C S Lewis on mercy and healing, and the paradox of Christian attitudes toward the body

Jesus and AslanNext bit of the “compassionate ministry” chapter of Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. Now we turn to Lewis:

How do the “spiritual” and the “physical” dimensions of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – weigh against each other, and finally, paradoxically, cohere? Here’s C. S. Lewis, articulating the importance of physical ministry and mercy like this. His first word on this encourages those convinced of the importance of ministry to people’s bodily health: “God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence.”

So far so good, but Lewis continues, “because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified.” Oh, dear.

There is a balancing act going on here. Our “essence,” like the essence of all created things (according to Genesis) is good. But there is some mortification, some ascetic discipline, required – for we will go running after “the things of the flesh,” no matter how much we understand that God is our ultimate love and ultimate goal. Our bodies, affected by the Fall, are not an unalloyed good.

Thus Christianity treads a middle way. “At first sight,” says Lewis, “nothing seems more obvious than that religious persons should care for the sick; no Christian building, except perhaps a church, is more self-explanatory than a Christian hospital.” Yet what the Christian hospital shows us is a sort of two-sidedness, a paradox, in Christianity.

Let’s say, Lewis suggests, that you had never heard of Christianity, and you set out to observe and decide what sort of religion this was. First, you would see a long history of quite earthy activities. Lewis knew, as Stark has had to re-teach us, that almost every aspect of the European civilization that grew out of the ashes of the Roman empire was built by the Christian church: “agriculture, architecture, laws . . . healing the sick and caring for the poor,” blessing marriage, the arts, philosophy—and he could have added, as we’ve seen, science.

“If our enquirer stopped at this point,” writes Lewis, “he would have no difficulty in classifying Christianity – giving it its place on a map of the ‘great religions.’ Obviously (he would say), this is one of the world-affirming religions like Confucianism or the agricultural religions of the great Mesopotamian city states.”[1]

But this is only one side of Christian faith. Our observer might look, instead, at a different set of evidences: the central image of Christ tortured on the cross, the celebration of martyrdom, the many fasts on the Christian calendar, the constant meditation on our personal as well as cosmic mortality, the instruction to store up treasure not on earth but in heaven, and the strict and world-denying asceticism of many of the faith’s most dedicated followers.

“And here, once again, if he knew no more, the enquirer would find xnty quite easy to classify; but this time he would classify it as one of the world-denying religions. It would be pigeon-holed along with Buddhism.”[2]

If our observer found both sets of evidences, he might be confused about just what sort of religion Christianity is. To those of us who have been Christians all our lives, this “two-edged character” of our faith may seem obvious. We see that “Because God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence; because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account.” Thus for us, healing the sick and providing for the poor are less important than saving souls, “and yet very important.”

Neither secular materialism nor Gnostic denial of the body, says Lewis, “leaves you free both to enjoy your breakfast and to mortify your inordinate appetites.” Christianity does. And, more important for the theme of this chapter, “none of [the other religious options] leaves anyone free to do what is being done in the Lourdes Hospital every day: to fight against death as earnestly, skillfully, and calmly as if you were a secular humanitarian while knowing all the time that death is, both for better and worse, something that the secular humanitarian has never dreamed of.”[3]

Ah, now we get to the crux of the thing. Lewis penned these words in that most earthy (and Christ-haunted) of settings, an Irish pub. To be specific, the White Horse Inn at Drogheda, Ireland. He had been asked to speak to the Medical Missionaries of Mary, founders of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in that town. And having laid the groundwork as we’ve seen, he next set up the central principle that has led Christianity to affirm bodily healing as an essential good, and to do things like creating hospitals. Not surprisingly, that central principle has to do with Jesus, and Lewis takes us straight to Him—to the Lazarus story with which we started this chapter:

“We follow one,” he reminds us, “who stood and wept at the grave of Lazarus – not surely, because He was grieved that Mary and Martha wept, and sorrowed for their lack of faith (though some thus interpret) but because death, the punishment of sin, is even more horrible in His eyes than in ours. The nature which He had created as God,[150] the nature which He had assumed as Man, lay there before Him in its ignominy; a foul smell, food for worms.”[4]

Physical suffering and death, Lewis reminds us, are unnatural. Certainly, “of all men, we hope most of death.” Yet we cannot be reconciled to its alienness, for our Lord was not, either: “We know that we were not made for it; we know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder; and we know Who has defeated it.” Christ, who loved us more than we can even love ourselves, spent significant time on earth ministering healing to people’s bodies, and then by the power of his Passion and Resurrection rescued us from this unnatural and alien thing. And because of that triumph, and because our bodies are part of God’s good creation, “we cannot cease to fight against the death which mars it, as against all those other blemishes upon it, against pain and poverty, barbarism and ignorance.” Ironically (and incomprehensibly, for those who do not share our faith), “because we love something else more than this world we love even this world better than those who know no other.”[5]

[1] Lewis, “Some thoughts,” God in the Dock, 147.

[2] Lewis, “Some Thoughts,” 148.

[3] Lewis, “Some Thoughts,” 147.

[4] Lewis, “Some Thoughts,” 149-50.

[5] Lewis, “Some Thoughts,” 149-50.


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