David C. Downing

R. W. Schlosser Professor of English

Elizabethtown College

Elizabethtown, PA 17022





From Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005)






Christian Mysticism as Lewis Knew It


In all times and places, there have been those who seek to escape the bonds of flesh and ascend to be united with God. In Christian teaching, God descended into flesh in order to make that union possible. This gives a unique character to Christian mysticism, the only religion whose founder is believed to be God himself come to earth and with whom followers may still enter into communion.

Lewis knew the Bible thoroughly and read widely in the tradition of Christian mysticism. His reading was more personal than professional, so he tended to overlook what most scholars would consider major figures such as Meister Eckhart and Hildegarde of Bingen. But he  returned over and over to certain favorites, especially English mystics such as Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich. Lewis’s interest in reported encounters with the Divine extended from the earliest books of the Bible all the way to Christian mystics of his own generation, such as Simone Weil and Sundar Singh.[1]


The Old Testament

The tradition of Christian mysticism finds its roots in passages throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, God reveals himself in a series of theophanies, manifestations to humans such as the burning bush that awed Moses (Ex. 3) or the “still, small voice” that spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19.9-18, KJV). Equally well known is the vision of Isaiah in which he saw the Lord of Hosts attended by seraphs, who cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” These seraphs have three pairs of wings, one to fly, one to cover their feet, and one to hide their faces from His glory. Isaiah thought he was undone, a man of unclean lips, till one of the seraphim touched the prophet’s mouth with a live coal to purge away his sin (Isaiah 6).

In the literature of Christian mysticism, Old Testament theophanies are referred to often, and they provide a great deal of the imagery found in later visionary texts. For Lewis as well, these are among the passages that stood out in his mind, not simply as classic accounts of divine epiphanies, but also as symbols for later believers to describe their experience of God. For example, in Letters to Malcolm he talks about how easily we forget that the world is “big with God,” that “all ground is holy and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush.” He adds that in the highest forms of prayer, one recovers an awareness that “Here is the holy ground; the Bush is burning now.” (Lewis may well have derived this idea from Julian of Norwich, who proclaimed that in her moments of illuminated vision, “every common bush was afire with God.”)

In discussing the impact of the Bible on English literature, Lewis lists Elijah’s discovering God in a “still, small voice” as one of the incidents that will speak most fully to readers who are Christian by conviction or Romantic by temperament. In Miracles Lewis discusses the danger of describing God too pantheistically, as a vast, calm ocean or a dome of radiant light. He notes that those who have approached Him most closely report a “still, small voice,” not a sense of emptiness or a vast silence. He adds that “the stillness in which mystics approach Him is intent and alert,” that “the ultimate Peace is silent through very density of life. Saying is swallowed up in being.”

Lewis offers vivid reworkings of Isaiah’s vision both in his non-fiction and fiction. He ends The Problem of Pain on a soaring note, a rapturous blend of theology and poetry. Having begun the book describing how the vastness of the universe makes humans feel utterly inconsequential, he reinterprets that same vastness at the end as a mystic metaphor of God’s infinite grandeur. He describes God as “the abyss of self-existing Being” beyond anything humans or angels can conceive or imagine: “All thrones and powers and mightiest of the created gods . . . cover their eyes from the intolerable light of utter actuality, which was and is and shall be, which never could have been otherwise, which has no opposite.”  In the closing pages of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader, as the seafarers near the World’s End, they witness a solemn and dramatic ritual in which an old man with a long, silver beard sings to the rising sun. Thousands of great, white birds fly out from the direction of the dawn, and one places a glowing berry, like a live coal, in the old man’s mouth. He is Ramandu, a once and future star, who will rejoin the “great dance” of the cosmos once the fire-berries he tastes every morning have given him back his youth. In this numinous episode, Lewis calls to mind Isaiah’s vision of a seraphim who touches the prophet’s lips with a live ember in order to make him whole.

Apart from Old Testament passages which portray God in terms of His sovereignty and majesty, mystics down the ages have also cherished those books which most fully express a deep personal longing for God. Not surprisingly, passages from the Psalms appear more often than any other book of the Bible in mystical texts. (Psalms is also the one book of the Bible to which Lewis devoted an entire monograph, Reflections on the Psalms.)

Perhaps more surprising are the frequent references in mystical literature to the Song of Songs. Though the love poetry found in that book is not mystical in itself, it has been read since the time of the early Church Fathers as an allegory of the soul’s relation to God. One of the most oft-quoted phrases from the Song of Songs is taken from chapter 5, verse 2: “I sleep, but my heart waketh” (KJV). In the third century after Christ, Origen interpreted the phrase symbolically: even when our minds are upon earthly things, the “spark of the soul” seeks and longs for the things of heaven.

Of course, Lewis was well acquainted with this tradition. Once when a friend and former student of his, Martin Moynihan, said he was having trouble reading a Latin inscription on a grave which began, “Ego dormio,” Lewis completed the phrase, “Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat.” He translated it to mean, “I sleep, but my heart watcheth,” and explained the context from the Song of Songs.  Moynihan later wrote that those same words might serve as a fitting epitaph for Lewis himself: the Latin phrase may also be translated, “I sleep, but my soul wakes.”


The New Testament

The earliest documents of the Christian church were written by a mystic: they are the letters of the apostle Paul. St. Paul based his apostolic authority not on having encountered Jesus in the flesh, but rather on the road to Damascus. And he seemed to wish that every Christian could have the same interior sense of the love of God “that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3. 19).

Technically speaking, Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was more a theophany, a physical manifestation, than a vision, since all three accounts in the chapter of Acts note that others in Paul’s traveling party saw a great light or heard a sound, though only he heard the words Jesus spoke. (Acts 9.3-8; 22.6-10; 26.12-17.) Evelyn Underhill interprets Jesus’ words to Paul--“It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14)-- to mean that Paul’s spirit was already in turmoil before his experience on the road. Underhill speculates that when Paul saw Stephen stoned and heard him say the heavens opened and he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father (Acts 7.55), Paul may have felt that, for all his brutal zeal, his faith was missing something glorious and elemental. As Augustine observed, “If Stephen had not prayed, the Church might not have gained Paul.”

Apart from his experience on the road to Damascus, Paul also speaks of a mystical ascent into “the third heaven,” whether in the body or out of it he did not know, where he heard inexpressible things which he is not permitted to tell. (2. Cor. 12. 1-10). Paul seems to have broached this topic reluctantly. He speaks of his experience in the third person and moves quickly from his “surpassingly great revelations” (12.7) to his own weakness. In trying to defend himself against false apostles, Paul brings up financial accountability, his Jewish credentials, and his sufferings for Christ before mentioning his ascent into paradise. Some scholars believe that Paul didn’t dwell on his mystical experience because he knew how easily a craving for signs and wonders can get in the way of one’s true life in Christ. As Paul told those same Corinthians, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (I Cor. 13.2).

Yet Paul did not consider his revelations a kind of spiritual accessory, but rather the very foundation of his ministry. He told the Galatians that the gospel he preached was not taught him by any man, but received by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1. 1, 11-12). And he asked the Corinthians bluntly, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). Paul’s unshakeable confidence in the gospel he had received lent him a sort of fierce tenderness toward those he sought to establish in faith. It also gave him an utter fearlessness, even in the presence of those who held his life in their hands. When he appeared before the magistrates Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26), the latter offered a jaded remark about how Paul seemed to be using a judicial hearing as chance to make some new converts. Paul was not daunted, nor did he disagree: “I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am—except for these chains.” (26.29).

Where some readers might find Paul’s epistles “inspirational” in the generic sense of providing moral uplift, mystical interpreters take his words at face value. For example, when Paul writes, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us," (Rom 5.5, RSV), the words, perhaps dulled by over-familiarity, sound like the kind of rhetorical flourish one hears in church services. But for Christian mystics down the ages, this is a promise that may be taken quite literally. As Evelyn Underhill puts it, "Grace, for Paul, was no theological abstraction, but an actual, inflowing energy, which makes possible man's transition from the natural to the spiritual state." And C. S. Lewis observed that, in some of the more baffling passages in Scripture, “God speaks not only for us little ones, but also to great sages and mystics who experience what we only read about and to whom all the words have therefore different, richer contents.”

Though scores of Pauline passages have been incorporated into mystical texts, Bernard McGinn, a leading contemporary authority, identifies 2 Corinthians 3:18 as “one of the most important passages in the history of Christian mysticism.”  In that verse Paul writes, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” McGinn explains that the Greek word translated “reflect” above (katoptizomenoi) also means “contemplate” or even “gaze upon.” The verse can be taken to mean that those who contemplate Christ most deeply will come to reflect His nature most fully. As Evelyn Underhill paraphrases this teaching, “He who has seen the Perfect wants to be perfect too.”

Lewis interpreted this verse to mean that “a Christian is to Christ as a mirror is to an object.”  In the same passage, he concludes that “in the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation.” Spiritual growth as an art of mirroring Christ is one of the most frequently used metaphors in the literature of Christian mysticism. One finds the image in the anonymous 13th century “Mirror of Simple Souls” and, most especially, in John of the Cross and in Dante. Lewis singled out The Paradiso for its ingenious use of mirror imagery and he often resorted to such imagery himself. In The Four Loves, for example, he notes how hard it is to be truly humble, how we assume our good traits come from some “native luminosity” of our own. He concludes “it is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realise for long that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.” Writing in a similar vein in Mere Christianity, Lewis says that Christian faith may seem at first to be all about “duties and rules and guilt and virtue.” But there are those whose spiritual walk have carried them to a whole other country, where sanctity is not about minding one’s morals, but about being filled with “goodness as a mirror is filled with light.” Lewis adds that these people do not even dwell upon “goodness” as such; they are “too busy looking at the source from which it comes.”

Apart from Paul, the New Testament writer whom Lewis echoes most often is St. John, for whom love is also the great theme. Christian mystics quote John’s Gospel more than any other, for its prologue about the Word become flesh, and for Jesus’ I AM declarations, in which He explains to others that He Himself is the Gift they are seeking, not secondary benefits such as bread or water or a place of honor in the kingdom.

The book of Revelation, the most extended vision recorded in Scripture, has had less influence on later mystical literature than might be expected. The book’s tightly-woven symbolism and its apocalyptic message seem less congenial to the mystical mind than other texts which emphasize a sense of joyous participation in the divine life. Revelation, with its new heaven and new earth, provides the framework for the Narnian apocalypse, as recounted in The Last Battle. But most of Lewis’s borrowings from books attributed to John are less explicit. A typical example comes at the end of Letters to Malcolm where Lewis speculates about the resurrection life, a time when some unfathomed darkness and silence are broken by the dawn of a new day—with birds singing, waters flowing, and “the faces of friends [which] laugh upon us with amazed recognition.” He is quick to add that this is only a guess, of course. But if not this, then something better: “For we know that we shall be made like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” [I John 3:2.]


Early Christian Martyrs

In the first two centuries of the Church’s life, “laying down one’s life for Christ” was seldom seen as simply a metaphor of self-denial. As Lewis observed, “Martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.”

Stephen’s mystical vision just before his martyrdom, as recorded in Acts, chapter seven, establishes a pattern repeated often during the early centuries of the Church’s life. No account has survived of the death of Ignatius (50?-110?),  bishop of Antioch, but it is known that  he was thrown to wild beasts in the Roman Coliseum during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. Shortly before his death, Ignatius wrote seven letters to Christian communities under his care, letters that brim with mystical feeling. To the Church at Trallia, Ignatius wrote, “I am in chains and able to comprehend heavenly things and the angelic ranks and orderings of principalities, things visible and invisible.” But then he quickly adds, “Nevertheless I am not for this reason a disciple,” suggesting, like Paul, that transcendent love is greater than transcendent knowledge.  To the Romans, Ignatius wrote that he was God’s wheat, and that once he had been ground by the teeth of wild beasts, he hoped to be found “Christ’s pure bread.”  He asked others not to try to intervene on his behalf, feeling with Paul that to die is gain: “My birth is eminent. Forgive me, brethren; do not prevent me from coming to life.”

Another early martyr was Polycarp (69?-155?), bishop of Smyrna, who may have been appointed to that office by the apostle John.  Polycarp was in his 80s when a persecution against Christians broke out in Smyrna and he took refuge at a farm outside the city. There he saw a vision of his bed engulfed in fire, which he took as a sign that he would be burned at the stake. When he was arrested and brought before the Roman proconsul, Polycarp heard a voice urging him to be of good courage. Urged by Roman officials to deny Christ and swear an oath to Caesar, Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years have I been his servant and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”  Polycarp was then tied to a stake, praying aloud as the flames rose around him.

It  is reported that other martyrs enjoyed a mystical insensibility to pain at the time of their deaths. One Carpus, killed under emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161-180), laughed after being nailed to a cross. When asked the reason, he explained, “I saw the glory of the Lord and I was glad.”

Lewis’s friend Charles Williams was particularly moved by the witness of a third-century martyr, Felicita, and he recorded her story in The Descent of the Dove (1939).  In 203 Felicita, eight months pregnant, was arrested in Carthage, north Africa, during the reign of Septimus Severus. She gave birth while in prison awaiting execution, screaming in agony during the delivery. When the guards asked her how she expected to face wild beasts when she could barely endure the pangs of childbirth, she answered: “Now it is I who suffer what I suffer. But then another will suffer with me, because I am to suffer for him.” Felicita was taken to the arena with her young friend Perpetua, who also had a small child. The two seemed to steady each other, as Perpetua told of a dream she had had of a golden ladder reaching to heaven, and a voice from above saying calmly, “Welcome, child.”

Felicita and Perpetua gave their babies to Christian friends and then entered the arena together. It is said that the wild animals were strangely passive and refused to attack. The noble bearing of the two young women won the sympathy of the crowd, who cried out that they should be spared. Even when soldiers came out under orders and struck them down with swords, Perpetua and Felicita accepted their fate calmly, almost contentedly, as if they knew their names taken together mean “Everlasting Gladness.”


Clement and Origen

Two early Church Fathers who wrote about mystical elements of their faith were Clement of Alexandria (150?-215?)  and Origen (c. 185-254). Clement, who fled Alexandria during the same persecution in which Felicita and Perpetua were martyred, wrote Stromateis (“patchwork”) a loosely-ordered collection of essays on faith and knowledge. Clement wrote to explain Christian doctrines to hellenistic readers, particularly Stoics and Gnostics, trying to show that Christianity was the fulfillment of their own highest religious ideals. Clement was the first to describe what came to be known as the Mystic Way, the threefold pattern of purification, illumination, and union. Clement defined prayer as “converse with God,” something which he felt should be continuous and should permeate one’s whole life.

Origen, also of Alexandria, was one of the first to read the Bible allegorically. His Commentary on the Song of Songs interprets that book as an image of the soul in relation to God. Origen calls the purgative stage “the winter of the soul,” to be followed by a springtime of illumination for those able to put away earthly things. Origen taught that just as the body has five senses, so too does the soul. The soul’s inner eye can see visions and its inner ear can hear inaudible voices. It also has a sense of smell to enjoy the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2.15), a sense of taste for the “bread of life,” and a sense of touch to be able, like John, to grasp the “Word of life” (1 Jn 1:1). Origen did not use these terms metaphorically or see them as extensions of the imagination. Rather he felt that the soul had its own organs with which to acquire spiritual knowledge. These ideas had tremendous influence on later mystical writers, as did Origen’s term “the wound of love” to describe the intense longing of the soul-bride for Christ the bridegroom.

Origen is sometimes considered one of the Church’s earliest heretics, because of his interest in the idea of universal salvation. In his treatise “First Principles,” Origen speculated that all evil must eventually yield to the overpowering love of God. He argued that, on some final day, all fallen humans--and even fallen angels--might well surrender their wills to God. Origen went so far as to picture Lucifer himself bowing his head before the Father, the last of all prodigal sons to find his way home.



Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a bishop in north Africa, a theologian of the first rank, and creator of a new genre, the autobiography. He was by far the most influential of the “Latin Fathers” of the Church. Augustine was probably a Berber by nationality, the son of a pagan father, Patricius, and a devout Christian mother, Monica. The young Augustine was a brilliant student and, at the age of seventeen, he was sent to Carthage to study philosophy and rhetoric. While he was there, Augustine took a mistress who stayed with him thirteen years and bore him a son. For nine years Augustine followed Manicheism, a dualistic philosophy emphasizing the eternal struggle of light and darkness. Eventually, he became disillusioned with Manicheism and began studying the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, a philosophy emphasizing a transcendent, impersonal One from which all things emanate. This One is above both Mind (Nous) and Nature (Physis) and can only be approached through mystical contemplation.

In 383 Augustine traveled to Rome, eventually taking a position as professor of rhetoric in Milan, in northern Italy. At that time the bishop of Milan was Ambrose, whose Christian teachings greatly stirred Augustine’s heart. In the Incarnation, Augustine found a doctrine of God reaching down to redeem the material world that he had not encountered before, either in Manicheism or Neoplatonism. As he struggled to sort out his beliefs and feelings, Augustine became highly agitated, even to the point of tears. One voice inside him was urging him toward faith: “Be not afraid. He will not withdraw and let you fall. Throw yourself down safely; he will receive and heal you.” But another voice asked him if he really thought he could give up all the earthly pleasures to which he was accustomed.

The crisis came as he was sitting in a garden and heard the singsong voice of a child, saying “Take and read. Take and read.” Before him were the Epistles of St. Paul, which he took up and opened at random. There he read Romans 13.13, about behaving decently, as in the daytime, avoiding sexual immorality and debauchery. Augustine says he did not need to read any further, for he knew it was time to become a Christian. He told his mother Monica, who had come to live with him in Italy, and was baptized by Ambrose during Easter week in 387.

Later that same year, while they were in Ostia, the port city of Rome, Augustine and his mother were talking about how no earthly delights could compare to the joys of heaven. As they earnestly discussed these matters, they were caught up in a moment of transport vividly described in the Confessions:

“Then with our affections burning still more strongly toward the Selfsame [God], we raised ourselves higher and step by step passed over all material things, even the heaven itself from which the sun and moon and stars shine down upon the earth. And still we went upward, meditating and speaking, and looking with wonder at your works, and we came to our own souls, and we went beyond our souls to that region of neverfailing plenty […] where life is that Wisdom by whom all things are made. [ . . . ] And as we talked, yearning towards this Wisdom, we did, with the whole strength of our hearts’ impulse, just lightly come into touch with her. And we sighed and left bound there the first fruits of the Spirit, returning to the sounds made by our mouths, where a word has a beginning and an ending.

This famous passage from the Confessions is remarkable in several respects. It is the earliest account of the actual stages of mystical transport: from contemplation, to a sense of leaving behind the material world, to entering the quiet sanctuary of one’s own soul, to momentarily glimpsing Eternal Truth. Augustine’s description is typical in that the rapturous experience is transitory and that it seems to occur in distinct stages. But the account is also highly unusual in that it seems to occur communally, not individually, and that one of those caught up is both uneducated and a woman. In the mystery religions of the ancient world, someone like Augustine’s mother, however devout, would not be an “initiate” and would not be considered qualified for mystical experiences.

Monica died soon after the memorable event at Ostia, secure in the knowledge that the son for whom she had prayed for decades had now become a Christian. Four years later Augustine returned to North Africa, where he became a priest and founded a monastic community. In 395 he was consecrated as the Bishop of Hippo Regius, and spent the last 35 years of his life overseeing the churches in his care, traveling widely, and writing over 100 books and 800 sermons. Augustine died in 430, at the age of 76, with Vandals besieging his episcopal city, and Christianity falling into eclipse in North Africa.

Though Augustine was called “the Prince of Mystics” by church historian Dom Cuthbert Butler, others have questioned whether he should be considered a mystic at all, since he did not dwell on union with God, but only on brief glimpses of Eternal Wisdom. Bernard McGinn considers this debate a “dialog of the deaf,” essentially a matter of how one defines terms. In a broad survey of Augustine’s writings, from classic works such as Confessions and The City of God to little-known homilies and letters, McGinn concludes that Augustine’s ardent Christian faith was indeed rooted in personal experiences of the divine presence in his life. McGinn notes passages like this one in the Confessions, in which the Bishop, like the Psalmist, addresses God directly:

 “I entered into my inmost parts with you leading me on. I entered and saw with my soul’s eye (such as it was) an unchanging Light above that same soul’s eye, above my mind. . . . He who knows truth knows that light, and he who knows it knows eternity. Love knows it. O Eternal Truth and True Love and Beloved Eternity! You are my God, to you I sigh day and night.”


Augustine also spoke of “seeing God invisibly” and of enjoying “the presence of the face of God.” He was also the first to distinguish between three kinds of visions, a distinction that became standard among later Christian mystics. Augustine believed that sensory visions, things seen with the eyes or heard with the ears, were of the lowest type and could easily be deceptions or illusions. Above these he placed imaginative visions, in which divine truth is communicated through images in the mind’s eye or a voice heard within. Highest of all were intellectual visions, truths which are manifested directly to one’s soul without the mediation of any imagery, from without or within.

Augustine was easily the most influential of the early Church Fathers and his influence was certainly not lost on C. S. Lewis. Lewis called him a “great saint and a great thinker to whom my own glad debts are incalculable.” Lewis refers to Augustine in a dozen of his books, focusing most often on the Latin Father’s interpretation of Adam’s fall as the sin of pride, and upon his definition of evil as the absence of good, not its opposite. Apart from acknowledging Augustine’s major contributions as a theologian, Lewis also identified personally with Augustine as an adult convert. (Both became Christians in their early thirties.) Lewis recommended The Confessions to new Christians, not only as a spiritual autobiography, but also as a rich stimulus for personal devotion and meditation. In Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis’s spiritual allegory with strong autobiographical overtones, the climactic scene of the young pilgrim’s conversion is titled Securus Te Projice, "Throw yourself down safely." This is the phrase Augustine reports having heard just before his own plunge into Christian faith.

Lewis seemed to return most often to passages in Augustine which express a sense of spiritual inadequacy, a desire to enlarge one’s capacity to experience the fullness of God. In describing his conception of God’s glory, Lewis refers to a famous passage in The Confessions: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. You were with me, and I was not with you. . . . Those outer beauties kept me far from you, yet if they had not been in you they would not have existed at all. You called, you cried out you shattered my deafness: you flashed, you shone, you scattered my blindness. . . . You touched me and I burned for your peace.” Lewis also identified with Augustine’s plea to God to make his soul a fitting vessel: “The house of my soul is too small for you to come into it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins; restore it.”

In Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces , the protagonist, Queen Orual, recognizes late in life that all her bitter complaints against the gods have been refusals to take responsibility for her own choices. In a moment of epiphany she explains, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. . . . Why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” For readers who know Lewis’s devotion to The Confessions, it is hard to read this passage without hearing an echo of Augustine’s cry of searing self-recognition: “And where was I when I was seeking you? You were there in front of me; but I had gone away-- even from myself. I could not find myself, much less find you.”

One of the most famous sayings of Augustine, quoted by Lewis in the closing pages of The Four Loves, could serve as the epigraph for both men’s lives: “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart can find no rest till it rests in Thee.”


The “Negative Theology” of Gregory of Nyssa  and Pseudo-Dionysius

Gregory of Nyssa (331?-395?), was a theologian and bishop of Cappadocia, in Asia Minor. Gregory was the first Christian author to describe the spiritual life as a mountain ascent, borrowing the image perhaps from a commentary on Moses by the Jewish philosopher Philo (20? B. C.-50? A. D.) Gregory taught that the soul’s journey took it from darkness (sin and ignorance) to light (understanding) and thence back to darkness (a deeper sense of the ineffable mysteries of God.) He believed that the human soul, created in the image of God, was more beautiful than the sun or moon or stars, a mirror “of the Nature that is above every intelligence,” a likeness of “the imperishable beauty.” Though Gregory emphasized that the fullness of God can never be grasped in this life, he taught that the soul, even in the “darkness” of imperfect faith, was nourished by the sacraments and guided by Church teaching, so that it continually ascends towards the summit which awaits beyond the clouded slope.

The sixth-century treatise Mystical Theology was long attributed to “Dionysius the Aeropagite,” assumed to be St. Paul’s disciple mentioned in Acts 17:34. After it was shown that this text was influenced by several early Church Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa, the anonymous author, perhaps a Syrian monk, became known as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” Though he wrote three surviving treatises of positive (cataphatic) theology, explaining what can be affirmed about God, Pseudo-Dionysius is best known for the Mystical Theology, which strongly emphasizes the incomprehensibility of the Deity, taking the via negativa of describing God by what he is not. The prolog of the book, titled “The Divine Dark,” sets the tone for the brief, 5-chapter treatise:

O Trinity

beyond essence and beyond divinity and beyond goodness

guide of Christians in divine wisdom,

direct us towards mysticism’s heights

beyond unknowing beyond light beyond limit,

there where the unmixed and unfettered and unchangeable

mysteries of theology

in the dazzling dark of the welcoming silence

lie hidden, in the intensity of their darkness

all brilliance outshining, our intellects overwhelming,

with the intangible and invisible and illimitable:

Such is my prayer.

Mystical Theology was extremely influential in the Middle Ages, partly because it was thought to come from an associate of the apostle Paul’s and partly because it so eloquently expressed the insufficiency of intellect to plumb the depths of the Divine nature. C. S. Lewis discussed Pseudo-Dionysius in The Discarded Image, though his interest there was primarily in the other treatises with more positive assertions about the celestial order. But Lewis was keenly aware of the problems posed in trying to make positive assertions about a Being who entirely transcends our intellectual grasp. Lewis sounds a bit like Pseudo-Dionysius himself when he argues in Miracles that "the burning and undimensioned depth of the Divine Life" is "unconditioned and unimaginable, transcending discursive thought.” Yet ultimately Lewis  resigns himself to the fact that we must at least resort to metaphors and approximations, lest negative theology collapse into something almost like agnosticism. (See chapter six.)


Mysticism of the  Medieval period

After several centuries of cultural upheaval from which few records survive, texts produced by Christian mystics began to re-emerge in the twelfth century. The dominant figure of that period, both as a mystic and Church leader, is Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153). Though of noble birth, Bernard took orders as a Cistercian monk in his early twenties, founding a new abbey at Clairvaux, in northeastern France, when he was only 25 years of age. Bernard was a forceful and charismatic young man, and most of his brothers, plus an uncle and two dozen other young men joined him at Clairvaux soon after the founding of the new abbey. Despite his frail health, Bernard was active in politics all his life, speaking out against persecution of  Jews, and taking part in all the theological controversies of his day. Though he could be blunt and obstinate in debate, Bernard was considered a visionary and an idealist, and was once called “the conscience of all Europe.”

While still a child, Bernard had a dream vision of Mary and the Holy Child that he remembered all his life. Later his writings would eloquently extol Mary as the mother of God. Bernard also urged his readers to imitate the humility of the Christ child in the manger, “that the great God may not have become a little man without cause.”

Bernard is most famous for his sermons on the Song of Songs and his identification of Christ as the Bridegroom or “Word-Spouse.” Bernard favored the metaphor of spiritual marriage because it conveyed the idea of union, not as a pantheistic merging of essences, but rather as a “communion of wills and an agreement in charity.”

Bernard was quite forthright in describing his own mystical experiences, which he described as visits from Christ the bridegroom:

So when the Bridegroom, the Word, came to me, he never made known his coming by any signs, not by sight, not by sound, not by touch. . . . Only by the movements of my heart did I perceive his presence. And I knew the power of his might because my faults were put to flight and my human yearnings brought into subjection. I have marveled at the depth of his wisdom when my secret faults have been revealed and made visible. . . In the renewal and remaking of the spirit of my mind, that is of my inmost being, I have perceived the excellence of his glorious beauty. And when I contemplate all these things I am filled with awe and wonder at his manifold greatness.”

Like most mystics, Bernard stresses the transitory quality of these sublime moments: “O how rare is the hour and how brief its stay.” Yet he does not describe mystical ecstasy in terms of high excitation, but rather as a state of profound repose: “[The visit to my soul] terrifies not; it soothes; it excites no restless curiosity, but it calms, nor does it fatigue the senses but tranquilizes them. The tranquil God tranquilizes all things, and to behold him is to rest.”

Bernard’s mystical reveries sometimes took the form of song. One of his most popular hymns, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” is still sung in churches every Sunday, eight centuries after Bernard first offered up these exultant words of praise:

Jesus, the very thought of thee

With sweetness fills my breast;

But sweeter far thy face to see,

And in thy presence rest.


O hope of every contrite heart,

O joy of all the meek,

To those who fall, how kind thou art!

How good to those who seek!


But what to those who find? Ah, this

Nor pen nor tongue can show;

The love of Jesus, what it is,

None but his loved ones know.


Jesus, our only joy be thou,

As thou our prize will be;

Jesus, be thou our glory now,

And through eternity.    (trans. By Edward Caswall, 1849.)



 C. S. Lewis referred to Bernard of Clairvaux as one of the “great spiritual writers” of the Middle Ages. In Allegory of Love he cited a French study, La Théologie Mystique de St. Bernard, which discusses the widespread influence of Bernard’s thought upon medieval spirituality and culture. It is most likely Bernard’s celebration of the soul’s spiritual marriage with Christ that called forth Lewis’s defense in his essay “Transposition” of the need to take metaphors from everyday life to describe the nuances of spiritual experience.

Lewis owned a biography of Bernard by Bruno S. James, and it is interesting to note which sentences he underlined. On the one hand, he underscored a sentence about Bernard’s speaking out against persecution of the Jews. On the other hand, Lewis also marked a sentence in the book observing that “one of the many endearing and human traits in the character of Bernard was that he could never see any good in his enemies.”

The most well known saint of the next century after Bernard was Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), also a mystic and also the founder of a new Church order. Francis’ career is briefly discussed in chapter two. In a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis called Francis one of the “shining examples of human holiness.”  Lewis was drawn to Francis’ gentle spirit and profound love of nature; he also commended Francis’ view of the human body. Unlike epicureans who would exalt bodily pleasure and comfort above all else or ascetics who treated their own bodies as vile and unspiritual, Francis simply called his body “Brother Ass,” a faithful if lowly and somewhat laughable servant. Lewis enjoyed the metaphor so much that he sometimes whimsically signed his own letters “Bro. Ass.”

Francis of Assisi died in 1226, the same year in which Thomas Aquinas was born, though the latter was a very different sort of personality. Thomas is famous for his systematizing intellect, best exhibited in his Summa Theologica, a treatise that is still considered a doctrinal cornerstone for the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. As its title suggests, Thomas’ monumental work offers a “summary of all theology,” combining classical logic with Christian revelation, drawing widely upon Aristotle, Augustine, Albertus Magnus, and scores of other writers and thinkers. More than seven centuries after it was written, the Summa is still considered one of the great intellectual achievements of Western civilization.

Yet Thomas, certainly one of the most scholastic and rationalistic of Christian thinkers, had a mystical side. In 1272, about two years before his death, Thomas had an extraordinary experience during a service of Mass, after which he discontinued work on his still unfinished Summa. When urged to return to his life’s great project, he answered that what he had seen made everything he had written seem to be made of straw. Thomas never returned to his theological work, and it was completed by his pupil, Reginald of Piperno, from the outlines and notes he left behind.

Lewis discusses Thomas as a systematic theologian in several scholarly books, referring to him over a dozen times in The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image alone. But Lewis also remembered the mysterious episode that occurred near the end of Thomas’s life. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis observes that the great ideal in prayer is to speak to God as he really is from the depths of ourselves, as we really are, without pretensions or evasions. Lewis concludes: “The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking, ‘But I never knew before, I never dreamed . . .’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’”

Two of the mystics Lewis read most often, and talked about with the greatest warmth and affection, were from his own country, the 14th century English writers Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich. Lewis included both Hilton’s Scale of Perfection and Lady Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love on his short list of “great Christian books.” He also considered both authors to be more elegant writers than Sir Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons” and author of Utopia (1516), often praised for his polished prose.

Hilton, the canon of a Midlands priory, is discussed in chapter three. Lady Julian (1342-c. 1423) was an anchoress, someone who lived permanently in rooms adjoining a church, at the parish church of St. Julian at Conisford in Norwich. (Julian took her name from the church, so her actual birth name is unknown. Sometimes she is referred to as Lady Julian or Juliana.) As a young woman, Julian had prayed she could share in the sufferings of Christ, even to the point of dying at an early age. At the age of 30, she seemed to get her wish, as she fell into a severe illness, losing all feeling in her legs and thought to be near death. As she was receiving last rites, she saw a vision of Christ crucified, followed soon afterwards by fifteen more visions. Recovering completely, she wrote a short account of her “showings,” as she called them, soon after the experience. Twenty years later she wrote a book recounting each vision and meditating more fully on its doctrinal significance. This longer book, usually called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known book written in English by a woman.

The most well known of Julian’s visions is one in which Christ placed something round in her hand the size of a hazelnut. She gazes at the tiny and fragile ball, wondering what it is and marveling that it doesn’t fall to pieces. Then she understands that the frail little bauble in her hand is “all that is made,” the entirety of the physical universe. In another vision, Christ reassures Julian, that despite all indications to the contrary, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” This was a bold and optimistic assertion in 14th century England, the era of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Peasants Revolt. But Julian’s visions provided her with a profoundly positive outlook, based on her vivid sense of God’s nurturing love. Julian felt this quality so strongly that she referred to Christ as “our true Mother” and talked about motherhood as one of the characteristics of the Trinity.

Julian’s visions made a deep impression on Lewis, and he refers to her in half a dozen of his books. In an letter written in 1940 to his friend Sister Penelope, he spends more than a page talking about Julian’s vision of holding the whole universe in the palm of her hand and of Christ’s reassurances that “All shall be well.” He thought it just the right balance to say that the material world is not evil, as the Manicheans taught, but merely little. He particularly enjoyed the “dream twist” of describing the whole created universe as “so small it might fall to bits.” Lewis concluded his sermon “Miracles” with Julian’s vision of the hazelnut and referred to it again in The Four Loves as a vivid image to help Christians understand how far beneath the majesty of God are even the most magnificent things in his created order. Lewis quoted Julian on Christ’s reassurance that “All shall be well” in The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, and again in his essay “Psalms,” collected in Christian Reflections. Clearly, Julian is sort of person Lewis had in mind when he described mysticism (in the same paragraph where he discusses the hazelnut vision) as “wonderful foretastes of the fruition of God vouchsafed to some in their earthly life.”

Another 14th-century text which Lewis knew well and recommended for meditative reading is the Theologica Germanica, or “German Theology.” Written by someone identified simply as a “man from Frankfurt,” the Theologica teaches that the great drama of life is the struggle between God’s will and self-will, between what it calls "Godhood" and "I-hood." God is, by his very nature, self-giving, self-emptying, even to the point of descending into human flesh and dying on a cross. Humans by nature are just the opposite; we are almost literally "full of ourselves." We think that happiness lies in expanding the realm of our I-hood, argues the Theologica, when it actually lies in the exact opposite direction, partaking more and more of the Divine Nature, and being freed from our own selfish natures. This process is “The Mystical Way,” a deliberate regimen of purgation, illumination, and eventual soul-communion with God.

The Theologica frequently treats heaven and hell as states of the soul long before they become places of eternal reward or punishment. According to this text, the devil cast himself out of heaven when he began claiming things for himself, in a greedy spirit of “I, and Me and Mine.” Adam made the same mistake in the Garden, grasping the forbidden fruit with that same possessive, self-willed spirit of “I, Me, and Mine.” For the Theologica, the love of money is only one expression of a deeper root of all evil: “Hell is nothing but self-will; if there were no self-will, there would be no devil and no hell.”

The Theologica was especially influential in the German Reformation. Martin Luther said that, after the Bible and the writings of Augustine, this text is the one that most influenced his thinking. Lewis too acknowledged his debts to the Theologica. In discussing the proper relation between Christianity and secular learning, Lewis cites the Theologica  as one of his Christian authorities, along with the New Testament, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Milton, and John Henry Newman. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis quotes twice from the Theologica, once on the natural self’s horror at submitting to a life in Christ,  and once on loving God simply for his goodness, not out of longing for rewards or fear of punishment.


Post-Reformation Mystics

It is generally acknowledged that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century brought about a decline in Christian mysticism, both because of its rejection of monastic institutions and also  its emphasis upon a more fully rationalized theology. Though Lewis grew up in the north of Ireland, where the relations between Catholics and Protestants have generally been strained, he was determined after his conversion to be a “mere Christian,” someone who sought to learn from all those respected for their mature faith. Thus, in Lewis’s books and letters, he refers to and recommends texts by Roman Catholic mystics such as Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, and Blaise Pascal along with those by the Protestant authors one would expect a devout Anglican to be reading. Two mystics of the Catholic Reformation (Counter-Reformation) whom he seems to have benefited from the most were the Spaniard John of the Cross and the French abbot Francis de Sales.

John of the Cross (1542-1591) was born as Juan de Yepes near Avila, Spain. Though his parents were too poor to send him to school, his intellectual gifts and spiritual earnestness were evident even in childhood, and a well-to-do local patron paid for his education at Jesuit schools and his university training at Salamanca. John took the name John of the Cross at the time of his ordination in 1567, and soon afterwards he met Teresa of Avila, an encounter which changed the course of his life.

Teresa, then 52, had taken holy orders as young woman, but did not emerge as a mystical personality until she was in her forties, when she began reporting visions, locutions, and even experiences of bodily levitation. In 1562 Teresa was given permission to establish a new order of Reformed Carmelite nuns. The Carmelites had originated in the 12th century as an order of hermits living at the foot of Mount Carmel in Palestine, where Elijah had called down fire upon his altar to the Lord. By Teresa’s time, the Carmelites had become relaxed in their spiritual disciplines and indulgent in their style of living. She established the reformed order, called the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites, to return to the simplicity and spiritual rigor of the original Order. Teresa founded houses for her new order all over Spain, often against great opposition from the more worldly Carmelites.

When Teresa met John of the Cross, they agreed he should begin a similar reformed Carmelite order for men. When he began to undertake this project, however, opposition was so fierce John was actually kidnapped and held captive for eight months. While imprisoned, John was flogged, starved, and denied the sacraments. This experience left John feeling he had been utterly stripped of everything except his faith in God. He wrote mystical poetry on scraps of paper in his cramped cell (the broom closet of a monastery) which formed the basis of his later mystical treatises after he escaped his captors and resumed his position as spiritual director in one of the Reformed Carmelite houses.

Apart from his poetry, still considered some of the finest written in Spanish, John of the Cross is now best known for his two-part treatise The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. In these two books John offers a detailed exploration of the spiritual itinerary of purgation, illumination and union. His writing is often poetic and paradoxical, a return to the tradition of “via negativa” of Gregory of Nyssa and Pseudo-Dionysius (whose writings John had studied.) For example, John offered this advice to new pilgrims just beginning their journey up Mount Carmel:


To enjoy what you have not

You must go by a way you enjoy not;

To find the knowledge you have not

You must go by a way you know not;

To become what you are not

You must go by a way in which you are not.


John of the Cross is most often associated with the phrase “The Dark Night of the Soul,” but this topic is only a small part of his teaching. And the phrase itself is often misunderstood, as if it were merely a poetic way to describe despair. The 16th-century Spanish word escura can be rendered as either “dark” or “obscure,” and John’s phrase contains something of both meanings. He envisions the first part of the Dark Night as a kind of twilight, a leaving behind of worldly comforts and securities. Then comes the “darkness” of exploring the mysteries of the divine nature, as if traveling by starlight. The final stage of the Dark Night, which John sees as only for the most spiritually adept, is an utter relinquishing of self, a painful death of the ego which leads to an eventual dawn, a whole level of illumination in one’s understanding of God and his purposes.

In his essay on “The Psalms” in Christian Reflections, Lewis contrasts the true “Dark Night of the Soul,” an experience only for those at a “higher level” of spiritual understanding, with something much more common—a “Dark Night of the Flesh.” Lewis coined this phrase to describe the emotional state of someone who has become a byword and a pariah, someone who internalizes the scorn of others and who seems to mix self-loathing with loathing for others. While the true “Dark Night of the Soul” is a purifying experience, Lewis describes the Dark Night of the Flesh as a neurosis to be overcome, a truly destitute spiritual condition.

In Letters to Malcolm Lewis wonders how the mystical experience of a Christian like John of the Cross would differ from that of a pre-Christian mystic like Plotinus. This is the passage in which Lewis declares that we take the mysticism of saints seriously because of their saintliness; we do not declare them saintly because they report having mystical experiences. In the same book Lewis shows that he understands John aright when he states, “It is saints, not common people, who experience the “dark night.’” Lewis notes the paradox that it is sometimes those who are nearest to God who feel most painfully His “hiddenness.” He goes on to speculate that the greatest of all “dark nights” was the one experienced by Christ on the cross, in his sense of utter abandonment by the Father.

Another Catholic Reformation mystic from whom Lewis seemed to draw a great deal of spiritual sustenance was Francis de Sales (1567-1622). Francis was the son of a nobleman, born at the Castle de Sales in Savoy, a province in France near Geneva. The Calvinist revolution in Geneva in the late 16th century affected that whole region of Europe, and de Sales, as a young man, seriously considered converting to the new creed. But in his early 20s, he underwent a profound depression that lasted several weeks, a feeling that he was not among the elect, abandoned by God. While tearfully kneeling in prayer at a church in Paris, Francis heard a voice in his heart say, “I do not call myself the Damning One. I am Jesus.” Francis felt a great burden fall away and he arose certain that God, in his abundant grace, offered love and salvation to all who sought it. This experience left a lifelong imprint on Francis’ personality. There was a spirit of gentleness and compassion in both his personal demeanor and in his writings.

Though his father wished him to study law and become a magistrate, Francis took Holy Orders instead and soon gained a reputation as an eloquent preacher, caring pastor, and effective spiritual director. At the relatively young age of 35, he was appointed Bishop of Geneva in 1602. Since his episcopal city at that time was controlled by the Calvinists, however, Francis’s work actually centered in Annecy, in his native province of Savoy. Besides engaging in frequent debates with Calvinists, Francis also composed two devotional classics, Introduction to a Devout Life (1602) and Treatise on the Love of God (1616). The first of these books is mainly a practical guide to spiritual growth for those who live in the world, not the cloister. The second book is the more mystical of the two, depicting the soul’s communion with God in a series of striking metaphors: ivy climbing a great tree, a child nursed by its mother, a honeybee attracted by the color and fragrance of a blossom. Francis describes his own mystical experiences in the Treatise, saying there is something greater than the sense of rapture one may experience in times of deep prayer. This purer ecstasy may be found by one whose entire life is “elevated and united to God” through forsaking worldly desires and one’s natural will, inclining instead to “interior gentleness, simplicity, humility, and above all charity.”

Lewis wrote that even in the years when he despised Christianity, he couldn’t help but recognize a certain “honey-eyed and floral” quality in the writings of Francis de Sales.  He later added that Francis is one of those writers who shows you the “beauty of holiness.” Lewis also recommended a chapter in Introduction to a Devout Life called “Of Meekness Towards Ourselves,” where de Sales tells his readers that self-denial should not lead to self-hatred, that one should recognize one’s own mistakes “with mild and calm remonstrances.” Citing also Julian of Norwich’s advice that one should be “loving and peaceable” not only to other Christians but also to oneself, Lewis concludes that true Christian renunciation lies in self-forgetfulness instead of self-contempt. In Letters to Malcolm Lewis again commended the gentle spirit of de Sales, contrasting the Puritan teaching about seeing oneself as an utterly unworthy toad to de Sales’ “green, dewy chapter on la douceur (“softness”) towards one’s self.”

In general, Lewis expresses respect and admiration for a wide range of contemplative writers, even those disciplinarians like Ignatius Loyola and William Law, whom he finds “stringent.” But his real warmth and affection seems most evident when he is discussing the more soft-hearted mystics such as Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, Francis de Sales, and George MacDonald.




Apart from the figures discussed above, one also finds references in Lewis’s  books and letters to Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas a Kempis,  Ignatius Loyola, The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as twentieth-century mystics such as Simone Weil and Sundar Singh (discussed in chapter five).  It is also interesting to note that among Lewis’s most beloved poets were those with strong mystical overtones—Dante, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, William Wordsworth, and George MacDonald.

Considering his lifelong interest in mystical texts, it is not surprising that Lewis himself should appear in an anthology called The Protestant Mystics (1964), introduced by the distinguished poet W. H. Auden. (The collection includes excerpts from Surprised by Joy  as examples of numinous longing, or Sehnsucht.) Though he did not use the term as a self-designation, it seems fitting that someone whose own reading and writing so often manifests his fascination with experiences of the “Mighty Beauty” should himself come to be known as one of the mystics of Christian tradition.








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[1] Readers familiar with Eastern Orthodox mysticism may be surprised to find no discussion here of major figures such as Maximus the Confessor (c. 560-662), John Climacus (579-649), Symeon the New Theologian (949-1032), or Gregory of Palamus (1296-1359). But this chapter necessarily focuses upon Christian mysticism as Lewis knew it, and his familiarity with the Eastern Orthodox tradition was limited.