The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, April 25, 2008

Enjoyment and Contemplation

C.S. Lewis is often underrated as a thinker. That's partially because of his earliest Christian apologetics, which are marred in places by a certain complaceny and superficial quality (in part engendered by their origin as radio talks during the darkest days of World War II), were and remain so wildly popular. But, with peace and with life experience, his writings deepened steadily in both complexity and compassion.

If you compare
The Problem of Pain (1940) with A Grief Observed (1961), the difference is dramatic. The earlier work is modeled on J.R. Illingworth's contribution to Lux Mundi (1889), also entitled "The Problem of Pain." (Both are also rather progressive in that they address the theological questions posed by the pain of animals). Interestingly, Lewis' book suffers from the same defects as Illingworth's chapter--a certain detachment from the emotionally fraught nature of the subject, a complacency in the face of others' pain, and a rather blase advocacy of stoicism that seems detached from experience.

A Grief Observed, by contrast, presents Lewis' own suffering as it unfolds; its immediacy makes Lewis' gradual drawing of consolation from his faith far more credible, more human, than his earlier, antiseptic treatment of the same topic.

One of Lewis's later works, Surprised by Joy (1955), is deceptively simple. In the course of a readable memoir, taking the young Lewis from childhood through his acceptance of Christianity, Lewis raises, without jargon, critical issues on the spiritual path. Two kernels from the book struck me in rereading it this week.

First, Lewis depicts his own growing anxiety as his prayers became less about praying, and more about watching himself pray, to double check that he was sincere enough, and felt appropriately elevated. Later, the same phenomenon spoiled his reading of Norse and germanic mythology--as he sought the sensation he lost what he calls "Joy"--the aching desire for the transcendent that he experienced through "Northerness" until he fell into the trap of watching himself. In seeking to recreate the thrill, Lewis writes, he forgot that the thrill was not the wave, but teh traces left behind by the wave, and of no value in itself.

Second, Lewis distingishes between enjoyment and contemplation--with enjoyment denoting the exercise of a faculty, such as thought, or love, and contemplation denoting the analysis of the faculty. Again, his point here is that the focusing on oneself, and not the beloved, divides one from the experience of the beloved.

Simple, no? But how many of us in a dry period in our prayer life fall into the trap, and can benefit from Dr. Lewis's prescription--enage the beloved, and let the sensation take care of itself?


Anselm Lewis said...

St. C.S. Lewis was a wonderful man who leaves an example for us all.

Anglocat said...

I don't know about "St."--he certainly never claimed the title, as shown in "A Grief Observed"--but I hope that my post conveyed my affection and admiration for him; I'm a fan.