysics is, after all, only philosophy (a competence from which I have already removed Chesterton), then I shall object again that metaphysics is not, after all, only philosophy. Metaphysics is what Aristotle — who never used the word metaphysics — called “the first philosophy.” It could as readily be called “the first poetry” or “the first mysticism.” Briefly, metaphysics is the preoccupation of the mind with being as being, with thing as thing. Briefly, metaphysics is what Chesterton called “Aristotle’s colossal common sense.”
Technically, here is the way the “first philosophy” is handled. The logician discovers in metaphysics the contingency of things, their essential insufficiency to exist by themselves: hence his distinctions between essence and existence, potency and act, imperfection and perfection, accidents and substance. The poet discovers in the same metaphysics the forms by which potencies have been actualized: hence his attention to the integrity, clarity and proportion by which contingent things endeavor to image the pure act from which they originate. The mystic derives from metaphysics a loving interest in the undeserved gift which all contingent beings are both to themselves and to those who behold them; hence his tributes of adoration, gratitude and humility. For being as being has three intrinsic attributes (three transcendental notes) which are inseparable from it: it is true, it is beautiful and it is good. Indeed, it has a fourth inseparable note which is almost the undoing of the other three. It is one. Wherefore, no mere logician can be a perfect metaphysician, any more than a mere poet can, or a mere mystic. Each has only a one-third interest in the subject of being; the logician in ens qua verum, the poet in ens qua pulchrum, the mystic in ens qua bonum. The logician will tell you himself, as he must, that he has no pure ontology. His ontology is necessarily clouded by the analogies in which he words it. The pure logos of anything is known to God alone. Likewise does the poet cloud the pure beauty of things with his metaphors, and the mystic the pure goodness of things with his symbols. But the complete metaphysician is the “compleat angler” who fishes for being qua being with every bait at his disposal. What cannot be caught with analogy can sometimes be taken by metaphor, or by symbol, or vice versa in any order. How wonderful if all three should work together! In such a metaphysician as Chesterton I believe they did, at least far more strikingly than they do in most men.*
In page after page, in book after book, I find examples of this metaphysical harmony in Chesterton’s perceptions. As soon as he was able to think, he plunged right into the heart of “the first philosophy.” When his tooth ached, along with inquiring, “Why have I a toothache?” he also inquired, “Why have I a tooth?” and, indeed, “Why have I anything?” His fondness in early childhood was more than for wood you could whittle, water you could drink, and soap you could wash with; it was for “the toughness of wood, the wetness of water, and the magnificent soapiness of soap.” Nothing could be more metaphysical than this.
Almost the very first utterance Chesterton the writer made to the world was the declaration of his own contingency, the confession of his own utter needlessness to anything or anybody. So unnecessary did he consider himself to the universe around him that he immediately rejected Pantheism as a religious creed because it deprived him of a God to whom he could be grateful for his existence. “I want to adore the world,” he said, “not as one likes a looking glass, because it is oneself, but as one loves a woman because she is entirely different.” The gift of life he defined as “a kind of eccentric privilege” for which we owe an infinite gratitude. He declared he found everywhere “the sense of the preciousness and fragility of the universe, the sense of being in the hollow of a hand.” He scorned the pessimist who criticizes this world “as if he were house hunting, as if he were being shown over a new set of apartments.” He would not allow any low estimate of our beloved universe to be made. He wrote: “While dull atheists came and explained to me that there was nothing but matter, I listened with a sort of calm detachment, suspecting that there was nothing but mind.” The Materialist, he agreed, did explain the cosmos, but “with a sort of insane simplicity” which forced Chesterton to say that, “it was not much of a cosmos” when any innocent beholder could suggest a so much better one.
Chesterton was literally entranced with the thingness of things, with facts as facts, not deviously explained, but bravely accepted as they are. He wrote a whole book about things as things, and called it Tremendous Trifles. He believed that the very repetition of things was a delightful argument for design. “One elephant with its absurd trunk is a wildly amusing sight,” he wrote, “but for all elephants to have trunks suggests a conspiracy.” Even in their grotesque form, he was anxious to preserve the most fantastic and useless pieces of creation. If someone said: “Camels in various places are totally diverse: some have six legs, some have none, some have scales, some have feathers,” Chesterton vowed he would reply: “Then what do you mean by a camel? What makes you call them camels?”
Chesterton brought this simple metaphysical outlook to the deepest experiences of his life. Merely to be in the presence of any human being, however lowly, caused him pleasure. Merely to know that any woman could be his wife astonished him. Here is his charming stanza (from the poem “The Beatific Vision”) written, with that detached devotion which is the essence of pure love, to Frances Blogg Chesterton.
But what shall God not ask of him“The first philosophy” will not cause a prophet or a superman. It will not create a new cosmos, devise a new civilization, or evolute a new era. Hence, little of our modern thinking is done in terms of it. But it will give one a healthy, happy, hilarious outlook upon things as they are, capable of making every ordinary thing appear as a portent. “It is to the ordinary man that odd things seem extraordinary,” wrote Chesterton, “to the extraordinary man they are simply ordinary.” Chesterton preferred to be, and always was, in however extraordinary a way, the ordinary man. “A thing worth doing at all is worth doing badly” was one of his profundities in the realm of common sense. He refused to allow the oddness of the world to be destroyed by familiarity. He felt the short space of a man’s life was not time enough in which to exhaust the strangeness of the world, or alter his own position in it as a stranger. Rather than lose a sense of the strangeness of things (which metaphysics calls “their contingency”) he was prepared to look at the universe standing on his head.
In the last time when all is told
Who saw her stand beside the hearth,
The firelight garbing her in gold.
I have not read all of Chesterton’s books. But I have read enough to know that his outstanding talent was the one I have indicated, and that I can expect abundant manifestations of it wherever I turn in his writings. And so, before I leave him, I pay him a great compliment, indeed one of the greatest I think I could possibly pay. I call him “the laughing metaphysician.” He laughed loudly at himself, which is humility; and he made others laugh, which is charity.
Well, anyhow, I saw him again this year, wrinkled and toothless and a hundred years old, sitting on the front doorstep and having his picture taken on his one hundredth birthday, by way of showing how old one of us can occasionally become when he tries to overdo it.
Well, I looked at the picture of this old man of a hundred years, and I admired it. I always admire it. There was a short account in the newspaper to go with the picture.
He never seems to come from the city, this one-hundred-year-old man; always from the country; usually from “up state.” We are told that he smoked a pipe all his life, or he didn’t; he drank, or he didn’t; he was a vegetarian, or he wasn’t; and one way or the other, tobacco, or alcohol, or vegetables were, or were not, responsible for his good (or bad) health at the age of one hundred years.
There never seems to be any real birthday celebration for this man who has survived for a century. No mention is made of a birthday cake. Perhaps the thought of a hundred candles has created such an extraordinary problem in the matter of a cake as to discourage the idea of it altogether.
And so our poor old man spends his one hundredth birthday pretty much the same as he spent his ninety-eighth and his ninety-ninth, without any fuss or bother. He sits on the front doorstep and has a few words to say about the weather. He says “O, Pshaw!” when the newspaper photographer arrives to take his picture. But finally he lets it be taken. And then, the next day, we see him in the paper, the old man of a hundred years, with that quizzical look in his eye, that seems to say — at least it always does to me — “I am not a hundred years old. Nobody ever is. For by the mercy of God I moved, a few decades ago, into my second childhood, a childhood so like the first, that all its innocence and helplessness have returned to me. I don’t do anything any more. I just am — am what God has made me, in all its stark simplicity: a child, waiting to become in a few months more as ageless as eternity.”
When, on the head of a little child, we pour water and say, as we were told to by our Lord, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” we will, by some, be praised for having performed a worthwhile religious act; we will be ridiculed by others. Those who ridicule do so for a more subtle reason than appears on the surface of what they say. It is not that they want to ridicule God (because, generally, they believe in no God at all); it is because water has never meant anything more to them than a few drops of moisture that drip into a sink when you turn the faucet. The unreligious have never once looked on water for what it is, that marvelous raiment of wonder and refreshment with which God has clothed the world.
The pagans respect water because they have religions. Among them, libation is a sacred ritual and every pool has been adopted as a deity. But sentimental Christians, or rather people in whom Christianity survives not as a set of truths and facts but as some sort of take-it-or-leave-it emotion indefinitely identified with Christ, despise water when used for any purpose higher than the washbasin.
Water does look very prosaic and uninteresting if you hold a little of it in a glass, or dry a little of it from your hand with a towel. Water has neither taste, odor, color, nor even shape, for it takes the shape of that into which you pour it. It would be impossible to describe water to one who had never seen it. Water follows a most freakish physical law when it cools, for at 32°, on its way to becoming solid, instead of continuing to contract as other substances do, it starts to expand, so that ice may be lighter than water, and float. Instead of sinking and freezing the world to death, it may rest on the surface and be mercifully melted by the sun.
Water is the one thing without which it is impossible for us to live for any length of time. When men lie on the hot sands of the desert, parched and feverish, they do not cry out for money or gold or diamonds or any fantastic forms of food. They cry for water, for we are mostly made of water, and death is nothing more than a drying up of our resources.
Water has a noble history: in the Flood, in the passage of the chosen people through the Red Sea; and in all journeys, discoveries and explorations. It is impossible to spoil water, for no matter how much filth you pour into it, you need only drop it on the Earth and let it sink into the ground, and it will purify itself and return to you in the spring and fountain, as pure and virginal as it was originally created.
Indescribable as this essentially colorless, odorless, tasteless, and unshaped substance is, God lets it roam through our world in all manners and varieties so as to give interest and color and light to our thoughts. A dehydrated human mind cannot function physically, cannot think imaginatively. Water supplies us with a whole reservoir of thoughts and words.
Water is the brook and the well and the spring and the fountain and the pond and the lake and the river and the gulf and the strait and the bay and the sea and the ocean. Yes, and water is the whirlpool and the eddy and the falls and the torrent and the geyser. It is surf, foam, breaker, wave, roller, brine, mist, dew. It is hail, snow, frost, slush, and sleet. It is ice, icicle, and iceberg; rainbow, cloud, and steam. The swimmer dives and splashes in it. The sailor travels on it. Water is what makes things damp, wet, and soggy; and it sprinkles the world, laves it, and rinses it, for there is never an end to what it can do. Water is one of the world’s greatest natural mysteries. And when God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, entered our world to talk our language and take us on our own terms, He used, as the first instrument of our sanctification, that which was most natural for us to know and understand. He saw water all around us and did not despise it. He turned it into the child’s sacrament. He took water and sanctified it with spiritual power. He transformed it into the sacrament of Baptism, by the union of water and the Holy Ghost.
You may say, all this is poetry. But, poetry is not its own preservative. Poetry is never religion, but it is the illustration of religion, and without religion it ceases to be even poetry. If we cannot do something more with water than give it to poets to wash with after they have written a lot of unintelligible verse, then let us give it back to the pagans. The pagan poets are religious. They respect water.
But most of us are not going to give it back to the pagans, for Christ has given it to us, to do with it what no pagan ever dreamed of. Most of us are going to remember that water has nineteen hundred years of sacred Christian history, and that spiritual wonders are wrought with it when we use it as Christ wants it used. Most of us are not going to let Christian Baptism be dried up by a couple of wars and a few despairs. As in the material world, so in the spiritual; with water we are going to refresh the world.
Oh, God is very versatile, I know, and on those who have not yet heard of the covenant that has been set up by Christ between the water we see and use, and the living water that imparts to our souls the adoption of a divine childhood, God will be able to bestow the fruits of redemption in other and special ways. But the honest, simple, clear, affirmative way of the sacrament is the best way, the way of God’s own institution and choice, which we are free to reject, at our peril.
* In fairness to my reader, I think I must say that, as far as I myself am concerned, this is a speculative arrangement, not a practical one. The metaphysical scheme I here outlined seems to me sound enough, but, unfortunately, except in the case of geniuses and saints, it is unfeasible for the general run of us. It is thoroughly unfeasible for me. Unlike Chesterton, I cannot say that I discovered the Doctrine of Original Sin before it was revealed to me. Without my Faith, I should certainly be prone to cope with the ignorance, ugliness and iniquity of man by equalizing in him the functions of philosopher, poet and mystic. But, alas, I know from Revelation that Original Sin has lessened the wonder and warmth of the human mind and left it with little more than a sense of curiosity. At least it is in terms of mere curiosity that nearly all education is now pursued. Curiosity, if thorough enough, will make a fairly good logician (e.g., Mr. Mortimer Adler). The logician wants problems to solve. He regrets the point where problems threaten to become mysteries, where curiosity must cease and let contemplation come in. But, unfortunately again, contemplation can never return to the human race wholesale, and never in the full pristine innocence in which Adam enjoyed it when he surveyed everything with a child’s insight and went around calling the animals by name. With our loss of the power of contemplation, the simple beauty and goodness of things has disappeared. We are left with nothing but the cold truth on our hands: “the bitter truth,” “the hard painful truth,” that must be pieced together by the patient study not of things in themselves, but of things in their causes. Apart from the liturgy of the supernatural, which is safeguarded by the Church, and the special illumination of Grace, which is the free gift of the Holy Spirit, I find no reliable poetry or mysticism in this world. And so I am content to amble along with the philosophers as my best guides, knowing that they have taught me all I know, and hoping that Faith will fulfill in me what their dialectics never can.