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C.S. Lewis, the Mystical Builder

C.S. Lewis was a Christian mystic but not in the pagan sense, in the Tozer sense: he experienced his faith deep in his sentient being, always aware of God’s presence in his own nature and the world around him. Lewis’s friend George Sayer said Lewis’s life experiences were not literary but “mystical experiences of the presence of God.”

As a young boy, Lewis’s aesthetic experiences were mediated through nature. This affinity for the beauty of nature persisted in his life. Before breakfast, recalls Sayer, Lewis would walk the garden to drink in “the beauty of the morning, thanking God for the weather, the roses, the song of the birds, and anything else he could find to enjoy.”

When Lewis and his brother Warren reminisced about their childhood, Jack “lamented the lost simplicity of country pleasures: the empty sky, the unspoilt hills, the white silent roads on which you could hear the rattle of a farm cart half a mile away.”

In Lewis’s final work of fiction, Till We Have Faces, when Psyche admits to Orual that the sweetest thing in all her life is to go to the mountain to find where all the beauty came from, we hear Jack’s voice pining for the One Thing behind the thing.

In Lewis’s mysticism, we find hidden instructions for chasing beauty in our everyday callings and in our art. Lewis would have us be reachers and builders.

Consider the painting of a child. We’ll call her Phoebe. Phoebe’s mother invites her to paint the sunset. So, Phoebe sits with her paper, looks at the melting colors in the sky, and smears wonder marks, filling her makeshift canvas.

Think about Phoebe’s act. She sees. She listens. She thinks. She paints.

With her senses afire, she rebuilds the awe-full sky before her. She uses the materials given to her to paint what she sees. What does her painting show us? Is it mere mimesis? Or is it something more profound?

Phoebe reaches for the awe trapped in the colors that dazzle her sense of sight. Her innocence gives her purity of voice. She paints unaffected by forces telling her how to represent what she sees. In her act of sky-building, she paints from her truest self. 

Lewis, however, points to the fact that only God truly creates; he alone brings something from nothing, and he alone brings forth existence itself. Timothy Willard

The vision of the sunset elevates her mind. Though her strokes to an adult appear raw, a rhythm of joy flows across the page—felt more than seen. The great translator of Homer, W.H.D. Rouse, said the hallmark of all great poets is plain, unaffected language. Perhaps this is why a child’s painting can be simple yet possess unexpected beauty.

Now, what does her act of painting achieve?

Phoebe’s smears reach to seize what the wonderful scene whispers. That there is thought—Logos—somewhere there. Of course, she does not call it Logos. She doesn’t even call it beauty. She calls it something more elemental and uses pure description as only a child can. Perhaps she calls the sunset a rainbow or a dance. Maybe she calls it a color song.

This Logos touches all living things in creation. I love meditating on the truth that God thought of creation before it, or I, existed. And it is my existence that recognizes this mysterious and supreme Logos-Existence in everything and reaches to hold it.

I’m reminded of how the French philosopher Pierre-Marie Emonet described the radiant thrust (phys) within a flower that reaches toward the light so that it may acquire its flower characteristics or flowerness. Phoebe, like the flower, possesses this radiance of being, the echoes of which are smeared in paint strokes on the page.

Reaching to hold. As Psyche reached toward the mountains. Why?

On June 26, 1954, Lewis wrote to a young admirer named Joan, who had sent Lewis a sample of her writing. She’d described a very special night in her letter and asked Lewis about the art of writing. Lewis replied:

“ … you describe the place & the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well—and not the thing itself—the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described.”

Then Lewis discloses his own creative journey to Joan. “If you become a writer,” he says, “you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”

Joan and Phoebe’s–and even Lewis’s–creative paths are similar. Each experienced something special in the event of beauty—the blazing sunset and the memorable evening. Each used what Lewis might call their raw materials to build something to document their encounter. Joan used words, syntax, intuition, and imagination. Phoebe used her imagination, paper, paint, brushes, and fingers.

The reaching ignites building.

We never create, wrote Lewis in Letters to Malcolm, “We only build.” And that might dent our modern sensibilities. We create, we express, or so we like to say. Lewis, however, points to the fact that only God truly creates; he alone brings something from nothing, and he alone brings forth existence itself.

We shouldn’t bristle at Lewis’s distinction between the verbs create and build. With the rise of the autonomous self and the art world’s emphasis on self-expression and transgression as the goal of art, our culture could use a dose of creative humility and a guiding hand away from a more Promethean approach to the creative process. 

Lewis himself never believed he’d captured beauty once and for all. It was the hunt—the reaching—he loved. Timothy Willard

The late Oxford philosopher and writer Sir Roger Scruton believed we live in a time of desecration. Our society values the profane over the sacred. The goal of art before the Enlightenment, says Scruton, was beauty–something beyond the self, transcendent. Now the artist’s goal bends inward. This bent-in notion emerges in Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, manifesting in the Bent One (Out of the Silent Planet), the Uman (Perelandra), and the insidious political agency N.I.C.E. (That Hideous Strength). All embody the theological concept of incurvatus in se or “curved in on oneself.” Sin takes root, and beauty is banished, replaced by the profane, often disguised as progress.

Let’s follow the trajectory of Phoebe’s gaze. She looks toward the image of beauty, reaching beyond herself to capture the dazzle of heaven within it. Jane also gazes outward. She describes a brim-full experience with words too feeble to capture the moment’s weight. Both offer a public work (liturgy) expressing private adoration of Beauty itself. They build cathedrals of imagination and wonder.

A kind of artisan workmanship is attached to Lewis’s thought of “building.” Even a humility that understands the beautiful moment, tends to it, and works with tools and imagination to free the angel in the marble.

You and I are reachers. Artists, writers, educators, bankers, ministers, gardeners, it matters not. Our “building” occurs in the pursuit of our callings. Some of us follow Phoebe and Joan’s path, rushing daily to build out our view of beauty on a canvas, in verse, a photograph, in song, in clay.

The reaching and the building forge us into people of “gentle hearts.” Lewis himself never believed he’d captured beauty once and for all. It was the hunt—the reaching—he loved. His raw materials? Inkwell, nib, loose leaf paper, and an imagination baptized by Beauty itself.

“Yes, you are always everywhere. But I, Hunting in such immeasurable forests, Could never bring the noble Hart to bay.”

—C.S. Lewis, “No Beauty We Could Desire.”


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