“Nearly all the best and most precious things in the universe you can get for a halfpenny. I make an exception, of course, of the sun, the moon, the earth, people, stars, thunderstorms, and such trifles. You can get them for nothing.” – “The Shop of Ghosts”
G.K. Chesterton’s words once again require the reader to evaluate the magnitude of something that they take for granted. In his marvelous essay, “The Shop of Ghosts,” it takes three sentences before the reader must pause and take inventory of the situation. The best and most precious things in the universe are inexpensive and merely trifles. Put aside those valuable things marked at a halfpenny, those in all their grandeur are out of our price range. But the “trifles” that cost nothing those are really worth the stop.
Sun, moon, Earth, people, stars, and thunderstorms: these common phenomena and natural occurrences cost nothing. Maybe there are occasions when the thunderstorm catches you in between the supermarket and your car, or the rude passerby makes an impression on your day, but even considering these negative occurrences, Chesterton’s list is of the good. They are gifts from a good Creator. Even after sin enters the world and creation is marred by the fall, God’s declaration of goodness remains. The Earth is still good, humankind still holds the value of the imago Dei. Many of these good things continue as the Lord spoke to them. David declares that the beauty of the universe sings praises to its Creator in Psalm 19. The sun, moon, Earth, and stars constantly declare the glory of God.
Can something be precious that costs nothing? In Orthodoxy, Chesterton recalls a comment by Oscar Wilde about sunsets being unvalued since no one can pay for them. Chesterton remarks that Wilde was indeed wrong and that “we can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.”1 It is madness that one closes his eyes to the splendor around us. It is not the lack of cost that makes sunsets and stars valuable, their value is in their matchlessness. Chesterton deduces that there cannot be another one and thus the universe that contains all those trifles is “without peer and without price.”2 Chesterton’s sarcastic use of the word trifles is an aid to the true weight and importance of these occurrences. Their cost of nothing for us does not reflect their value as that of the lofty titles of “best” and “most precious.” Our enjoyment does not wane despite the bargain priced stars and moon.
Greater than the sun and thunderstorms is the trifle of a person, that glorious being made in the image of God. We get this trifle for nothing. What an amazing and wonderful blessing to be human and relate to other humans. It is also a difficult task. C.S. Lewis comments on the challenge of living with such “trifles” in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, -marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.3
Indeed, it is serious business and a joyous business to live among such wonders. The kingdom of heaven is invested in such business and joy. It matters greatly. All our students, teachers, and parents are rapidly heading toward eternity. The sun, moon, and stars will eventually fade. It’s that “trifle” of people that deserve our utmost attention and concern; they will last forever.4
1 Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 78-79.
2 Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 87.
3 Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 45-46.
4 Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 44.