Spirituality, Fantasy, and the Divine Imagination

On September 12 and 13, 2020, I directed an online retreat for the Monastery of the Holy Spirit on “the Spirituality of the Divine Imagination.” The retreat draws from three beloved fantasy authors: George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis — using quotations from their writings (and the writings of others who have commented on their work) to inspire reflection on how the imagination can be at work in our spiritual lives today.

Participants of the retreat asked me for copies the quotations we’ve used. So here they are, along with links to Amazon if you wish to purchase the books being quoted (disclaimer: these are affiliate links and I will receive a small commission, at no extra charge to you, if you follow the link and make a purchase).

Please bear in mind that these quotations (with the exception of the one from me) are anywhere from 50 – 150 years old. Therefore, some of the language is gendered and male-centric, and refers to God in exclusively masculine ways, as was customary for the time.

Three Quotes to Get Us Started

To him who can thank God with free heart for his good wine, there is a glad significance in the fact that our Lord’s first miracle was this turning of water into wine. It is a true symbol of what he has done for the world in glorifying all things. With his divine alchemy he turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries, yea, every meal into a eucharist, and the jaws of the sepulchre into an outgoing gate. I do not mean that he makes any change in the things or ways of God, but a mighty change in the hearts and eyes of men, so that God’s facts and God’s meanings become their faiths and their hopes.

— George MacDonald, The Miracles of Our Lord

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” from Tales from the Perilous Realm

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… Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.

— C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

C. S. Lewis on George MacDonald

From the introduction to George MacDonald:

Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius… who can make such a story… [Myth-making] may even be one of the greatest arts; for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. It is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry—or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and “possessed joys not promised to our birth.” It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.

Evelyn Underhill on C.S. Lewis’s Attitude Toward Animals

In a letter to Lewis, Underhill responds to this line from The Problem of Pain: “The tame animal is in the deepest sense the only natural animal… the beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and  through man to God.” Her reply:

This seems to me frankly an intolerable doctrine and a frightful exaggeration of what is involved in the primacy of man. Is the cow which we have turned into a milk machine or the hen we have turned into an egg machine really nearer the mind of God than its wild ancestor? … You surely can’tmean that, or think that the robin redbreast in a cage doesn’t put heaven in a rage but is regarded as an excellent arrangement. Your own example of the good-man, good-wife, and good-dog in the good homestead is a bit smug and utilitarian, don’t you think, over against the wild beauty of God’s creative action in the jungle and the deep sea? And if we ever get a sideway glimpse of the animal-in-itself, the animal existing for God’s glory and pleasure and lit by His light (and what a lovely experience that is!), we don’t owe it to the Pekinese, the Persian Cat or the canary, but to some wild free creature living in completeness of adjustment to Nature a life that is utterly independent of man. And this, thank Heaven, is the situation of all but the handful of creatures we have enslaved… Perhaps what it all comes to is this, that I feel your concept of God would be improved by just a touch of wildness.

The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, edited by Charles Williams

More Quotes for Reflection (and Imagination!)

Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

— C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

“On one level, the second half of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a symphony of soundlessness, exploring how different types of silence can embody different spiritual qualities. From the silence of the Dufflepud island, filled with the distracting inanities of its residents, to the ominous stillness of the dark island, to the serenity of Ramandu’s island, where the rhythm of the crashing surf provides a hypnotic soundscape, we have come at last to the mystical quiet of the last sea, where everyone voluntarily observes the deep yet luminous silence, creating a kind of reverence that we might associate with cathedrals or monasteries. This is the joyful peace of a mature contemplative life, a life that drinks deeply of the clear waters of the soul, where even one’s own deep unconscious and shadow reside in a clarity provided by the brilliant yet safe light of truth. Compare the crystal clarity of the last sea with earlier descriptions of water: the storm out of which the sea serpent emerged; the treacherous pool that came to be known as Deathwater, and the foreboding dark waters surrounding the island where dreams come true. We learn through this voyage that much of what lies “in the depths” (whether of our subconscious, or of the mystery of the cosmos) remains hidden, and may well be dangerous. But now, having passed through so many trials and finding the humility to feast at Aslan’s Table, and having become quite familiar with silence in its many forms, the Dawn Treader at last brings its crew to a place where what is above and what is below, what dwells in the air (the mind) and what dwells underwater (the heart), all serenely come together in a single radiance.

— Carl McColman, The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader

“I am always hearing. . . the sound of a far off song. I do not exactly know where it is, or what it means; and I don’t hear much of it, only the odour of its music, as it were, flitting across the great billows of the ocean outside this air in which I make such a storm; but what I do hear, is quite enough to make me able to bear the cry from the drowning ship. So it would you if you could hear it.’
‘No it wouldn’t,’ returned Diamond stoutly. ‘For they wouldn’t hear the music of the far-away song; and if they did, it wouldn’t do them any good. You see you and I are not going to be drowned, and so we might enjoy it.’
“But you have never heard the psalm, and you don’t know what it is like. Somehow, I can’t say how, it tells me that all is right; that it is coming to swallow up all the cries. . . . It wouldn’t be the song it seems if it did not swallow up all their fear and pain too, and set them singing it themselves with all the rest.” 

— George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind

The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

All that night and all next day they glided eastward, and when the third day dawned—with a brightness you or I could not bear even if we had dark glasses on—they saw a wonder ahead. It was as if a wall stood up between them and the sky, a greenish-gray, trembling, shimmering wall. Then up came the sun, and at its first rising they saw it through the wall and it turned into wonderful rainbow colors. Then they knew that the wall was really a long, tall wave—a wave endlessly fixed in one place as you may often see at the edge of a waterfall. It seemed to be about thirty feet high, and the current was gliding them swiftly toward it. You might have supposed they would have thought of their danger. They didn’t. I don’t think anyone could have in their position. For now they saw something not only behind the wave but behind the sun. They could not have seen even the sun if their eyes had not been strengthened by the water of the Last Sea. But now they could look at the rising sun and see it clearly and see things beyond it. What they saw—eastward, beyond the sun—was a range of mountains. It was so high that either they never saw the top of it or they forgot it. None of them remembers seeing any sky in that direction. And the mountains must really have been outside the world. For any mountains even a quarter of a twentieth of that height ought to have had ice and snow on them. But these were warm and green and full of forests and waterfalls however high you looked. And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them. It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterward. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy. 

— C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it.

— George MacDonald, quoted by C.S. Lewis in George MacDonald

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire, though the subject may not at once recognise the fact and thus cries out for his lost youth of soul at the very moment in which he is being rejuvenated. This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it. ‘Oh to feel as I did then!’ we cry; not noticing that even while we say the words the very feeling whose loss we lament is rising again in all its old bitter-sweetness. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.

— C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

Each of us is a distinct flower or tree in the spiritual garden of God,– precious, each for his own sake, in the eyes of him who is even now making us,–each of us watered and shone upon and filled with life, for the sake of his flower, his completed being, which will blossom out of him at last to the glory and pleasure of the great gardener. For each has within him a secret of the Divinity; each is growing towards the revelation of that secret to himself, and so to the full reception, according to his measure, of the divine. Every moment that he is true to his true self, some new shine of the white stone breaks on his inward eye, some fresh channel is opened upward for the coming glory of the flower, the conscious offering of his whole being in beauty to the Maker. Each man, then, is in God’s sight worth. Life and action, thought and intent, are sacred. And what an end lies before us! To have a consciousness of our own ideal being flashed into us from the thought of God! Surely for this may well give way all our paltry self-consciousnesses, our self-admirations and self-worships! Surely to know what he thinks about us will pale out of our souls all our thoughts about ourselves! and we may well hold them loosely now, and be ready to let them go. Towards this result St Paul had already drawn near, when he who had begun the race with a bitter cry for deliverance from the body of his death, was able to say that he judged his own self no longer.

— George MacDonald, “The New Name” (from Unspoken Sermons)

The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The next hour, the next moment, is as much beyond our grasp and as much in God’s care, as that a hundred years away. Care for the next minute is just as foolish as care for the morrow, or for a day in the next thousand years—in neither can we do anything, in both God is doing everything. Those claims only of the morrow which have to be prepared today are of the duty of today: the moment which coincides with work to be done, is the moment to be minded; the next is nowhere till God has made it.

— George MacDonald, quoted by C.S. Lewis in George MacDonald

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.                                            

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

And as Aslan spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

— C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

The care that is filling your mind at this moment, or but waiting till you lay the book aside to leap upon you—that need which is no need, is a demon sucking at the spring of your life. “No; mine is a reasonable care—an unavoidable care, indeed.” Is it something you have to do this very moment? “No.” Then you are allowing it to usurp the place of something that is required of you this moment. “There is nothing required of me at this moment.” Nay but there is—the greatest thing that can be required of man. “Pray, what is it?” Trust in the living God.… “I do trust Him in spiritual matters.” Everything is an affair of the spirit.

— George MacDonald, quoted by C.S. Lewis in George MacDonald

“Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

And that would have been the very end of the story if it hadn’t been that they felt they really must explain to the Professor why four of the coats out of his wardrobe were missing. And the Professor, who was a very remarkable man, didn’t tell them not to be silly or not to tell lies, but believed the whole story. “No,” he said, “I don’t think it will be any good trying to go back through the wardrobe door to get the coats. You won’t get into Narnia again by that route. Nor would the coats be much use by now if you did! Eh? What’s that? Yes, of course you’ll get back to Narnia again someday. Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia. But don’t go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don’t try to get there at all. It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it. And don’t talk too much about it even among yourselves. And don’t mention it to anyone else unless you find that they’ve had adventures of the same sort themselves. What’s that? How will you know? Oh, you’ll know all right. Odd things they say—even their looks—will let the secret out. Keep your eyes open. Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”

— C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Featured photo: Fran and Carl McColman visiting the grave of Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien, July 3, 2017. Photo by David Cole.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.