Ask any ten avid readers of C. S. Lewis to describe his vocation and I suspect 9 out of 10 will use one of the following terms: Christian apologist, fantasy/sf writer, children’s author, literary critic, Oxford don—a handful, maybe even “poet.” Few, I reckon, would think to refer to Jack, as he invited friends to call him, as “counselor.”
And yet “counselor,” I would aver, for those who know Lewis’s biography and just about any portion of his rather voluminous correspondence, is a keenly apt designation. And it is one that I would suggest deserves to be ranked as high as any item on the above list in describing the role Jack played in the lives of the people he touched.
Want some proof?
A recent book of judiciously selected letters by C. S. Lewis, Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis (HarperCollins, 2008), amply illustrates Lewis’s compassion and theological agility in addressing the myriad spiritual needs and eternal concerns of his many correspondents.
This superbly edited volume by the venerable Narnian encyclopedist, Paul Ford, reflects on page after page how profoundly Lewis shared his brilliant Christian mind through a counseling ministry conducted entirely through correspondence, the recipients, most of whom, he never met in person.
Drawn from real life circumstances, the questions posed to Jack and his answers to them transcend the time and place in which they are situated, while their charm resonates all the more because of their historical grounding.
These letters reveal the so-called “private” Jack, well outside the scholastic setting and the public forums he inhabited and dominated. Here one witnesses not only candid glimpses of how he lived his own “normal Christian life,” but also how he spoke to others who were new to it, running from it, or simply challenged by it.
What Yours, Jack does most effectively is cull poignant, unexpurgated letters from the 1920s through the 1960s that demonstrate Lewis’s unusual care for and sensitivity to his readers. His unguarded answers reflect his customary theologically astute and uncompromising orthodoxy, and the same wit, same human empathy, and same spiritual depth and breadth found in his apologetics and fiction.
Here, in a letter or a postcard, Jack reluctantly (for he considered himself an amateur) but perceptively (because he could not help but draw from his prodigious submersion in the Bible and Christian history) offers spiritual direction and nurture as warmly and graciously to strangers as he does to friends.
His audience, a vast majority of them Americans, and among those Americans, disproportionate numbers of them women, wrote to Jack repeatedly over several decades sharing their perpelxities, their cares, their longings.
While Jack seems never to have been exasperated by individual correspondents—he sometimes is found complaining to brother Warnie and a handful of confidants that the sheer workload of answering each post was a burden he’d wished not to have to carry. A brief sampler of Jack’s winsome prose follows.
In his letters, Jack is forthright, and, sometimes, surprisingly disclosive; to a correspondent experiencing a spiritual awakening in the midst of other turmoil, Jack evinces some uneasiness with being her “confessor”:
You may say you want to confess your sins to God only. The trouble is that in fact you have confessed a good many of them to me!. …And quite frankly I am not sure it is fitting for a man who is not protected and supported by the special status of a priest or a doctor to be told too many of his neighbor’s secrets—unless, of course, there is some desperate need. (1941; p. 82)
To a wife and mother struggling with grief, he writes compellingly,
I think what you say about grief being better than estrangement is very true. I am sorry you should have had this grief. …I also have become much acquainted with grief now through the death of my great friend Charles Williams. …I find all that talk about ‘feeling he is closer to us than before’ isn’t just talk. It’s just what it does feel like—I can’t put it into words. One seems at moments to be living in a new world. Lots, lots of pain but not a particle of depression or resentment. (1945; p. 112)
Jack could also be blunt, especially on a philosophical topic on which he had a settled position; to a former student, a missionary to India who intimated he was becoming “disillusioned” with apologetic method, Lewis confessed:
I still think the argument from design the weakest possible ground for Theism, and what may be called the argument from un-design the strongest for Atheism. (1946; p. 118)
But more typical is his foundational empathy with spiritual wayfarers; to a correspondent trying to handle her sense of “spiritual dryness,” Lewis admonished:
You are quite right (though not in the way you meant) when you say I needn’t ‘work up” sympathy with you. No, I needn’t. I have had enough experiences of the crises of family life, the terrors, despondencies, hopes deferred, and weariness. The trouble is that things go on so long, isn’t it? And one gets so tired of trying. . . . Take it hour by hour. Don’t add the past and the future to the present load more than you can help. God bless you all. (1952; p. 191).
Who is the Jack Lewis who is revealed here? A sensitive and kind man, observant, attentive, careful to sound neither omniscient nor above it all, identifying with people in their sorrows, doubts, sense of directionlessness. He honors the everydayness of faith, not as lofty intellectual enterprise, but as a daily surrender of the flesh to spirit, the temporal to the eternal.
Lewis treasures (and endears himself to) his correspondents by the simple gift of taking them seriously, and by providing not rote answers but deeply felt, reflective counsel out his own crucible of faith, all tethered to Christian tradition and a marvelous grasp of Scripture.
Unfailingly generous, and ever humble without sounding pious, Jack the counselor serves as both priest and prophet, comforter and evangelist, friend and brother.
Bruce L. Edwards is Professor of English and Africana Studies, and Associate Vice Provost for Academic Technology at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, where has he been a faculty member and administrator since 1981. He has served as a C. S. Lewis Foundation Fellow at the Kilns in Oxford, England; a Fulbright Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya (1999-2000); a Bradley Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC (1989-90); and as the S. W. Brooks Memorial Professor of Literature at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia (1988). Bruce and his wife, Joan, live in the mighty metropolis of Bowling Green, Ohio, and have four grown children, ranging in age from 24 to 34.
His C. S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy (4 volume encyclopedia) was published by Praeger Press in 2007. Bruce’s other books on Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia include: Not a Tame Lion (2005) and Further Up and Further In: Understanding C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), A Rhetoric of Reading: C. S. Lewis’s Defense of Western Literacy (1988) and The Taste of the Pineapple: Essays on C. S. Lewis as Reader, Critic, and Imaginative Writer (1988). He has since 1995 maintained a popular web site on the life and works of C. S. Lewis at www.cslewisblog.com.