This new selection of C. S. Lewis’s letters on spiritual matters makes good reading even for someone already conversant with Lewis’s life and work. Compiled by the longtime Lewis scholar and enthusiast Paul F. Ford, Yours, Jack is reader-friendly. The subtitle suggests that the collection comprises Lewis’s letters of spiritual direction—that is to say, letters written to those he was advising in spiritual matters. While these do form a large part of the collection, Ford in fact has included two other kinds of letters. Some are addressed to spiritual companions, like Bede Griffiths, one of Lewis’s former students at Oxford and later a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk. Another spiritual companion is Lewis’s childhood friend Arthur Greeves, with whom he kept up a lifelong correspondence of the heart. Other peer-friends, like Lewis’s brother “Warnie,” are represented as well.
Still a third category includes Lewis’s letters to his own spiritual mentors, some as exotic as Don Giovanni Calabria, with whom Lewis corresponded in Latin. Calabria, a Roman Catholic, has since been canonized a saint. Some early letters date back to Lewis’s atheist days, so that the whole collection serves to trace the arc of his spiritual life (and religious beliefs) from his late teens to the days just before his death in November 1963.
The letters offer plenty of sound spiritual advice. A letter to Mrs. Ray Garrett in 1960 indicates Lewis’s kind of balanced spiritual counsel: “We must not bother about thrills at all. Do the present duty—bear the present pain—enjoy the present pleasure—and leave emotions and experiences to take care of themselves. That’s the programme, isn’t it?” Lewis wrote quite a number of letters like this, offering wisdom and comfort to correspondents, some of whom he never met, who had asked for his advice. Yours, Jack includes more than 220 such letters to various individuals, whose names will be unfamiliar to most readers—Rhona Bodle, Vera Mathews Gebbert, Michael Edwards, Genia Goelz, Mr. Green and others, some of whom have coded names like “Mrs. Lockley.” Of these, the only correspondent recognizable to me at once is Sheldon Vanauken, who received 11 of the letters in this collection. (Vanauken became an author in his own right.) Lewis supported people during their illnesses and saw them through grief, helping them to navigate prickly relationships with pastors and recurring doubts about faith. Lewis’s own faith life is exposed here; the down-to-earth simplicity of the letters is touching.
There is no question that the “spiritual direction” letters can legitimately be classified as such. But it is equally plain that Lewis did not regard himself as a spiritual director. In a letter to Mary Neylan (1941) he seems to equate spiritual direction with confession and absolution, while commending the practice. In an effort to encourage Neylan he commends the practice of receiving holy Communion:
I suppose the normal next step, after self-examination, repentance and restitution, is to make your Communion; and then to continue as well as you can, praying as well as you can…. This, I would say, is the obvious course. If you want anything more—e.g. Confession and Absolution which our church enjoins on no-one but leaves free to all—let me know and I’ll find you a directeur. If you choose this way, remember it’s not the psychoanalyst over again: the confessor is the representative of Our Lord and declares His forgiveness.
The director’s advice, Lewis adds, is of “secondary importance.” In the same letter he recommends spiritual reading “in small doses”: The Imitation of Christ and Theologia Germanica, the New Testament and the Psalms. Further counsel: “Don’t worry if your heart won’t respond: do the best you can.” Soon we find that Lewis has made a connection for Mary Neylan with his own confessor and spiritual director, Father Walter Adams, a Cowley father in Oxford.
Roman Catholics can be at ease with Lewis’s spirituality. Yet in some letters he reveals his Protestant sensibility. In June 1952 he writes to Mary Van Deusen, who has inquired about incense and Hail Marys: “Incense and Hail Marys are in quite different categories. The one is merely a matter of ritual: some find it helpful and others don’t….” For Lewis, however, the Hail Mary “raises a doctrinal question: whether it is lawful to address devotions to any creature, however holy.” Lewis advises it is not wrong to offer a salute to a saint or an angel, and likens this to “taking off one’s hat to a friend.” But he cautions against addressing prayers to the Blessed Virgin, a practice that he thinks may lead to treating her as a deity. “And if the Blessed Virgin is as good as the best mothers I have known, she does not want any of the attention which might have gone to her Son diverted to herself.” Nearing the end of his life, Lewis affirms in one of his final letters (1963) his simple and literal belief in the Virgin Birth. So it is clear that he honors the Virgin in a very Protestant-leaning Anglican style.
How did Lewis fit these letters into his full academic schedule and heavy writing routine? Where did he find the time? Apparently he saw such letter-writing as a kind of Christian duty. Besides, he enjoyed it.
Yours, Jack provides only scanty information about Lewis’s correspondents. To know more, readers may turn to The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. Ford acknowledges his debt to these three massive volumes, letters “so admirably and lovingly edited by Walter Hooper.” His short collection is in fact drawn from Hooper’s expansive one. In Hooper’s meticulous work, each correspondent is given an exhaustive biography. (For instance, Mary Neylan’s long association with Lewis is described in elaborate detail.) Ford’s collection, by contrast, is a lighter, more manageable read. Even so, it provides real insight into one of the most genuine and persuasive spiritual writers of the last century.