Tag Archives: embodiedness

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

Two Modern Mistakes About the Material World – and the Medieval Truth that can Save us from Them


I still think this is true.

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Q: What do Aslan, St. Francis, and medieval mystery plays have in common? A: The Incarnation.


A garden statue of Francis of Assisi with birds

This post from the final “Incarnation chapter” of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis begins to turn the corner from C S Lewis on the Incarnation to medieval treatments of the Incarnation.

Aslan

Aslan “comes on the Narnian scene already and always a lion; he did not become lion to save Narnia,” therefore he is not precisely a Christ figure.[1] Nonetheless, he is “an Incarnation”: he is earthy, embodied, powerful in his materiality, and also the son of the Great Emperor. It is only a year after his extended reflections on the Incarnation in Miracles: A Preliminary Study that he turns back to continue work on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the chapter in Miracles on “the Grand Miracle” (the Incarnation), Lewis “speculates on a springtime coming to the whole cosmos as the result of Christ’s incarnation on earth.” “Aslan, the incarnation of Christ in Narnian terms, represents in Narnia what Christ represents on earth: the God of the Chosen People, the ‘glad Creator’ of nature and her activities.”[2] He revealed his intention in a letter to a girl who had asked about “Aslan’s other name”: Continue reading

C S Lewis: Why value our bodies? Because we can know God ONLY through the senses


The steeple of Macha church, built in 1911When modern Christians lose the wonder of the Incarnation, we lose also the wonder of our own humanity. We intellectualize and spiritualize the faith to the point where we forget a simple fact. That is, that we can know God ONLY through our senses.

Lewis insisted on this fact, and he tied it not only to the Incarnation (in writings such as his powerful sermon “Transposition”) but also to the New Creation. The bodies we will have in that new reality, he insists, will be not less, but more solid and corporeal than those we have now. There would be no Caspar-the-Ghost-like cloud-dwelling angelic afterlife for the Oxford don. In fact, compared to the solidity he believed we will have in the New Earth (and Christ already has at the Father’s right hand), our present bodies begin to look rather wispy!

The subjective side of the sacramental principle: We know Him only through our sense experience

Why is it so important that we affirm our embodiedness in our relationship with God? Because we receive everything we know about him through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. We have no other way to understand Him. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament. To use a word Lewis used to title a key essay (to which we will return), it is “Transposition.” Continue reading

The Incarnation and the importance of the embodied life in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength


Cover of "That Hideous Strength"

In this post from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we look at the important lesson from Christ’s Incarnation that Lewis draws for us in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength.

Another facet of the Incarnation that captivates Lewis is the way that it ennobles our humanity – even our very materiality. To try to abstract mind from body, spirit from matter is to commit the gnostic error and destroy (be false to) what we truly are as human beings. That Hideous Strength shows us in imaginative form how modern technocrats (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments or N.I.C.E.) might try to eliminate that crucial materiality in a Gnostic quest for pure spirit. N.I.C.E.’s agents, in the attempt to eliminate the bodily—in fact, all biological life on earth—and retain only mind, lose their morality and their very selves. A sample of the dialogue gives a sense of the chilling vision at work here:

“And what is the first practical step?” [asks Mark Studdock to Feverstone, whom he is trying to impress in his effort to be counted one of the “inner circle”].

“Yes, that’s the real question. As I said, the interplanetary problem must be left on one side for the moment. The second problem is our rivals on this planet. I don’t mean only insects and bacteria. There’s far too much life of every kind about, animal and vegetable. We haven’t really cleared the place yet. First we couldn’t; and then we had aesthetic and humanitarian scruples; and we still haven’t short-circuited the question of the balance of nature. All that is to be gone into. The third problem is Man himself.”

“Go on. This interests me very much.” Continue reading