Tag Archives: sacramentalism

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”?

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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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The material world: good, bad, or . . . ?


How do many modern Christians see the material world? Often in one of two apparently opposite, but equally problematic ways. Here’s the third way that medieval Christians can teach us.

C S Lewis and the translation of medieval Creation-focus for today


OutOfTheSilentPlanetIt’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.”

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What can sacramentalism do for you? A modern application of medieval attitudes to Creation


EarthIn posts from the evolving “creation chapter” from my forthcoming Getting Medeival with C. S. Lewis, we’ve had a look at how medieval folks’ love for the universe that God made manifested itself in their pursuit of scientific knowledge, and in the “symbol code” they used in their lavish and beautiful works of art. We’ve delved into the sacramental perspective that guided how they interacted with Creation. And we’ve asked why evangelical Protestants separate the material from the spiritual in such harmful ways. Now it’s time for the wrap-up–and hopefully, the payoff for modern readers. First, in this post, we ask what the sacramental principle could mean for us today if we took it seriously. Then we’ll look at the question through C. S. Lewis’s eyes.

What lessons, then, can we carry away from this survey of medieval attitudes to creation? First, that their sacramentalism valued creation neither less nor more highly than it should be valued—a salutary lesson for our simultaneously Gnostic and materialist age. Second, that their theological reading of Creation allowed them to be attuned to God in all of life: work, play, relationships, arts, culture—a blessing to our age of compartmentalization between the spiritual and the material. Third, that this sacramental attention to a creation that everywhere bespeaks its Creator underwrote a medieval cultural mandate, birthing a lavish growth of universities, sciences, and arts—a desperately needed correction to evangelical otherworldliness.

On this last point, I am reminded that the Reformed evangelical historian who pointed out the vacuity of evangelical culture in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll, subsequently found Catholic Notre Dame a much more congenial place to do his cultural work of history-writing than the evangelical Wheaton College. As Hans Boersma concluded in his study of medieval sacramentalism, “only a heavenly minded Christian faith will do us any earthly good.” Continue reading