The late vehement atheist Christopher Hitchens didn’t at all mind saying that the liked the poetry of GK Chesterton. I like that though I’m certain that Hitchens wouldn’t have cared whether I did or didn’t. Hitchens (who was shaped by more experiences than even he knew) marched to the drumbeat he heard. I don’t know how many streams feed our human convictions—life is all too complex to pretend we know a LOT about it—but there was something about the bitter Hitchens that I found appealing. I had the same experience with Carl Sagan, atheist and astronomer. I don’t find Dennett or Harris or Dawkins appealing—I wonder how many streams feed my distaste for them?
I know this, and I like it: Hitchens and I like Chesterton’s poetry and though I have no grounds whatever to support what I think, I like to think that Hitchens knew this poem and liked the gallantry he saw in it. Yes, even the unselfish gallantry in it! Hitchens had little patience for people like me because his convictions differed so radically from my own and because he looked for the wrong kind of “proof” for my faith. The kind of “proof” he sought from believers like me wouldn’t support his own faith. But that’s another discussion and besides, atheist or not, I think that the gospel about God blessed Christopher Hitchens with qualities I’d like to have in me or more marked in me than they are. Without going into a long discussion about how God does that I just wish to claim that Hitchens’ liking of GK’s poetry is one of the “proofs” that He did.
It appears beyond doubt that Lord Byron lived a truly libertine life though some like Richard Edgcumbe disputed it. Still, there were things about him that must be admired—well things I can’t help but admire. Will Durant the noted historian (and agnostic) quotes Leslie Marchand who has Byron’s chief physician say, right close to the end, that the poet said he did not know what to believe in this world. Then, “I heard him say, ‘Shall I sue for mercy?’ “and after a long pause, ‘Come, come; no weakness! Let’s be a man to the end.’ ” I wish to believe that Byron at that point was telling himself that he should take what was coming to him. Being an accomplished literary man Hitchens would know of that and it would appeal to him as the kind of thing one should do—live and die by one’s convictions. Hitchens’ bitter anger and anguish-bringing disease would add bitterness to his long-held atheistic convictions. He was only 62! So young. (Bless me, I can hardly believe that Hitchens died late in 2011, where did those nearly seven years go?)
Chesterton had only just left 62 behind when he died in 1936 (the year before I was born). The poem that follows is the gallantry of a firm believer in God and a very fine man but I find it easy to believe that the confrontational Hitchens would have admired the unselfish nature of the gallantry Chesterton expresses in the poem. There is so much in the poem but I want to focus on the non-whimpering message in it—not as a rebuke, but as an inspiration. I want to be like this myself and I can’t but believe that others wish it also. Staying with the same thought but making it clear that Chesterton and Hitchens were light years apart there’s this in GK’s poem, The Deluge. Noah is in the middle of planetary chaos (by which God made Himself present against moral evil that was worldwide) standing upright in unremitting storm and tsunamis with a cup of wine in his hand and looking skyward and saying:
Though giant rains put out the sun,
Here stand I for a sign.
Though earth be filled with waters dark,
My cup is filled with wine.
Tell to the trembling priests that here
Under the deluge rod,
One nameless, tattered, broken man
Stood up, and drank to God.
I took my cue from the poem and wrote a little book that Random House picked up. I called it Celebrating the Wrath of God. You might think it worth reading. Okay, that’s the commercial over. I didn’t intend to mention the book when I began writing this piece. It just happened.
I admire gallantry where I think I see it (don’t we all?) whether it’s in a heretic or an atheist—whoever! But I particularly admire it when I see those who’ve trusted their lives to God and won’t back away from it even in the middle of personal chaos when they’re sharing pain along with the human family—they don’t negotiate for exemption from hurt and they don’t get it. To truly commit to Him in faith against all the powers of unbelief, cruelty and utter selfishness and do it cheerfully and without apology is heroic! I was going to offer some help to you who are reading this with the poem but I’ve changed my mind. Read this superb thing that follows. Work at it if you need to—it’s worth it. And if you wish to, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org giving me your response and/or interpretation. Line 8 is wondrous and the last 2 lines can leave you happily dazed for a good while.
This much, O heaven—if I should brood or rave,
Pity me not; but let the world be fed,
Yea, in my madness if I strike me dead,
Heed you the grass that grows upon my grave.
If I dare snarl between this sun and sod,
Whimper and clamor, give me grace to own,
In sun and rain and fruit in season shown,
The shining silence of the scorn of God.
Thank God the stars are set beyond my power,
If I must travail in a night of wrath,
Thank God my tears will never vex a moth,
Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.
Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had
Thought it beat brightly, even on—Calvary:
And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree
Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.
(Holy Father bring us and keep us close to your heart and expect much of us for you have given us much to give—each in our own way and all of us as one. This prayer in the One who hanging on a Torture Tree could still hear the crickets sing.)
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, CHESTERTON, GALLANTRY