Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

On not seeing the goodness for the sins

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 18, 2022

Sophia Institute Press has published a new edition of G. K. Chesterton’s delightful book, What’s Wrong with the World. Though written some years before Chesterton’s conversion, this book already contains much of the classic Chestertonian vision, and is chock full of Chesterton’s delightfully paradoxical analysis of how we ought to think about life. Reading Chesterton is often much like being turned upside down, the better to see what you’re really up against (and how easily it can be defeated).

Chesterton’s topsy-turvydom was rooted initially in his strong sense of the fundamental nature of things, so often distorted in our minds and hearts through wayward human desire; and it was rooted ultimately in his deep Catholic faith. For Chesterton recognized a fundamental goodness which is everywhere defaced by sin, both original and personal. It was precisely because he could see the goodness that he could see the sin; and also precisely because he could see the sin that he could see the goodness. When your vision is that clear, and you are both cheerful and brilliant at the same time, well, then you can say many things that are not only true but arrestingly true.

Of course, it helps enormously if you are, precisely, G. K. Chesterton.

I can see clearly now...

This is not a book review: What’s Wrong with the World is simply a jumping-off point because I am rereading it. Chesterton actually gave us his fundamental vision far more succinctly in a poem which I read long ago but can no longer lay my hands on. In this poem, he enters a room in which a picture hangs crookedly on the wall. It is a picture of Mary. But as he looks more closely, he realizes that the picture is straight: It is the whole room that is crooked.

Chesterton argued that the clearest observational certainty in life is the certainty that something good has gone horribly wrong—the certainty that some cataclysmic upheaval has distorted everything, so that we now encounter goodness in bits and fragments that are rather obviously separated from the whole. He considered this an overwhelming proof of the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. He saw, perhaps more clearly than any other writer, that the human problem was rooted in our inability, not to see the forest for the trees, but to see the goodness for the sins.

To take a contemporary example which—thanks be to God—Chesterton did not have to deal with, almost nobody seems to be able to see the goodness for the sins in the contemporary quarrels over the liturgy. A hundred other examples are possible, but this comes readily to mind just now. There are many who cannot see the goodness of the post-Vatican II vernacular liturgy because of the irreverence, deviations from Catholic faith and morals, and self-aggrandizing personalities of many priests who have celebrated it, not to mention the banalization imposed upon it by choir directors and lay leaders whose Catholic sensibilities have at times oscillated between slim and none.

And there are many others who cannot see the goodness of the traditional Latin Mass because of the rejection of ecclesiastical authority by some who insist upon it, the counter-cultural judgmentalism of many who prefer it, and the breathless righteousness, on all sides, of an apparently infallible liturgical sensibility.

This is a classic case of not seeing the goodness for the sins, but many other examples could be offered in everything from business to education, in the use of the media, and even in things as fundamental as marriage and family life. How different our judgments and our personalities would be if the sheer goodness of God could somehow make a deeper impression on our cramped and confused minds and souls! But all of our individual sins, along with the collective sin of the entire human race and every human culture, so easily blind us, despite the blazing fact that we have already been purchased at a tremendous price by one at whom “many were astonished—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (Is 52:14).

Marred and nearly unrecognizable (or so we see Him): Even the Savior is hidden from us by our sins!

...and learning to see again

Chesterton had a gift that we all should treasure, the great gift of seeing things upside down or inside out, as it were, and the gift of presenting new perspectives in endlessly entertaining and even exciting ways. For Chesterton the foreground of sin becomes, in the blink of an eye, the background of virtue. His writing strikes home in a manner similar to those puzzles of optical illusion, in which the foreground and background are difficult to hold in consistent perspective, such that we see one thing and then, suddenly as we look a little longer, we see something else. And so our vision switches back and forth, as our consciousness tries to make sense of a deliberately confused reality. In the reality of our lives, this confusion is always introduced by sin.

No example or image or analogy or metaphor is perfect, of course. Chesterton’s “topsy-turvy-ism”, while endlessly entertaining and enlightening to many, can annoy some (through no fault of their own) and can even sometimes wear thin among his most ardent admirers, who at times may wish to escape all apparent silliness and simply rest in God—or hear a point more systematically explained. But more than any other writer, he captured in his very style and method the supremely paradoxical character of Christianity itself—or, to be clear, of Christianity fully-formed and fully-alive, which is Catholicism in its essence.

So, when we are worn down and all but beaten, and when we find ourselves perilously near to breaking the bonds of Catholic unity—or, indeed, to allowing others to break them in us through their sins and their truly ineffable spiritual clumsiness (which, when this bothers us, ought to prompt also a look in the mirror)—then we should apply the words that Chesterton placed on the lips of Alfred the Great in The Ballad of the White Horse, when that King was defeated by the pagan Danes yet would not surrender:

“That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame….
“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.”

We must do our best to work hard for the right things, even while attempting to recognize our own selfishness and fallibility. But whether we are right or wrong in every aspect of our service to Christ, we will not go far wrong if we can shift the foreground and the background, or turn what seems so obvious upside down: If we can learn to make light of ourselves, and so discover joy in suffering.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.