This short essay by Chesterton is one of my favorites. In it, he meditates on the act of lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. Many would consider this inactivity. But, considered rightly, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling should be an act. Chesterton ponders whether this was the very act that inspired Michelangelo in his work on that other famous ceiling.
This probably wasn’t the case, but it is a great thought nonetheless. Chesterton himself considers the great possibility of art on what may be the only extended blank surface in a house – the ceiling. I read the essay to my 7-year-old daughter and she immediately wanted to start painting the ceiling.
This is why I read Chesterton. I am a Reformed Protestant. He was, for a good part of his life, a Roman Catholic. I am a Calvinist. He was a staunch anti-Calvinist. He would probably dislike me immensely. But I love the man because of his imagination and wit. Because he can take mundane things and expose the fact that they are not mundane. A ceiling is not mundane. Lying on your back and staring at a ceiling does not have to be boring. In fact, it can be inspiring, depending on what your eyes can see via the imagination. A bored teenager sees his ceiling as a blank space that doesn’t compare to a computer screen. Michelangelo sees it as a canvas. A bored teenager sees walls as controlling borders. A child sees them as the holding place for adventure indoors. God sees them as a piece of paper to write, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin. God the graffiti-artist.
And beside his ruminations on ceilings themselves, and on art, Chesterton contributes some very solid reflections on the condition of the world. Though the essay was published in 1909, it is timely. He notes modern disdain for lying in bed. The world is too busy for such inactivity. He notes that early rising is no mark of greatness:
Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle. A man’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change. Now I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon.
The point is simple. The modern pharisees of the world are often of the sort that judge someone for the hour they rise, the type of food they eat, and the type of car they drive. They judge a man for his carbon footprint but do not care what foundation his feet are planted on. As I’ve heard Doug Wilson say, they will allow a woman to have an abortion, but malign her if she smokes while she is pregnant. They will praise her if she eats organic, but tear her down if that organic food makes her overweight. They build cities with no sidewalks and then demand that we walk three miles a day. To lay in bed and do nothing is atrocious, but to lay on the couch and text is the norm.
At the end, Chesterton gives his qualification for lying in bed:
…If you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick. But if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man. If he does it for some secondary hygienic reason, if he has some scientific explanation, he may get up a hypochondriac.
He is giving us insight here into the world’s strange morality that will stamp all kinds of acts as virtuous if there is some scientific or popular fad surrounding them. Eating oats can become a virtue. Taking a certain vitamin can become a virtue. If Dr. Oz says the word, lying in bed could become the next great viral sensation.
Do what you do, first, because you are a human being. Next, do it out of conviction from first principles, that’s the point. Or else you will be tossed around ad infinitum from one morality to the other. God doesn’t care what you eat. He doesn’t tell you how long to sleep. He doesn’t tell you when to wake up or what breakfast to start your day with, or whether you should have breakfast at all. What he does tell you is to eat the book, that you do not live by bread alone, and that when you do lie down, as well as when you get up, to let that word dominate the conversation (Deut. 6:7).