This past weekend I led a retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit called “The Spirituality of George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis.” Following Lewis’s longstanding nickname, I affectionately referred to our topic as “The Spirit of George and Jack.”
Weekend retreats at the monastery typically include five conferences: one Friday evening, three on Saturday, and on one Sunday. Friday evening I gave a brief introduction to George MacDonald, generally regarded as the father of modern fantasy and of Christian symbolic fiction, and C. S. Lewis, who along with J. R. R. Tolkien is one of MacDonald’s most renowned disciples.
The rest of the retreat dug into the topic: what kind of spirituality can we find in the writings of these two authors? The conferences followed this format:
- Saturday morning. Theme: Vocation. Text: “The New Name” sermon from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. Biblical text for lectio divina: Revelation 2:17.
- Saturday afternoon. Theme: Journey. Text: C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Biblical texts for lectio: Isaiah 45:15 and Jeremiah 29:13.
- Saturday evening. Theme: Death. Text: George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. Biblical text for lectio: Philippians 1:21.
- Sunday morning. Theme: Eternity. Text: C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Biblical text for lectio: I John 4:16-19.
This format allowed us to consider a developmental map of the spiritual life, beginning (always) with God’s call, symbolized by MacDonald’s lovely explication of the white stone from the Revelation to John. But once we respond to the call, we have just begun a journey that will never end. So off we go to Narnia and the voyage of the Dawn Treaderto explore the life-long quest for “Aslan’s country,” or intimacy with God. Meanwhile, Christian spirituality also grapples with the inevitability of death, suffering, and loss; and so by pondering how a sickly child in Victorian London forms a mystical bond with the beautiful, yet terrifying, North Wind, we find a powerful metaphor for how death can be a friend rather than an enemy. Finally, C. S. Lewis’s blackly comic dream-fable of the denizens of hell taking a day-trip to heaven forms the backdrop to a consideration of how, for the lovers of God, heaven begins here and now, on earth.
People seemed to enjoy the retreat. One of the reasons I love to lead retreats is that I always get something beautiful out of it as well. This time was no exception. Sunday morning one of the retreatants (alas, I cannot recall her name) was musing on the classical understanding of the spiritual life as the journey through Purgation, Illumination and Union (or, in Greek, katharsis, theoria, and theosis). She suggested that this can be interpreted as a journey through a spirituality characterized by first learning to follow the rules (“Law”), then discovering beyond the rules the depth of Wisdom, and finally relaxing into the intimacy of Love. It was so eloquently and profoundly stated. I said, “Do you mind if I write about that?” Her humble reply: “Of course; it didn’t come from me.”
So think of Purgation -> Illumination -> Union as simply a journey from (and through) Law, to Wisdom, to Love. And if you need a couple of guides along the way, George and Jack are always there to help.
Finally, on Saturday one of the retreatants snapped a photo of me with his iPad. I thought it wasn’t too bad, so here it is for you to see. I’m not as handsome as C. S. Lewis and my beard is most humble when compared to George MacDonald’s. But there you go.