G.K. Chesterton was many things: an essayist, artist, a social commentator, husband, master of paradoxes, convert…donkey. What?
That’s right, a donkey. A six-foot two-inch, two-hundred-fifty pound donkey. If Chesterton is known for anything, it’s paradoxes. Paradox, is at the heart of his worldview, his writing, and his life.
He was a walking paradox. A paradox is a truth disguised as a contradiction. Or as Chesterton put it, “truth standing on its head to gain attention.” And if truth is standing on its head, then in order to see it clearly, we need to stand on our heads, to turn our worldview upside down, to come out of our cave walking on our hands and see the world hanging upside down .
I’m tempted here to go on and on and on about paradox and to quote heavily from his brilliant chapter from Orthodoxy, “The Paradoxes of Christianity”. I’ll spare you that, except to say this: Chesterton saw that paradox was at the heart of Christianity. Christianity itself is one huge paradox. The Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection are all cosmic paradoxes. Even Christian virtues are paradoxes. Love, Caritas, means loving the unloveable. Forgiveness (real forgiveness) means forgiving the unforgivable. “Courage”, Chesterton wrote, “means a strong desire to live taking the form of a willingness to die.” And of course, Jesus’ own words were full of paradoxes: “Whosoever will lose his life, will find it.” Christianity is absurd, wild, and reeling. We can understand then the old dictum from Tertullian, “I believe because it is absurd.” All of this comes to a head during Holy Week, where the author of life is put to death and raised up again to restore sinners to a place they do not deserve. Ridiculous.
Chesterton wrote a bit of poetry, including an epic ballad about King Alfred the Great called “The Ballad of the White Horse“. But two of his simplest and most beautiful poems, both of which speak to paradox, are fitting for us to consider during Holy Week.
His poem “The Donkey” is written from the perspective of a donkey. Now, a donkey is an absurd creature. Most creatures are, when you think about it. Nothing is too absurd for the God whose creation includes donkeys and platypuses and turkeys (that’s a poor paraphrase of a Chesteroton quote, by the way). Holy Week begins with a donkey. The donkey, absurd paradox though he is, had his day one glorious Sunday. That’s what this poem is about:
When fishes flew and forests walkedAnd figs grew upon thorn,Some moment when the moon was bloodThen surely I was born.With monstrous head and sickening cryAnd ears like errant wings,The devil’s walking parodyOn all four-footed things.The tattered outlaw of the earth,Of ancient crooked will;Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,I keep my secret still.Fools! For I also had my hour;One far fierce hour and sweet:There was a shout about my ears,And palms before my feet.
Chesterton was a walking paradox–a child-like humility in a massive frame, a brilliant mind that couldn’t remember his own address. Did I mention that he wore a cape and carried a sword? In other words, he was a donkey. He was a convert to the Catholic faith (after being a convert to Christianity…kind of…you should probably just read Orthodoxy), and this is the poem that the walking paradox of a man penned after being received into the Church:
After one moment when I bowed my headAnd the whole world turned over and came upright,And I came out where the old road shone white.I walked the ways and heard what all men said,Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,Being not unlovable but strange and light;Old riddles and new creeds, not in despiteBut softly, as men smile about the deadThe sages have a hundred maps to giveThat trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,They rattle reason out through many a sieveThat stores the sand and lets the gold go free:And all these things are less than dust to meBecause my name is Lazarus and I live.