The cosmos in the mind of G. K. Chesterton.
Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By DAWN EDEN
This message is far more pertinent to Thursday than Nichols’s purported “key to that novel.” Omitting it, he misses an opportunity to show how Chesterton presages the similarly sacramental account of creation that Pope John Paul II would give more than 70 years later in his addresses on the “theology of the body.”
In “the mystery of creation,” John Paul said, the world began “by the will of God, who is omnipotence and love. Consequently, every creature bears within it the sign of the original and fundamental gift.” In a joyful paradox that would not be out of place in Orthodoxy, the pope adds that this gift is centered upon man: “Man appears in creation as the one who received the world as a gift, and it can also be said that the world received man as a gift.”
Despite overlooking this affinity between Chesterton and John Paul, Nichols’s grammar leads to a deeper understanding of both. He highlights a passage from Orthodoxy describing how “all creation is separation”: “It was the prime philosophic principle of Christianity that this divorce in the divine act of making . . . was the true description of the act whereby the absolute energy made the world.” John Paul drew upon the same point in his theology of the body to show how, in the Genesis creation accounts, man’s ability to give himself in love is contingent upon his realization of his “original solitude”—the “separation” of which Chesterton speaks, which, in the late pope’s words, “permits him to be the author of genuinely human activity.”
The first man’s recognition of his solitude is linked, John Paul says, with his recognition of his “dependence in existing” in which he faces, for the first time, the “alternative between death and immortality.” For Chesterton, such “isolation” marks the “root horror” endured by Thursday’s Syme. As John Paul notes, however, it is only through recognizing one’s self as having a separate identity that true interpersonal communion is possible: “In this solitude, [man] opens up to a being akin to himself.”
Here too, Chesterton seems to be completing John Paul’s sentences, as he writes of Syme’s joy in discovering that one of his seeming enemies is actually a fellow policeman: “There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.” But Chesterton’s next line in some sense even surpasses John Paul because it shows what he had that the theology of the body, for all its genius, utterly lacked—humor: “That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.”
Shortly before his death, Chesterton wrote that one of his favorite tributes came from a thoroughly secular psychoanalyst who told him, “I know a number of men who nearly went mad, but were saved because they had really understood The Man Who Was Thursday.” There’s serenity for you.
Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.