I wasn’t trying to test out the theory of gravity when I knocked my little laptop to the floor the other day – smack – but gravity is apparently still going strong in this corner of the universe. The little laptop, however, isn’t really going at all anymore, in any universe. Normally I blog using that laptop, but now I must use this desktop computer – which feels kind of like using the telephone bolted to the wall. I had started a little (I mean, they always start out little) post about friendship, which was quickly morphing into reflections on moral intelligence, but I might never see that again. Oh well, no matter.
I even resorted to writing a letter last week in longhand. It was kind of neat, writing without access to a backspace key. It was kind of like a Pontius Pilate experience: “What I have written, I have written.” It may be bad, but hey, it’s indelible. That tactile quality is interesting.
I’ve heard that cursive writing is being phased out of schools now. It’s such a shame. “They know not what they do,” turning their back on centuries of cursive handwriting, which is elegant and highly efficient at the same time. (It can also be extremely fast.) The thing is, if the students don’t learn how to write it, they won’t know how to read it. This means that, in the future, if someone comes across a letter that you wrote seven years ago, or some handwritten recipe wedged into a cookbook, it will look like a quaint artifact, written in some archaic code. We’ll have a new layer of illiteracy on top of all the current ones. And all the brain development which occurs with the act of cursive handwriting won’t happen.
Is our modern educational system’s only contribution to society the abandonment of everything which has been painstakingly preserved and passed down all these generations? The ball is being dropped – really, really dropped – but since it’s a metaphorical ball, there’s not even a floor to stop the downward plunge. Our educational system is a wrecking ball, if you ask me, acting as though anything that was done in the past must be outdated and irrelevant. Schools ‘teach’ children to use those touchy touch-screens, but the children were pretty adept at touching already. “All thumbs” isn’t just an expression nowadays, it’s an educational goal.
So now they snub cursive writing. I was actually aghast when I heard the news, but I should not have been. I should have seen it coming.
This is ‘progress.’
It makes me want to break out the ink pen. Pass the ink jar, will you?
That era wasn’t very long ago, you know. There are people walking around right now who remember using it, who remember their own gravity tests with bottles of ink – clunk, gurgle, drip. Talk about tactile!
And speaking of ink and ink pens, I have a quotation for you. It’s where I was planning to begin this post, so you can just ignore the past 500+ words as a digression.
It’s a Chesterton quotation, written in his early twenties, when he had finally rescued himself from his own extreme and paralyzing scepticism, but before he was a practicing Christian. (He says in Orthodoxy, Chapter VI, “I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen, and I cannot understand any one passing the age of seventeen without having asked himself so simple a question.”) This might be a poem or a literal description of his behaviour at that age or both:
You say grace before meals
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
And I hope you like it, because I must tell you that although this quotation surfaced easily enough, the exact source did not and the looking cost me more time than I spent writing my whole first blog post. It all started when I couldn’t find a certain quotation which I had read in my Gilbert magazine (not that one above) because I couldn’t find the magazine itself and even St. Anthony wasn’t as prompt as usual. So when I looked for a substitute quotation online, I found this one, but nobody would or could say where it came from, other than, “G.K. Chesterton,” which is not a big enough clue. After all, the man probably wrote more than he weighed, and he weighed a lot (though I know that paper is heavy; it’s one of the trinity of things – paper, water, soil – always a lot heavier than you expect) so that doesn’t exactly narrow down the search.
So after almost an hour of this, poking my head into tons of places that had this quotation (including Protestant writings of all kinds and even a Buddhist blog), I decided to email the American Chesterton Society. I thought, who knows, maybe some kind soul will help me out. And indeed, moments later I got a reply, from Dale Ahlquist himself; I was really impressed. That’s worth the price of membership right there.
So I’m happy to give you the source.
– G.K. Chesterton, Notebook, as quoted in Maisie Ward’s biography, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Chapter 5
So now you know.
Chesterton is amazing. He stretches his arms out really wide and embraces the whole world. He proclaims ‘thank you’ so freshly, so eloquently, and so meaningfully, that we can hear the echoes of his gratitude decades later.
That quotation is just one of many instances where he rejoices in the bounty of human experience. There are so many things to enjoy, and that is the way it’s supposed to be. To live fully is to welcome this bounty and to appreciate every endeavour that we are able to be involved in, and every natural and man-made part of the world that we are able to experience, and all the senses that we are able to use, knowing that it easily could have happened that we didn’t exist at all. It’s all a gift, is his point.
Chesterton thanks God for existence, and reminds us to do the same.
I invented a rudimentary and mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent compared with nothing.
The object . . . was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy.
– Autobiography, Chapter IV
Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius; and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.
– Orthodoxy, Chapter IV
And indeed, instead of greeting existence as the surprise and unmerited gift that it is, we act as though our birth were somewhat inevitable and expected.
Now on some level, this is true – we were each meant to be here; God knew of our existence from all eternity.
But on the other hand, if you do any genealogical research into your ancestors, you will see how many strange things needed to happen in order to ensure your birth, and how unpredictable it all was. The more you know, the more you see how unlikely it was that you would have been conceived in the first place. This man had to travel to that city (he wasn’t planning to stay, is always how it goes) and fall in love with this woman, and late in life they had a sixth child that they weren’t expecting, and that turned out to be your ancestor. Every one of us has, in our ancestry, a variation on that story. And sometimes the circumstances are even stranger. One of my ancestors had four wives (one at a time, I assure you) and it was the fourth marriage (to a widow) which produced my ancestor! That’s a lot of marrying and dying and remarrying and birthing that ‘needed’ to happen in order for me to be sitting here at this computer which is bolted to the wall.
And I protest when I hear someone say, “Some people shouldn’t have children,” because if we eliminated every person in our own ancestral line who wasn’t ‘qualified,’ then who would exist? (I suppose that’s what some environmentalists would want, but then they wouldn’t exist either, so they wouldn’t be able to appreciate the beauty of nature untainted by humanity). The same goes for large families; we’re all here because someone had a third child or a ninth. Do we really begrudge the existence of that ancestor of ours?
And this is not to mention the scourges of contraception, sterilization and contraception. Everyone born since about 1969 is truly a survivor; there are, sadly, many people who aren’t even with us – many people who never got a chance to taste life. And some of us were ‘accidents.’ Whew – that was close!
Chesterton thanks God for the body, and reminds us to do the same:
. . . and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs?
And indeed, we’re supposed to accept and appreciate our bodies; we’re made of body and soul (“We are Catholics, and as such, we are concerned with body and soul” Chesterton said somewhere.) This means allowing the body its ‘feasts’ – its legitimate and wholesome pleasures, including food of all kinds, liquor, sex, dancing, running, singing, music, theatre and so on. These are wholesome and desirable gifts which we were meant to enjoy. (Yes, of course, I’ll talk about limits; I’m Catholic, after all).
Everyday life is not dreary. We’re designed so that even those activities which we need to perform in order to stay alive bring physical pleasure. A glass of water when you’re thirsty, a warm bowl of noodles when you’re hungry, a rest when you’re weary – these things are incredible. It could have been otherwise – what if eating relieved hunger but wasn’t actually enjoyable? But it’s not like this at all: the act of eating is a satisfying one, and the earth is covered with things to eat in all flavours, shapes, colours and textures and interesting ways to combine them. That’s food, but even in the tiniest, most inconsequential concerns of our body, the same thing is repeated: scratching that mosquito bite on your ankle feels good; sliding your hands under the cool pillow at night feels good. If evolution is responsible for shaping us this way, then I thank the Creator for evolution!
I think the Catholic faith is really joyful in this way. Last week I attended a funeral, and I can’t remember being at a more beautiful one – it was a solemn requiem Mass, said in Latin. I couldn’t help but noticing how it engaged all the senses. I was looking at everything (probably should have been praying) and it was very impressive. I watched the way they moved the censure, the incense holder, from a theatrical point of view. The priest’s sleeves, which were made of voluminous folds of pleated white fabric that ended in neat cuffs at the wrist, emerged from special slits in his robes, which were black with gold trim. He therefore perfectly matched the black velvet cloth draped over the casket; this cloth had a wide golden line running the length of it, intersected by another line running the width of it: a large cross. And did I say? There was incense in the air, and the altar servers bowed in unison with the priest. Everything was just so. StrongOne sang beautifully in Latin and we knelt when it was time to receive the Eucharist. It was just so full. The reception afterwards was bountiful too, and the relaxed and happy mood of those attending (I’ve heard Christian post-funeral receptions are noticeably cheerier than non-Christian ones, and from what I’ve seen this is true) made it feel downright festive. Strange word, I realize, but that’s how it was, and you know, I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Now of course, Catholicism is a religion of balance, and Chesterton said that proper appreciation and gratitude for these sensory experiences involves the idea of restraint. So with respect to liquor, he says, “we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them” (Orthodoxy, Ch. IV), and with respect to sex, he says “Keeping to one woman is a small price to pay for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once.” (Orthodoxy, Ch. IV)
The paradox of the saint who loves and appreciates the world yet denies himself bodily pleasures is in a special class, and these sacrifices make sense when you consider that such saints are motivated by a greater passion: they are in love. You could say that they are ‘madly in love.’ St. Francis gave up everything in the way that a selfless knight lays his life at the feet of his beloved. He is, in fact, ‘wilder’ than the average person, more alive, more enthusiastic, more on fire, and that is why the saint wants to do these things; he almost can’t help himself in proving his love and devotion. (But of course, we’re called to be saints no matter what our vocation.)
And without the motivation of love for Christ, or at least a religious motive of some kind, Chesterton makes the point that physical renunciations are silly, and even morally dangerous. In those cases, the body becomes an end in itself; people make an idol of bodily health, hygiene or beauty, and the result is a cramped and self-absorbed personality, and possibly a narcissistic one.
Chesterton thanks God for nature, and reminds us to do the same.
For there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset
– K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter V
When it comes to nature, here I also notice how it fits us so well. Darwin said it’s all random, but why does so much of it coincidentally look so beautiful to our eyes? I suppose you could say it’s some mathematic rhythmic principle that matches the wavelengths of our brain. I don’t know. But anyway, we’re in general agreement as to what is beautiful (just look at the photo collections circulated on the internet, as I’ve said) and we all recoil at the same kind of things: that insect with too many legs is just, well, icky.
Oops – that’s me, not Chesterton. I suppose he could write positively about even that.
(But really! A person who keeps a pet tarantula is not mentally okay.)
Anyway, my point is that the world around us really fits us; it suits us. It impresses us and it amuses us. (“The strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed, in all art, is really connected with their otherness, their objectivity” says Chesterton in Chapter VIII of Saint Thomas) I happened to be thinking about zoos recently and I remembered how years ago I tried to choose ‘my favourite animal’ while I walked around it. I liked the panther and the lion and the donkey who looked at me with big brown eyes. Then at the end I saw the zebra, standing there being just so, well, striped! He looked like someone had done him up like that as a joke. I think I laughed out loud. (And since then I’ve seen pictures of an animal that looks even funnier, a mixed-up animal called an okapi.) There is so much in the animal world that is just so humorous – like the mating rituals of dolphins: the gentleman-dolphins jump into the air hoping the lady-dolphins will notice the big rock in their mouths. I mean, it’s just so funny! And nature speaks to us too. It seems to speak in symbols: the soaring birds seem to represent angels or goodness while the disgusting eyeless creatures that live at the pitch-black bottom of some oceans or in the recesses of a cave seem to represent (though I know they too are ‘good’) evil and demons and all the ugliness that is evil.
Fortunately, most ugly creatures like to lurk in dark and hidden places, and so we don’t have to see them very often. But the collection of beautiful creatures and beautiful places is so gigantic that it’s almost disheartening: how can a person ever experience all the wonder of all these places? The ocean, the desert, the forests, the canyons, the icebergs; it’s too much! The bounty is almost overwhelming, and that’s the natural world.
Turning to what is man-made, Chesterton praises all these things too, and reminds us to do the same.
[E]verything, had we the eyes which God meant to give us, is amazing – the door-scraper, the door-knocker, the umbrella stand.
– “Beauty in the Commonplace,” New York Times, May 27, 1928
He praises God for every leisure activity and every human occupation under the sun.
The idea that life in an office or a shop is dull is an idea that can only exist in dull people. Every shop is full of the terrible gold and purple of the human character, and the more a man is a poet, the more content he ought to be as a grocer’s assistant.
– “On Believing in Oneself,” Daily News, March 10, 1906
And on this topic, I want to bring in something I read yesterday:
Another very useful, practical principle is the following: If I am not capable of great things, I will not become discouraged, but I will do the small things! Sometimes, because we are unable to do great things, heroic acts, we neglect the small things that are available to us and which are, moreover, fruitful for our spiritual progress and are such a source of joy . . .
– Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, Chapter 18
He doesn’t say what these ‘small things’ are, but I think they can be all the duties that are associated with our current state in life. DiligentOne says that although the idea of ‘doing your little duty of the moment’ is familiar, she has lately been thinking about the idea of the “little” duty, and the idea of “of the moment.” These tiny, seemingly insignificant things of daily life are really important: if we do them with love and attention, they are, as Fr. Philippe says, fruitful for our spiritual progress. And, interestingly, as he says, they are “such a source of joy.”
And indeed, if daily life is approached properly, it is a source of joy. Personally, I’ve found there’s sort of an inverse relationship with these things; the more you dread some little task, the more rewarding it is when it’s finished – and I don’t think it’s just a matter of the relief that it’s over with, but it’s something like that biblical reference to the food that starts by tasting bitter but which ends tasting sweet. There’s something mysterious here about our daily bread.
I am tempted to go and find a quotation from St. Josemaria Escriva, who said so many good things about the value of work (it’s not called Opus Dei or “the Work” for nothing), but I see that this post is becoming the longest I’ve written. So instead, I’ll just mention that Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden before anything went wrong. Take the story literally or take it as an allegory, but in either case, it suggests that work was part of the gift that they were given, and it was part of the bounty and the happiness that they enjoyed. Ecclesiastes says all is futility and chasing after the wind, but the act of doing one’s best at one’s work is something solid. I paraphrase, obviously.
But back to Chesterton, I am moved by the largeness of his outlook. He rejoices in everything and is entirely and utterly grateful for it all. This poem from his notebook, called “Evening,” is appreciation for existence, the body, and nature in five short lines:
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?
Here’s another one from the same notebook, about appreciation for friendship, all human endeavours and abilities, and nature:
Praised be God for all sides of life,
for friends, lovers, art, literature, knowledge, humour, politics,
and for the little red cloud away there in the west—
And I like this one too, from the same notebook:
Give me a little time,
I shall not be able to appreciate them all;
If you open so many doors
And give me so many presents, O Lord God
Later in life, long after he wrote these things, he discovered that Catholicism contained all the impulses of gratitude and appreciation that he had cherished, and the reasons for the bounty, and the reasons for the occasional restrictions on partaking in this bounty. Catholic doctrine also united and explained all the phases of his life, including the dark phases (“these doctrines seem to link up my whole life from the beginning, as no other doctrines could do”). He says this about the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and Catholicism in general:
Now nobody will begin to understand the Thomist philosophy, or indeed the Catholic philosophy, who does not realize that the primary and fundamental part of it is entirely the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World. Everything else follows a long way after that, being conditioned by the Fall or the vocation of heroes . . .”
– Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter IV
In praise of St. Thomas, he says
He was not a person who wanted nothing; and he was a person enormously interested in everything . . . he was avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things. It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One. I do not mean things to eat or drink or wear, though he never denied to these their place in the noble hierarchy of Being; but rather things to think about, and especially things to prove, to experience and to know.
– Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter V
Chesterton compares Catholicism with the other religions of the world, and says that the religion of St. Thomas Aquinas is unique in this way:
[It is] vitally and vividly alone in declaring that life is a living story, with a great beginning and a great close; rooted in the primeval joy of God and finding its fruition in the final happiness of humanity; opening with the colossal chorus in which the sons of God shouted for joy, and ending in that mystical comradeship, shown in a shadowy fashion in those ancient words that move like an archaic dance; ‘For His delight is with the sons of men.’
– Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chapter IV
I cannot begin an adequate discussion of those difficult parts of our daily life, but suffice it to say that they are also part of the gift, and the saints who have really understood things, have embraced suffering too. As a matter of fact, they savour it like the young children that a Sister of Providence told me about, who fought over the heads of the fish, wanting to devour the eyes and the brain, while our modern white-bread world shudders at the thought.
We reject suffering and so it’s startling to see the way the saints accepted suffering and welcomed it and praised it. Back to the fish analogy, we know too little about the discoveries of Weston A. Price, and so if eating such things is not a part of our life experience, we’re rather repulsed: “Do they really enjoy even that?” But the saints respond, “Hey – are you kidding? This is the best part!”
Ultimately, I think all the bounty that surrounds us in our daily life is pointing to something else; it shows forth the nature of our God, whose goodness pours out in such abundance upon all his creatures, and it’s a peek at the bounty which awaits us on the other side.
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him
– 1 Corinthians 2:19
My goodness: I’m past 4000 words. My ink well is almost empty, so I had better stop here.