C S Lewis’s dawning asceticism: “Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration”


monastic arches

In the last post, as I began to unpack monasticism and asceticism with C S Lewis’s help, I took a passage from his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength as a window into the way that war, by shaking all our self-interests and focusing us on a higher goal, can give us a new vision and focus for life. I concluded, drawing from a phrase of Lewis’ in that book: “‘The immense weight of obedience’ involved in asceticism, too, can attune us more finely to our relationships, relativize our petty anxieties and cares, and help us live our earthly, human lives with more zest and appreciation.” Now, to continue:

Why monasticism?

This focusing function may be a helpful general principle about asceticism. But we may fairly ask: “What makes us think the particular ascetic modes of monasticism have any answers on our modern problems? They’re so . . . medieval! Stone cloisters, hard beds, celibacy, rising at ungodly hours to chant Psalms in Latin? Really? This is the balm for our ills?”

Lewis plumbs the depths of self

Lewis, in the year leading up to his conversion, struggled mightily with his “flesh” – and even more with spiritual pride, a sin the monastic fathers unanimously agreed was among the worst, and especially tending to beset those making efforts in their lives to achieve spiritual progress.

From early on, as he struggled toward conversion, Lewis also appreciated the asceticism of the Middle Ages. It was 1931 when Lewis took has famous late-night walk with his close friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson and then, soon after, made a specific commitment to Christian belief while on his way to the zoo with his brother. The previous year, on Jan 30, he had written to Greeves “saying that things were continuing to go well for him spiritually, though he tried not to take pride in his progress, knowing that it came from the grace of [146] God, not from his own efforts.” In an ascetical key, he admitted that there seemed to be “no end” to his spiritual pride. He found in himself “depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration,” which prevented him from “making even the faintest approach to giving up my own will: which as everyone has told us is the only thing to do.’”[1]

Without too much exaggeration, we can say that this struggle with pride and self-will is the taproot of the monastic tradition. Lewis knew that. As the “hound of heaven” closed in on him, he wrote to Barfield: “Terrible things are happening to me. The “Spirit” or “Real I” [a term straight out of the Theologia Germanica] is showing an alarming tendency to become much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You’d better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery.’”[2]

Though of course he never did this, we see how strong this awareness of the importance of ascetic self-denial was for Lewis in a letter to his friend Owen Barfield on Sept. 12th, 1938, as the storm clouds of World War II so clearly gathered overhead.

“My dear Barfield,” he wrote,

“What awful quantities of this sort of thing seem necessary to break us in, or, more correctly, to break us off. One thinks one has made some progress towards detachment . . . and begin[s] to realize, and to acquiesce in, the rightly precarious hold we have on all our natural loves, interests, and comforts: then when they are really shaken, at the very first breath of that wind, it turns out to have been all a sham, a field-day, blank cartridges.”[3]

He continues:

“This is how I was thinking that night, about the war danger. I had so often told myself that my friends and books and even brains were [232] not given me to keep: that I must teach myself at bottom to care for something else more . . . and I was horrified to find how cold the idea of really losing them struck. An awful symptom is that part of oneself still regards troubles as ‘interruptions’ as if (ludicrous idea) the happy bustle of one[’]s personal interests was our real [task or work],[4] instead of the opposite.” (231-2)

“I did in the end see . . . that since nothing but these forcible shakings will cure us of our worldliness, we have at bottom reason to be thankful for them. We force God to surgical treatment: we won’t (mentally) diet.”

In other words, God forces “troubles” on us because otherwise we will refuse to abandon our selfish interests—which we need to do, for our own good. Lewis derived (or at least strengthened) this insight from his reading of certain medieval devotional books. In particular, he studied closely three manuals of Pseudo-Dionysian devotion–books that followed the early writer Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite (late 5th – early 6th c.) in prescribing a threefold mystical process of purgation, illumination, and union with God. These were Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection (c. 1400), the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing (late 1300s) and the Theologia Germanica (1497), which he had just finished reading for the first time when he wrote to Barfield.[5]

Two years after his letter to Barfield, Lewis wrote his Problem of Pain, in which he reflects at length on how suffering and self-denial can become parts of our training in holiness. In May of that year (1940), he wrote an essay for The Guardian  in which he reflected that we can see our self in two ways. We can see it, first, as “God’s creature, an occasion of love and rejoicing; now, indeed, hateful in condition, but to be pitied and healed.” But we can also see it as “that one self of all others which is called I and me, and which on that ground puts forward an irrational claim to preference.”

This second, truly selfish claim, says Lewis, “is to be not only hated, but simply killed.” Our struggle with egotism and self-preference is truly an “endless war,” but even in the midst of that war, the wise Christian “loves and approves selves as such, though not their sins. The very self-love which he has to reject is to him a specimen of how he ought to feel to all selves; and he may hope that when he has truly learned (which will hardly be in this life) to love his neighbor as himself, he may then be able to love himself as his neighbor: that is, with charity instead of partiality.” (194) (This is very much what Bernard of Clairvaux had said centuries before: that our ultimate goal vis-a-vis self-love, realized fully only in heaven, is to love ourselves for the sake of God – that is, with the fully self-giving agape love of God–that is, “charity” in the biblical phrase–rather than the eros love of potentially selfish desire.)

“The wrong asceticism,” Lewis concludes, “torments the self: the right kind kills the selfness.” (195) He put this personal understanding of the Christian ascetic vision into practice through regular use of such ascetic disciplines as fasting, meditation, and frequent prayer.[6]


[1] Need actual citation from Letters. Found originally in David Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2002), 145 – 6.

[2] Downing, Reluctant Convert, 146.

[3] Letters, [vol?] 231.

[4] Hooper’s note on this Greek term, n. 26: ‘task’ or ‘work’.

[5] David Downing, Into the Region of Awe, 23.

[6] On Lewis’s spiritual disciplines see, for example, Wallace A. C. Williams, “C. S. Lewis: Spiritual disciplines for mere Christians,” For All the Saints.

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