C. S. Lewis on the Christian Pilgrimage


C. S. Lewis in his study at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in the late 1950s

Back in 2013, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at an “Imago” event at Trinity College called Remembering C. S. Lewis, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death in 1963. Someone who attended that event subsequently recommended that I be invited to give a lecture on Lewis to a group called the “Toronto Round Table.” The Round Table began very early in the twentieth century as a movement to strengthen the ties of the British Commonwealth. Nowadays, in Toronto at least, it survives as a very congenial “lunch and lecture” series that meets eight times a year and is attended largely by retired academics.

After the organizers rejected my repeated pleas that I was not an expert on Lewis but merely an appreciative reader of his writings, I finally agreed to give a talk entitled “C. S. Lewis on the Christian Pilgrimage.” This was delivered last week, on May 9, 2018, when the group met in the Combination Room of Trinity College.

A fifty-minute lecture could hardly do justice to the whole sweep of the topic I had set for myself. I decided to limit my investigation to just two of Lewis’s works: his first work of Christian fiction, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), and his last novel, Till We Have Faces (1956).

The former is an allegory, in the style of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, recounting Lewis’s intellectual and spiritual progress from his early days in “Puritania” (an allegorical representation of his childhood experience of the Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland) through the various systems and philosophies that captured his thoughts until his decision to return to Christianity in 1931. The “regress” of the title refers to how the converted soul must re-traverse all the ground it covered before its conversion, seeing the world now as it truly appears to the eyes of enlightened faith.

The latter work is a re-imagination of the pagan myth of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of Psyche’s older half-sister, Orual (Maia), and set in a “barbarian” city state (“Glome”) on the margins of Hellenistic civilization. An important character in the story is a Greek slave, “The Fox” (so named from his red hair), who teaches a rationalist, almost atheistic, Greek philosophy to Orual and her sisters, and scoffs at the primitive local cult of “Ungit” (Glome’s version of Aphrodite/Venus) and the “God of the Mountain” (Cupid). (The Fox is pretty clearly inspired by Lewis’s own private tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick, who gave Lewis the equivalent of his high school education and prepared him to apply to Oxford.) The story is mostly concerned with how “natural human affection” (instantiated in the older sister, Orual/Maia) is not sufficient in itself, but must be redeemed. As Lewis says in a letter to a colleague, the character Istar/Psyche represents the anima naturaliter Christiania (the “naturally Christian soul”), which must overcome the jealousy and resistance of family and friends who are bound to it by the strongest ties of natural affection. It is written by Orual as a “complaint against the gods.” Only at the end, in a “Part 2,” is she brought to see that her complaint is not against the gods, but against her own selfishness.

Working through these two books, I thought I discerned five aspects of “Christian pilgrimage” worthy of comment:

  1. Christianity in both stories is presented as the tertium quid that reconciles apparently contradictory systems, whether the (scriptural) Rules vs. the (natural) Images in Pilgrim’s Regress, or the traditional, mysterious sacrificial worship of “Ungit” vs. the clear rationalism of Hellenistic philosophy in Till We Have Faces.
  2. In both stories, the Christian journey is set back by an avoidable “false start”: much labour and pain could have been avoided by taking the simpler way. (John accepting the help of Mother Kirk to cross the canyon in Pilgrim’s Regress; Orual believing in Psyche’s invisible palace, of which she is granted a fleeting glimpse.)
  3. Christian conversion involves a transfigured view of reality. (John and Vertue’s “regress” along the road; Psyche’s ability to see Cupid’s palace, Orual’s transformed retrospective on her own life in Part 2.)
  4. At the point of conversion, we are held back by “wraiths” who attempt to persuade us against the fatal decision. (The various abstract systems in Pilgrim’s Regress; personal claims in Till We Have Faces.)
  5. Lastly, I was struck by an apparent contrast. In Pilgrim’s Regress, the pilgrim “John” and his companion “Vertue” end their journey with victory, slaying the dragons of the North (intellectual error) and the South (carnal passion). But Orual’s pilgrimage is much more complex and mixed, showing that even our deepest loves are tinged with exploitation of our neighbours. This I take to be Lewis’s more mature view—though the idea is found at least as early as his 1941 sermon “The Weight of Glory.”

My lecture was delivered spontaneously, not from a script. But it was based on the following quotations from Lewis’s works and letters. The above points may serve to show how the quotations were all weaved together to try to make my points.

1. A Defence from Lewis for an Amateur Lecture on Lewis

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work better than the master can. When you took the problem to the master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought me by pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t. In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another.

Reflections on the Psalms (1958), 1–2.

2. “History” on Scripture vs. Implanted Desire for God

“Not all Stewards are equally travelled men. But those who are, know perfectly well that the Landlord has circulated other things besides the Rules. And there are more than you suppose who are illiterate all their lives, or who, at best, never learn to read well.”

“And for these people the pictures are the right thing?”

“I would not quite say that. The pictures alone are dangerous, and the Rules alone are dangerous. That is why the best thing of all is to find Mother Kirk at the very beginning, and to live from infancy with a third thing which is neither the Rules nor the pictures and which was brought into the country by the Landlord’s Son. That, I say, is the best: never to have known the quarrel between the Rules and the pictures. But it very rarely happens. The Enemy’s agents are everywhere at work, spreading illiteracy in one district and blinding men to the pictures in another. Even where Mother Kirk is nominally the ruler men can grow old without knowing how to read the Rules. Her empire is always crumbling. But it never quite crumbles: for as often as men become Pagans again, the Landlord again sends them pictures and stirs up sweet desire and so leads them back to Mother Kirk even as he led the actual Pagans long ago. There is, indeed, no other way. . . . That is the definition of a Pagan—a man so travelling that if all goes well he arrives at Mother Kirk’s chair and is carried over this gorge.”

The Pilgrim’s Regress, 152–53.

3. The “Devil’s Plan” to Cut Us Off from History

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question”. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”

The Screwtape Letters (1944), ch. 27.

4. Doubtfully Missing the Easy Way (Pilgrim’s Regress)

“You have neither of you any chance at all unless I carry you down.”

Both the young men turned at the sound. An old woman was seated in a kind of rocky chair at the very edge of the precipice.

“Oh, it’s you, Mother Kirk, is it?” said Vertue, and added in an undertone to John, “I have seen her about the cliffs more than once. Some of the country people say she is second-sighted, and some that she is crazy.”

“I shouldn’t trust her,” said John in the same tone. “She looks to me much more like a witch.” Then he turned to the old woman and said aloud: “And how would you carry us down, mother? We would be more fit to carry you.”

“I could do it, though,” said Mother Kirk, “by the power that the Landlord has given me.”

“So you believe in the Landlord, too?” said John.

“How can I not, dear,” said she, “when I am his own daughter-in-law?”

. . .

“I will carry you down in the morning, if you like,” said Mother Kirk. “Only mind you, it is a dangerous place, and you must do exactly as I tell you.”

“If the place is dangerous—” began John, when Vertue, who had been struck by the woman’s last words, suddenly broke in:

“I am afraid it is no use, mother,” he said; “I cannot put myself under anyone’s orders. I must be the captain of my soul and the master of my fate. But thank you for your offer.”

. . .

“We are thinking, mother,” he [Vertue] said, “that we should like to make sure for ourselves that there is no place where we cannot get down without being carried. You see my own legs have served me so far—and I should not like to start being carried now.”

“It will do you no harm to try,” answered Mother Kirk. “And I should not wonder if you find a way down. Getting up the other side is another question, to be sure; but perhaps we shall meet again when it comes to that.”

The Pilgrim’s Regress, 77–78, 81–82.

5. Wilfully Missing the Easy Way (Till We Have Faces)

“Psyche,” said I, leaping up, “I can’t bear this any longer. You have told me so many wonders. If this is all true, I’ve been wrong all my life. Everything has to be begun over again. Psyche, it is true? You’re not playing a game with me? Show me. Show me your palace.”

“Of course I will,” she said, rising. “Let us go in. And don’t be afraid whatever you see or hear.”

“Is it far?” said I.

She gave me a quick, astonished look. “Far to where?” she said.

“To the palace, to this god’s house.”

. . .

“Orual,” she said, beginning to tremble, “what do you mean?”

I too became frightened, though I had yet no notion of the truth. “Mean?” said I. “Where is the palace? How far have we to go to reach it?”

She gave one loud cry. Then, with white face, staring hard into my eyes, she said, “But this is it, Orual! It is here! You are standing on the stairs of the great gate!”

. . .

“Aiai!” she mourned, “so this is what he meant. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. For you, it is not there at all. Oh, Maia . . . I am very sorry.”

. . .

It was already twilight and there was much mist in the valley. The pools of the river as I went down to drink (for I was thirsty as well as cold) seemed to be dark holes in the greyness. And I got my drink, ice-cold, and I thought it steadied my mind. But would a river flowing in a god’s secret valley do that, or the clean contrary? This is another of the things to be guessed. For when I lifted my head and looked once more into the mist across the water, I saw that which brought my heart into my throat. There stood the palace; grey, as all things were grey in that hour and place, but solid and motionless, wall within wall, pillar and arch and architrave, acres of it, a labyrinthine beauty. As she had said, it was like no house ever seen in our land or age. Pinnacles and buttresses leaped up—no memories of mine, you would think, could help me to imagine them—unbelievably tall and slender, pointed and prickly as if stone were shooting out into branch and flower. No light showed from any window. It was a house asleep. And somewhere within it, asleep also, someone or something—how holy, or horrible, or beautiful or strange?—with Psyche in its arms. . . . I was in great fear. Perhaps it was not real. I looked and looked to see if it would not fade or change. Then as I rose (for all this time I was still kneeling where I had drunk), almost before I stood on my feet, the whole thing had vanished. . . .

And now, you who read, give judgement. That moment when I either saw or thought I saw the House—does it tell against the gods or against me? Would they (if they answered) make it a part of their defence?—say it was a sign, a hint, beckoning me to answer the riddle one way rather than the other? I’ll not grant them that. What is the use of a sign which is itself only another riddle?

Till We Have Faces, 124–25, 128–29, 141–42.

6. Faith Transfigures our View of Reality

Then I dreamed that the Guide armed John and Vertue at all points and led them back through the country they had just been travelling, and across the canyon again into this country. And they came up out of the canyon at the very place where the main road meets it by Mother Kirk’s chair. I looked forward in the same direction where they were looking, expecting to see on my left the bare tableland rising to the North with Sensible’s house a little way off, and on my right the house of Mr. Broad and the pleasant valleys southward. But there was nothing of the kind: only the long straight road, very narrow, and on the left crags rising within a few paces of the road into ice and mist and, beyond that, black cloud: on the right, swamps and jungle sinking almost at once into black cloud. . . .

“Courage,” said Slikisteinsauga, “you are seeing the land as it really is.”

The Pilgrim’s Regress, 176.

7. “Wraiths” Opposing Us at the Moment of Conversion

On the floor of Peccatum Adae [Sin of Adam] stood Mother Kirk crowned and sceptred in the midst of the bright moonlit circle left by the silent people. . . .

“I have come to give myself up,” he [John] said.

“It is well,” said Mother Kirk. “You have come a long way round to reach this place, whither I would have carried you in a few moments. But it is very well.”

“What must I do?” said John.

“You must take off your rags,” said she, “as your friend has done already, and then you must dive into this water.”

“Alas,” said he, “I have never learned to dive.”

“There is nothing to learn,” said she. “The art of diving is not to do anything new but simply to cease doing something. You have only to let yourself go.”

. . .

First came the wraith of old Enlightenment and said, “There’s still time. Get away and come back to me and all this will vanish like a nightmare.”

Then came the wraith of Media Halfways and said, “Can you really risk losing me forever? I know you do not desire me at this moment. But for ever? Think. Don’t burn your boats.”

And the wraith of old Halfways said, “After all—has this anything to do with the Island as you used to imagine it? Come back and hear my songs instead. You know them.”

The wraith of young Halfways said, “Aren’t you ashamed? Be a man. Move with the times and don’t throw your life away for an old wives’ tale.”

The wraith of Sigmund said, “You know what this is, I suppose. Religious melancholia. Stop while there is time. If you dive, you dive into insanity.”

The wraith of Sensible said, “Safety first. A touch of rational piety adds something to life: but this salvationist business . . . well! Who knows where it will end? Never accept unlimited liabilities.”

The wraith of Humanist said, “Mere atavism. You are diving to escape your real duties. All this emotionalism, after the first plunge, is so much easier than virtue in the classical sense.”

The wraith of Broad said, “My dear boy, you are losing your head. These sudden conversions and violent struggles don’t achieve anything. We have had to discard so much that our ancestors thought necessary. It is all far easier, far more gracious and beautiful than they supposed.”

But at that moment the voice of Vertue broke in:

“Come on, John,” he said, “the longer we look at it the less we shall like it.” And with that he took a header into the pool and they saw him no more. And how John managed it or what he felt I did not know, but he also rubbed his hands, shut his eyes, despaired, and let himself go. It was not a good dive, but, at least, he reached the water head first.

The Pilgrim’s Regress, 168–70.

8. We Ourselves are the Wraiths Opposing Others’ Conversion

[The Fox:] “And now Psyche must go down into the deadlands to get beauty in a casket from the Queen of the Deadlands, from death herself; and bring it back to give to Ungit so that Ungit will become beautiful. But this is the law for her journey. If, for any fear or favour or love or pity, she speaks to anyone on the way, then she will never come back to the sunlit lands again. She must keep straight on in silence, till she stands before the throng of the Queen of Shadows. All’s at stake. Now watch.”

He needed not tell me that. We both watched. Psyche went on and on, deeper into the earth; colder, deeper, darker. But at last there came a chilly light on one side of her way, and there (I think) the great tunnel or gallery in which she journeyed opened out. For there, in that cold light, stood a great crowd of rabble. Their speech and clothes showed me at once that they were people of Glome. I saw the faces of some I knew.

“Istra! Princess! Ungit!” they called out, stretching their hands towards her. “Stay with us. Be our goddess. Rule us. Speak oracles to us. Receive our sacrifices. Be our goddess.”

Psyche walked on and never looked at them.

“Whoever the enemy is,” said I, “he’s not very clever if he thinks she would falter for that.”

“Wait,” said the Fox.

Psyche, her eyes fixed straight ahead, went further on and further down, and again, on the left side of her road, there came a light. One figure rose up in it. I was startled at this one, and looked to my side. The Fox was with me still; but he who rose up in the cold light to meet Psyche by the wayside was also the Fox—but older, greyer, paler than the Fox who was with me.

“O Psyche, Psyche,” said the Fox in the picture (say, in that other world; it was no painted thing), “what folly is this? What are you doing, wandering through a tunnel beneath the earth? What? You think it is the way to the Deadlands? You think the gods have sent you there? All lies of priests and poets, child. It is only a cave or a disused mine. There are no deadlands such as you dream of, and no such gods. Has all my teaching taught you no more than this? The god within you is the god you should obey; reason, calmness, self-discipline. Fie, child, do you want to be a barbarian all your days? I would have given you a clear, Greek, full-grown soul. But there’s still time. Come to me and I’ll lead you out of this darkness; back to the grass plot behind the pear treas, where all was clear, hard, limited, and simple.”

But Psyche walked on and never looked at him. And presently she came to a third place where there was a little light on the left of the dark road. Amid that light something like a woman rose up; its face was unknown to me. When I looked at it I felt a pity that nearly killed my heart. It was not weeping, but you could see from its eyes that it had already wept them dry. Despair, humiliation, entreaty, endless reproach; all these were in it. And now I trembled for Psyche. I knew the thing was there only to entrap her and turn her from her path. But did she know it? And if she did, could she, so loving and full of pity, pass by it? It was too hard a test. Her eyes looked straight forward; but of course she had seen it out of the corner of her eye. A quiver ran through her. Her lip twitched, threatened with sobbing. She set her teeth in the lip to keep it straight. “O great gods, defend her,” I said to myself. “Hurry, hurry her past.”

The woman held out her hands to Psyche, and I saw that her left arm dripped with blood. Then came her voice, and what a voice it was! So deep, yet so womanlike, so full of passion, it would have moved you even if it spoke happy or careless things. But now (who could resist it?) it would have broken a heart of iron.

“Oh, Psyche,” it wailed. “Oh, my own child, my only love. Come back. Come back. Back to the old world where we were happy together. Come back to Maia.”

Psyche bit her lip till the blood came and wept bitterly. I thought she felt more grief than that wailing Orual. But that Orual had only to suffer; Psyche had to keep on her way as well. She kept on; went on out of sight, journeying always further into death. That was the last of the pictures.

The Fox and I were alone again.

“Did we really do those things to her?” I asked.

“Yes. All here’s true.”

“And we said we loved her.”

“And we did. She had no more dangerous enemies than us.”

Till We Have Faces, 312–15.

9. Youthful Image of Virtue’s Victory over the Dragon (The Pilgrim’s Regress)

I have come back with victory got—

But stand away—touch me not

Even with your clothes. I burn red-hot.

The worm was bitter. When she saw

My shield glitter beside the shaw

She spat flame from her golden jaw.

When on my sword her vomit spilt

The blade took fire. On the hilt

Beryl cracked, and bubbled gilt.

When sword and sword arm were all aflame

With the very heat that came

Out of the brute, I flogged her tame.

In her own spew the worm died.

I rolled her round and tore her wide

And plucked the heart from her boiling side.

When my teeth were in the heart

I felt a pulse within me start

As though my breast would break apart.

It shook the hills and made them reel

And spun the woods round like a wheel.

The grass singed where I set my heel.

Behemoth is my serving man!

Before the conquered hosts of Pan

Riding tamed Leviathan,

Loud I sing for well I can



Now I know what stake I played for,

Now I know what a worm’s made for!

The Pilgrim’s Regress, 195–96.

10. Lewis on Retrospective Memory (the year of Till We Have Faces)

The gradual reading of one’s own life, seeing a pattern emerge, is a great illumination at our age. And partly, I hope, getting freed from the past as past by apprehending it as a structure.

Lewis to Bede Griffiths, Feb. 8, 1956 (Letters, 266)

11. A More Complex Reflection from the Perspective of Age (Till We Have Faces)

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. . . . When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

. . .

[Orual is shown Psyche’s heroic trials]

“Child,” said the Fox, “Have you understood?”

“But are these pictures true?”

“All here’s true.”

“But how could she—did she really—do such things and go to such places—and not . . .? Grandfather, she was all but unscathed. She was almost happy.”

“Another bore nearly all the anguish.”

“I? Is it possible?”

“That was one of the true things I used to say to you. Don’t you remember? We’re all limbs and parts of one Whole. Hence, of each other. Men, and gods, flow in and out and mingle.”

“Oh, I give thanks. I bless the gods. Then it was really I—”

“Who bore the anguish. But she achieved the tasks. Would you rather have had justice?”

. . .

I ended my first book with the words No answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might—— [Orual dies.]

Till We Have Faces, 311–12.

12. The “Weight” of our Neighbour’s Glory

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

“The Weight of Glory” (1941), in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (1976, 1980; repr. HarperCollins, 2000), 45–46.