In the House of Wisdom

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Continuing with C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress. John has grown up and left to pursue the vision of his Island, which filled him with immense longing. The path westward toward the Island is interrupted by something like the Grand Canyon (most likely representing sin), which no one can cross. John and his companion, Vertue, travel north and south along the canyon seeking help from several people representing different world views and ways of life, but no one understands or believes his goal is real. (Mother Kirk is the exception, but they reject her offer of guidance.) Vertue has become very sick and weak from these interactions and needs healing. And then they arrive at the house of Mr. Wisdom. Here, in allegorical form, is a defense of Longing, the desire for something this world can never satisfy.

Old Mr. Wisdom sits them down on his porch, looking west, and begins to speak.

From The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book VII, chapter 9.

“The words between you and and Reason were true. What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring. If water will not set a man at ease, then be sure it not thirst, or not thirst only, that tormented him: he wanted drunkenness to cure his dullness, or talk to cure his solitude, or the like. How, indeed, do we know our desires save by their satisfaction? When do we know them until we say, “Ah, this was what I wanted”? And if there were any desire which it was natural for man to feel but impossible for man to satisfy, would not the nature of this desire remain to him always ambiguous?

“If old tales were true, if a man without putting off humanity could indeed pass the frontiers of our country, if he could be, and yet be a man, in that fabled East and fabled West, then indeed at the moment of fruition, the raising of the cup, the assumption of the crown, the kiss of the spouse–then first, to his backward glance, the long roads of desire that he had trodden would become plain in all their winding, and when he found, he would know what it was that he had sought.

A lady named Contemplation takes John by moonlight to see the island.
Illustration by Michael Hague (c) 1981

“I am old and full of tears, and I see that you also begin to feel the sorrow that is born with us. Abandon hope: do not abandon desire. Feel no wonder that these glimpses of your Island so easily confuse themselves with viler things, and are so easily blasphemed. Above all, never try to keep them, never try to revisit the same place or time wherein the vision was accorded to you. You will pay the penalty of all who could bind down to one place or time within our country that which our country cannot contain. Have you not heard from the Steward of the sin of idolatry, and how, in their old chronicles, the manna turned to worms if any tried to hoard it? Be not greedy, be not passionate; you will but crush dead on your own breast with hot, rough hands the thing loved. But if ever you incline to doubt that the thing you long for is something real, remember what your own experience has taught you.

“Think that it is a feeling, and at once the feeling has no value. Stand sentinel at your own mind, watching for that feeling, and you will find–what shall I say?–a flutter in the heart, an image in the head, a sob in the throat: and was that your desire? You know that it was not, and that not feeling whatever will appease you, that feeling, refine it a you will, is but one more spurious claimant–spurious as the gross lusts of which the giant* speaks.

“Let us conclude then that what you desire is no state of yourself at all, but something, for that very reason, Other and Outer. And knowing this you will find tolerable the truth that you cannot attain it. That the thing should be, is so great a good that when you remember “it is” you will forget to be sorry that you can never have it….”

***

*The Spirit of the Age, Freudianism, which says spiritual longing is merely disguised sexual desire.

Afterword

Wisdom is not the lady Wisdom of the Bible; he is philosophical idealism. In the next chapter John discovers that Wisdom’s children do not adhere to his strict diet. They enjoy rich foods from other world-views and their own views are all over the map: the children of philosophical idealism include Marx, Herbert Spencer, Spinoza, Rudolf Steiner, Kant, and Bernard Bosanquet (an obscure figure to me, he was a 19th century English philosophical idealist and neo-Hegelian).

In his next session with John, Wisdom explains philosophical idealism without, of course, calling it that. The explanation is allegorical, like the rest of the novel, and terse. But those qualities may make it easier to follow if you’re unacquainted with the topic. If you are familiar with Hindu philosophy, the similarities will leap out at you.

Following these talks, Vertue is completely healed. He says he must go onward, down into the canyon bottom and then up the other side. He and John argue, for has not Wisdom told them that the other side cannot be reached, except by contemplation? To Vertue it matters not; he must go on even if he dies. Vertue is willing to abandon every scrap of creature comfort, including friendship. John decides he must follow him.

And we will find out if Mr. Wisdom was right, that our longings are real and good and must be kept alive, but their attainment is hopeless.

Grand Canyon photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash

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Unbounded Sweetness

Jack began this blog so it is only fitting that we return to him nearly one year later. This passage is from the first book C. S. Lewis wrote after his conversion, The Pilgrim’s Regress. It’s a straight-up allegory, a genre Lewis never used again. It allegorizes Lewis’s own search for truth and for the source of the childhood event that drew him forward all his life. The story starts from his childhood’s nominal Calvinism and follows him in and out of the blind alleys, false Joys, world views illogical and hopeless, the spirit of the age (Freudianism) and finally to Mother Kirk and her Son.

C. S. Lewis

But “John” is also an Everyman. In this passage he is very young and has learned about “the Landlord” who owns and rules the entire country and the Landlord’s hopelessly difficult list of rules that everyone must follow or be severely punished.

The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book One, Chapter II, “The Island”

And now I dreamed that John went out one morning and tried to play in the road and to forget his troubles; but the rules kept coming back into his head so that he did not make much of it. However, he went on always a few yards further till suddenly he looked up and saw that he was so far away from home that he was in a part of the road he had never seen before. Then came the sound of a musical instrument, from behind it seemed, very sweet and very short, as if it were one plucking at a string or note of a bell, and after it a full, clear voice — and it sounded so high and strange that he thought it was very far away, further than a star. The voice said, Come. Then John saw that there was a stone wall beside the road in that part: but it had (what he had never seen in a garden wall before) a window. There was no glass in the window and no bars; it was just a square hole in the wall. Through it he saw a green wood full of primroses: and he remembered suddenly how he had gone into another wood to pull primroses as a child, very long ago–so long that even in the moment of remembering the memory seemed still out of reach.

While he strained to grasp it, there came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away. A moment later he found that he was sobbing, and the sun had gone in: and what it was that had happened to him he could not quite remember, nor whether it had happened in this wood, or in the other wood when he was a child. It seemed a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island, where the smooth turf sloped down unbroken to the bays, and out of the thickets peeped the pale, small-breasted Oreads, wise like gods, unconscious of themselves like beasts, and tall enchanters, bearded to their feet, sat in green chairs among the forests. But even while he pictured these things he knew, with one part of his mind, that they were not like the things he had seen–nay, that what had befallen him was not seeing at all. But he was too young to heed the distinction: and too empty, now that the unbounded sweetness passed away, not to seize greedily whatever it had left behind. He had no inclination yet to go into the wood: and presently he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, “I know now what I want.” The first time that he said it he was aware that it was not entirely true: but before he went to bed he was believing it.

Afterword

What is described here allegorically is the same momentous event Lewis described in his 1951 memoir, Surprised by Joy. (Note the presence of primroses in both versions.) There he wrote of it “in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else.”

But could this account, written 18 years earlier, have captured the experience more freshly? At any rate it is a different, usually ignored window on that one event that led to millions of people all over the world being blessed by Lewis’s writings.

And it’s one close to my heart. When I first read this I was a new Christian at 24, and it was only the second “Christian book” I had ever opened. After I read this passage I did not move from my seat until I had finished the book, so astonished was I that another person had the same childhood experiences that I did.

The Mercy as Blissful as Heaven

More from Simone Weil’s remarkable Waiting on God. Weil was introduced two installments ago. 

Simone Weil

I do not need any hope or any promise to believe that God is rich in mercy. I know this wealth of his with the certainty of experience; I have touched it. What I know of it through actual contact is so far beyond my capacity of understanding and gratitude that even the promise of future bliss could add nothing to it for me; since for human intelligence the addition of two infinites is not an addition.

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Through the Lord’s Prayer to the infinite

Simone Weil was introduced in the previous post.  In this passage she continues the same letter to Father Perrin.  Not all of her statements in Waiting for God are theologically kosher.  However, she was the type of seeker and philosopher who insisted on following truth wherever it led, and who can say whether her journey in theological learning was complete when her brief life ended?  God uses and blesses imperfect vessels to do his work.  

Simone Weil
Simone Weil

From Waiting for God

Since that time I have made a practice of saying [the Lord’s Prayer] through once each morning with absolute attention.  If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.  Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse. 

The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition. 

At times the very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point of view.  The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or third degree.  At the same time filling very part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound.  Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence. 

Afterword

In this book Simone Weil writes that she had never read any “mystical works.”  She had not, until a few months before this letter, ever prayed to God.  This passage shows that entirely on her own, she discovered a practice known to Christians since the early centuries of the church: reaching God by meditating on His word.  Such is the grace and power of our Lord. 

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A 20th century French philosopher, a 17th-century English poem, and a mystical experience

Here is proof that poetry can take us where flat statements cannot.  This selection is twinned with the previous one, George Herbert’s poem.  You will see why.

220px-Simone_Weil_1921

The French philosopher Simone Weil was born in 1909 and lived only until 1942. Gifted with sharp intelligence and curiosity, she obtained an advanced degree in Philosophy from the Ecole Normale Superiuere and taught at a girls’ school.  Her short life was marked by a restless search for truth and fighting for justice for the working class.  Several times she rejected the academic life to work the soil with her bare hands.  Some thought of her as “an unorthodox Marxist moving toward anarchism.”  She helped the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War and took part in the French resistance when the Germans invaded France.  Yet she wrestled with belief in God and pursued truth passionately, allowing no ideologies or alliances to block her.

young-simone-weil

When the Nazis occupied France Weil eventually left for the United States.  The French provisional government asked for her assistance and she moved to London.  There she wanted to share in the sufferings of those in the occupied zone, but this self-imposed lack of nutrition along with her working to the point of exhaustion led to her death. 

She published no books in her lifetime and few essays on religion.  The record of her spiritual hunger and mystical experiences only came to light when her letters were published posthumously.  She may be the most “heady” of 20th century thinkers to have a mystical experience. 

From Waiting for God by Simone Weil

There was a young English Catholic there [at Solesmes Abbey] from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance—for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence—made of him a messenger to me.  For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named “metaphysical.”  In reading them later on, I discovered the poem…called “Love.”* I learned it by heart.  Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines.  I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.  It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.

In my arguments about the insolubility of the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.  I had vaguely heard tell of things of this kind, but I had never believed in them.  In the Firetti the accounts of apparitions rather put me off if anything, like the miracles in the Gospel.  Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.

*Titled “Love III” in most editions of Herbert’s works.

The Abbey at Solesme, France
The Abbey at Solesme, France. By Bautsch – Own work, Public Domain

 

From Waiting for God by Simone Weil, transl. by Emma Craufield, © 1951 by G. P. Putnam, pp. 68-69.  Big thanks to poet-scholar Anna Vogt for first telling me about Weil so, so long ago.

 

 

Accord and discord

Continuing with Frank Laubach’s amazing letters home, introduced a couple of installments ago. 

March 23, 1930

….An hour of any day may be made perfect by merely choosing. It is perfect if one looks toward God that entire hour, waiting for His leadership all through the hour and trying hard to do every tiny thing exactly as God wishes it done, as perfectly as possible. No emotions are necessary. 

April 18, 1930

I have tasted a thrill in fellowship with God which has made anything discordant with God disgusting. This afternoon the possession of God has caught me up with such sheer joy that I thought I never had known anything like it. God was so close and so amazingly lovely that I felt like melting all over with a strange blissful contentment. Having had this experience, which comes to me now several times a week, the thrill of filth repels me, for I know its power to drag me from God. And after an hour of close friendship with God my soul feels clean, as new fallen snow. 

“…this direct first hand grasping of God Himself…”

Frank LaubachContinuing with the letters of Frank Laubach.  See previous post for information on Laubach. 

March 15, 1930

This week a new, and to me marvelous experience, has come out of my loneliness. I have been so desperately lonesome that it was unbearable save by talking with God. And so every waking moment of the week I have been looking toward him, with perhaps the exception of an hour or two. 

Last Thursday night I was listening to a phonograph in Lumbatan and allowing my heart to commune when something broke within me, and I longed to lift my own will up and give it completely to God. 

How infinitely richer this direct first hand grasping of God Himself is, than the old method which I used and recommended for years, the reading of endless devotional books. Almost it seems to me now that the very Bible cannot be read as a substitute for meeting God soul to soul and face to face. And yet, how was this new closeness achieved? Ah, I know now that it was by cutting the very heart of my heart and by suffering. Somebody was telling me this week that nobody can make a violin speak 

alex-blajan-199244-unsplashthe last depths of human longing until that soul has been made tender by some great anguish. I do not say it is the only way to the heart of God, but must witness that it has opened an inner shrine for me which I never entered before. 

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash