C.S. Lewis on Mystical Experience

June 11, 2008 — 2 Comments

In our study in 1 Corinthians, chapters 11-14 address the need for mutual respect and the Christ-like love as essential to true spirituality – avoiding the imbalances and excesses of some of the Corinthians who put personal expereince and certain kinds of tongue speaking above the ‘common good.’ Link here for the sermon on 1 Corinthians 13.  In that teaching, I quoted C.S. Lewis on mystical experience, from his last book, Letters to Malcolm – Chiefly on Prayer (p. 65).  Here is a summary of the main point from an article on the net.

In the last book he wrote before his death in 1963, Letters to Malcolm:

Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis took up the issue of non-Christian mysticism. He

observes that it is becoming increasingly popular to say that mystics of

all world religions are finding the same things in their quest for the Absolute.

He notes the similarities of mystical experiences in different traditions

but considers them a similarity of means, not ends. He agrees

that all mystics undergo a temporary release from their normal time – space

consciousness and logical thought processes. But he argues that

the significance of mysticism lies not in this experience of emptying but

rather in the filling that should follow it.


Lewis believed that even if mystical departures are similar, the true

meaning of the event cannot be seen until there is an arrival: “Departures

are all alike; it is the landfall that crowns the voyage.” He concludes that the

value of a mystical voyage depends “not at all on its being mystical—that

is, on its being a departure, but on the motives, skill, and constancy of the

voyager, and on the grace of God.” In the Christian tradition, says Lewis,

we give ear to the mystical insights of others because they are saintly; we do

not consider them saintly because they report mystical experiences. As

Lewis concludes, “The true religion gives value to its own mysticism; mysticism does not validate the religion in which it happens to occur.”

This approach is entirely typical of Lewis. Rather than analyzing mystical

states per se, he wanted to know about the character of the mystics

and what insights might be derived from them. He was less interested in

mystical consciousness than in its content. And, indeed, he followed

some mystical voyagers very closely, exploring himself the landscapes on

which they had trod.


2 responses to C.S. Lewis on Mystical Experience


    I think a big stumbling block on this important topic is that people can mean very different things by “mystical experience.” William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” is a true classic, and although written in the early twentieth century, it’s still assigned reading at leading divinity schools.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. C. S. Lewis on Mysticism « Anamchara • The Website of Unknowing - June 11, 2008

    […] (yet) read C.S. Lewis’ final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. But after reading this blog post on Lewis’ perspective on mysticism, that book (or at least a part of it) has soared to near the top of my to-read […]

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