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There is a moment in the life story of many saints in which personal crisis is followed by a moment of vision, a moment in which there is a personal encounter with God which brings about a complete change of direction. There is, I suggest, such a moment in Chesterton’s life. He was twenty years old. He had just left the Slade School of Art, where he had undergone a prolonged time of periodic depressions. After possibly the worst but certainly the last of these, he wrote to his friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley about what seemed to be– and in fact was – the final ending of this dark period in his life. We can date this letter in the summer of 1894: and in it he can only be talking about some kind of clearly and definitively religious experience: he describes it as a ‘vision’ and writes of ‘speaking to God’:
Inwardly speaking I have had a funny time. A meaningless fit of depression, taking the form of certain absurd psychological worries, came upon me, and instead of dismissing it and talking to people, I had it out and went very far into the abysses indeed. The result was that I found that things, when examined, necessarily spelt such a mystically satisfactory state of things, that without getting back to earth, I saw lots that made me certain it is all right. The vision is fading into common day now, and I am glad. It is embarrassing talking to God face to face, as a man speaketh to a friend [Chesterton is referring here to Exodus 33, in the Authorised Version, which he loved and knew well: ‘and the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend’].
After this ‘vision’ (which does seem to be, in Fr Madden’s phrase, some kind of ‘encounter with the divine’) he never again fell into the depression and instability from which he had emerged. This is how he wrote about the consequences of this final emergence from ‘the abysses’ when he came to write his autobiography forty years later; it is a key passage:
I had wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather, when he said that he would thank God for his creation [even] if he were a lost soul. I hung on to religion by one thin thread of thanks ... At the back of our brains ... there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man might suddenly understand that he was alive, and be happy.
From Dr William Oddie's introduction to; The Holiness of GK Chesterton.
Chesterton on Television
G K Chesterton; Apostle of Common Sense on EWTN (Sky 588 or online www.ewtn.co.uk) Mondays 2pm or Wednesdays 7am each week. (30 minutes long)