Grace Made Perfect in Weakness

Nearly a dozen biographies have been published about C. S. Lewis since his death half a century ago. One wonders how much new there is to say. But there will always be new biographies about cultural icons, not because new facts are uncovered, but because each new generation has its own way of looking at the past.

A welcome recent addition to the spate of Lewis biographies is Devin Brown’s A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis (Brazos, 2013). As its title suggests, Brown does not attempt an exhaustive or definitive biography, but rather an account of Lewis’s spiritual journey.

Brown is a thorough researcher, and he uncovers new items I hadn’t encountered before. For example, in describing the baptismal records at St. Mark’s Church in Belfast, Brown notes that the book includes a space for the father’s “Quality, Trade, or Profession.” Lewis’s father is listed in that column as a “Solicitor.” Those who find C. S. Lewis a tad old-fashioned should be reminded that he was literally born into a world in which one’s father’s social rank was a part of his or her official identity!

Brown offers a concise summary of Lewis’s external life, but the focus is upon what was happening in Lewis’s mind and heart. There is the fragile childhood faith, the death of his mother, the loss of faith in his teens and its recovery in his early thirties. As Lewis himself does in The Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy, Brown organizes Lewis’s spiritual pilgrimage around his experiences of “Joy,” those intense and fleeting experiences of nameless longing that are both an ache and an ecstasy. Lewis’ own search for the source of these experiences became a kind of personal grail quest, first the “Thrills” themselves and then whatever (or Whomever) it was that the thrills were pointing to. Paradoxically, Lewis’s fascination with Joy receded once he had discovered its ultimate source—the same “Face above all worlds” whom he had feared more than longed for in his childhood.

In reading Brown’s account, I was struck by how Lewis was able to turn a psychological liability into a spiritual (and authorial) asset. Even as a child, Lewis had a habit of watching his own mind, of observing his thoughts and feelings even while experiencing them. The Epistle to James talks about the “double-minded man, unstable in all his ways,” and one has to wonder how much Lewis’s double-mindedness contributed to his early spiritual instability.

Lewis himself talks about “a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood,” which was his attempt to manufacture the appropriate feelings of awe and reverence in church (quoted in Brown 16). Of course, one can will what to do but not what to feel, and so Lewis felt himself a spiritual failure even before he had reached his teens. Later on, though, recalling this problem in his own childhood, Lewis learned how to revitalize the familiar old doctrines by “casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations” (quoted in Brown 17). From a certain spiritual numbness Lewis experienced as a child came much later the poignancy and spiritual vitality that contribute so much to the success of the Chronicles of Narnia.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis recalls a similar problem in his early attempts at personal devotions, what he calls “ludicrous burdens of false duties in prayer.” Again the young Lewis assumed that his prayers should always be accompanied by feelings of earnestness and reverence, that his mind shouldn’t wander when he was kneeling before an invisible throne. Looking back, Lewis wished he had read Walter Hilton, who notes that it is common to have “vain thoughts in prayer,” and that one’s labors will be rewarded even if there is no experience of “savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.” This would become a recurrent theme in Lewis’s later books and letters: just act in obedience to what you know to be right and don’t concentrate on your feelings.

As Brown shows in his biography, it was a major milestone in Lewis’s spiritual journey when he learned to focus less on himself and to turn his mental gaze outward. Lewis himself reports in Surprised by Joy that after the first stage of his conversion (to theism, not specifically to Christianity), he experienced a noticeable decrease “in the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind.” He adds that while for many becoming converted might lead to greater self-examination, the opposite was true for him. His ideal became self-forgetfulness, so that introspection was to be used for practical purposes at specified times. For Lewis this was a definite turn toward greater emotional health: “To believe and to pray were the beginning of extroversion. I had been, as they say, ‘taken out of my self.'”

This change from self-scrutiny to self-forgetfulness in Lewis was apparent even to his friends. Owen Barfield recalled that “at certain stage in [Lewis’s] life he deliberately ceased to take any interest in himself except as a kind of spiritual alumnus taking his moral finals.” Barfield felt that this began as a deliberate choice and developed into an ingrained habit of mind, a sense that, to avoid “spiritual megalomania,” self-scrutiny should limit itself mainly to recognizing one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings. This sounds a bit condescending on Barfield’s part, but Lewis would probably have agreed. After all, he is the one who wrote in The Screwtape Letters that the very mark of Hell is a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.”

Ironically, the only way to produce a thought-provoking book such as The Screwtape Letters was to engage in that very kind of ruthless self-examination. As he explained in the 1960 preface to the book,

Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”–I need no other’s–“sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of Lewis’s career. In order to become a person of faith, he needed to learn to move away from his early habit of ceaseless, almost narcissistic, introspection. Yet his ability to attend so carefully to his own inner world is what later helped make him such a successful author. His alertness to subtle states of consciousness is what makes him such a perceptive guide for other seekers. From his own experience, he can help readers recognize their own foibles and failures, but also their deepest and most enduring sources of awe, hope, and faith.

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