I owe a great debt of gratitude to G. K. Chesterton. Indeed the debt is so great that it can never be paid. It is for this reason that I always remind myself that the first book that I wrote, following my conversion, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, was a two-fold act of thanksgiving: an act of thanksgiving to God for giving me Chesterton but also an act of thanksgiving to Chesterton for giving me God.
What was it about Chesterton that so captivated me?
It was his goodness certainly, and his good humour. It was his great sense of gratitude for the goodness, truth, and beauty of the world in which he found himself, and his realization that life, our very existence, was a great and undeserved gift. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, he reminds us, but the best of all impossible worlds. Our own existence and the existence of everything we see is an astonishing miracle. Yes, his gratitude, humor, and humility were part of the reason that he was so attractive to me and, no doubt, to those countless others who have found themselves following in his faithful and faith-filled footsteps. There was, however, one other secret to Chesterton’s success. He succeeded in seducing me and others to the creed of orthodoxy that he espoused because of the power of paradox.
Chesterton shows us that life is full of paradoxes. It is full of those apparent contradictions, those incongruous juxtapositions, that point to deeper truths. Take, for instance, the fact that it takes a big man to know how small he is, or the fact that pride is the sin of a small man who thinks he is big. Or take the words of Christ, the ultimate Master of Paradox, who tells us solemnly that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The Gospels are full of such paradoxes, illustrating that Chesterton was not by any means the originator of the power of paradox. No indeed. One thinks also of the conceits of the Metaphysical Poets, such as St. Robert Southwell, John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw, or of the foolishness of wisdom and the wisdom of foolishness to be found in the plays of Shakespeare. Yet few have used the power of paradox more effectively than Chesterton, whose works and whose very life encapsulated the paradox, embodied in the character of his delightful priest detective Father Brown, that wisdom can only be found in innocence. This is nothing less than the truth that Christ teaches. We will not be with Him in heaven unless we become as little children.
And yet, as St. Paul tells us, seeming to contradict Christ (and Chesterton), when we are children we behave as children but when we grow up we are meant to put away childish things. Is St. Paul a heretic, contradicting the words of Christ? Clearly not. One who believes St. Paul is a heretic is himself heretical! What we are dealing with here is paradox. We have to remain child-like by ceasing to be childish. So what is the difference between the child-likeness that Christ tells us that we have to attain and the childishness that St. Paul tells us we have to abandon? The first is the wisdom of innocence, or the sanity of sanctity, whereby we see the miracle of life with eyes full of wonder; the second is the self-centeredness of one who refuses the challenge of growing-up.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a parable of childishness because Dorian Gray refuses to grow up. Wishing to retain his youthfulness and remain forever childish, he commits a catalogue of sins that stunt his spiritual growth. He gains experience of sin but loses the innocence of wisdom and its gift of wonder. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, are parables of childlikeness in which Bilbo and Frodo cease being childish through the acceptance of suffering, thereby attaining the childlikeness of innocence. Chesterton’s Man Who was Thursday is essentially about childish detectives attaining childlike wisdom and his later novel, Manalive, illustrates how the pure childlikeness of the aptly named Innocent Smith is misunderstood by the childish world in which he finds himself.
All of these modern parables have their archetype in the parable of the Prodigal Son in which the younger son ceases to be childish and becomes child-like, returning in humility to his father, whereas the older son, outwardly more virtuous, remains childish in his refusal to share in his father’s joy at the prodigal’s return. The moral is thus encapsulated in that other great paradox: The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Returning to the earlier paradox that it takes a big man to know how small he is, we can see that thinking we are big is childish whilst knowing that we are small is childlike. This was put with sublime succinctness in the lyrics of “Mysterious Ways” by the Irish rock band U2: “If you want to kiss the sky, Better learn how to kneel.” When all is said and done, this is the secret of Chesterton’s success. He was larger than life because he spent his life on his knees.
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