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Lyle Dorsett

(Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004), 182pp. 

Few people noticed when C. S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963. Their attention was focused on the death of another, more famous figure: U. S. President, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on the same day Lewis died of kidney failure just short of his sixty-fourth birthday.

Today it’s a different story. C. S. Lewis is everywhere. Just this past week, the cover stories of Christianity Today,Christian History, and World magazines were devoted to Lewis. There are today probably more books by and about C. S. Lewis on display at Barnes & Noble than any other figure.

Everyone knows why. On Friday, December 9th, the film version of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” from the Chronicles of Narnia will be released. People who never heard of C. S. Lewis, like those who had never heard of J. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, will soon become acquainted with this Oxford professor who has influenced millions since his death forty-two years ago.

The number of books published in the last month or so that focus on some aspect of Lewis and his influence is staggering. In the issue of Christianity Today noted above, my former colleague and good friend at Wheaton College, Dr. Jerry Root, provides a helpful survey of several of the more substantive works. If you are interested in studying Lewis further, I encourage you to check it out.

My reading of Lewis over the years has been minimal but rewarding: The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, God in the Dock, The Screwtape Letters, are the ones that come immediately to mind.

But if there is one book on Lewis that I can highly recommend to you this Christmas season it is Lyle Dorsett’s Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis. As Dorsett points out, whereas much has been written about Lewis’s conversion in 1931 and the events that led to it, little has been said about his personal spiritual development in the years that followed. In this book Dorsett attempts “to explore the process of his spiritual maturation with particular emphasis on how his understanding and practice of prayer changed over the years” (16). He also concentrates on “his changing understanding and use of Scripture, as well as his changing views of the church and sacraments” (16).

In other words, what were the keys to Lewis’s growth in personal relationship with Jesus Christ? What accounts for his remarkable impact on the Christian world these past forty-five or fifty years? Dorsett is persuaded that Lewis’s “influence is wide because his personal spirituality was deep” (22).

Let me mention two things about this book before I provide a brief overview of its contents. First, Dorsett is a superb writer. His prose is smooth, pointed, and a sheer delight to read. Second, his research is impeccable. Lyle and his wife Mary took countless trips to the United Kingdom over a span of many years to interview Lewis’s relatives, friends, and associates. Dorsett was himself for several years director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in which is found the most extensive collection of Lewis literature, letters, and memorabilia in the world. I don’t know of anyone who is more widely read in Lewis or who has spent more time in his unpublished letters than Dorsett. In short, he brings scholarly credentials to this book that few can rival.

So what were the keys to C. S. Lewis’s spiritual formation? What were the primary catalysts in his growth in relationship with Jesus Christ? Let me briefly summarize Dorsett’s answer to this question.

First, and perhaps most important of all, was Lewis’s “sustained and regular habit” of prayer. This didn’t come easily for Lewis, as he had experienced a devastating and disillusioning “answer” to his prayers for his mother’s recovery from cancer when he was a young boy. She died just before his tenth birthday. This, combined with other factors, cast him into atheism until his conversion in 1931.

Lewis had a vibrant theology of prayer and its role in God’s redemptive purposes. He wrote in Letters to Malcolm that “creation seems to be delegation through and through. He [God] will do nothing simply of Himself which can be done by creatures” (39). Yes, God “could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food, or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men” (46). God could also convert the heathen without missionaries, but “instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will” (46). Says Dorsett, “he joined Pascal in maintaining that ‘God instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality’” (46).

But Lewis was far more than a theologian of prayer: he was a daily, sustained, habitual practitioner. Dorsett describes in some detail Lewis’s daily regimen of prayer as well as his commitment to praying for others and seeking prayer for himself. He mentions Lewis’s belief in prayer for physical healing, particularly the ministry of the Anglican priest, Peter Bide, whom Lewis recruited to intercede for Joy Davidman following her diagnosis with cancer (she had been given two weeks to live). A few days following Bide’s bedside prayer for her, she left the hospital and lived another three years!

Second, Lewis was a man of the book. Dorsett explains his commitment to the authority of Scripture and how it functioned in governing his life and thought. Lewis could read Greek almost as easily as English and reveled in the original text of the New Testament. Lewis did not embrace what we today would call the full inerrancy of the text, but he did hold to a high view of the Bible’s inspiration and authority. According to Dorsett, “he normally read daily from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer . . . and he most likely read through all 150 Psalms each month” (64).

Third, and to the surprise of many no doubt, was Lewis’s commitment to the Church. Although Lewis was an unapologetic Anglican, “he loathed sectarianism and politics in the church. He desired to see Christians unite with one another over the essentials of the faith” (69). The New Testament, he said “knows nothing of solitary religion” (71). According to Dorsett, “there is no way to understand the growth and strength of this great twentieth-century soul without seeing him in the caring hands of his spiritual mother, the Anglican Church” (71).

Dorsett provides a helpful overview of the varieties of Anglicanism and Lewis’s place among them. He describes Lewis’s disagreements with the ecclesiology of the Puritans, noting that he clearly “lived most comfortably in the Wesleyan and Arminian strain of Anglicanism rather than in the Calvinistic and Reformed domain embraced by such men as J. C. Ryle” (75).

Perhaps the most important dimension of Anglican church life for Lewis was his love of the Eucharist. Anglicans, says Dorsett, “embraced a doctrine wherein the Eucharist was much more than an ordinance and a memorial service; it was a sacrament where the body and blood of Christ, through Christ’s Spirit, are truly present in the bread and wine. Christ’s Spirit, or ‘Real Presence,’ comes to the church in Holy Communion by grace through faith” (82). Lewis rejected the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and never viewed the Eucharist as a propitiating sacrifice. But he held tenaciously to its sacramental efficacy in mediating to the believer the sanctifying presence and power of the risen Christ through the Spirit.

Dorsett breaks rank with the opinion of Lewis’s former pupil and close friend George Sayer and contends that his correspondence gives unmistakable evidence that Lewis “started regularly receiving Holy Communion at least once a week by the early 1940s” (83). During this time, according to longtime friend Alan Bede Griffiths, Lewis acquired “a deep reverence for and understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist” (83). Lewis’s appreciation for the Eucharist is expressed in Letters to Malcolm in these words: “I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body” (84).

Fourth, it may come as a surprise to many to learn that Lewis sought out a spiritual director who would hold him accountable and to whom he could confess his sins. That man was Father Walter Frederick Adams, a Roman Catholic, who, according to Dorsett, exercised “a more profound impact on Lewis’s spiritual development in the spiritually formative years from 1940 to 1952 than anyone else. Unless one of them was out of town, they met during those years on a weekly basis. Through Adams’s influence, Lewis grew in his appreciation and use of liturgy in worship, observance of the church calendar, confession, and veneration of the cross. Although Lewis embraced the doctrine of purgatory, he disagreed strongly with the doctrine of papal infallibility and was opposed to the Roman view of Mary (“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” [100]).

Lewis was a man who emphasized obedience as essential to Christian living. One thing in particular that contributed greatly to his role as a spiritual guide and counselor to others was his commitment to answer every letter he received (sometimes dozens each week). Lewis encouraged, advised, and prayed for those who sought his counsel. In Chapter Seven, Dorsett describes how Lewis served faithfully, chiefly by means of written correspondence, as a spiritual director for many individuals, most of whom were women. He pointed people to the spiritual disciplines as essential for Christian growth, and his wisdom in matters relating to human sexuality is profound (I especially urge everyone to read Lewis’s comments on the subject of masturbation, cited by Dorsett on pp. 123-24).

Another major factor in Lewis’s spiritual formation was the books he read. Dorsett provides us with a survey of his reading habits and the authors to whom he consistently returned (see pp. 128-130).

In sum, this is a superb book that is must reading for those who are interested in either Lewis or the subject of spiritual formation. I know of no other volume that addresses this particular aspect of Lewis’s life. Although I had read a couple of biographies of Lewis before picking up Dorsett’s book, I now feel I understand for the first time his motivations, his loves, his devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the reason for his profound influence on subsequent generations.