National Catholic Register

Commentary

C.S. Lewis’s Delight in Ordinary Life

Digest of Gilbert Meilaender's article 'The Everyday C.S. Lewis'in the August-September First Things

BY Ellen Wilson Fielding

August 09-15, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/9/98 at 2:00 PM

 

The August-September issue of First Things magazine showcases Gilbert Meilaender's thoughts on “The Everyday C.S. Lewis.”

“The ordinary pleasures of life,” writes Meilaender, “— both those simply given to us in nature and those derived from culture — play a large role in Lewis' thinking and account for much of the power of his writing. He can make domesticity seem enticing — as when Peter, Susan, and Lucy [in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe] share a meal with the Beavers.”

“But I think this appreciation for the everyday goes yet a little further than simple delight.… The deeper point is that the ordinary is the stuff of most of our lives most of the time. It is, therefore, where we most often find our callings, our opportunities for faithfulness, and our temptations.”

Meilaender shows Lewis using this insight in The Screwtape Letters, where “[the devil] Wormwood has blundered badly when he permits his ‘patient’to read a book simply because he enjoys it, or to take a walk through country he enjoys. He knows that, when it comes to separating a human being from God, the ordinary can also be Wormwood's greatest ally. The important choices in life seldom present themselves in extraordinary appearance.

“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one.'”

Meilaender argues that “the theological structure of [Lewis's] religious writings … is more adequately described (to paint in broad strokes) as ‘Catholic’ than as ‘Protestant.’ Faith as trust does not play a large role in his depiction of the Christian life. That life … is conceived as a journey, a process of perfection, and Jesus is the way toward that goal … therefore, Lewis thinks of all the ordinary decisions of life as forming our character, as turning us into people who either do or do not wish to gaze forever upon the face of God.”

That is what makes “the ordinary and the everyday count immensely in our moral and spiritual life.… God calls to us in the pleasures of everyday life, but we can miss the message. We can refuse to let ourselves be called out of the ordinary, we can try to hang on to the everyday.… Then the manna that we have tried to save rots, the pleasures fade, and we are left with something less than the everyday: with only ourselves.”

Because we must not hold tight to our pleasures and attachments, “The Christian life hurts. God hurts.… But we can … avoid future pain only by retreating entirely into the self, by caring about nothing outside the self. But that, of course, would be hell.…”

So there is a tension between our natural loves and love for God, and Meilaender sees this most systematically set out in The Four Loves: “[Lewis] finds in each of the natural loves an image of what divine love itself is in part … with each of the loves he notes also its insufficiency — the way in which, even and especially at its very best, it may go wrong. Affection is prone to jealousy and wants to possess the loved one.… The love of friendship is always tempted to exclusivity.… Therefore, each of the natural loves, beautiful and splendid as they are in themselves, must be transformed by charity, by love of God.…

“But in our sin we do isolate and idolize them.… Because we do so, we can only experience the transformation of our love as painful.… I think there are very few indeed who have managed as well as he to invoke simultaneously in readers both an appreciation for and delight in our created life, and a sense of the pain and anguish that come when that life is fully redirected to the One from whom it comes.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.

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