Sunday, February 22, 2004

Guest Post: C.S. Lewis, Romanticism, & Asceticism (Keith Rickert, Jr.)

If God, alone IS, then evil is merely a privation, a subtraction of good. Evil is what is not. Therefore sin is the preference for what is, in the end, not even real. The good that we attach to sinful activities, is illusive, a lie. Sin is, literally, a rejection of reality, of what really is--of being. As such, it is a rejection of real goodness, real beauty, real truth—and real joy. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, makes the point that only those go to Hell who refuse Joy. God’s grace brings everyone to a place where they choose—imperceptibly and in the deepest, innermost parts of themselves (but in the most real way possible)—between (1) evil: cheap, counterfeit, illusive “good” which is really a privation of goodness, being, reality, and, as such, doesn’t satisfy, but it does afford one the illusion of being in charge, or (2) genuine goodness: which really is because it “comes from” God who, alone, is, but is so captivating that it takes one’s heart away, demanding all.

In The Great Divorce, souls from a place Lewis defines as either Purgatory or Hell, take a bus trip to the outer perimeter of Heaven where they are met by souls from Deep Heaven who try to help them choose to reject miserable unreality for joyous reality. The narrator, one of the souls visiting Heaven, relays this from one of the Heavenly souls:

* * *

“Milton was right,” said my Teacher. “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality... There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

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“No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” How true this is! Joy can only be found in being--in truth, goodness, and beauty--and the soul which seeks this out ends in finding the aim of all his desires—God, the source of all being. In hindsight, I can see, prior to my re-conversion to Christ, God’s grace calling me toward Him. I thought I was simply seeking good feelings. I slowly started to notice that some good feelings I sought clashed with other good feelings I sought--feelings which seemed more real, of more substance. This is because the former had sinful activities as their object, while the latter had genuine being as their object. God’s grace brought me to a place where the two could no longer coexist. If I sought the good feelings, which, as it turned out, were derived from sin, I found myself curiously incapable of enjoying those other, “deeper” good feelings, which, as it turned out, were derived from tending to being—truth, goodness, beauty. This clashed with the relativism to which my intellect had conceded, but I could not discount my experience. I only knew that there were things that felt more real and there were things that, although they felt good, they detracted from what felt more real. Here, there emerges an element of choice; I had to chose, and it was difficult indeed, because what was becoming less real to me involved powerful addictions. I had to chose between, on the one hand, release and relief accompanied by a strange emptiness, or, on the other hand, inklings of joy accompanied by the anguishing torments of going without release and relief.

This, I think, is the nitty-gritty of conversion. A person either holds on through the anguishing torments, believing and choosing the more real, or he opts for relief and release, and placates himself with the lie that it is just as real as that other. As Lewis wrote: “There is always something they [the damned] prefer to joy—that is, to reality... No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” And Fr. Dubay: “Those who love goodness and beauty will find God.” (For a particularly haunting depiction of a human soul choosing the unreal—Hell—see Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell.)

Under this light, asceticism is highly romantic; for it is the purging of the false, the unreal. The Fall has bequeathed us an inordinate appetite for good things, which falsely makes them ends in themselves or downright perverts them altogether. Because of the Fall, we no longer tend to God as our last end. Asceticism is the denial of the appetite for lesser or distorted things for the purpose of redirecting it to God as our first love and last end. Suddenly, fasting, penance, mortification become the stuff of fairy tales. The prince will complete any journey, risk any danger, endure any hardship in order to be reunited with his lover—for he knows that life without her is no life at all. Likewise, the princess, separated from her lover, will not pacify herself with the love of other men, but will hold onto her first, true love as she longs for their reunion. This is Catholicism: Lent, salvific suffering, the sacrament of confession, abstinence vs. artificial contraception, the fantastic mortifications of the saints (esp. in the stigmata), purgatory. It is no mere coincidence that St. Francis of Assisi was a Catholic—with his profoundly joyful romanticism side-by-side with his crushingly rigorous asceticism.

At the Fall, we were cast out of Eden and into a world where what is real coexists with what is not real. Lewis called our world “the shadowlands” because it is tainted by evil, and, thus, it is not fully real; it only bears the shadow of the fully real. Our longing for the fully real inspires a bittersweet asceticism, a painful abstinence from the less real, as we wait in joyful expectation for the coming consummation of the fully real...which will be in Heaven. (Brian: this deal with the points you raised.) In The Last Battle, the concluding book in the The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis describes how Heaven will be a realization of the fully real:

* * *

Suddenly Farsight the Eagle spread his wings, soared thirty or forty feet up in the air, circled round and then alighted on the ground.

“Kings and Queens,” he cried, “we have all been blind. We are only beginning to see where we are. From up there I have seen it all—Ettinsmuir, Beaversdam, the Great Tiver, and Cair paravel still shining on the edge of the Eastern Sea. Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia.”

“But how can it be?” said Peter. “For Aslan told us older ones that we should never return to Narnia, and here we are.”

“Yes,” said Eustace. “And we saw it all destroyed and the sun put out.”

“And it’s all so different,” said Lucy.

“The eagle is right,” said the Lord Digory. “Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or a waking life is from a dream...”

The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was...that...the new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean.

It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right forehoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried: “I have come home at last! This is my real county! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”. . .

Lucy said, “Were so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“Never fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning”

And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

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