There are many reasons why I’ve chosen to read through the works of G. K. Chesterton over the next few years. But one reason stands out above all: Chesterton helps me see, really see the world around me. And in seeing, I experience joy in life and gratitude for existence.
Consider this snippet from a letter Chesterton wrote to his fiancé in 1899. Frances had complained that his letters did not provide details about his everyday life. He was so engrossed with the world (not himself) that he failed to inform her of his daily routine.
Watch how Chesterton responded to her request. “It depends on which way you want it narrated,” he writes, “what we all say it is, or what it really is.”
What We Say Happens Every Day
What we all say happens every day is this:
I wake up
eat bacon and bread and coffee for breakfast
walk up to High St. Station
take a fourpenny ticket for Blackfriars
read the Chronicle in the train
arrive at 11, read a manuscript…
[I] go out to lunch…
come back, work till six,
take my hat and walking-stick and come home
have dinner at home
write the novel till 11
then write to you and go to bed.
“That is what we, in our dreamy, deluded way, really imagine is the thing that happens.”
What Really Happens Every Day
Next, Chesterton walks through the same day, describing what actually happens. Watch him marvel at the extraordinary wonders we encounter in everyday existence.
The Wonder of Waking Up
“Out of the starless night of the Uncreated, that was before the stars, a soul begins to grope back to light. It gropes its way through strange, half-lighted chambers of Dreams, where in a brown and gold twilight, it sees many things that are dimly significant, true stories twisted into new and amazing shapes, human beings whom it knew long ago, sitting at the windows by dark sunsets, or talking in dim meadows.
“But the awful invading Light grows stronger in the dreams, till the soul in one last struggle, plunges into a body, as into a house and wakes up within it.”
Getting Out of Bed
“Then he rises and finds himself in a wonderful vast world of white light and clear, frankly colored shapes, an inheritor of a million stars. On enquiry he is informed that his name is Gilbert Keith Chesterton. This amuses him.”
“He goes through a number of extraordinary and fantastic rituals; which the pompous elfland he has entered demands.
“The first is that he shall get inside a house of clothing, a tower of wool and flax; that he shall put on this foolish armor solemnly, one piece after another and each in its right place. The things called sleevelinks he attends to minutely. His hair he beats angrily with a bristly tool. For this is the Law.
“Downstairs a more monstrous ceremony attends him. He has to put things inside himself. He does so, being naturally polite. Nor can it be denied that a weird satisfaction follows.”
Buying a Train Ticket
“He takes a sword in his hand (for what may not befall him in so strange a country!) and goes forth. He finds a hole in the wall, a little cave wherein sits One who can give him the charm that rules the horse of water and fire.”
Getting On the Underground Train
“He finds an opening and descends into the bowels of the earth. Down, among the roots of the Eternal hills, he finds a sunless temple wherein he prays. And in the center of it he finds a lighted temple in which he enters.
“Then there are noises as of an earthquake and smoke and fire in the darkness: and when he opens the door again he is in another temple, out of which he climbs into another world, leagues and leagues away. And when he asks the meaning of the vision, they talk gibberish and say, ‘It is a train’.”
Work and Dinner
“So the day goes, full of eerie publishers and elfin clerks, till he returns and again puts things inside him, and then sits down and makes men in his own head and writes down all that they said and did. And last of all comes the real life itself.”
Writing Out His Thoughts
“For half-an-hour he writes words upon a scrap of paper, words that are not picked and chosen like those that he has used to parry the strange talk of the fold all day, but words in which the soul’s blood pours out, like the body’s blood from a wound.
“He writes secretly this mad diary,
all his passion and longing,
all his queer religion,
his dark and dreadful gratitude to God,
his idle allegories,
the tales that tell themselves in his head;
the joy that comes on him sometimes (he cannot help it) at the sacred intoxication of existence:
the million faults of idleness and recklessness and the one virtue of the unconquered adoration of goodness,
that dark virtue that every man has, and hides deeper than all his vices!”
Mailing the Letter
“He writes all this down as he is writing it now. And he knows that if he sticks it down and puts a stamp on it and drops it into the mouth of a little red goblin at the corner of the street – he knows that all this world soliloquy will be poured into the soul of one wise and beautiful lady sitting far away beyond seas and rivers and cities, under the shadow of an alien Cathedral.”
Finding joy in the “sacred intoxication of existence” — that is why I read Chesterton. He wakes me up to wonder, and fills me with gratitude for life.
Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?