compos mentis, "of sound mind"

With permission granted begrudgingly from the author, I published her articles in this blog in response to pleas from her fans--okay, mostly aunts and uncles--for ready access to her cogitations. As the humble president of her fan club, I am delighted to oblige.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Clive Staples Lewis

by Elizabeth Petrik, April 2004

“[S]trange as it may appear I am quite content to live without believing in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever,” Lewis once wrote to a friend who had expressed pity over his lack of faith (Gilbert and Kilby 17). It is startling to recognize the author of these words as the same who would later aver, “If you were subjects of Maledil [Christ] you would have peace” (Lewis, Out 140). During his lifetime, C. S. Lewis made a complete transformation from a sneering, self-confident atheist to a humble obedient Christian. All his major works of fiction are shaped by this metamorphosis, reflecting the blessings he learned to value and the sins he came to loathe through his conversion. His allegories Pilgrim’s Regress, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters, as well as his famous children’s fantasies The Chronicles of Narnia and the science fiction Space Trilogy bear the unmistakable imprint of his faith. With his gift for empathy, earned through experience and self-criticism, Lewis’s works reach out to a world he saw as wildly astray from the purpose for which it was created and to help those who struggle along the route to becoming Christian.

His own route began at his birth in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland, where his parents gave him the name Clive Staples, mercifully addressed him as “Jack,” and raised him in a “nominally Christian” manner (Gilbert and Kilby 16). At the age of six Lewis felt the first of his lifelong pangs of desire for what he termed Joy. “The most poignant experience of it had been one summer day when he was standing beside a currant bush. The little boy had felt suddenly arise in him ‘as if from a depth not of years but of centuries’ a longing so deep that, as he described it later, ‘in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant by comparison’” (Gilbert and Kilby 22). This experience began Lewis’s misguided quest, described allegorically in Pilgrim’s Regress, for an earthly means to capture that state of Joy and make it permanent.

Gilbert and Kilby summarize the tale:
Turning away from the hateful Landlord [who symbolizes God] to whom his parents had recommended him, John one day got a glimpse of a delicious Island and heard music so sweet as to set him searching for more of it. He went through a long series of unsatisfying and sometimes bruising experiences until he at last found the Joy he had sought in the Landlord whom he had so thoroughly misunderstood (19).

Lewis, a gifted student, also developed early in life the disgust with the educational system that was to influence his later works. The school in England he attended at the age of ten was loathsome to him and was closed down when the headmaster was declared insane (Gilbert and Kilby 9). In any academic setting, however, Lewis was infallibly ahead of his peers and found that “[t]oo many of his schoolmates had displayed every motive but that of real learning” (Gilbert and Kilby 16). Later in life he often ventilated his outrage against schools, which he felt placed too much emphasis on the psychological evaluation and ego boosting of its students too little on their duty to lead them in the pursuit of truth. In The Silver Chair he describes Experimental House, a “modern” school at which the heroine is being tormented by her classmates before she is whisked away into Narnia: “All sorts of things, horrid things, went on…. [T]he people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the mains result was that you became rather a favourite than otherwise” (1-2). In The Screwtape Letters Lewis described the actual evil, counter-Christian tendencies he saw in the education system. Screwtape, a devil “deep in the lowerarchy” happily pontificates on the state of English and American schools: “[T]he children who are too stupid or lazy to learn…can be set to doing the things that children used to do in their spare time…. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work…because [they] would get a trauma…” (167). With glee, he goes on to discuss the practical implications of such a system with regard to ensnaring the souls of men: “We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us” (168). This attitude reveals the importance Lewis, whose studies led him to Christianity, attached to education.

These studies began at fifteen with his schooling under the crusty, atheistic W. T. Kirkpatrick. Lewis, who had also become emphatically atheistic by this point in his life, fell in love with learning under his new teacher. Kirkpatrick’s tutelage, however, in addition to preparing him for Oxford University, helped him forge the base of understanding that was eventually to lead him to God, though at the time it seemed to confirm his unbelief.

This experience, no doubt, led Lewis to portray the pursuit of knowledge as a mixed blessing. In The Chronicles of Narnia the recurring character Digory Kirke, probably based on his old tutor Kirkpatrick, is described as "the sort of person who wants to know everything, and when he grew up he became the famous Professor Kirke who comes into other books" ( Lewis, Magician 36). In the book Digory's thirst for knowledge leads him to probe into matters he has no right to inquire about, waking a great evil that nearly destroys two worlds. He is able to redeem himself only through unquestioning obedience to the will of the Christ-figure Aslan.

As an atheist, however, Lewis was far from seeing morality as rooted in submission to a higher power. He felt that man was only obligated to perform the actions owed to his "manhood and dignity, quite apart from belief in gods" (Gilbert and Kilby 16). As a result, Lewis performed many actions in his youth of which he was later to repent, but which would lead him to insights into the nature of man. In the introduction to Screwtape, he confessed that he needed no great research into the workings of temptation, for, "'My heart'—I need no other's—'showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly'" (xiii).

Inchastity and Flippancy were among the youthful sins Lewis indulged and later condemned. He wrote of incontinence in Screwtape, "The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured" (83). His flippancy manifested itself in the sophisticated, condescending attitude he took toward religion. He once chastised his Christian friend Arthur Greeves for not joining the "educated and thinking" atheist elite (Gilbert and Kilby 16). Lewis would later warn against using such language to discredit faith. He has Screwtape admonish his nephew devil not to “waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about” (8). Thus, once again, Lewis’s own life provided him with an insight crucial to his apologetic work.

At this point in his young life, Lewis’s spiritual position was similar to that of Jane, a protagonist in That Hideous Strength, who had “abandoned Christianity…along with her belief in faeries and Santa Claus” (334). Around the age of nineteen, however, as he fought in World War I, the time came that he was “old enough to start reading fairy tales again” (Lion dedication) and began to look at his old faith in a new light. The first change that overtook Lewis was a growing belief in Absolutes, the notion that things have intrinsic value beyond what is imposed upon them by man. Gilbert and Kilby describe a letter to Arthur Greeves in which Lewis speculates about the causes of aesthetic pleasure. In it, he concludes that a beautiful tree cannot derive its appeal from the light rays that bounce from it to an observer’s eye or from the chemical reactions in the eye and brain that allow a viewer to perceive and identify it. Rather, the tree is seen as attractive because of “Something right outside time and place, which did not create matter, as the Christians say, but is matter’s great enemy: and that Beauty is the call of the Spirit in that Something to the spirit in us” (qtd. 18). This train of thought eventually led him to the realization that the Joy he had been pursuing was not desirable in itself, but only for the sake of its Object, which he came to recognize as God (20). At this point, Lewis was just emerging from the existentialist self-serving state in which he placed the Dwarfs in The Last Battle. Until their death and beyond, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs” is the perpetual motto of this clique. They refuse to take the side either of good or of evil in the last great battle of Narnia because of their all-consuming refusal to be “taken in.” Even as they delude themselves into believing they are not in Heaven they reassure one another, “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here” (148). Similarly, Lewis had initially held the view that “Man is for man” and no one else. Despite the yearning for Joy drawing him toward God, he persisted in mocking “the Christian mythology” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby 18). His emergence into a belief in a concrete Truth outside of the human mind was, as Gilbert and Kilby observe, “a long step upward for the atheist” (18).

For years Lewis’s conviction in his former notions of the world grew less as he reexamined his old reading materials. He found that the works he most admired were those of Christians like George MacDonald and George Herbert. At the same time Lewis began forging friendships in Christian circles among people like Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien. One day on his way home he had an experience of divine Choice being offered. “I could open the door [to faith] or keep it shut…” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby). His own experience of celestial intervention probably inspired the account of such an occurrence from a devil’s perspective in Screwtape: “As you ought to have known, the asphyxiating cloud which prevented your attacking the patient on his walk back from the old mill…is the Enemy’s most barbarous weapon, and generally appears when He is directly present to the patient…” (58). His encounters with earthly Christian influences as well as this mystical experience led to Lewis’s probing the Christian faith in earnest.

One of his greatest difficulties was the doctrine of atonement, the belief that Christ’s death paid for the sins of mankind. He eventually came to accept it as a mystery, recognizing that “Christ Himself is larger than any possible doctrinal statement about Him can ever be” (Gilbert and Kilby 20). This leap was made easier for Lewis by the fact that ancient tradition, which he always regarded as a potential source of wisdom, carries so many inexplicable stories of sacrifice and suffering for others. “Can one believe,” he wrote, “there was just nothing in that persistent motif of blood, death, and resurrection, which runs like a black and scarlet cord through all the greater myths…?” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby 20). Lewis eventually became so comfortable with the notion of atonement that he used it as the basis for his symbolic children’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the story the Lion Aslan gives up his life in place of a child who has betrayed his siblings to a witch. The next day, to the children’s surprise, Aslan rises from the sacrificial altar. He explains that had the Witch looked back farther, she would have found a deeper magic than her own: “She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (160). Thus, Lewis’s final acceptance of this mystery provided still more material for his fertile Christian imagination.

Even after coming to terms with its doctrine, however, one final obstacle remained between Lewis and Christianity. He preferred his sense of possession of his soul to the absolute surrender required of him by the Christian God. In The Great Divorce, his Dantesque account of a journey to Heaven through Hell, Lewis feigns a conversation with his hero George MacDonald, who addresses the evil of such possessiveness: “That kind is sometimes perfectly ready to plunge the soul they say they love in endless misery if only they can still in some fashion posess it”. In the end Lewis felt it was God himself who brought about his final conversion. According to Gilbert and Kilby, “…he was beginning to feel God bearing down on him” (21). In 1929 he accepted that “God is God” (qtd. by Gilbert and Kilby 21), and in 1931 he took the final step to “Christ is God.” He later laughed about the ordeal through which he was dragged: “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me…they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (qtd. by Gilbert and Kilby 20). Far from marking an end, however, Lewis’s “capture” by God represented the beginning of his spiritual voyage.

Lewis knew that the struggle to maintain the habit of obedience would last the rest of his life. He once wrote, “It took me as long to acquire inhibitions as others (they say) have taken to get rid of them. That is why I often find myself at such cross-purposes with the modern world: I have been a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans” (qtd. in Gilbert and Kilby 17). In coming into faith he discovered many personal failings that he would battle and incorporate into his literary works until his death in 1963. Most significantly, he found in himself “a great depth of pride” (Gilbert and Kilby 21). He described the peculiar difficulties he found in the struggle for humility in Screwtape: “Catch [a man] at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on” (63). Thus, Lewis continued to make use of his flaws as a Christian for the edification of his readers. Despite the fresh trials involved in his new faith, Lewis recognized Christ as the source of the Joy he had sought vainly since the age of six. Like John in his Pilgrim’s Regress, he found that the Object of his search was not an elusive emotion but a very real Presence that could be found very close to home. All of Lewis’s works carry an undertone of the bliss he found only in Christ. Jane’s experience in That Hideous Strength, for instance, reflects his own surprise that such life should be found in such an ancient, bland-seeming faith:
The vision of the universe which she had begun to see in the last few minutes had a curiously stormy quality about it. It was bright, darting, and overpowering. Old Testament imagery of eyes and wheels for the first time in her life took on some possibility of meaning…. It ought to have been she who was saying these things to the Christians. Hers ought to have been the vivid, perilous world brought against their grey, formalized one; hers the quick, vital movements and theirs the stained glass attitudes. That was the antithesis she was used to. This time, in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like (316).

In Perelandra Lewis makes an ultimate, exultant declaration of the Joy that is God: “All things are by Him and for Him. He utters Himself also for His own delight and sees that He is good. He is His own begotten and what proceeds from Him is Himself. Blessed be He!” (217)

Led by the Joy he felt so keenly, Lewis made his halting way from the weak faith of his childhood to his youthful rejection of God and finally fully into Christianity in all its ripeness and glory. With his gift for writing Lewis was able to share the experience of his conversion through literature that would serve to guide, comfort, convince, and admonish Christians of his time and afterward. Lewis’s God-propelled transformation from a skeptical young atheist to a Christian of deep faith made him one of the most acutely perceptive and influential apologists of modern times.

Works Cited:
Gilbert, Douglas, and Clyde S. Kilby. C.S. Lewis: Images of his World. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.
Lewis, C. S. The Horse and His Boy. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. The Last Battle. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972.---. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. The Magician’s Nephew. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. Out of the Silent Planet. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1965.---. Perelandra. New York, NY: Collier Books, 1962.---. Prince Caspian. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. The Screwtape Letters. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982.---. The Silver Chair. New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.---. That Hideous Strength. New York, NY: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996.---. The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Jill said...

I enjoyed your essay on CS Lewis, enough to prompt me to read further. I appreciate your thoughts and musings. May God remain with you. -Jill

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful and wholesome writing. Let your light shine!

2:08 PM  

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