The Wolf of Tebron ~ On Being a Mystic

In the fairy tale, The Wolf of Tebron, Ruyah the wolf quotes G. K. Chesterton from his 1908 book Orthodoxy: “The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious and everything else becomes lucid.” In my study question in the back of the book, I ask, “If one allows for mystery in God, how does belief make everything in the world lucid?”

I realize this ventures into deep thinking, and two reviewers took offense at the idea that I was encouraging people to become “mystics” in the manner Chesterton is speaking of. And there’s the key: to understand what Chesterton means by this statement. We have one modern-day interpretation of the word, at least one meaning of the word mystic that strays into esoteric knowledge and spiritism. Of course, Chesterton would not, even a century ago, be encouraging Christians to follow that line of belief. So what was he talking about?

Chesterton has a terrific chapter in his book called “The Maniac,” where he explores what he feels truly defines someone sane as opposed to someone mad. “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery, you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in the earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods but (unlike the agnostic of today) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also. Thus he believed that children were indeed the kingdom of heaven, but nevertheless ought to be obedient to the kingdom of earth. It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand… The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious and everything else becomes lucid. The Christian permits free will to remain a sacred mystery . . . He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness, but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health.”

I also love what he says further about the difference between the symbols of a circle (the Moon=lunacy) and the cross: “As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal; it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature, but it is fixed forever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox at its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

Chesterton ends the chapter with words Ruyah quotes: “The moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.”

These are deep forays into symbolism, but I am intrigued by them. I love the image of the cross extending in four cardinal directions and enwrapping the earth until all four arms return to the paradoxical center of collision and unity. I love Chesteron’s urging of us to become mystics (which Webster’s defines as “inducing a feeling of awe or wonder”). Why? In another place (and one of the themes of Wolf) he says “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the mysteries of man.” By allowing mystery in God, our not understanding everything about him but trusting in his sovereignty and majesty, we become lucid. By the light of Christ, we can see everything, understand everything. Not in the sense that we have every answer to every question. But since Jesus IS the answer to every important, mysterious question, we can all be mystics and allow that hazy reality be our clairty. We see through a glass darkly right now, only knowing in part, so the Bible says. But one day we will see all clearly as it will be revealed to us. Chesterton’s encouragement, then, for us is to embrace the mystery, to revel in it, knowing that God, through the cross, has enwrapped and embraced us in the mystery of Christ, and that–that alone–is what makes us sane and keeps all things lucid.