I still think this is true.
I still think this is true.
It’s always hard to do the cultural translation necessary to benefit from the lessons of a past age. We are not medieval people. We don’t believe that lions are born dead and resurrected by the breath of their parents three days later, or that pelicans revive their dead young by piercing their own bodies and feeding their blood to them. Nor are we as ready to see God in every roadside shrine, storm, or twist of fortune. So how are we to appropriate the sense of the wonder and “livingness” of creation, and the sacramentalism, of that earlier age? At the end of the creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I return to Lewis for answers
Finally, however, how are we to derive new practice from the age of unicorns and self-mutilating pelicans? Isn’t it a bit much to ask moderns to accept all this neoplatonic mysticism and fanciful symbolism? Once again we turn to our guide, C. S. Lewis. Lewis represented the medieval balance on creation nicely.
Lewis appreciated both the material world’s quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). From his first Oxford friend, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, he got, as he put it, an “education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature.” Walking about with Jenkin, he learned “in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge,” and so “rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.” (199)
Not only was this quiddity of things something to be enjoyed, but it also pointed us to objective truth. The beauty of a waterfall was something inherent to the waterfall – not a trick of the subjective mind of a human. And Lewis was actually concerned for the souls of those who did not see this (in his Abolition of Man). He knew that when a person saw a he waterfall, they were seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his 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.”
Finishing up the “creation chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I am looking by turns at medieval science and the world of medieval arts, to see what they reveal about that era’s attitudes toward the natural world. Here is the bit on science. Next, the bit on the arts.
Despite Gregory’s much more physical approach, the underlying platonic suspicion of the bodily did continue to hamper a fully world-affirming spirituality and theology. That would await the time of Anselm and Francis, and the flourishing of some seeds planted by Augustine – seeds of trust in the human gift of reason (as we saw in the “Passion for theology” chapter).
As we have seen in the theology chapter, what happened in the 12th and 13th centuries was that a recovery of Aristotelian science helped bring the powerful and useful discourse of science to bear in the deliberations of theology, both revolutionizing theology and laying the groundwork for the scientific revolution of the 16th– 18th centuries. Continue reading
This morning I’m going to try to knock out some C. S. Lewis material for the “creation chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Since Joe Ricke’s invitation to submit an abstract for the 2014 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan came as I was working on this chapter, here’s what I shot back to him. In some form, it will work its way into this chapter:
When he contemplated the material world, Lewis appreciated both its quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). He loved a good storm – and the stormier the better – just because of it being so marvelously what it was. He appreciated the beauty of a waterfall as something inherent and objective – and was concerned for the souls of those who did not (in his Abolition of Man).But he also appreciated that when he saw the waterfall, he was seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his 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 believe he could see God’s own beauty through his sense perceptions of the material. Continue reading
Like the medievals, C S Lewis loved created things in a way that amounted to sacramentalism. That is, he saw the created world as a channel of God’s grace–a special means of communications from God to us. Excised from the reading draft of my paper “The Intuitive Medievalism of C S Lewis” (International Medieval Congress 2011) were the following notes on this aspect of Lewis’s “world-sacramentalism”–a topic I did treat in the paper, but only briefly:
From Peter Kreeft, “How to Save Western Civilization: C. S. Lewis as Prophet,” in A Christian for All Christians: Essays in Honour of C. S. Lewis, ed. Andrew Walker and James Patrick (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1990):
“Lewis describes what a medieval boy learnt in school: ‘farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving, and practical astronomy. This concrete knowledge, mixed with their law, rhetoric, theology, and mythology, bred an outlook very different from our own. High abstractions and rarified artifices jostled the earthiest particulars . . . They talked more readily than we about large universals such as death, change, fortune, friendship, or salvation; but also about pigs, loaves, boots, and boats. The mind darted more easily to and fro between that mental heaven and earth: the cloud of middle generalizations, hanging between the two, was then much smaller. Hence, as it seems to us, both the naivety and the energy of their writing . . . They talk something like angels and something like sailors and stable-boys; never like civil servants or writers of leading articles.’” (200; N. 29: Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 62.)
“We moderns have lost the solid objectivity both of the high universals (especially truth and goodness) and of the low particulars, the concrete world. Both have been dissolved into a vague, abstract, ideological-political-sociological-psychological mid-range. We are the ‘middle’ ages.” (200; N. 29: Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 62.)
Lewis’s love of the concrete was sacramentalist: “Every created thing 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.” (Lewis, Commentary on Arthurian Torso by Charles Williams [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948], p. 116.) In this, too, he was medieval to the core. Continue reading