Some Thoughts about C.S. Lewis and “Spiritual Direction”

Yours, JackFor the last several months I have been enjoyably working my daily way through Yours, Jack, a selection of C.S. Lewis’s letters edited by Paul F. Ford. From the vast quantity of Lewis’s personal correspondence, Ford has made a selection of letters which he believes focus on “Spiritual Direction”—whether in the context of friendship, of Lewis seeking direction, or of Lewis offering direction. I enjoy almost all things Lewis, so these letters have been a pleasure to read, and while the experience warrants a few brief reflections on Lewis, at the same time it reminded me of some growing concerns I have about our present approaches to things labeled “spiritual direction.”

What stands out first when one reads Lewis’s correspondence is simply its sheer vastness. This was a man busy with work as a professor, busy with work caring for invalids at home, busy with his personal writing, and yet taking time out of each day to maintain his letter writing—writing that followed him almost to the day of his death. Linked to this, and something possibly overlooked when we think about Lewis, is his extreme patience. Lewis makes the time to write everyone back, and some of those people most certainly didn’t really deserve it. Of special patience in this volume are the forty or so letters to Mary Willis Shelburne (also published as Letters to an American Lady), which tax even my patience when reading Lewis’s responses. Another factor that stands out about these letters is Lewis’s preparedness in matters of the soul. I work as clergy, and it is simply impossible to answer the needs of the soul which people bring to you if you do not know your own soul. Lewis’s self-knowledge, and capacity to illustrate from his own experiences in walking alongside others, is both admirable and worthy of imitation. I am also reminded that Lewis’s unique brilliance is not that he knew so much (although he did), but that he thought so clearly about everything. From that clarity he labored to bring clarity to the darkness of other people’s thoughts. It is that ongoing clarity, I suggest, that contributes most significantly to Lewis’s longevity as an author. The book is worth reading if only to be exposed to his clear thinking.

Walter Adams St Stephen's House

Fr. Walter Adams, remembered on the wall of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.

While I enjoyed the book, I also had some reservations while reading it—not reservations about Lewis, but reservations about how we view “spiritual direction.” Above all else, I find that there is something decidedly fuzzy in how we talk and think about “spiritual direction” (and the scare quotes are there to highlight my reservation). I’m not sure we really know what it is, and it has become such a plastic term that it covers quite a variety of divergent concepts. Lewis himself, of course, visited a spiritual director (Father Walter Adams), and participated in regular confession. He speaks about these things helpfully in several of the letters. But when we are looking to Lewis for spiritual direction then something feels a little off. It is off, to my mind, in three critical ways. First, it is off because a relationship of spiritual direction (such as the one in which Lewis was involved) is a relationship of exchange. One believer sits under the supervision of another, trusting that older, wiser Christian in the direction and shaping of your soul. Lewis certainly fits the older, wiser category, but true direction requires a personal relationship and personal listening. The Director will listen to your life and make suggestions according to his/her perception of your needs. A key quality in the directee is obedience, and when we are reading a book for spiritual direction there is a danger that our own sense of power and control will override the process. Put simply, it’s a lot harder to say no to a person than it is to a book. A second reason it is off is because it neglects, to my mind, the role that friendship and collegial association played in Lewis’s spiritual formation. The letters selected in this volume are largely those which are overtly spiritual, and yet some of Lewis’s chief formation and enrichment as a Christian came about through his association with friends. By looking at only one kind of “spirituality,” I fear the reader can miss the broader spirituality of Lewis’s life and experience. This taps into the third reason the book felt off, which is with what material is cited in footnotes. Ford has faithfully footnoted every Bible reference he could detect in the book, but almost no literary references at all. Where Lewis references a book, or a poem, or a famous thinker, or some other literature, these items are not notated for the reader. This is a somewhat gross oversight, since one of the primary areas which opened Lewis to the Christian faith was literature itself. I find this to be a curiously evangelical approach to spirituality (made more ironic since Ford is himself a Roman Catholic)—that we only value Scripture to the neglect of other sources of information.

None of these concerns negate the overall value of the book—and in fact the book is well worth reading!—and yet they might raise some concerns about why we, as readers, are approaching the book. When we engage, we ought to be aware that the editing of this particular volume shapes our perceptions of what “spiritual direction” might be, and I am suggesting that it does this somewhat narrowly and inadequately. Because of this, we as readers can easily miss the breadths of Christian spirituality, the call to practical obedience, attentiveness to influences outside of the expressly sacred, and especially to the role that friendship plays in spiritual development

Above and beyond all of this—and perhaps above and beyond this particular volume itself—is with a kind of danger in how we, today, approach Lewis. Lewis, indeed, is a great Christian thinker, a giant of 20th century faith and well deserving the attention he has received. But when we are looking at Lewis, rather than along with him, then we are not only doing something Lewis would personally despise, but we are missing the greatest gifts he might offer us as readers—the exposure to the worlds and vistas which had opened his eyes personally to the greatness and majesty of God. This, indeed, might be the ultimate goal of all spiritual direction—to direct the heart toward a greater apprehension of, and obedience to, God.

Lewis with Pipe

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