Thursday, October 15, 2009

On Being Chestertonian - the Rosary and Presence of Mind

I had already worked out part of my posting for today when I noted an interesting appeal for a quote in a recent posting - but it was far too important to merely answer in the comment box. I don't have the request to quote for you, but here is what Chesterton wrote:
Humanism is quite different from Humanitarianism. It means, as explained here, something like this. Modern science and organization are in a sense only too natural. They herd us like the beasts along lines of heredity or tribal doom; they attach man to the earth like a plant instead of liberating him, even like a bird, let alone an angel. Indeed, their latest psychology is lower than the level of life. What is subconscious is sub-human and, as it were, subterranean: or something less than earthly. This fight for culture is above all a fight for consciousness: what some would call self-consciousness: but anyhow against mere subconsciousness. We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of our fathers.
[GKC The Thing CW3:146-7, emphasis added]
Now this idea of consciousness connects very well with the topic I had selected - that of the Rosary - and it also gives a very powerful answer to our Bloggmistress' question about "how to live Chestertonian".

The fight, as GKC points out, is about achieving consciousness. In other places he calls this "presence of mind". I wish I had room to properly deal with this, especially as it touches my own disciplines, since I keep hearing this silly line about how children need to acquire "problem-solving skills" and I wonder what that means, since without proper formation in reading and writing - and mathematics - all problems remain insoluble, since one cannot even understand their statement! Or are they teaching automata theory and recursion, perhaps? Ahem.

So let us see how GKC handles this issue under an older formula, that is, "How To Think". Oh, my it's hilarious, but wait until you hear what he says. It will be startling to you but only if you have not yet understood why Christ threw the money changers out of the Temple.
I have before me a little pamphlet in which the most precise directions are given for a Mock Turkey, for a vegetarian mince-pie, and for a cautious and hygienic Christmas pudding. I have never quite understood why it should be a part of the Simple Life to have anything so deceptive and almost conspiratorial as an imitation turkey. The coarse and comic alderman may be expected, in his festive ribaldry, to mock a turtle; but surely a lean and earnest humanitarian ought not to mock a turkey. Nor do I understand the theory of the imitation in its relation to the ideal. Surely one who thinks meat eating mere cannibalism ought not to arrange vegetables so as to look like an animal. It is as if a converted cannibal in the Sandwich Islands were to arrange joints of meat in the shape of a missionary. The missionaries would surely regard the proceedings of their convert with something less than approval, and perhaps something akin to alarm. But the consistency of these concessions I will leave on one side, because I am not here concerned with the concessions but with the creed itself. And I am concerned with the creed not merely as affecting its practice in diet or cookery but its general theory. For the compilers of the little book before me are great on philosophy and ethics. There are whole pages about brotherhood and fellowship and happiness and healing. In short, as the writer observes, we have "also some Mental Helps, as set forth in the flood of Psychology Literature to-day - but raised to a higher plane." It may be a little risky to set a thing forth in a flood, or a little difficult to raise a flood to a higher plane; but there is behind these rather vague expressions a very real modern intelligence and point of view, common to considerable numbers of cultivated people, and well worthy of some further study.

Under the title of "How to Think" there are twenty-four rules of which the first few are: "Empty Your Mind," "Think of the Best Things," "Appreciate," "Analyse," "Prepare Physically," "Prepare Mentally," and so on. I have met some earnest students of this school, who had apparently entered on this course, but at the time of our meeting had only graduated so far as the fulfilment of the first rule. It was more obvious, on the whole, that they had succeeded in the preliminary process of emptying the mind than that they had as yet thought of the best things, or analysed or appreciated anything in particular. But there were others, I willingly admit, who had really thought of certain things in a genuinely thoughtful fashion, though whether they were really the best things might involve a difference of opinion between us. Still, so far as they are concerned, it is a school of thought, and therefore worth thinking about. Having been able to this extent to appreciate, I win now attempt to analyse. I have attempted to discover in my own mind where the difference between us really lies, apart from all these superficial jests and journalistic points; to ask myself why it is exactly that their ideal vegetarian differs so much from my ideal Christian. And the result of the concentrated contemplation of their ideal is, I confess, a somewhat impatient forward plunge in the progress of my initiation. I am strongly disposed to "Prepare Physically" for a conflict with the ideal vegetarian, with the holy hope of hitting him on the nose. In one of Mr. P. G. Wodehouse's stories the vegetarian rebukes his enemy for threatening to skin him, by reminding him that man should only think beautiful thoughts; to which the enemy gives the unanswerable answer: "Skinning you is a beautiful thought." In the same way I am quite prepared to think of the best things; but I think hitting the ideal vegetarian on the nose would be one of the best things in the world. This may be an extreme example; but it involves a much more serious principle. What such philosophers often forget is that among the best things in the world are the very things which their placid universalism forbids; and that there is nothing better or more beautiful than a noble hatred. I do not profess to feel it for them; but they themselves do not seem to feel it for anything.
[GKC "The Meaning of Mock Turkey" in Fancies Versus Fads]
Now what do I mean by bringing up the Rosary in such a discussion? Don't I know that some of my readers are not Catholic? Of course. GKC knew that some of his readers weren't vegetarian - and that perhaps even some of them were.

But you see I find it relevant to the issue, even more so than recursion or automata theory. I could easily give a link from this simple and fully Biblical prayer to the esoteric branch of mathematics called "Graph Theory", or another link to the most interesting and curious qualities of the twenty amino acids as studied by Biochemistry or Molecular Biology.... or my as-yet unwritten link from the Rosary to the extreme high technology of network theory and modern communications protocols.... but not here and now. No; I simply want to give one important detail about it which is relevant to this idea of "presence of mind" and "learning to think" - and yes, to "problem-solving skills".

First, I must deal with the word "prayer" - that is something where some people don't quite get the usage of English words. A "prayer" is an asking - the verb comes up in legal documents "The undersigned PRAY the Court, etc..." without any confusion about adoration of God. Nor should there be any difficulties with asking others - to ask someone to pass the mustard (that famous action beloved by Chesterton) is a prayer. Even funnier is that the prayer which seems to bother some people the most - the Hail Mary - specifically asks her for nothing more than to "pray for US sinners". Quite a good idea. We ought to pray for each other, after all. But there is another verb associated with the Rosary - something far harder to discuss than prayer, and perhaps even more confusing to some these days.

That word is MEDITATION. This word used to have a very sound and powerful sense, a Western and classical sense - and GKC was still using it in that fashion - the sense that one is bringing all one's powers of thought to bear on a topic or issue or idea. It is, in the most perfect sense, the extreme version of Presence of Mind.

And so it is to be formally and absolutely distinguished with the "modern" or "Eastern" form of the term, which is the "emptying of the mind". In the Rosary, one meditates on various scenes of the life of Jesus - one tastes, savours, replays, re-experiences these scenes in the most direct fashion one can. Now, it is possible that too many people have weakened their minds and cannot accomplish this vivid and dramatic experience. They think they cannot do it - they watch too much TV, surf too many websites, play too many video games - they have become intellectual couch potatoes.

But the exercise of the mind is possible - you won't even need a membership card or special equipment, or have to get all sweaty!

You just begin to STUDY these scenes - take your time, use pictures, use gospel texts, whatever will help you acquire the direct personal and intellectual awareness of these Gospel events: What happened. Who did what. WHY did it happen. What does it tell me. What must I do because of this. Those, in my view, are the kind of problem-solving skills worth acquiring!

Why do I urge this? Because, if we say we LOVE our Lord, it is a matter of knowing about His life, and rehearsing those main events so we have them as part of our own life - we are (or claim to be) part of His Family, so we need to catch up on the events the Family has experienced. Think of the Rosary as Christ' home videos, His family photo albums - no equipment, no boredom. With just a little mental effort, you can even picture yourself in the scenes - and perhaps become closer to Him.

Now, Doc (you say) - c'mon Doc - connect this to Chesterton.

Sure. I just discovered it for myself. I happened to be reading part of his The Everlasting Man aloud to a friend and it dawned on me. The first three chapters of Part II ("The Man Called Christ") are really GKC's form of meditation on the Mysteries of the Rosary. They form a kind of literary expression of his meditation, and we get to experience some of his own thoughts when we read it.

So if for some reason you find you cannot yet approach this Presence of Mind, this Western meditation which fills the mind with thought - then just try out GKC's own writing in those chapters of The Everlasting Man and you'll get a kind of test drive experience. There will be no sales pressure. The ride will convince you far better than I can. (hee hee)

Yes really. And there's more. Once you begin this easy and quite healthy practice of Presence of Mind, you will find that these powerful mental skills assist you at other things - things like Graph Theory or the Biochemistry of amino acids - or even software development, hee hee! But then that is what you can expect, since we were told: "seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice: and all these things shall be added unto you." [Luke 12:31]


  1. Excellent post!
    The "mock turkey" piece is laugh out out funny, and so true! Thanks you also on the insight on the Rosary. I am currently listening to Dale's audiobook of EM and I will definitely keep this in mind while I listen to part II.

  2. Thank you for sharing your Rosary discoveries...such an appropriate post for the beautiful month of October.


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