Editor's note:

In short, I had always believed that the world involved mag­ic: now I thought it per­haps involved a magi­cian. – G.K. Chesterton

There is no Chris­t­ian book, aside from the Bible, that has influ­enced my faith as much as G.K. Chesterton’s Ortho­doxy. From first word to last I was enchant­ed by new (to me) ideas about this Chris­t­ian life – that it is full of won­der, full of para­dox, full of fun! One of the pas­sages that has most stuck with me is one excerpt­ed below (from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics). I read Ortho­doxy as the moth­er of a very young child, and was well-versed in the abound­ing vital­i­ty” and exul­ta­tion in monot­o­ny” which chil­dren pos­sess. The idea that this vital­i­ty might be expressed as a con­stant encore in nature by a Father who has not sinned and grown old” was thor­ough­ly delight­ful to me. Since that time, I have nev­er wit­nessed a sun­rise or a cro­cus blos­som or the silent fall of snow with­out whis­per­ing to myself, Do it again!” 

—Justine Olawsky

Excerpts Tak­en from Ortho­doxy

A False Assumption

All the tow­er­ing mate­ri­al­ism which dom­i­nates the mod­ern mind rests ulti­mate­ly upon one assump­tion; a false assump­tion. It is sup­posed that if a thing goes on repeat­ing itself it is prob­a­bly dead; a piece of clock­work. Peo­ple feel that if the uni­verse was per­son­al it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fal­la­cy even in rela­tion to known fact. For the vari­a­tion in human affairs is gen­er­al­ly brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or break­ing off of their strength or desire. 

A man varies his move­ments because of some slight ele­ment of fail­ure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walk­ing; or he walks because he is tired of sit­ting still. But if his life and joy were so gigan­tic that he nev­er tired of going to Isling­ton, he might go to Isling­ton as reg­u­lar­ly as the Thames goes to Sheer­ness. The very speed and ecsta­sy of his life would have the still­ness of death. The sun ris­es every morn­ing. I do not rise every morn­ing; but the vari­a­tion is due not to my activ­i­ty, but to my inaction.

Heaven’s Encores

Now, to put the mat­ter in a pop­u­lar phrase, it might be true that the sun ris­es reg­u­lar­ly because he nev­er gets tired of ris­ing. His rou­tine might be due, not to a life­less­ness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in chil­dren, when they find some game or joke that they spe­cial­ly enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhyth­mi­cal­ly through excess, not absence, of life. Because chil­dren have abound­ing vital­i­ty, because they are in spir­it fierce and free, there­fore they want things repeat­ed and unchanged. They always say, Do it again”; and the grown-up per­son does it again until he is near­ly dead. For grown-up peo­ple are not strong enough to exult in monotony.

But per­haps God is strong enough to exult in monot­o­ny. It is pos­si­ble that God says every morn­ing, Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, Do it again” to the moon. It may not be auto­mat­ic neces­si­ty that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy sep­a­rate­ly, but has nev­er got tired of mak­ing them. It may be that He has the eter­nal appetite of infan­cy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The rep­e­ti­tion in Nature may not be a mere recur­rence; it may be a the­atri­cal encore. Heav­en may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being con­ceives and brings forth a human child instead of bring­ing forth a fish, or a bat, or a grif­fin, the rea­son may not be that we are fixed in an ani­mal fate with­out life or pur­pose. It may be that our lit­tle tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their star­ry gal­leries, and that at the end of every human dra­ma man is called again and again before the cur­tain. Rep­e­ti­tion may go on for mil­lions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, and yet each birth be his pos­i­tive­ly last appearance.

Repeat­ed Exer­cis­es of Someone’s Will

This was my first con­vic­tion; made by the shock of my child­ish emo­tions meet­ing the mod­ern creed in mid-career. I had always vague­ly felt facts to be mir­a­cles in the sense that they are won­der­ful: now I began to think them mir­a­cles in the stricter sense that they were will­ful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeat­ed exer­cis­es of some will. 

In short, I had always believed that the world involved mag­ic: now I thought that per­haps it involved a magi­cian. And this point­ed a pro­found emo­tion always present and sub-con­scious; that this world of ours has some pur­pose; and if there is a pur­pose, there is a per­son. I had always felt life first as a sto­ry: and if there is a sto­ry there is a story-teller.

But mod­ern thought also hit my sec­ond human tra­di­tion. It went against the fairy feel­ing about strict lim­its and con­di­tions. The one thing it loved to talk about was expan­sion and large­ness. Her­bert Spencer would have been great­ly annoyed if any­one had called him an impe­ri­al­ist, and there­fore it is high­ly regret­table that nobody did. But he was an impe­ri­al­ist of the low­est type. He pop­u­lar­ized this con­temptible notion that the size of the solar sys­tem ought to over­awe the spir­i­tu­al dog­ma of man.

Why should a man sur­ren­der his dig­ni­ty to the solar sys­tem any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a some­what form­less image; what one might call an impres­sion­ist por­trait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small com­pared to the cos­mos; for man was always small com­pared to the near­est tree.

The Uni­verse Is a Price­less Jewel

Sto­ries of mag­ic alone can express my sense that life is not only a plea­sure but a kind of eccen­tric priv­i­lege. I may express this oth­er feel­ing of cos­mic cozi­ness by allu­sion to anoth­er book always read in boy­hood, Robin­son Cru­soe,” which I read about this time, and which owes its eter­nal vivac­i­ty to the fact that it cel­e­brates the poet­ry of lim­its, nay, even the wild romance of prudence.

Cru­soe is a man on a small rock with a few com­forts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is sim­ply the list of things saved from the wreck. The great­est of poems is an inven­to­ry. Every kitchen tool becomes ide­al because Cru­soe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exer­cise, in emp­ty or ugly hours of the day, to look at any­thing, the coal-scut­tle or the book­case, and think how hap­py one could be to have brought it out of the sink­ing ship on to the soli­tary island.

The trees and the plan­ets seemed like things saved from a wreck: and when I saw the Mat­ter­horn I was glad that it had not been over­looked in the con­fu­sion. I felt eco­nom­i­cal about the stars as if they were sap­phires (they are called so in Milton’s Eden): I hoard­ed the hills. For the uni­verse is a sin­gle jew­el, and while it is a nat­ur­al cant to talk of a jew­el as peer­less and price­less, of this jew­el it is lit­er­al­ly true. This cos­mos is indeed with­out peer and with­out price: for there can­not be anoth­er one.

The Mag­ic Has a Mean­ing (and Some­one to Mean It)

I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself. It may be a mir­a­cle with a super­nat­ur­al expla­na­tion; it may be a con­jur­ing trick, with a nat­ur­al expla­na­tion. But the expla­na­tion of the con­jur­ing trick, if it is to sat­is­fy me, will have to be bet­ter than the nat­ur­al expla­na­tions I have heard. The thing is mag­ic, true or false.

Sec­ond, I came to feel as if mag­ic must have a mean­ing, and mean­ing must have some one to mean it. There was some­thing per­son­al in the world, as in a work of art; what­ev­er it meant it meant violently.

Third, I thought this pur­pose beau­ti­ful in its old design, in spite of its defects, such as drag­ons. Fourth, that the prop­er form of thanks to it is some form of humil­i­ty and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Bur­gundy by not drink­ing too much of them. We owed, also, an obe­di­ence to what­ev­er made us.

And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impres­sion that in some way all good was a rem­nant to be stored and held sacred out of some pri­mor­dial ruin. Man had saved his good as Cru­soe saved his goods: he had saved them from a wreck. All this I felt and the age gave me no encour­age­ment to feel it. And all this time I had not even thought of Chris­t­ian theology.

Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.).

Pho­to Copy­right: Tatiana Kostare­va

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