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C.S. Lewis: Re-enchanting the world 50 years on

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” The church needs to listen again to Jesus as seer and sage who enchanted the world through story and riddle. It needs to listen again to C. S. Lewis, the modern seer and sage, writes Shaun Lambert

I had the privilege of speaking at Wadham College Chapel in Oxford last Sunday. We spent the afternoon in Oxford and it was fascinating to be there as the city gears up for the 50th anniversary of Oxford don C. S. Lewis’s death on Friday 22 November.

I was speaking on mindfulness and touched on the idea of Jesus as seer and sage, as prophet and wise man – which is, of course, the same territory as mindfulness. We tend to think that seers and sages died out with Jesus, but many people talk about C.S. Lewis in those terms. The subtitle of Alister McGrath’s biography of Lewis is Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.[1]

Lewis was ahead of the world and the church in many ways and saw things that many others failed to see. One of his most important theological statements occurs in his brilliant The Screwtape Letters – letters from a senior to a junior devil. This statement is worth quoting in full:

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.[2]

If I can just break in at this moment to make an observation: the new sages and seers of this world, looked to by increasing numbers of people for the meaning of life, are the mindfulness teachers. Of course, the central teaching of mindfulness, whether it is secular, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish or of any other faith tradition, is to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment.

And yet, despite C. S. Lewis’s theological statement that God wants us to attend to the present moment, many Christians feel they cannot make this a spiritual practice because it is also something Buddhists do, and it must therefore be suspect.

But Lewis hasn’t finished with his Christian theology of the present moment:

Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them.

Mindfulness sages and seers are also saying in the present moment, today, that by paying attention to the present moment we find inner freedom and true reality, as well as wisdom for living.

Lewis continues:

He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present – either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

Because, as a Christian distinctive, the present moment is pregnant with the possibility of the eternal, there is a distinct ethical shape in paying attention to the present moment for the Christian – which involves carrying our cross, being receptive to grace, giving thanks for the gifts of life.

But Lewis hasn’t finished. Here is the next piece of advice from Screwtape, the senior Devil to Wormwood, the junior devil: ‘Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present.’

The job of Wormwood, says Screwtape, is to get his human to focus on the past or, more especially, the future. Fear, avarice, lust, ambition, says Lewis, all look to the future. Mindfulness research says human beings may spend as little as two hours in a sixteen-hour waking day being in the present moment.

The irony is that the church has failed to pay attention to the theological significance of the present moment, and to the spiritual practices that help us develop that attentiveness.

Lewis’s importance as seer and sage continues into the present. One of the other things he is most famous for is his works of imagination, especially the fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. I believe that C. S. Lewis practised what he preached, and paid attention to the present moment, and as he did so he found an astonishing rich seam of creativity within. It could be said that he enchanted the world, and re-enchanted the world.

The church needs to listen again to Jesus as seer and sage who enchanted the world through story and riddle. It needs to listen again to C. S. Lewis, the modern seer and sage. We need to pay attention to the present moment, because it is pregnant with the possibility of eternity, but also because that is where health and creativity lie.

[1] Alister McGrath, Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet – C.S. Lewis A Life (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013).
[2] C.S Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Collins, 1985), all quotes from pp. 76-77.

Baptist minister the Revd Shaun Lambert is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist and has written ‘Flat Earth Unroofed – a tale of mind lore’ to open young people’s minds to all the possibilities of the present moment.

Baptist Times, 21/11/2013
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