Spending time with G.K. Chesterton and rediscovering gratitude through wonder

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Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.”

—HEBREWS 12:28

Recently, I was searching for a topic to write on and came across this quote from one of my favorite thinkers, the writer and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton:

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play 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.”

You see, Chesterton, perhaps better than just about anyone, understood gratitude. Chesterton wasn’t grateful for just the big things; he was grateful for everything. In this quote we are reminded of his simple appreciation for the gift of life.

The problem with writing is that to write effectively, you have to have feeling; there has to be a visceral push to your words or you end up with a lifeless composition, something that might be intellectually on point but is rarely moving. Unfortunately, I haven’t felt much gratitude over the last several months. I’ve felt anger, frustration, despondency, sorrow, anxiety, fear, and a lot of other emotions, but gratitude? Not high on the list. The reasons why I have been feeling this way aren’t pertinent to my writing; it is sufficient to say I haven’t been feeling very grateful of late.

In addressing this issue, I was brought once again to Chesterton’s wealth of writing on gratitude, particularly what I believe is one of the greatest literary compositions and philosophical discussions ever penned: “The Ethics of Elfland” in his work Orthodoxy. Here, Chesterton is describing his unique philosophy and its origins in fairy tales. Chesterton discusses how he came to believe as he did by explaining that he saw more truth in what was taught in fairy tales than all the rationality of cynics.

His discussion perfectly explains gratitude through wonder at the real world, which he claimed was far stranger and more difficult to believe than anything man could imagine. He wrote,

“We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

He adds, “This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

“Here I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described,” he penned. “And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale.”

Chesterton’s view was that regardless of the difficulties in life, the gift of life was so exciting that there was a nearly infinite number of things to be grateful for. In his famous, but often misquoted next few lines he wrote, “The test of all happiness is gratitude; 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? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

Children are ecstatic when they receive presents or even a fast-food meal, yet how often do adults take something as miraculous as a pair of legs for granted?

Robinson Crusoe, the famous novel by Daniel Defoe which details the story of a man who becomes stranded on an island, features into Chesterton’s chapter. “Crusoe,” he says, “is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea.”

He adds, “It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck.”

Chesterton applies this thinking to life, masterfully writing,

“But I really felt (the fancy may seem foolish) as if all the order and number of things were the romantic remnant of Crusoe’s ship. That there are two sexes and one sun, was like the fact that there were two guns and one axe. It was poignantly urgent that none should be lost; but somehow, it was rather fun that none could be added. The trees and the planets seemed like things saved from the wreck: and when I saw the Matterhorn I was glad that it had not been overlooked in the confusion. I felt economical about the stars as if they were sapphires (they are called so in Milton’s Eden): I hoarded the hills. For the universe is a single jewel, and while it is a natural cant to talk of a jewel as peerless and priceless, of this jewel it is literally true. This cosmos is indeed without peer and without price: for there cannot be another one.”

For me, life had lost its luster; things that once gave me great joy barely warrant a reaction anymore. In Chesterton I am reminded that each and every thing in the universe is miraculous. He wrote that children find joy in repetition while adults find it boring. “But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony,” Chesterton mused. “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.”

Perhaps you’re like me and your life isn’t going the way you want it to. Maybe you have health problems, you’ve lost someone dear to you, you are scraping by financially, or you are simply weighed down by the world and its many problems, and you have reached a point where you don’t see God’s goodness. Maybe you even think God is purposefully against you or doesn’t care about you. To our anger Chesterton wrote,

“If Cinderella says, ‘How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?’ her godmother might answer, ‘How is it that you are going there till twelve?’ If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.”

In reality, I have little to complain about. I have two legs which I used to go for a walk on a trail earlier today where I saw plants and animals made up of millions of cells. I sit in an air-conditioned room, working on a laptop and drinking a cold drink. I’m well, and generally healthy. Most importantly, I don’t deserve it. What I deserve is God’s wrath but He has spared me from it through His sacrifice and grace, which is the greatest miracle I could hope for.

Hebrews 12:28, NASB1995, says, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe.”

Chesterton understood the grace that is inherent in life, the wonder that God displays in everything He had made or provided. He said, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

I don’t expect you to read this and immediately leap for joy and shout praises to God, being freed suddenly from your troubles, both real and imagined. But maybe, with God’s grace and by being willing to thank Him continuously, we can get to that point together: you, me, and Chesterton.