Until the time I was forced to hammer out the details for my chronological reading of C.S. Lewis’ works, I thought that he wrote Reflections on the Psalms out of his work with an Anglican committee to update the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) psalter. It turns out, I had it all backwards. Here are some of the hopskotch links that lad Lewis to writing his only book-length book on Scripture and his important relationship with the 20th century’s great poet, T.S. Eliot.
From the time that he began to believe in God, C.S. Lewis attended chapel daily and went to church each Sunday–places where the recitation of the Psalms was a continual event. Doubtless he read the Psalms himself, soaking in the poetry and the images over a lifetime of practice. This reading became a habit in WWII, though we don’t know how well he kept the habit (see the 12 Jul 1940 letter to his brother). Where Christian discipline might fail some, a desire for poetry might have fueled his reading. He loved Coverdale’s 16th-century translation of the Psalms that occupied the Book of Common Prayer. While Lewis knew that the resources for accurate translation were far greater in his day than Coverdale’s, of the BCP Psalms Lewis said that “in beauty, in poetry, he, and St. Jerome, the great Latin translator, are beyond all whom I know.”
Narrowing in from liturgy to particular interest, if we were to judge by Lewis’ letters, it may have been a spiritual confidant, Sr. Penelope, who first drew Lewis’ attention to the literary potentials in the Psalms. Sr. Penelope, writing as an anonymous nun, sent Lewis her Scenes from the Psalms, arranged for use in Schools (1939).
Suddenly in autumn of 1957, Lewis had completed Reflections on the Psalms. It was published a year later. In the end, we don’t know what triggered his turn to Christian commentary. My own hunch–and it is only that–is that he was inspired somewhat by Joy Davidman’s unique perspective on Scripture as a Jewish-American convert. Long before they were married, he wrote an introduction to her meditation on the 10 Commandments, Smoke on the Mountain. What he left us, in any case, is a very human, literary look at the Psalms, including some of Lewis’ clearest teaching about how to read with Bible.
This volume also opened up other kinds of conversations for Lewis. It may be because of Reflections on the Psalms, as well as the Pittenger Debate, that Dr. Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College queried Lewis about his understanding of Scripture. You can see Lewis’ response in his letter to Dr. Kilby in his letter of 7 May 1959, and the discussion of his views in Michael Christenson’s C.S. Lewis on Scripture. In sketching his view, Lewis offers a subtly different understanding of Scripture than Kilby and Wheaton College, but it was Dr. Kilby that began Lewis’ American archive on that very campus.
Most significantly, this book led to Lewis’ involvement with the Committee to Revise the Psalter, leading to a friendship with T.S. Eliot. A month following the publication of Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis received a letter from Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury in the post-WWII years through 1961. I have not seen the Archbishop’s letter, but here is the job that was set before the Committee:
To produce for the consideration of the Convocations a revision of the text of the Psalter designed to remove obscurities and serious errors of translation yet such as to retain, as far as possible, the general character in style and rhythm of Coverdale’s version and its suitability for congregational use” (The Revised Psalter, v).
Lewis’ letter in response is brief and respectful:
Nov. 14th 1958
My dear Lord Archbishop
I have thought over your Grace’s letter and come to the conclusion that I cannot refuse to serve on this Commission if I am wanted. I wish I were better qualified, but there is no use in multiplying words about that.
C. S. Lewis
–> read the Walter Hooper essay chapter on the Psalter, then link to Lewis’ work and then TSE’s Grief Observed intervention
In 1961, C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot met for the first time at Lambeth Palace.