Book Review: The Weight of Glory

Weight of GloryThe Weight of Glory and Other Addresses by C. S. Lewis is a collection of his essays. Some were sermons, some were addressed to specific groups, a couple were published in other venues. Five of them were published together in a book during his lifetime and a few more were added in a 1980 revision. There is a lengthy introduction by Walter Hooper, in which he gives some of the background of the essays, where, when, and to whom they were given, as well as his connection to Lewis.

I probably have a higher percentage of pages tabbed in this book than any other. I’ll list the essays with a few words about each:

“The Weight of Glory” discusses out desire for heaven and what “glory” actually means. That seems like such a paltry summation, but thoughts from this essay stayed with me for days. An excellent outline of the chapter is here. In talking about whether the promise of heaven is a “bribe” and whether longing for it is right, Lewis remarks:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (p. 26).

He speaks of the almost ineffable quality of longing we have for something we haven’t quite experienced yet:

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. …The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (pp. 30-31).

About the things we do not understand:

“If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know” (p. 34).

The section on the glory of heaven is deeply thought-provoking. Just one quote from it:

“The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”

I’ll try to be a little more brief with the remaining ones.

“Learning in War Time” addresses students who wonder if they should be working toward their chosen professions while the war is on, whether doing so is “like fiddling while Rome burns.” Lewis brings this into the larger question of whether “creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or hell” should “spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparable trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology” (pp. 48-49). His answer is yes, and he goes on to explain why.

“The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord'” (pp. 55-56).

“An appetite for [knowledge, beauty, the arts] exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain” (p. 56).

“Why I Am Not a Pacifist” was given to a pacifist society in 1940. Lewis explains that while “war is very disagreeable,” there are just causes for war (for instance, what would have happened if no one had stood up to Hitler?) and there are Biblical examples affirming war. He then goes on to explain why Jesus’s command, “”But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39) is not a justification for pacifism. Lewis says the text “means exactly what is says, but with an understood reservation in favour of those obviously exceptional cases which every hearer would naturally assume to be exceptions without being told” (p. 85). One example he proposes is when one witnesses and attempted murder, tries to help, and is knocked away by the assailant. No one would think this verse meant to stand back and let the murderer have his way. But in a case where “the only relevant factors…are an injury to me by my neighbor and a desire on my part to retaliate,” we’re to mortify that desire.

“Transposition” was probably the hardest for me to grasp. The basic theme is that it is hard to take something very complex and put it into simple forms: for example, a pencil drawing or even a painting of a landscape may be beautiful and give us an idea of the actual scene, but it is not the same. The actual scene has elements which can’t be expressed in limited resources. We face the same problem with trying to explain spiritual things when there is so much more to them, so much that we won’t even grasp until we’re transformed in heaven.

“Is Theology Poetry?” answers the question “Does Christian theology owe its attraction to its power of arousing and satisfying our imaginations? Are those who believe it mistaking aesthetic enjoyment for intellectual assent, or assenting because they enjoy?” While Lewis concedes that Christianity has some poetical or metaphorical aspects to it (indeed, one can hardly describe spiritual truths without some kind of metaphor), the metaphor is not to be mistaken for the reality. He also discusses that Christianity can make room for science and reason and makes some pretty good points against evolution.

“The Inner Ring” is about what we would call the inner circle in our day and the fact that nearly every group has one. It may not be bad in itself, but “our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in” (p. 149) can  lead us into temptation. If you’ve read That Hideous Strength, the third in Lewsis’s space trilogy, this was exactly what drew Mark Studdock further and further into an evil organization, which he didn’t recognize as such because he was so blinded by his ambition to be included.

“Membership” deals with the idea that though we need solitude sometimes, we are created as part of the body of Christ. Religion seems to be “relegated to solitude,” or made a private affair, by a society which then keeps one so busy that there is little time for solitude, and the busy-ness of “the collective” takes the place of true spiritual friendship. As one who likes time alone, this sentence convicted me: “The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages” (p. 167). He is not saying at all that one should never have privacy or solitude, nor is he saying that we lose our identity when we become a member of the Body of Christ, but rather that is where we find our true identity. The following paragraph stood out to me:

“The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine. God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered in itself, out of relation to God, is zero. As St. Paul writes, to have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners. He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is love” (p. 170).

“On Forgiveness” begins with Lewis wondering why believing in the forgiveness of sins was put in the Creed of his church, when it seemed that would be obvious and go without saying or without need of reminder. But he discovered that believing in forgiveness is not so easy to do and does need frequent reminding. Too often when we come to God for forgiveness, what we really want is for Him to excuse us.

Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive (pp. 178-179).

Too often we “go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses” (pp. 179-180).

And he reminds us that the same forgiveness we seek from God, He commands us to show to others. It is in this essay that his famous line comes from: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you” (p. 182).

On “A Slip of the Tongue,” Lewis shares that one day in his prayers he inadvertently mixed up the “temporal” and the “eternal.” Though it was just a slip of the tongue, he did realize that too often that is exactly what we do.

“I mean this sort of thing. I say my prayers, I read a book of devotion, I prepare for, or receive, the Sacrament. But while I do these things, there is, so to speak, a voice inside me that urges caution. It tells me to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats. I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my ‘ordinary’ life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret. For I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast; I don’t want anything to happen to me at the altar which will run up too big a bill to pay then…The root principle of all these precautions is the same: to guard the things temporal.”

“This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea (I think St. John of the Cross called God a sea) and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal” (p. 187).

“Our temptation is too look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact very like honest but reluctant taxpayers” (p. 188).

“For it is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves. For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: ‘He must increase and I decrease.’ He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise. For He has, in the last resort, nothing to give us but Himself; and He can give that only insofar as our self-affirming will retires and makes room for Him in our souls. Let us make up our minds to it; there will be nothing ‘of our own’ left over to live on, no ‘ordinary’ life” (p. 189).

“What cannot be admitted—what must exist only as an undefeated but daily resisted enemy—is the idea of something that is ‘our own,’ some area in which we are to be “out of school,” on which God has no claim. For He claims all, because He is love and must bless. He cannot bless us unless He has us. When we try to keep within us an area that is our own, we try to keep an area of death. Therefore, in love, He claims all. There’s no bargaining with Him” (p. 190).

This is so convicting to me, because that is precisely my tendency, to keep some area of my will for my own, to fear what He might ask. Even after, as Lewis said, “daily or hourly repeated exercises of my own will in renouncing this attitude…it grows all over me like a new shell each night” (p. 192). Thankfully “failures will be forgiven; it is acquiescence that is fatal…We may never, this side of death, drive the invader out of our territory, but we must be in the Resistance” (p. 192).

One of the things I appreciate most about Lewis is that he “could…swiftly cut through anything that even approached fuzzy thinking,” as Sheldon Vanauken wrote. Plus he so often hits the nail right on the head: in the last essay I had the feeling my innermost thoughts had been found out. I came across a blog post a few weeks ago where the blogger, whose views I would probably generally agree with, mentioned several areas where he differed with Lewis. So far I haven’t found the differences he mentioned. The only one that stood out to me in this book was that he would take some parts of the Bible as symbolic that I would take to be literal. But I think if we are regularly feasting on and meditating on God’s Word, we can read with discernment authors with whom we might not agree on every little point. Lewis has a way of writing that delineates the truth clearly and precisely (even though his intellect is so far above my own) in a manner that is easy to understand. And I can’t think of any writer whose work make me long for heaven more. This book will definitely be reread at intervals through the years, especially the first and last essays.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Weight of Glory

  1. You’ve really whetted my appetite to read this. I’ve heard some of the snippets before, but I’d like to read it all in context now. Slowly. ha. Lewis is one of those authors I can’t speed through. Thanks for the review!

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  9. Hi Barbara, I’m always surprised when I read reviews by others of books that I’ve read; the ideas they glean & what stood out to them. You’ve touched on some things here that I missed but also some that jumped out to me also. Transposition was difficult for me also. I can read Lewis and soak up so much but at the same time there’s a lot that goes way over my head. With any other writer, I’d probably be inclined to give up but the moments of brilliance are worth the pressing on.

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