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206 pages
May 2005
InterVarsity Press

Into the Region Of Awe: Mysticism In C. S. Lewis

by David C. Downing

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In The Perennial Philosophy Aldous Huxley wrote that overfamiliarity with Scripture may lead to “a reverential insensibility, a stupor of the spirit, an inward deafness to the meaning of the sacred words.” And surely this must be so. Otherwise Christians today could have no response but astonishment upon reading the apostle Paul’s words that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 RSV).

Does this mean that every time a harried believer offers up a halting, half-considered prayer, those words are lifted up, translated into celestial sighs, God speaking to God on our behalf? In a modern, secularized world, Christians are sometimes disparaged for taking the ancient words too literally. But do contemporary Christians believe too much or too little?

Another well-known passage whose astounding claims have been dimmed by familiarity are the apostle’s words to the church at Ephesus:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)

What is Paul trying to say here, and why is his language so emphatic? Is he saying his readers should affirm intellectually that Christ loves them? Or that he hopes they can imagine how important Christ’s love can be? Or he trusts they will be filled with Christlike feelings of love for one another? Perhaps all these things, but surely something more. He seems to suggest that, beyond intellect, imagination or feeling, humans have a capacity to experience directly the vastness of divine love.

Christian mystics down the ages have understood St. Paul in just this sense: that all humans have a capacity to draw near to God, sometimes so near that they may apprehend directly the fullness of God in their inner being. This is a bold assertion; what sounds to some like a mere paraphrase of Paul sounds to others like zealotry and heresy. What seems to some a deeper understanding of Scripture seems to others a profound misunderstanding.

Indeed, mysticism may almost be defined as “that which is misunderstood.” It is an elastic word, one whose precise meaning is still debated among scholars. In the popular mind the term mysticism, associated with the words mystery and even mist, calls forth images of clandestine societies, arcane rites and closely guarded secrets. Others identify mysticism with all things occult—astrology, Tarot cards, palmistry, séances. Still others may picture a medieval scene: a wild-eyed hermit, hollowcheeked and threadbare, gazing in ecstasy at a luminous image that hangs in the air like a holy holograph.

None of these stereotypes conform to the great body of mystical literature or to the scholarship about mysticism. Those who look to mystical texts seeking signs and wonders are likely to be disappointed. Most Christian mystics do not see visions or hear voices. They speak rather of “the eye of the soul” or “the inner eye” by which they have experienced the divine presence.


William James, in his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), declared flatly that students of mysticism should set aside reports of clairvoyance, levitations, healings or stigmata (receiving the wounds of Christ). He defined the essential mark of a mystical state as a “consciousness of illumination.” James went on to describe mystical states as

• noetic, providing a sense of new insight
• ineffable, eluding description in words
• passive, creating a sense of an overpowered will
• transitory, usually lasting two hours or less

Though Professor James was one of the first to take a “scientific” approach to mysticism, he was by no means a debunker. In fact, he concluded his study with this observation:

Mystical states wield no authority due simply to their being mystical states. But the higher ones among them point in directions to which the religious sentiments of even non-mystical men incline. They tell of the supremacy of the ideal, of vastness, of union, of safety, and of rest. . . . The supernaturalism and optimism to which they would persuade us may, interpreted one way or another, be after all the truest of insights into the meaning of this life.

Scholar R. M. Jones agreed with James that illumination is a key element of mystical experience, but he defined the term differently. For Jones, mystical experiences do not necessarily supply new ideas to the mind; rather they transform what one believes into what one knows, converting abstract concepts, such as divine love, into vivid personal realities. For Jones a mystical encounter may change a person’s thinking from “These are my beliefs” to “This is the Reality with which I should align myself.”

By its very nature, mysticism eludes easy definition. Related to mystery, the term mystic is derived from Greek myein, “to shut,” with reference either to keeping one’s eyes shut or one’s mouth shut. (Our word mute comes from the same Greek verb.) If something is by definition hidden and inexpressible, how can everyone be in on the secret?

In an oft-quoted definition, Evelyn Underhill described mysticism as “the direct intuition or experience of God.” She did not think that this was a distinct faculty that some people have and others do not. Rather she insisted that “every human soul has a latent capacity for God.” Mystics, for Underhill, are those who have “realized this capacity with an astonishing richness.”

Underhill did not think the term mystic should be reserved for canonized saints who produce classic accounts of their spiritual journeys. She felt the difference between mystics and ordinary believers was their intensity of commitment. She explained the difference by saying, “This happened to them, not because God loved and attended to them more than He does to us, but because they loved and attended to Him more than we do.”

Underhill also pointed out that for every well-known mystic there are myriads of anonymous ones:

[Celebrated mystical texts] are not solitary beacons set up in the arid wilderness of “external religion.” They are rather surviving records of a spiritual culture, content for the most part to live in secret, leaving few memorials behind. The stretches of country between them were inhabited by countless humble spirits, capable in their own degree of first-hand experience of God. Only realizing this can we reach a true conception of the perennial richness and freshness of the Church’s inner life.

Another pioneer in the study of Christian mysticism was William R. Inge, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1911 to 1934. Defining mysticism as “the experience of coming into immediate relation with the higher Powers,” Inge agreed with Underhill that mystics should not be viewed as some sort of spiritual elite. He argued that the “Mystical Way” was open to all believers, that the message from earlier pilgrims is “Seek as we have sought, and you will see what we have seen.”

Lewis’s own definition of mysticism shows the influence of Underhill and Inge, the two most prominent British scholars on mysticism in their day. (Interestingly, Underhill was a personal acquaintance of Lewis’s good friend Charles Williams, who edited a volume of her letters for Oxford University Press; Inge was close to another friend of Lewis, Adam Fox, who wrote the dean’s official biography.) Lewis defined mysticism as a “direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color.” Noting that most mystics do not seek visions or physical manifestations, Lewis added that “There is no reasoning in it, but many would say it is an experience of the intellect—the reason resting in its enjoyment of its object.”

This definition seems fairly straightforward at first, but it illustrates the difficulties that inevitably emerge in any discussion of mysticism. Taste and color are apprehended by the physical senses. With what sense is an invisible deity to be grasped? Primary sense experience is generally very difficult to put into words. Dictionaries do not define the basic colors conceptually; they simply tell you to look. A dictionary will typically define blue as “the color of a clear sky,” green as “the color of growing grass” or yellow as “the color of a ripe lemon.” These definitions are not at all helpful to a blind person, but that is the best language can do. But if words are inadequate to describe a direct sense experience such as color, how can they be of much use in describing the Absolute? As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously remarked, “If humans are incapable of describing the distinctive aroma of coffee, how can they cope with something as subtle as God?”

As if this weren’t problem enough, Lewis goes on to talk about mysticism as “an experience of the intellect—the reason resting in its enjoyment of its object.” Intellect and experience are usually considered contrasting modes of knowledge, what happens to you versus what you think about. One doesn’t usually talk about the intellect having experiences, nor about reason enjoying.

Lewis is probably using this latter word in a technical sense that he learned from Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity (1924). When he first read Alexander’s book, Lewis commended its “truthful antithesis of enjoyment and contemplation,” that is, having an experience versus thinking about it. In choosing this word Lewis emphasizes once again that a mystical encounter is a primary, unanalyzed experience, not the product of an overly ingenious intellect or an overcharged imagination. In defining his terms Lewis was clearly aware of the problems and paradoxes that go with any discussion of this subject.

Dean Inge knew those problems only too well. At the end of his in- fluential Christian Mysticism (1899), Inge offered twenty-six definitions of mysticism, many of them in Greek or Latin. Part of the reason he and others found the word so difficult to define is that mysticism does not refer to any one experience. Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest ones to answer. The basic question “What is love?” calls for an answer that includes family love, romantic love, love of nature as well as teachings about the ineffable self-emptying of divine love. In the same way the question “What is mysticism?” requires some accounting for a variety of related experiences.


One of the most common mystical experiences is a sense of sudden joy or transport, a glad awareness of being lifted up to grasp a higher harmony. Sometimes this moment of luminous rapture comes as the culmination of days or even years of disciplined meditation. At other times it comes unbidden, found by those who did not seek.

In his Confessions Augustine (354-430) eloquently described one such moment of transport: “I was caught up to Thee by thy beauty, and dragged back by my own weight, falling back once more with a groan to the world of sense. . . . I attained in the flash of one hurried glance a vision of That Which Is, but I could not sustain my gaze.”

Writing seven centuries later, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) recorded a very similar experience: “Oh Sion, thou city sole and single, mystic mansions hidden in the heavens, now I rejoice in thee, now I moan for thee and mourn thee. Thee I often pass through in the heart, as I cannot in the body, for being earthly flesh and fleshly earth, soon I fall back.”

These accounts from Augustine and Bernard testify to the transitory quality of the mystical moment, leaving one with a sense of paradise glimpsed but not grasped. Both also reveal that strong sense of longing which Lewis called “Sweet Desire” and which played such an important role in his own spiritual journey.

Five centuries after Bernard of Clairvaux, a brilliant French mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), underwent what he called his “night of fire.” After an indescribable experience that lasted about two hours, Pascal took out a piece of parchment and drew a cross on it, then filled the page with ecstatic, somewhat disjointed, phrases. After noting the exact date and time (10:30 p.m., Nov. 23, 1654), Pascal wrote:

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.
Not of philosophers and intellectuals.
Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace.
The God of Jesus Christ.
My God and Your God. [in Latin]
Your God will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything except God.
One finds oneself only by way of directions found in the gospel.
The grandeur of the human soul.
Oh just Father, the world has not known you,
But I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

Pascal filled the rest of the page with short phrases about accepting “sweet renunciation” and never separating himself from God. Though he later wrote his Provincial Letters (1657), defending the doctrine of irresistible grace, and collected notes for his Pensées, he never told anyone about his “night of fire.” When he died nine years later, a servant found the piece of parchment sewn into the lining of his jacket.

Another highly evocative account of mystical rapture is quoted in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience:

I remember that night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep—the deep that my own struggle opened up within being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit with His. The ordinary of things around me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exaltation remained. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. . . . Never since has come quite the same stirring of the heart. Then, if ever, I believe, I stood face to face with God and was born anew of his spirit.

This eloquent testimony does not come from a canonized Saint but rather an anonymous nineteenth-century saint, an obscure American clergyman answering a questionnaire about his religious experiences. As these last two examples show, there is nothing particularly medieval about mysticism, nor is it reserved for those whose days are celebrated on the church calendar.

R. M. Jones was sometimes asked how a person could tell the difference between a genuine mystical experience and a mere flight of imagination or an upsurge in religious feelings. His answer was, in part, that if you ever had one, you would know the difference. He would sometimes explain that once while crossing the Atlantic by sea, he had a tremendous, palpable sense of being upheld by the “everlasting arms” mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:27. He felt the undeniable reality of the truth that God is our dwelling place, his eternal arms ever sustaining us. The day after this experience, he received a cable that his little son had died unexpectedly. From that time on Jones felt that mysticism was not just an academic subject but a special form of illumination that he had experienced personally.


Another prominent form of mysticism is disciplined meditation, what has been called “recovering the depth-life of the soul.” (Scholar Nathan Söderblom calls this “cultivated mysticism,” distinguishing it from “spontaneous mysticism.”) For Christian mystics this is closely associated with prayer. Dean Inge declared unequivocally that every believer becomes a mystic in the act of prayer:

But we cannot insist too strongly that the essence of mysticism— the mystical state in its purest form—is just prayer, “the elevation of the mind to God.” Let anyone who has felt God near him when on his knees think what a perfect prayer would be like. It need not be vocal; it is probably not petitional; it is an act of worship, receptiveness, and self-surrender, to the Author of our being.

In Christian tradition a widespread desire to “practice the presence of God” has inspired a number of manuals offering advice on prayer, meditation and personal holiness. In the Middle Ages, especially, these usually followed what is called “the mystical way,” a threefold process of purgation, illumination and eventual union with God. The Dark Night of the Soul by Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542-1591) is this sort of manual, as are three books that C. S. Lewis studied closely: Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection (c. 1400) and two anonymous texts, The Cloud of Unknowing (late 1300s) and the Theologia Germanica (1497). Modern readers who turn to these texts expecting to find marvels, accounts of the miraculous and the supernatural, are certain to be disappointed. Medieval manuals about the mystical way focus on the soul’s ascent to God, an inward, spiritual pilgrimage, not on reports of the uncanny or the unexplained.


Though less common than mystical exultation or mystical contemplation, a third type, visionary mysticism, is what often attracts the most attention. The most influential mystics—Augustine, Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross—declared visions and voices to be peripheral, perhaps even detrimental, to one seeking an immediate, intimate awareness of God. Yet there is still a public fascination with those who exhibit extraordinary phenomena; even a rumor of “supernaturalism” seems to be more enthralling than the reality of saintliness.

Most famous of the visionaries, perhaps, is the much-beloved Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). The son of a well-to-do cloth merchant, Francis, by the age of twenty-six, had dabbled in business and played at soldiering but had done little to distinguish himself. But one day in 1208 when he was standing in the sanctuary of a dilapidated church called San Damiano, he heard a commanding voice say, “Francis, repair my church.” Francis obeyed, rebuilding San Damiano stone by stone and spending the rest of his remarkable life helping repair the Church throughout thirteenth-century Europe.

While Francis did not leave any writings behind, except for his childlike “Canticle of the Sun,” other well-known visionary mystics penned books full of vivid imagery and visionary theology. Teresa of Ávila is best known for her The Interior Castle (1577) and Jacob Boehme for The Signature of All Things (1623). The visionary who most influenced C. S. Lewis was Lady Julian of Norwich, the English anchorite whose Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1393) Lewis knew, admired and quoted often. Raptures, contemplation, visions: these certainly are not the only expressions of mystical experience, nor are they always distinct from one another. But all seem to be part of a universal quest: the journey of the soul to ascend to the Summit of being.


For many modern readers the first concern about mysticism is practical: is it self-indulgent, an invitation to become so heavenly minded that one is of no earthly good? With a world crying out in need, isn’t it egoistic to turn one’s back on others for the sake of a spiritual bubble bath?

The early Desert Fathers would have accepted the charge of escapism, for that is exactly what they were trying to do—escape the chaotic world of the Roman Empire in decline. In the third century an Egyptian, later to become St. Anthony (251?-356), chose a ruined castle on the Nile, fifty miles from the nearest city, in order to pursue private contemplation and mystical union. But as stories about his taming wild animals and battling demons grew, his followers actually journeyed to his castle and broke down a door so that they could learn from him. The desert dwellers generally barred women from their midst and many lived as hermits, refusing even to associate with other contemplatives.

But the desert hermits are the exception, not the rule. In the fifth century Augustine called the tension between action and contemplation the “Mary and Martha dilemma.” Augustine noted that when Jesus visited Bethany, he told the harried hostess Martha that her sister Mary had chosen the better part in wanting to sit at his feet and listen (Luke 10:38- 42). Augustine saw Martha and Mary as types of the activist and the contemplative, declaring that Mary’s choice was affirmed by Jesus.

The Mary and Martha dilemma comes up often in mystical literature, usually in defense of the contemplative life against its detractors. Mystics explain that if a person is truly drawing close to God and being infused with his Spirit, then he or she will naturally mirror his character, including his unbounded love for human beings. As William Tyndale put it succinctly, “As a man feeleth God in himself, so is he to his neighbor.”

In the Middle Ages it became the common wisdom that contemplation should be combined with service. As Thomas Aquinas explained in Perfection of the Spiritual Life:

More is done for God by a man who suffers detriment to his beloved contemplation in order to devote himself to the salvation of his neighbor. This seems a higher perfection of love than if a man were so attached to the sweetness of contemplation that he would not give it up even when the salvation of others is at stake.

Aquinas’s younger contemporary, Meister Eckhart, made the same point even more emphatically: “Even if one were in a rapture like St. Paul and there were a sick man who needed help, it would be far better to come out of the rapture and show love by serving the needy one.”

Surveying Christian history, we can quickly see that many of the great mystics of the church were also its greatest leaders. The apostle Paul set the tone, referring to his being taken up to “the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2) and yet working tirelessly to establish new churches among the Gentiles. Augustine, sometimes called the “Prince of Mystics,” was also the bishop of Hippo as well as a prolific writer and wide traveler. Bernard of Clairvaux was founder and abbot of the monastery at Clairvaux, and one of the most influential prelates of his day. The two good friends, John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, together founded new Carmelite orders for men and women. As Teresa herself noted, “To give our Lord perfect service, Mary and Martha must combine.”

The pattern goes on throughout church history: Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena were all mystics but also mentors and ministers. Even in more recent times many of the great “activists” of their day—John Wesley, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa— have been energized not just by compassion or moral idealism but also by a mystical sense of personal mission. All of these could point to a particular life-changing moment when they felt that were called by God to a place apart.


However inspiring their insights, however admirable their lives, mystics inevitably evoke a basic question in the minds of modern readers: Yes, but is it real?

The first generation of modern scholars studying mysticism considered it a phenomenon of utmost theological importance. Even while recognizing certain “psycho-physical elements” in mystical experiences, Evelyn Underhill asserted that their ultimate source is the “concrete, richly living yet unchanging Reality.” William R. Inge stressed the need for discernment, noting that some mystical accounts seem to be the product of unbalanced imaginations. Yet he too affirmed the theological value of authentic mystical encounters: “But some have every right to be considered as real irradiations . . . from ‘the light that forever shines,’ real notes of the harmony that is in immortal souls.”

More recently, however, social scientists have tended to treat mysticism as a psychological topic, not a theological one. Skeptics view reported mystical raptures not as glimpses of some higher order but rather as symptoms of mental disorder.

Robert Gimello, for example, asserts that “mystical experience is simply the psychosomatic enhancement of religious beliefs and values.” In reviewing the lives of some prominent mystics it is easy to see how Gimello reached this conclusion. Catherine of Siena’s first vision of Christ and the apostles was said to be similar to a painting in her local church. Meister Eckhart’s (c. 1260-1327) apprehension of the Absolute resembled that of some pre-Christian pantheists he was fond of reading. Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1210-c. 1280) had visions in which Christ appeared almost like a minnesinger, the German troubadours who were popular in her era.

Many mystics themselves have recognized that their spiritual visions blend divine illumination with human interpretation. And even sympathetic scholars agree that mystics do not always distinguish clearly, as St. Paul did, between what is “of the Lord” and what is self-expression (1 Corinthians 7:12, 25).

Yet when Gimello says that all mystical experiences can be explained in terms of the psychological or the physical, he is obviously leaving no room for the spiritual. In doing so he passes from psychological data to philosophical dogma. Gimello’s assumption is not the kind that can be tested in a laboratory. As C. S. Lewis summarized the problem: “Science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists, anything ‘outside.’ How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?”

G. K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist who greatly influenced Lewis, stated his case rather more emphatically:

Surely we cannot take an open question like the supernatural and shut it with a bang, turning the key of the madhouse on all the mystics of history. . . . You cannot take the region called the unknown and calmly say that, though you know nothing about it, you know all the gates are locked. . . . We do not know enough about the unknown to know that it is unknowable.

Apart from transcendental unknowables, we are all surrounded by a familiar unknowable: what is happening in anyone’s consciousness but our own. In philosophy this is known as the “problem of other minds.” We have access to our own thoughts and feelings, but have to judge everyone else’s thoughts and feelings by what they say and do. When a friend says, “I was just thinking of you,” he is reporting what has been happening in his private field of awareness. He has no way of proving to you that what he says is true, and you have no way of proving it is false. You have to judge the reports of others about themselves by the content of the message and by the character of the person speaking.

The task of judging mystical accounts is only the problem of other minds writ large. First, we must consider openly (not covertly, as Gimello does) whether it is even possible for a human mind to receive divine illumination not generated by our own consciousness. For those who accept the authority of the apostle Paul, this would seem not a mere possibility but an integral part of Christian living. Paul proclaims that “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16), and he refers to the work of the Spirit in our spirits more than fifty times in his epistles.

Having granted the possibility, we are free to consider individual cases on their merits. G. K. Chesterton noted that a Christian is able to investigate particular claims of the miraculous with more objectivity than a philosophical materialist. Christians believe that miracles are possible in history and in the present day, but they are under no obligation to affirm any particular claim. (This refers to miracles outside the context of Scripture, of course.) Materialists, on the other hand, are committed to naturalistic explanations and must immediately begin trying to discount all evidence to the contrary; they can’t afford to admit any data that would undermine their entire worldview. As Chesterton concludes, “It is assumed that a skeptic has no bias; but he has an obvious bias in favor of skepticism.”

In his essay “Transposition,” C. S. Lewis discusses how events believed to be “spiritual” by people of faith may be treated as merely “psychological” by others. He gives the example of Christian mystics who use erotic imagery to portray the relation of one’s soul to God. (The recurring idea of “spiritual marriage,” of the soul as Christ’s bride, is a commonplace in mystical literature of the medieval era.) For some readers the use of erotic imagery to describe mystical rapture may appear to be a disguised longing for more earthly raptures.

Lewis responds that in trying to explain the unknown in terms of the known, we must resort to analogy. This is especially difficult when we are trying to transpose a higher order, one that is more rich and complex, into a lower and simpler one. For example, when an orchestral symphony is transposed for a piano, the same note may have to stand for a flute in one place and a violin in another. In painting, the color white may be used for snow, a person’s face or moonlight on a lake.

But if someone had never heard any instrument besides a piano, did not in fact believe there were any other instruments, how could we explain the difference in sound between a flute and a violin? Or if someone lived in the two-dimensional plane of a painting, how could we explain the use of perspective to suggest our three-dimensional world? Twodimensional “flatlanders” might see two triangles in a painting and assume they represent the same thing. They have no way of knowing that, for those in a three-dimensional world, one triangle stands for a dunce’s cap while another stands for a road stretching off to the horizon. Reductionism is the result when someone assumes that the added dimension does not actually exist, that distant roads are actually just a kind of dunce’s cap.

Lewis says the critics who insist that the simpler system is the only real one will always see “all the facts, but not the meaning.” They are like dogs that do not understand pointing. If a person points to a piece of food on the floor, most dogs will not look at the meat but sniff at the finger. For them the finger is the fact, not what it is pointing to. Lewis concludes that in an era of factual realism, people are liable to “induce upon themselves this doglike mind,” always finding fresh evidence that “religion is only psychological, justice only self-protection, politics only economics, love only lust, and thought itself only cerebral biochemistry.”

Of course, Lewis’s remarks in “Transposition” apply to Christian belief in general, not just to mysticism. In that essay he explained the mystics’ use of erotic imagery as an example of symbolism, explaining the unknown in terms of the known. But Lewis never offered a blanket defense of mysticism. He judged individual mystics by their fruits, finding a continuum of credibility in mystics, from resplendent holiness to regrettable heresy. On the one hand he placed the Theologia Germanica, Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations on his short list of “great Christian books.” On the other hand he quoted with approval Samuel Johnson’s verdict on Jacob Boehme: “If Jacob had seen the unutterable, Jacob should not have tried to utter it.”


Lewis rejected Boehme because the latter suggested that the human soul is part of the divine soul, into which it will eventually dissolve. This sounds more like Hindu philosophy than Christian doctrine. Though Boehme was condemned by the church for heresy, his career raises another fundamental question: How does Christian mysticism fit into world mysticism at large? Most religions include mystical elements. The Jewish Kabbalah (“Tradition”) and Zohar (“Splendor”) include a great deal of teaching on mysticism. Islam has its Sufis, Hinduism its Yogis and Buddhism its school of Zen. If Christian mystics are drawing near to the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments, to whom (or what) are mystics from other traditions drawing near?

Rudolf Otto addressed this question when he distinguished between what he calls the “soul mysticism” of the East and the “God mysticism” of the West. Though there are exceptions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism tend to stress desirable states of consciousness, escaping the fretful, self-aware state of mind that so often makes everyday living a burden. For mystics from the Abrahamic faiths, however, the inward odyssey is also an upward odyssey, a quest for personal and vital communion with an infinite Being.

Other Christian scholars of mysticism such as Evelyn Underhill and William R. Inge are not inclined to dismiss non-Christian mysticism. Rather they view it as a form of natural revelation, along with the order of the cosmos around us and the moral law within. They argue that all humans have an innate capacity to experience God and that members of all religious traditions can have authentic experiences of the Divine.

For one thing, Christian scholars such as Underhill, Inge and Jones, as well as humanist scholars such as William James and Aldous Huxley, all note the underlying similarities in diverse mystical traditions. To their eyes the most intriguing thing about different mystical accounts is that they are not very different. As David Baumgardt has noted, the history of science reveals later thinkers constantly overturning earlier ones, but the history of mysticism shows later mystics constantly reaffirming earlier ones. There are obvious similarities among mystical accounts from many times and places: an experience of rising above the world of the mind and the senses, of the boundaries of the self becoming blurred, of encountering the Infinite, returning with a peaceful, loving assurance of the ultimate harmony of the universe.

Despite these broad similarities, Evelyn Underhill, in particular, stresses that mysticism finds its full flowering only on the trellis of Christian tradition, particularly in the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. The mystic’s experience of God includes both majestic transcendence and joyous indwelling, the soul reaching out for God as God reaches into the soul. Underhill observes that Eastern mystics report experiencing God as a person, even where their religious traditions view the divine abyss as nonpersonal. Islamic mystics sense God as both far above and deep within, despite the fundamental Muslim teaching that Allah is one. Underhill concludes that only the Christian doctrines of a threeperson God and an actively redemptive God provide a theological framework that adequately explains the experience of mystics the world over.

Lewis agreed with Underhill to a point—but only to a point. In “Christian Apologetics,” he argues that Christians should make “clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected.” He adds the important qualifier, though, that Christians should not tolerate the “nonsensical” idea that two mutually exclusive statements about God’s nature can both be true.

In the last book he wrote before his death in 1963, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis took up the issue of non-Christian mysticism. He observes that it is becoming increasingly popular to say that mystics of all world religions are finding the same things in their quest for the Absolute. He notes the similarities of mystical experiences in different traditions but considers them a similarity of means, not ends. He agrees that all mystics undergo a temporary release from their normal timespace consciousness and logical thought processes. But he argues that the significance of mysticism lies not in this experience of emptying but rather in the filling that should follow it.

Lewis believed that even if mystical departures are similar, the true meaning of the event cannot be seen until there is an arrival: “Departures are all alike; it is the landfall that crowns the voyage.” He concludes that the value of a mystical voyage depends “not at all on its being mystical—that is, on its being a departure, but on the motives, skill, and constancy of the voyager, and on the grace of God.” In the Christian tradition, says Lewis, we give ear to the mystical insights of others because they are saintly; we do not consider them saintly because they report mystical experiences. As Lewis concludes, “The true religion gives value to its own mysticism; mysticism does not validate the religion in which it happens to occur.”

This approach is entirely typical of Lewis. Rather than analyzing mystical states per se, he wanted to know about the character of the mystics and what insights might be derived from them. He was less interested in mystical consciousness than in its content. And, indeed, he followed some mystical voyagers very closely, exploring himself the landscapes on which they had trod.