Thursday, November 27, 2008

GKC on Thanksgiving

As you may have guessed, I am like Tolkien's Smaug, and sleep upon a treasure-trove of the works of G. K. Chesterton, some seven million words (at last count) of strange insights and hilarity and goodness. It seems to this simple dragon, however, that GKC ought to have statues raised to him (and his dear wife, Frances, of course) just because of the profound words he has given us about the most important work we can do as humans - thank God. (The word appears over 700 times, which means some fomr of "thanks" appears about every 10,000 words.)

Just consider these....

...the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:268]

I do not, in my private capacity, believe that a baby gets his best physical food by sucking his thumb; nor that a man gets his best moral food by sucking his soul, and denying its dependence on God or other good things. I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
[GKC A Short History of England]

If we were Pagans, we should be content with nothing less than worship of Beauty. We shouldn't be content with photographs of Film Stars. If we were Pagans there would be a Temple of Venus at Hollywood. If we were Pagans, there would be a Temple of Bacchus; probably in Milwaukee. Even the financiers had a god in those days. There would be a Temple of Mercury, who was the god of commerce, at the end of Wall Street. I admit that, by a curious coincidence, he was also the god of theft. Perhaps that is why he is generally presented to us as the Flying Mercury. But anyhow, the point is that Paganism could make things; it could make festivals and festive days; it could make an alternative to Christmas, if it were still alive. But the modern Pagans cannot. The modern Pagans are merely atheists; who worship nothing and therefore create nothing. They could not, for instance, even make a substitute for Thanksgiving Day. For half of them are pessimists who say they have nothing to be thankful for; and the other half are atheists who have nobody to thank.
[text of a broadcast Dec 25 1931, printed in Chesterton Continued by John Sullivan]


I cannot count the pebbles in the brook.
Well bath He spoken: 'Swear not by thy head,
Thou knowest not the hairs,' though He, we read,
Writes that wild number in His own strange book.

I cannot count the sands or search the seas,
Death cometh, and I leave so much untrod.
Grant my immortal aureole, O my God,
And I will name the leaves upon the trees.

In heaven I shall stand on gold and glass,
Still brooding earth's arithmetic to spell;
Or see the fading of the fires of hell
Ere I have thanked my God for all the grass.
But the important thing is not to explain thanksgiving, but to give thanks - and specifically to God. If I stumble over the expression here, so did GKC, because it is so incredibly deep in his being, as he tried to explain, even when he himself was struggling to make sense of everything:
I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived at all; not, like Henley for my unconquerable soul (for I have never been so optimistic about my own soul as all that) but for my own soul and my own body, even if they could be conquered. This way of looking at things, with a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude, was of course, to some extent assisted by those few of the fashionable writers who were not pessimists; especially by Walt Whitman, by Browning and by Stevenson; Browning's "God must be glad one loves his world so much", or Stevenson's "belief in the ultimate decency of things". But I do not think it is too much to say that I took it in a way of my own; even if it was a way I could not see clearly or make very clear. What I meant, whether or no I managed to say it, was this; that no man knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains, so to speak, 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 sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy. ... in point of fact, it was by following
this thin thread of a fancy about thankfulness, as slight as any of those dandelion clocks that are blown upon the breeze like thistledown, that I did arrive eventually at an opinion which is more than an opinion. Perhaps the one and only opinion that is really more than an opinion. ... the first thing the casual critic will say is "What nonsense all this is; do you mean that a poet cannot be thankful for grass and wild flowers without connecting it with theology; let alone your theology?" To which I answer, "Yes; I mean he cannot do it without connecting it with theology, unless he can do it without connecting it with thought. If he can manage to be thankful when there is nobody to be thankful to, and no good intentions to be thankful for, then he is simply taking refuge in being thoughtless in order to avoid being thankless."
[GKC Autobiography CW16:97,323, 325]
Let us conclude this short study, then, with some thought on this most fundamental question, as GKC himself wrote it:
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?
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:258]


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