C. S. Lewis, by his own estimation, was not a mystic. The forthright admission of this fact is not enough to stop David C. Downing, professor of English at Elizabethtown College and author of two very useful works on Lewis, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis's Ransom Trilogy and The Most Reluctant Convert, from writing an entire book on Lewis and mysticism. To accomplish this feat, Downing must maintain the thesis that "Despite this disclaimer, Lewis must certainly be one of the most mystical-minded of those who never formally embarked on the mystical way" (33). Evidence for this claim is found in Lewis's experiences of "joy" or "sweet desire," his "vivid sense of the natural order as an image of the spiritual," his lifelong habit of reading mystical texts, and the motifs and images related to mysticism that occur in his books.
All of these aspects of Lewis's life and work are worth exploring, and Downing's exploration of them, along with an explanation of mysticism and its history, is not without profit. But in the process, the concept of mysticism gets stretched to the point that it loses any substantive meaning and becomes almost a synonym for "any form of spirituality or symbolism I happen to like."
For example, Downing quotes approvingly Evelyn Underhill's definition of mysticism as "the direct intuition or experience of God" (18). It is a most pertinent definition indeed, for Lewis agreed with it: "a direct experience of God, immediate as a taste or color" (19). Well, if that is our working definition, then most of Into the Region of Awe is simply beside the point. One can certainly read lots of books about God, some by people claiming to be mystics, without ever having or claiming to have had a "direct" or "unmediated" experience of Him-whatever that might be-oneself. One can use lots of symbolic language about God, and find one's symbolism in Nature, based on the doctrine of Creation, without ever claiming such an experience. And one can have intense experiences of romantic longing for the Infinite without the confusion between longing for the Transcendent and experience of it ever arising. In fact, Lewis quite explicitly interprets his own experiences in Surprised by Joy in ways directly inconsistent with mysticism. They were precisely claimed not to be "direct" experiences of God, or even experiences of God at all, but rather signposts pointing to Him.
Downing's title is unfortunate. If his material had been presented as a treatment of spirituality in Lewis, it would have value. Read as such, it is not without value, especially in the rather ironic chapter on Lewis's critique of mysticism. But the problem is not just with false advertising in the title, for throughout the book Downing insists on talking muddle-headedly of mysticism and thereby perpetuating endless confusion of the kind we have delineated above-highly ironic in a book purporting to explain to the world a thinker as clear-minded as Lewis was! He also has an annoying idiosyncratic method of citation-neither in-text nor footnotes-that makes finding out what in Lewis he is quoting an unnecessarily laborious task. It's too bad. Downing is a better critic than this and ought to have written a better book.
DAVID C. DOWNING, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C. S. Lewis. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8308-3284-X, hc, 297 pp., n.p.