Lewis: Spirituality for Mere Christians
abstract of the book written by its author,
Lewis biographer, scholar, and anthology editor William
After World War I, Noel Coward (who’ll make a special guest
appearance in Chapter 2) redesigned much of public moral behavior
in London and New York in the plots of his plays and musicals.
Sadly, much of his audience redesigned their own lives along the
Cowardly model. In the early 1930s he even titled one play A
Design for Living. In it three characters were plagued with
sexual confusion; the best solution they could come up with, even
seemingly infinite moral boundaries, was a ménage à trois. “All
the hormones in my blood are working overtime,” Gilda tells
Ernest. “They’re rushing madly in and out of my organs
like messenger boys.”
his own spiritual life, Lewis could have taken the Cowardly model
of morality-without-morals too, but
he didn’t. He could
have developed a design from the spiritual masters who preceded
him, but he didn’t. He’d read Julian of Norwich (died
after 1416) and John of the Cross (died 1591), and he’d perused
Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life (1609)
and William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy
Life (1728). But these authors were members of the clergy and the religious
orders, and Lewis wasn’t. He was a layperson,
and a layperson he wanted to remain. And so he took bits and
bobs from these
and other spiritual masters to design a spiritual life of his
own. A sort of spirituality for—and indeed, by and of—the Mere
Now, the first thing one
notices about this new, modern spirituality, especially as exemplified
by Lewis, is
that it was harried and
hurried, heltered and skeltered, higgled and piggled. It wasn’t
at all the smooth, well-chrismed spirituality of the great religious
orders—the Augustinians, Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans,
Jesuits. It wasn’t driven by the Divine Office having to
be recited or sung at regular, or irregular, intervals during
the day or night, inside or outside the monastery. Rather it
patchwork of prayers, readings and exercises done as best as
he could at a variety of times—most of them not at all
convenient—and in a variety of places—most not at
all conducive, to prayer or any other religious activity.
welcomed the normality of the life of the layperson, if
not the regularity of the life of the religious. But above
the obligations of the cowled and coifed religious, he had
his own life commitments. And, as well as any prior or prioress,
any abbot or abbess, he knew that in an interruption—one of
that continuously vex the normal life—there lay a potentially
are pretty bad here,” he wrote to a lifelong friend
in Belfast in his Christmas letter for 1943. His adoptive
mother's ulcer had gotten worse; domestic help was harder to
come by; continued
interruption to his daily round of activities caused him
what he was calling interruption, or so he came to learn from
prayer and counsel, was very often “one's
real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what
one calls one's ‘real
life’ is a phantom of one's own imagination. This
at least,” he
concluded to his friend, “is what I see at moments
of insight; but it's hard to remember all the time....”
spirituality, then, is the spirituality of the Mere Christian,
man and woman, in the twentieth century. It’s
marked by interruption, distraction, coincidence. Its
hallmark is encountering the divine in the oddest places.
This sort of reading of Lewis’s life will reveal—not in
all its pyrotechnics, but certainly in some of its pedantics—just
how he managed to pull it off.
In the diversion process, Lewis went through several steps—stages that
people before him and after him have trod. In truth many of us have had to
over and over again in our life times. In order to keep our sanity, it’s
well from time to time to reflect on just what these steps were in Lewis’s
(For the first four steps I am indebted to my wife, Emilie
Griffin, whose landmark
book in the study of religious conversion, Turning Reflections on the Experience
of Conversion, was published by Doubleday in 1980.)
THRUM FROM AFAR
First of these is desire....
Second stage is dialectic....
SPOT OF BOTHER
Third stage is struggle....
Fourth and last stage is surrender, unconditional surrender symbolized
by the white flag....
To this four-stage diversion process, which must traverse potholes,
detours, loose chippings, and all the other detritus of suburban
British roadways, I would add a fifth, wreckage....
is conversion so hard? It’s the almost universal experience
of converts that however much spiritual ground one gains the one
day, that much is lost the next day, or seems to be lost, and one
must forever contend with the maddening thrum, the interminable
chin-wag, a botheration of bothers, the tattered white shirt tied
to a stick, the tea cup with the brownish vein. The
perpetual conversion, if it may be so called, Lewis grew accustomed
to, and in like manner
the modern Mere Christian will soon discover that the never-ending
conversion process is normal, part and parcel of the MC’s
We all confront the Spirit of the Age, when trying to make spiritual sense
of the world. When we’re young, it often appears attractive, but quickly
becomes seductive, swallowing us up like the Vacuum Machine Creature in The
Yellow Submarine, who, when there’s nothing left to swallow up, swallows
himself. And for those of us who don’t flee the confrontation, the Spirit
of the Age, which specializes in short-term gains, continues to attract us
as we grow older; which is another way of saying, we’re never too old
to make the wrong choice.
All the commentators on the spiritual life note that one’s own life experiences
invariably lead to an early crossroad. One may choose to veer to the left or
veer to the right. But there’s always a third choice. One may turn around
and retrace one’s tracks to the cloister of the womb.
fathers and mothers of spiritual direction did just that;
from the earliest centuries of
the Christian era, they were loners, eremites and stylites. They
retreated from the city to the desert, there to await the Second Coming,
which, if the Scriptures were worth the parchment they were
written on, was sure to
come on the morrow; if not on the morrow, then on the morrow thereafter.
that sacred event didn’t come, these loners became
cenobites; that is to say, they gathered together in a
city of their own; a community, a convent
a monastery. Their bond was, among other things, their hatred of the city
and everything in it. When not praying, they wove mats
one day and unwove them
the next. It was the praying that counted.
Jesus refused to come on the short schedule, the cenobites
extended their frame of
reference still further. They no longer undid the mats
they collected them until they had enough to visit the city, where they
sold them for as much as the market would bear. Humanism, yes, but with
This return to the marketplace, when they had left in such a huff some
decades before, marked the beginning of incarnational humanism, the sort
personified in his recorded life. He too participated in the city-life
of his time. He too approached the crossroad early in his public life.
tempted, three times, to accept the apples of this earth for little or
no cost, and three times he refused.
too with Lewis. When he came to the early crossroad, he chose
not to retreat from the confrontation. Rather he considered the two options
him and, hearing the thrum of spiritual desire, he chose the harder
but surer way.
No doubt he drew some consolation from a writer whose epics he admired,
John Milton. “I never could admire,” wrote Milton in a
combative prose work entitled Areopagitica (1644), “a
fugitive and cloistered virtue.”
chose the incarnational way, and the result of this choice
would hold for him many surprises.
Lewis didn’t think much of the Spirit of the Age, at least
as he found it expressed in the public’s mind during his
youth. When given a chance to express the perfect antidote to that
Spirit, he chose to present the doctrines of the ages. In radio
talks he explained what reason, the promulgator of natural revelation,
told the honest person to think about values and behaviors. With
only reason as their guide, some embraced the moral virtues and
tried to put them into practice. But others, claiming that they
were just nice, decent, ordinary chaps who wanted to be left alone—they
sound a bit like Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion—they
never answered the door of their humble cottage for fear that morality
was the knocker....
Lewis finished with reason,
he turned to the Scriptures,
the promulgator of supernatural
began to unfurl the
reigning doctrines of Christianity, centering all the time on
are we to make of Jesus
A compiler-editor once
asked Lewis to
write some paragraphs
on this subject
for a book titled
by Oxford University Press in 1950.
was a comic aspect to
It was like asking
a fly to comment
on the elephant
it was buzzing
But he went about trying to develop just such a commentary.
one recurring answer
to the question, and
the favorite one of
non-Christians, was that
Jesus was a
other, rather alarming,
answer was that Jesus
made claims no
moral teacher had ever
made. Not Buddha, not
If you went to Buddha and asked, "Are you the son
of Bramah?" he'd
say, "My son, you are still in the vale of illusion." If
you went to Socrates and asked, "Are you Zeus?" he'd
laugh at you.
you went to Mohammed
and asked, "Are
you Allah?" he'd
rend his clothes and then cut your head off.
you asked Confucius "Are
you Heaven?" he'd
probably reply, "Remarks
that are not in accordance
with nature are in bad
idea of a great moral
saying what Christ
said was out of the question.
His were the claims
Hitler or of the son of God himself.
“The only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or
a complete lunatic suffering from that form of
delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”
much for what Lewis made
of Jesus Christ. That
much we Mere Christian’s should make of Him
In Letter XI of the infernal correspondence [The Screwtape
Screwtape instructs his errant nephew on the uses of human laughter
in the tempter’s trade. He doesn’t speculate on how
many Devils can “trip the light fantastic” on the point
of a pin, to use a Miltonic metaphor, but he does distinguish four
causes of laughter. Joy, Fun, Joke Proper, and Flippancy.
herein lies a philosophical error. Literary Devils aren’t philosophical
Expecting the answer yes, I once asked American philosopher Mortimer
Adler if there was humor in Heaven. Heavens no! he replied. Angels
intuit; they don’t have to think things through. No syllogisms
for them; no enthymemes or epichiremes; no sorites. Major premise,
minor premise, conclusion, all are one. With regard to a joke,
Adler explained, a philosophical angel would intuit the punch
line before the shaggy joke got much beyond the first word. And
same would apply to a theological angel, I should think, a cherub
or seraph, a principality or domination.
have specified “human” laughter
in his letter to Wormwood, since all laughter is, by its very nature, human;
that is to say, only humans can be joyful, funny, jocular, and flippant....
In Letter XI and indeed in the entire correspondence, Lewis seems to be
saying, look to the comic, for therein one will see oneself. It’s instantaneous
recognition, a caught-in-the-act portrait of oneself. First thing we notice,
however, is that the image is distorted. That’s the imperfection. That’s
what needs improvement in one’s spiritual life.
of vanities,” saith
Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity,” and nowhere is this vanity
better shown than in comedy. Madam Eglantyne, the Prioress in The
is vain about her table manners, ever applying the napkin to her upper
lip. Malvolio, the gangly steward in Twelfth Night, is vain
about his yellow stockings and crossed garters. The Rev. Mr. Collins
in Pride and Prejudice is vain about
his marriageability, believing that a young woman’s polite but
public refusal is really a mask for her acceptance.
at others, then. That’s what Lewis would have us do not only in
Screwtape but also in Preface, for it’s to laugh at oneself. Such
laughter can also be found in a third work of Lewis’s written in
the 1940s [The Great Divorce].
Not to put too fine a point on it,
Lewis’s life, although
rich in wit and love and prayer, was nonetheless a trudge. In a
poem entitled “As One Oldster to Another,” written
in his fifty-second year to an American of approximately the same
age, he likened the Christian path through life to a night train,
screaming through the stations toward the ultimate terminus, and
he not knowing yet when to take down his case from the overhead
with fatigue of body and spirit, rudeness, rejection, deadly sins
everywhere he put his feet, pains physical and spiritual,
debilitating illness, and eventually death, the emotion Lewis
felt most in life was drudge. Prayer helped, but just. In the end
too suffered, died, and was buried; in his case, under a larch
in the graveyard surrounding Holy Trinity Church, Headington.
And so it is with the Mere Christian. Discovering the Christian
path comes first. Faithfulness to the pathway comes next, even
if the fog rolls in and one can’t see much beyond one’s
nose. An Ordnance Survey map would help--its palette of pale
colors always pleasing to the bleary eye—but where the
Christian is ultimately heading, the crown surveyors have yet
to map. Weariness dogs the
MC’s tracks. And if it weren’t for moments of prayer
and acts of belief—echoing the name of Jesus in the wilderness
seemed to help—the MC would end up in a ditch, awaiting
there the merciful arrival of death.
religion life on this earth can be made bearable. With
religion life is acceptable. With Christianity life is hopeful.
Keeping hope alive is the work of prayer. But more about prayer
in the next chapter.
The MC can pray anywhere, anytime, in any position. That seems
so obvious, but it bears repeating many times. And if a person
follows the advice, then one will find himself or herself praying
in the damnedest places.
prayers, ready-made prayers, have words, and the petitions in
these prayers may be festooned with
spiritual ornaments of one’s
own making; the way one festoons a Christmas tree.
prayers have no words. They consist in affections of the soul;
to say, they are acts of love, not words—the lover
communing with the beloved. In a manner of speaking, they’re
festoons of the soul; adornments without the material things adorned.
And it’s but a hop, skip, and jump from adornment such as
this to adoration.
prayer work? That’s the powerful
question all prayerful practitioners must ask themselves virtually
every time they pray.
When Jesus prayed for others, lepers leaped, paralytics pranced,
the possessed smiled and made new friends, the newly dead arose
from their cold sleep and asked for a nice warm meal. But when
he prayed for himself, nothing happened. Does prayer work?
As in the natural life, so in the spiritual life, a little rain
must fall. Things aren't better when one feels good about them;
and they're not necessarily worse when one feels bad about them.
And it's certainly all right if one has no feelings one way or
classical terminology of prayer refers to these ups and downs
as consolation and desolation. And the spiritual
masters have consistently
said—and our spiritual experience has consistently proven true—that
the one follows the other as night follows the day, and day follows
But what about the volcanoes and tornados? Can irruptions and
conniptions be considered a good for geological creation and,
at the same time,
a devastating evil for that part humankind caught in the wrong
place? Lewis hasn’t a prayerful answer to that, nor indeed
have the masters and mistresses of prayer before him.
of all, Lewis turns our minds to distraction in prayer, and distinguishes
four kinds. There’s no prayer without it if
the one praying is of humankind. It’s a natural flaw in a
supernatural act, a brownish vein in the whitest cup, which shows
that it’s been used by humans and has suffered in the process.
Screwtape made a game of it for Wormwood, but his awkward nephew
was a slow learner. When all is said and done, temptation was,
and is, a deadly game.
One good thing about festoonery in prayer is that it’s a
mechanism, albeit a clumsy one, for turning the inevitable distractions
in a highly active intellect and imagination like Lewis’s
into the very fabric of prayer itself.
Time was, in the history of prayer, when distractions were considered
imperfections. Stories abound in ascetical literature about holy
people being bedeviled by distractions during time of meditation.
Such distractions inevitably had something to do with the problems
they faced in everyday life. These men and women retaliated by
ignoring such solutions as were presented during the meditation
time. A noble strategy perhaps, but how many tactics in the turbulent
history of the church have gone unheeded because solutions were
presented, willy-nilly, during prayer!
fact, Lewis’s notion
of festoonery just might make sense to contemporary western society
when it comes to prayer. The distractions
are the prayer, and the pray-er can offer these distractions to
the Lord much as the intellectually-challenged lay brother in ascetical
lore juggled oranges in front of the statue of Mary the mother
of Jesus. It was what he did best, and Mary the mother of Jesus
Early Sunday evening, June 8, 1941, Fred Paxford, the gangling
gardener, sometime cook, and general factotum at "The Kilns," drove
Lewis down Headington Road and St. Clement's, over Magdalen Bridge
and up the High. Lewis alighted across from St. Mary the Virgin's.
Solemn evensong was approaching; the vicar had asked him to speak.
By the time Paxford parked the car and returned to the church,
he had to fight his way in. The seats, the benches, the galleries,
even the window ledges were hung about with undergraduates.
vicar presiding, the organist intoned, the congregation sang,
Lewis winced. How Screwtape hated the mewlings humans called
music! How Lewis himself dreaded that in Heaven there would almost certainly
be sweating pipes and a swelling organ!
quiet descended, Lewis ascended the pulpit—the very pulpit
from which began not
only Methodism but also the Tractarian movement—and
placed his manuscript on the lectern. "The Weight of Glory," it
was entitled. He began to read, his voice deep, his tone serious,
his appearance cheerful.
for Christians was Heaven, he stated, but he quickly pointed
out how like a siren the wail
of worldliness had been
for the last hundred years, leading people to believe that
man's true home was on earth, that earth could be made into a
or that if there were a heavenly Heaven, it was a long way
off. Philosophies like progress and creative evolution promised
but a happiness they couldn't seem to deliver.
if they could deliver, Lewis countered with a little logic, such
would die when we died, and so ultimately
the philosophies themselves.
He went on to articulate the spiritual longings of humankind.
He paid special attention to desire; a wanderlust without
compass or sextant throughout the natural world in search
a happiness that, no matter how long the day's trudge,
was no closer
to the horizon itself.
said at the end, "the cross comes before
the crown, and tomorrow is a Monday morning." He wanted
the undergraduates to leave the church, not thinking about celestial
glory, which would come at some unknown point in the future,
then not for everyone in the church, but about practical charity
toward one's immediate neighbor.
that sort of charity was like the hard labor of the hod carrier,
toting the leaden gray
mortar of his neighbor's shortcomings,
a load lightened only by humility, a load that if not lightened
tumbled the proud shoulders into the sopping trough.
Lewis stepped down from the pulpit, the organ swelled, the congregation
the vision that delighted," and the preacher
beat a hasty exit onto the High.
tomorrow for Lewis was a Monday morning, so tomorrow for us is
the beginning of the week. But,
as Lewis assured us and the
Scripture reveals to us, the bearing of the cross is followed
by the wearing of the crown as surely as the trudge from Monday
Saturday is followed by a stroll on Sunday.
the meantime, it seems the week will never end....
Lewis’s spiritual legacy, if it’s anything, is to
believe for oneself (and to encourage others to believe) the
basic doctrines of Christianity and to put into action the basic
practices of Christianity as they are taught by one’s denomination.
All Christians are included; none excluded. It doesn’t
require hopping, skipping, and jumping to another denomination. Oddly,
the merer the Mere Christian’s Christianity becomes,
the closer the Mere Christian moves to the center of his or her
own denomination and the warmer the MC feels toward members of
all the other denominations. Presumably, that’s where Jesus
may be found discoursing on one thing or another. That one denomination
should crow its supposed superiority over others in this regard
is lamentable. It would be sheer knavery to prefer one nave to
another. They’re all one to Screwtape, the knave of naves,
and they’re all trouble to him.
not to say that denominationalism is unimportant; indeed, it
may even be necessary. But Lewis would never encourage
a Christian to
one denomination for another. He’d
say that ecumenism, however broadly or badly one defines it,
is an historical movement, and hence will require inventions
as revolutionary as the wheel and the passage of many eons
before it’s accomplished.
Christianity, on the other hand, can begin on a Monday morning....
copyright ©2005 William
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