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Trade Paperback
192 pages
Dec 2004
Brazos Press

Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis

by Lyle W. Dorsett

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



“God Grant Me to Say Things Helpful

to Salvation”

To the casual observer, nothing in particular set C. S. Lewis apart from the crowd. When he described himself to some young admirers who had neither met him nor seen his picture, he could have been describing countless twentieth-century men: “I’m tall, fat, rather bald, red-faced, double-chinned, black-haired, have a deep voice, and wear glasses for reading.”1 If he had gone on to describe his clothing, he would have admitted to paying scant attention to clothes, dressing in nothing similar to the fastidious likes of T. S. Eliot or those fashionably groomed entrepreneurs and professionals who frequented haunts such as London’s Pall Mall Club. Indeed, except on rare occasions, Lewis’s year-round attire consisted of trousers rounded at the knees—hinting that they might have been slept in; a tweed jacket pitted by tobacco burns—the telltale evidence of his chain-smoking habit with cigarettes and pipe; and shoes at once down at the heel and hungering for polish.

If C. S. Lewis’s personal habits and wardrobe allowed him to blend into the crowd of ordinary mid-twentiethcentury Englishmen, he manifested an unusual spiritual transformation after his genuine commitment to Jesus Christ in 1931. Although this Oxford-based academician enjoyed a splendidly rich and well-rounded life filled with books, friends, fellowship, holidays, and hiking adventures—he nevertheless became a man with a single eye. From the early 1930s until his death three decades later, Lewis developed a passion to know Christ, obey him, and make him known. Furthermore, he became a spiritually magnetic man. From childhood and youth, to be sure, he modeled a remarkably alert mind. But after his middle thirties he gradually and unselfconsciously took on a magnetism that at once attracted numerous spiritual seekers and repulsed those who seemed hardened toward God.

Another Englishman, Frederick B. Meyer, a pastor and Bible teacher who ministered on both sides of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, offered an observation that helps explain C. S. Lewis’s remarkable depth. Meyer told his friend Dwight L. Moody, America’s most popular late-nineteenth-century evangelist, that “the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ is present in all true Christians. He is prominent in some, and He is pre-eminent, alas, in only a few.” After Meyer experienced his own spiritual transformation, he became convinced that Christ called him to tell as many Christians as possible that Christ desires to be preeminent in each of them. Consequently, Meyer invited people who were stirred by such a possibility to try a few spiritual prescriptions guaranteed (from the promises of Scripture) to enable Christians to experience an increasingly Christlike transformation in their souls.

Although Mr. Lewis never knew Frederick B. Meyer, he did come to know and manifest the truth embodied in such teaching. Indeed, the Spirit of Christ certainly became preeminent in C. S. Lewis. And like the Baptist preacher Meyer of an earlier generation, Lewis, who employed a different rhetoric to be sure, pursued a markedly similar goal: to point people to Jesus Christ, show them ways they can know him deeply and intimately, and encourage them to become alluring souls who make him attractive to others.

For over a quarter of a century I have devoted considerable time to reading biographies and autobiographies of Christian men and women whose lives have touched many souls in ways that still bring great glory to God. The people I have encountered through books span  many centuries and several continents. Their vocations, education, and social classes were markedly diverse, and their denominational and historical traditional affiliations covered a wide spectrum. Nevertheless, they did not worry about the breadth of their ministries.

Instead they focused on the depth of their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, leaving the Holy Spirit to care for the breadth. Few twentieth-century Christians in the Englishspeaking world have had a wider range of influence than C. S. Lewis. And like saints of earlier eras, he faithfullyand purposively focused on the depth of his relationship with Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit has taken care of the breadth of his influence. That Mr. Lewis paid scant attention to his widespread fame, or had any real sense of his profound contribution to the rescue and care of souls, is evidenced by a terse response he made to his close friend and legal adviser, Owen Barfield. Not long before Lewis died, Mr. Barfield asked him how he planned to allocate the royalties of his books, which would surely be substantial after his death. Mr. Barfield told me that Lewis dismissed the issue by saying, “After I’ve been dead five years no one will read anything I’ve written.”

My major goals in writing this book are first to explain how C. S. Lewis cultivated his ever-deepening relationship with Christ; and second, to suggest some ways, besides book sales, that the Holy Spirit, unbeknownst to Lewis, widened his breadth of influence.


After his conversion, C. S. Lewis embarked on an extraordinarily purposeful life. He became, as Dorothy L. Sayers phrased it, “God’s terrier”—a man with “missionary zeal.”2 Nearly three decades after he became a follower of Christ, Lewis admitted that most of what he had written was “evangelistic.”3 By this he meant that his books were in one way or another designed to point people to Jesus Christ. Some works were crafted to point non-Christians to the Messiah, while others were written to help people young in the faith understand the basic tenets of Christianity, apply them, and thereby grow into mature disciples.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1898, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931. By the time he died thirty-two years later, he had written nearly forty books and a long list of essays, articles, and poems. Educated and living most of his adult life in Oxford, England, C. S. Lewis nonetheless would have an influence that reaches all over the world. Most of his books are still in print, sales grow each year, and his books are translated into dozens of languages. For three-quarters of a century, this Oxford-educated scholar has been inspiring, edifying, and spurring on people of all ages.

Over the two decades that I have been teaching and lecturing on C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman, I have met hundreds of people who told me how Lewis’s writing pointed them to Christ. Countless others have explained how Professor Lewis became their spiritual guide through his books when they could find no one else to help them. Some of our most influential Christian writers testify that this author assisted them onto the Calvary road, among them Charles Colson and Os Guinness. Similarly, a Presbyterian pastor, the Reverend Rodman Fridland, told me that in 1958 the Committee on Ecumenical Missions and Relations (COMAR) surveyed 415 missionaries in the United Presbyterian Church. Among other questions, they asked, “Who was the most influential person in your becoming a missionary?”

Fifty percent of those on the mission field wrote “C. S. Lewis” on the questionnaire. For years Lewis’s extraordinary effectiveness in touching souls has intrigued me. After reading hundreds of his letters, studying his publications, examining his notes in his personal library, and interviewing dozens of people who knew him personally, it is obvious that he possessed an unusually keen mind that had been honed by a first-rate education. Beyond this, Lewis became a superb stylist. He wrote simple sentences and his prose is strikingly clear. He made skillful use of analogy, he encoded some of his messages in fascinating works of fiction, and he made able use of allegory and metaphor. Although it is apparent that many factors have conspired to make C. S. Lewis’s writing so magnetic, I am convinced that nothing is more important than his deep spirituality. The words  from his long-silenced pen still flow with unusual power because the author’s talent, imagination, and inspiration sprang from an unusually dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ. In brief, his influence is wide because his personal spirituality was deep.

Lewis’s deep spirituality did not emerge in a few months or even a few years after his conversion. On the contrary, like all Christians—even the greats like the apostle Paul and early fathers of the church—Lewis had to discipline both his mind and soul. He had to learn spiritual discipline and seek guidance on his spiritual pilgrimage, just like everyone else.


Numerous friends and acquaintances over the years have asked me what I have learned about Mr. Lewis’s own spiritual formation beyond the several autobiographical works he wrote that focus primarily on his conversion and the death of his wife. In part, this book is an attempt to answer those questions. But it is also written because I personally have hungered to find the secrets to his spiritual development for myself. Indeed, in some respects this is a markedly personal book.

In my thirties, several people gave me books by C. S. Lewis. My reading of Mere Christianity and Surprised  by Joy achieved what the donors intended—these books nudged me toward faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, hearing my wife read the Narnian Chronicles to our children at breakfast caused a hunger for more knowledge of Christ and His kingdom. Then after I came to faith, C. S. Lewis became a teacher through several more of his books. He taught me about spiritual warfare in The Screwtape Letters, and Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer answered many practical questions and offered a foundation for a theology of prayer. The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and several shorter pieces helped me explain to skeptical friends and acquaintances why I had become a Christian. And many of Lewis’s published letters, especially some in Letters to an American Lady (edited by Clyde S. Kilby) and Letters (edited by Warren H. Lewis), became important guideposts in my spiritual formation.

Because Mr. Lewis’s writing so profoundly influenced my spiritual development, there were many questions I would have asked him if we had met, but that could not be. He died in 1963—a dozen years before I began to read his books. I wished to ask my erstwhile mentor how he grew spiritually. In particular, I was curious about the spiritual disciplines he practiced and how he employed Scripture and prayer in his pilgrimage. I wondered, too, what writers most shaped his thinking about Christianity, and what people offered unusually helpful assistance to him along the way. In brief, I would have said, “Professor Lewis, what have been the foundational elements of your spiritual formation? Can you help me learn from what has encouraged you?”

Although C. S. Lewis “passed over into his own Country,” as he once described the death of a Christian friend, he still left enough evidence behind to provide some solid answers to my questions. Thanks to Lewis’s own autobiographical writings, especially A Pilgrim’s Regress (1943), Surprised by Joy (1955), and A Grief Observed (1961), we have helpful glimpses of his inner life. Likewise, several important biographies shed light on this fascinating and complex man. Among the most useful are Chad Walsh’s C. S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics (1949), Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (1974), William Griffin, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life (1986), and Jack: C. S. Lewis and His Time (1988) by Lewis’s friend and confidante, George Sayer. David C. Downing has written an excellent book on Lewis’s conversion, titled The Most Reluctant Convert (2002).

This is not a biography, but it is an excellent portrait of the man and his pilgrimage to faith. The biography by A. N. Wilson published in 1990 is so filled with factual errors and inaccurate interpretations that it is useless to the serious student of Lewis’s life and writing. The published biographical and autobiographical literature of this truly exceptional teacher and writer constitutes a rather clear picture of his inner life up to his conversion to Christianity in 1931. But the biographical literature covering the last three decades of his life is somewhat misleading, albeit not deliberately so. What emerges is a picture of man who converts to Christianity and then seemingly quickly becomes a mature Christian whose life is consumed with lecturing, tutoring, and writing a remarkable collection of books, essays, and poetry. The only time between 1931 and his death in 1963 when a fuller picture of Lewis emerges comes in his relationship with his wife, Helen Joy Davidman.

This love story and Mr. Lewis’s spiritual agony during Joy’s battle with cancer and eventual death are covered in a biography of Joy Lewis, A Love Observed,4 and in Lewis’s own little volume A Grief Observed.  No one, of course, is completely transformed at the time of conversion. If justification is immediate, spiritual maturity is a process that comes over time, even for someone as brilliant, well-educated, and clearly called and gifted by God as C. S. Lewis. This transformation into Christlikeness, holiness, or Christian maturity—whatever rhetoric one chooses to use—is realized in different ways by each person. But the rapidity and depth of the process is directly related to a person’s willingness to cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and most certainly spiritual growth is nurtured or hindered by the quality of teaching and mentoring one finds.

To find answers to questions about Lewis’s spiritual formation, I have spent considerable time over the last two decades collecting and studying a variety of primary sources. My wife, Mary, and I traveled the United Kingdom for several weeks each year during much of the 1980s. We interviewed over forty people who were relatives, friends, and associates of C. S. Lewis. On one trip, we discovered his personal library, which had found a temporary home in an out-of-the-way college in England two years after he died. In this collection of approximately 2,400 volumes (housed at the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, since 1985) are numerous volumes containing Lewis’s own marginal and endpaper notes. Lewis’s personal library reveals insights into his reactions to a large body of literature—some of it relating to spiritual formation.

Studying Lewis’s unpublished letters and book annotations alongside oral history reminiscences of people who knew him has produced many answers to my questions about his spiritual formation. Along with these answers has come a fresh and more robust view of the man whose writings have helped shape the souls of countless Christians for nearly seven decades. Furthermore, it has been exciting and instructive to see C. S. Lewis of Oxford emerge in the august company of the apostle Paul, Clement of Rome, Catherine of Sienna, John of the Cross, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and a long list of other women and men who have nurtured souls through letters. Many people sought Lewis’s counsel about the care of their souls. Because of limitations of time, distance, and personal preference (he was more comfortable writing than talking one-to-one about spirituality), Lewis willingly served as a soul physician and spiritual mentor to a considerable number of people through the mail. To some people he dispensed all that they required in two or three letters. For others he prayerfully and thoughtfully served as their spiritual director for much longer periods—in some cases over many years.

Perhaps because C. S. Lewis has been one of my important spiritual awakeners and teachers I have therefore been more doggedly determined than many Lewis scholars more talented than I to learn all that is available on how he grew spiritually. In any case, through the grace of God and the generous cooperation of many people, I have been able to pan the sands of some unsifted primary sources and garner a golden treasure.

The nuggets from this delightful enterprise have enriched my soul. Quite simply, my faith in Christ and understanding of Christian spirituality have grown significantly. Therefore I make the treasures I’ve found available to people who read C. S. Lewis and wish they could have him as a mentor or spiritual guide.


Perhaps I should be reticent to reveal my discoveries, particularly since Lewis made known his disdain for “inquisitive researchers” who, as he phrased it, “dig out all our affairs and besmirch them with the poison of ‘publicity’ (as a barbarous thing I am giving it a barbarous name).”5 But I go ahead with this project because I know Lewis’s deepest desire, to use his own words, was to “work—with a generous heart and with an intrepid faith for the spread of God’s Kingdom.”

Indeed, Lewis’s friend and biographer, George Sayer, told me that Lewis remarked that most of the letters he received from an admiring public contained questions about his personal and spiritual life. Mr. Lewis also confessed that he found the volume of correspondence to be quite burdensome, especially by the 1950s, when he would sometimes receive scores of letters every week. But Lewis also admitted that he believed the Lord had called him to answer each piece of fan mail with care, as a service unto Him. Sometimes when the mail was piled unusually high, he told the Lord that he would have time to write more books if there were fewer letters to write. Nevertheless, he practiced what he wrote to one girl: the important thing is to obey Jesus, even if you don’t understand why He asks you to do it.6 In fact, Mr. Lewis began a letter to one man with these matter-of-fact words: “I always answer fan mail.”7 Indeed, he intimated to a friend that sometimes our most important duty to God is doing seemingly small things such as respond to “the young man who seeks my advice” because there “the Lord Himself is present.”8

As Mr. Lewis got on with the business of answering the mail—even when he didn’t understand why the Lord required this rather burdensome task—he had no idea that some of his most important books would be volumes of his letters, made up of the fruit of his obedience. The portions of letters, the notations from books, and the gleanings from memories of Lewis’s associates, I trust, will reveal nothing that should remain in sacred silence like a person’s confession to a pastor or priest.

Instead, the following pages are offered in the spirit that C. S. Lewis said he was in while preparing his book on the four loves: “Pray for me that God grant me to say things helpful to salvation, or at least not harmful."9

1. C. S. Lewis to “Fifth Grader,” May 29, 1954, in C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children, ed. Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 45. (C. S. Lewis hereafter referred to as CSL.)

2. DLS to George Every, July 10, 1947, Sayers Collection, Wade Center, Wheaton College.

3. CSL, “Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger,” Christian Century (November 26, 1958): 75.

4. Lyle W. Dorsett, And God Came In: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman (New York: MacMillan, 1983); revised and updated as A Love Observed (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1998); hereafter referred to as Dorsett, And God Came In.

5. CSL to Don Luigi Pedrollo, January 3, 1961, in Martin Moynihan, ed. and trans., Letters, Don Giovanni Calabria: A Study in Friendship (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1988), 103–5, hereafter referred to as Moynihan, Letters.

6. CSL to Sarah, April 3, 1949, in Letters to Children, 25–27.

7. CSL to Mr. McClain, March 7, 1945.

8. CSL to Don Giovanni Calabria, March 27, 1948, in Moynihan, Letters, 47.

9. CSL to Don Luigi Pedrollo, March 28, 1959, in Moynihan, Letters, 101.