The Great Joke
G. K. Chesterton in his study. (public domain)
G.K. Chesterton has intrigued me since my youth minister first introduced me to the big man’s writing in ninth grade. I tend toward melancholy, and there is a powerful current of joy running through all of Chesterton’s work that has since mystified and captivated me, even as I’ve struggled to believe in it at all. A recurring concept in Chesterton’s writings is that only those who take something very seriously can really take it lightly. Chesterton is known as the Prince of Paradox, and this one has stumped me for many years. I might say it has haunted me. It didn’t make any sense, but still I sensed it to be true.
Joy has been elusive to me. At one point, I called myself a ‘detrimentalist’, and wondered why, since I seemed to take everything so seriously, I wasn’t able to break through to Chesterton’s way of taking things lightly. The only kind of lightness I really knew how to do was, in reality, flippancy, which is a fear-filled unwillingness to take a serious look at anything. Joy was hidden from me. I would arrive as the thread of smoke straggled from a just-extinguished candle, or feel the lingering warmth of the brass door knob as I entered the room, coldness billowing through the open window where some fiery angel had only just vacated the place. There was some Presence I simply couldn’t find my way to.
I recently asked a friend for a book recommendation. She’s studying at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, and I figured there’d be some goodly tome that would emerge from her reading as particularly helpful. She told me to find Josef Pieper’s Only the Lover Sings. It’s just a little guy, this book. Less than a hundred pages, I think. I’ve read and re-read it over the last year, and my scribbles in the margins are getting out of hand. Peiper never mentions G.K. Chesterton, but I feel the spirit of Chesterton lurking behind the trail of ideas Peiper traces as he endeavors to illuminate a sequence of meaning that moves from rest…to beholding… to music… to remembering… to feasting. I once told my mentor that I wished I could see through whatever ‘lenses’ Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien saw through. His reply was surgical, “Oh, Matthew, they didn’t see through lenses. They were beginning to see without them, and truly.” Something like scales fell from Paul’s eyes; something new entered my line of sight that day. Pieper, like the authors I love the best and the friendships I treasure, is helping me to see reality truly, without my lenses.
Peiper points out that to be a human being is never static – it is necessarily to be in motion toward. There is no way to be but to be on the way. At the heart of our existence is the fundamental of pilgrimage toward the greatest Good. We are pilgrims ever seeking our dear homeland. We are family members ever journeying toward the heart of our Father. We’ve been called home. As persons created in the image of the Trinity, pilgrimage, like all relationship, is not about completion but capacity, the further we go the further there is to go (further up and further in, as Lewis said). The unnaturalness of death reminds us that relationship, even amongst humans, is meant to be endless as He is endless. To be human, by God’s grace, is to be a pilgrim.
But we can settle for less than the Greatest Good, of course – that is, we may cease pilgrimage. Here, we atrophy our personhood. It’s like duct-taping the branch to a light-pole, rather than grafting it into the True Vine.
This is where Pieper begins to shed light on Chesterton’s paradox of seriousness and levity that I began with. If we halt pilgrimage for lesser goods than God, we are not stopping to rest along the way, we are leaving the way and will only ever be restless. Pilgrims are looking for the face of God, always turning their own faces toward him. When we stop looking, we stop seeing. Beholding is a reciprocal reality; when we behold we find ourselves to be held in the loving gaze of an Other. This is part of the way of the Cross, which calls us to behold the slain Lamb of God, and in beholding him to find ourselves beheld in his astonishing compassion. Who expects to find God’s face looking upon them so lovingly? Who can bear the surprise of discovering yourself to be the beloved and keep yourself from singing? But only the pilgrim finds out; only the lover sings.
It is a serious business to behold the Lamb of God. It is gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. It is to look into, what appears to be an endless abyss of grief, shame, and sorrow. And the pain of it is that it makes me behold myself truly. I didn’t notice how grimy my car was, until I parked next to one fresh out of the factory. We don’t know how far gone we are till we behold the Beautiful One. It is a piercing beauty to look on him whom they have pierced. And you can never go back – the car will always look grimy.
But the ex-pilgrim who looks away is more sad than the one who enters into the grief of Jesus. Because the one who meets the gaze of Jesus on the Cross, will follow the loving look through to the gleam of resurrection; they will see their own soiled garments transfigured when they touch the hem of his robe. In Scripture, blood does not stain things scarlet, it stains them white; keeping eye contact with grief does not stain the soul like burned motor oil; though it stains the soul, it stains the soul like light through cathedral windows. The seriousness of the Gospel makes possible the lightness of the soul. To be born again of the Spirit of God is to have one’s burdens irradiated enough to travel easily along the breezes that bend the grasses of the New Creation.
I am thankful that Chesterton wrote a book like Orthodoxy, where he retraced the winding pathways of his own pilgrimage toward the Gospel’s treasures. He drew a kind of map for me to follow. What we know as the Jolly Roger, or skull-and-crossbones, first appeared as a cross of bones in the catacombs of ancient Christians; the familiar “X-that-marked-the-spot” of the buried treasure on pirate maps first appeared as the “Cross-that-marked-the-spot” where resurrection was to take place for those dead buried in hope.
Chesterton looked into the face of death and beheld the Lamb who was slain. He looked long enough to behold himself beloved. The mystery of Chesterton’s joy is the same mystery of love that Pieper says teaches the lover to sing. It calls for songs, as the hymn says, songs of loudest praise. It calls for ‘exceptional rituals’ like feasting and poetry, that, in a time of barrenness and overwhelming anxiety, call forgetful humanity to behold again the great and terrible beauty of the Cross and Resurrection, and to celebrate the goodness that blooms from those wounds. Those songs, liturgies, stories, books, institutions, and rituals are maps that help us get back to the Treasure that is always getting buried by lesser goods along the way of our pilgrimage. The point of a map is to get us to the destination. The point of a book is that the story may be in us as we are in the story.
And our stories here in this life, every feast that stands as evidence of things unseen, will end like Chesterton’s Orthodoxy ends: only after the thickening treatment of seriousness, like the ghosts of The Great Divorce, will we be able to sustain exposure to a glory so substantial and weighty as the mirth of God. I sometimes like to imagine what we think of as the ‘big bang’ as a burst of laughter from amongst the Trinity so potent that it has lit every star since. There is a cosmic punchline coming soon that will upset and upright the long gravitas of our fallen world. The psalmists prayed for God to make the light of his Face to shine upon them. When we pilgrims finally do come face to face with Jesus, all lenses removed, all curtains rent, the last martyr’s blood spent, we will enter into the great Joke, and live.
As we continue to celebrate Eastertide, we keep the cross before us even as we walk in the sure hope of resurrection, knowing that the last word of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy will be the last word for us: mirth.