C S Lewis’s spiritual formation: confession, purgatory, Mary, and other Catholic dimensions


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I’ve long thought Protestantism has been hasty (as Luther himself was not) to eliminate the practice of confession to a priest–among other Roman Catholic (or the larger category: “catholic”) practices and beliefs. Once one clears away the typical Protestant misunderstandings (that the priest is a mediator who somehow offers absolution by his own authority, that he imposes penances as a way to “earn salvation,” etc.), this seems to me a healthy Christian discipline. Particularly it seems it would be helpful if the person to which one confessed were also one’s spiritual director, in the old tradition.

What follows are some notes taken at the Marion Wade Center, from a couple of sources by Lyle Dorsett. The first is an article peering into C S Lewis’s own practice of confession. The second is a group of excerpts from Dorsett’s book on Lewis’s spiritual development, and talks again about Lewis’s practice of confession, then also about his views on purgatory, Mary, and the Protestant-Roman Catholic divide.

Summarizing: Lewis shared some broadly “catholic” beliefs and practices with both the Roman Catholics and the Anglo-Catholics within his own Church. But he was far from teetering on the edge of conversion to Roman Catholicism, as Joseph Pearce has incorrectly (in my opinion) argued. Nonetheless, Lewis makes a good study in appropriating long-standing catholic practices while remaining Protestant in conviction and worship:

[Note: as you'll see, my inclusion of Mary in the title of this blog post is a bit of a red herring: Lewis was averse to Marian devotion.]

Dorsett, Lyle W. “C.S. Lewis and the Cowley Fathers.” Cowley 32 n.1 (Winter 2006): cover, 11-12.

In this article Dorsett writes especially about CSL’s Anglo-Catholic confessor and “director,” Father Walter Adams. Lewis began to see Adams in late October 1940, saying after his first confession to Father Adams “that the experience was like a tonic to his soul.” (11)

Then “It is doubtful that anyone had as great an impact on Lewis’s spiritual development during the spiritually formative years from 1940 – 1952 as Father Walter Adams. Adams was born in England in 1869. His father served as an Anglican parish priest and encouraged his son to attend Keble College, Oxford. After his Keble years Adams did further study at Wells Theological College. Ordained in 1897, he served as a curate in two rural parishes. Then in 1916 the unmarried priest, now forty-seven years old, discerned a call to be a mission priest of the Society of Saint [12] John the Evangelist. A humble yet deeply passionate man, Father Adams became one of the most sought after spiritual directors at the Mother House until his death in 1952.” (11-12)

C. S. Lewis’s correspondence and information I gleaned from oral history interviews reveal that Lewis met Father Adams every Friday unless one of them needed to be out of town. Father Adams’ impact on Lewis during the dozen years they met was unquestionably transformational. Adams was an Anglo-Catholic and he gently but purposefully led Lewis to become a High Churchman. Thanks to Adams, Lewis learned to love liturgy, the 1662 Prayer Book, the Daily Office, and praying through the Psalter each month. It was Adams who helped Lewis learn that the Eucharist is more than a memorial and symbol. Indeed, Adams helped the increasingly popular writer experience Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Adams also introduced Mr. Lewis to the writings of Richard Meux Benson, the founder of the SSJE [Society of Saint John the Evangelist]. And from Father Benson’s works Lewis gradually gained a longing for holiness, admiration of pre-sixth century church fathers, a heart for evangelism, and a soul-transformational mystical knowledge of what it means to be, in Pauline terms, ‘in Christ.’” (12)

Dorsett cites his own book Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis (Brazos press, 2005). Looking there, I find the following index entries:

Adams, Walter, 87 – 88, 89, 93 – 94, 96 – 97, 99 – 100, 101 – 3, 106 – 7, 111, 119, 132, 147, 163.

Purgatory, 81, 98 – 99

Mysticism, 37, 51 – 52

Spiritual disciplines, 23, 122 – 125

Thomas Aquinas, 91

Transubstantiation, 81

Dorsett, Lyle W., Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004)

In counseling “Sarah Tate” (not her real name) through conversion and on into her new Christian life, Lewis gave recommendations for books to read. “[After her conversion,] Miss Tate continued to seek Lewis’s guidance as her soul hungered for something more. She plied him with questions about the efficacy of prayer. . . . She begged for names of more books to read, wanting to supplement prayer and Scripture with reading that would enlarge her spirit. L argued that he was ‘very ill qualified to give [her] a list,’ but nevertheless offered K. E. Kirk’s Vision of God, E. L. McCall’s The God-Man, and Charles Williams’s The Descent of the Dove, plus other ‘old books I expect I’ve mentioned before: e.g. The Imitation, Milton’s Scale of Perfection, . . . Theologia Germanica, Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, Lady Julian, Revelations of Divine Love.’[check for what is elided above: Letters III: October 21, 1949; November 3, 1949; November 9, 1949.] Note that all that list of “old books” except for Traherne is medieval, and Traherne (1636 – 7/ 1674) is not long after.

On Lewis’s Anglo-Catholic sympathies and views on purgatory:

“There is no question that Father Walter Adams [CSL’s director/confessor] and the monks in SSJE [Society of Saint John the Evangelist] were very ‘high’ churchmen. And it is obvious that Mr. Lewis increasingly found himself spending more time in the Anglo-Catholic room of the church. This is evident in his love for the church calendar and in his use of it as a way to identify with Christ through the year. Also Lewis embraced such Catholic traditions as the Veneration of the Cross in Good Friday services. His friend the author Harry Blamires told me that he was talking to L on one occasion, telling him he was increasingly finding it necessary to worship with the Anglo-Catholics because they were ‘the only evangelicals left in the church.’ L responded that there were still evangelicals in lower churches, intimating that he personally could be counted among them. Nevertheless, when Blamires said worshiping with the Anglo-Catholics could be difficult at times because of some of their practices, L quickly came down on the other side: ‘Well, what for instance?’ Blamires said he loved the Good Friday liturgy overall but found the part where they ‘were expected to walk up and kneel and kiss the foot of the crucifix’ to be going too far, finally saying, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ Immediately L responded: ‘But you should. The body should do its homage.’ Blamires concluded that L was at times quite high on the Anglican spectrum and at other times rather low. It all depended upon the doctrine and the practice. [footnote (not endnote) 24: Lyle Dorsett, interview with Blamires, October 23, 1983, Wade Center.]”: (97)

“On the sacraments, . . . [Lewis] sided with the Anglo-Catholics, seeing marriage as a sacrament.” (98)

“L took an Adams-like Anglo-Catholic view of more than veneration of the cross and marriage; he embraced a doctrine of Purgatory as well. In Letters to Malcolm he wrote, ‘I believe in Purgatory.’ He acknowledged that ‘the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory” as that Romish doctrine had then become.’ Years after Dante’s Purgatorio, and especially by the sixteenth century with Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls, Purgatory is perverted from a place for cleansing to ‘simply a temporary hell.’ Retribution replaces purgation. Rightly, the Reformers took this on. ‘The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream [of Gerontius?].’ There L celebrates the image where the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer ‘with its [99] darkness to affront that light.’ ‘Religion,’ Lewis almost shouts, ‘has reclaimed Purgatory.’ [Footnote 26, p. 99: CSL, Letters to Malcolm, 139 – 40. See also CSL to Sister Penelope, September 17, 1963, ‘look me up in Purgatory,’ in W[arren] H L[ewis], Letters [1966], 307.” (98 – 99)

“If C. S. Lewis could embrace doctrines and practices like these, plus weekly confession to a priest . . . there nevertheless were places this sometime Anglo-Catholic layman and writer would not go. As contrite as L became, and as much as he humbled himself at the feet of this good and godly mentor, there were places where he absolutely drew the line. L wrote to one friend that early on in his weekly meetings with Father Adams he found that ‘he is much too close to Rome. I had to tell him that I couldn’t follow him in certain directions, and since then he has not pressed me.’ [Footnote 27, p. 99: CSL to Mary Noylan, April 30, 1941.] L never identified the disciplines he was urged to undertake, but it is likely they had to do with Mary, the mother of Jesus. One of Walter Adams’s fellow monks informed me that Adams was famous, or infamous, inside the SSJE for being enthralled with Mary: ‘Don’t be afraid of her,’ he exhorted people on retreats. And he frequently talked of ‘Her marvelous Annunciation, her Purification, her Immaculate Conception, her Glorious Assumption,’ frequently accompanied by a crescendo of ‘Lo, Mary.’ If L encountered these words of veneration (and it is likely he did), he most certainly became distressed—and he was not alone. Some of the other priests who lived at the Mother House, including one outspoken man in particular, were ‘in a high state of protest,’ over these ‘Romish’ outcries. [Footnote 28, 99: A letter in the possession of the author written by Father Alan Bean to Father Martin Smith, May 29, 1988, in answer to my questions about W. Adams and C. S. Lewis.]” (99)

“If Father Adams had urged L to say ‘Hail Marys’ or pray the rosary, there is no way the Oxford don would have obeyed. His position is clear in a letter written in answer to a question about incense and Hail Marys. ‘Incense,’ he said, ‘is merely a question of ritual; some find it helpful and others don’t, and each must put up with its absence or presence in the church they are attending with cheerful and charitable humility.’ But Hail Marys were another matter to L. This raises a doctrinal question. He questioned if ‘any creature, however holy,’ should be addressed with devotions. Saluting ‘any saint (or angel) cannot in itself be wrong any more than taking off one’s hat to a friend.’ But the danger comes when ‘such practices start one on the road to a state (sometimes found in the R.[oman] C.[atholics]) where the B.[lessed] V.[irgin M.[ary] is treated really as a divinity and even becomes the centre of the religion.’ He went on to say that ‘if the Blessed Virgin is as good as the best mothers I have known, she does not want any of the attention which might have gone to her Son diverted to herself.’ [Footnote 29, p. 100; CSL to ‘A Lady,’ undated in WHL, Letters, 243.]” (100)

“George Sayer, a Roman Catholic himself and a close friend of L, informed me of a conversation he was privy to that took place between L and Dr. Robert E. ‘Humphrey’ Havard, a Roman Catholic and Jack’s personal physician. Havard began to urge—and it was not the first time—L to become a Roman Catholic. ‘But Jack said no. “The important thing is to be a member of the Christian Church and which one is not so important.”’ But Havard would not relent, pushing on Jack a bit more.’ L responded with some irritation that he was not tempted to share Havard’s ‘heresies.’ When the doctor asked ‘what heresies,’ Jack said ‘Your [101] views on the Virgin Mary and the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.’ And that ended the discussion. [Footnote 30, p. 101: George Sayer to Lyle Dorsett in a personal conversation in July 1988]” (100 – 101)

BUT note his gentler tone in the following:

“Alan Bede Griffiths, who like Sayer was one of L’s formal [former?] pupils who became a life-long friend, sometimes tried to nudge his old tutor toward the Roman Catholic Church. But he met the same stubborn resistance that Havard and others met. In one letter, L summarized some of their differences as he saw them: ‘One of the most important differences between us is our estimate of the importance of the differences. . . . You think my specifically Protestant beliefs a tissue of damnable errors; I think your specifically Catholic beliefs a mass of comparatively harmless human traditions that may be fatal to certain souls, but which I think suitable for you. Therefore I feel no duty to attack you. . . .’ [Footnote 31, p. 101: CSL to Griffiths, quoted by Griffiths in James T. Como, ed., C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and other Reminiscences (London: Collins, 1980), 18.” (101)

For more on Lewis on purgatory, see here.

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5 responses to “C S Lewis’s spiritual formation: confession, purgatory, Mary, and other Catholic dimensions

  1. Oddly enough, growing up with the misconceptions of what ‘confession’ as a spiritual discipline was, it was one of the major attractions Eastern Orthodoxy had for me. I love it and need to do it more often.

  2. “this seems to me a healthy Christian discipline. Particularly it seems it would be helpful if the person to which one confessed were also one’s spiritual director, in the old tradition”

    Growing up, because there was no priest to confess to, we were encouraged to have “accountability partners.” To whom we could confess our sins to, and to whom we could go to for advice. While this, on paper, looks like a decent idea, I have found having a priest a much better alternative. Being 15 years old trying to confess sins to another 15 year old on a intermittent basis just really didn’t do much for me.

    • Woah! Could be incendiary. Could go off the rails in a lot of ways. Luther was a smart fellow, but there are limits, I think, to the priesthood of ALL believers. Or at least, perhaps the principle of order, that it is best for a QUALIFIED person to do certain things, should have been (and should be) extended to confession.

  3. Very interesting!

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