Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. IV (conclusion)

. . . continued from part III

I find in C S Lewis a modern person who, throughout his life, lived and worked according to this medieval-inflected, sacramental, incarnational way of seeing and being. So it may be worth looking at a few ways he did that. We can start, again, with his imaginative writings. One is reminded, for example, of the wonderful image of a loving and materially comfortable domesticity in the beaver family portrayed in Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe — which in turn was so like the similarly convivial, rustic life of his friend Tolkien’s hobbits in the Shire with their love of pipes and parties and meals together. Or his novel That Hideous Strength, which is from one end to the other a defense of the real holiness of ordinary virtues of embodied life — work, married sexuality, household life, and all — against the gnostic technocrats who would strip away all material mediations of sacred meanings and virtues in our ordinary lives.

In his letters, too, you can often find Lewis celebrating the sacred in the materiality of our ordinary life and work, even as he recommended to his correspondents that they read medieval writers for the good of their souls. He liked to sign his letters with that very embodied moniker Saint Francis of Assisi had used for himself: “Brother Ass.” And in one of those letters to a sick friend, he said of his own aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”

Lewis really did live as one who met God in both the natural and the cultural world. Throughout his life, he loved concrete and common things — trees, mountains, weather. “Every created thing,” he once wrote, “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.”

He followed this sacramental logic, too, in understanding work as an endeavor in which one can — if one will — meet God. In a wartime talk to a group of Oxford students about the vocation of being a student, he pushed back against the modern tendency among Christians to dismiss ordinary work as somehow non-spiritual:

It is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St Paul tells people to get on with their jobs … Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one. … All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest, and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not.

Importantly, too, Lewis channeled to his modern readers a medieval sacramental awareness of not only our material embodiment, but also our social embodiment, as beings made for relationship with one another. In his great sermon “The Weight of Glory,” he famously wrote:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… .  It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. … Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ … is truly hidden.

This could easily be a passage from that great founding document of medieval spirituality, Benedict’s Rule, or from the pen of Luther’s favorite medieval monk, Bernard of Clairvaux. In short, to see the world sacramentally is to remember that God does not constrain his presence to the four walls of the church, or to our private rooms of prayer. We are to live in our bodies, in the material world, gratefully and with wonder and openness to God working in the midst of it all. And such an awareness and openness may provide for us a way to push back against the modern de-sacramentalization of the world — in our many vocations and in our lives as a whole.

And this is one last important thing we may learn from Lewis about the sacramental worldview, although we know it well from our own experience. That is, how hard it can be to recover this worldview and live by it. Lewis knew that everything in the modern world conspires to hide the sacramental truth from us — to convince us that the divine is not really present in the material world. We are like the Pevensie children in his story of the Silver Chair, when the witch tried to convince them that their idea of Aslan was a mere extrapolation of their image of a house cat, or that the sun above didn’t exist — and their idea of it was only their own image of a light bulb writ large.

In an age of philosophical materialism, when so many now believe everything is simply atoms, we live in the “silent planet.” All the spiritual meaning that medievals had seen looking up into the night sky has vanished, leaving a Newtonian machine-universe in its place. However it has happened — and sadly, there are Protestant fingerprints on this historical development — we are living now in a day of complete disenchantment of the material universe. Today the spiritual importance of both creation (God making all flesh) and incarnation (God becoming flesh) has become almost entirely hidden from us.

These can be hard times in which to see God in the material and social realities of our lives and work — that is to see, in Kathleen Norris’ words, the “quotidian mysteries” that attend our participation in creation through vocation. But if we are to recover not only a full, Christian understanding and experience of vocation, but also in fact, our very humanity, we will have to try.

One response to “Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. IV (conclusion)

  1. Pingback: Our earthly jobs, in light of the doctrines of creation and incarnation, pt. III | Grateful to the dead

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