Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Diagnosis of Father Brown

“What on earth is that?” asked Father Brown, and stood still. “Oh, a new religion,” said Flambeau, laughing; “one of those new religions that forgive your sins by saying you never had any. Rather like Christian Science, I should think. The fact is that a fellow calling himself Kalon (I don’t know what his name is, except that it can’t be that) has taken the flat just above me. I have two lady typewriters underneath me, and this enthusiastic old humbug on top. He calls himself the New Priest of Apollo, and he worships the sun.”

“Let him look out,” said Father Brown. “The sun was the cruellest of all the gods. But what does that monstrous eye mean?”

“As I understand it, it is a theory of theirs,” answered Flambeau, “that a man can endure anything if his mind is quite steady. Their two great symbols are the sun and the open eye; for they say that if a man were really healthy he could stare at the sun.”

“If a man were really healthy,” said Father Brown, “he would not bother to stare at it.”

“Well, that’s all I can tell you about the new religion,” went on Flambeau carelessly. “It claims, of course, that it can cure all physical diseases.”

“Can it cure the one spiritual disease?” asked Father Brown, with a serious curiosity.

“And what is the one spiritual disease?” asked Flambeau, smiling.

“Oh, thinking one is quite well,” said his friend.
GK Chesterton, The Eye of Apollo

Reflection – I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted this bit of GKC before on this blog, at least the last exchange of Flambeau and Fr. Brown. ‘The one spiritual disease is to think one is quite well’—this is just about as good a definition of pride as has ever been come up with, and it is a throwaway line in a detective story that is about something else entirely.

Well, it’s not exactly about something else, as the practitioners of this religion in the story proceed to stare at the sun and presume to defy gravity, with tragic results. And, as is so often the case, the haughty pride of human mastery and dominance is at the service of rather baser drives and motives.

But I promised not to spoil the stories in this series of Brown posts. It is, though, quite an insight on the part of GKC. Elsewhere, he has written that just in the normal course of human affairs we are generally ready to excuse people of all sorts of weaknesses and forgive all manner of sins, if the person himself regards it as a weakness or a sin.

It is when this blasted pride enters in, when the person is not only a lecher, but is puffed up and proud of himself as a lady-killer (to use good old fashioned language), when the person is not only tight fisted with money, but is proud of her thrift and sneers at the profligacy of others, when the person is not only prone to outbursts of temper, but flatters himself as a brave truth-teller—it is when human weakness is wed to human haughtiness, that it is harder in the normal course of affairs to be merciful.

Pride is of the devil, and it is an ugly thing indeed. It seems paradoxical that the most healthy thing we can do is readily admit our lack of health, the most sane thing we can do is admit that we are a little bit crazy, the strongest position out of which to live is to know and accept one’s own weakness.

But the fundamental reality here, the reality that this haughty arrogant pride of complacency and self-sufficiency denies, is that we are made for relationship, for communion first with God, then with one another, and indeed with the whole of the cosmos in its created structures (this is why the healthy man would not bother to stare at the sun). And so the condition of the human person, fundamentally a condition of neediness, of dependency, is in fact a healthy and happy state of being.

‘It is not good for man to be alone.’ The first thing in the Bible, in all of creation really, that is ‘not good’ is this deadly isolation of the human person. We are not made to be ‘quite well’ on our own terms and according to our own efforts and will. We are meant to receive wellness—in Biblical Greek, the word is soterios, which is the same word used for ‘salvation’—as a gift from Another. And the condition for receiving that gift on our part is the deep humility of knowing we need it, of knowing ourselves to be ‘not well’ and hence seeking and longing for the wellness that comes from our God.

Complacency, and the pride that underlies it, kill the spiritual life in us like nothing else can. Humility, and the eager open receptivity it engenders in us, is the very life of the soul that brings us to faith, hope, and love. We are not well, and so we become very well indeed. We are well, and so we perish everlastingly.

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