Thursday, December 18, 2008

GKC's Christmas Paragraph in Orthodoxy

Today, December 18, is the second of the "Greater Feria", the grand Christmas countdown which the Church (like a little child) uses in her delight and anticipation for the great feast. I had debated whether to suspend our study of Orthodoxy - and then I was delighted to see what is in the very next paragraph! Oh the delight of being Thursday! (hee hee) I could not have planned it better - but then I did not plan it at all.

For this next paragraph - yes, finally - this is the great paragraph of Orthodoxy! The one everyone quotes, and misquotes. It gives us the two important truths about the "two paths" we must choose from: the path of light, or the path of darkness, which today shall go by another name - the name which is the other opposite of "light".

Ever since Christianity freed science from the slavery of the eternal cycles and from the ridiculous view that the "heavens" (the place of the sun, moon, planets and stars, not the place of God) used a different set of laws - if they used laws at all - physicists have been struggling to understand how things move. In the last few decades, we have gotten to a view of four main "forces" which govern the motion of all things. Two (the strong nuclear and the weak nuclear) govern subatomic particles and hold the nucleus of atoms together. The electromagnetic is the one we most often deal with in our lives: not only does it make computers and cars work, but simpler things like holding our bodies together, keeping lions in cages, and stuff like that - for it governs how atoms interact with each other. Finally, the most mysterious force - the hardest to study, but one which we also experience continually (unless we are astronauts) - the force of gravity, which governs how collections of atoms interact, and governs both the smallest grains of sand and the great collections of galaxies.

And though everyone tends to forget - unless one is reading these columns - it is the force of Christmas. But you will think it merely a pun. It may be a pun. But it happens to be true, and if you want to turn and become like little children for this feast when God Himself became a little children, you have to understand this next paragraph - if you never read any other paragraph of Orthodoxy - or of Chesterton.

((When you are ready to turn, click here))

The mystery to be revealed here is a stunning revelation of what might be called "angelology" - the study of the pure spirits or "angels". It is important to realize we actually know something about angels! GKC pointed that out in a hilarious way in a famous Christmas essay, and I will give you a little more of it than I usually quote:
Meanwhile, it remains true that I shall eat a great deal of turkey this Christmas; and it is not in the least true (as the vegetarians say) that I shall do it because I do not realise what I am doing, or because I do what I know is wrong, or that I do it with shame or doubt or a fundamental unrest of conscience. In one sense I know quite well what I am doing; in another sense I know quite well that I know not what I do. Scrooge and the Cratchits and I are, as I have said, all in one boat; the turkey and I are, to say the most of it, ships that pass in the night, and greet each other in passing. I wish him well; but it is really practically impossible to discover whether I treat him well. I can avoid, and I do avoid with horror, all special and artificial tormenting of him, sticking pins in him for fun or sticking knives in him for scientific investigation. But whether by feeding him slowly and killing him quickly for the needs of my brethren, I have improved in his own solemn eyes his own strange and separate destiny, whether I have made him in the sight of God a slave or a martyr, or one whom the gods love and who die young - that is far more removed from my possibilities of knowledge than the most abstruse intricacies of mysticism or theology. A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.
[GKC ILN Jan 4 1908 CW28:20-21]
Yes, God has told us a little. And now - Chesterton will use that little to tell us a little more. You will think this all verbal fireworks, or all puns, or all nonsense. Oh, no. It is deep philosophy - it is as savory as a stuffed turkey, as pleasing and pungent as fresh and decorated pines - for it is ontology the science of being itself. But sit down, pour yourself something to drink, put on some Christmas lights, and read:
It is one of the hundred answers to the fugitive perversion of modern "force" that the promptest and boldest agencies are also the most fragile or full of sensibility. The swiftest things are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force. In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can maintain itself in the air. Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of "levitation." They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly. This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies. Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was the one thing that the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate in the real Pre-raphaelites. Burne-Jones could never recover the deep levity of the Middle Ages. In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down" into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man "falls" into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
Yes, there it is. The famous "toucan" line, in all its splendour and its exquisite setting of ontological context! Let us say it together, just to try to learn its correct form:
Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.
It's called the toucan quote because it contains two "can"s. (hee hee) But we must not lose sight of its corollary line, which we also need to have at our disposal:
Satan fell by the force of gravity.
I have said before that one of Chesterton's greatest sustained demonstrations in all his writing has been on the dangers of PRIDE. There is this insight, written long before his conversion to Roman Catholicism:
Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.
[GKC Heretics CW1:107]
There too we see how one of the effects of pride is to remove humour and delight - to dry up laughter. But our paragraph doesn't simply warn us of what not to do. It tells us what we ought to do. We ought to take ourselves lightly. I ought to quote his entire famous essay in The Common Man, "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" - but I shall just give you the essential. In trying to explain the difficulties of terminology, GKC gives the scene of a pompous prideful braggart who enters a homely and popular pub - and gives the reactions of the Common Man to this visitor:
"He comes in here and he thinks he's God Almighty."
To which GKC appends "The man in the pub has precisely repeated, word for word, the theological formula about Satan." That is what it means to think too much of ourselves!

But those of us who can remember, as the good angels remember, that we are not God - and in fact are quite insignificant in the universe - well, then we can take ourselves lightly... and perhaps we too will fly up to join the choir which sang at the Birthday In the Cave.

One of the things we might do to recover that light and childline sense - on Christmas especially - is to remember to play - and I don't mean football or video games - or even board games. But silly games, simple, family games. Dickens himself linked these ideas:
After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.
[Charles Dickens, Stave 3, A Christmas Carol]
No I am not going to give you the rules for "forfeits" or even "Hunt the Slipper" which comes up in Chesterton. Instead you might try a couple of rounds of Gype, which means you will have to make up the rules first, which is even better. How you do it is your choice, but you ought to think about taking yourself lightly, even if you for some reason cannot field a Gype Team this year. (hee hee!)

Why do I think this is the most perfect paragraph for Christmas? Not only because we ought to laugh in this season, not only because of the angels who sing, and the demons who cower at the glory from the cave. No, those are true, but it is more human than that. Because it reveals the whoe reason for the season - the Protoevangelion, the words which Satan heard pronounced to Eve, that there would be One Who Would Come To Crush The Enemy.... again and again GKC is trying to remind us, there was this thing called "the Fall" - whcih is as Christmas as one can get. No wonder we put a Tree in our house... the Tree of Life.

And then, in the fullness of time, God decided to show us a mystery of a force greater than gravity, one which could pull Him out of heaven, and down to Earth:

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." [John 1:14]


  1. May I play an absurdly complex game at Christmastime?

  2. Does the game bring you and others joy?

  3. It brings innocent pleasure, if that is what you mean.

  4. Well then, play on! And Merry Christmas to all the game players at your Christmas Feast.

  5. I somehow just caught up with this delightful article today -- Feb. 19, 2013. I plan to reference Chesterton's quote next month at a panel discussion at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Fla. Thank you for posting it.


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