When I think about mystics I have to admit that C.S. Lewis isn’t the first person that comes to me. Rather I think about St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and, on some days, the Apostle John. C.S. Lewis, however, seems to have been a mystic even if he didn’t quite enjoy the term.
The term “mystic” has fallen out of favor within American Christianity due to the rise of New Age religious beliefs and practices that swept across the USA in the 1970’s. Things were different in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with folks within the Christian faith having a strong interest in mysticism. Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) defined mysticism as “the direct intuition or experience of God” while William R. Inge (1860-1954) described it as “the experience of coming into immediate relation with higher Powers.” C.S. Lewis, who knew both Underhill and Inge, defined mysticism as a “direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.”
Downing further unpacks the question of what is Christian mysticism in the first three chapters of his book. The first chapter looks at Christian mysticism in general before shifting to C.S. Lewis personal life in chapter two. The third chapter goes a bit deeper into defining mysticism by looking at the writings of the different Christian mystics Lewis read and loved.
After laying the foundation about what Lewis thought about Christian mysticism, Downing explores the concept within Lewis’ writings. Chapter four shifts through the mystical underpinnings of Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength). Chapter five explores the idea of trying to find the words to describe the mind of God. To this end, Downing pulls from a wide range of Lewis’ writings including The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and Surprised by Joy. The next chapter is devoted to looking at the mystical elements within Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series.
Though Lewis was a fan of Christian mysticism, he also knew that there could be abuses just like in everything else. As such, Downing records Lewis’ critique of mysticism in chapter seven before highlighting the benefits of the mystical way in chapter eight. I guess you could say that in addition to providing the world with a different way of seeing C.S. Lewis, he also wrote a good primer on Christian mysticism in general.
The first travel guide along this journey is St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491- 1556) who founded the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church. Writing in the early part of the 16th century, St. Ignatius’ booklet Spiritual Exercises recorded various prayer and meditation practices that he found helpful in experiencing the Living God. These practices placed a “great emphasis on discerning God’s presence in the everyday activities of ordinary life” [Jones 2015]. Similar to St. Paul who saw the Lord as filling “everything in every way” [Ep 1:23, NIV], St. Ignatius refused to embrace the sacred/secular divided that permeated Christian thought then and now.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is the second travel guide drawing travelers into an experiential spirituality of the Living Creator. A proponent of the contemplative life, her book TheInterior Castle is an allegory of a soul on a journey through seven mansions within itself to find the Lord. When the soul enters into the seventh and last spiritual mansion, St. Teresa writes about how the Living God will come and dwell within the soul of the pilgrim.
“Oh, God help me! What a difference there is between hearing and believing these words and being led in this way to realize how true they are! Each day this soul wonders more, for she feels that they have never left her, and perceives quite clearly, in the way I have described, that They are in the interior of her heart – in the most interior place of all and in its greatest depths. So although, not being a learned person, she cannot say how this is, she feels within herself this Divine companionship” [2008, 129]
There can be no greater expression of experiential spirituality than to feel the everlasting companionship of the Living Creator.
Living about a hundred years later, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is the third travel guide along the experiential spirituality journey. Known primarily for his advances in mathematics, physics, and philosophy, Pascal may seem like an odd travel guided into the mystical realm of a personal experience with the Living God. However rather than being a hindrance, it was Pascal’s philosophical mind that led him to the understanding that God was seeking a personal relationship with him. “If we submit everything to reason,” Pascal says, “Our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element” [1958, 78]. Building upon this understanding, he declares that “it is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason” [1958, 78].
To be continued….
Jones, Lorna. 2015. A Brief Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality. Ignatian Spiritual Formation III class handout, St. Stephen’s University, St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada, October 5.
Pascal, Blaise. 1958. Pascal’s Pensees. Trans. T.S. Eliot. New York: E.P. Dutton.
St. Teresa of Avila. 2008. Interior Castle. Trans. E. Allison Peers. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications.
Born on March 28, 1515 in Spain, St. Teresa of Avila was a reformer of the Carmelite Order during the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. She was a proponent of the contemplative life whose writings were very influential on the literature of the Spanish Renaissance. The Interior Castle (originally published in Spanish as El Castillo Interior) was written between June and November 1577, but wasn’t published until 1588, six years after her death. The book quickly became known as her best work and served to establish her as one of the top thinkers in the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV a mere forty years after her death and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970, one of four women among a list of thirty-six.
The book itself is divided into seven selections corresponding to the seven mansions found within the inner castle of our soul. Each selection has between one and elven chapters, depending on the complexity of that mansion. The overall theme of the book is to help people understand the soul’s journey into and through these seven mansions. Throughout the book St. Teresa is careful to note that this journey is not forced or controlled solely by the person. Rather it is a gift from God given not because the person is holy, but so that God’s “greatness may be made known” (page 19).
The first mansion the soul must enter is gained through “prayer and meditation” (page 20). Both practices are necessary as one must know to whom one speaks while also knowing what it is that is being asked. Rather than seeking out the journey of self-knowledge, a lot of souls are content to staying in the “outer court of the castle” (page 19). These souls are effectively paralyzed as they do not recognize nor want to know about their ability to converse with the Creator God. These souls will be “turned into pillars of salt for not looking within themselves” unless they wake up to their “miserable condition” (page 20). This is why self-knowledge is so important. Each person has been created with the ability to know and converse with their Creator, we only need to embrace the gift of self-knowledge that God gives us and enter into the first mansion.
The second mansion we find along our journey of self-knowledge is often the hardest mansion to enter and leave. It is here that the devil attacks the soul the hardest, trying hard to prevent it from continuing on the journey towards the inner mansion where God dwells. It is within this mansion that we have need of the Lord’s aid more than anyone other time. The prayer being that the Lord will give the soul the resolve and perseverance to continuing to seek the Lord.
Those who persevere through these hardships, will, by the mercy of God, find themselves entering the third mansion. This mansion is marked by humanity and the realization that no matter how far you get, you must always fear the Lord and seek Him. It is especially easy for those whose live revolves around ministry, whether they be pastors, nuns, or priests, to get cocky and over confident. The solution to this is to fear the Lord and keep pushing forward on the journey through charitable services to others.
It is in the fourth mansion that the “supernatural elements of the mystical life first enters” (page 11). Namely, it is at this point that the soul’s part in the journey decreases while God’s part increases. St. Teresa’s word picture for this mansion is that of a water fountain whose source comes directly from God. His peace, quietness and sweetness fills up the basin of our soul until it runs over the brim and into all the other mansions and facilities. As this happens, St. Teresa encourages us to not “think much, but to love much” as our love for God is what is important. We don’t have to try to always be thinking about our soul’s journey, but rather we are to let go and trust God to guide us on the journey.
The fifth mansion is one of preparation as the soul prepares itself to receive the gifts of God. Just like a silkworm who spins a cocoon to prepare for the day in which it becomes a moth, so the soul is to build a house through the Prayer of Union in preparation of the time when God will “transforms a soul” into His likeness (page 63).
When one gets the sixth mansion, the relationship between oneself and God transforms into that of a lover. To be in each other’s presences is all that one desires; whereas to be apart is to experience torment and anguish. Yet through these trails, the soul will persevere and begin to spend more and more time in the presence of the Lord. Some people will look upon the soul within the mansion with fear as it is new and different. Rather than turning back, St. Teresa encourages one to keep on walking as the joy experienced with God outweigh the anguish and trials that come.
The seventh mansion is when the soul is married to the Lord and the “scales” are removed “from the eyes of the soul so that it may see and understand something of the favour which He is granting it” (page 129). It is this mansion which is the goal of the contemplative life with the soul merging into the Lord like a drop of rain falling into a river. The two become one and are “impossible to divide or separate” (page 132).
The allegory of a soul on a journey into itself to find the Lord through contemplation and prayer is a worthy one. However St. Teresa’s writing style was a bit chaotic with various tangents here and there, as she herself confessed too (“Without realizing it, I have strayed far from my theme…” page 92). This made the journey hard to understand at times with some of the mansion blurring into one another. Perhaps it is my Western mind with an enjoyment of specific doors between mansions that kept me from fully embracing St. Teresa’s allegory. Regardless the time spent with her on the journey through the seven mansions was beneficial. I definitely walked away from The Inner Castle with some wise tidbits of wisdom for my soul’s journey.