IVP: What made you decide to write a book on mysticism in C.S. Lewis's life and writings?
David C. Downing: In the two years of Lewis's spiritual
apprenticeship, from intellectual acceptance of theism to actual Christian
faith, Lewis was devouring books on Christianity. He was not reading
apologetics, theology or church history. Instead, he focused on Christian
mysticism and contemplation, books such as George MacDonald's Diary of an
Old Soul, Dante's Paradiso, Thomas á Kempis's Imitation of
Christ and Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God.
The high point of his reading, he explained, was meditating upon the Gospel of
John in the original Greek. In Into the Region of Awe, I have tried to
explore more fully how these more mystical writings on Christian spirituality
complemented Lewis's habitually rigorous intellectual
IVP: How did Lewis define mysticism?
Downing: Lewis once defined mysticism in a letter as the "direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color." He believed that the great sages and mystics of Christian tradition sought, and received, an overwhelming sense of God's presence--beyond feeling, intellect or imagination. Lewis also described mystical experiences as "wonderful foretastes of the fruition of God vouchsafed to some in their earthly life." That is, he felt the abiding presence of God, which all Christians will enjoy in heaven, is granted to some unusually attuned souls in this life.
IVP: What is the significance of your book's title, Into the Region of Awe?
Downing: The phrase comes from a passage in Lewis's memoir, Surprised by Joy, where he describes his own conversion in overtly mystical terms: "Into the region of awe, in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with . . . the naked Other, imageless (though our imagination salutes it with a hundred images), unknown, undefined, desired." Though he stressed divine "Otherness" (God's infinite nature and unsearchable goodness), Lewis also affirmed that we can have "commerce" with God, personal communion with a Being whose essence far exceeds our highest thoughts or most inspired imaginings.
IVP: What were some of Lewis's questions or concerns about mysticism?
Downing: Lewis warned about the counterfeit mysticisms of "magic" (the occult) and of mind-altering drugs. He also believed that even the teachings of revered Christian mystics must stand under the correction of clear biblical teaching and historic church creeds.
IVP: What can Christians today learn from C.S. Lewis's study of mysticism?
Downing: Lewis's friend and biographer, Walter Hooper, once remarked that "most Christians seem to have two kinds of lives, their so-called 'real' life and their so-called 'religious' one. Not Lewis. The barrier so many of us find between the visible and the invisible world was just not there for him. . . . It had become natural for Lewis to live ordinary life in a supernatural way."