by David C. Downing
In 1941 a former student of C. S. Lewis, then in her thirties, asked Lewis if he would become her confessor and spiritual director. Lewis politely declined, feeling that he didn’t have the proper credentials for the job (Letters, 2, 481). Yet he continued to write her letters of candid and perceptive advice about her spiritual journey, as well as issues of marriage and family, functioning virtually as what might be called a “mentor by mail.”
Lewis wrote nearly forty books in his lifetime, and one might think he would have little time left over for private correspondence. But actually Lewis’s letters, expertly edited by Walter Hooper, fill three thick volumes, filling over 3500 pages. Many of these letters, of course, are addressed to friends and family members. But a surprising number of letters were written to complete strangers who sent in questions after reading one of Lewis’s books or hearing him on the radio. (Readers who find Lewis’ three thick volumes of collected letters a bit daunting should consult an abridged volume, Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis.)
In his later years, letter-writing became a burdensome task for Lewis. In one note, Lewis mentions that he had composed 35 letters that day. In another, he mentions that he had just spent nine hours catching up on his correspondence. Yet for Lewis, answering letters and inquiries, even from children, was not just a courtesy; it was a part of his calling. Noting to one friend that many of those who wrote him were “in great need of help and often in great misery,” Lewis felt it a duty and a form of ministry to respond to individual inquirers (3, 109).
Having spent most of his teens and twenties as an atheist, Lewis was especially diligent in replying to readers with theological questions. To one inquirer who asked him “What is a soul?” Lewis answered succinctly, “I am.” Then he added by way of explanation, “A soul is that which can say, I am.” On the question of free will vs. determinism, Lewis agreed that it was indeed an enigma. But he noted that physicists had a similar paradox in trying to find models for light, which seems to behave both as a series of waves and as a stream of particles. Lewis felt that if scientists couldn’t solve basic riddles about the nature of the created universe, then it was only to be expected that there would be even more perplexing questions about its Creator. On the practical level, Lewis suggested that we assume Calvinism for other people, that their characters are fixed beyond our power to change them, while adopting an Arminian approach for ourselves, that we may exercise free will to make better choices (3, 355).
Lewis also devoted a great many letters to practical matters of spiritual formation. To several inquirers he suggested that they adopt an attitude of “cheerful curiosity,” not trying to force themselves to decide whether to believe or disbelieve. To one seeker, Lewis offered the apt analogy of someone rowing a boat. In order to propel the boat properly, you have to face backwards, so you can see is behind you but not what lies before you. Therefore you have to keep your eyes on the Helmsman, as he is the one steering the boat and the one who can see what lies ahead (2, 283).
Lewis’s advice to his correspondents often took the form of quotable epigrams. To a new wife who felt guilty over her mixed emotions about pregnancy, Lewis observed about guilt feelings, “You can’t help their knocking on the door; but you mustn’t ask them in to lunch” (3, 310). To a mother who asked Lewis to write a letter to her troubled daughter, Lewis answered prudently, “I think advice is best kept till it is asked for” (3, 320). On the same subject to the same correspondent, Lewis observed in another letter, “If few can give good advice, fewer still can hear with patience advice either good or bad” (369).
As already seen above, Lewis’s counseling letters often make use of vivid metaphors and analogies. To a friend who was worried that she didn’t have the proper religious feelings to support her convictions, Lewis answered that faith is a matter of intellectual assent supported by obedient action, not a matter of working up devotional feelings. Noting that “we shall proceed to faith only by acting as if we had it,” Lewis offers the analogy of a reluctant swimmer. Even though she may feel that she will go right to the bottom, she knows intellectually that the water will support her, so she should go ahead and dive in (2, 507). To a young man who had to leave Oxford for academic reasons, Lewis offered the comforting thought that life is sometimes like a lumpy bed in a cheap hotel. When you first lie down, you find your situation intolerable and you’re sure that this is no place for rest. But after a bit of wriggling around and pillow-pounding, you do create a comfortable spot and you end up getting a good night’s sleep after all (3, 353).
One reader asked Lewis for a list of Christian books he would recommend for a friend of hers who was struggling emotionally and spiritually. Lewis replied that “where people can resist or ignore arguments, they may be unable to resist lives.” He added that his correspondent herself might be more pivotal in her friend’s spiritual healing than any book he might name. Ultimately, Lewis himself probably succeeded so well as a spiritual “mentor by mail” not so much because of the insights and arguments contained in his letters, but because of the character and the life of the man behind them.
Downing has written four books on C. S. Lewis. He currently serves as a consulting editor for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. His most recent book is A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy (Cumberland Press, 2007). His college website may be found at http://users.etown.edu/d/downindc/)