CS Lewis’s medieval “world-sacramentalism”

Brendan in the birchwood, from the wonderful animated film The Secret of Kells (note the cross shape of the path!)

Like the medievals, C S Lewis loved created things in a way that amounted to sacramentalism. That is, he saw the created world as a channel of God’s grace–a special means of communications from God to us. Excised from the reading draft of my paper “The Intuitive Medievalism of C S Lewis” (International Medieval Congress 2011) were the following notes on this aspect of Lewis’s “world-sacramentalism”–a topic I did treat in the paper, but only briefly:

From Peter Kreeft, “How to Save Western Civilization: C. S. Lewis as Prophet,” in A Christian for All Christians: Essays in Honour of C. S. Lewis, ed. Andrew Walker and James Patrick (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990):

“Lewis describes what a medieval boy learnt in school: ‘farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving, and practical astronomy. This concrete knowledge, mixed with their law, rhetoric, theology, and mythology, bred an outlook very different from our own. High abstractions and rarified artifices jostled the earthiest particulars . . . They talked more readily than we about large universals such as death, change, fortune, friendship, or salvation; but also about pigs, loaves, boots, and boats. The mind darted more easily to and fro between that mental heaven and earth: the cloud of middle generalizations, hanging between the two, was then much smaller. Hence, as it seems to us, both the naivety and the energy of their writing . . . They talk something like angels and something like sailors and stable-boys; never like civil servants or writers of leading articles.’”[1] (200; N. 29: Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 62.)

“We moderns have lost the solid objectivity both of the high universals (especially truth and goodness) and of the low particulars, the concrete world. Both have been dissolved into a vague, abstract, ideological-political-sociological-psychological mid-range. We are the ‘middle’ ages.” (200; N. 29: Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 62.)

Lewis’s love of the concrete was sacramentalist: “Every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him.” (Lewis, Commentary on Arthurian Torso by Charles Williams [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948], p. 116.) In this, too, he was medieval to the core.

His love of the concrete was also an antimodernism, as he lamented the sapping of the medieval spirit from the world, and then from ourselves, resulting in the abolition not only of the spiritual dimensions of the material world, but also of the very spirits of human beings.

The love of the concrete was also an aesthetic love (the following is from Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, with page numbers from my uncorrected proof version): So, moving on . . . this is why, to be interested in the Seven Heavens given that they’re not true (p. 27) . . . “The glory of science is to progress as new facts are discovered to be true, and such progress means that ‘factual truth’ is a provisional human construct. Which is why the wise man does not think only in the category of truth; the category of beauty is also worth thinking in. And it was because he thought it beautiful that Lewis so reveled in the pre-Copernican cosmos.”

Then, “Lewis admits that from a purely aesthetic point of view, ‘The procession of the gods around the sky’ has a spontaneous appeal greater than that of Christianity, just as his imaginative preference was not only for Norse, but also for Irish and Greek mythologies, over poetry of his believed religion.”

Then later on [still p. 27], “In Lewis’ view, one could, for example, enjoy the work of D. H. Lawrence for the artistry with which it captured certain sensations, even if one thought it morally muddled or even pernicious, and likewise one could approve of Ovid’s pornography for stylistic reasons without approving of pornography as such. So with cosmology; it could be approached from an aesthetic perspective, regardless of whether it was true or whether it would do anyone any good. The Ptolemaic cosmos might not satisfy one’s appetite for solid, reliable, useful Gradgrindian fact, but that was no reason for not tasting it at all. It might satisfy other appetites. And Lewis found that it did indeed slake his thirst for certain pleasures of form and pattern. He enjoyed it because it raised formal regularity to the level of universal comprehensiveness, because it everywhere deployed the principle of idem in alia (‘the same in the other’), and because it consisted of a perfectly graded hierarchy in which small and great were equally at home.” And then it goes to say “His deeply held religious beliefs give even better reason for Lewis’ love of the Ptolemaic cosmos.”

Ward, Planet Narnia, unpublished proof: Ward goes through some of what Lewis says about the medieval world, the medieval cosmos, in his Discarded Image. This is page 24. “The medieval universe was ‘tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine.’”

[1] N. 29: Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 62.

6 responses to “CS Lewis’s medieval “world-sacramentalism”

  1. You mght want to consider what conclusions contemporary adherents to the philosophies of CS Lewis have reached, and whether they have retraced any steps that would be useful for the rest of us to follow.

    Rich Mullins comes to mind. He and I had many conversations about Lewis and his medieval world view. Richard was fascinated with medieval thought. Consider the reference to the Imago Mundi, the spiritual prayer exercise of drawing the world from a God’s-eye view which he completed before every concert on the “The World as Best I Remember It” tour.

    The point of veiw of the world as seen from above deliberately aligns the artist with the Creator, to facilitate the artist’s intention to use his own creativity to carry out God’s purpose.

  2. Huh, a one-star review. Is someone mad at me for revealing C S Lewis’s sacramentalism? Or do they disagree with my interpretation? I’d be interested to see a comment from that person . . .

  3. Lewis’ sacramental holism reminds me a little of J.H.Yoder – though from opposite theological poles. I wonder though, whether all that farriery, forestry, theology and astronomy, etc, tutored paupers as well as princes?

  4. Shawn T. Miller

    I wish that Ayn Rand and her followers would understand what this article says. They reject Christianity, and indeed all belief in God or anything supernatural, because they claim that belief in the supernatural necessitates a rejection of natural reality. Rand’s disciple Dr. Leonard Peikoff has repeatedly condemned the Middle Ages, but it seems to me that he does not know much about it. I know that Rand read something written by C.S. Lewis. Do any of you know what exactly she read that was written by Lewis? I suspect that she did not read much of what he wrote.

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