Tag Archives: c.s.lewis

‘Good images of what we really desire’ — or, hints of redemption within beautiful things

The 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. -C.S. Lewis, in “The Weight of Glory”

Following Lewis’s formulation and speaking for myself, my heart has been broken many, many times.

Relating a line by Longfellow to a line by Lewis

At the beginning of my Major American Writers class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I open with a quote that I hope will help the students understand why we bother with literature and why literature matters.

I usually tap an American literary figure, but last week, a line by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had me thinking about something C.S. Lewis wrote.

Tell me if I’m off-base here.

In “A Psalm of Life,” Longfellow wrote, “Art is long, but life is fleeting”.

In “On Stories,” Lewis wrote, “In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to capture in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I think I was fairly responsible with the comparison and contrast. I made it clear that I did not think there was a perfect critical fit between the two quotes. Even so, I wanted to use the quotes to draw attention to a couple of thoughts. One, while life moves along, in its chronological sequence, we still value certain things that seem eternal, that stand outside of ourselves and our time. Two, that art can sometimes open us up to a sense, feeling, or impression of something eternal, something beyond us.

A powerful example of that sense or impression was related by the poet (and Lewis friend) Ruth Pitter in one of her BBC broadcasts, entitled “Hunting the Unicorn,” which was aired decades ago now. Pitter said:

I was sitting in front of a cottage door one day in spring long ago, a few bushes and flowers round me, bird gathering nesting material, trees of the forest at a little distance. A poor place, nothing glamorous about it. And suddenly, everything assumed a different aspect, its true aspect. For a moment it seemed to me that truth appeared in its overwhelming splendor. The secret was out, the explanation given, something that had seemed like total freedom, total power, total bliss – good with no bad as its opposite, an absolute that had no opposite. This thing, so unlike our feeble nature, had suddenly cut across one’s life and vanished. What is this thing? Is it, could it be, after all, a hint of something more real than this life? A message from reality, perhaps a particle of reality itself? If so, no wonder we hunt it so unceasingly, and never stop desiring it and pining for it.

I did not include the above Pitter quote in our class discussion. While I was trying to explain the Lewis quote, however, I noticed some of the students were moved and surprised by what I was saying. My explanation probably had more in common with Platonism than Christianity, and yet just expressing the possibility of an impression from something beyond our material framework was stirring for me, and it felt counter-cultural to talk about such things.

-Colin Foote Burch

Revivals, healings, and the theology of suffering

I hear about revivals and “verified healings” and “confirmed healings” quite a bit.

I hope the healings are for real, but —

I worry about the consumer-demand attitude within the revival and healing movements, a consumer-demand attitude toward God, and wonder if the leaders in those movements couldn’t contribute just as much by exploring the theology of suffering.

When Saint Paul begged God to remove the unexplained “thorn in my side,” Jesus spoke and said, “My grace is sufficient.” Certainly a hearty belief in God’s activity today would not have to involve a complete avoidance of that passage.

Years ago, back when a friend and I were both fifth graders, we stood shaking with upset stomachs in the school hallway as we lined up to use the restrooms before class.

It was an abusive school, operated by a small nondenominational church with similarities to the Pentecostal churches. A teacher had strapped my rear with belt so hard, I felt the leather against my bones, and I bruised black and purple.

My only fellow fifth grader had been spanked for misplacing a decimal point.

That kind of school.

In the hallways, lining up at the restrooms before class, my friend and I whispered to each other, “Pray for grace.” As fifth-graders, we used the word “grace” to mean “no punishment,” or “teachers who aren’t scrutinizing us.” For us, “grace” meant “relief.”

At the time, we didn’t experience the relief we prayed for. We continued in constant fear that we would be fully punished, again, for the smallest errors.

We didn’t realize the Bible was full of examples of similar situations.

For a long time, Job didn’t experience relief.

For a long time, Joseph didn’t experience relief.

For a long time, Paul didn’t experience relief.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakeness, or peril, or sword?…For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 8, Revised Standard Version)

Saint Paul doesn’t say anything about tribulation, famine, peril, or death going away, just that they won’t separate us from the love of Christ.

But as Aslan says in The Horse and his Boy, “The only story you are allowed to know is your own,” and the Proverbs say, “Each heart knows its own sorrow, and no one can share its joy;” so maybe some people are experiencing instantaneous healing just by going to a certain place or making a certain demand. I certainly don’t want my suspicions to be proven correct by anyone’s prolonged suffering.

But I think the miracles are rarer than reported, and that they are exceptions, not the rule.

To echo David B. Hart’s words, given in another context, The Fall turned creation over to terrestrial and spiritual powers hostile to God, and as Saint Paul wrote, creation longs for liberty from its bondage to decay. God has not decided to change the basic human lot. As long as trees fall in the forests and rot, so will human beings be subject to decay and disease, because trees and people are both part of that creation longing for liberty from decay.

The miracles are the exceptions, and never something that we can command at will, as if God were some malleable power we could use if we got the details of place or prayer just right.

Wasn’t the point of the cross that we were incapable of getting the details right? Weren’t we redeemed so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting the details right? God will act as He chooses, but how does He choose?

These things have me thinking about the way C.S. Lewis portrayed God through the character of Aslan. I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my daughters; we saw the film version of Prince Caspian today, and we recently began reading The Silver Chair, the sixth of the seven-book series. Aslan has a definite way about him. He’s a personality with intentions. The characters he knows, even the characters he loves, don’t always get their way. There’s a hint throughout the tales that something else is a-foot, that there’s some purpose behind the suffering and the separation the characters often feel. Yet even when Aslan clearly has the power to make profound changes, he sometimes chooses not to, and the characters are not given the reasons why.

-Colin Foote Burch

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Max McLean talks about playing Screwtape

Screwtape is a plum role—part Noel Coward . . . part Hannibal Lecter . . . part Iago. C. S. Lewis described the process of writing Screwtape as difficult, but playing him is a lot of fun. I remember hearing Malcolm Muggeridge speak of “fictional good” as dull and boring while “fictional evil” is fascinating and engaging. He also was clear to say that in life it is quite the other way around. Perhaps that is one reason film depicts so much violence and evil.

-Max McLean, writing about acting the part of Screwtape from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, in this article. The show at Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C., wraps up Sunday.

C.S. Lewis, a ‘wannabe poet,’ and other Inklings praised acclaimed poet Ruth Pitter

Ruth Pitter was the first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. The English poet (and personal friend of C.S. Lewis) won the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry in 1937 for A Trophy of Arms and the William E. Heinneman Award in 1954 for The Ermine. She was admired by W.B. Yeats and members of the Inklings.

Don W. King recently completed Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter (Kent State University Press), the first work of its kind on Pitter and her poetry. The book will be released in May or June.

King is Professor of English at Montreat College in Montreat, N.C., and editor of Christian Scholar’s Review.

He is author of C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse. Our parent site, LiturgicalCredo, recently interviewed King about Pitter and the story behind Hunting the Unicorn.

The following is an excerpt from the interview; click here to see the full interview.

What kind of relationship did [Pitter] have with some of the other Inklings?

Well, Pitter did not have a university education. She came to maturity during World War One and actually had matriculated at London University but when the war came basically she had to drop out, and she took a job in the Foreign Office. So she didn’t have the background that Lewis and his friends, most of the other Inklings, would have had – she didn’t have a university education.

Her first contact with one of the Inklings was with Lord David Cecil, who came across her poetry and was quite moved by it, and basically wrote her fan letters. He was, by the way, a professor of literature at one of the Oxford colleges, so you can imagine how that must have made her feel –“Here’s an academic writing me and telling me how much he enjoys my poetry.”

Pitter and Cecil began corresponding but it was through another common friend in the mid 1940s that Lewis came across Pitter’s poetry, and basically he did the same thing that David Cecil had done; he communicated to this friend that he thought she was a quite good poet. That emboldened Pitter to ask if she could come visit Lewis in Oxford. She had really been impressed during World War Two listening to Lewis’ radio broadcasts that eventually became Mere Christianity. And in many ways – she says in many letters – that her own movement toward Christianity was a direct result of having heard Lewis on the radio.

So by the time she writes him in the mid 1940s – I think it was 1946, their first letter – she is nearing faith in Christ but she’s not quite there. But she writes to Lewis and says can she come to Magdalen College, and he invites her up to have lunch in his rooms. And that began the relationship. It was
initially, primarily, about poetry – I mean, that’s what they had in common, their interest in poetry. And as I said earlier, he was the wannabe poet and she was the established well-known poet. He shared her view of poetry, what poetry should do, the kind of poetry they both liked. In a way it was
only natural, once he befriended her, that they would begin this correspondence.

You talked about the surprise of running across the Perelandra transcripts. Once you started digging into Pitter for the sake of doing a book on her, were there new surprises waiting for you?

I think one of the surprises was that she wasn’t university educated. She was an artisan. She worked hard all of her life, basically doing ornamental painting on furniture. She and a friend of hers . . . eventually set up a business – this was after they learned the trade…they decided to set up their own business. From the 1930s they had quite a successful business doing this, sending their goods all over the British Empire. World War Two put a squash on that as it did on many things. But I think that was the first thing that surprised me, that she wasn’t an academic. She was a hard-working woman who happened to have the gifts of poetry.

The second thing that surprised me was that her first poem was published when she was about nine years old. Her father had been friends with a man whose name was A.R. Orage, who was well-known at the beginning of the 19th Century as the editor of a socialist newspaper, and through that contact, Pitter had a lot of her poetry published. I think her first poem was published about 1911. So from 1911 through the early 1920s she had a lot of poetry published in that periodical, called The New Age. It wasn’t particularly good poetry as she herself later admitted but then again you can imagine the good of the encouragement she must have had, to have some of her poetry published at such a young age. This was in a periodical where poetry by Ezra Pound appeared, and Kathryn Mansfield, so some of these people who were published, who she was published alongside of, were quite significant poets. There were a lot of other bad poets published in the same thing, but, you know, interesting that she made some early contacts like that.

She was befriended at a number of times by some rather significant literary luminaries of the time, and they helped to push her poetry forward. Maybe another thing that surprised me is that – and a reason I like her too – she was pretty self-effacing, and didn’t try to do much to try to push her name and her poetry into the forefront. It was just like she wrote poetry because she loved it, and of course she would like people to be interested in it. You know, the whole P.R. thing was just something that was anathema to her. It embarrassed her to see some of her friends who spent all their time trying to get their name out in public. At the same time, she was fortunate to have Orage and Hillaire Belloc – Belloc was a pretty important writer and member of Parliament [and] through the 1920s he took Pitter under his wing, and David Cecil did. She was fortunate to have some people who saw the merit of her poetry and were able to help her get some of that poetry published.

(Read the full interview, and find links to some of the books mentioned above, here.)

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Waiting for the Eternal Easter Day; glimpsing the eternal while living between the crucifixion and the resurrection

Here’s an excellent take on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter:

We exist in a Saturday world. Between Friday and Sunday, when the world was still, the tears fresh, the grave sealed—the darkest day past, a brighter morning imminent—but until then … waiting,” writes Brett McCracken in this post.

Sometimes, we have a glimpse of what the Eternal Easter will look like. The late English poet Ruth Pitter once described such a moment to her BBC Radio audience:

“I was sitting in front of a cottage door one day in spring long ago, a few bushes and flowers round me, bird gathering nesting material, trees of the forest at a little distance. A poor place, nothing glamorous about it.

And suddenly, everything assumed a different aspect, its true aspect.

“For a moment it seemed to me that truth appeared in its overwhelming splendor.

“The secret was out, the explanation given, something that had seemed like total freedom, total power, total bliss — good with no bad as its opposite, an absolute that had no opposite.

“This thing, so unlike our feeble nature, had suddenly cut across one’s life and vanished. What is this thing? Is it, could it be, after all, a hint of something more real than this life? A message from reality, perhaps a particle of reality itself?

“If so, no wonder we hunt it so unceasingly, and never stop desiring it and pining for it.”

Professor and C.S. Lewis scholar Don W. King says in an interview about his book on Pitter that her comments are “very, very similar to what Lewis has to say about his own pursuit of joy.”

We live in a Saturday world, indeed, but not without the occasional glimpse of what’s in store for those who accept, by faith, the promise begun at the Resurrection.

-Colin Foote Burch

Recommended reading: Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

New book offers first critical biography of C.S. Lewis’ friend Ruth Pitter, first woman to win Queen’s poetry award

LiturgicalCredo.com has posted an interview with Don W. King, author of Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter (Kent State University Press). The book is due in May.

In 1955, English poet Ruth Pitter became the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. She had previously won two other major poetry awards.

Pitter was admired by W.B. Yeats and C.S. Lewis, as well as other members of the Inklings.

Don W. King discovered references to letters between Lewis and Pitter while he was doing research for his 2001 book, C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse (Kent State University Press). After that, he continued to research Pitter, and the result was Hunting the Unicorn.

You’ll find the interview prominently displayed on our home page.

(Mac users, if you happen to notice any strange breaks in the text of the interview, please let us know by leaving a comment on this post.)

cheers,

Colin Foote Burch

LiturgicalCredo.com