I can measure the epochs of my life in C.S. Lewis books. His refined quality of thoughtful expression, his talent for both arguments and stories of incredible profundity mixed with an ease of access, his well-meaning sarcasm and the general warmth of his paternal tone – even more than Tolkien, who is the finer storyteller, C.S. Lewis is the father of my longing for imagination, both metaphysical and literary. As an English major in my undergraduate years, I desired writers who combined philosophical acuity with enchanting narrative, and so my love for Boethius’s Consolation was immediate and riveting. But in retrospect, I realize it was a taste for Lewisian thought that had whetted my intellectual and aesthetic appetites in a way that made Boethius so fitting – no surprise, given the esteem in which Lewis held Boethius. I thought that today, in memory of his deathday, I would mention a few of how the titles by Lewis show up in my readerly autobiography.
The Chronicles of Narnia – I wrote in a previous blog about the garage sale man who had sold his literary gold to my mother when I was eleven years old. That summer, I read the entirety of the Chronicles in two weeks, and I consider that the moment in which I was made pointedly aware of an agonizing perception of beauty that lay behind the senses. Finishing The Last Battle and walking around the apartment grounds in Amherst, I felt as though I could see, hear, and smell that deeper layer of which the Professor spoke – the enrapturing and enfolding embrace of Providence.
Mere Christianity – I read Mere Christianity in Middle School, and had for the first time the most explicit experience of reading the mirror of my own thoughts, better articulated, voiced in the rich language of a far wiser mind that always has the effect of leading readers deeper into intellectual subjects. His thoughts were expressed so clearly, lucidly, and compellingly, it was less like considering an argument and more like discovering that an argument had been tailor made for me – I could slip into it and wear it comfortably around the house or take it to dinner parties and formal occasions (not that I was going to any in Middle School) just as well.
Out of the Silent Planet – Somewhat later than Mere Christianity but still in Middle School, I was assigned Out of the Silent Planet. I remember having a discussion with my math teacher about this book – she had tried to read it and couldn’t get into it. I found this troubling, and I think that moment was part of what began my desire to understand aesthetic reactions, or my own at least, well enough to articulate why I was having the pleasant or unpleasant reaction to a particular story.
The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man – It had been a while since I had read any new Lewis, although I had revisited some of his other works I had read. But during my Master’s program, I was growing weary of certain aspects of academic discourse – particularly the postmodernism, the delight in uncertainty and in undercutting traditional modes of thought, which have in certain ways real value but which can leave one cold when trying to construct a satisfying account of meaning. I don’t mean to say that was what all of my professors were pushing or upholding, but that it was a strong enough subtext that it was proving tiresome to me. I had also not been reading as much in the way of theology, since I was in the midst of my lengthy fall away from the perspective of a certain denomination which had told me not to read CS Lewis anymore (a directive I had never followed). As I began to long for something sustaining, I remembered the profound effects Lewis had had on me when I was younger. By chance I reached for The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man – and, to my surprise then though not so much now, Lewis gave me precisely the comfort I sought. I remember in particular the narrator of The Great Divorce noting that questions, like thirst, can be reasonably assumed to have something in reality which satisfies them, and Lewis’s deft social critique of our habit of mocking the source of virtue while being surprised at how vicious we act. I felt edified, nourished by these thoughts, and my love for Lewis was reawakening. Doubtful as I was of the Trinity, however, I pulled back from Lewis, hesitant to leap into another theological foray into debates about the divinity of Christ.
The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed and Til We Have Faces – I was finishing my Master’s thesis when I found, unexpectedly, that my relationship with my fiancée was over. I was broken hearted and unable to focus or find my way forward, and my mother kindly offered to pay for me to go on a retreat, at a little hideaway overseen by a nunnery. I brought with me these books, figuring that Lewis, who had so guided me in times of confusion, perhaps could comfort me now in what was at the time the sharpest pain of my life. I wept and confronted my grief as I read through The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, and confronted (as much as one can in a single attempt) how my own broken perspective on love and relationships had colored my own experience in Til We Have Faces.
Pilgrim’s Regress, The Space Trilogy, Surprised by Joy – In different ways, all three of these books (or sets of books) are about a restoration of faith. I didn’t know that, and yet I picked them up during the months after my conversion to Anglicanism in 2010. It was some kind of bizarre prophecy – I could see my own intellectual journey, albeit with its own idiosyncrasies, reflected in the struggling theological imagination of Lewis in Pilgrim’s Regress. I had just happened to have awakened to the theistic philosophy of George Berkeley, and could see Berkeley’s metaphysics acting as a sort of organizing beacon of light around which Lewis’s aesthetics of return to the Church had been designed. Although I had read Out of the Silent Planet, I had not yet read Perelandra or That Hideous Strength, and finally plunged in – and there I found myself again seeing the marriage of philosophy with narrative that I had always longed to experience. In Surprised by Joy I found Lewis, in explaining his own journey back to his ecclesiastical home, the cipher for how his voice was guiding my own meditations. I had avoided considering Anglicanism for some time because I knew my admiration for Lewis would make it seem as if I had converted merely for appreciating him – but I realized then that the reason why Lewis appealed to me so deeply was because his thought was fundamentally Anglican, and as such fit into the same grooves of where psychology, personality, and aesthetic inclinations meet that I had been discovering in myself. Lewis had not turned me Anglican: he had given me a mirror to see myself and a table at which to learn my tastes, and of all the writers who I have ever read I feel an intimate connection to his experience of God’s love.
The floodgates had opened, and I was reading everything by Lewis I could get my hands on: God in the Dock, The Seeing Eye, Miracles, The Four Loves, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, and The Weight of Glory. I became sensible of the fact, too, that since Lewis was a professor of English, a medievalist and Renaissance scholar, that since I shared his profession I ought to read his academic work. Studies in Words, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, Spenser’s Images of Life – I delighted in finding my personal mentor at professional work, and then I rediscovered The Allegory of Love. I had read some bits of it in my undergraduate degree, but came to it with a newfound appreciation both of the material he was discussing and of my own need to forge an identity in my academic endeavors. As I reread The Allegory of Love I began to see more clearly just what my dissertation would be about, and I realized that Lewis’s desire to foster public intellectual discourse and to fight against the abolition of man, to reawaken imaginations to the wonder of the human experience of language and glimpses of divine love, was part and parcel with the project of literary interpretation of philosophical and psychological problems that so compelled me. In the world of ideas, which can feel so cold – usually unintentionally, but sometimes, I think, quite intentionally – Lewis casts a warming fire of imagination that melts away the snows of indifference and disappointment every time I reach for his beautiful pages.
I offer this prayer of thanks to the Lord, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer in which Lewis found so much devotional power, for the marvelous means of grace which the work, thought, and deep warmth of Lewis has provided in my own life:
We bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.