For more information on the program I attended:
“Reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.” – CS Lewis
Many of you asked about the CS Lewis Institute I attended in Oxford and Cambridge, England, this summer, so I thought I’d share some thoughts. It was a wonderful event, insightful, fun, and inspiring. The theme of the conference was “Irrigating Deserts: Pursuing Calling with Purpose and Hope and it took place over a 10-day period, 5 days in each city. I’d never spent any time in either city, so it was quite a thrill.
The typical day consisted of 2-3 speakers in the morning, with some worship in a historic cathedral, followed by a break for lunch. In the afternoons, classes resumed in a small-group breakout format, where we could choose our own topic to study. I chose to study the History of Christian Art, and I’m glad I did because I learned a lot from the catacombs to the present day. In the evenings we would have another speaker and some type of artistic performance, so it was quite a long but invigorating schedule.
Homo Viator: Man on a Quest
There is a Latin phrase which I learned at the conference from the brilliant Dr. Joseph Pearce, “Homo Viator”, which means “man on a quest, pilgrimage, or journey” or “man as pilgrim.” The longer I live, the more I see my own life, and the lives of many others close to me being lived like this, whether we realize it or not. We are going somewhere, even if we’re wondering around in the same spot, taking right or wrong roads, or even getting lost. We are still traveling through life.
CS Lewis wrote a book called “The Abolition of Man” which was very influential in my own spiritual journey, and a few years ago after I read it I was inspired to read some more of his works. Ephesians 5:14 says “Awake O sleeper and rise from the dead” and I credit this book and his book “The Great Divorce” with helping me to “wake up”, so I owe Lewis a debt of gratitude for helping me out of a spiritual desert I had wandered into.
In “The Abolition of Man” Lewis warns us about the modern regression in the moral and ethical life which had begun even in 1943 when the book was published. Lewis clearly saw the nihilism, self-destruction, materialism, and hopelessness that had taken root in our culture. In the book, Lewis reveals a concept called the “Tao”, or the basic universal truths that all cultures and religions share around the world, and he illustrated quite brilliantly how modern education was in fact often a direct assault on it.
“What we learn from experience depends on what kind of philosophy we bring to experience.” – CS Lewis
When we consider the rampant presence of mental illness and suicide, as well as other persistent problems present in our culture, it’s easy to see how relevant this book, “The Abolition of Man” still is. A quick glance at the news will show you how far we have gotten from what Lewis called the “Tao”, or the truth of things and even in my own life, I can see that at times I tested the limits that Lewis writes about.
I did not set out on this path professionally, but the last few years, as I researched and wrote specifically about mental health and physical activity, I became more interested in the broader topics of culture, spirituality, metaphysics, theology, and philosophy, and saw increasingly how these topics are closely related. Health is not just physical fitness and nutrition, and the more I studied mental health the clearer this became.
Like Lewis, I came to see that one of the biggest challenges we face, from a health perspective, is our imagination. Imagination might seem like an odd and surprising term, but let me explain. By imagination, I mean the way we see ourselves, and imagine ourselves within the context of the bigger picture, is crucial to a healthy life. Lewis believed that a human person was made up of 3 things:
This is Lewis writing in a powerful passage about the way we imagine ourselves and other people:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest 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 the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of 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, civilizations – 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, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” – CS Lewis
I don’t know about you, but I need to remind myself of this passage more often. It’s a good reminder that we are all created in God’s image, and each of us is divine, even people we don’t like! Lewis challenges us to see ourselves as part of a grander and more important scheme, dignifying and weighting our existence with salt and meaning through imagination.
We all have a fundamental viewpoint, or imagination or picture, which answers certain questions:
Who am I?
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
Is my life important?
Is there hope?
Is there a God, or a creator, and if so, what is God like?
Considering all this, what type of life should a person like me live?
When it comes to being healthy, the way we answer these questions is crucial to the type of life we will live. The reason I became more interested in Lewis is that he wrestled deeply with these questions, and his views are wiser and more insightful than most any others that I’ve read. To illustrate again what I mean by imagination, his commentary on making wise choices:
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other. –CS Lewis
There is more wisdom and power in that quote than entire textbooks on psychiatry, psychology, and health. If we are ever to turn the corner in our culture and in our own lives and live healthy, this is the view that seems most right to me. How many of us have struggled with addictions, depressions, anxieties, or known people who have? What are those things, if not a type of living hell? Often, it’s our imagination that limits us, not what we know. We have plenty of knowledge, and plenty of science, but what often holds us back is our imagination.
Lewis was a world-renowned medieval scholar, and he is responsible for rehabilitating the modern mind and modern imagination through his work. Steering clear of both rigid religious fundamentalism and theological and political battles, Lewis made it his life’s mission to instead inspire and reinvigorate the literary and philosophical mindset of modern people, and as a result his work appealed to a broad spectrum of readers, religious and non-religious alike. The medieval mind Lewis had an affinity towards was one which saw life as a grand orchestra, or cosmos, where everyone played a part and everyone was important. Life was often harder in many ways, but every single action and choice in the pre-modern era was weighted with existential cosmic significance. It’s hard for us to even imagine that mindset nowadays.
Though we didn’t have nearly as much scientific knowledge during the medieval period, we seemed to know more about what science was for. The modern mind seems to need this type of rehabilitation, as it had “become dry” in Lewis’s words. He believed, and I agree with him, that it was a harsh tragedy that we had detoured too sharply from the pre-modern view of life as a brilliant mysterious symphony in which everyone played a part:
“God is the love that moved the sun and the other stars. The cosmos was a festival, not a machine.” -CS Lewis
Lewis writing about progress:
“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” -CS Lewis
The theme of the conference was “Irrigating Deserts: Pursuing Calling with Purpose and Hope” and the title was based on a quote by Lewis, which perfectly illustrates what he did in both his literature like the Chronicles of Narnia and other books, as well as in his Christian writing:
“It is less our job to cut down jungles, as it is to irrigate deserts.” – CS Lewis
The first message we heard on the opening night of the conference in Oxford at 800- year old Great St. Mary’s Church told of a powerful Old Testament story, Ezekiel Chapter 47, about what the slightest trickle of water from the temple can do. Even in the middle of a vast desert, there is hope:
The River from the Temple
47 The man brought me back to the entrance to the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar. 2 He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was trickling from the south side.
3 As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits[a] and then led me through water that was ankle-deep. 4 He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep. He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist. 5 He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross. 6 He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?”
Then he led me back to the bank of the river. 7 When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. 8 He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. 9 Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.
10 Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. 11 But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. 12 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”
At the end of the conference, at the stunning King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, Fr. Malcom Guite continued this theme in our closing, with another story in the New Testament, about an encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at the well:
Jesus Talks with a Samaritan Woman
4 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— 2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The spiritual life gives us water and nourishment, and hope. It allows us to look up at the stars, to look beyond the pettiness, the resentments, the bitterness, the addictions, the compulsions, the meaninglessness and hopelessness, and even in the middle of a vast desert, the spiritual life can bring healing and life-giving change. Even the slightest trickle of water from a holy place can bring life. That was the theme of the conference, and what we were urged to do, to bring life and hope to a culture that needs it, through our vocations, our families, our communities, our ministries, and our art, literature, and music.
Needless to say it was a moving 10 days.
Father Malcom Guite, the priest and poetic genius who wrapped up our conference, in a poem:
Ordinary Saints, by Malcom Guite:
The ordinary saints, the ones we know,
Our too-familiar family and friends,
When shall we see them? Who can truly show
Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold
That is and always was our common ground,
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound
From which the light we never noticed fell
Into our lives? Remember how we turned
To look at them, and they looked back? That full-
-eyed love unselved us, and we turned around,
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.
But one day we will see them face to face.
JRR Tolkein, the acclaimed write of “The Lord of the Rings”, who was a close friend of Lewis, always ended his stories with hope, even during ruin and destruction, a glimmer of hope shines through. That is what our faith and our culture is about, and should be about. Although I need to constantly remind myself this, because it’s easy to get off track.
I could write 10 pages about what I saw and experienced at the CS Lewis Institute this summer: a stage play about Lewis’s life, amazing Orchestra, classical music, poetry, Organ, a world-class choir assembled just for the occasion. A visit to the Lewis’s home called The Kilns, lectures from professors from all over the world, including Oxford and Cambridge Universities, as well as open-mic nights and visits to ancient pubs and ancient hiking trails and paths. But words cannot do it justice. I feel humbled and blessed that I could go, because it was the best thing I’ve ever been part of.
The image of a trickle of life-giving water is the one I will take with me always. I hope me sharing this story with you is inspiring on your own journey as Homo Viator: Man or woman on a quest.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde
God Bless You All,
My Favorite Quotes from the Conference
I love good quotes, so I thought I’d share a few of my favorites from the conference:
Deserts all around us are getting bigger, because the deserts within man are so vast. –Pope Benedict
No one will read anything I’ve written after I’m dead. -CS Lewis
Are you driven, or are you called? –Dr. Stanley Mattson, Founder of the CS Lewis Institute
History is “his story”, God’s story –Unknown
The only real growing up is growing in wisdom and right action. – Unknown
Hell is self, heaven is love. – Joseph Pearce
Each of us, every single one of us, is an endangered species. – Bp. Kalistos Ware
How boring. What a pity there are no new sins. – Anglican priest on hearing confession
They will not ask you, why were you not Moses, they will ask you, why were you not you? – Bp. Kalistos Ware
We have a leadership crisis, our leaders reject truth, then try to say they know what is true. – Mary Poplin
The true work of art is but a shadow of divine perfection. – Michelangelo
Slaves look down, not up. – Joseph Pearce
It can be very dangerous to look at the world from someone else’s point of view, without the proper training. –Douglas Adams
Man is like a great tower, the bottom can’t reach the top, but the top can reach the bottom. – CS Lewis
The purpose of science is to discover God. – Pascal
Other than communion, the most holy thing you’ll ever encounter in your life is your neighbor. – CS Lewis
True friendship is opposition. –Owen Barfield, close friend of CS Lewis, who helped him develop his writing
When the author steps onstage, the play is over. –CS Lewis
God persuades but he does not compel, because violence is foreign to him. –Kalistos Ware
When we stand under the sun, at noon, we are seen by God completely, and we are truly ourselves. – CS Lewis
Grace perfects nature but does not overturn it. – Thomas Aquinas
We are all like Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, before his crucifixion, this is the essential human condition. – CS Lewis
All philosophy begins with wonder. – Socrates