C.S. Lewis and Bede Griffiths: Spiritual Friendship
It was through him (Lewis) that I really discovered the
meaning of friendship….When we last met, a month
before his death, he reminded me that we had been
friends for nearly forty years. There are not many things
more precious to me than that friendship.
“The Adventure of Faith”
A man should keep his friendship in constant repair.
C.S. Lewis was one of the most prominent Medieval and Renaissance scholars at, initially, Oxford then Cambridge, from the 1930s until 1963 (when he died). Bede Griffiths was, as a young man, a student of Lewis, and, both men came to Christianity together from about 1929-1932. The relationship, as time unfolded, changed from teacher-student to, through many a trying moment, pure gold friends. It is somewhat significant that Bede Griffiths gave Lewis a copy of Aelrid of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship (acknowledged by Lewis in a letter to Griffiths: May 26 1943). Aelrid was the much loved Abbot of Rievaulx and his missive on “spiritual friendship” is a classic in western spirituality. It is quite appropriate that Lewis and Griffiths (both immersed in the mother lode of the classical and western tradition with a generous openness to the East and Orient) would have held high the notion of friendship and Aelrid’s beauty of a text on the subject.
I have, for many a decade and for different reasons, been attracted to both Lewis and Griffiths, and my small book, C.S. Lewis and Bede Griffiths: Chief Companions (2016) highlights the layered friendship between Lewis and Griffiths over many a decade. Griffiths, after the death of Lewis in 1963, often came to the defence of Lewis in The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. The fact that few Griffiths keeners know much about the many letters by Griffiths to The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal means a significant aspect of both Griffiths’ and Lewis’ friendship is not known about. The more the letters by Griffiths about Lewis to the Journal are read and pondered, the richer becomes our understanding of Lewis and Griffiths (and their friendship). And, as Griffiths noted, “There are not many things more precious to me than that friendship”.
It is somewhat interesting that many a fan of Lewis knows little about the Lewis-Griffiths friendship and, equally so, many who have the highest admiration for Griffiths know little about Griffiths’ close friendship with Lewis. Why is this the case? There are tendencies, of course, to freeze thinkers and activists within certain time frames, then reduce their complexity and nimbleness to simplistic categories. Creative, thoughtful and innovative thinkers can rarely be cabin’d, cribb’d and confin’d in such a way, but often followers and interpreters do this for the purpose of comparing and contrasting, highlighting who best reflects their agendas. Lewis and Griffiths, decidedly so, elude such caging and embalming. Lewis certainly cannot be reduced to an apologist for reformed and evangelical Christianity no more than he can be defined as a conservative/republican in politics—sadly so, this has often been done. Lewis is much more catholic and spacious than his followers and adherents make him out to be. The same can be said about Griffiths. How is Griffiths to be interpreted? Was he, at day’s end, a sophisticated syncretist or a Roman Catholic with an achingly high view of common grace? Was Griffiths merely a post-Vatican II progressive or more of a patristic contemplative theologian that applied Classical Christian meditative thought to comparative religions? How are we to read and interpret the nuanced and subtle insights and wisdom of Lewis and Griffiths? The danger, as mentioned above, is to simplify their thinking for the purpose of too easy categorization.
The fact that Lewis and Griffiths had a decades long friendship should caution one and all about studying one to the exclusion of the other. There are more than forty letters between 1929 and 1960 that Lewis wrote about Griffiths or to Griffiths. Most of these letters cover the main themes of faith, contemplation, literature, politics, war/peace, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, Biblical criticism and church life. After Lewis died in the autumn of 1963 (Griffiths was in India by that time), Griffiths wrote two articles on Lewis (“The Adventure of Faith: 1979” and “Forty Years’ Retrospective: 2001”) that described and discussed their ever deepening friendship. “The Adventure of Faith” is a much longer, in depth and detailed article, whereas “Forty Years’ Retrospective” (originally published in The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal, Summer 1984) is shorter and more poignant. I’m quite fortunate to have the only hard bound editions of The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal that Stephen Scofield started in 1979 and passed onto Roger Stronstad in 1993. I also have the letters by Griffiths to Scofield in a file, including his final letter to the Journal (April 21 1990) in which Griffiths defends Lewis against unnecessary remarks by both the Bishop of Oxford (Richard Harries) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Robert Runcie). The friendship of Griffiths towards Lewis did extend until near the end of Griffiths’ all too human journey in 1993.
It is somewhat significant that when Lewis published his first rather abstract faith autobiography, The Pilgrim’s Regress, in 1933, Griffiths charged into the book review fray and attempted to correct his former teacher on his use of “mother kirk”. Lewis, in a couple of letters to Griffiths in 1936, cautioned the too triumphalistic Griffiths to be less confrontational and more ecumenic and irenic—their friendship was sorely tested by Griffiths’ review but Lewis made it clear that friendships that cannot weather the storms of ecclesial schism need much pondering. There can be no doubt that the young Griffiths (then in his late twenties) learned much from the gracious mentoring of Lewis. It is understandable, therefore, near the end of Griffiths’ life why he came to Lewis’ defence in The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal.
The publication in 1948 of Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain sold well and in haste. Both Lewis and Griffiths were ripe to tell their tales given the success of Merton’s autobiography. The publication of The Golden String and Surprised by Joy (which was dedicated to Bede Griffiths) were both published in the early years of the 1950s. Lewis was much better known than Griffiths at the time, but Griffiths was definitely emerging into his vocation. India was yet before him, the seeds were in the soil and within a decade Griffiths would leave England and settle in India. But, both men in their sensitive and probing autobiographies made it abundantly clear that their pilgrimages to Christianity took place together between 1929-1932 —-Lewis, in fact, called Griffiths his “chief companion” on his pathway to Christianity. Needless to say, their faith journeys would take them on many an unanticipated trail after 1932, but it was their friendship that knit them together. Probably, one of the most significant issues for Lewis and Griffiths after their conversions was the needful pondering of contemplative interfaith dialogue. Griffiths would take the lead on this in the 1940s and 1950s (and, in time, become a definite elder, abba and pioneer in the area). But, in the 1930s and 1940s, the seed was still in the soil awaiting the appropriate season to break through its constricting skin and, in time, bear much fruit.
It should probably be noted at this point that as Griffiths was deepening his contemplative journey the leading lady in England of the mystical and meditative way was Evelyn Underhill. It is somewhat interesting that Underhill is never mentioned by Griffiths in his autobiography given her prominence in unearthing both the breadth of the Christian contemplative way and her interest in Indian thought. Underhill, in her waning years, did correspond with Lewis from 1938-1941. I suspect some work needs yet to be done on Griffiths-Underhill and Baron Von Hugel (Underhill’s Roman Catholic spiritual director).
It is valuable to note that Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford from 1936-1952. Both Griffiths and Lewis have been well aware of his significant position and interpretations of Hinduism and Indian philosophical and religious thought. Radhakrishnan served two terms as President of India. It is equally import to not that when Radhakrishnan left for India, R.C. Zaehner replaced Radhakrishnan as the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics from 1952 until the time of his death in 1974. Radhakrishnan and Zaehner were both highly qualified scholars, but they could not be more different in their reads of Indian thought and culture. Lewis was the point person in the Socratic Club at Oxford in the 1940s-early 1950s (when he was left for Cambridge), but he had Zaehner lecture to the Socratic Club. When Griffiths left for India, and year after year wrote more articles on Christianity and Hinduism, he sent them to Lewis who cheered him onwards. Lewis, as I mentioned above, died in 1963, but he had read most of Griffiths’ articles with much keen interest that were eventually published as Christian Ashram or in 1966, in the American edition as Christ in India: Essays Towards A Hindu-Christian Dialogue. Those who are unaware of Lewis’s interest in interfaith issues do need to reflect on his journey with Griffiths, his friendship with Zaehner and the fact of the presence of Radhakrishnan at Oxford in Lewis’ prime years there. There are a variety of leads in Lewis’ writings that point to his commitment to the larger interfaith issues, and there can be no doubt his friendship with Griffiths contributed significantly to such a commitment.
I had much interest in the early 1980s, when doing an MA in Religious Studies at University of British Columbia, in studying Zaehner. In fact, I did my graduating essay on Zaehner. My interest in Griffiths was very much front and centre in such years also. It was in the late 1980s that I corresponded with Bede Griffiths about Zaehner and many other issues—he was quite generous in his reponses. I was quite gratified to read, a few years ago, a PHD by Albano Fernandes called The Hindu Mystical Experience: A Comparative Philosophical Study of the Approaches of R.C. Zaehner and Bede Griffiths (2004). There tend to be those who pit Zaehner against Griffiths and Griffiths against Zaehner, but both men need to be read and pondered together to get a good fix and feel for the layered level of contemplative interfaith dialogue. Fernandes, in his meticulous thesis, does such a deed well and wisely.
Bede Griffiths, as monk, would have lived through and internalized the Psalms once a week. C.S. Lewis, ever faithful to the Prayer Book and morning, midday and evening prayers, would have, in a lectio divina manner, have meditatively walked through the confessional nature of the Psalms once a month. Both men were drawn to the deeper and more perennial theses of the Psalms but both were concerned with some of the more war like, vindictive and violent psalms. Lewis and Griffiths published, for different reasons and from different angles, books on the Psalms. Reflections on the Psalms and Psalms for Christian Prayer are Lewis and Griffiths at their insightful and probing best and must reads. It is easy to see, when reading these missives, how their souls were knit together in a friendship on the deeper issues.
There have been many biographies, articles and booklets published on Lewis and Griffiths (more on Lewis than Griffiths), but none have yet dealt with, in any serious or substantive way, the many letters that passed between Lewis and Griffiths and their endearing friendship. My book, C.S. Lewis and Bede Griffiths: Chief Companions (2016), is the first missive of sorts to deal with this much neglected topic, and I will be doing a four part “Preached Retreat” at New Camaldoli Monastery from April 21-23 2017 on the topic. I’m quite grateful and gratified that I will have the honor and privilege of staying in Bruno Barnhart’s cell when at New Camaldoli. New Camaldoli has been at the forefront of holding high Bede Griffiths significance for 20th century and 21st century spirituality, and Bruno’s tome, The One Light: Bede Griffiths’ Principal Writings (2001) is a must read in such a contribution as has the writings of Thomas Matus, Robert Hale and Cyprian Consiglio. I anticipate my conversations with Thomas, Robert and Cyprian when I remain at New Camaldoli until April 30, Bruno’s cell being an obvious inspiration and ikon of sorts.
Amor Vincit Omnia