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One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

C.S. Lewis on Brevity

February 17, 2021 — 17 Comments

Regular readers of Mere Inkling are accustomed to posts that require a bit of thinking.* This one will be different.

I opted for a simpler topic, wedged as this post will be, between two more thought-provoking subjects. Avoiding verbosity is a worthwhile goal. Admittedly, it’s harder for some of us to reach, than for others who are innately succinct.

I will simply say, to promote clear communication it is necessary to (1) strip away all extraneous words, and (2) ensure that we know what the words we use mean to our hearers or readers. (This is especially true when “preaching.”)

In terms of the meanings of words, C.S. Lewis describes the value of commonly shared or “learned” language. If a word, say “baptism,” or even something simpler, such as “tree,” meant the same thing to all—communication could be much more concise.

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity (“Before We can Communicate”).

[Such learned language] can say in ten words what popular [common] speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original.” Alas, because we lack that united vocabulary, this we must just put up with.”

Still, Lewis would argue: let’s please keep the unnecessary extraneous explanation to a bare minimum. (It would be an easy task to whittle that sentence down, wouldn’t it? Let’s try.)

C.S. Lewis says using the fewest necessary words is (usually) best.

[If you would like to read a slightly more developed essay on this subject,
search no farther than “Brevity & Clear Communication,” which was published in 2017.]


* I was tempted to write “a bit of cognitive interaction,” but realized I’d be undermining my purpose for this simple post in my very first sentence!

Prayers, Barbers & Saints

January 27, 2021 — 14 Comments

Barbers, and hairdressers, play a unique role in society. Let’s consider now two barbers whose interactions with great Christians contributed to our understanding of prayer.

Before we do, however, I wish to share another aspect of C.S. Lewis’ life which parallels many of our own. The great professor and author was exceptional for his knowledge, but in most other ways was just like us.

One example of Lewis’ normalness, is seen in his interactions with barbers. Due to the survival of much of his correspondence, we can witness a perennial tension—the desire of fathers that their sons cut their hair.

As a veteran whose adult son had a ponytail for several years, I understand the frustration of Lewis’ father, the Irish solicitor, when his son Jack lacked diligence in maintaining a neat appearance. In my own case, the die had been cast from my youth. Growing up in the late sixties, I did manage to sport a thick contemporary mane which chafed my own father, but too much of my youth was spent with a crewcut, the haircut-of-choice for my dad, the Marine Corps sergeant.

Presumably, while young Jack was still at home, his parents saw to it his hair was attended to. After his mother Florence’s death, and his move to boarding school, haircuts were a curious recurring theme in Lewis’ correspondence with his “Papy.” Below are a few of young Jack’s passing remarks on the subject.

Today I did a thing that would have gladdened your heart: walked to Leatherhead (for Bookham does not boast a barber) to get my hair cut. And am now looking like a convict (1914).

My dear Papy, Thanks very much for the photographs, which I have duly received and studied. They are artistically got up and touched in: in fact everything that could be desired–only, do I really tie my tie like that? Do I really brush my hair like that? Am I really as fat as that? Do I really look so sleepy? However, I suppose that thing in the photo is the one thing I am saddled with for ever and ever, so I had better learn to like it. Isn’t it curious that we know any one else better than we do ourselves? Possibly a merciful delusion (1914).

I am very sorry to hear that you were laid up so long, and hope that you now have quite shaken it off. I have had a bit of a cold, but it is now gone, and beyond the perennial need of having my hair cut, I think you would pass me as ‘all present and correct’ (1921).

I am afraid this has been an egotistical letter. But it is dull work asking questions which you can’t (at any rate for the moment) give a reply to. You do not need to be told that I hope you are keeping fairly well and that I shall be glad to hear if this is the case. For myself—if you came into the room now you would certainly say that I had a cold and that my hair needed cutting: what is more remarkable: you would (this time) be right in both judgements. Your loving son, Jack (1928)

Lewis’ High Street Barber

In the early 1950s, C.S. Lewis developed a meaningful relationship with his barber, based on their shared faith. Before we consider an essay inspired, in part, by this friendship, this 1951 letter reveals the affection Lewis held for the man.

My brother joins me in great thanks for all your kindnesses, and especially on behalf of dear little comical Victor Drewe—our barber, as you know.

When he cut my hair last week he spoke in the most charming way of his wife who has just been ill and (he said) ‘She looks so pretty, Sir, so pretty, but terribly frail.’ It made one want to laugh & cry at the same time—the lover’s speech, and the queer little pot-bellied, grey-headed, unfathomably respectable figure.

You don’t misunderstand my wanting to laugh, do you? We shall, I hope, all enjoy one another’s funniness openly in a better world.

Years later, C.S. Lewis would write a profound essay on “The Efficacy of Prayer.”

Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too.

But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went.

Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.

It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident. . . .

Our assurance—if we reach an assurance—that God always hears and sometimes grants our prayers, and that apparent grantings are not merely fortuitous, can only come [through a relationship which knows the promiser’s trustworthiness].

There can be no question of tabulating successes and failures and trying to decide whether the successes are too numerous to be accounted for by chance. Those who best know a man best know whether, when he did what they asked, he did it because they asked.

I think those who best know God will best know whether He sent me to the barber’s shop because the barber prayed.

You can read “The Efficacy of Prayer” in its entirety here. Or, should you prefer, you can hear it expertly read here.

The Story of Another Godly Barber

Four centuries before C.S. Lewis honored his barber by forever associating his name with the subject of prayer, the church reformer Martin Luther did the same. Luther’s friend was named Peter, and he lived during an age when skilled barbers also served as surgeons. According to the Barber Surgeons Guild,

The early versions of the Hippocratic Oath cautioned physicians from practicing surgery due to their limited knowledge on its invasive nature.  During the Renaissance, Universities did not provide education on surgery, which was deemed as a low trade of manual nature.

Barber surgeons who were expertly trained in handling sharp instruments for invasive procedures quickly filled this role in society. Barber surgeons were soon welcomed by the nobility and given residence in the castles of Europe where they continued their practice for the wealthy. These noble tradesmen, armed with the sharpest of blades, performed haircuts, surgeries and even amputations.

One church historian describes the Reformation context in an article entitled “Praying with Peter the Barber.”

Early in the year 1535, Peter Beskendorf became the most famous hairdresser of the reformation. He was Martin Luther’s barber and wrote to the great reformer asking for advice on how to pray.

Peter not only had a reputation as the master barber of Wittenberg, but he had a reputation for godliness and sincerity in his love for the Word of God. He was one of Luther’s oldest and best friends, so his request is not all that surprising.

What is surprising, however, is that Luther took the time out of his immensely busy reformation schedule to write him a thirty-four-page reply with theological reflections and practical suggestions about how he ought to approach prayer to the Almighty God.

In “Cutting Hair and Saying Prayers,” a lay theologian describes the focus of Martin Luther’s counsel.

When Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked him how to pray, Luther wrote him an open letter that has become a classic expression of the “when, how, and what” of prayer. It is as instructive today as when it was first penned in 1535. . . .

Luther spends the bulk of his letter discussing what to pray. Implicitly in his letter, Luther teaches that God’s word is the content of our prayers.

Luther graces the beginning of the book with a sincere prayer of blessing. “Dear Master Peter: I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I! Amen.”

In a very interesting essay entitled “Warrior Saints,” a Marquette professor commends the “sweet and practical booklet,” writing that “today this work is justly celebrated as a minor classic that both epitomizes Luther’s spirituality and powerfully suggests what a deep and lasting impact he would make on the lives of his many followers.”

Volume 43 of Luther’s Works includes the treatise. In the collection’s introduction to the document, it includes a heartbreaking event that followed its publication.

Luther wrote the book early in 1535 and it was so popular that four editions were printed that year.

At Easter a tragedy befell Peter. He was invited to the home of his son-in-law, Dietrich, for a convivial meal the Saturday before Easter, March 27, 1535. Dietrich, an army veteran, boasted that he had survived battle because he possessed the art of making himself invulnerable to any wound. Thereupon the old barber, doubtlessly intoxicated, plunged a knife into the soldier’s body to test his boast. The stab was fatal.

Master Peter’s friends, including Luther, intervened for him, and the court finally sent him into exile. . . . He lost all his property and, ruined and impoverished, spent the rest of his life in Dessau.

Such was the sad course of Beskendorf’s life. One can only hope that, as his life itself had been spared, Peter experienced some sort of healing and peace. Such blessings, after all, are often the fruit of prayer.

Luther’s humble essay on prayer remains in print today. If you would like to read or own it for free, I have found a London edition entitled The Way to Prayer.

One caveat, which might trouble some readers: since the translation was published in 1846, it employs the “medial S,” the one that looks more like a lower case “F.”* Whichever edition you choose to read, you will not be disappointed.


* The medial S is sometime referred to as the long S. You can read about its history in this interesting article.

The history of S is a twisting, turning path. Until around the 1100s or so, the medial S was the lowercase form of the letter, while the curvy line we use today was the uppercase form. But over time, the regular S, technically known as the “round S” or “short S,” started being used as a lowercase letter, too.

By the 1400s, a new set of S usage rules was established: The medial S would be used at the beginning of a lowercase word or in the middle of a word, while the round S would appear either at the end of a word or after a medial S within a word, as in “Congreſs” (which appears in the first line of Article I of the Constitution).

Filling the Shoes of Giants

September 22, 2020 — 9 Comments

One thing all humans have in common, is that we are mortal. Immortality is not inherent to our nature, and eternal life can only come as a gift from our Creator. All men and women live and die. In the words of Ecclesiastes:

It is the same for all, since the same event [i.e. death] happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath (Ecclesiastes 9:2).

Naturally, there are many metrics by which to measure a person’s life. For my purpose today, I’m thinking about people who exerted an outsized* influence on culture through their testimony for Christ.

Richard John Neuhaus was such a man. Neuhaus served an integrated Lutheran congregation in Brooklyn during the 1960s, where his reputation as a socially conscious pastor began. Following the Roe versus Wade decision, Neuhaus’ involvement in liberal politics ebbed. However, his commitment to applying Christian ethics to society remained strong. In 1990, he became a Roman Catholic. He also founded the Institute on Religion and Public Life which continues to publish its ecumenical journal First Things.⁑

In his tribute to his uncle, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Pastor Peter A. Speckhard acknowledges the sad prospects of lesser voices.

Sincerely Christian intellectuals who can articulate a solid orthodox take on any subject, but to whom nobody but their students and blog followers feel any urge to listen, are also a dime a dozen.⁂

Speckhard’s point is that there are many who are brilliant and devout, but few who can fill the shoes of giants. Speckhard offers this stark appraisal, however, without seeking to discourage other Christians from speaking to whomever might listen. (Which is much-needed encouragement to bloggers who are disappointed at how few read their posts.)

C.S. Lewis, an Even Taller Giant

As great as Neuhaus’ contribution to the advance of Christianity has been, it cannot match that of C.S. Lewis. Lewis, after all, was the great Christian apologist of the twentieth century. (An “apologist” is a person who argues in the defense of something that is controversial, in this case, the claim of Jesus himself that he “is the way, the truth, and the life [and] no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

While Neuhaus’ witness has continued to influence many Americans, Lewis’ impact has been felt around the world. Not only has God used his works to convert many readers, Lewis’ writings continue to teach and encourage those seeking the truth today.

I have not yet had an opportunity to read The Fame of C.S. Lewis. From the reviews, it is not so much about Lewis’ writing, but the way in which his reputation has grown. Thus the subtitle: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America. The author addresses one of the myths that has bothered me for years.

You may have heard the contention that Lewis is more popular in American than he is in Britain. It often carries a negative innuendo and comes across (to me, at least) like: “Lewis is more popular in the naïve, religiously unsophisticated colonies, than he is in enlightened, theologically cultured Britain.” In fact, Stephanie Derrick concludes, “the scale of Lewis’ renown was greater in the States than in Britain in large part because the difference in population there amounted to a much larger audience.”

Derrick addresses “larger question: how is renown made and kept?” She argues that “much of Lewis’s popularity is properly attributed to factors besides Lewis’s talents.”

Indeed, much of The Fame of C.S. Lewis is devoted to exploring the external factors that shaped Lewis’s success—the many actors and circumstances that have contributed to his popularity. Institutions, editors, changing social forces, and audiences have all had a hand in moulding Lewis’s image.

She is certainly correct that a wide range of factors, recognized and unknown, influence how we view people. This is particularly true after the individual (e.g. Rev. Richard Neuhaus) has become a part of history, once death has extinguished them, as Ecclesiastes might say.

However, I disagree that Lewis’ fame is an accident, the result of a unique combination of uncontrolled variables. On the contrary, I believe his reputation is based upon (1) his literary talents, (2) his humility and transparency, and—most importantly—because, (3) at the core of his most significant work, we find truth. The foundation of Lewis’ most precious writing is based on an unchanging, even eternally, relevant foundation.

I have no doubt God will continue to raise up other Christian apologists with anointed and far-reaching ministries. Ravi Zacharias, ⁑⁑ who recently died, is such a champion. There will be others to fill the shoes of C.S. Lewis and Zacharias, but their successors will require very remarkable gifts.

Bonus

One final link. This one is to the Moral Apologetics website, which has some very good articles on C.S. Lewis. And, if you decide to subscribe to their free newsletter, they allow you download The Ichabod Letters: Epistles from a Junior Demon. (Author Elton Higgs says his “study in demonic subterfuge [is] modeled on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.”)


* That’s the first time I’ve ever used that word. Seems too slangish for my tastes. But apparently it has been around since it dates to the early 1800s. (By the way, I hope you appreciated my facetious use of “slangish,” which is considerably younger and more slangy.)

First Things is an ecumenical publication, but my subjective estimate is that about 70% of the articles relate rather directly to Roman Catholicism. They offer a worthwhile newsletter featuring free access to a number of their articles.

⁂ Peter A. Speckhard, “Can the Shoes of Richard John Neuhaus Be Filled?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 77 (2013), 342-53. The article is available here.

⁑⁑ Zacharias leaves behind a lasting legacy, particularly in the form of the ministry he founded, RZIM. Check it out for some thoughtful resources from Zacharias and other like minded contemporary Christian apologists.

Who are you? If you were to fully answer that question, it would require serious introspection. However, if you were to answer it completely, it would also require an honesty that is extremely rare.

That’s because anyone who reveals everything about themself, comes to a point where the qualities and actions are no longer flattering. They ultimately arrive at the place where the exposé becomes a confession.

The truth is that no one actually knows everything about themself. But some of the things we are aware of . . . some of the secrets we desire to hide, even from ourselves . . . are seldom shared. That is one great value of the “confessional.” There, one can unburden themselves and face their demons, so to speak, in a setting where they know their confidence won’t be violated.

As a Protestant pastor, who has never used a physical confessional stall or screen, I note that I have nevertheless heard thousands of confessions. They are, as one would expect, a common element of counseling as people seek to experience healing and restoration. As a Lutheran, I belong to a tradition that guarantees the privacy of these confessions, or what is considered “privileged communication.” Moreover, as a military chaplain, I was grateful to serve a nation that enshrines the same promise in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As Lewis wrote, “if there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it” (Letters to an American Lady). Once that is done, the pastor (or any “confessor”) can assist the individual with working to make as right as possible in the future what was damaged or destroyed by their choices in the past.

From the Psychological Vantage Point

If you have never encountered it before, I commend to you the model called the Johari Window. I have written about it in the past in the context of honesty and dishonesty.

The model illustrates just how complex our personalities are. The arrows on the model below reveal how we can expand the “open” part of ourselves. Naturally, there are some “hidden” aspects that should only be disclosed in certain contexts.

When it comes to the darkness in our lives, that which we strive to keep veiled, psychologists describe it in a variety of ways. One chaplain with whom I worked was particularly enamored with the work of Carl Jung. He loved to toss around the word “shadow,” and suggest there was some dark psychological significance to even the most offhand comment or expression. In essence, the shadow is the part of our personality we don’t want to admit to having. In terms of the Johari Window, you might think of it as the sinister stuff in the Hidden quadrant.*

C.S. Lewis wrote about Jung in an essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism.” Lewis disparages the Freudian theory, saying “poetry is not a substitute for sexual satisfaction, nor sexual satisfaction for poetry.” Jung, he argues, presents “a much more civil and humane interpretation of myth and imagery.” Of course, Lewis is discussing these psychoanalysts from the perspective of a literary critic, not a psychologist. In that regard, we can appreciate his assessment of one of Jung’s major works.

Thanks to my training I can suspend my judgement about the scientific value of Jung’s essay on “Mind and the Earth:” but I perceive at once that even if it turns out to be bad science it is excellent poetry.

From the Christian Point of View

I have already described how confession can serve as a means of expanding our self-awareness in a constructive and healing way. That’s why confession and absolution are a formal part of many worship service, going back to the earliest times. If we want to read the finest primer on confession, we need look no further than the book of Psalms.

As King David, in recognition of this great sins, prays in the fifty-first psalm:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

One of the earliest Christian classics (outside the Bible itself) was aptly entitled Confessions. It was written by Augustine, the bishop of a North African city called Hippo. His description of our self-awareness is so deep and profound, it will likely require more than a single reading.

No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him . . .

Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face. (Augustine, The Confessions, translation by Maria Boulding)

One of C.S. Lewis’ many correspondents was a man who was acutely troubled by his own self-awareness, and in particular, the consciousness of his own selfishness and egotism. Lewis offered some comforting and sound spiritual direction to the man. Since I believe the letter has a message for us all, I choose to close with it.

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as “excessive selfness.” But perhaps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease: fortunate are the minority who know they have it.

To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

Your danger now is that of being hypnotized by the mere sight of the chasm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness. The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer.

The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regard, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will

A text you should keep much in mind is I John iii, 20: “If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.” I sometimes pray “Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.” Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e. keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.


* In contrast to the insignificant or embarrassing things we are aware of that we may prefer to keep to ourselves. For example, although I sing decently, I am an exceptionally poor instrumentalist. This despite the fact I married a talented and patient music teacher. It’s not my lack of talent which motivates my secrecy, it is the sad fact that I am a total sluggard when it comes to practicing. And this reveals a major flaw in my personality—if something is not inherently fun or doesn’t come easily to me, I have a terribly difficult time applying myself to the task. (And this shortcoming has very real consequences, both in terms of professional success and interpersonal relationships.)

⁑ Several years ago, a member of our Mere Inkling described in her blog how everyone experiences seasons of restlessness.

In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Yet even those who have found Christ feel restless at certain times, and these times lead us to a salutary discovery.

Augustine’s Confessions is a Christian classic. You can download a free copy here.

C.S. Lewis & Nuns

January 30, 2020 — 14 Comments

One of the great disappointments of Roman Catholic fans of C.S. Lewis is that he never converted to their communion. Lewis did, however, sincerely respect Roman Catholic nuns. In fact, he considered the reverence and joy of the nuns he encountered to be one of the church’s most commendable elements.

In 1947 he wrote to one of his regular correspondents who wondered why he had not forsaken his “low church” loyalties for a more elevated perspective. His response reveals his perception of the virtues of consecrated nuns.

I am particularly pleased to have been of any help as a bridge between the parish and the convent. I’m not especially ‘high’ Church myself but Nuns seem to me the strong argument on that side.

They are in my experience almost invariably so very nice—and so happy: much more so either than the same number of married women picked at random or the same number of monks. I don’t know why this should be so.

One does not have to be Catholic to appreciate people who consecrate their lives to God, willing to make radical sacrifices like living a life of celibacy. Nearly four decades ago, while I was serving a congregation in Citrus Heights, California, I earned a (post-M.Div.) Master of Theology degree. Since I was focused on Patristics, I was enrolled at a Jesuit seminary in the Bay area.

One day during my studies, an Episcopal priest and I were having lunch with a half dozen Roman Catholics, most of whom were religious sisters.* The conversation turned to a celebration by the sisters present that they no longer had to wear habits. The respectful person I am, I remained silent as they discussed their “family” business. Apparently, though, I was softly grinning, because of one them (it may even have been my thesis advisor) asked, “what are you smiling about?”

My response was that it wasn’t my place to offer an opinion, but when they pressed, I said, “well, throughout my life, whenever I’ve seen a nun in her habit, it’s been an encouraging thing, and I think—there goes a life that is consecrated to God.” My companions were shocked and at a loss for words. In retrospect, I believe that C.S. Lewis might have offered a similar comment.

Due to the century during which he lived, and his setting in the British Isles, Lewis encountered nuns far more frequently than I do. In fact, since their “liberation” from the habit, we can’t know precisely how many religious sisters cross our paths. In 1947 he describes to a close friend a trip to see his brother who was hospitalized in Ireland. His colorful description of the town he visited ends with an uplifting remark.

My Brother, thank God, was out of danger when I reached him on Monday morning last but was at the unearthly city of Drogheda where almost every building is a church or a tavern⁑  and what men do but pray and drink or how life is supported in their bodies I can’t conceive. . . . And you hear more wit and humour in one day of London than in a week of Drogheda. My Brother was in the care of the most charming nuns.

Nuns are found in various Christian traditions. In addition to those who take such vows in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches trace the lineage of these female monastics back to the ancient eremites. ⁂ There are also Anglican and Lutheran convents. In fact, one of C.S. Lewis’ close friends was an Anglican nun. Sister Penelope, CSMV (1890-1977), was a member of the Community of St Mary the Virgin. Lewis dedicated his novel, Perelandra, “to some ladies at Wantage,” her convent.

In a 1941 letter to the BBC, Lewis pleads that he is unable to add to his current speaking commitments. These apparently included specific presentations to nuns.  

I’m afraid in view of my other commitments I should be ‘over-talked’ if I accepted the job you kindly suggest for me. I’m talking already to the R.A.F., to the general public, to nuns, to undergraduates, to societies. The gramophone will wear out if I don’t take care! With thanks and much regret.

Lewis’ Three Theses

Mary Willis Shelburne was a widow in Washington, D.C., with whom Lewis corresponded for a number of years. Beginning in 1950, they exchanged more than a hundred letters, which were collected in the volume Letters to an American Lady. Lewis arranged for her to receive financial support from the sales of his books in the United States. This support continued after his own passing. In 1952 Shelburne converted to Roman Catholicism, and proposed that Lewis follow her example. His response was gracious.

It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that tho’ you have taken a way which is not for me. I nevertheless can congratulate you—I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you—but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence! I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Romeward frontier of my own communion.

In a short note written four years later, Lewis thanks her for a picture of herself and a nun. He uses the occasion to voice his sentiment that nuns are happy and pleasant. He then proposes three curious theses, noting that his presumption is subjective and she may disagree with him. Do you agree with his opinions here?

Problem: why are nuns nicer than monks and schoolgirls nicer than schoolboys, when women are not in general nicer than men? But perhaps you deny all three statements! All blessings.

My own experience with the first category are limited, but the monks I’ve met have all been very kind, as have the nuns. I fully agree with his second contention. Girls are much nicer than boys. That seems to me a no-brainer . . . although I assume there are many girls who have been bullied by their peers and would disagree.

As for the final thesis, that neither women nor men are better than each other as a group, I would strongly disagree. While it is only a generalization, of course, I believe men tend far more toward cruelty and greed than do women. On the other end of the spectrum, experience tells me that women are significantly more disposed toward virtues such as nurture, mercy and compassion, than their Y chromosome counterparts.

Obviously, C.S. Lewis proposed this question to his correspondent off the cuff. Given the opportunity to discuss it at greater length, say over a pint at the Eagle and Child, it’s certainly possible he could persuade me that his ideas on this matter are correct. After all, we both share a respect for women who feel called to a religious life.


* The essential difference between nuns and sisters is that the former normally live in monasteries, while the latter takes a more tempered vow and often serves in a non-cloistered setting.

⁑ Although this article focuses on England, it provides details on a sad trend in which church buildings are being converted for use as pubs and bars.

⁂ Eremites are Christian hermits. This was the earliest form of monasticism, with individuals removing themselves from secular society. Communal monasticism developed later.

Dogs, Heaven and Ministry

August 22, 2017 — 5 Comments

divine dog

My pastor’s sermon last Sunday was entitled “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?” I was really looking forward to hearing the message, but I received a request to preach at another church on the other side of the Cascade Mountain range, and I couldn’t be there to learn the answer to the question.

I wanted to hear his sermon for several reasons. First, orthodox Lutherans are not given to faddish subject matter for their sermons, so I was eager to see his approach. Second, this is a question that pastors are asked surprisingly often, so I enjoy hearing others respond to the question, especially when they appeal to the Bible in doing so.

A third reason is because I love dogs. All dogs. Even “bad” ones, who are only aggressive or ill-behaved because the humans they’ve had the misfortune of encountering in this world have done poorly by them.

I’ve had many dogs as members of my family through the years, and they were treasures, even though I took them for granted in my youth.

I’m not going to offer my take on the question posed by the sermon title. I’ve already written about that in the past. The thoughts are developed more fully here.

Nor am I going to discuss the important place of dogs in the life of C.S. Lewis, since I have written about that before, as well.

The Upshot of the Sermon

When we were leaving church the previous Sunday, our pastor was discussing his impending pronouncement on the subject of animal redemption. I laughed and offered a comment that proved a little disconcerting to him.

I told him that not long ago I read a passage in Martin Luther’s writings where he said just that. Luther, the preeminent figure in the Reformation, suggested the possibility that animals just might be resurrected by God. It became obvious that wasn’t where he was going with his homily, and in looking at the Gospel text for the message I realized why.

The fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel includes this grace-filled story about Jesus’ mercy.

And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:22-28).

The Jews of Jesus’ day sometimes referred to Gentiles as “dogs.” In this passage he is not insulting her, but (1) clarifying the priority of his ministry to fulfill the promise to the house of Israel and (2) to invite her to press the issue, just as she does.

The Luther quotations to which I referred were:

“Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”

“The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”

I doubt he incorporated either into his sermon.

Dogs in Ministry

Recently I read an excerpt from an interesting new book entitled The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, A Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul.

It reinforced something that all of us who love dogs already know—they possess a profound ability to sense and minister to our emotional needs.

You can read the excerpt in Christianity Today here, although they have retitled it for the online edition. I prefer the title that appeared in the print edition, “God’s Canine Counselors.” I’ll close here with a brief excerpt from the excerpt.

A child sits down on the floor next to a dog and reads aloud from a book. There is something magical about it. After lying next to Pepper, a slightly overweight border collie, and reading him a book, seven-year-old Jessicah, who has always hated reading, says to the volunteer, “[He] loves when I tell him stories. I think he likes stories about turtles best, and so do I. He’s the coolest dog in the whole world.”

I can vividly imagine what it would be like to be the child in that situation. To read to a dog whose big eyes took me in with simple pleasure, who laid her head on my lap with absolute ease to listen to my voice, would have made for an entirely different experience.

The dog would have exuded patience, unconditional acceptance, and peace. The words I botched terribly [as a child] would have captivated the dog every bit as much as the ones read perfectly. In that one-on-one relationship, the anxiety, self-doubt, and panic I used to feel about not being able to do something would have faded.

Thank you, Lord, for creating dogs.

Rabbit-Hand-Shadow.jpg

In this increasingly relativistic cauldron we call “the world,” chaos is fueled by the concept that everyone is entitled to determine their own reality.

It all depends on one’s perspective.

“Perception is reality,” is a common sentiment. More clearly said, “an individual’s perception is their personal reality.” In other words, the way that a person thinks things are, is reality as far as they are concerned.

Changing a person’s perception of reality is no easy thing. Nor should it be (in most cases).

People base their thinking on a variety of approaches. Those who are more analytical are terribly frustrated by others who base their views of reality on their emotions, or what they “want” to be true.

Nowhere do I find this more striking then when people who have nary a religious thought in their daily lives gather together for a funeral. At least 66% of what one hears, for example “he’s looking down on us now,” is based on nothing other than wishful thinking or irrational notions.

C.S. Lewis described how reason is the crucial mechanism for understanding. In his book Miracles, he makes the following argument.

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good.

But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

Mental Illness and Perception

One particularly fascinating aspect of the perception and reality question comes in the case of some mentally ill individuals. Schizophrenia, for instance, frequently involves delusions or hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality (in the mind of the sufferer).

A well person may find it implausible to accept that a person could genuinely believe impossible things were true. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the deluded, it may make all the sense in the world that they are the only person alive who recognizes how things truly are.

Decades ago I spent several months in a psychiatric ward. (Not as a patient, as a clinical pastoral education student.) I had many conversations with a delightful resident who had been institutionalized because he was utterly convinced that he was one of Jesus’ apostles.

Thanks to the proper medications, he knew that to be illusory, and he was optimistic that he would soon be released to begin his studies to become a mental health worker. One reason for his confidence that he was truly getting better was because his previous hospitalization came when he became certain that he was one of the Old Testament patriarchs.

From his point of view, the increasing chronological proximity between his delusions and reality indicated he was almost well.

Some of these people do become healthy enough to recognize that their perception of reality is askew. These are the few who continue to take their meds so they can function as the majority of us perceive to be “normal.”

Many psychotic individuals, of course, only take their prescriptions under duress and when they are not monitored, cease to take them because they either (1) already feel better, so they obviously don’t need them, or (2) prefer chaos to the side effects such as lethargy.

Truth is Not Based on Perspective

Truth, in the ultimate or alethiological sense, is not relative. It doesn’t shift due to the distortions of individual perception. It remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Now, since what we human beings regard as truth does shift (e.g. shape of the Earth), ultimate truth must come from a source other than mortal minds, transient philosophies or momentary scientific theories.

Christians believe they have found that source in God’s self-revelation, the Judeo Christian Scriptures. In fact, Christians believe that their Savior, Jesus the Messiah, was the embodiment of truth. We believe he was speaking the eternal truth when he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

C.S. Lewis was quite candid about the truthfulness of the scriptural testimony being the necessary cornerstone for faith. In dialogue with atheists and agnostics, he wisely points out that the conversation must address this essential question.

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. . . .

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important. (“Christian Apologetics”)

In a world that wants to relegate Jesus to the status of some great teacher or prophet, it is vital to say that if he was lying when he said “the Father and I are one,” Christianity should be dismissed altogether.

_____

For those who enjoy challenges:

hand shadows

comfort bunny

Some people flee from those who are depressed. Others feel compelled to do their best to lift their spirits. Did you react the same way as C.S. Lewis to the suffering of others?

Recently I’ve had the privilege of sharing the anguish of several people who see no solution to their personal challenges. In truth, even though I sincerely believe “with God, all things are possible,” it is likely that these particular dilemmas will trouble these people the remainder of their lives.

Some people are “fixers,” or problem-solvers. They want to step in, quickly resolve the difficulty, and return to their normal routine as soon as possible. When faced with an intransigent challenge, they typically get called away by other matters, or they fade into the background.

There is a sort of spectrum when it comes to offering comfort to people. At one end, we have the people who offer insincere clichés like “I’m so sorry.” These remarks are often an automatic response and the only thing the speaker is “sorry” about is having their time “wasted” by the litany of another’s suffering.

Better than these liars, are the pretenders. They actually do feel sorry for the person when they say so. Only, they’re not sorry enough to actually devote another moment’s thought to their pain. They are hypocrites, because if they really understood what the word sorrow means, they would understand that it doesn’t evaporate into the mists six mere heartbeats after it is experienced.

Most people fall further along the spectrum, where we might place sympathy and empathy. Although the words are frequently used interchangeably, this site offers a concise definition of their differences.

In essence, when we are empathetic, we identify more intimately with the sufferer. It seems to me that empathy, often viewed as a sort of super-sympathy, is not necessarily the mark of a better sympathizer. Sometimes it corresponds to our own life experiences. For example, while my mother was still living I could readily sympathize with those who had lost their own. After my mom’s untimely death, I found myself naturally, and sometimes intensely, empathizing with their grief.

Genuine sympathy is a precious commodity. But it must grant higher honor to that form of consolation that puts our emotional concern into actual action. The specific actions are less important than the fact that we have physically placed the needs of the other ahead of our own. They might consist of attending to someone’s responsibilities while they are incapacitated, or simply holding a hand for long hours in a silent bedside vigil. The form matters little; the essence of the gift is everything. It is nothing less than love in action.

Lewis’ Compassionate Heart

Lewis constantly offered consolation to those with whom he corresponded. Our last post included an excellent example of this. What made his brief expressions of concern so powerful was not their eloquence. It was their sincerity. As we read the words we have no doubt that Lewis meant them. What’s more, when he said that he was praying for someone, he truly was.

Lewis also incorporated moving scenes of compassionate empathy in his fiction. Read how Steven Garber described the comfort he has received from the Chronicles of Narnia.

“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last,” Lewis once wrote. Over the years, in the moments when life seems bleakest, when I can only sigh or groan, I have come back again and again to The Magician’s Nephew. . . .

Lewis gives us an image that is profoundly rich and wonderfully tender. We need both. The tears of God are complex. They must be tears of sympathy, even empathy, as Aslan weeps for Digory’s mother and as Jesus weeps with his friends at the death of their brother.

But sometimes they are also tears of anger at the unnaturalness of death, at the distortion of death, at the skewing of human hopes, as Jesus “groaned severely in his spirit” at the death of Lazarus. (Visions of Vocation)

One of the clearest examples of consolation offered by Lewis is found in his provision for Mrs. Moore, the mother of a WWI friend. The story is complex, but it is based upon Lewis keeping a promise—that if one of them died in the trenches, the other would care for that soldier’s parent.

Lesser men would have conveniently forgotten their vow, but Lewis provided for her from 1917 until her death in 1951. Their relation during the early years is uncertain, but there is no doubt that after his conversion to Christianity, it was chaste. Lewis was dutiful, like a true son, in caring for a woman more than twenty-five years his senior, whose own daughter acknowledged was emotionally abusive towards Lewis.

Professor Alice von Hildebrand offers a candid essay on this sensitive subject here. She includes the following quotation from the diary of Lewis’ brother, Warnie, who was a member of the same household.

One of Jack’s friends is supposed to have said, “Cursed be the day that thou fell into the hands of the Moore.” Warren gave vent to his frustration and constant irritation by confiding in his diary. He writes:

“It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s [Jack, the name by which Lewis’ friends addressed him] life is subordinated to hers—financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens . . .”

True Compassion

An essay on this subject could easily grow into a book. To avoid that, I will restrain myself to one final point.

Only a master of language, and an astute student of humanity, recognizes the immense power, and the fragile limitation, of words. Ironically, it is when they are most important—such as in the offering of comfort to someone bereaved—that their shortcomings are most clear.

In the wake of the unbearable loss of his wife, Joy, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed. In this enlightening text, he points out the hollowness of mere words.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

This is something few people recognize before they are the recipients of word-oriented attempts at comfort. That’s why we stumble about saying things that frequently provide precious little true consolation.

Lewis had learned that abstract theological declarations—even those based on certain promises of God—do little to remove the deep sting of death. Far more effective, is sharing the crippling pain of the loss. To offer, as Jesus did to the sisters of Lazarus, one’s own tears.

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, you might want to check out one of my earlier posts on the nature of genuine consolation.

_____

The illustration above comes from a thirteenth century manuscript. I have included it here, because the effort of the rabbit seeking to console the forlorn bird seems quite Narnianesque. It echoes the essence of Lewis’ childhood world of Boxen as well, and I imagine that C.S. Lewis would have enjoyed this marginalia on its own merit.

kellerSome are born deaf. Others lose their hearing due to accident or illness. Still others find our hearing failing us gradually, as it is displaced by the persistent presence of that unwelcome visitor, tinnitus.

As I was pondering the slow decay of my own hearing, I recalled one of C.S. Lewis’ most brilliant insights.

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (The Problem of Pain)

Even as I am concerned about the inevitable decline of my hearing—and more so, my vision—I try to conscientiously follow my wife’s guidance about vitamins and behaviors that will keep these senses around as long as possible.

At the same time, being a realist, I have decided to disengage my emotions from the matter as much as I am able, and simply accept the unavoidable. In fact, I have learned to enjoy some of the inaccuracies of hearing that I more and more often experience.

Hardly a day passes when I do not get a good laugh out of something I misheard. What I mean is that my brain translates the garbled sounds into actual words that constitute some sense that is in reality nonsensical. It hasn’t cause any problems yet, so I just smile or chuckle. If the mishearing is especially humorous, I sometimes share it with my family.

Recently, I smiled when my pastor went on about how great “Lutheran circuses” are, and how important it was that we invite others to attend our “Lutheran worship circuses” (services). That substitution was easy to recognize; it’s far funnier when I mishear something and what I think they said makes an odd sense that could almost be true . . . but is actually ludicrous.

I don’t share my personal way of dealing with the weakening of my sense of hearing with the intention of belittling the seriousness of a cross many have to bear as their lives are detrimentally impacted by these afflictions.

The Original Plan

Certainly, the impairment of any of the senses God has given us is cause for sadness. After all, when our first parents were created, their senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste were undiminished. That’s the way that the Lord intended for us to enjoy the rest of his creation.

Actually, some people argue that there are seven senses, adding two that do make sense:

Vestibular – the sense of balance, perceiving our body in relationship to gravity and movement (equilibrioception)

Proprioception – the sense of the relative position of different parts of the body, particularly as it pertains to movement (kinesthesia)

Another source declares there are nine senses, adding to the palette

Thermoception – the sensation of the presence or absence of heat

Nociception – “nonconscious perception of nerve or tissue damage”

I personally imagine that when “the day of the Lord” arrives, and we witness the restoration of a new heaven and a new earth, that our restored bodies* will possess a myriad of other senses we are not even capable of fathoming at this present moment.

Yes, it is a tragedy when people have to live with their senses crippled. This is especially true when it is the young who are afflicted. To be born without sight or hearing rightly seems like a curse to many. The testimony of Helen Keller, who actually lost her vision and hearing at the age of nineteen months, illustrates how the human spirit is capable of transcending even these severe limitations.**

In 1952, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a young teacher at the Manchester Royal School for the Deaf.

The work you are engaged in is a magnificent one (much in my mind because, as it falls out, I’ve just been reading Helen Keller’s book): hard, no doubt, but you can never be attacked by the suspicion that it is not worth doing. There are jolly few professions of which we can say that.

The translation of great stories into a limited vocabulary will, incidentally, be a wonderful discipline: you will learn a lot about thought and language in general before you are done. I hope you will sometimes let me know how you get on. God bless you.

In writing this column I learned something of which I had been unaware. Keller was also a poet.

And, while I’m a poor judge of verse, I found my brief exploration of hers to be moving. However, here is a review from The New York Times which declares, “Modern psychology cannot account for Miss Keller nor explain the psychic sense by which she apprehends the minutest phases of a beauty she has never witnessed.”

You can download a copy of the book The Song of the Stone Wallhere.

Across the meadow, by the ancient pines,

Where I, the child of life that lived that spring,

Drink in the fragrances of the young year,

The field-wall meets one grimly squared and straight

Beyond it rise the old tombs, gray and restful,

And the upright slates record the generations.

Stiffly aslant before the northern blasts.

Like the steadfast, angular beliefs

Of those whom they commemorate, the head-stones stand,

Cemented deep with moss and invisible roots.

The rude inscriptions charged with faith and love,

Graceless as Death himself, yet sweet as Death,

Are half erased by the impartial storms.

As children lisping words which move to laughter

Are themselves poems of unconscious melody,

So the old gravestones with their crabbed muse

Are beautiful for their halting words of faith,

Their groping love that had no gift of song.

But all the broken tragedy of life

And all the yearning mystery of death

Are celebrated in sweet epitaphs of vines and violets.

Helen Keller’s life is a witness to the fact that God can intervene in our brokenness and make us whole. It is also a foretaste of that complete restoration that awaits disciples of Jesus on the Last Day.

And one more thing her life proves is the truth of C.S. Lewis’ insight that in our suffering we become more attuned to our need, and God “shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

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The image at the top of the page shows Helen Keller as she looked on the day of her graduation from college.

* This transition from these fragile and perishing bodies to the new is described here. And, here’s a link to a readable essay on the subject of the resurrected or new body Christians are promised.

** Helen Keller found hope in the good news of Jesus Christ, albeit through the extremely peculiar teachings of the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Helen Keller’s book My Religion is available for free download here.