What makes Gilbert Keith Chesterton so wonderful is that he is full of wonder. He doesn’t merely see trees, or clouds or sky; he sees glorious creatures charged with what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the grandeur of God. He sees that seeing is itself a miracle. “Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes,” he writes. “Those rolling mirrors made alive in me, terrible crystals more incredible, than all the things they see.”
For Chesterton, man is a miraculous creature living in a miraculous cosmos. We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, he insists, but the best of all impossible worlds. The most unbelievable fairy story imaginable is far less fabulous or fantastic than the real world of wonders in which we find ourselves. Whereas the most astonishing stories ever told were imaginable because someone had actually imagined them, the world in which we live is unimaginable because no human mind could have imagined the menagerie of multifarious creatures which inhabit the miracle of space and time which we also inhabit. To see as we are meant to see is to see ourselves as characters in the most wonderful story ever told; a story which is still being told and will be told forever. To see things in this way is to see as Chesterton sees; it is to be more astonished when we walk through the wardrobe from Narnia into our own world than when we had gone through the wardrobe in the other direction. It’s not a question of believing in miracles but believing that we are ourselves miracles in a miraculous work of art.
This way of seeing things was at the very heart of everything that Chesterton wrote. Not only did he see things in this way, he wanted his readers to see things in this way also. He wanted us to open our eyes to the world of wonders which surrounds us. In order to bring about this awakening, he employed the art of paradox to shock us into seeing things. Thus, for instance, the character of Innocent Smith in Chesterton’s novel Manalive shows us the deep wisdom inherent in true innocence, or what might be called the childlike qualities necessary for the attainment of the Kingdom of Heaven. This intrinsic wisdom of innocence is contrasted with the willful naïveté of cynicism. The symbolically named Innocent Smith is misunderstood because his innocence is inaccessible to those around him. He is so innocent that they think he must be guilty and so honest that they believe he must be lying. The novel is, therefore, a meditation on the nature and supernature of sanctity and serves as an exposition of the reasons that saints are misunderstood by sinners and are indeed often martyred by them.
This paradoxical juxtaposition of wisdom and innocence was at the heart of Chesterton’s characterization of Father Brown, the priest detective who solves crimes because he sees with the humility which opens the eyes to reality, as distinct from those who fail to see because their eyes are blinded by the pride which leads to prejudice. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the first volume of Father Brown stories was entitled The Innocence of Father Brown, nor that a later volume was entitled The Wisdom of Father Brown.
There is, however, another aspect of Chesterton’s legacy which should not be overlooked. His eyes, opened in wonder with a sense of gratitude which is the fruit of deep humility, were also open to the rational proofs for God’s existence. He insisted at all times on the indissoluble marriage of faith and reason, endeavouring to show how reason leads us to an understanding of the Divine presence in the cosmos. He does so with wit and wisdom, and with clarity and charity, in a manner which is charming and disarming, showing us in his life and work the synonymous nature of sanity and sanctity. His omnivorous approach to truth-telling leads us to God whether we are reading one of his novels or poems, or one of his essays or biographies. Chesterton can start with a piece of chalk and lead us to God. He can be running after his hat and find that he is running after God. He can discuss Dickens and find God, or write history as though it’s His Story. This is the real wonder of G.K. Chesterton. He is a man alive because he is alive with the Life that gives life to man. He is full of that joy which is the life of God in man, which theologians call grace. He is full of the good news that allows him to see the world as God sees it and to see that it is good.
Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (July/August 2019).
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The featured image is a caricature of G.K. Chesterton (1904), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.