“Something Understood”: Sacramental Imagination and the Communion of Saints in the Fantasy of Chesterton, Lewis, and Rowling

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The Man Who Was Thursday is quite possibly Chesterton at his comical best, particularly through his main character, Gabriel Syme.  Syme’s humor is often brought out in relation to others, sharing with those willing to accept the “vein of humour” (10; ch. 2) a perspective of levity in regards to their present circumstances.  For instance, in part to lighten the mood as three of the undercover policemen travel to France to confront the Marquis, a supposed anarchist, Syme works up a nonsensical “catechism” of questions and answers for the upcoming confrontation, in order, as he explains, to break the ice between himself and the man he wishes to kill (82-83; ch. 10):

Before taking off his hat, I shall say, “The Marquis de Saint Eustache, I believe.”  He will say, “The celebrated Mr Syme, I presume.”  He will say in the most exquisite French, “How are you?”  I shall reply in the most exquisite Cockney, “Oh, just the Syme.”

Syme’s companions, however, have not “accept[ed] the vein of humour” (10; ch. 2) and are not amused.  “But it was a lovely catechism,” Syme defends himself.  “. . . It has only forty-three questions and answers, and some of the Marquis’s answers are wonderfully witty.  I like to be just to my enemy” (82; ch. 10).  Syme is being rather silly, of course, but is this perhaps an extension of the blessing of humor in the hopes that he and his adversary (as well as his companions) may find communion in levity?  At the very least, for Syme, humor has provided momentary relief as well as courage in the face of a daunting task.

Like the Christian sacraments, which are visible signs of invisible grace, humor can function as a means of grace.[6] “Any joke,” explains Peter Berger, “can provoke” what he calls “redeeming laughter,” which “can be redeeming in the sense of making life easier to bear, at least briefly” (205). This is the immediate blessing of levity.

Yet, for those who view levity by means of a sacramental imagination, it has a greater effect.  It reminds us of the bigger picture of life.  Humor, says Ralph Wood, is “a deep gladness of soul that does not blink the reality of evil and tragedy, but interprets them in the light of a higher and deeper comedy” (Comedy 4).

Belonging to the communion of saints leads to a perspective of levity that results in moments of transcendence for Chesterton’s Gabriel Syme.  For instance, Syme’s levity when being chased by Professor de Worms is a result of encouragement granted to him by a cross at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  “It seemed a symbol of human faith and valour,” writes Chesterton, “that while the skies were darkening that high place of the earth was bright” (56; ch. 7).  The church is a reminder for Syme of the faithful few rallied around the Cross.  As part of this communion of saints, Syme can have the courage to face his enemy, and so he waits “for him as St. George waited for the dragon” (56).  Instead of viewing the oncoming paralytic Professor as a nightmare, Syme now sees him as a figure in a nursery rhyme, yells “Catch me if you can,” and initiates an “outrageous chase” through the streets of London (56-57).[7] Reminded of the blessed company to which he belongs, Syme can make light of his fears and catch a glimpse of the divine comedy.

Humor transcends the everyday, the ordinary, much like the Communion sacrament, which transcends ordinary bread and wine, pointing beyond them to “the Thing Itself,” to Christ’s sacrifice of body and blood on the cross.  Just as the sacraments transcend our everyday reality to provide a glimpse of an eternal reality, humor also transcends our everyday life to provide a glimpse of an eternal perspective.  The sacrament is a reminder, to Christians at least, that the levity we experience temporarily will one day be experienced for eternity.  It gives us hope.

The opposite of levity, of course, is gravity, and that attitude or perspective is what “weighs down” the trio in Lewis’s The Silver Chair.  Because they cannot get along with each other, the threesome experience almost no levity to help them transcend the hardships of their journey through winter weather and rocky terrain.  This gravity of pride, or, as Chesterton would say (Orthodoxy 128), taking themselves too seriously, makes the children and Puddleglum vulnerable to temptation.  Thus, the children leave their straight and narrow path for the comforts of Harfang, the giants’ castle.  Even Puddleglum is not immune, succumbing to the temptation of excessive drink, numbing his discernment and essentially rendering himself useless in protecting and guiding the children during their initial encounter with the giants.  Rather than encouraging each other, helping each other to endure their present struggles and follow Aslan’s instructions, the threesome has, to use Chesterton’s phrasing, “‘settle[d] down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness” (Orthodoxy 128), and their mission has taken a troubling detour.

We learn from the examples in The Man Who Was Thursday and The Silver Chair that levity in communion offers spiritual encouragement and is essential for successful completion of our Aslan-given mission in life.  However, levity in communion can also have a sacramental function, lifting us beyond our current situation to catch a glimpse of the divine comedy that is our future hope.