William Griffin on Mere Christianity

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C.S. Lewis: Spirituality for Mere Christians

An abstract of the book, from its author

Written By William Griffin

After World War I, Noel Coward (who’ll make a special guest appearance in Chapter 2) redesigned much of public moral behavior in London and New York in the plots of his plays and musicals. Sadly, much of his audience redesigned their own lives along the Cowardly model. In the early 1930s he even titled one play A Design for Living. In it three characters were plagued with sexual confusion; the best solution they could come up with, even with Coward’s seemingly infinite moral boundaries, was a ménage à trois. “All the hormones in my blood are working overtime,” Gilda tells Ernest. “They’re rushing madly in and out of my organs like messenger boys.”

For his own spiritual life, Lewis could have taken the Cowardly model of morality-without-morals too, but he didn’t. He could have developed a design from the spiritual masters who preceded him, but he didn’t. He’d read Julian of Norwich (died after 1416) and John of the Cross (died 1591), and he’d perused Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life (1609) and William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728). But these authors were members of the clergy and the religious orders, and Lewis wasn’t. He was a layperson, and a layperson he wanted to remain. And so he took bits and bobs from these and other spiritual masters to design a spiritual life of his own. A sort of spirituality for—and indeed, by and of—the Mere Christian.

Now, the first thing one notices about this new, modern spirituality, especially as exemplified by Lewis, is that it was harried and hurried, heltered and skeltered, higgled and piggled. It wasn’t at all the smooth, well-chrismed spirituality of the great religious orders—the Augustinians, Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits. It wasn’t driven by the Divine Office having to be recited or sung at regular, or irregular, intervals during the day or night, inside or outside the monastery. Rather it was a patchwork of prayers, readings and exercises done as best as he could at a variety of times—most of them not at all convenient—and in a variety of places—most not at all conducive, to prayer or any other religious activity.

Lewis welcomed the normality of the life of the layperson, if not the regularity of the life of the religious. But above and beyond the obligations of the cowled and coifed religious, he had his own life commitments. And, as well as any prior or prioress, any abbot or abbess, he knew that in an interruption—one of the many that continuously vex the normal life—there lay a potentially divine encounter.

“Things are pretty bad here,” he wrote to a lifelong friend in Belfast in his Christmas letter for 1943. His adoptive mother's ulcer had gotten worse; domestic help was harder to come by; continued interruption to his daily round of activities caused him great unhappiness.

But what he was calling interruption, or so he came to learn from prayer and counsel, was very often “one's real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one's ‘real life’ is a phantom of one's own imagination. This at least,” he concluded to his friend, “is what I see at moments of insight; but it's hard to remember all the time....”

Lewis’s spirituality, then, is the spirituality of the Mere Christian, man and woman, in the twentieth century. It’s marked by interruption, distraction, coincidence. Its hallmark is encountering the divine in the oddest places. This sort of reading of Lewis’s life will reveal—not in all its pyrotechnics, but certainly in some of its pedantics—just how he managed to pull it off.

Chapter 1

In the diversion process, Lewis went through several steps—stages that people before him and after him have trod. In truth many of us have had to tread them over and over again in our life times. In order to keep our sanity, it’s well from time to time to reflect on just what these steps were in Lewis’s life.
(For the first four steps I am indebted to my wife, Emilie Griffin, whose landmark book in the study of religious conversion, Turning Reflections on the Experience of Conversion, was published by Doubleday in 1980.)

First of these is desire....

Second stage is dialectic....

Third stage is struggle....

Fourth and last stage is surrender, unconditional surrender symbolized by the white flag....

To this four-stage diversion process, which must traverse potholes, detours, loose chippings, and all the other detritus of suburban British roadways, I would add a fifth, wreckage....

Why is conversion so hard? It’s the almost universal experience of converts that however much spiritual ground one gains the one day, that much is lost the next day, or seems to be lost, and one must forever contend with the maddening thrum, the interminable chin-wag, a botheration of bothers, the tattered white shirt tied to a stick, the tea cup with the brownish vein. The perpetual conversion, if it may be so called, Lewis grew accustomed to, and in like manner the modern Mere Christian will soon discover that the never-ending conversion process is normal, part and parcel of the MC’s daily life.

Chapter 2

We all confront the Spirit of the Age, when trying to make spiritual sense of the world. When we’re young, it often appears attractive, but quickly becomes seductive, swallowing us up like the Vacuum Machine Creature in The Yellow Submarine, who, when there’s nothing left to swallow up, swallows himself. And for those of us who don’t flee the confrontation, the Spirit of the Age, which specializes in short-term gains, continues to attract us as we grow older; which is another way of saying, we’re never too old to make the wrong choice.

All the commentators on the spiritual life note that one’s own life experiences invariably lead to an early crossroad. One may choose to veer to the left or veer to the right. But there’s always a third choice. One may turn around and retrace one’s tracks to the cloister of the womb.

The fathers and mothers of spiritual direction did just that; from the earliest centuries of the Christian era, they were loners, eremites and stylites. They retreated from the city to the desert, there to await the Second Coming, which, if the Scriptures were worth the parchment they were written on, was sure to come on the morrow; if not on the morrow, then on the morrow thereafter.

When that sacred event didn’t come, these loners became cenobites; that is to say, they gathered together in a city of their own; a community, a convent a monastery. Their bond was, among other things, their hatred of the city and everything in it. When not praying, they wove mats one day and unwove them the next. It was the praying that counted.

When Jesus refused to come on the short schedule, the cenobites extended their frame of reference still further. They no longer undid the mats they wove; they collected them until they had enough to visit the city, where they sold them for as much as the market would bear. Humanism, yes, but with an eschatological tinge.

This return to the marketplace, when they had left in such a huff some decades before, marked the beginning of incarnational humanism, the sort that Jesus personified in his recorded life. He too participated in the city-life of his time. He too approached the crossroad early in his public life. He too was tempted, three times, to accept the apples of this earth for little or no cost, and three times he refused.

So too with Lewis. When he came to the early crossroad, he chose not to retreat from the confrontation. Rather he considered the two options in front of him and, hearing the thrum of spiritual desire, he chose the harder but surer way. No doubt he drew some consolation from a writer whose epics he admired, John Milton. “I never could admire,” wrote Milton in a combative prose work entitled Areopagitica (1644), “a fugitive and cloistered virtue.”

Lewis chose the incarnational way, and the result of this choice would hold for him many surprises.

Chapter 3

Lewis didn’t think much of the Spirit of the Age, at least as he found it expressed in the public’s mind during his youth. When given a chance to express the perfect antidote to that Spirit, he chose to present the doctrines of the ages. In radio talks he explained what reason, the promulgator of natural revelation, told the honest person to think about values and behaviors. With only reason as their guide, some embraced the moral virtues and tried to put them into practice. But others, claiming that they were just nice, decent, ordinary chaps who wanted to be left alone—they sound a bit like Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion—they never answered the door of their humble cottage for fear that morality was the knocker....

When Lewis finished with reason, he turned to the Scriptures, the promulgator of supernatural revelation, and began to unfurl the reigning doctrines of Christianity, centering all the time on Jesus Christ.

"What are we to make of Jesus Christ?"

A compiler-editor once asked Lewis to write some paragraphs on this subject for a book titled Asking Them Questions, published by Oxford University Press in 1950.

There was a comic aspect to the question, Lewis thought. It was like asking a fly to comment on the elephant it was buzzing about. But he went about trying to develop just such a commentary.

The one recurring answer to the question, and the favorite one of non-Christians, was that Jesus was a moral teacher par excellence.

The other, rather alarming, answer was that Jesus made claims no moral teacher had ever made. Not Buddha, not Socrates, not Allah, not Confucius.
If you went to Buddha and asked, "Are you the son of Bramah?" he'd say, "My son, you are still in the vale of illusion." If you went to Socrates and asked, "Are you Zeus?" he'd laugh at you.

If you went to Mohammed and asked, "Are you Allah?" he'd rend his clothes and then cut your head off.

If you asked Confucius "Are you Heaven?" he'd probably reply, "Remarks that are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste."

The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said was out of the question. His were the claims either of a megalomaniac like Hitler or of the son of God himself.

“The only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”

So much for what Lewis made of Jesus Christ. That much we Mere Christian’s should make of Him also.

Chapter 4

In Letter XI of the infernal correspondence [The Screwtape Letters], Screwtape instructs his errant nephew on the uses of human laughter in the tempter’s trade. He doesn’t speculate on how many Devils can “trip the light fantastic” on the point of a pin, to use a Miltonic metaphor, but he does distinguish four causes of laughter. Joy, Fun, Joke Proper, and Flippancy.

But herein lies a philosophical error. Literary Devils aren’t philosophical Devils....
Expecting the answer yes, I once asked American philosopher Mortimer Adler if there was humor in Heaven. Heavens no! he replied. Angels intuit; they don’t have to think things through. No syllogisms for them; no enthymemes or epichiremes; no sorites. Major premise, minor premise, conclusion, all are one. With regard to a joke, Adler explained, a philosophical angel would intuit the punch line before the shaggy joke got much beyond the first word. And the same would apply to a theological angel, I should think, a cherub or seraph, a principality or domination.

Hence, Screwtape needn’t have specified “human” laughter in his letter to Wormwood, since all laughter is, by its very nature, human; that is to say, only humans can be joyful, funny, jocular, and flippant....

In Letter XI and indeed in the entire correspondence, Lewis seems to be saying, look to the comic, for therein one will see oneself. It’s instantaneous recognition, a caught-in-the-act portrait of oneself. First thing we notice, however, is that the image is distorted. That’s the imperfection. That’s what needs improvement in one’s spiritual life.

“Vanity of vanities,” saith Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity,” and nowhere is this vanity better shown than in comedy. Madam Eglantyne, the Prioress in The Canterbury Tales, is vain about her table manners, ever applying the napkin to her upper lip. Malvolio, the gangly steward in Twelfth Night, is vain about his yellow stockings and crossed garters. The Rev. Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice is vain about his marriageability, believing that a young woman’s polite but public refusal is really a mask for her acceptance.

Laugh at others, then. That’s what Lewis would have us do not only in Screwtape but also in Preface, for it’s to laugh at oneself. Such laughter can also be found in a third work of Lewis’s written in the 1940s [The Great Divorce].

Chapter 5
Not to put too fine a point on it, Lewis’s life, although rich in wit and love and prayer, was nonetheless a trudge. In a poem entitled “As One Oldster to Another,” written in his fifty-second year to an American of approximately the same age, he likened the Christian path through life to a night train, screaming through the stations toward the ultimate terminus, and he not knowing yet when to take down his case from the overhead rack.

What with fatigue of body and spirit, rudeness, rejection, deadly sins everywhere he put his feet, pains physical and spiritual, debilitating illness, and eventually death, the emotion Lewis felt most in life was drudge. Prayer helped, but just. In the end he too suffered, died, and was buried; in his case, under a larch in the graveyard surrounding Holy Trinity Church, Headington.

And so it is with the Mere Christian. Discovering the Christian path comes first. Faithfulness to the pathway comes next, even if the fog rolls in and one can’t see much beyond one’s nose. An Ordnance Survey map would help--its palette of pale colors always pleasing to the bleary eye—but where the Christian is ultimately heading, the crown surveyors have yet to map. Weariness dogs the MC’s tracks. And if it weren’t for moments of prayer and acts of belief—echoing the name of Jesus in the wilderness seemed to help—the MC would end up in a ditch, awaiting there the merciful arrival of death.

Without religion life on this earth can be made bearable. With religion life is acceptable. With Christianity life is hopeful. Keeping hope alive is the work of prayer. But more about prayer in the next chapter.

Chapter 6

The MC can pray anywhere, anytime, in any position. That seems so obvious, but it bears repeating many times. And if a person follows the advice, then one will find himself or herself praying in the damnedest places.

Some prayers, ready-made prayers, have words, and the petitions in these prayers may be festooned with spiritual ornaments of one’s own making; the way one festoons a Christmas tree.

Other prayers have no words. They consist in affections of the soul; that is to say, they are acts of love, not words—the lover communing with the beloved. In a manner of speaking, they’re festoons of the soul; adornments without the material things adorned. And it’s but a hop, skip, and jump from adornment such as this to adoration.

Does prayer work? That’s the powerful question all prayerful practitioners must ask themselves virtually every time they pray. When Jesus prayed for others, lepers leaped, paralytics pranced, the possessed smiled and made new friends, the newly dead arose from their cold sleep and asked for a nice warm meal. But when he prayed for himself, nothing happened. Does prayer work?

As in the natural life, so in the spiritual life, a little rain must fall. Things aren't better when one feels good about them; and they're not necessarily worse when one feels bad about them. And it's certainly all right if one has no feelings one way or the other.

The classical terminology of prayer refers to these ups and downs as consolation and desolation. And the spiritual masters have consistently said—and our spiritual experience has consistently proven true—that the one follows the other as night follows the day, and day follows the night.

But what about the volcanoes and tornados? Can irruptions and conniptions be considered a good for geological creation and, at the same time, a devastating evil for that part humankind caught in the wrong place? Lewis hasn’t a prayerful answer to that, nor indeed have the masters and mistresses of prayer before him.

Last of all, Lewis turns our minds to distraction in prayer, and distinguishes four kinds. There’s no prayer without it if the one praying is of humankind. It’s a natural flaw in a supernatural act, a brownish vein in the whitest cup, which shows that it’s been used by humans and has suffered in the process. Screwtape made a game of it for Wormwood, but his awkward nephew was a slow learner. When all is said and done, temptation was, and is, a deadly game.

One good thing about festoonery in prayer is that it’s a mechanism, albeit a clumsy one, for turning the inevitable distractions in a highly active intellect and imagination like Lewis’s into the very fabric of prayer itself.

Time was, in the history of prayer, when distractions were considered imperfections. Stories abound in ascetical literature about holy people being bedeviled by distractions during time of meditation. Such distractions inevitably had something to do with the problems they faced in everyday life. These men and women retaliated by ignoring such solutions as were presented during the meditation time. A noble strategy perhaps, but how many tactics in the turbulent history of the church have gone unheeded because solutions were presented, willy-nilly, during prayer!

In fact, Lewis’s notion of festoonery just might make sense to contemporary western society when it comes to prayer. The distractions are the prayer, and the pray-er can offer these distractions to the Lord much as the intellectually-challenged lay brother in ascetical lore juggled oranges in front of the statue of Mary the mother of Jesus. It was what he did best, and Mary the mother of Jesus acted accordingly.

Chapter 7

Early Sunday evening, June 8, 1941, Fred Paxford, the gangling gardener, sometime cook, and general factotum at "The Kilns," drove Lewis down Headington Road and St. Clement's, over Magdalen Bridge and up the High. Lewis alighted across from St. Mary the Virgin's. Solemn evensong was approaching; the vicar had asked him to speak. By the time Paxford parked the car and returned to the church, he had to fight his way in. The seats, the benches, the galleries, even the window ledges were hung about with undergraduates.

The vicar presiding, the organist intoned, the congregation sang, Lewis winced. How Screwtape hated the mewlings humans called music! How Lewis himself dreaded that in Heaven there would almost certainly be sweating pipes and a swelling organ!

When quiet descended, Lewis ascended the pulpit—the very pulpit from which began not only Methodism but also the Tractarian movement—and placed his manuscript on the lectern. "The Weight of Glory," it was entitled. He began to read, his voice deep, his tone serious, his appearance cheerful.

Reward for Christians was Heaven, he stated, but he quickly pointed out how like a siren the wail of worldliness had been for the last hundred years, leading people to believe that man's true home was on earth, that earth could be made into a sort of Heaven, or that if there were a heavenly Heaven, it was a long way off. Philosophies like progress and creative evolution promised happiness, but a happiness they couldn't seem to deliver.

Even if they could deliver, Lewis countered with a little logic, such happiness would die when we died, and so ultimately would the philosophies themselves.
He went on to articulate the spiritual longings of humankind. He paid special attention to desire; a wanderlust without compass or sextant throughout the natural world in search of happiness; a happiness that, no matter how long the day's trudge, was no closer to the horizon itself.

"Meanwhile," he said at the end, "the cross comes before the crown, and tomorrow is a Monday morning." He wanted the undergraduates to leave the church, not thinking about celestial glory, which would come at some unknown point in the future, and then not for everyone in the church, but about practical charity toward one's immediate neighbor.

Sometimes that sort of charity was like the hard labor of the hod carrier, toting the leaden gray mortar of his neighbor's shortcomings, a load lightened only by humility, a load that if not lightened tumbled the proud shoulders into the sopping trough.

As Lewis stepped down from the pulpit, the organ swelled, the congregation sang "Bright the vision that delighted," and the preacher beat a hasty exit onto the High.

As tomorrow for Lewis was a Monday morning, so tomorrow for us is the beginning of the week. But, as Lewis assured us and the Scripture reveals to us, the bearing of the cross is followed by the wearing of the crown as surely as the trudge from Monday through Saturday is followed by a stroll on Sunday.

In the meantime, it seems the week will never end....

Lewis’s spiritual legacy, if it’s anything, is to believe for oneself (and to encourage others to believe) the basic doctrines of Christianity and to put into action the basic practices of Christianity as they are taught by one’s denomination. All Christians are included; none excluded. It doesn’t require hopping, skipping, and jumping to another denomination. Oddly, the merer the Mere Christian’s Christianity becomes, the closer the Mere Christian moves to the center of his or her own denomination and the warmer the MC feels toward members of all the other denominations. Presumably, that’s where Jesus may be found discoursing on one thing or another. That one denomination should crow its supposed superiority over others in this regard is lamentable. It would be sheer knavery to prefer one nave to another. They’re all one to Screwtape, the knave of naves, and they’re all trouble to him.

That’s not to say that denominationalism is unimportant; indeed, it may even be necessary. But Lewis would never encourage a Christian to denounce one denomination for another. He’d say that ecumenism, however broadly or badly one defines it, is an historical movement, and hence will require inventions as revolutionary as the wheel and the passage of many eons before it’s accomplished.

Mere Christianity, on the other hand, can begin on a Monday morning....

Copyright ©2005 William Griffin.