“The rock was Christ”: St Benedict and C.S. Lewis on Psalm 137

St Benedict, by Fra AngelicoThe Rule of St Benedict is traditionally divided into daily readings, running through the full Rule three times a year. The cycle has just restarted, and the reading for 5 May covers part of the Prologue, in which St Benedict asks the question posed in Psalm 15:

But let us ask the Lord, with the Prophet, “Lord, who shall dwell in Your tent, or who shall rest upon Your holy mountain?”

After quoting the answer given to this question in the psalm, Benedict continues:

This is the one who, under any temptation from the malicious devil, has brought him to naught by casting him and his temptation from the sight of his heart; and who has laid hold of his thoughts while they were still young and dashed them against Christ.

The words I’ve emphasised are what leapt out at me. They are a clear allusion to one of the most shocking passages in the entire Bible, the closing verses of Psalm 137:

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

C.S. Lewis discusses this verse in his book Reflections on the Psalms. “Of the cursing Psalms I suppose most of us make our own moral allegories,” he suggests, and continues:

From this point of view I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting, them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “you owe yourself some consideration”. Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is best. Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done.

I don’t know whether Lewis derived this idea from St Benedict, but what impresses me about St Benedict’s statement is how – inspired, no doubt, by St Paul’s statement that “the rock was Christ” – he goes beyond what could become moralistic self-effort to make a statement that is profoundly Christ-centred. The way to deal with our sinful thoughts and temptations, for Benedict, is not simply to “knock the little bastards’ brains out”, but to knock them out against Christ; that is, by faith.

Bringing hell upon ourselves

Fra Angelico: The Last Judgment (Winged Altar)A subsidiary theme from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope? (see previous post) is that of self-damnation: in other words, the assertion that the hell with which Jesus and the New Testament writers confront me if I persist in rejecting God is one which is brought on myself, rather than something imposed on me by God.

To quote Cardinal Ratzinger again:

Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation.

As an example of how this works, Balthasar then cites C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which “the standpoints of heavenly love and hellish egotism confront each other in some particular context”. Balthasar quotes one of the most memorable of these confrontations:

“I only want my rights”, says the one who approaches from hell. “l’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity,” “Then do”, says the heavenly one. “At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. … You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did.” “ ‘You!’ gasped the Ghost. ‘You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?’ ” (loc. 678)

As another of the Ghosts puts it: “I don’t want help. I want to be left alone.”

Lewis then puts the following in the mouth of George MacDonald, “whom he encounters in the novel, as did Dante his teacher Virgil”. As seen in yesterday’s post, we cannot second-guess God when it comes to the outcome of judgment. To do so is to attempt to both to step out of our status as creatures living within Time, and to imperil human freedom:

every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all the acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. (loc. 690)

As Balthasar observes, with these words:

all those candles of apokatastasis are now blown out with which certain writers — especially Russian ones and certain figures in Dostoevski — tried to enchant us.

Later in his book, Balthasar discusses Maurice Blondel’s rejection of Dante’s description of hell as “the work of primal and highest love”:

[Blondel] rejects in disgust the condemning gesture of Michelangelo’s Christ and refers us instead to Fra Angelico, who depicts Christ, at judgment, as only displaying his wounds: “And at the sight of this, the unrepentant sinners turn away, beating their breasts to indicate that they hold themselves to blame.”

One of Fra Angelico’s paintings of the Last Judgment can be seen at the start of this post.

But again, the final word goes to hope in God’s saving love, even in the face of the warnings which we cannot, must not, set aside:

Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration. (Gustave Martelet S.J., loc. 2191)


The Gospel never presents such a refusal to us as a credible possibility that Jesus could be satisfied to accept. (ibid.)

Remembering Cair Paravel

Cair Paravel

The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember? – from the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“And oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?” There is nothing throwaway about this line. It reflects one of the cornerstones of C.S. Lewis’ theology: the concept of joy, which for Lewis has a technical meaning as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction” (Surprised by Joy, p.20) – or, to put it another way, a deep nostalgia for something you’ve never actually known; a powerful emotional memory of a good you’ve never actually experienced.

In his sermon The Weight of Glory, Lewis describes this as a “desire for our own far-off country”, “the inconsolable secret in each one of you”:

the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.

One way in which we evade the force of this emotion is “to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter”. Or we may follow Wordsworth’s approach, whose “expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past”:

But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.

(“Have you heard it? Can you remember?”)

For Lewis, this emotion of “joy” is a sign that we are made for a “transtemporal, transfinite good”, of which all the good things and good desires of this life are only a faint echo:

they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes how this emotion was stirred up within him as a child by lines from Longfellow’s translation of the Norse sagas:

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead—

He writes:

I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then […] found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Lewis is trying to do for his readers in that line from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

A delightful, horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite post

I enjoyed this letter from C.S. Lewis giving advice on how to write, especially his fourth point:

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

In his collection of essays, The Adding Machine, William Burroughs describes this same tendency with the following (invented but entertaining) example:

“Nothing will ever bring me to reveal what I saw in that infamous crypt…” (where the inventiveness of the writer lies buried).

It’s a good lesson. One I will try to bear in mind.

C.S. Lewis on same-sex marriage. Again.

In the introduction to his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis warns against “spiritualising and refining” the word “Christian” so that it ends up as just a general word of praise for describing someone as a “good person”. Lewis compares this with what happened to “another, and very much less important, word”:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A.

But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?”

They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing.

A similar point can, I think, be made about marriage. It seems to me that at the heart of the case for same-sex marriage is the (sadly rather belated) recognition in society that same-sex relationships can indeed be loving, faithful and committed – as much so as any marriage, and indeed in many cases rather more so than many marriages.

Given the legally-sanctioned odium that has been heaped on same-sex couples in the past, and the continuing prejudice and discrimination that exist today, it’s understandable that people would say “Surely the important thing about a marriage is not the genders of the participants, but their love, faithfulness and commitment to one another? And surely to exclude same-sex couples from marriage is to cast a continuing slur on their love, faithfulness and commitment?”

To which the answer may well be: to be loving, faithful and committed is of course a far better thing than to be merely a man and woman in possession of a marriage certificate. But is being two adults in a loving, faithful and committed relationship the same thing as marriage?

A classic expression of the purposes of marriage can be found in the Book of Common Prayer’s form of solemnization of matrimony. This sets out three reasons why marriage was “ordained”:

  • the procreation of children;
  • sexual fidelity; and
  • for “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” (the BCP’s language here is too lovely to paraphrase!).

I’ve always liked the way the Westminster Confession of Faith (contrary to the Puritans’ gloomy reputation) put “the mutual help of husband and wife” at the top of the list. But however you order it, this reflects an understanding of marriage as having three main components: “mutual society”, consummation, and procreation (or at least the possibility, expectation and hope of procreation). And note that there is nothing specifically “Christian” about this: this is a “natural law”, “common good” definition of marriage.

The government’s proposals for “equal civil marriage” seem to take it for granted that only the first of these components is really essential to marriage. To introduce same-sex marriage is ipso facto to say that procreation is only incidental to marriage rather than essential to it; and the guidance ducks the question of what “consummation” (and, for that matter, “adultery”) would mean in the context of a same-sex marriage, which rather suggests it doesn’t see that as particularly essential to marriage, either.

So under these proposals, marriage will become a social institution in which two adults of any gender express their love, faithfulness and commitment to one another, but without any inherent connection with sex or procreation. It’s hard to see what substantive difference there will then be between marriage and civil partnership.

Maybe, though, conservative opponents of same-sex marriage are hoist with their own petard here – since they have done as much as anyone to make “marriage” not only a descriptive, factual term for a particular type of relationship, but also a term of approbation: “this is the type of relationship we approve of”. So that to say “you cannot be married” cannot be heard at this time in any other way than “we don’t really approve of you”; just as it is difficult for any advocacy of marriage as the principal social structure for the “creation and upbringing of children” not to be experienced as an insult by unmarried couples or single parents.

Which is why the extension of the word (and many of the legal structures of) “marriage” to same-sex couples was almost certainly an inevitable development, to recognise the genuine ability of same-sex relationships to provide the mutual support for which marriage is intended, and the interest of the state in promoting stable relationships. If a way could have been found to achieve this without redefining marriage per se, then I could have supported that; and a more thorough and sincere process of consultation could have considered whether that was feasible. But that’s not what’s on offer.

Incidents and accidents, stars and sacraments

So I was looking at some Lutheran confirmation materials the other day. They were revision notes in a Q&A format, and in the section on the sacrament of the altar there were (as I recall) two questions on the elements in the Supper being the body and blood of Christ, but three questions on the elements still also being bread and wine.

Well, yes, indeed, that’s what we believe, but do we really have to labour the point so much? Surely the interesting bit about the Lord’s Supper is that the elements become the body and blood of Christ, not that they are also still bread and wine. The bread and wine are, so to speak, incidental to the proceedings.

It called to mind the following exchange in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader between Eustace Scrubb and the star, Ramandu:

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”

That’s how I feel about the Lord’s Supper: bread and wine are not what the Supper is, but only what it is made of.

(See also James Alison’s “Magic Eye” analogy and Fr Al Kimel’s “real identification”.)

Note: a couple of responses (here and on Twitter) have made me realise that I need to make one point clearer. When I say that the bread and wine are “incidental”, I’m talking about after their consecration. I am emphatically not saying that it doesn’t matter what elements are brought to the altar in the first place.

Why “ought” we to do anything?

In the early chapters of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis builds up an argument for God’s existence based on our sense of morality: what Lewis calls the “Law of Human Nature”. I don’t propose to look at that argument in this post, but just at one particular point Lewis makes in response to a common objection:

Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the human race as a whole; and that consequently there is no mystery about it. Human beings, after all. have some sense; they see that you cannot have any real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and it is because they can see this that they try to behave decently.

I think an equivalent view today would be that the human moral sense has evolved; that there is (we surmise) a selection advantage in our having mechanisms that lead us to act against our immediate selfish interests.

However, Lewis argues that, while it is true that human society can indeed only exist (let alone flourish) if individuals and nations are “honest and fair and kind to each other”, this “misses the point” as an explanation for our sense of right and wrong:

If we ask: ‘Why ought I to be unselfish?’ and you reply ‘Because it is good for society’ we may then ask, ‘Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?’ and then you will have to say, ‘Because you ought to be unselfish’ – which simply brings us back to where we started.

And Lewis continues:

[I]f a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, ‘in order to benefit society,’ for trying to benefit society, in other words being unselfish (for ‘society’ after all only means ‘other people’), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour. You would have said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, ‘Men ought to be unselfish.’

And that is where I do stop. Men ought to be unselfish; ought to be fair. Not that men are unselfish, not that they like being unselfish, but that they ought to be.

It’s that word “ought” that leaps out at me; that notion of “oughtness”, that our sense of right and wrong corresponds to something external to us, something which has (in some sense) an existence independent of us and which has (in some sense) a claim upon us; that “oughtness” is in some way built into the fabric of reality. Because it’s not simply that we acknowledge that unselfishness (or honesty, or justice, or courage, or any other virtues) are beneficial, but that we experience them as having this sort of claim upon us, of being something we “ought” to do or to be.

Again, no polemics here; I am no doubt being very philosophically naive, and so I am open to enlightenment and correction; but I fail to see how an atheist (or secular humanist, or whatever term you wish to apply) can avoid admitting that “oughtness” in this sense is ultimately an illusion. That to say one “ought” to be unselfish (say) ultimately means nothing more than saying “there is a selection advantage (or some other benefit) for human beings, not only from behaving unselfishly, but from behaving as if to do so were an external moral imperative, something they ‘ought’ to do”. In which case, I don’t see how there is a way out of the circular reasoning identified by Lewis above.

Of course, if there is no external “oughtness” in this sense, then to say “nevertheless, it is beneficial for us to act as if there were” is preferable to nihilism. But in that case I think we’d need to admit that that’s the game we’re playing, and (to go back to my previous post) I think we’d need to be aware of the fact that an “oughtness” that is a useful social construct is likely to be an “oughtness” whose claims are easier to set aside when they become inconvenient to us.

Why bother with personal devotions?

I’m currently re-(re-re-re-…)reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and among the many things that have struck me with fresh force have been Lewis’s thoughts on the value of what we might call “personal devotions”, above all individual prayer and Bible reading.

In the first of two chapters on Faith, Lewis defines the virtue of faith “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods”. He writes (in words that I can identify with a lot):

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

How to do this? Lewis continues:

The first step is to recognise the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious readings and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed.

So that’s the first reason for personal Bible reading and prayer: to ensure that at least some Christian teachings are “deliberately held before your mind for some time every day” (a thought that was enough to rouse me from lethargy on the train this morning and make me get my Bible and office book out, against my slovenly mood). This matters, because:

if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?

A second reason which Lewis gives in Mere Christianity for personal prayer and devotion is more positive. In the chapter “The Three-Personal God”, he writes:

You may ask, ‘If we cannot imagine a three-personal Being, what is the good of talking about Him?’ Well, there isn’t any good talking about Him. The thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life, and that may begin any time – to-night, if you like.

Lewis goes on to describe how, when an “ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers” – and I’ll have to ask you to excuse Lewis’s non-inclusive language – he is praying to God the Father, but at the same time knows that it is God the Holy Spirit within him who is moving him to pray, and that God the Son is standing alongside him, “helping him to pray, praying with him”:

So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life – what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.

So there are two reasons for daily prayer and Bible reading: to remind ourselves of the truths of the Faith so that we don’t drift away from our moorings, and for us to be drawn into the life of the Trinity.

What is the doctrine of the Trinity for?

In a recent BHT post, I mentioned that the doctrine of the Trinity was never a barrier to faith for me, but instead one of the key teachings that drew me back to the Christian faith. This was particularly true of C.S. Lewis’s account of the Trinity in Mere Christianity.

Lewis addresses the Trinity in the fourth part of Mere Christianity, and in particular in the chapter “Good Infection”. He begins by describing the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son:

[W]e must think of the Son always, so to speak, streaming forth from the Father, like light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind. He is the self-expression of the Father—what the Father has to say. And there never was a time when He was not saying it.

However, Lewis continues, the problem here is that “these pictures of light or heat are making it sound as if the Father and Son were two things instead of two Persons”. Hence we should always go back to that personal language of Father and Son that we find in the Bible:

Naturally God knows how to describe Himself much better than we know how to describe Him. He knows that Father and Son is more like the relation between the First and Second Persons than anything else we can think of.

Much the most important thing to know is that it is a relation of love. The Father delights in His Son; the Son looks up to His Father.

This is what Christians mean by saying that “God is love”. Not that “love is God” (which is what some end up meaning by the phrase), but that:

…the living, dynamic activity of love has been going on in God for ever and has created everything else.

So this is the first major consequence of the doctrine of the Trinity for us: it gives us a way to say that “God is love” in a meaningful way.

This transforms our understanding of what God is like:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.

This “kind of dance” is then how we are to understand the Holy Spirit:

The union between the Father and Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. […] What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

Lewis suggests that some people may find it easier to start with this third Person, the Holy Spirit, and work backwards:

God is love, and that love works through men—especially through the whole community of Christians. But this spirit of love is, from all eternity, a love going on between the Father and Son.

I hope by now it’s clear that, for Lewis, the Trinity is no dry dogma on the page; not just a set of abstract nouns to be memorised in the right order. Rather, it goes to the heart of what it is to be a Christian, as Lewis sets out in a passage that, with hindsight, converted me to Christianity as I read it – though it took me a month or two to realise:

And now, what does it all matter? It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.

They are not a sort of prizes which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?

I’ll never forget reading that for the first time and thinking, “If I was going to believe in a God, that’s the sort of God I’d want to believe in”.

So that’s what the doctrine of the Trinity means in practice for us as Christians: that we are to share in the life of Christ, united to him:

If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has—by what I call “good infection.”

This is what we are called to be as Christians; this is what Christians are for:

Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.