Tag Archives: desire

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

Christian asceticism (spiritual disciplines, self-denial): What’s up with that?


So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

So . . . many . . . temptations . . .

In this second post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we come to the “inner logic” of asceticism. What is it about our experience as human beings that requires us to engage in “askesis,” which means “training,” in order to live well with and for God?

In the last post I reminded us of what we already know–that the desires and goods of our embodied lives are also so darn distracting. They so easily lure us in with the siren song that, after all, our real fulfillment lies in them and not in God.

Now I want to add that this fact about us explains the behavioral strictures that modern American holiness and fundamentalist believers have insisted upon: no dancing, drinking, movies, and so forth. These have been misunderstood by critics as “legalism,” a term with Lutheran roots that means the attempt to earn God’s favor through rule-following (the sort of thing that Jesus scorned in the Pharisees). Rather, they have a singular purpose: Continue reading

C S Lewis on desire as the road to God


Boy-Drinking-WaterThis is the last bit on Lewis and desire in the “affective devotion” chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Lewis was not idiosyncratic among 20th-century Christian imaginative writers on this matter of desire’s role in bringing us to the gospel. Lewis’s close friend Charles Williams was captivated by Dante Alighieri’s belief that he had been led to salvation by a young woman with whom he had become infatuated with when he was a boy. From Dante’s vision of Beatrice, Williams elaborated a “romantic theology.” A key Christian influence on Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, discovered a similar romantic dynamic in the life of “God’s troubadour,” Francis of Assisi. Each of these writers, and Lewis himself, was thus drawing in fact not only from classical eudaemonism, but also from a distinctively medieval tradition of affective theology, exemplified in Boethius, Francis, Dante, and with special intensity in such late-medieval mystics as Julian of Norwich (one of Lewis’s favorite spiritual writers).

Lewis taught that our natural desires—our yearning that is triggered by our experiences of what is good and beautiful in the world—in fact can lead us toward God. Indeed he insisted that he himself had come to God in this way, so that he called himself an “empirical theist.”[1] He refused to believe that “the ‘vague something’ which has been suggested to one’s mind as desirable, all one’s life, in experience of nature and music and poetry” was “any product of our own minds.”[2] Our sensing self, interacting with the world through not only perception but also desire, leads us toward something real and objective beyond our subjectivity: it leads us toward God. Now, he confessed, with the Pseudo-Dionysians, that sometimes this happened by negative example and by suffering—by the sinfulness in ourselves that we stumble across as soon as we engage fully in that natural mode and world—as Gregory the Great had also taught. But this, too, was a mechanism of desire: we desire not to suffer and be sad, so we reach out to the God who forgives sins, heals hearts, dries eyes. Continue reading

C S Lewis on our REAL desire – channeling Plato and Boethius


A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (1385). Boetius, a 6th century Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in post-Roman Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before beginning the research on Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I had often thought that there is something a bit exotic and strange about Lewis’s treatment of desire and salvation. Now I know what that is: he was a Neoplatonic Christian in a Boethian mold. This bit of the “affective devotion chapter” sorts some of that out, with the help of Canadian philosopher and Lewis specialist Adam Barkman.

Lewis’s reading of Boethius, quite a while before his Christian conversion, revealed to him a particularly Christian understanding of the role of our desires in the path to God. His knowledge of this tradition would lead Lewis to craft a form of a traditional apologetic argument for Christianity: the argument from desire.

Since Boethius’s book was one of the most translated, most influential books of the whole middle ages,[1] let’s look for a moment at how this influential argument from desire looks in the Consolation. Boethius the character in the allegory begins the book in a very agitated state. His fortunes have turned for the worse, he has been accused of political skullduggery, his goods have been confiscated, he is under arrest. And with the righteous fervor of a Job and the melancholy of a Psalm of lament, he says, “I seem to see the wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy.” How is it that the wicked can be enjoying themselves, and he, who has lived an upright life as a faithful servant of Theodoric, has had happiness snatched away from him?

Now Lady Philosophy spends much of the first half of the book convincing Boethius that the things he thinks will bring him secure happiness—money, fame, power, pleasure—are actually will-o-the-wisps, or pale shadows of true happiness. But she does not disagree with Boethius’s premise: that happiness is our proper end. Continue reading

C S Lewis and the ancient/medieval path of desire


Augustine, desiring.

Augustine, desiring.

Here’s a bit of Lewis material from the draft introduction to the “affective devotion” chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. This is the setup for the following post, which will delve more into what Lewis, following Boethius and the Neoplatonists, thought was our real desire, and how following it would make us more truly ourselves:

Lewis was a scholar of the medieval period, but his medievalism was much more than intellectual. He was medieval not only in his mind, but also in his heart. This we see not only in his youthful encounters with sehnsucht (yearning joy) while reading medieval Norse myths, or in his abiding affection for the passionate poetic vision of Dante, but also in his love for the way medieval people viewed the world and their place in it. As he said in The Discarded Image: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old [medieval cosmological] Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors.”[1]

At the center of this heart sympathy for the medieval way of seeing the world was a very particular understanding of how our emotions move each of us along our path to God. Significantly, in his apologetic writings, Lewis frames both his own movement toward faith and the usual human process of conversion as an Augustinian quest of desire. Augustine’s dictum “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee” and his cry, in the Confessions, “Inebriate me, O God!” arose from a Christianization of a classical philosophy called eudaemonism (from the Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia). Classical philosophers had asked, “What makes man truly happy?” Early and medieval Christian eudaemonists answered out of the ubiquitous scriptural language of reward: We are happy when God fulfills his promises and our desires by giving us his loving presence. According to Augustine, the key to happiness is to want the one right thing, which is God himself.

Lewis agreed, and he found pernicious and un-Christian the modern ethic of absolute abnegation of desire: Continue reading