We all love G.K. Chesterton. We love him because he makes the truth come alive, because his beautiful way of putting things inflames our hearts and orders our passions towards the Truth. The same can be said for C.S. Lewis and many others. There is so much good in this, but partly because we are weak. Rhetorical flourishes and cascading metaphors meet us in our emotional (and therefore, human) state. But we would be very mistaken were we to think that this is the primary and fundamental form of language. No, G.K. Chesterton would have been the first to bow his knee in humble veneration of Saint Thomas Aquinas and those dry scholastics.
The minute and often strange distinctions made by St. Thomas cut to the core of reality in a way that Chesterton never could, and he would have been eager to admit his deficiency. The romantic, poetic Christianity of early twentieth-century English Catholicism has saved so many souls from rationalism and the hum-drum agnosticism of the modern mind. Yet, these men are for us only the flowers surrounding the altar; it was not Dante’s Divine Comedy that was placed on the altar at Trent, but St. Thomas’ Summa. Chesterton drew on the entire world as poetry for the Faith, but Saint Thomas defined the Faith. In those unintuitive distinctions and strange definitions, he provided for us an insight into reality.
His theology does not presume to inflame our passions, but merely to describe things as they are. This may, at first, seem off-putting. How can God be treated in such a dry, rational manner without making our Lord into a merely transcendent, merely foreign, merely abstract Being? His theology requires our imagination if we are to appreciate it. It requires us to really care about reality and not be moved by mere words or associations. To love St. Thomas is to pass through a sort of dark night, where God tests us to see if we love poetry more than reality.
Yet, at the end of this test, we will find we will have found an even more wonderful poetry. We will rejoice in his distinctions. If we actually care about God and His creation, to learn that God is identical to His perfections and that all beings have four causes will cause us to enter into happy contemplation of God and His good creation. Of course, it is hard, but it is hard just as the Faith is hard. In short, we need to take Saint Thomas seriously because we need to take sanctification seriously. If we are given the grace to do so, we will suddenly find overflowing from every page of the Summa endless beauty – poetry worthy of the most worthless romantic and intuition worthy of the most holy mystic.
We can all invent pleasing maxims, and of course, Chesterton could do more than this. He could tie the whole world up in boundless series of paradoxes. Tolkien could present a metaphorical vision of the deepest reality of fallen man. Yet, Thomas could, in a sort of gravity and dispassionate perfection, place before us reality carefully defined, without metaphors or paradoxes. He tells us without any imprecision, “And thus nothing can be desired except being, and consequently nothing is good except being.” Just as the greatest holiness is found in those saints who feel the least holy, so the greatest poetry is found in those not seeking to write poetry. They have moved past beautiful formulations and have found Beauty Himself, and in describing what they see, they mediate this beauty to us.
Richard M. Weaver wrote, “The complete man, then, is the ‘lover’ added to the scientist; the rhetorician to the dialectician.” Indeed, can we find any better example of the lover added to the scientist than St. Thomas? This is the man who declared that all his science was as straw before the Divine Lover. This is the man who wrote his treatise on the Eucharist in between his two famous ecstatic visions during his celebrations of the mass. The Angelic Doctor himself would tell us that in God, Truth and Beauty are identical. He was both a lover of God’s Beauty and a scientist of God’s Truth, and because of this, the true poet will find in his work God’s Truth, and the true scientist will find God’s Beauty.
Therefore, St. Thomas puts us to sleep not because he is boring, but because we are. We have grown old and dull, bored by God and His creation. And this is where Chesterton returns to assist the Angelic Doctor in waking us from our slothful slumber. Chesterton writes that Christmas tests whether we are truly alive or only walking corpses: “Explode [fire]crackers in his ear, and see if he jumps. Prick him with holly, and see if he feels it.” Perhaps Chesterton can be a sort of Christmas for us with his jarring paradox and elaborate antics. When we read his books, it is like a child is running around us screaming and shouting with joy until we break down, admit defeat, and laugh. He was sent into this word to inject some life into our lives, so that we might become like him a Manalive. But like John the Baptist, he tears us from our sorry state only to point us onward and upward. Now that we are made awake, we can move on to higher things. Indeed, made alive by Chesterton, who made us excited about reality, we can be made wise by St. Thomas, who can make us understand reality. Of course, even St. Thomas is only a step on the mountain of the saints. If we may switch into the language of this great saint momentarily, we might say that the love of being conveyed by Chesterton and the knowledge of being conveyed by Thomas are both ordered to the vision of Being that we await. In the meantime, however, we can turn to Aquinas for poetic and scientific sustenance, and when necessary, to Chesterton for emergency transplants.