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C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life

C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life: Notes

January 17, 2018 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy

On Reading Old Books
C. S. Lewis

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire. This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another
new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them. I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were "influences." George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries—that "Christianity" is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages "mere Christianity" turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in
Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed "Paganism" of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: an air that kills From yon far country blows. We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks. The present book is something of an experiment. The translation is intended for the world at large, not only for theological students. If it succeeds, other translations of other great Christian books will presumably follow. In one sense, of course, it is not the first in the field. Translations of the Theologia Germanica, the Imitation, the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable, though some of them are not very scholarly. But it will be noticed that these are all books of devotion rather than of doctrine. Now the layman or amateur needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that "nothing happens" when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand. This is a good translation of a very great book. St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the "Athanasian Creed." I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words "Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and
really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame. But this is not my immediate concern. I mention "the creed (commonly called) of St. Athanasius" only to get out of the reader's way what may have been a bogey and to put the true Athanasius in its place. His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, "Athanasius against the world." We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, "whole and undefiled," when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those "sensible" synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away. When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as "arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature." They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to "borrow death from others." The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius. The translator knows so much more Christian Greek than I that it would be out of place for me to praise her version. But it seems to me to be in the right tradition of English translation. I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages. That is as much as the English reader will notice; those who compare the version with the original will be able to estimate how much wit and talent is presupposed in such a choice, for example, as "these wiseacres" on the very first page.  

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more – food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

Most of us find it very difficult to want ‘Heaven’ at all-except in so far as ‘Heaven’ means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best .possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us. Now there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact, and one right one.

(I) The Fool’s Way. – He puts the blame on the things themselves. He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after. Most of the bored, discontented, rich people in the world are of this type. They spend their whole lives trotting from woman to woman (through the divorce courts), from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is ‘the Real Thing’ at last, and always disappointed.

(2) The Way of the Disillusioned ‘Sensible Man’.-He soon decides that the whole thing was moonshine. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘one feels like that when one’s young. But by the time you get to my age you’ve given up chasing the rainbow’s end.’ And so he settles down and learns not to expect too much and represses the part of himself which used, as he would say, ‘to cry for the moon’. This is, of course, a much better way than the first, and makes a man much happier, and less of a nuisance to society. It tends to make him a prig (he is apt to be rather superior towards what he calls ‘adolescents’), but, on the whole, he rubs along fairly comfortably. It would be the best line we could take if man did not live for ever. But supposing infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us? Supposing one really can reach the rainbow’s end? In that case it would be a pity to find out too late (a moment after death) that by our supposed ‘common sense’ we had stifled in ourselves the faculty of enjoying it.

(3) The Christian Way.-The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, then; is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.’

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.


--From Mere Christianity, Chapter 10 (1952)


On Sehnsucht & Longing (C. S. Lewis & the Romantics)


[Joy, or Sehnsucht is a] . . . wistful, soft tearful longing.

(Matthew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature, New York: Macmillan, 1907, 117-118)


[Joy, or Sehnsucht is] a special kind of longing . . . surrounded by a misty indefiniteness which seems essential to its very nature . . . it encompasses not only . . . Germanic longing . . . but also the more turbulent, passionate aspiration associated with what [Matthew] Arnold calls “Celtic Titanism” . . . At times one sees it clearly, at other times it seems to recede before one’s eyes . . . Thus, the exploring of this mystery has turned out to be a quest in itself. . . .

For many writers it is simply there and they make no attempt to explain it. Some of them – especially poets like Wordsworth and Traherne – have expressed this attitude primarily as an ecstatic desire for union with nature; some have spoken of a “sweet melancholy” which seems to have no cause. . . .

In several places Lewis has referred to the state of mind under discussion as Sehnsucht . . . the German word has overtones of nostalgia and longing not to be found in any English word . . . The crucial concept in defining this attitude is best expressed in English by the word “nostalgia.” Even though Sehnsucht may be made up of several different components or appear in different forms (melancholy, wonder, yearning, etc.), basic to its various manifestations is an underlying sense of displacement or alienation from what is desired. . . .

The wonder of spring . . . may bring feelings of ecstasy which cause the individual for the moment to transcend himself . . . Such moments are rare; they may come with a mounting sense of grandeur in the presence of natural beauty or with piercing sweetness on hearing a certain strain of music . . . an experience of “enormous bliss,” of being transported to awesome heights which make the close-by world seem far away. The individual feels that he is becoming one with the universe and desires an even closer union. We find this note frequently sounded by poets of the Romantic Revival – especially Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats – and by the American Transcendentalists – notably Emerson and Whitman. . . .

Not infrequently the locus of melancholy is fixed upon someone who is loved but does not return love, or on some ideal person who has died, or upon some golden time which is no more – the glory of Greece, the grandeur of Renaissance Italy, the mystic charm of the Middle Ages . . . the pursuit of the unattainable . . . The dreamer keeps on creating better worlds – in other places, among different people, etc. This motif is found in German literature as the search for the Blaue Blume [the blue flower] . . . A sense of separation from what is desired, a ceaseless longing which always points beyond – this then is the essence of the attitude I have attempted to describe.

(Corbin Scott Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality: C. S. Lewis and the Feeling Intellect, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974, 13, 12, 13-15, 19-20-23)


It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? . . . Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books . . . it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible – how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension’ . . . [it was] an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy . . . anyone who has experienced it will want it again . . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 16-18)


Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 72)


O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas.
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail.

(Walt Whitman, Passage to India)


But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
And many a man in his own breast delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.

(Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life)


I have learned to look on nature . . . [as] a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man: a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things. Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods and mountains; and of all that we behold from this green earth . . . well pleased to recognize in nature and the language of the sense the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul, of all my moral being.

(William Wordswoth, Tintern Abbey, 1798)


All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.

(C. S. Lewis, Letters, 5 November 1959)


In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, . . . I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both . . . Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited . . . . Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies . . . Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself . . .

(C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, a sermon preached at Oxford, June 8, 1941)


He groped for the doorless land of faery, that illimitable haunted country that opened somewhere below a leaf or a stone.

(Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel)


The experience is one of intense longing . . . This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire . . . The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given – nay, cannot even be imagined as given – in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.

(C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Preface, para. 12-13, 17)


. . . fits of strange Desire, which haunt him from his earliest years, for something which cannot be named; something which he can describe only as “Not this,” “Far farther,” or “Yonder.”

(C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, London: Sheed & Ward, 1933, 11)


What is universal is . . . the arrival of some message, not perfectly intelligible, which wakes this desire and sets men longing for something East or West of the world; something possessed, if at all, only in the act of desiring it, and lost so quickly that the craving itself becomes craved.

(C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, bk. 8, ch. 9)


Northernness had a quality of aesthetic exaltation about it which Lewis had not found in Christianity and which he was seeking in the occult. Where religion had failed, Wagner and Norse mythology were able to awaken that strange excitement which at times he had experienced in his childhood.

(Carnell, ibid., 42)


The Celtic origin seems never to have affected my imagination which is Germanic through and through – Norse mythology having been my first love and perhaps my strongest.

(C. S. Lewis, in Chad Walsh, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, New York: Macmillan, 1949, 2-3)


From at least the age of six, romantic longing – Sehnsucht – had played an unusually central part in my experience. Such longing is in itself the very reverse of wishful thinking: it is more like thoughtful wishing.

(C. S. Lewis, Narrative Poems, Preface to Dymer [1950], para. 5)


[the quality found in George Macdonald’s Phantastes was] the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live . . . what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness . . . The deception is all the other way round – in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from “the land of righteousness.”

(C. S. Lewis, preface to George Macdonald: An Anthology, New York: Macmillan, 1948, 21-22)


Lewis’s Platonism is unmistakable . . . Lewis found in Platonism a comprehensive way to reconcile reason’s dialectic with the reasons of the heart. To settle for anything less than such a reconciliation, he felt, would be to betray his experience of art, mind, and the everyday world.

(Carnell, ibid., 67)


Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning . . . a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again.

(C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, ch. 7)


You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words . . . Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction . . . – something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires . . . you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

(C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, New York: Macmillan, 1938, 145-146)


Although we associate fairy tales with children, faerie is probably the most complex conveyor of the Sehnsucht archetype. And compared to . . . quests, distant hills, exotic gardens, the Utter East, music of a special kind – the world of faerie is perhaps the most potent awakener of longing. Lewis says it stirs and troubles the child, to his advantage, “with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth” (Of Other Worlds [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1966], p. 29). . . .

Lewis believes . . . that in its imaginative appeal the myth conveys meaning that cannot be conveyed in any other way . . . Myth appears to have its own inner life, secret from our conscious minds.

(Carnell, ibid., 91, 108-109)


About the best poetry, and not only the best, there floats an atmosphere of infinite suggestion. The poet speaks to us of one thing, but in this one thing there seems to lurk the secret of all. He said what he meant, but his meaning seems to beckon away beyond itself, or rather into something boundless which is only focused in it; something also which, we feel, would satisfy not only the imagination, but the whole of us.


(A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry, London: Macmillan, 1909, 26)


Great art is the arrangement of the environment so as to provide for the soul vivid, but transient values . . . something new must be discovered . . . the permanent realization of values extending beyond its former self.

(Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, New York: Macmillan, 1926, 290-291)


You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw – but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported . . . All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it – made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.

(C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, New York: Macmillan, 1938, 145-148)


Lewis retained his faith in the basic validity of Romantic literature because he believed it was compatible with a Christian ontology. The sense of nostalgia cannot be valued for itself, at least not for long. Sehnsucht has genuine meaning only in an ontology which has a place for it. . . .

That we have appetites suggests we will find food. That we get drowsy suggests that sleep exists. That we respond to melody suggests that men will devise music. That we are haunted by unquenchable longings points to a goal for that longing – in eternity if not in time. I find in C.S. Lewis’ understanding of Sehnsucht a parallel to Anselm’s ontological argument, Lewis’ most significant contribution to Christian apologetics, and an important clue for understanding literary history.

(Carnell, ibid., 158-159, 163)


If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

(C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, bk. 3, ch. 10)


We do not want merely to see beauty . . . We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.

(C. S. Lewis, Transposition and Other Addresses, 1949)


. . . quivering and ecstatic aspirations which absorbed his whole being, infinite yearnings, stabbed with the threat of tragedy and shot through with the colours of Paradise. One of our race, if plunged back for a moment in the warm, trembling, iridescent pool of that pre-Adamite consciousness, would have emerged believing that he had grasped the absolute: for the states below reason and the states above it have, by their common contrast to the life we know, a certain superficial resemblance. Sometimes there returns to us from infancy the memory of a nameless delight or terror, unattached to any delightful or dreadful thing, a potent adjective floating in a nounless void, a pure quality. At such moments we have experience of the shallows of that pool.

(C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)

75 Years Ago Tonight: C. S. Lewis Delivers a Sermon in Oxford on “The Weight of Glory”

JUNE 8, 2016  | Justin Taylor



C.S. Lewis, ca. 1940. Used by permission of The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.

On June 8, 1941, C.S. Lewis stepped outside of The Kilns, the residence on the outskirts of Headington Quarry he shared with his older brother, Warnie, and their demanding 69-year-old housemate Mrs. Janie Moore, the mother of a friend who had died in World War I.

It was a pleasant Sunday evening, with a slight breeze in the air and a temperature of 11 °C(61°F).

Lewis, who never learned to drive, eased his way into the car to be driven by Fred Paxford, the gardener and handyman who had worked at The Kilns since before Mrs. Moore and Lewis acquired the property in 1930. Paxford and Lewis were both 42-year-old bachelors—the latter just three months older than the former. Years later, when Lewis wrote The Silver Chair in his Narnia series, he based the character Puddleglum the Marsh-Wiggle on Paxford: “an inwardly optimistic, outwardly pessimistic, dear, frustrating, shrewd countryman of immense integrity.”

With Paxford behind the wheel, the two men made their way west along London Road, which soon turned into Headington Road. The three-mile trip takes around 15 minutes by car. They arrived at their destination, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, located on the north side of High Street, where Lewis was to deliver the Solemn Evensong sermon.

Originally built in the 13th century as the home of the university, St Mary’s—the parish church of Oxford University—hosted notable figures and events in virtually every century. In the 16th century archbishop Thomas Cranmer, along with bishops Latimer and Ridley, were tried for heresy in the church and executed at Broad Street. In the 18th century John Wesley attended sermons in the church as an undergraduate student and later preached from its pulpit. In the 19th century John Henry Newman served as vicar of the church, delivering well-received sermons until he left the Church of England in 1845 and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

The 1940s saw Lewis increasing in popularity and visibility. In February he had received a letter from Rev. J. W. Welch, director of the Religious Broadcasting Department of the BBC, inviting Lewis to give a series of wartime radio addresses, which he would begin delivering in August. In May, The Guardian had begun publishing weekly installments of Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters.” Six years later, in September of 1947, he would grace the cover of Time magazine.

Lewis preached several sermons throughout his lifetime. Almost all of the surviving records are from the 1940s, where he preached nearly 20 sermons, many of them as a volunteer Lay Lecturer for the RAF (Royal Air Force) Chaplains’ Branch.

Fifteen months before he preached “The Weight of Glory” he had given an evensong sermon at St Mary’s entitlted “None Other Gods: Culture in War-Time” (October 22, 1939), later shortened and recast in publication form as simply “Learning in War-Time.” Both sermons were at the invitation of Canon T. Richard (“Dick”) Milford, the 45-year-old Vicar of St Mary’s, and both were prompted by his reading of The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), Lewis’s first Christian book.

England, of course, was heavily engaged in World War II at this time. Between these two preaching engagements at St Mary’s—from September 7, 1940, to May 21, 1941—British cities were on the receiving end of 100 tons of explosives dropped during air raids, including 71 attacks upon London, some 60 miles to the southeast.

As Lewis ascended the pulpit that evening, he looked out at the Oxford students and dons to witness what Walter Hooper later described as “one of the largest congregations ever assembled there in modern times.”

The anticipation to hear Lewis must have been significant, but the listeners could hardly have predicted that they were about to hear what would become one of the most famous sermons of the twentieth century, still being read and appreciated seventy five years hence. Lewis’s announced text for the address was Revelation 2:2628, a passage different from the day’s New Testament reading in the Book of Common Prayer: “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations . . . And I will give him the morning star” (KJV). Lewis does not quote from the passage directly or refer to it by its reference, though he does discuss near the end of the sermon what it means to be given “the morning star.”

The title of the sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” comes from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” But even this verse receives only a passing mention in the course of his remarks. One of the striking features about Lewis’s sermonic work is how little exegetical work they contain. They are more like philosophical, theological, and practical meditations on themes than exposition proper.

The address in printed form is just over 5,300 words. Based upon his speaking pace from his surviving audio, where he spoke at a clip of 120 words per minute, this talk at the same rate would have lasted about 45 minutes.

Lewis’s two-and-a-half minute opener is now one of his best-known passages:

“If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love.

You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.

I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

On August 17, a couple of months after delivering the sermon, Lewis responded to Alec Vidler, the Anglo-Catholic editor of the monthly journal Theology, granting him permission to publish the talk. It appeared that fall: C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” Theology 43, no. 257 (November 1941): 263-74.


The following year, the Anglican mission organization Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which publishes Theology, produced the address as a 4.25″ x 6.5″ 24-page pamphlet, sold for 2 pence.

At the end of the decade, the British publisher Geoffrey Bles released Lewis’s Transposition and Other Addresses (1949) as a 62-page hardcover, containing five essays:

  • “Transposition”
  • “The Weight of Glory”
  • “Membership”
  • “Learning in War-Time”
  • “The Inner Ring”

The American edition, published the same year by Macmillan, dropped the “Transposition” essay and changed the book title to highlight The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.

Lewis explained in the preface that all of the addresses were for specific requests and addressed to particular audiences, and that they are largely reprinted as originally given.

From left to right, the first editions of the Geoffrey Bles edition in the UK (1949), the Macmillan edition in the US (1949), and the Eerdmans paperback edition in 1965.

In 1980, Macmillan released a revised and expanded edition, with a new introduction by Walter Hooper, literary adviser to the Lewis estate and Lewis’s secretary at the end of his life. To the original five essays, Hooper restored “Transposition” and included four more: “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” “Is Theology Poetry?” “On Forgiveness,” and “A Slip of the Tongue.”

Hooper arranged the various essays chronologically, with one exception: he placed “The Weight of Glory” at the front, writing that it is “so magnificent that not only do I dare to consider it worthy of a place with some of the Church Fathers, but I fear I should be hanged by Lewis’s admirers if it were not given primacy of place.”

Hooper’s comments note the longstanding popularity of “The Weight of Glory” among Lewis’s admirers, but the essay became especially well-known among Reformed evangelicals through the writings of John Piper. Piper discovered Eerdmans’ 1965 paperback edition of The Weight of Glory in the fall of 1968, as a first-year student at Fuller Seminary, while browsing at Vroman’s Bookstore on Colorado Avenue in Pasadena, just a few blocks southeast of the seminary.

“The first page of that sermon,” he now says of the passage quoted above, “is one of the most influential pages of literature I have ever read.” “There it was in black and white,” Piper recounts, “and to my mind it was totally compelling: It is not a bad thing to desire our own good. In fact, the great problem of human beings is that they are far too easily pleased. They don’t seek pleasure with nearly the resolve and passion that they should. And so they settle for mud pies of appetite instead of infinite delight.” He had never in his whole life heard a Christian, let alone one of Lewis’s stature, say these kinds of things, and Piper became convinced that our fault lay not in our desire for happiness but in the weakness of our quest for true and lasting joy.

John Piper’s copy of C.S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory,” purchased in 1968.

Nearly a decade later, while teaching biblical studies at Bethel College, Piper published “How I Became a Christian Hedonist,” His 37 (March 1977): 1, 4-5, building off of Lewis’s insights from “The Weight of Glory,” combined with that of the Psalms, Lewis’s Reflection on the Psalms, and the writings of Blaise Pascal. In 1986, Piper expanded this essay, this time incorporating the work of Jonathan Edwards, which became the introduction to his signature book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.

“The Weight of Glory” can be read online in its entirety. As the length of this post might suggest, it is worth the investment of your time to read and consider the whole thing. For it was 75 years ago tonight that the church received one of the great sermons of the 20th century.