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When metaphors become real

Continuing from the last installment from C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress.

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….. As a man in a dream talks without fear to his dead friend, and only afterwards bethinks himself, “It was a ghost! I have talked with a ghost!” and wakes screaming: even so John sprang up as he saw what he had done.

“I have been praying,” he said. “It is the Landlord under a new name. It is the rules and the black hole and the slavery dressed out in a new fashion to catch me. And I am caught…”

But this was insupportable to him and he said that he had only fallen into a metaphor. Even Mr. Wisdom had confessed that Mother Kirk and the Stewards gave an account of the truth in picture writing. And one must use metaphors. The feelings and the imagination needed that support. “The great thing,” said John, “is to keep the intellect free from them: to remember that they are metaphors.”

John continues onward but the trail becomes so treacherous he finds he must call upon “Mr. Wisdom’s Absolute incessantly….He knew now that he was praying, but he thought he had drawn the fangs of that knowledge.” Finally, the path becomes so dark that he fears falling and stops to rest, hungry and thirsty as he is.

Then I dreamed that once more a Man came to him in the darkness and said, “You must pass the night where you are, but I have brought you a loaf and if you crawl along the ledge ten paces more you will find that a little fall of water comes down the cliff.”

“Sir,” said John. “I do not know your name and I cannot see your face, but I thank you. Will you not sit down and eat, yourself?”

“I am full and not hungry,” said the Man. “And I will pass on. But one word before I go. You cannot have it both ways.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“Your life has been saved all this day by crying out to something which you call by many names, and you have said to yourself that you used metaphors.”

“Was I wrong, sir?”

“Perhaps not. But you must play fair. If its help is not a metaphor, neither are its commands. If it can answer when you call, then it can speak without your asking. If you can go to it, it can come to you.”

Afterword

John is confronted with the shortcomings of thinking of God as Universal Spirit, a great Mind of which we are each a small part. It’s easy to picture it, like a great mist or nebula of stars high above us. But does this Mind truly have consciousness as we do? If so, then it must have a will of its own. And it must be able to initiate and not merely respond. (And how can we continue to refer to it with the neutral pronoun “it” when the only minds we know are either male or female?)

Avoiding such questions can keep us out of dangerous waters for a while. Universal Spirit, like the God of monism or pantheism, is a rather lame creature. As Lewis writes in another book, “The pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf.

Jewish and Christian thought teach a concept quite different. Many would like to dispense with the Bible’s apparent metaphors for God too, but, Lewis writes, “it is with a shock that we discover [the Christian images of kingship] to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters–when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes besides you in the dark. But what If He were searching for us? Someone wholly other, such as you experience when you are fishing and there is a sudden tug at the end of the line. It’s alive!”

“Universal Spirit” or the dreaded “Landlord”?

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Continuing with C. S. Lewis’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress, we find John continuing his hopelessly difficult struggle down and up a treacherous, dry canyon in pursuit of his heart’s desire, an Island he has glimpsed and desired throughout his life. In the allegory we can be sure that the Island is Heaven or unity with God. His companion Vertue has gone on ahead, not caring whether he or John dies. John decides the climb is too treacherous and his supplies are gone and he must go back “and live out the rest of my life as best I can.”

Then a mysterious “Man” appears coming towards him down the path. John tells him that his companion Vertue has gone insane. But the man replies that Vertue is no more insane than John, and if they do not stick together neither of them will regain sanity. The Man pulls John up and across a particularly difficult gap. The Man disappears, and John looks back and sees that trying to go back would now be impossible. But the way ahead makes his heart fail.

John has learned from Wisdom that his true identity is Universal Spirit, that in essence they are one.

From The Pilgrim’s Regress, Book VIII, chapter 3

Then he tried to recall the lessons of Mr. Wisdom, whether they would give him any strength. “It is only myself,” he said. “It is myself, eternal Spirit, who drives this Me, the slave, along that ledge. I ought not to care whether he falls and breaks his neck or not. It is not he that is real, it is I–I–I. Can I remember that?”

But then he felt so different from the eternal Spirit that he could call it “I” no longer. “It is all very well for him,” said John, “but why does he give me no help? I want help. Help.”

Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash

Then he gazed up at the cliffs and the narrow sky, blue and remote, between them, and he thought of that universal mind and of the shining tranquility hidden somewhere behind the colors and the shapes, the pregnant silence under all the sounds, and he thought, “If one drop of all that ocean would flow into me now–if I, the mortal, could but realize that I am that, all would be well. I know there is something there. I know the sensuous curtain is not a cheat.” In the bitterness of his soul he looked up again, saying: “Help. Help. I want Help.”

But as soon as the words were out of his mouth, a new fear, far deeper than his fear of the cliffs, sprang at him from the hiding-place, close to the surface, where it had lain against this moment. As a man in a dream talks without fear to his dead friend, and only afterwards bethinks himself, “It was a ghost! I have talked with a ghost!” and wakes screaming: even so John sprang up as he saw what he had done.

“I have been praying,” he said. “It is the Landlord under a new name. It is the rules and the black hole and the slavery dressed out in a new fashion to catch me. And I am caught…”

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(C) 1943 Clive Staples Lewis. Paragraphs added to increase readability. First photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash.