It was on this day–fifty days after the Resurrection of Christ–that the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven in a rush of wind to dwell in the souls of those who worship Him. The occasion was observed years ago by C.S. Lewis, who wrote and presented one of the most remarkable lay sermons I’ve ever read. It’s called “The Weight of Glory,” and it’s available online in its entirety.
To Lewis, the human invention of the gods and goddesses of mythology, imbued with glory, beauty and power, prepared the way for humanity to receive “the real thing”: a spiritual state that enables believers to cope with the challenges of mortal life and to gain a glimpse of the promised eternal life to come:
“And this brings me to the other sense of glory–glory as brightness, splendor, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more–something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled earth and air and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves–that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the image of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and the purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
I have quoted Lewis at length here because his own criticism demands it. He once claimed that looking for and marking “the best lines” in an epic poem was like going about and looking for the best stones in a cathedral. You can’t do it. The cathedral must be admired and judged as a whole. He was right in that respect about Paradise Lost, and frequently in his own writing, his style and thought calls to mind an intensely unified structure. One should not–indeed, cannot–quote single lines of his work without destroying the context from which they come. That unity of thought is one of the most impressive things about The Weight of Glory, and I have great admiration for it. Lewis sees value in the gods and goddesses of mythology as the aesthetic forerunners of eternal beauty to come. That is, surely, one of their functions, but not the only one. The gods and goddesses represent the means and the agency by which human kind has explained creative processes we do not fully understand and, in their behavior, psychological truths about our behavior we do not fully understand, either. These two functions of the gods–creative and behavioral–are the most important ones; yet, Lewis passes them by in order to lay emphasis on the idea of earthly beauty foreshadowing greater loveliness to come. Part of that loveliness is in the realization of union and unity (the human symbol of which is the paragraph itself), but within that paragraph, we also find one of the most stunning sentences anybody ever wrote, as Lewis gently but firmly brings to our minds the rushing wind of Pentecost itself, as “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor” that believers will not always be on the outside of the door. The Holy Spirit is the agency by which those who believe will one day get in to the life they wish to inhabit. Lewis does all this in a single sentence, one which, even as it delivers its spiritual message, retains the lovely metaphor of a book; but it’s a single sentence that derives its power from all the other sentences around it, the forerunners of Lewis’s thought, just as the gods were, in his view, the forerunners of the Holy Spirit.
Lewis took enormous criticism from his colleagues at Oxford for spending so much time writing Christian apologetics instead of literary criticism. His defense of orthodox Christianity at a time when the advances of science and the onslaught of war were combining to turn people away from the explanations of that faith for the origins of the world and the behavior of people in it most likely cost Lewis a chair at Oxford. When Cambridge finally offered him one in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he freely admitted his old-fashioned nature, calling himself a “dinosaur,” and urging his new colleagues to take advantage of that curious creature while they could.
But Lewis’s Christianity always had a hard, practical edge. He was no misty dreamer, but a sharp-minded realist. He was ready to fail William R. Parker in his doctoral defense because, in his view, Parker hadn’t proved his case that Samson Agonistes was an early work of the poet. This, despite the fact that the young Parker was already well begun on a major biography of Milton. Other members of the examining committee had to intercede to save the day. This realism, although it could be hard-headed, was a trait that compelled many non-believers to listen to Lewis, and to respect him, even if, in many other circumstances, they might not have wanted to. Lewis applied that same realism to the life of Christians themselves. He understood that Christians were not simply to wait for the glory to come; they were to do something while they were here on earth: they were to earn the glory that was theirs, and to carry it with them as part of their lives:
“The load or weight or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid upon 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, and 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, 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. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner–no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.”
Lewis’s call for genuine love is more urgent than ever, especially on this day that ought to mean so much to Christians. It is a terrible coincidence that I write and think about it on a Sunday when yet another terrorist attack has been launched in London, not so far from where Lewis lived and worked. As Lewis calls for love through the Holy Spirit, so would I call for us to love each other, to exercise, not religion–which is the mere erring form of a spiritual state–but faith; faith in our fellow men and women, our neighbors, our countrymen, to show ourselves to be better and stronger than any attempt to discourage us or to weaken that which we’ve built. Jesus promised he would not leave his followers comfortless. The advent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was the fulfillment of that promise. None of us need walk through this day, or any other day, feeling comfortless. The people we live with, work with, and love are the ones who bind us to the world we share. It is their by their spirits and their actions we survive and prosper, and it is by their help and their example that every one of us is made better and stronger than any act of terror that can be launched.