Monday over Coffee: "Don't Look a Gift Universe in the Mouth"

Published May 9, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

Don't look a gift universe in the mouth.
— G.K. Chesterton

When I took Spanish in high school, our teacher required us to translate a series of short Spanish sayings into English. The one that rolled off my tongue most readily went like this: "Los lunes, ni las gallinas ponen." It means, "Nothing much gets done on Monday" but the literal translation is more colorful—"Not even chickens lay on Mondays." It came in handy later when our Spanish teacher decided to administer a pop quiz after a long weekend. "Profesora, ni las gallinas," the class whined. "Por favor, ni las gallinas."

Another memorable one was, "A caballo regalado no se le mira el diente," which loosely translates to, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Literally, of course, it means that if one happens to be offered a horse free and clear, take it. To check its teeth to verify its health or age reveals both a lack of appreciation for the gift and some suspicion of the gifter, as well. The aphorism urges us to receive what's unearned magnanimously, gracefully, and as windfall, rather than in a posture poised to complain about the gift's potential flaws and imperfections.

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was quite a character. A prolific writer—memorable, quotable, irrepressible—he reveled in both the big and little joys of life. He said this, for instance, about his favorite brand of ink:

I like the Cyclostyle ink; it is so inky. I do not think there's anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me; the fierceness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud?

In this very spirit, Chesterton penned nearly a hundred books, almost a thousand poems, thick volumes of short stories, and an untold number of essays. As a political philosopher, he developed thought-provoking concepts such as the one now known as Chesterson's Fence, which stands for the principle that changing customs and conventions should not be undertaken lightly or flippantly. When one encounters a fence out in an open field, there's wisdom, he suggested, in refraining from tearing it down until one knows why it was erected in the first place. That is, before changing an existing rule or tradition, one should approach what's at hand with a dose of humility, considering fully the benefits of the status quo and present circumstances. The rigor and depth of Chesterton's thinking is equally reflected in his prodigious writing on spiritual topics, as well. No less than C.S. Lewis credited Chesterton's book, The Everlasting Man, as the treatise which "baptised his intellect" and set the stage for Lewis's own conversion to Christianity.

Chesterton, it seemed, always had the ability to penetrate right to the heart of any subject he took up. Consider these pithy sayings, these examples of his compelling way of putting things:

  • Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.

  • The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

  • The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.

  • The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.

And finally, while perhaps less profound, Chesterton also noted:

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.

Having said all this, to me the most far-reaching example of Chesterton's way with words was how he took the proverb we translated in Spanish class about the horse and its teeth, the one about gifts and windfall, then scaled it upward by many magnitudes. "Don't," Chesterton memorably said, "look a gift universe in the mouth." What's true of a gift horse, he's saying, must be true of everything. Our lives, our existence, the universe—for all the flaws, the pain, the trouble—it's still all windfall.

Are we capable of seeing and comprehending this? Can we cosmically scale this notion about the proverbial gift horse up to the universal heights Chesterton suggests? Even in the midst of what might be a challenging Monday, consider it. Approach the day with fierce Chestertonian pleasure, intoxicated with things just as they are, not as you wish they were, recognizing that in essence, it's all a gift. Love today with the knowledge that what's loved may be someday lost, and remaining always mindful of the remarkable inkiness of ink, the wetness of water, the steeliness of steel, and the unutterable muddiness of mud.

Gracias a Dios por todas tus bendiciones. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk