Tag Archives: death and dying

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III


Miniature of Robin, the Miller, from folio 34v of the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – early 1400s

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III

This is the conclusion, continued from part II.

Lewis’s incarnational appreciation for the earthiness in medieval literature and drama—including the mystery plays—can be seen in an interview from months before his death. The interviewer asked Lewis about the source of the “light touch” in his writing, even when dealing with “heavy theological themes.” Lewis responded, “I was helped in achieving this attitude by my studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages [Chaucer and Dante at least, one would think], and by the writings of G. K. Chesterton[, who] was not afraid to combine serious Christian themes with buffoonery. In the same way, the miracle plays of the Middle Ages would deal with a sacred subject such as the nativity of Christ, yet would combine it with a farce.”[1]

Those who know the medieval miracle play (or “mystery play”) tradition will recognize at once how themes of desire and death get treated in this way – with the earthy, humorous touch of buffoonery and farce. As for death, I think of the crucifixion play in the York cycle. The nailers’ guild (who had the hereditary responsibility for the play) had the workmen, as they prepared the cross and pounded the nails through Christ’s hands and feet, keep up a stream of complaints at the difficulty and boredom of the work, oblivious to the divine significance of what they were doing.

In his Life of Christ, Bonaventure (1221–74) had counseled: “You must direct your attention to these scenes of the Passion, as if you were actually present at the Cross, and watch the Crucifixion of our Lord with affection, diligence, love, and perseverance.” The plays helped their audiences do this by marrying the sublime and the ridiculous, heightening the bizarre reality of a God who becomes human and dies at the hands of those he created.

One might find here the same sort of what we might call “sacramental use of humor” we find in Lewis’s treatments of Eros and death. This is a farcical way of talking about our bodily, material lives so as to both challenge our bodies’ insistent claims to ultimacy and remind us that our bodily experiences point beyond our proximate desires to the desire for heaven. “Sacramental humor” thus reinforces the truth that our God, who came to us bodily in the Incarnation, still meets us in our bodies.

I would argue that this is in fact one of the most central insights of medieval faith, fixated as it was on the Incarnation. Continue reading

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part II


Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part II

Continued from part I.

So, back to Lewis’s words on Eros in the Four Loves:

The highest does not stand[118] without the lowest. There is indeed at certain moments a high poetry in the flesh itself; but also, by your leave, an irreducible element of obstinate and ludicrous un-poetry.

Then, a few lines down, Lewis bridges from Desire and Eros to Death once again:

Pleasure, pushed to its extreme, shatters us like pain. The longing for a union which only the flesh can mediate while the flesh, our mutually excluding bodies, renders it forever unattainable, can have the grandeur of a metaphysical pursuit. Amorousness as well as grief can bring tears to the eyes. But Venus does not always come thus “entire, fastened to her prey”, and the fact that she sometimes does so is the very reason for preserving always a hint of playfulness in our attitude to her. When natural things look most divine, the demoniac is just round the corner.

Here we have a bridge between sexual desire (Venus, a component of Eros) and death. Both involve states of the body, which drag us into the realm of the comic, the un-poetic. That element in the experience of embodiment keeps us from taking any bodily experience too seriously – from making anything bodily ultimate. This comic element, this limitation and haltingness of embodiment, keeps us, in short, from idolatry. It keeps us from the Materialist error, while still leaving open to us a sacramental understanding of our bodily experience as the frequent, or at least potential, gateway to something higher than ourselves. This is where desire reaches out to divinity, or suffering to sublimity. Continue reading

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in C S Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part I


Each May since 2012, I’ve been presenting at the largest annual academic conference on medieval studies: the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. My papers have always explored some aspect of the medievalism (a term meaning “modern interpretation and use of medieval ideas or practices”) of C S Lewis – and the richness of medieval Christian traditions from which Lewis drew in his own theological and spiritual thinking, doing, and teaching.

This year’s paper was a shorter than usual offering – really more of a suggestive sketch of a research question. It was given as part of a five-person panel on “Lewis and Death”:

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in C S Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part I

Why look at Death and Desire together, in Lewis or any other Christian source?

Simple: Biblical language of crucifying our disordered desires as a means to cultivate the new life in Christ—or on the contrary, of gaining the world (fulfilling our earthly desires) but losing our soul (fulfilling our heavenly desires)—brings desire and death together in a theological concept of a salutary sort of “death” that helps us realize our (properly ordered) spiritual desires for God.

That is, as Calvin wrote in the third book of his Christian Institutes: We must mortify the sinful self to vivify the spiritual self.

Or, to anchor this more firmly in Lewis’s medieval sources, as that 5th/6th-c. taproot of medieval spiritual practice, Pseudo-Dionysius, taught: the soul ascends to God through a movement of mortification->illumination->union. Lewis found this common medieval formulation of the spiritual life in many medieval places, including the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing and Theologia Germanica, and Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection.

So that’s “Why.” Now, “How”?

Continue reading

The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part IV, conclusion


Continued from “The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part III

Early 1800s - evangelical preacher at camp meeting

Preaching prowess

Certainly prowess in preaching—or at least the appearance of spiritual power attending preaching—was highly valued by Methodists writing about their dear departed. Of Rev. Cicero L. Dobbs it was said:

Brother Dobbs was no ordinary preacher.  He preached a pure, simple gospel that was in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Continue reading

The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part III


Continued from “The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part II

The highest virtues:  “the courage of one’s 

Peter Cartwright, Methodist circuit rider and "man's man"

convictions” and the boldness to speak them

Along with this manly work-ethic, Methodist memorialists of the 19th century seem most to admire the traits of unshakeable conviction and bold speech.  In fact, the phrase “the courage of his convictions” is liberally laid on throughout the 19th century.   As early as 1793, Benjamin Carter, an ex-soldier, was noted as “a pointed, zealous preacher, and a strict disciplinarian,” who “appeared not to fear the face of any.”  Ninety years later, in 1884, the eulogist of Tennessee’s Robertson Fagan wrote, “He was of ardent temperament, indomitable will, and commanding faith,” “not a man of half measures,” whose “power over men seemed to be almost magical.” Continue reading

The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part II


Continued from “The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part I“:

Illustration from Edward Eggleston, The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age (1906): A Methodist circuit rider on horseback

One purpose of these “memorials,” and certainly a primary purpose of the separate volumes of memorials which were reprinted, was to present to people everywhere, Christian and non-Christian, the “moral example” of these dedicated ministers of Christ.  This purpose perhaps ran deeper as the Victorian age wore on.

For example, at the front of the Black River and Northern New York Conference Memorial, Second Series, edited by Rev. P. Douglass Gorrie, and published in 1881, the editor presents the following wish:

The Author begs leave to present his feeble, yet grateful Tribute of Respect to the Memories of Departed Worth and Moral Heroism.

His subjects he goes on to describe as “the noble dead.”  In the preface of the same book, the only regret expressed in its publication is “that each and all had no more worthy pen to portray the virtues that adorned their Christian character.” (v-vi) Continue reading

The deepest values of early American evangelicals, revealed in what Methodists said about their dead; part I


The Methodist Mission in the Willamette Valley...

The Methodist Mission in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, United States, as it appeared in 1834.

While at Duke in the late 1990s, I enjoyed a seminar led by historian of American Methodism Dr. Russell Richey. Each week we read stacks of old Methodist documents: letters, histories, reports of annual conferences, newspapers, and – the genre I remember best and enjoyed most – obituaries and memorials of departed ministers (and in a few cases, laypeople). Continue reading