Conversatio Divina

Part 12 of 16

C. S. Lewis and “the Region of Awe”

David C. Downing

Portions of this article were adapted from, Into the Region of Awe by David C. Downing,copyright 2005 by David C. Downing. Used with permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

I recently heard C. S. Lewis described as “the Lord’s logician.” Indeed, Lewis is widely regarded as the most intellectually forceful voice for Christian faith in the modern era. Whether writing as a scholar, lay theologian, or storyteller, he is famous for his commitment to “mere Christianity,” for presenting the basic tenets of faith shared in all places at all times by Christians from the first century to the twenty-first. Lewis is generally thought of as a commonsense Christian, one who offers understandable theology and practical morality.

Yet readers of Lewis who admire his books for rational defense of faith may be perplexed by a passage in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, in which he describes his own conversion in overtly mystical terms: “Into the region of awe, in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with . . . the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired.”C.S.Lewis,Surprised by Joy: The Shape of MyEarly Life(New York: Harcourt BraceJovanovich, 1955),221. Equally baffling for those who admire Lewis the logician is his statement in Miracles that “the burning and undimensioned depth of the Divine Life” is “unconditioned and unimaginable, transcending discursive thought.”C.S.Lewis,Miracles: A Preliminary Study(New York: Macmillan, 1947),160–161. In these passages and many others like them, we see that the common image of Lewis as a proponent of “rational religion” does not do justice to the complexity of the man. Lewis’s spiritual intuition was every bit as powerful as his intellect.

01.  Lewis’s Wide Reading in Christian Mysticism

Generally, Lewis did not highlight his interest in Christian mysticism. He knew that many of his fellow believers misunderstood or mistrusted claims of personal encounters with the Divine, and he studiously tried to avoid topics that separate Christians, focusing instead on beliefs they can celebrate together. But a survey of Lewis’s letters, theological meditations, and works of fiction show that the spiritual vitality of his books derives, in no small measure, from his own mystical intuitions and his broad reading in Christian mysticism.

In fact, Lewis referred to mysticism or mystics in forty different books, discussing or quoting Augustine (354–430), the sixth-century treatise Mystical Theology, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226), Lady Julian of Norwich (1342–ca. 1416), Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1379–1471), John of the Cross (1542–1591), Frances de Sales (1567–1622), Jacob Boehme (1575–1624), and William Law (1686–1761). One also finds brief references in Lewis’s books and letters to Nicholas of Cusa, Ignatius Loyola, The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as twentieth-century mystics such as Simone Weil and Sundar Singh. And among Lewis’s most beloved poets were those with strong mystical overtones—Dante, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, William Wordsworth, and George MacDonald.See chapter 3 in David C. Downing,Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis(DownersGrove, IL:InterVarsity Press, 2005)

Mysticism is an elastic term, one whose precise meaning is still debated among scholars. Lewis himself defined mysticism as a “direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.”C.S.Lewis,The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol.3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, Walter Hooper, ed.(San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007),109. Noting that most mystics do not seek visions or physical manifestations, Lewis added, “There is no reasoning in it, but many would say it is an experience of the intellect—the reason resting in its enjoyment of its object.”The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis,Vol. 3,109.

By his own definition, Lewis did not consider himself to be a mystic. In Letters to Malcolm, he said that in younger days when he took walking tours, he loved hills, even mountain walks, but he didn’t have a head for climbing. In spiritual ascents, he also considered himself one of the “people of the foothills,” someone who didn’t dare attempt the “precipices of mysticism.” He added that he never felt called to “the higher level—the crags up which mystics vanish out of sight.”C.S.Lewis,Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1964),63

Despite this disclaimer, Lewis must certainly have been one of the most mystically minded of those who never formally embarked on the Mystical Way. We see this in the ravishing moments of Sweet Desire he experienced ever since childhood, in his vivid sense of the natural order as an image of the spiritual order, in his lifelong fascination with mystical texts, and in the mystical themes and images he so often appropriated for his own books. As his good friend Owen Barfield once remarked, Lewis radiated a sense that the spiritual world is home, that we are always coming back to a place we have never yet reached.C.S.Lewis,They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914–1963),Edited by Walter Hooper. New York: Macmillan, 1979,316.

Though he did not use the term to describe himself, Lewis’s spiritual intuitions were greatly enriched by his reading of Christian mystics and their interpreters. If he didn’t think every Christian should embark on the Mystical Way, he clearly believed that every Christian will be able to learn from it. Lewis once distinguished between believing a doctrine and realizing it. Christians may assent to a doctrinal truth without its having much effect on their daily mindset. But once that truth is realized, embraced by head and heart, intellect and imagination, its transformative powers are greatly enhanced. Lewis felt that for all Christians, a study of the mystics could prove a valuable resource for realizing the very doctrines they have already affirmed.C.S.Lewis,“The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War,1931–1949. Walter Hooper, ed.(New York: HarperCollins,2004),495.

Lewis also asserted that “the Christian is called, not to individualism but to membership in the mystical body.” C.S.Lewis,“Membership,”Fern-Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity. WalterHooper, ed.(Glasgow, Scotland: Collins/Fountain, 1977),15He noted that “God communicates His presence” directly to those engaged in praise and adoration, that for many people “‘the fair beauty of the Lord’ is revealed chiefly while they worship Him together.”C.S.Lewis,Reflections on the Psalms. (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958),93. Lewis also urged Christians to call to mind frequently their ultimate goal: “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.”C.S.Lewis,Mere Christianity(New York: Macmillan, 1952),120.

02.  Putting On Christ

Lewis defined the basic Christian walk not in terms of striving after ethical ideals, but in terms of mystical transformation. In Mere Christianity, he explained succinctly that “every Christian is to become a little Christ.” He added that “putting on Christ” is “not one among many jobs a Christian has to do; it is not a sort of special exercise for the top class. It is the whole of Christianity.”Mere Christianity,153.

What does it mean to “put on Christ”? At the very least, it means to put off the Adam within. As Lewis put it,

All day long, and all the days of our life, we are slipping, sliding, falling away—as if God were, to our present consciousness, a smooth inclined plane on which there is no resting. . . . The gravitation away from God, ‘the journey homeward to habitual self,’ must, we think, be a product of the Fall.C.S.Lewis,TheProblem of Pain (London: Collins, 1940),63.

Like the first pair, we crave a godlike control over our environment and over others. We prefer knowledge and power, instruments for securing the mastery of Self, over self-emptying love and vulnerability. We constantly reach out for the attribute of divinity that we can never have: sovereignty. We make the same mistake our first parents made: we would be as gods. And thereby, we forfeit two attributes of divine perfection that we could have had: abiding love and eternal life.

How is God to redeem his creatures who have taken a wrong turn, reaching out for the one attribute of Deity we can never fully attain? He cannot simply exchange our badness for goodness, our “selfness” for his “godness.” This would violate our free will and negate our essential being as images of his nature. He can only point us back to the right path, give us revelations from without (Spirit-guided teachings and stories) and within (the witness and work of the Spirit directly on human consciousness).

If the Spirit is to carry on this reclamation project, he must have as a template the most profound, most terrible test of the Good that ever was, the greatest-ever temptation to abandon self-emptying love and reach out for the power and control we all desire. Jesus was God in the flesh. But he emptied himself of divine power and knowledge—so much so that he didn’t know the time and date of his return. And it appears he wasn’t absolutely sure whether he had to go through the crucifixion. In Gethsemane, he asked several times, in his terrible anxiety and sadness, if there were any other way the cosmic drama of redemption could be accomplished. There was not, and he obediently drank of that cup.

If humans were to be guided back to their true Source, there needed to be the ultimate test: the human who would cling to love in the worst possible extremity, who would not reach out for self-preservation or power or control. Jesus passed the early tests when Satan offered him respite from physical hunger, earthly rule and glory, and a chance to prove that angels would come to his aid. But these were low hurdles compared to the Passion. When Peter asked him if it could be avoided, Jesus recognized that as a ploy of Satan. At Gethsemane, he asked the same question again, but ultimately, he submitted his will if there could be no other way.

And so, he underwent physical torture, humiliation, and a slow, painful death. He endured betrayal or abandonment by his friends, mockery by the soldiers and crowds. Ultimately, in some way we cannot understand, he endured the despair of feeling abandoned by the Father, of taking upon himself all the sufferings, all the mistakes, all the sins and blasphemies of all humans at all times. And he bore the weight, did not flinch from the task. He did not call down angels to his rescue; he did not call out imprecations upon his torturers or his faithless followers. Love passed the test; Goodness was not broken, even when embodied in frail flesh at its worst extremity.

Somehow this act of the obedient Son, emptied of power in suffering flesh, was mystically taken out of time back up into the timeless, into the nature of the Godhead, somewhere beyond the stars. Lewis described the Incarnation as not just the great redemptive moment in human history, but as a cosmic event. He portrayed God coming down to earth in order to draw earthly things up into heaven:

Sleep, sweat, footsore weariness, frustration, pain, doubt, and death, are, from before all worlds, known by God from within. The pure light walks the earth; the darkness, received into the heart of Deity, is there swallowed up. Where, except in uncreated light, can darkness be drowned?Letters to Malcolm,70–71.

Perhaps the atonement was also a work of vicarious empowerment. As the Spirit guides human spirits, the indwelling Infinite knows exactly what is being asked of every human heart. The Spirit, who is the same being as the Son, knows, with sighs that cannot be spoken, the most profound test possible for any human to have ever faced. He can show all humans that their worst sufferings are known and their worst temptations can be overcome.

All human journeys are either back to God or away from him, falling further and further into Self—pride, lack of love, and self-exile. We are all called upon, as Lewis put it, to “tread Adam’s dance backward.”The Problem of Pain,89. We must unlearn the mistake of the first Adam and, by God’s grace, imitate the second, innocent Adam. We must cease to reach for the godlike knowledge and power that were never ours, could never be ours, and reach instead for the godlike attributes to which we are more than welcome—eternal being and eternal loving. As Lewis put it, “The whole purpose for which we exist is to be taken into the life of God.”Mere Christianity, 141.

We start by expanding the circle of what we value and cherish—from ourselves to our family to our tribe to all humanity to all creation. We can see this progressive revelation, the widening circle of value, as the Old Testament unfolds. And Jesus summarized the whole journey in his command to keep the whole law by loving God and loving our neighbors.

Of course, both these commands can seem daunting to souls still aching because of our exile from Eden. It may be more a discipline at first than a habit of mind. But as the Spirit’s inflowing energy becomes more available to seasoned travelers, his grace and love to us flow out to others as grace and love from us to them. It’s not two different things: it’s just the mirror, polished to perfection at great cost, reflecting a Light that will outlast the stars.

03.  Advice From C. S. Lewis on Experiencing the “Region of Awe”

From C. S. Lewis, “The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931–1949. Walter Hooper, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2004),

  • Act in obedience, whether or not you feel supported by feelings of God’s presence or of personal fulfillment in what you are doing. Beginning swimmers may feel that the water will not support them, that they will go straight to the bottom. But they must act upon what they know to be true, to dive in and begin swimming, learning only by doing that their feelings of dread were not to be trusted. (506–507)
  • Be wary of trying to create a “syllabus” for stages of spiritual growth. Every spiritual journey has its own rhythms, as seen in the very different careers of Peter and Paul. Any attempt to map out one’s spiritual journey in advance may lead to despair in those who feel they have fallen behind and presumption in those who feel they are right on schedule. (914)
  • Be careful not to confuse one’s experience of God with the totality of God’s work in your life. Experience is only the part of an event that is present to one’s consciousness. The patient may have a vivid experience of pain, but it is the doctor who understands the underlying cause and its cure. (929)

04.  Recommended Books a bout C. S. Lewis and Spiritual Formation

Lyle W. Dorsett. Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004). Dorsett races Lewis’s spiritual maturation after his conversion in his early thirties, with particular attention to his increasingly profound understanding of prayer and his work as a “soul physician” for others.

David C. Downing. Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005). Downing explores how Lewis’s wide reading in Christian mysticism enhanced his personal faith and enriched his imaginative writing.

Colin Duriez. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Santa Monica, CA: Hidden Springs Press, 2003). A unique dual biography that shows how kindred souls can sharpen each other’s intellects and imaginations, as steel sharpens steel. 

C. S. Lewis: Readings for Meditation and Reflection, Walter Hooper, ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). A judicious selection of brief passages, many from lesser-known books, offering Lewis’s unique blend of insight and inspiration.

Peter J. Schakel. Is Your Lord Large Enough? How C. S. Lewis Expands Our View of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008). A spiritually nourishing book that examines C. S. Lewis’s role as a spiritual mentor, in a format that will encourage readers in their own faith and worship.


About the Author

David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabeth town College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He is the author of four books on C. S. Lewis, including Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy(University of Massachusetts Press, 1992) and The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith (InterVarsity, 2002).