C. S. Lewis: A Circular Conversion

06 Jul

C.S. Lewis wrote two books describing his conversion experience. The first, Surprised by Joy, is the more famous of the two, and is often sold in Lewis box sets. I love the book and have probably read it five or six times. Lewis’s style is entertaining, of course, but what I particularly like is how much he talks about books–good books, bad books, and a particular pop-book that left a very young Lewis with nightmares of giant insects. I owe Lewis a great debt for writing Surprised by Joy. Aside from other considerations, through it he introduced me to two of his favorite authors, George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton, who have since become favorite authors of mine.

The second, and lesser known, books Lewis wrote was called The Pilgrim’s Regress. It is about the same conversion experience described in Surprised by Joy, but Lewis wrote it as an allegory rather than an autobiography. Not surprisingly, Lewis draws somewhat on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress for his story. Lewis uses Bunyan’s dream motif to tell the story, and, like Bunyan’s, his story includes a giant, a worldly wiseman of sorts, and a few other characters comparable with Bunyan’s.

But there the similarity ends. For one thing, Lewis, as a scholar, is far less inclined to preach than the preacher Bunyan. In writing The Pilgrim’s Progress, sometimes Bunyan would drop his allegorical terminology altogether in order to make some spiritual point. Not so with Lewis. For another, the goals of Bunyan’s “Christian” and Lewis’s “John” are very different. Christian, like Bunyan himself, struggled with a burden of guilt and doubt. But John goes on his journey, not to save his soul, but to find his “Island”–the source of those immortal longings which, for the young Lewis, became an end in themselves, even as he was becoming an atheist.

John struggles westward, searching for his Island, but he eventually comes to a great chasm in the earth between himself and his Island. He wants to cross it, but the only way is by allowing Mother Kirk to take him across. So he instead wanders along the edge of the cottage, trying to find some different means of reaching the other side. He doesn’t find any such thing, of course, and eventually he is driven to the foot of the cliff at the point of the lady Reason’s sword. There he meets Mother Kirk, who tells him the way across. Eventually John finds his Island, but it is not what he expects–not the wild object of his desires, but rather, the back side of the Landlord’s country, which he cannot reach from the west. John has to return again to his home country.

As John approaches his home country once again, he recognizes the rightness of the Landlord’s requirement that he live there. And that, perhaps, is one of the strongest themes in The Pilgrim’s Regress. Immortal longings are important, because they point us to God. But they are not an end in themselves. God gave us physical bodies for a reason. Even in regards to our spiritual lives, we cannot simply be “spiritual,” contrary to the currently popular belief in spirituality without religion. In order for John to cross the chasm–to be saved–he depends on Mother Kirk’s presentation of the truth. John cannot simply be spiritual while refusing to submit to the spiritual authority that represents the Landlord.

Just as the physical church is necessary, so are physical attachments. As he nears his home country, John realizes that our attachments to particular placements and people are ordained specifically by the Landlord. Local affections are not “unspiritual.” Rather, they make us more like God. In John’s words:

Passing to-day by a cottage, I shed tears
When I remembered how once I had dwelled there
With my mortal friends who are dead. Years
Little had healed the wound that lay bare.

Out, little spear that stabs. I, fool, believed
I had outgrown the local, unique sting,
I had transmuted away (I was deceived)
Into love universal the lov’d thing.

But Thou, Lord, surely knewest Thine own plan
When the angelic indifferences with no bar
Universally loved but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pain ofthe particular;

Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,
Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,
Embodies and embitters and turns all
Spirit’s sweet water to astringent soul.

That we, though small, may quiver with fire’s same
Substantial form as Thou–nor reflect merely,
As lunar angel, back to thee, cold flame.
Gods we are, Thou hast said: and we pay dearly.

 In a modern world that denies the value of particular physical things, Lewis’s words deserve special attention. We are inclined toward an indefinite spiritualism that excludes the physical church and a vague nationalistic patriotism that has nothing to do with our homes or neighbors. Lewis found that sort of vague nationalistic patriotism detestable from his boyhood, having a natural dislike of mass movements–meaning, in his case, that he strongly disliked imperialism. Church was more difficult. But Lewis, realizing that his newfound religion could not be practiced in solitude, returned to the church that he abandoned as a youth. Like John’s, Lewis’s journey, spurred by immortal longings, ended with the commonplace. And Lewis slowly learned to value that.

 Perhaps we all need to be reminded, with Lewis’s “John,” that the God who made us in His image gave us the need for attachment to physical things, to specific people and places. We are not being unspiritual, or unpatriotic, by placing a high value on those things closest to us. And, in any case, our supposedly higher, and non-physical, values and feelings cannot take us so far as we might think. As Lewis, and John, discovered, the longest way around may only be the shortest way home. After all, the world is round.

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Posted by on July 6, 2012 in Spiritual Writings


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