For Want of Wonder (Part 1)
In her detective novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy Sayers compares books to lobster shells: “We surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.” The same may be said of authors.
And yet, inarguable as the comparison may be on some level, I think we can all point to exceptions that have achieved a certain “supra-lobster shell” status in our lives. These are the books and authors we can't seem to grow out of, because no matter where we are in life, they still fit.
Chesterton is one of those for me. I discovered his writing six or seven years ago, and much as I've come to dislike the phrase “love affair” as a descriptor for things other than actual love affairs, it hits fairly near the mark. I'd like to think I'm proof that one can be staunchly Reformed Presbyterian and still count G.K.C. a defining influence in one's life. (There is, of course, the distinct possibility the old papist would throw an ink blotter at my head if he knew, but you can't win 'em all.)
Why Chesterton? Is it his wit? His eloquence? His jovial yet tenacious stand against the secularist hordes? Whole books have been written on his genius as a writer, thinker, and storyteller, and justly so. In the end, however, my answer to the question “why Chesterton?” turns out to be rather simple: I read him for the wonder.
Chesterton fans will understand what I mean by this straightaway. For the uninitiated - God bless them – what I mean is perhaps best summarized in the man's own words. Hanna recently shared one of his poems, unpublished in his lifetime, which reminded me in five lines why it is I've never outgrown Chesterton and why I never will. The poem is called “Evening”:
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?
There it is. The wonder. The wonder shot through with earnest gratitude and joy at a gift man all too often takes for granted.
This is why I come back to Chesterton. He's always taking the ordinary and wondering at it, and peeling the scales off my eyes so I can wonder at it with him. Do you know something? Wonder is eternally relevant. I needed it seven years ago. I need it now. Up until the day I die there will never come a time when I've wondered enough. To perceive with fresh eyes the Divine gifts, so graciously bestowed on this fallen race, on me and on those I love, in staggering abundance, and to give thanks for those gifts: is this anything other than a lifelong duty and privilege?
Chesterton again: “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”
Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q1: “What is the chief end of man?”
A: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
We can spiritualize this idea into something that barely touches everyday life, but then we miss the point. Two of the scripture proofs for this question are lifted from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 6:20, he writes, “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.” Then in 1 Corinthians 10:21: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”
Christ did not physically die and physically rise again to save disembodied hearts and minds. He came for the whole man, body and soul. Matter matters to Him. It always has. He made it, after all. And though we await the Last Day for our flesh to “be raised incorruptible” (1 Cor. 15:52), yet our call to glorify Him is not confined to so-called “spiritual things”. It includes the way we eat our breakfast, our lunch, and our dinner. It includes the nurture and discipline of children, including the umpteenth spanking you gave to the same stubborn child for the same old sin. It includes washing dishes and writing code and baking pies and raking leaves and watching sunsets and scrubbing toilets and listening to Hans Zimmer's newest score. It includes, basically, life. All of it. There is nothing you do that cannot and should not be done with this in mind.
There is glory in the ordinary because the ordinary isn't really so ordinary after all. We only think it is. We have to be reminded, but it's there, to be wondered at and given thanks for. Chesterton jogs my memory in this regard the way few other writers do, and I love him for it.
I'll let him have the final word,
The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. 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. (Orthodoxy, p. 143)