Thursday, April 14, 2011

C. S. Lewis and the Humanity of Spirituality

One of the persistent temptations for those who write about Christianity spirituality is to be too triumphant—to act as if, once we profess faith in Christ, life is “all kitties and bubbles,” as one friend put it. Or to quote another, “I once was bad and, sad and now I’m good and glad.” This impulse even led to an early heresy that has amazingly persisted in various forms: Jesus didn’t really walk on this troubled, trodden, earth, but he somehow managed to float above it. (I mean literally, he walked, but his feet never made prints.) Consequently, if we want to follow Jesus, we need to move above this earthly existence whenever possible. That concept, however, strikes me as singular inhuman. 

Of course, there are great, amazing, ecstatic days of faith. But we know this unmitigated sugar-rush spirituality doesn’t last. Thankfully, C. S. Lewis agrees. And that’s what distinguishes his writing from the rest of the pack. In his imagined correspondence between a senior and junior devil on how to tempt a human soul, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis reminds us that life, by nature, has its highs and lows. Merely the fact that we are bodies, that we are physical means that we will experience waves these waves.
Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.
And so a trough becomes not a point for despair, but for reaching to God and for God to develop our wills in the process. The prayers in dryness “are those that please Him best.” Why? Because we are freely choosing God. He closes the eighth Screwtape letter with a stunning allusion to the life of Jesus on the Cross, only too appropriate to mention as Good Friday looms in front of us: the senior tempter, Screwtape, writes to his junior apprentice,
Do not be deceived Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
So Lewis will not have an unreal spirituality, nor will he have it entirely other-worldly. God in Everyday Life. God in the Quotidian. God has given us true, good pleasures on this earth, and when we find those, we thankfully forget ourselves. Screwtape writes to Wormwood,
On your own showing you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks to his new [worldly] friends. In the second place, you allowed him to walk down to the old mill and have tea there—a walk through country he really likes, and taken alone. In other words you allowed him two real positive Pleasures.”
And those real pleasures come from God who created them, the One that Screwtape complains is “a hedonist at heart.” Pleasures have to be twisted for them to be of use as temptations—that is, put in the wrong context, or for the wrong motives, or wrong ends. But pleasures with the right context, motives, and ends are pathways to God and they connect us to God. The gifts lead us back to the Giver.

And so when we find pleasure in doing what we are created to do, we lose ourselves and the stinking self-centeredness that stifles joy. There a deep paradox emerges:
When He talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.
So this is the theme in Lewis I’ve named the Humanity of Spirituality. Human comes from a root that means “earth.” And we are certainly tied to this creation. Our feet are firmly planted in this earth. Even, it’s true, when God’s finger touches our human life we never entirely leave it. I commend then this rule: Let’s be cautious about anyone who writes otherwise—who believes we can lift our feet off the ground, leaving no prints when we follow Jesus—and calls it Christian spirituality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the selection of quotes, as well as the whole article. Lewis perspective that," losing their selves...means only abandoning the clamour of self-will" is important I think.

Dead men don't carry crosses. Each "self" isn't something Christ came to extinguish, but rather redeem. Every face reflects the crown of creation…a unique, separate, and very real self. God don't want a "dead" bride. Such is unable to give her self because all “self” has been lost. We "count ourselves" dead to this world, but we are not dead in our relationship to God...and that makes it subject to being tumultuous.
Bill Jackson, Oroville