Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chestertonian Exercises

It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. (Orthodoxy)

So I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically. Nothing beyond inconvenience seems really to have been caused by them; and inconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder. For as the Roman Catholic priest in the story said: "Wine is good with everything except water," and on a similar principle, water is good with everything except wine. (On Running After One's Hat, All Things Considered)

"They don't know they're born". What a poetic saying that is, and how much it applies to us all! One of Chesterton's most common themes-- and a central theme of Christianity, of course-- is the need for perpetual rebirth and renewal. We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are born-- we have to fan the flame of wonder and gratitude in our own souls.

Here are some of my own mental exercises in doing just that:

If you are walking down a city street, imagine how much you would like to walk down the same street a hundred or two hundred years ago, or a hundred years in the future, and pretend you are a time traveller visiting our own day. This is the temporal equivalent to being a tourist at home. Remember that every day is a unique, unrepeatable moment in time-- and what a strange idea that really is.

Imagine you have no shoes, or are in one of those dreams where you’re wearing no trousers (yes, I’ve had them), or that you’re trapped on a bitterly cold day without adequate clothing. Feel what a wonderful thing it is to be clothed and warm.

Think of the fresh air that you breathe, that surrounds you at every moment, and drink it in.

Look at the shops around you and imagine that conglomeration had advanced so far that all small businesses had been swallowed up by one or two retail giants. Imagine a whole street of Tesco. Then thank God for all the different shop signs in your field of vision.

Imagine everybody could hear everybody else’s thoughts, and enjoy the delicious cosiness of having your own mental retreat.

If you are a man, look at a passing woman and reflect how strange it is to share a world with such beings—as though unicorns and fairies were to be seen out every window. As Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy: I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself.

If you are young, or middle-aged, look at an old person and think of the world they carry around in their memories—one that is as inaccessible to us as Homer’s Greece. Honour them as “a traveller from an antique land”.

Listen to the accents being spoken around you, and reflect on the fact that every region on Earth has its own unique way of speaking. Isn’t it odd? And isn’t it amazing?

Look at the old buildings around you, and think how dramatically satisfying it is that new stories are played out on the same stage—new stories, linked to the old ones. Think how extraordinary it is that we know of the lives that have passed before our own. As G.M. Trevelyan wrote: The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passion, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow."

Listen to the chatter around you—going on everywhere, all the time, without cessation—and think how marvellous it is that there is always something happening. New things happen every day, in every office and home and alley. I can easily imagine a world where life scated along on the tram-tracks of utter monotony. Anyone who thinks this is true of this world is projecting.

And so on. And so on. And so on.


  1. Excellent! This should begin a periodic column - perhaps every so often you could post another addition to these suggestions. It's very Chestertonian.

    There are several of these which suggest a whole column or more of comments and meditation - not to mention a commentary on exactly what this is and why we ought to be doing it - which is a transcendent thing and goes to the very heart of Being. But I would like to mention one little thing I happen to have leared from meeting Vietnamese at our parish.

    In the Vietnamese language, there are no "pronouns" in the usual fashion - at least there are no FIXED pronouns. They alter based on WHO one speaks to. My cha(father) addresses me as con (son), but my younger sister would call me anh (older brother). When addressing a stranger, you exalt him, and humble yourself ("I" is rendered tôi "slave"). But the stranger is called ông = "grandfather" or ba = "grandmother". The Oriental considers those of age to be exalted - and it is a compliment to call another "Old One".

    (I think I got all those words right.)

    Somehow it reminds me of GKC's line from Orthodoxy about how tradition is giving votes to the dead... a huge and important topic.

  2. I think that is one of the most cited lines amongst Chestertonians!

    Egalitarianism pays lip service to respect for age-- but in reality, I think such respect really only exists in societies where tradition is important. Because older people are repositories of folklore, social history and familial memories.

    As for what it is-- I can easily imagine someone saying, "But why should we be grateful things are so good? Why not just accept them? Why assume they could have been anything other than they are?". But in reality, I think everybody does appreciate/deplore the world as one amongst an infinite amount of possible worlds-- very few people simply accept reality as it is.

    That's so interesting about the Vietnamese way of addressing people!

    Thank you for your comment, Dr. Thursday.