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The Spiritual Life of C.S. Lewis

The Spiritual Life of C.S. Lewis

An interview with Lyle Dorsett by Gerald R. McDermott
Nov. 17, 2019

The podcast can be seen here: https://www.beesondivinity.com/the-institute-of-anglican-studies/podcast/2019/the-spiritual-life-of-cs-lewis

Announcer: The Institute of Anglican Studies at Beeson Divinity School welcomes you to Via Media, a podcast exploring the religious and theological worlds from an Anglican perspective. Here is your host Gerald McDermott.

McDermott: Welcome to Via Media. Our guest today is Lyle Dorsett, famous historian, professor, Anglican priest. Dr. Dorsett earned his PhD in history and has served at a number of institutions; the University of Southern California, as a political historian, University of Denver, the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and Wheaton College for many years. But then in 2005 he was called to the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School.

He retired only in 2018. So, after serving 13 years as a professor of evangelism at Beeson Divinity School. Lyle and his wife, Mary, who is a Deacon in the ACNA, are founding pastors of two Anglican churches. The Church of the Great Shepherd in Wheaton, Illinois and Christ the King Anglican in Birmingham, Alabama -- where I have had the joy of serving as a teaching pastor. First, under Father Lyle and then later under his successor, Michael Novotny.

Now, I asked Dr. Dorsett to come on the program today because he's a C.S. Lewis scholar, among other things. He has written several books on C.S. Lewis and our audience, I think, will be very interested to hear that he did a biography some years ago of Joy Davidman, C.S. Lewis' wife, titled, A Love Observed. It was this book that inspired the movie and the stage play, Shadowlands.

He's got another book titled, Serving God And Country: U.S. Military Chaplains in World War II. But today I want to ask Father Lyle about the spirituality of C.S. Lewis. Welcome to Via Media, Lyle.

Dorsett: Thank you. Good to be here.

McDermott: Lyle, what led you to write this book that I have in front of me here, Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis? It was published in 2005, by Brazos Press. What led you to write this?

Dorsett: Well, when authors have had a profound impact on me spiritually I like to know as much about their own spiritual formation, their background, as I can. And that's been easy enough to find on a lot of writers. But Lewis I was surprised at how little was there about his spiritual formation. There are several biographies, but they just don't seem to ask those questions, or they eschew some of the significant dimensions.

So, I wanted to know ... You know, Lewis has had this profound impact on me ... How did he grow spiritually? Because the several biographies that I've read ... but they always leave you with the sense that Lewis was this atheist, or at least an nth degree agnostic, he becomes a Christian and after that he's a full-blown Christian and starts writing all these books.

Well, we know that's not right. Everybody who is born again has to grow gradually into the fullness in Christ. So, I wanted to find out what was his growth like, what were the factors that shaped him, so that inspired me. I started digging into it. I did about 50 or 60 oral history interviews with people that knew Lewis; either were colleagues or students of his, or friends, whatever. And was able to put together quite a bit. So, I was able to write this book, which was really the result of my own pursuit of the question.

McDermott: Now, this really is a wonderful book and I want to recommend it to our listeners: Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis. And you know, Lyle, what you show in this book is that despite the fact that C.S. Lewis has been called, "The Evangelical's Patron Saint," his spirituality was actually different in some ways from the spirituality of most evangelicals.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of those differences?

Dorsett: Well, I think it all depends upon how we define evangelicals, but Lewis, in fact many evangelicals see him as rather Catholic, and they're bothered by ... some of them are very frankly bothered by the way he grew spiritually, but Lewis had, for example, an extremely high view of the Eucharist. His brother had said that when he first gave his life to Christ that he felt going to communion once a month was plenty, but he said gradually he evolved to the point where he craved it more and more. He not only wanted it once a week, he wanted it more often.

This led him, then, when he was a fellow at Oxford, he would go down to the Cowley Fathers, which was an Anglo-Catholic group of monks. He would go down to their place, which was within walking distance of his room at Oxford. He'd go down there for ... he'd have confession, he'd go to one of the priests, Father Walter Adams became extremely close to him, they became very close friends. He'd go weekly for confession, he would be then held accountable to change things that he needed to do, and he always wanted Holy Communion when he was there -- which he got.

So, he had this very high view of the Eucharist. His brother said he just craved it more and more.

McDermott: Now, I understand, though, that he ... to the end of his life he resisted being Roman Catholic. Can you tell us why?

Dorsett: He did. In fact, one of his closest friends was the well-known writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was always trying to push Lewis to the Catholic Church and Lewis resisted. One time he just ... the exasperation of it all, Tolkien wrote to his son and he said, "I just can't understand why Jack won't become a Catholic, he loves the blessed sacrament, and he's very keen on nuns," (laughs) as if somehow that should have made him a Catholic. He said, "But I think he's the Ulster man down at corps," he was born and raised in northern Ireland, and he said, "I think down deep he just cannot turn to the Catholic Church." But he admitted Lewis had some other problems with the Catholic faith. He didn't like their Mariology, for one thing. He certainly didn't believe that pope's were infallible at any level, at any time. So, those were some of the kinds of things that bothered him.

McDermott: Now, when Tolkien said that Jack loved the blessed sacrament, did he mean the Eucharist, or did he mean the reservation of the sacrament that Roman Catholics do during the week at the altar?

Dorsett: He met receiving communion. He meant the Eucharist. In fact, Lewis was ... he was opposed to the idea that the host could be, should be kept, could be left open for viewing and so forth, these things bothered him very much. Because he felt it was idolatry, it was beginning to worship a piece of bread rather than the living Christ who did come to you in the sacrament of Holy Communion. He said, "this is one of the thin places, this is the thinnest place between us and God, is when we receive the host." He said, "we are touched," he said it's like a "hand from a hidden country, reaches out and touches your body and your soul."

McDermott: Mm hmm (Affirmative). Yeah, that was a wonderful passage in your book. Now, you have a whole chapter, Lyle, on the Church and I like the title. It looks like it's in quotations, so this looks like it's a quotation from C.S. Lewis. The New Testament Knows Nothing of Solitary Religion. Can you tell us a little bit more about Lewis' view of the Church?

Dorsett: Yes. And that quotation comes from one of his sermons. Anyway, Lewis eschewed the idea that people could just give their lives to Christ and then decide, "I don't like church, I don't want to hang out with these people." When he wrote Mere Christianity, for example, he talked about ... he said that when you become a Christian you enter a great hallway, but once you enter that hall you must pick a room to sup in, to have fellowship in. He said he chose the Anglican Church. He said, "I'm not promoting any denomination, but people need to pick the room." They need to go in. 'Cause the New Testament doesn't allow, knows nothing of individual Christianity -- you come together in a community. You walk together. You become part of the body of Christ.

So, he's very keen on this and was very careful not to push people toward either his tradition or any other one, and he wasn't critical of any traditions. When pushed he was a bit critical of the Catholic Church for certain things he didn't like, but he would say he was very critical of the very low church evangelicals as well on certain things.

McDermott: Now he also believed in what you call "spiritual friends and guidance," "a wonderful opportunity," as he put it. What did he mean by that?

Dorsett: He meant that we all, every Christian, man or woman, needed to have some mentors. I don't even know that he used that word, I don't remember that he did, but they needed some spiritual guide and counselors to point them to things to read, to help them understand portions of scripture or theological issues that they didn't.

He certainly had those people in his own life. The man that had the most profound impact on him was certainly Father Walter Adams, who was one of the Cowley Fathers, they were called, he was part of the society at St. John the Evangelist, and that was an Anglo-Catholic organization. The Cowley Fathers had a chapel in their housing within walking distance of Magdalen College, where Lewis was at Oxford. He'd go there every Friday for communion.

Father Walter Adams ... I think he would have said ... if he were sitting here he would have said, "no other person had such a profound impact on me, spiritually, as that man."

McDermott: So, would he endorse what started to become important in the English tradition, even in the 14th century with people like Marjorie Kemp and Julian of Norwich, and Walter Hilton, and especially picking up steam in the 17th century with the Caroline Divines of spiritual direction, of Christians needing to have a spiritual director?

Dorsett: He did indeed and it wasn't anything that had occurred to him, but he had a very close friend, Sister Penelope, whom I talk about in my book, Seeking the Secret Place, and Sister Penelope was the one who ... he highly respected her. She was brilliant. She wrote a few books that were outstanding, not widely known, but he admired her and they had a very close relationship -- there was nothing romantic about it, but they were spiritually and intellectually very close.

She said to him, "You need a spiritual director." She suggested to him the society of St. John the Evangelist, and that's where he met Father Walter Adams. And she'd also suggested that Lewis read Richard M. Bensen's book, Life Beyond the Grave, and Bensen was the founder of the Cowley Father's movement. So, Lewis was deeply touched by that, Life Beyond the Grave, which was calling people into a deeper life. A deeper life than the superficiality that sometimes you find with evangelicals, if you've been born again that that's it, that's the end of it. Well, it's the beginning. It's like you've been birthed, but you need to grow. And the Catholics sometimes ignore that dimension as well, but anyway ... Sister Penelope moved him in that direction. She said, "You need a spiritual mentor. You need a spiritual guide, a spiritual father," and that's what he did. But she was very much that role herself, just through letters.

McDermott: Now, Sister Penelope was Anglican, and Anglican nun, right? Not a Roman Catholic nun.

Dorsett: She was part of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, which was an Anglican group.

McDermott: Right. You write about Lewis defending Anglican liturgy. Why did he feel liturgy was so important?

Dorsett: Well, anybody that wants to pursue this topic would do well to read his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, which were not real letters to anyone named Malcolm, but it was his way of teaching. His argument was that people need to be in the church. They need to be guided and there are certain things that they need to understand and grasp. It's a very Anglo-Catholic book in many ways. It really is. He stresses the importance of the Church calendar. He stresses the importance of the high holy days; a very high view of the Eucharist; the veneration of the cross on Good Friday; confession to a priest.

He also, because of the impact of the Anglo-Catholic tradition on him, he had a high view of marriage, Christian marriage, and saw it as a sacrament. This is why when he married Helen Joy Davidman they married, they were in love, but they married so that she wouldn't have to leave England and go back to the states. But he refused to consummate the marriage, sexually, with her because the Church would not ... It's not enough for the secular people to say we're married and we have this certificate -- "we need to be married in the Church."

The Bishop of Oxford said because Joy had divorced and then married Lewis, even though she had biblical grounds to re-marry, her husband committed adultery, he left her, everything else -- this Bishop would not agree that they should be married. Because he said that Mr. Lewis is a Christian witness, everybody knows him, they know about him, if he marries a divorced woman this is going to hurt the Church.

Well, Lewis ultimately was married when Joy was in the hospital with cancer. An Anglican priest ... Lewis never kept his royalties, I should tuck in here, he put them in an agape fund. He felt, "I have a decent income, I should give away my money," He put a man through four years of college and then seminary with that. This man became a priest and he did a sacramental marriage. It cost him ... his Bishop sent him away to a "less than desirable" parish. Said, "You're going to pay for this, you violated my orders." He said, "I have higher orders than from you." (laughs)

McDermott: Whoa. So, he saw marriage as a sacrament. Some Anglicans don't see marriage as a sacrament. They say the only two sacraments are the dominical sacraments, as you know: Eucharist and Baptism. But apparently you're telling us Lewis saw the other five, which the Anglican tradition traditionally has called "sacramental's" or "sacramental rites," as sacraments as well?

Dorsett: He certainly saw them as sacraments. There's no question about it. He saw the other five as lesser, but even the Catholic Church would say that.

McDermott: Right, right. Who were his favorite Anglican writers, Lyle?

Dorsett: Well, he was very keen on John and Charles Wesley -- that surprises people, especially as there are so many, even in the Anglican world, so many Calvinists. For him to be keen on Charles and John Wesley did not always gain a lot of applause, but he ... No, he had a high view of these people. He also loved Cloverdale's translation of the Psalms and the prayer book. Among the people he was very keen on ... one was Evelyn Underhill. Her book The House of the Soul, and then another little book, Concerning the Inner Life blessed him.

Richard Hooker and The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, this was a very important book to him, extremely important. He read G.K. Chesterton. He was very keen on Chesterton. They never met. Their lives overlapped for a few years, but they didn't know one another. He was keen on Evelyn Underhill as I mentioned, and then Austin Farrer, who was a close personal friend and an Anglican priest. He wrote two or three books that Lewis admired. I quite honestly read them and found them ... they didn't say much to me. That probably tells you more about me than Farrer.

McDermott: Now, is it true that he accepted some version of purgatory in his Letters to Malcolm, but rejected a Romish view of purgatory?

Dorsett: That's right. He was confident that there is purgatory. When we die we go to purgatory for awhile. Where he stood in contradistinction to the Roman Catholic Church was he said purgatory is a place where we want to go to clean up. We're not going to pay for some sins, it's not a purgation in the Catholic sense. What he said is this, he said, "If I were out in my garden, in my work clothes, my hands in the flowers, digging in the ground, and somebody said, 'the Queen of England wants to see you. Come on in.'" He said, "I would not want to go in with my dirty hands and my dirty clothes, I would want to go bathe and put on clean clothes to enter her presence." That's what he saw as purgatory. He said, "I want to clean up before I see him face to face."

Obviously, most protestants don't agree with that, but he wouldn't go as far as Rome, but he went fairly far.

McDermott: Mm hmm (Affirmative). So, Lyle, you spent years at Wheaton College, as curator of the ...

Dorsett: The Marion E. Wade Center, right.

McDermott: The Marion E. Wade Center, which housed and was devoted to a lot of works of Lewis.

Dorsett: Yes, it is certainly the most important collection of the writings of C.S. Lewis, published and unpublished, and also the works about it. Yeah. Clyde Kilby, a professor, he's now in glory, Clyde Kilby founded that and then I became the second director or curator of the Marion E. Wade Collection.

McDermott: So, you spent years, so to speak, with C.S. Lewis.

Dorsett: I did. We had so many of his letters, we kept seeking ways to find more of his correspondence, and then Mary and I, my wife Mary and I, traveled the UK every summer for several summers. We interviewed between 50 and 60 people who knew Lewis. So, we got this wonderful oral history project going. There was a dear saint, a woman professor, Carol Kraft, who taught German at Wheaton. She under wrote our travels every summer. She under wrote Mary and my travel. She's an independently wealthy person. Very quietly generous. When she found out we had these opportunities, but didn't have the money and the Wade didn't have much money to send me on those trips she said, "You go, I pick up the tab."

McDermott: So, how has C.S. Lewis changed you, Lyle?

Dorsett: Well, I'm deeply indebted to C.S. Lewis. His books were important sign posts on my conversion. I had a student at the University of Denver, I taught history there, and he introduced me to Lewis' writings. I was aware of Lewis and knew a little bit about him, but I never really read him and thought about him. Lewis and Chesterton, especially Chesterton's Book on Orthodoxy, and he was a history major -- took every course I taught. We became very close friends, but he was deeply distressed that I was not a Christian.

He prayed for me all the time. He gave me Chesterton's Orthodoxy. He also urged me to read Lewis, which I did. And Lewis' books began to nudge me towards the faith. So did Chesterton's Orthodoxy, especially in Orthodoxy where Chesterton said, "After I became a Christian I understood why I was always homesick at home." That's beautiful isn't it? Homesick at home. This world is not our home.

McDermott: Has Lewis affected your own spiritual life?

Dorsett: Lewis not only was instrumental, his writings nudged me to the faith. His books, and then later on his writings, had a profound impact on my growth in Christ. Not only just growing up and maturing more, but also becoming an Anglican myself. Lewis himself said one time, "You can't be too careful what you read." (laughs) "'Cause it might change you and have an impact on you." And reading Lewis ... and he never tried to push people toward the Anglican Church, but it just ... it had an impact on me.

The reasons he was an Anglican appealed to me. They appealed to my wife. She was on that path longer than I.

McDermott: For our listeners, Lyle ... For listeners who haven't read much of C.S. Lewis, probably all of our listeners have heard much about C.S. Lewis over the years, but for those who have never read much, where would you recommend that they start?

Dorsett: I would say Mere Christianity. It's a book, he said, "I've written this book, not for theologians," he said, "I'm neither ordained, nor a theologian," and he said, "I'm not writing for them." He said, "I'm writing for ordinary people that I hope would understand what Christianity is all about; relationship with Christ." So, when he says "mere Christianity," it's not pejorative in any way, it's basic Christianity, its core Christianity. And at the beginning of the book he said, "You enter this great hall, which is where all Christians are, you've got to pick a room to sup in," he said, "I don't care where you go, I'm not trying to push you in any way." He admitted who he was, he was an Anglican, but he said, "Find the place where you fit." Then he goes into explain the faith: what is basic Christianity? It's powerful. It's profound. It had an impact on me.

I used to buy so many of them and give them away that a book shop in Denver gave me a discount because they knew I was buying these books and giving them away, and I didn't have a lot of money. So, they were trying to support the evangelistic outreach. But that's where I would start. But I also would say Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and most essential along with it, is The Screwtape Letters.

McDermott: Well, for our listeners, again, I encourage you to get this rich, rich book, The Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis by Lyle Dorsett. Lyle, thank you for joining us today.

Announcer: You've been listening to Via Media with host Gerald McDermott, the director of The Institute of Anglican Study Studies at Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. The Institute of Anglican Studies trains men and women for Anglican ministry, and seeks to educate the public in the riches of the Anglican tradition. Beeson Divinity School is an interdenominational evangelical divinity school training men and women in the service of Jesus Christ. We hope you've enjoyed this episode of Via Media.

Gerald R. McDermott is the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and teaches in the areas of history and doctrine, world religions, Anglican studies and Jonathan Edwards. He is the author, co-author or editor of more than twenty books.

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