Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis
By David C. Downing
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005
Review by Carl McColman
In his last book, Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis all but declares that he is not a mystic. Comparing mystics to those who climb mountains, Lewis tells Malcolm, “You and I are people of the foothills.” Of course, one of the paradoxes of mysticism is that the true mystic is humble, and a humble person is far less likely to think of himself or herself as a mystic. So, the less inclined a person is to think of himself or herself as a mystic, the more it is conceivable that he or she actually is one.
C. S. Lewis may well be the poster child for this line of thinking. Despite his protest to the contrary, much of Lewis’ writing — particularly his fictional works, such as The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Perelandra, and Till We Have Faces — positively shines with poetic descriptions of luminous, otherworldly beauty and the shimmering encounter with the Divine. Meanwhile, Lewis was known to be fond of many of the greatest visionaries and contemplatives of the Christian tradition, such as Julian of Norwich or Walter Hilton. Perhaps the most renowned author of popular Christian literature in English in the twentieth century really does deserve to be counted among the greatest of Christian mystics?
I think so. And I’ll tell you a little secret: I say as much in my forthcoming book. When I included Lewis in my listing of “the communion of mystics,” I thought I was going out on a limb. But that was before I discovered — and devoured — David Downing’s wonderful book about Lewis’ relationship with mysticism. Downing, a respected Lewis scholar, has put into words in this marvelously accessible book what I had merely intuited: that Lewis, beneath his natural shyness and humility, truly thought like, talked like, wrote like, and in all likelihood experienced spirituality like, a great Christian mystic.
Some readers may be wondering “What is mysticism, and why is this relevant to Lewis?” Downing does a splendid job at explaining mysticism and its uniquely Christian expression. Frankly, the first chapter, “The Mystique of Mysticism,” is alone worth the price of the book, so elegant and accessible is its treatment of this notoriously difficult subject. But from there, Downing goes on to consider the role that mysticism played in Lewis’ own spirituality, considering the mystics that Lewis read, his dealings with Evelyn Underhill (the greatest British authority on the subject during Lewis’ lifetime), and then, finally, the witness of his writings. Downing pays particular attention to Lewis’s speculative fiction, The Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. In several characters in these novels, particular Ransom in the trilogy and Reepicheep in the Narniad, Lewis presents figures who experience the profound transformation that comes with a sustained contemplative spirituality.
Downing also devotes attention to Lewis’ criticism of mysticism, particularly the ersatz types already gaining currency in his day, including shallow forms of syncretism and narcissistic spiritualities of experience. He shows that Lewis’s concerns about mysticism really are consistent with the overall tradition, which has always had a clear understanding of the difference between authentically Christian and heterodox expressions of spirituality. In other words, when Lewis attacked mysticism, it generally was not Christian mysticism he critiqued, but one or another form of generic or secularised mysticism that for Lewis, as an orthodox Christian, simply was not good enough.
Like other figures of the recent past, Lewis ultimately stood for a kind of “democratic” mysticism that was available to all people, not just clergy or monastics, not just those who are educated or especially holy. Ordinary children as in the Narnia books, or an undistinguished layman as in the space trilogy, are fully capable of being ushered out of the ordinary confines of their lives “into the region of awe.” Lewis wrote beautifully and poetically of the ramifications of such a possibility, and our tradition is the richer for it. Then along comes David Downing, who has done a first-rate job at making Lewis’s mysticism plain for all to see.