Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C. S. Lewis
Lyle W. Dorsett. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004. 182 pages.
Several good biographies (and several bad) of C. S. Lewis are in print, supplemented by his voluminous correspondence (more of which continues to be published), diaries, and collections of reminiscences. In this volume Lyle Dorsett, professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College and Graduate School, offers the results of his research over the past twenty-plus years to explore one biographical issue in particular: Lewis’s practice of spiritual disciplines. Since Lewis’s published works and letters have served as a guide to Christian faith (Dorsett counts himself among the recipients), we are invited to consider the mentoring which Lewis himself received.
The book is well-researched, well-written, and interesting to read. Dorsett moves from an introduction which explains his motivations and the process of his research, to chapters on prayer; Scripture; the church; Lewis’s confessor and spiritual director, (Anglican) Father Walter Frederick Adams (as well as other important spiritual influences); and Lewis’s experiences as a (reluctant) spiritual guide, including details about several notable relationships in which Lewis mentored others. Dorsett also makes connections between the instruction Lewis received, his personal practices, and the material which shows up in his books.
In the fourth chapter, Lewis’s insistence on corporate faith is highlighted. Also here, and in chapter 5, Dorsett locates Lewis on the theological landscape, including the extent to which he appropriated from Catholicism. For Lewis biographers, such locating is a task which demands patient investigation since he was largely hesitant to speak on matters which divide and distinguish Christians from one another. Lewis never hid the fact that he did not always enjoy church attendance, but his commitment to regular involvement (including Sunday and during the week) was lifelong. “For Lewis, knowing Christ and being ‘in Him’ offered the only path to peace, holiness, and eternal life. He also believed, beyond a shadow of doubt, that everyone must receive help from the body of Christ to enter this sanctification process” (122).
Chapter 5, “Spiritual Friends and Guidance,” makes a particularly valuable contribution to what we know of this literary scholar. Lewis met nearly every week with Father Adams from 1940 to 1952 (when Adams suddenly died). Dorsett provides a brief sketch of this monk’s life, writings, and influences, with additional summary of books he recommended to others. Adams led Lewis into a devout experience of Christ through practice of the liturgy, Scripture, prayer, and the eucharist.
Most spiritual disciplines Lewis practiced were time-honored. Some, however, were more personal. Dorsett recounts how Lewis became convinced, sometime in the late 1930s, that “God had appointed him to answer all of his mail” (112). And Lewis believed that obedience was essential in every matter, whether involving prayer, money (he gave away most of his royalties), church involvement, or writing letters—which often became a burden.
Dorsett provides an overview of Lewis’s guidance of others through this medium. For example, to an English girl in 1949, Lewis wrote that the “important” part of spiritual life “is to keep on doing” what Jesus requires even if the right feelings are not always there (117). Discipleship, he said, is costly. Another important theme was the Bible, of which he especially emphasized Christ’s teachings in the Gospels (125).
In contemporary western culture, no less individualistic than the England of Lewis’s day, Christians—even academics—are rediscovering the importance of spiritual disciplines and spiritual guides. Dorsett enables us to see the fruit of such practices, notably how Lewis’s concern to be faithful in responding to those who sought his counsel enlarged his own understanding and experience of the faith as well as yielding some tremendously rewarding friendships.