02 June 2009

'This Also Is Thou'?: Williams in Met. Kallistos


A little over a week ago I had a reader in Edinburgh come across Logismoi through a Google search for the words ‘Kalistos [sic] Ware and Charles Williams’. Turning up on the eighth or ninth page of results, my post on the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple apparently contained the name ‘Kallistos [Ware]’, and somehow or another this post showed up on the preview of the other one. Of course, all of the truly pertinent results seemed to be on the first page. Here is what I found.

Looking at three articles and one book, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) seems consistently to refer to Williams’s sixth novel, Descent into Hell (1937). In The Orthodox Way, rev. ed. (SVS, 1995), he writes:

Love cannot exist in isolation, but presupposes the other. Self-love is the negation of love. As Charles Williams shows to such devastating effect in his novel Descent into Hell, self-love is hell; for, carried to its ultimate conclusion, self-love signifies the end of all joy and all meaning. Hell is not other people; hell is myself, cut off from others in self-centeredness. (p. 28)

Then, in ‘The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity’ (here), we read:

. . . ‘As God Himself knows,’ Varsanuphius insists to his spiritual children, ‘there is not a second or an hour when I do not have you in my mind and in my prayers . . . I care for you more than you care for yourself . . . I would gladly lay down my life for you.’ This is his prayer to God: ‘O Master, either bring my children with me into Your Kingdom, or else wipe me also out of Your book.’ Taking up the theme of bearing others' burdens, Varsanuphius affirms: ‘I am bearing your burdens and your offences . . . You have become like a man sitting under a shady tree . . . I take upon myself the sentence of condemnation against you, and by the grace of Christ, I will not abandon you, either in this age or in the Age to Come.’ [16]

Readers of Charles Williams will be reminded of the principle of ‘substituted love’, which plays a central part in Descent into Hell. The same line of thought is expressed by Dostoevsky's starets Zosima: ‘There is only one way of salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men's sins. . . To make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone.’ The ability of the starets to support and strengthen others is measured by his willingness to adopt this way of salvation.

Finally, the book comes up again in ‘The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity’ (here):

It will now be apparent why Lossky should have insisted that between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice. To refuse to love others leads eventually to the loss of all joy and all meaning, as Charles Williams shows in the account of Wentworth’s disintegration at the end of Descent into Hell: ‘The silence lasted; nothing happened. In that pause expectancy faded . . . He was drawn, steadily, everlastingly, inward and down through the bottomless circles of the void’ (Charles William, Descent into Hell [London 1949], p. 222). It is a daunting passage, which needs to be read in full. Either we love others, after the image of God the Trinity, or we condemn ourselves to the void. God does not condemn us: it is we who pass sentence on ourselves. ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’? No, Sartre is wrong: hell is not other people—it is myself, cut off from the others, refusing to relate, denying the Trinity. But I have before me another possibility. ‘Love is the kingdom which the Lord mystically promised to the disciples’, writes St Isaac the Syrian. ‘When we have reached love, we have reached God and our journey is complete. We have crossed over to the island that lies beyond the world, where are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ (A.J. Wensinck, tr., Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh [Amsterdam 1923], pp. 211-12; this passage is found in Dana Miller’s translation, The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian [Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984], p. 225)

But there is another reference to Williams, this one not involving Descent Into Hell, in the article, ‘The Divine Energies according to St Gregory Palamas’ (In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World, ed. Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004], p. 157; sorry I don't have the footnotes to this passage!):

In her classic work Worship, the Anglican writer Evelyn Underhill uses the memorable phrase ‘the nearness yet otherness of the Eternal’. She alludes here to a paradox, an antinomy, constantly afirmed in the three great ‘Abrahamic’ religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The living God is both transcendent and immanent. Above and beyond all things, he is yet more intimate to us than we are to our own selves. Looking at the creation, we may affirm a phrase used by the poet and theologian Charles Williams, ‘This also is Thou, neither is this Thou.’

Here is C.S. Lewis’s explanation of this phrase in ‘Williams and the Arthuriad’, Taliessin Through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso, by Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 335:

Two spiritual maxims were constantly present to the mind of Charles Williams: ‘This also is Thou’ and ‘Neither is this Thou’. Holding the first we see that every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him. Holding the second we see that every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image, that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation. The first maxim is the formula of the Romantic Way, the ‘affirmation of images’: the second is that of the Ascetic Way, the ‘rejection of images’. Every soul must in some sense follow both. The Ascetic must honour marriage and poetry and wine and the face of nature even while he rejects them; the Romantic must remember even in his Beatrician moment ‘Neither is this Thou’.

In a paper for Chrysostomos Stamoulis wherein I used Williams’s Romantic/Ascetic distinction as a hermeneutic apparatus for English religious poetry, I made the following comments—sure to be controversial!—on this distinction:

. . . I do not find the distinction between the ‘Romantic’ and the ‘Ascetic Way’ to be at all Orthodox as Williams has employed it. Quite the contrary, Williams, as opposed to his friend Lewis, is so concerned to vindicate the goodness of romantic love and the Affirmative Way that he risks contradicting the clear Scriptural and Patristic elevation of celibacy and virginity to the superior position of greater perfection. Thus, Williams argues that ‘when the official representatives of the church [surely by this he means the Holy Fathers] have talked about such things as sexual love (to take one example), they may have said the right things, but they have said very few of them and they have generally said them in the wrong style’ (Charles Williams, Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology [Boston: Cowley, 1993], p. 114). Furthermore, speaking of the idea of ‘vocation’ to one of the two paths, he writes, ‘Some were called to a strictness, some to a laxity. It naturally happened that strictness, being more difficult, was regarded as superior. So, as far as difficulty is concerned, it is; but so, as far as vocation is concerned, it is not’ (qtd. in Glen Cavaliero, Charles Williams: Poet of Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983], p. 139). Both statements seem to me to miss Christos Yannaras’s crucial insight that the ‘mystery of marriage saves natural eros—which means making it a hypostasis in the life of the Church—precisely because it grafts it into the asceticism which is the eucharistic mode of existence’ (The Freedom of Morality, trans. Elizabeth Briere [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1984], p. 165).

A more serious and disturbing problem, however, is that Williams’s personal pursuit of the ‘Romantic Way’—as Humphrey Carpenter depicts it, at any rate—suggests that the notion is potentially dangerous, and, from an Orthodox perspective, might perhaps result in πλάνη rather than salvation. See, in particular, Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), pp. 105-106, for evidence of this.

6 comments:

+Savas of Troas said...

I've read "Descent" but didn't like it enough to read any of the others. I get the impression you've done him thoroughly. I like him better quoted by others.

I don't know the particulars of his life, so can't make much of that last paragraph.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yeah, I didn't want to get into the details. I don't want this to be the kind of blog where much time is spent criticising writers' personal faults. Suffice to say, Williams's life gives me more reason to hesitate over his recommendation of the 'Romantic Way'.

I am, however, a fan of the novels (and the poetry, literary criticism, and to some extent the theology). Descent is probably my favourite as a matter of fact, so if you didn't like it, you definitely might want to avoid the others! Of course, if you were looking for something with a more entertaining, conventional plot, as opposed to the extended spiritual character studies, it's possible you might prefer War in the Heavens.

garrett said...

I agree "Descent" is truly fantastic, I am also an enormous admirer of Williams' poetry in particular but novels, criticism, and theology as well.

Have you read any of his biographies? I enjoyed them very much; they're reminiscent of, say, Chesterton's on Aquinas or Francis or Blake or Dickens in that take on more of a subjective, critical, even novelistic feel and do not gave facts the same attention as most biographers.

Williams private life is also something I'd rather not discuss, but, as I understand, you disagree with him in that the Via Positiva and Via Negativa are equal in value? I mean, maybe he undervalues some of the Fathers but don't you think they (and the ascetic strain in Christianity) have generally overshadowed the affirmative way? Aside from Dante (but this aspect is generally overlooked because he depicts sin so damn entertainingly) and Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich its pretty absent, at least in comparison to the ascetics and the "neither is this thou," e.g., pseudo-Dionysus and John of the Cross.

Oh, and if you have not already you must read the "New Christian Year"? Its a daily meditation type of thing related the liturgical calendar as can be expected. It's pretty cool, the entire thing is actually posted in the form of a blog so you can read it for free online at http://tomwills.typepad.com/thenewchristianyear/

aaronandbrighid said...

garrett> Thank you very much for the link! I look forward to following the daily selections. Unfortunately, I have not read any of Williams's biographies, though I would love to do so.

As for the Positiva/Negativa dichotomy, perhaps I've not stated this clearly enough here. It is not that they are unequal in value, but that they have been falsely dichotomised. From an Orthodox perspective, asceticism & marriage are not different 'ways' at all, rather the latter presupposes the former every bit as much as monasticism does. Being married does not exempt us from the practice of asceticism any more than being tonsured exempts us from the practice of love. The 'ascetic strain in Christianity' does not 'undervalue' marriage, but rather emphasises something which is at the heart of marriage every bit as much as it is at the heart of monasticism--self-denial. I think Chrestos Yannaras is correct when he writes:

'The "greater" possibility for realizing "true eros" lies neither in the psychological & physical aspects of the reproductive process, nor in institutional marriage, but only in the Church's asceticism. The mystery of marriage saves natural eros--which means making it a hypostasis in the life of the Church--precisely because it grafts it into the asceticism which is the eucharistic mode of existence. Under its guidance natural love becomes like the love of Christ, which accepted crucifixion; and so it realizes in itself the miracle of Christ's cross.'

Williams is hampered on this point by his Protestant heritage. Yannaras's is much the profounder understanding of asceticism.

Maxim said...

I have always been suspicious of William's brand of Spirituality, and nervous about his influences on Lewis, wherever they appear. It seems to me that, in his novels, Williams simply baptizes the Spiritist universe, and his characters, though identified as Christian, move through a cosmology which is very alien to the Church. Also, in my understanding, Williams did not invent the concept of "Substituted Love"; it seems to me that it is just simple witchcraft.

Nothing in the World is an image of God in the same way that Man is The Image Of God; that one can know, in a sense, the attributes of a creator from the aspect of his creations is true. Many elements of the character of a painter may be revealed in his works, but not in the same sense as a direct and skilled image might cause one to cry out "It's him!".

Virginity is described as gold and marriage as silver, both valuable, but one less so than the other. Who would have silver when they could have gold? But by the word of Christ, gold is only available to those "to whom it is given"; it is incumbent on those who are not given the greater to accept and cherish the lesser. Also, it could be pointed out, gold and silver may be valued differently, but they are equally fair; one wouldn't necessarily want a world in which gold was the only available substance, but a world ornamented by the differing splendors of both. This, I think, leads us in the right way of thinking on the subject; silver is the(relatively)common, and gold the rare. Ordinary life is lived among the beauties of silver, but gold is there to remind us of an uncommon richness, the direct rays of the sun rather than reflected moonlight. It is the spirituality of the ascetics which allows true chastity to be maintained in marriage, and the maintenance of pure Christian marriages which reminds the ascetic that marriage is blessed of God, and though the whole Creation may be fallen in corruption, in its pristine freshness sprung new from the hand of the Creator, it was pronounced "very good".

Anonymous said...

I loved reading Williams' novels, which I devoured and still return to. Discussions of his theology or spirituality--even by him--did/do little for me. To me,it seems a bit like going from Jesus' parables to the gospels' explanations thereof, which almost always seem to have been crafted by another hand. But then, I am a storyteller first--explanations come to me later (if at all). When I want to know how to live as a Christian, I often say to myself something like, for example, the speech of the Star of the Nativity from Auden's "For the Time Being"--the bit which begins, "Descend into the fosse of tribulation..." Thanks for the column. --Don