The Spirit of George and Jack

George MacDonald

George MacDonald

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.
C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis, aka "Jack"

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.

Carl holds forth on George and Jack. Photo by Ranjit Mathew.

Carl holds forth on George and Jack. Photo by Ranjit Mathew.


Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Faith, Doubt and Perseverance
Talking about "Befriending Silence"
Busting the "Goody Two Shoes" Stereotype of Saints
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Mark Mitchell

    Sounds like a great retreat. Wish I had been there!

    • Carl McColman

      Maybe you can come to one of my upcoming retreats, like the “Spirituality of the English Mystics” or the retreat based on the movie “Of Gods and Men.”

  • Mike Dempsey

    ” Oh I wish I didnt live so far away in northern Alberta so that I could attend one of your retreats ” pined the ranger, while paddling quietly on the lake, the setting sun warmly upon his face, a beaver sailing by – branch in mouth- intent on lodge construction.

    • Carl McColman

      With a comment like that, I can only reply, “When are you going to see if a local church, seminary or retreat center will invite me up there?”

  • Peggy

    Why don’t you refine your notes and comments from this workshop and do an ebooklet. Charge a nominal fee or something. I have a copy of “Unspoken Sermons”, underlined and dogeared. It was a lifesaver for me during a transitional period in my life. I first read “At the Back of the North Wind” at age eleven and again at thirteen. It was weird and mysterious. I need to reread it!

  • Diane

    I attended this fantastic eye opening weekend. The Monk run was fun with over 600 people running. The inspiration and thought provoking discussions you lead was calming and reasurring that ” all will be well” . I hope to see you again.

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks, Diane. Glad you enjoyed the weekend, and yes, here’s to our paths crossing again.

  • PedroSS

    Dear Carl,

    I very much liked your text. I remembered and missed my youth retreats, when I actively worked at my parish.

    I recommend you this programm about the importance of contemplation; the most interesting part is that with the Dalai Lama and the Dominican and Carmelitan friars, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhard and Johannes Tauler. I hope you enjoy it.

    Saludos cordiales,