The Genius of “The Grand Miracle”

The twelfth-century mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome; the Cross as the Tree of Life. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/tree-life-0

The twelfth-century mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome; the Cross as the Tree of Life.
https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/tree-life-0

One of the wonderful things about Lewis’ article, “The Grand Miracle,” is that it incarnates the very virtue that Lewis says demonstrates the reality of the miracle of the Incarnation.  For one thing, he surprises us.  As Western moderns, we would have anticipated that Lewis would have reveled in the spirituality of the Christian religion or the more theological aspects of the Incarnation touching specifically upon “salvation”.  Instead, he revels in the truth of the Incarnation by reveling in nature.  The virtue of the Incarnation is the way it leads to the redemption and renewal of all of nature.

But note that his argument is not based upon abstract philosophical arguments, nor upon proof-texting from Scripture.  Rather, it is all a reflection upon the amazing complexity of nature, in its twisted ugliness and in its inherent beauties.  Especially, Lewis wants us to recognize that, because of the Incarnation – the whole story of Jesus, past, present and future – nature is going to be an even more wonderful thing than we have ever known.

Lewis in his own way incarnates the Incarnation in his examination of what the Incarnation means for us.  His  nature-focused explanation of the truth of the Incarnation enlightens our whole understanding of what Jesus has done for mankind.  It makes us think about the Christian story, the Christian religion, in a way that seems to be rather ignored by many.  It shines a grandeur upon the Christian faith by drawing in the whole story of the Creation, it’s fall, redemption, and renewal.  It causes passages of Scripture, such as Romans 8, to stand out in sharp relief, more than they do in sermons and books focused on “salvation” and “justification.”  It helps to open a door to Christian reflection on how we relate to the environment.  It helps us see our lives in that “whole, huge pattern” of Incarnation so that the very air we breath and the sun shining on the flowers and the birds singing in the trees leads us to think about our own personal and corporate redemption as humans.

I could go on, but my point is that the essay is like a missing chapter in much of Evangelical thinking about the story of Jesus.  Lewis, via this essay, steps into our minds, lifts them up from their limited perspectives, and brings us up into an air filled with wonder, both spiritual and natural.  We suddenly see ourselves in a truly sacramental universe.  We find the truth of Christian faith established in our hearts in a new and wonderful way that makes us to not only want to kiss the Cross, but the very earth on which we stand.

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Lewis’ Anglicanism: Imagery in the Liturgy

Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry; the home church of C. S. Lewis

Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry; the home church of C. S. Lewis

Anyone who tries to keep up with the secondary literature on Lewis has to recognize that the idea of Lewis being a misogynist is pure balderdash. One of the greatest proofs of this fact is his essay in God in the Dock: “Priestesses in the Church.” While some look at this essay as a proof of the opposite, a close reading of it demonstrates his great esteem for the opposite sex.

In this essay, Lewis says that women are perfectly capable of doing all the things a man may do as a priest in the Church, save only one thing, and that one thing has nothing to do with capability. It has to do with the reality of gender in God’s universe. Our Lord is a guy. When the priest – standing in for the Lord – speaks as God’s representative to the Church (the Bride of Christ), the imagery presented requires that a man fill this role.

I have not, however, gotten back into this essay because I want to write about the idea of priestesses. I do so because of the glimpse that it gives us of one aspect of Lewis’ Anglicanism. We find here Lewis being sensitive to the imagery presented by the traditional liturgy. He writes as one who accepts and appreciates it. Indeed, it is this appreciation for the imagery in the liturgy in this particular instance that gives the reason for his position on priestesses. If he did not abide by this meaning behind the priest’s role in a particular part of the liturgy, he would have no reason to argue against priestesses.

Henry Blamires is quoted by Lyle Dorsett as saying, “Lewis was at times quite high on the Anglican spectrum and at other times rather low. It all depended upon the doctrine and the practice.” (1) We know that historic, low-church Anglicanism which used the Prayer Book and the basic elements of the traditional liturgy would not have made much of the imagery at issue above, though it is congruent with it. Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry – Lewis’ home church – was of this ilk. But it is apparent that, when Lewis attended his church, he did not have the same distaste for its liturgy that he may have had for the hymns being used – we know he tended not to like those. He appreciated the symbolic imagery he viewed at worship. One would also conclude that he would not have appreciated today’s low church Evangelical Anglicanism, which hardly consults the Prayer Book at all, and has little respect for the priestly imagery in the liturgy.

It must be mentioned, however, that in the first letter of Letters to Malcolm, Lewis states that he could bear with any liturgy just as long as it is the same at every service. This does not, of course, undo anything he has said in the above essay.

Being the imaginative and aesthetically oriented man that he was, it is no surprise that he would pick up on the symbolic imagery of the traditional liturgy and appreciate it. For those of us who are interested in Lewis as a case-study of Anglican laity, he reminds us of that great company that has tread and still treads The Narrow Road to Glory, uplifted and strengthened by the beauty of the drama in the traditional liturgy, as composed by Cranmer in The Book of Common Prayer.

Do you have a story of how the liturgy of the Prayer Book has been a benefit to you spiritually?  Why not share it with us in the comments below.  Thanks!

(1) Lyle Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place – The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis, p. 97.

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Summarizing Lewis’ comments on Gethsemane

This video was shot in the orchard garden behind The Kilns in Oxford.  I summarize Lewis’ three main observations about Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane in his book, Letters to Malcolm.  I will not be using this clip in my new course on the book, because the lighting didn’t work, as you will be able to see.  I wasn’t real wild about how it went either. Anyhow, the clip is about 5 & a half minutes.

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Discerning the Body

I recorded this 1 minute video in the sanctuary of Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, the home church of C. S. Lewis.  I refer to how Lewis takes the Church to task over its divisions related to The Lord’s Supper.  Click on the link below to see it.

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Busy in Oxford

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That’s me at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, doing a video shoot for my course today.

Hey, Folks:

Sorry I’m behind posts, but this video course on Letters to Malcolm is keeping me pretty busy.  It’s like preparing a sermon or two, then delivering them, plus recording them on video (with all that involves), every day!   Whew!

I’ll be back on schedule when I get home.  🙂

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A Barfieldian Guess

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If you are like me, the picture of the origin of the new heavens and the new earth in the last letter to “Malcolm” is a bit odd.  It certainly is not the depiction of the after-life we find in Lewis’ other writings.  Why has Lewis seemingly changed his view of the after-life?  I’m not sure he really has.

The origin of this idea or “guess” as Lewis calls it of the afterlife is Owen Barfield’s idea of the power of the soul which we find in his book Saving Appearances.  Lewis has already mentioned this book twice before in Letters to Malcolm.  Barfield sees the soul through its participative and figuring power as capable of creating reality.  In a sense, the soul is the source of being of the world we perceive and categorize.  The soul has a creational power.

Lewis says the human soul – augmented, as it were, by its union with the creative power of the life of Christ Himself – is going to be the source of the New World and the new life to come.  Yes, Christ is going to prepare a place for us, but he is going to do so through his enabling union with our souls.  And as Barfield anticipated centuries of human life as necessary for the recreation of the human idea of reality in this world, so Lewis says it is going to take aeons for our souls to recreate the new world.

This is why his depiction of the after-life strikes us.  It’s not the traditional idea.  It’s a Barfieldian resurrection; a Barfieldian after-life.  Why does Lewis do this?  Does he really believe that this is the nature of the resurrection?  I’m not so sure.

He says he’s only guessing.  He certainly has not depicted the after-life in this fashion before.  Lewis went along with a lot of what Barfield said about the powers of the soul, but he stopped short at their ability to actually affect objective reality.  Is it possible – and frankly, it strikes me as just the kind of thing Lewis might do – that he is here at the end of his book winking at Barfield and saying, “OK, Owen.  All these years I’ve denied this much power to the soul, but I tell you what.  I’ll grant it to you in the after-life!  There all things are possible – even your idea of the soul.”  It could be.  But then, I’m only guessing back at Lewis.  What do you think? 🙂

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Morning Prayer and Getting the Day Started

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While preparing for my Letters to Malcolm course, I’ve been reading a bit in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.  Since Lewis’ book is about private prayer and not corporate, I wanted to see if Bonhoeffer would raise any issues about corporate prayer that would act as a foil to Lewis.

Anyhow, I’ve just read Bonhoeffer on how important it is to have prayer in the morning before going to work.  His words about our daily work are really insightful.  But I pause a bit at the way he talks so absolutely about the relation of morning prayer and work, or “how our day goes.”  It’s just because of what my own experience has been through the years regarding the matter of praying before you do anything else in the day.  Here’s my reaction:

I have found this rule about morning prayer and work to be generally true.  But if for some reason we miss this particular time for prayer in the morning, the Lord’s mercies are through the whole day.  We may suspect that our struggles through the day may have been lessened had we prayed, but we can bank on God mercifully hearing us through the day when we need him.  We have to beware of thinking we are locked into an automatic equation: no morning prayer = no good day.  It leads to a legalistic relating to the Lord and a mercenary attitude as well.  We want to pray in the morning because it is the right thing to do and God deserves our praises – not so we can have a happier or more successful day.  Our life with God is based, not on our performance in any duty, but in the mercy and grace of God to us through Christ.  My 2 cents.

What are your thoughts about it?  Do you feel down or oppressed in someway if you have missed a time of prayer first thing in the morning?  Why is prayer at the beginning of the day so important to you?

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Lewis and Silent Prayer

praying-in-the-church-5891x3933_44885

I’ve been reflecting on Lewis’ words about silent prayer in Letters to Malcolm off and on for a while.  He talks about it in the early letters of the book.  As he explains the role that words play in our prayers, he mentions that silent prayer is better than prayer with words.  It is common for people to wonder just what he is talking about when he says this.

In Letter III, he says that he is not referring to what mystics will call silent prayer.  We understand that to be a reference to some sort of fixed vision, in which case the mind is not attempting expression but is filled with revelation.  Rather, as he writes in Letter II, he means a prayer when the Lord is quickly bringing people and situations to our minds and we know that we express our desires concerning these things as they move through our consciousness with that intensity of concentration that one knows as a real communication.  He also admits that such praying requires one to be unusually fit both in body and spirit.  It is not in this life an experience we should consider as “the norm.”

I have tried to understand why Lewis thought this kind of praying superior to prayer with words.  I have thought that perhaps he considered it somehow as a more purely spiritual experience.  But that is not what is going on here.  It’s actually an application of definition and logic.

What are words?  They are vehicles of communication for our thoughts.  Words serve thoughts.  Words are thus secondary to thoughts; it’s “the thought that counts.”  True, the use of words may have an inherent art or beauty and be the focus of attention in certain cases.  But when we consider the main purpose of words, we recognize their serving function.  That is why Lewis considers a prayer without words a better prayer – if it can be achieved – because it is “purer” in a sense.  It is filled with the main issue, which is the petition itself.

Yet, Lewis recognizes our limitation in this area, as I’ve mentioned above.  That is why words are still very important in this life.  Since our thoughts are so easily distracted or adversely affected by our circumstances, they often need the aid of words to facilitate concentration and communication when we pray.  As Lewis depicts the situation, words help our thoughts to run in canals instead of getting spread all out into shallow puddles and thus fail to be effective.

The upshot of this is to recognize that there will be times when we are carried along by the Spirit in prayer and words are not needed; he knows what we are thinking.  But our normal practice is to work on our words to be sure they are serving our thoughts well.  Since we all need help in that area, the use of the prayers of other people – “ready-made” prayers, as Lewis calls them – can be of much use.

Of course, the best source is the book of Psalms.  The more familiar we are with that book, the more likely the words of our prayers will be what they should be.  My two cents.

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How to Enjoy a Joy

flockofbirdsNow that our Kickstarter campaign is over and I am going to be able to record lessons on Letters to Malcolm from Oxford, I’m getting back into the book earnestly.  Today, while reading the last letter on petitionary prayer, I was impressed by Lewis’ explanation of how we are to treat the mental images that go through our minds as we pray.  He says we must not fixate on any one, but treat them all the way William Blake speaks of the passing joys of life.  Here is Blake’s poem in full.  It is titled “Eternity”:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Blake likens a passing joy to a bird flying by in the air.  If we try to grab it and hang onto it, we will kill it.  But if we simply enjoy it as it passes, we can expect to enjoy all the other joys to come.  Of course, the last line speaks of something more splendid than that, but that’s the general principle Lewis is concerned about.

The idea of binding a joy to one’s self, of insisting on the ownership or repetition of a pleasure, reminds one of Lewis’ warning against saying “Encore” to the blessings God brings in our lives.  When we like an experience, we are tempted to seek to have it again.  But God is far too creative to simply repeat his acts.  He has something else in store out of the eternal sunrise that is his glorious Mind.

And here enters the danger.  If we insist on an encore and will not be content with the transitory nature of God’s blessings in this life, we will not only fail to experience that one blessing again, we will spoil it.  It’s nature is to fly.  It’s like the manah in the wilderness; if you hang onto it and don’t eat it while you can, it spoils.

At the same time, as the blessing is spoiled by this demand for the encore, those other flocks of blessings that are passing over us are lost to us.  Our eyes have been elsewhere than to the Sunrise.

To rightly benefit from the joys God sends us, we must enjoy them according to their nature.  We must let them be “passing” and enjoy them temporarily.  And we do not need to be afraid that, if we do not hang onto this joy, we will never have another one.  God is too abundant in his creativity and goodness to allow that.  We can afford to kiss the joy as it flies by, because we know another is on the way.

But the best thing of all is to live in The Sunrise, for God is the source of all blessings.  Indeed, He is the greatest blessing.  In Him is the Life that enables any creature to enjoy any blessing.  He is all Blessedness itself, and He, unlike the blessings of this transitory world, is everlasting.  In His presence is fullness of joy, and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Image: http://cdn.phys.org/newman/gfx/news/hires/flockofbirds.jpg
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R. J. Neuhaus on C. S. Lewis and the Public Square

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A blast from the past:

In 1998, Richard John Neuhaus wrote an article which touches on Lewis’ book Miracles. It was entitled “C. S. Lewis in the Public Square,” and you can read it here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/12/002-c-s-lewis-in-the-public-square . Neuhaus speculates how C. S. Lewis would write and speak for the Christian faith were he to be living in the twenty-first century. Some things have changed since the mid-twentieth. Lewis could foresee that modern thinking would continue to wreak havoc in our society, but, in his day, he could still count on having a good deal of common ground with unbelievers. He could argue with them rationally – which he does in Miracles. He could also tell stories with meanings people would appreciate and do so with a measure of confidence that such things would echo as “true” in the minds of the public. Neuhaus spends time explaining how such a situation no longer exists in the thinking public square. People today feel the irrational is the place to look for meaning. Yes, I know that sounds crazy, but there it is. Multiculturalism has also deteriorated a common recognition of who we are as a people, based on the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we have inherited from the past. This being the case, the public square is on a different footing from that which Lewis addressed and so we naturally wonder what he would do today.

Neuhaus’ conclusion is that Lewis would probably go on doing what he did anyway, with needful adjustments. Neuhaus says this because he recognises that the approach Lewis took in the past is still needed, in spite of its obstacles, and that Lewis would realise the same. Lewis would still argue with people about what they find as true in daily life. He would continue to speak to individuals as one human to another, trying to help them recognise what is true and real in the world in which they live; he would still appeal to common human experience. Also, Lewis would continue to tell stories; stories which reveal the truth in our universe. Though the stories of our world are being emptied, theoretically, of their worth, nevertheless the realities of our world are still there and stories still do their job in communicating them to people. People are still people.

Neuhaus also adds his own opinion of the great necessity of the witness of the Church to continue in life and liturgy (meaning, those liturgies that, in their drama, tell the story of Creation and Redemption, such as are found in the Orthodox, the Roman, and the Anglican Churches). While we seek to engage people with argument and story in the public square, we need the Church’s witness to point to as the living representative in our culture of the presence and reality of the kingdom of God; the historical presence of the Real Story of our world. I think he’s right.

You may want to keep a dictionary beside you as you read his article, but it is worth it. As for how it affects our study, we must recognise that the arguments Lewis makes in Miracles seem convincing enough to ourselves, who have a more absolutist and supernatural understanding of our world, but they may not be convincing to others. As a result, we must be creative in how we communicate the same things we learn in Miracles to the people around us.

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