Tag Archives: death

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

C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, romanticism, Creation, community, sex – musings on Catholicism and the quiddity of things


Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

Still hammering away at Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Turning now to the “creation chapter.” Here are a few halting thoughts toward an introduction. They won’t appear in the final book in this form, but they suggest some linkages between medieval Western faith and modern Catholicism – in an area Protestants could learn from:

Modern Catholic tradition still draws from the Creation emphasis in the medieval church, which has attenuated in Protestantism.

Lewis picked this Creation-positive spirituality up too. Think of his love of storms, rocks, trees; his laughing exuberance in storms, rain, fog, drizzle (making him the perfect Englishman), as he reveled in “the quiddity [“that-ness,” essential nature] of things”; his use of long walks in the country to recharge himself.

We might see in these things the influence of the Victorian romanticism still lingering especially in literary and artistic corners of the British Isles during Lewis’s growing-up years: that sense of the mystic sacredness of nature itself, the sort of lavish and sometimes dark and even pagan pantheism that made Blake such an odd duck, led the brilliant Catholic engraver Eric Gill to create his frank and shockingly explicit public works of art, and brought the late-19th-century Decadents such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde (both of whom became Catholic) down into their pit of muck. Continue reading

“Ticket to heaven”: C. S. Lewis’s debt to the Theologia Germanica on self-will, death, and heaven


Folks,

As I have for the past several years, I had the wonderful opportunity again this year to attend the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The event happened a couple of weeks ago, and again I was able to participate in a wonderful session on the works of a famous medievalist whom almost nobody thinks about as a medievalist: C. S. Lewis. In fact this year, the intrepid Joe Ricke of Taylor University crafted, and Crystal Kirgiss’s Purdue C S Lewis Society co-sponsored, an entire track of three sessions on “Lewis and the ‘Last Things.'”

My paper was (perhaps nominally) on the topic of heaven, as well as on death. Here it is, with work yet to be done on it before it finds published form, much-modified, in my upcoming book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. 

(This is copyright 2013 by me, Chris R. Armstrong, and posted here with the understanding that those reading it will not cite or quote it without express permission from the author.)

Chris Armstrong, International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, MI  May 2013 

“Ticket to heaven”: Lewis’s debt to the Theologia Germanica on self-will, death, and heaven

[This paper could perhaps more accurately have been titled: “For and against self-abandonment: C S Lewis’s uneasy relationship with the Pseudo-Dionysian teachings of the Theologia Germanica”]

C S Lewis was in a state of heightened awareness of his mortality when he sat down on Sept. 12th, 1938 to write to his friend Owen Barfield with the storm clouds of war gathering overhead. “My dear Barfield,” he wrote,

“What awful quantities of this sort of thing seem necessary to break us in, or, more correctly, to break us off. One thinks one has made some progress towards detachment . . . and begin[s] to realize, and to acquiesce in, the rightly precarious hold we have on all our natural loves, interests, and comforts: then when they are really shaken, at the very first breath of that wind, it turns out to have been all a sham, a field-day, blank cartridges.” (231) Continue reading

“Chaplaincy” role(s) for pastors? For congregations?


*AS OF 6:15 CST TODAY (DEC 5), THE INTERNET MONK SITE, WHICH WAS DOWN FOR THE AFTERNOON, IS UP AGAIN. CHECK IT OUT: THE LINK BELOW IS WELL WORTH ACCESSING.

Friend John Armstrong posted an interesting discussion I’d like to pass on to readers:

Last week my friend Mark Galli wrote a post on the need for more pastors who loved and shepherded their congregations as chaplains. I attend a funeral on Saturday and saw this happen in the most amazing way I’ve ever witnessed. I wish I had a DVD of what I saw. Every pastor in America should learn how to be a chaplain in a funeral service. Then my friend Tod Bolsinger wrote a great response suggesting that what we needed is a missional leader(s), not chaplains. I agree, to a point, but I also found myself thinking this is not a both/and but an either/or. Then this morning Michael Mercer, the Internet Monk, responded and expressed my thoughts perfectly. Three friends all engaging one other in respect and humility. This is truly one of the finest dialogs among Christian leaders I’ve read in a long, long time.

www.internetmonk.com

Tod Bolsinger disagrees with Mark Galli. In a post on his blog, Bolsinger writes, We Need Chaplains…Just not More Of Them…Not Now. . . .

Good grief: On attending to the body and not just the soul in death


[Viewing Casket, Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2006]

Many thanks to Rob Moll for pointing me to the following wonderful article on death and funerals by Thomas Lynch. The article is years old now, but Lynch, who is a funeral director, has a message that we still need to hear. And because I know from looking at the statistics on this site that many readers don’t click through the links to articles that I provide, contenting themselves to read just the excerpt in the blog page, I want to excerpt here the part of the article that I found most powerful–its ending. 

But let me say: the whole thing is well worth reading (despite the frequent typos owing to poor scanning and editing). In the first half of the article, Lynch challenges eloquently and effectively the super-spiritualizing presumption that my body, your body, in death even as in life, is “just a shell.” The argument is particularly poignant for me, as I have just in recent weeks attended my grandmother’s memorial service–that convenient gathering at which the body (“shell”) is notably absent, except in this case by the representative urn of ashes. Here is the conclusion to which that argument leads:

Among the several blessings of my work as a funeral director is that I have seen the power of such faith in the face of death. I remember the churchman at the deathbed of a neighbor — it was four in the morning in the middle of winter — who gathered the family around to pray, then helped me guide the stretcher through the snow out to where our hearse was parked. Three days later, after the services at church, he rode with me in the hearse to the grave, committed the body with a handful of earth and then stood with the family and friends as the grave was filled, reading from the psalms — the calm in his voice and the assurance of the words making the sad and honorable duties bearable.

I remember the priest I called to bury one of our town’s indigents — a man without family or friends or finances. He, the gravediggers and I carried the casket to the grave. The priest incensed the body blessed it with holy water and read from the liturgy for 20 minutes, then sang In Paradisum — that gorgeous Latin for “May the angels lead you into Paradise” — as we lowered the poor mans body into the ground. When I asked him why he’d gone to such trouble he said these are the most important funerals — even if only God is watching — because it affirms the agreement between “all God’s children” that we will witness and remember and take care of each other. Continue reading