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Michael Ward

Lewis as Mystic

"I trust no one will call me a mystic—a name, in its strict theological sense, too high, and in its popular sense (I hope) too vague, to describe me; but it appears to me that all sorts of objects, animate and inanimate, natural and artificial … seem (I hardly know how to say it) to have been prepared from all eternity for their precise place in the symphony of things."

So wrote C.S. Lewis in The Personal Heresy (1939). His trust that no one would call him a mystic has turned out to be poorly founded. Two men who knew him well, Dom Bede Griffiths and George Sayer, have failed him on that score, the former observing that "there is no doubt that he had a profound kind of mystical intuition," the latter commenting that The Pilgrim's Regress scales "mystical heights." And several Lewis critics have come to similar conclusions: Michael Christensen remarks upon his "mystical tendencies"; Robert Houston Smith notes that Lewis found "a place for mysticism in his thought"; Leanne Payne goes so far as to claim that Lewis was "an outstanding Christian mystic."

A web-footed, feathered creature which waddles and quacks is ordinarily known as a duck. A writer whose friends and critics describe as a mystic and who himself confessed to having intuitions which fell somewhere between the strict and the popular uses of the term "mystical," would ordinarily be known as a mystic. Why, then, do we not immediately think of Lewis as such?

There are at least four reasons why Lewis has not generally been categorized as a mystic. The first is that his humility and privacy-loving reticence caused him to understate what was an important aspect of his spirituality. For instance, at the end of The Four Loves he touches upon that love which lies at "the true centre of all human and angelic life." He then adds, cryptically, "God knows, not I, whether I have ever tasted this love. Perhaps I have only imagined the tasting." But it sounds as though, perhaps, he really had tasted, in mystical ecstasy, that love which moves the sun and the other stars. However, he writes that he "dare not proceed" and that, to learn more about this highest of all loves, we must go to his "betters." Knowing that he possessed an unusually powerful imagination and believing that practical obedience was the experimentum crucis of Christian maturity, Lewis was inclined to downplay elements in his religious life which, in other people, might have loomed much larger.

Second, Lewis had theological uncertainties about the nature of mystical experiences arising from "the similarity between Christian and non Christian mysticism" (as he wrote in a letter to Griffiths). He did not conclude from this observation that mysticism is "un-Christian in the sense of being incompatible with Christianity: but I am inclined to think that it is not specifically Christian—that it is simply one of those neutral things which the Spirit utilises in a given man when it happens to be there." He was also struck "by the absence of much mysticism from the New Testament."

Third, Lewis' canniness as a writer meant that he would not make into an object of contemplative consciousness what could only be "enjoyed" as an all-encompassing experience. To write about mysticism is not the same as writing mystically. Payne is one of the few Lewis critics to be alert to this point. She writes: "Lewis has said much more about the Holy Spirit, and from a higher perspective—though his terminology of the Third Person … is marvelously implicit—than many who write explicitly about Him." In other words, Lewis' apprehensions of participation in the Divine Life are not necessarily labeled as such by him in his works. Often, particularly in his fiction and poetry, but even (albeit to a lesser extent) in his apologetics, he writes so that his readers may taste the fruit of his mystical insights without consciously "knowing" it. To "know" the mystical way (savoir) is not the same as to "know" it (connaître), and it is the latter kind of knowledge which Lewis considered most pertinent in living the spiritual life and which his writings so often exemplify. Remarkably, his interest in "the wordless and thoughtless knowledge of the mystic," as he put it in a letter to Cecil Harwood, pre-dated his Christian conversion by several years.

And fourth, most mystics do not have a well developed rational side: Lewis did. The highly trained logical mind that lectured generations of students at Oxford and Cambridge has acquired so prominent a place in public perceptions of Lewis that the mystical dimension to his weltanschauung has been overshadowed. David Downing's Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis acknowledges that "the common image of Lewis as a proponent of 'rational religion' does not do justice to the complexity of the man," indeed that there is "a whole other side to him."

As the first full-length study of Lewis' "whole other side," Downing's book is to be welcomed. It is not just a pioneer in its field, but also clearly written, useful, and informative. Downing has gone behind Lewis to examine the works of such mysticism scholars as Evelyn Underhill and William Inge; he has read carefully in the mystical texts from which Lewis quotes most frequently (Lady Julian's Revelations, Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection, and anonymous texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing and Theologia Germanica); and the parallels he draws between Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things and Lewis' own work are revealing. He sketches the mystical elements in Lewis' life and provides a balanced summary of Lewis' critique of mysticism. Since Lewis never wrote at length on this subject, Downing has had to assemble the numerous scattered comments across the breadth of the Lewis corpus. He does this with competence and unfussiness; though there is detailed research and considerable thought on display, it is worn lightly. His care for the reader is also evident in the appended "Brief Timeline of Christian Mystics" and in the Scripture Index which accompany the expected Subject Index and Notes.

At times, however, Downing is a little less careful. For instance, Rudolf Otto didn't coin the term "numinous" (it goes back to the 17th century) and the apostle Paul did meet Jesus "in the flesh" (his claim to apostleship rested on having met the bodily resurrected Christ). And occasionally Downing seems to presume that the reader will automatically share his own theological perspectives. Writing about the soul's journey from sin back to obedience, he casually opines: "Of course, this journey to the soul's true home begins at the moment of repentance, when a person accepts Christ." Many Christian traditions which accept the practice of infant baptism (Lewis' Church of England is such a tradition) would not agree that the soul's journey of course begins at the point of conscious adult repentance. And again, presumptuously, Downing writes (of The Horse and His Boy), "It is hard to read this scene [Aslan reproving Bree] without thinking of Christ's words to 'Doubting' Thomas," when actually, it is perfectly easy to read that scene without making such a link, given that Bree's skepticism is about Aslan's lionhood, not his resurrection. Lewis' scriptural touchstone here is much more probably the first epistle of John than it is the gospel according to John; he is satirising Docetic (or more precisely, Eutychian) heretics who emptied Christ's manhood of incarnational significance.

But regarding another kind of emptiness, Downing is much more insightful. In fact, the highlight of this book is the commentary on that great moment in Out of the Silent Planet when Ransom, kidnapped and floating somewhere between Earth and Mars, realizes that the modern concept of "empty space" seems almost blasphemous when applied to the "empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam," and that older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply "the heavens." Downing quotes Evelyn Underhill's letter of thanks to Lewis in which she singled out this passage for particular praise. He then neatly segues to Underhill's own seminal study, Mysticism, where she notes that many a mystical journey has begun with just such a ravishing, transformative experience of nature: "In these hours the world seems charged with a new vitality, with a splendour which does not belong to it but is poured through it, as light through a coloured window, grace through a sacrament." Thus Downing deftly brings out the implicit mystical qualities of Lewis' writing while also showing its relevance to scholarly study of the subject.

It is niggling that this passage should come in a chapter entitled "The Mystical Way in the Space Trilogy" rather than "The Ransom Trilogy" or "The Cosmic Trilogy." Lewis' whole point is that "space" is the wrong word. It's a glitch that is regrettably characteristic of much of the book. With a little more attention to detail this study could have been excellent. As it stands, it is merely good and worth reading.

Michael Ward is Chaplain of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge.

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