When Prof Lucifer & Br Michael Crashed into St Paul’s

From G. K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross. Two men, Professor Lucifer and Brother Michael, are in a flying ship which has crashed into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. “A plain of sad-coloured cloud lay along the level of the top of the Cathedral dome, so that the ball and the cross looked like a buoy riding on a leaden sea.” There, they begin to talk of philosophies.

Professor Lucifer slapped his hand twice upon the surface of the great orb as if he were caressing some enormous animal. “This is the fellow,” he said, “this is the one for my money.”

“May I with all respect inquire,” asked the old monk, “what on earth you are talking about?”

“Why this,” cried Lucifer, smiting the ball again, “here is the only symbol, my boy. So fat. So satisfied. Not like that scraggy individual, stretching his arms in stark weariness.” And he pointed up to the cross, his face dark with a grin.

“I was telling you just now, Michael, that I can prove the best part of the rationalist case and the Christian humbug from any symbol you liked to give me, from any instance I came across. Here is an instance with a vengeance. What could possibly express your philosophy and my philosophy better than the shape of that cross and the shape of this ball? This globe is reasonable; that cross is unreasonable. It is a four-legged animal, with one leg longer than the others. The globe is inevitable. The cross is arbitrary.

“Above all the globe is at unity with itself; the cross is primarily and above all things at enmity with itself. The cross is the conflict of two hostile lines, of irreconcilable direction. That silent thing up there is essentially a collision, a crash, a struggle in stone. Pah! that sacred symbol of yours has actually given its name to a description of desperation and muddle. When we speak of men at once ignorant of each other and frustrated by each other, we say they are at cross-purposes. Away with the thing! The very shape of it is a contradiction in terms.”

“What you say is perfectly true,” said Michael, with serenity.

“But we like contradictions in terms. Man is a contradiction in terms; he is a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen. That cross is, as you say, an eternal collision; so am I. That is a struggle in stone. Every form of life is a struggle in flesh. The shape of the cross is irrational, just as the shape of the human animal is irrational.

“You say the cross is a quadruped with one limb longer than the rest. I say man is a quadruped who only uses two of his legs.”

The Professor frowned thoughtfully for an instant, and said: “Of course everything is relative, and I would not deny that the element of struggle and self-contradiction, represented by that cross, has a necessary place at a certain evolutionary stage.

“But surely the cross is the lower development and the sphere the higher. After all it is easy enough to see what is really wrong with Wren’s architectural arrangement.”

“And what is that, pray?” inquired Michael, meekly.

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“The cross is on top of the ball,” said Professor Lucifer, simply. “That is surely wrong. The ball should be on top of the cross. The cross is a mere barbaric prop; the ball is perfection.

“The cross at its best is but the bitter tree of man’s history; the ball is the rounded, the ripe and final fruit. And the fruit should be at the top of the tree, not at the bottom of it.”

“Oh!” said the monk, a wrinkle coming into his forehead, “so you think that in a rationalistic scheme of symbolism the ball should be on top of the cross?”

“It sums up my whole allegory,” said the professor.

“Well, that is really very interesting,” resumed Michael slowly, “because I think in that case you would see a most singular effect, an effect that has generally been achieved by all those able and powerful systems which rationalism, or the religion of the ball, has produced to lead or teach mankind. You would see, I think, that thing happen which is always the ultimate embodiment and logical outcome of your logical scheme.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Lucifer. “What would happen?”

“I mean it would fall down,” said the monk, looking wistfully into the void.

Lucifer made an angry movement and opened his mouth to speak, but Michael, with all his air of deliberation, was proceeding before he could bring out a word.

“I once knew a man like you, Lucifer,” he said, with a maddening monotony and slowness of articulation. “He took this—-”

“There is no man like me,” cried Lucifer, with a violence that shook the ship.

“As I was observing,” continued Michael, “this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round his wife’s neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars.

“Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river.”

Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.

“Is that story really true?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” said Michael, airily. “It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world. We leave you saying that nobody ought to join the Church against his will.

“When we meet you again you are saying that no one has any will to join it with. We leave you saying that there is no such place as Eden. We find you saying that there is no such place as Ireland. You start by hating the irrational and you come to hate everything, for everything is irrational and so—-”

Lucifer leapt upon him with a cry like a wild beast’s. “Ah,” he screamed, “to every man his madness. You are mad on the cross. Let it save you.”

Francisco de Zurbaran, Christ on the Cross, 1627

Francisco de Zurbaran, Christ on the Cross, 1627

And with a herculean energy he forced the monk backwards out of the reeling car on to the upper part of the stone ball. Michael, with as abrupt an agility, caught one of the beams of the cross and saved himself from falling. At the same instant Lucifer drove down a lever and the ship shot up with him in it alone.

“Ha! ha!” he yelled, “what sort of a support do you find it, old fellow?”

“For practical purposes of support,” replied Michael grimly, “it is at any rate a great deal better than the ball. May I ask if you are going to leave me here?”

“Yes, yes. I mount! I mount!” cried the professor in ungovernable excitement.

“Altiora peto. My path is upward.”

“How often have you told me, Professor, that there is really no up or down in space?” said the monk.

“I shall mount up as much as you will.”

“Indeed,” said Lucifer, leering over the side of the flying ship. “May I ask what you are going to do?”

The monk pointed downward at Ludgate Hill.

“I am going,” he said, “to climb up into a star.”

— G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

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8 responses to “When Prof Lucifer & Br Michael Crashed into St Paul’s

  1. Interesting. I would agree that the cross has great beauty as a paradoxical symbol, but I wouldn’t call it irrational. Transrational, possibly.

    Maybe I’m being too picky, but I found one passage disconcerting.

    “We leave you saying that nobody ought to join the Church against his will.
    When we meet you again you are saying that no one has any will to join it with.”

    Is Chesterton trying to make a slippery-slope argument for religious coercion?

    • Haha, I don’t think so! I read it at least as simply a statement of fact, that the abandonment of religious belief, at least in our Western context, has been followed by an abandonment of free will and reason itself, eg determinism, materialism, modernism etc. Also, I expect that what you mean by transnational is what Chesterton means by irrational. But he likes to exaggerate a little to give it some punch. 🙂

      • Thanks Laura. This is probably my Mennonite sensitivity talking, but I do think there is a vital distinction between evangelization and coercion which must be maintained if the Church is to be a faithful witness to her Lord.

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