Anyone who experiences the ebb and flow of spirit, the up and down of the mental life, will be sensitive to that vibration in the lives of others. Setting aside for a moment the oft-misunderstood realities of mental illness, for most that experience periods of spiritual dryness and emotional darkness, poles of soul and mind cannot be pulled apart. There really is, as Screwtape says in Letter VIII, a “Law of Undulation.” And while the Word of God can divide between bone and marrow, spirit and soul, human words cannot. In the valleys of life we are the most holistic, knowing that all of our body, our mind, our soul, and our strength is invested in the struggle.
C.S. Lewis was not immune to this law, and throughout his letters and his diary are moments of depression, discouragements, and a sapped spirit. I don’t imagine most readers will be surprised that these seasons sometimes came during some of Lewis’ most effective times. In the Fall of 1941, his Screwtape Letters are selling like mad in a weekly newspaper and are about to fall into print. He has given five talks on the BBC to more than a million listeners, has written the next five talks, and he has been lecturing men in the Royal Air Force throughout the country. His own understanding of Milton has been transformed by his friend Charles Williams, and he is about to give a prominent lecture series on Paradise Lost. One of his students, Mary Neylan, has come to Christ through his letters and books, and he is 3 or 4 chapters into what will become his favourite book, Perelandra. This is a high time for Lewis.
And yet, listen to the tone of this letter to Sr. Penelope. This Anglican nun and a scholar in her own rite. She had read Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and wrote Lewis a fan letter–one of his first (and only of that period). Lewis wrote back to her in the summer of 1939:
The letter raises for me rather an acute problem–do I become more proud in trying to resist or in frankly revelling in, the pleasure it gives me? One hopes there will come a day when one can enjoy nice things said about one’s self just in the same innocent way as one enjoys nice things about anyone else–perfect humility will need no modesty. In the meantime, it is not so.
What begins is a literary friendship wherein both partners would say that the other was the more influential. Lewis offered advice to Sr. Penelope’s work, lectured at her convent, and wrote an introduction to her translation of St. Athanasius. Sr. Penelope continually encouraged Lewis in her books and letters, and ultimately led Lewis to the point of seeking out a confessor–an Anglican priest who would take his confession and act as a spiritual director.
I was beside myself with flatteration at receiving a copy of your book; but my gratitude to you for giving me the book, great though it is, is small compared to my gratitude to God for having given it to you to write it; & that, I think, is as you would wish it. I expected to enjoy myself reading it, & have done so even beyond my hope. It made me bolt my dinner to get more time for it–we read to ourselves at dinner, such a good plan, & incidentally one which gives many of us almost our only chance of reading history, travel etc.; & now that I have finished it, reading every word, & a good many bits twice over, I am longing to read it again. That, I think, is a peculiar quality of your writing: I am aching to re-read both Pilgrim’s Regress & Out of the Silent Planet , tho’ I have already read the latter twice, once aloud; but this book outstrips even those….”
That is quite a compliment. And though Lewis is less effusive, I think his debt is just as great. For as he became a spiritual leader in England–a bookish, unkempt Oxford don in the theological spotlight–he would need support in ways he could not have anticipated. As he writes April 10, 1941, she has given him “real help.”
And real help he may need. Typically self-deprecating, Lewis moves into the realm of real self-doubt and discouragement as he feels he is failing in his RAF lectures and the BBC talks loom:
We ought to meet about B.B.C. talks if nothing else as I’m giving four in August. Mine are praeparatio evangelica [preparation for evangelism] rather than evangelium, and attempt to convince people that there is a moral law, that we disobey it, and that the existence of a Lawgiver is at least very probable and also (unless you add the Christian doctrine of the Atonement) imparts despair rather than comfort.
You will come after to heal any wounds I may succeed in making. So each of us ought to know what the other is saying. [I think Sr. Penelope must also have been doing a series of BBC talks]
I’ve given some talks to the R.A.F. at Abingdon already and as far as I can judge they were a complete failure.
It is not despair in Lewis–there is still the humour there. On Oct 9, 1941, he mails her the handwritten manuscript of The Screwtape Letters–apologizing for the shape of the manuscript!–asking her to keep it safe until publication. And then, a month later, Lewis wrote another letter. Near the end, he says:
I am writing, really, for company, for I’m a sad Ass at the moment. I’ve been going through one of those periods when one can no longer disguise the fact that movement has been backward not forward. All the sins one thought one had escaped have been back again as strong as ever,
And all our former pain
And all our Surgeon’s care
Are lost: and all the unbearable, in vain
Borne once, is still to bear.
The “ass” here isn’t really derogatory or slang; Lewis is referring to Balaam’s Ass, who converted the prophet. Lewis felt like his task was similar, trying with a donkey’s ability to get a great nation to see the reality of God in their midst. So it is a bittersweet joke as we see Lewis at one of his lows, not just in the valley but slipping back.
We can’t know from letters alone the light and dark in Lewis’ mental life. In future letters he would speak about his doubts:
I think what really worries me is the feeling (often on waking in the morning) that there’s really nothing I so much dislike as religion–that it’s all against the grain and I wonder if I can really stand it!
It seems that Lewis is breathless in his activity until the late 40s, and is close to burnout at different times. Doubtless his faith ebbed and flowed in that time. It is a fact of life, a “law” of nature, the reality we face in flesh. It is useful, then, to read the whole poem of this Sad Ass that he draws a stanza from above.
Out of the wound we pluck
The shrapnel. The thorns we squeeze
Out of the hand. Even poison forth we suck,
And after pain we have ease.
But images that grow
Within the soul have life
Like cancer and, often cut, live on below
The deepest of the knife,
Waiting their time to shoot
At some defenceless hour
Their poison, unimpaired, at the hearts root,
And, like a golden shower,
Bright with returning guilt,
Fatally in a moment’s time defeat
Our brazen towers long built;
And all our former pain
And all our surgeon’s care
Is lost, and all the unbearable (in vain
Borne once) is still to bear.