Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Last Surprise

Twice before I had to post my lengthy wanderings on GKC's Orthodoxy when I and the Chesterton community were in mourning at the departure of dear friends - and today, on this Holy Thursday, as we stand at the end of our journey through this great book, I find we must again pause as we think of Father Stanley L. Jaki, OSB, one of the greatest of Chestertonians, who has now gone to the Inn at the End of the World...

But again, as in the case of Frank Petta, and his dear wife Ann Stull Petta, I find Father urging me on. I think of his revelation in Chesterton a Seer of Science that Martin Gardner chose an excerpt from Orthodoxy to appear in his 1957 volume Great Essays in Science! And many times over this past year you have heard me drag in references to Jaki as we considered certain issues in our study.

Then, it might be urged on me that (due to the surprise which is coming) I ought to "carry over" this posting until next week, and so somehow preserve the holiness and quiet of this day. And so I had planned.

But I thought some more... and I think there is a good reason to complete the study today - as you shall see.

(( but first you have to click here... ))

There is one more thing to be said. One more strange paradox, the most strange of all. And again, we are given a tiny summary, a verbal equivalent of the musical recapitulations and reprises of the great themes of our text...
But this larger and more adventurous Christian universe has one final mark difficult to express; yet as a conclusion of the whole matter I will attempt to express it. All the real argument about religion turns on the question of whether a man who was born upside down can tell when he comes right way up. The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall. In Sir Oliver Lodge's interesting new Catechism, the first two questions were: "What are you?" and "What, then, is the meaning of the Fall of Man?" I remember amusing myself by writing my own answers to the questions; but I soon found that they were very broken and agnostic answers. To the question, "What are you?" I could only answer, "God knows." And to the question, "What is meant by the Fall?" I could answer with complete sincerity, "That whatever I am, I am not myself." This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves. And there is really no test of this except the merely experimental one with which these pages began, the test of the padded cell and the open door. It is only since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation. But, in conclusion, it has one special application to the ultimate idea of joy.
Now, there's another line that has often gotten overlooked - a line which really explains the whole attitude of Christianity. Let us see it all by itself and think about it:
The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality.
This is no unreasoning Tao, the sheer juxtaposition of meaningless words to give even less meaning to life and being. This is an insight into the unrest that even the Tao - yes, even the Buddhist in the last throes of his forsaking of reality - must still feel, even if he refuses to admit it: the normal itself is an abnormality. For we live our lives here, and are not at home - yet.

Next we have this charming summary of Chestertonian anthropology, which I shall re-format for ease in presentation:
Q: What are you?
A: God knows.
Q: What is meant by the Fall?
A: That whatever I am, I am not myself.
Please memorize and be ready to recite for next week. Ahem.

Then we have that little allusion to the Madman - the theme of that chapter we saw so long ago: "It is only since I have known orthodoxy that I have known mental emancipation." This line will be heard in its proper key (no pun intended) when he will write (in 1927): "To become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think." [GKC The Catholic Church and Conversion CW3:106] But we must not go into that today. For GKC has just set up the modulation to go into his final cadence - which, of course, introduces a totally new theme:

It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say "enlightened" they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything - they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything - they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.
This would be a very appropriate time for me to drag in Jaki - but I shall do so as a cook might wield a garlic clove, with the most delicate use of a great power. For all I need is four words, not even in a lengthy sentence, but simply the title of a chapter in his book on Chesterton: "Champion of the Universe". You see, the moderns really are "miserable about existence, about everything". Oh, they enjoy their fast food, their cable TV, their rock and their... well. You know as well as I do. But they do not ever want to go further. They are in the padded cell.

But the medievals were happy about everything. Jaki has countless pages full of the citations if you wish to learn more - and have not yet believed Chesterton.

An aside. I am struck by the applicability of a paradox voiced by Jesus about this. You can read the original in Matthew 11:17-19., and now I will paraphrase. It is not addressed to you, dear follower of Uncle Gilbert, but to - ah - let us say, Certain Academics and Media Persons: Chesterton came, married and laughing and quoting without footnotes, and you said he is making it up. Jaki came, celibate and laughing and giving countless footnotes, and you said he was boring and unreadable. Actually you ignore them both. Which is terrible.

Ahem. But let us resume. The point is about joy - about happiness - about gaiety. (Please do not veer off because of an shift in meaning due to contemporary politics.) GKC gave us the introductory setting and we shall now hear the final theme by which he shall conclude:
The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.
Ah - HA!!! Let's hear just the brass proclaim that theme again:
Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
Notify the anthropologists and the lawyers! Let the physicists quit their reactors and the biologists abandon their microscopes! Let the mathematicians cease their calculating and the literati drop their pens! Let the theologians and the philosophers hurry to listen! We men have something more - for "joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live"!!!

Recall too, the famous "toucan" line [CW1:325] about the angels who can take themselves lightly? Now we hear it rightly: it is just the descant line to this theme! The laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear. Oh my!

"the frantic energy of divine things"... is this not Chesterton and his verbal fireworks? Is it not Jaki and his countless footnotes, tracking through piles upon piles, shelves upon shelves of works, linking them into one? Do they not reveal some small portion of the "tremendous levity of the angels"?

(Note: If you reply "NO", you have not read any of these works, and you have not been paying attention. Go back and start over.)

And now, my final words. On this Holy Thursday, when the Twelve (less one) heard the great revelations in the Upper Room, the depths of love and the anticipation of the victory, we shall hear the final surprise. This book - called a book on Christianity, but which seems to so rarely mention Christ - concludes with a most profound query - something perhaps no theologian would ever dare to speculate on, even the most heretical. It is well that Chesterton concludes with a paradox, and yet I remind you neither is this one of his invention - he has merely called our attention to it.

I shall not give any further notes, because it is fitting that Chesterton sound the last chords, strange and mystical and triumphant, and fitting as we enter this most sacred time. God bless you all, and thanks for your attention over this past year!

--Dr. Thursday

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. [Lk 19:41] Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, [Mt 21:12] and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. [Mt 23:33] Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, Dr. Thursday! A joyful conclusion to a marvelous study. Well done, thank you so much. And it does seem quite fitting that today is Holy Thursday, the anniversary of the institution of the priesthood and Holy Eucharist.

    Thank you, again.


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