Monday, 13 May 2019

Many Mansions: Charles Williams, Modernity, and the Mass - guest post by John Fitzgerald

There is much to be gained, I feel, in reading and reflecting on the work of Charles Williams in the midst of the political, social and cultural turbulence of our times. His concepts of co-inherence, substitution and exchange form, to my mind, a razor-sharp riposte to both the atomised individualism of the free-market right and the divisive identity politics of the liberal left.

 The individual, first and foremost, is sacrosanct for Williams. Personhood, for him, cannot be subsumed into the collectivities of race (Fascism) or class (Communism). But this by no means makes Williams an individualist. The person is a unique, unrepeatable being with a high and holy calling. But he or she is not a random, free-floating agent, shorn of ties to the past and future and operating in a sealed off, customised bubble of the self. No. The individual, in a society which genuinely aims at the Good, forms part of an organic whole, grounded in history and oriented towards the Divine. Through participating in a deep-rooted project which transcends the individual self, men and women are saved from alienation and despair and given purpose and direction. In service we find our freedom - a wider, more comprehensive good, which neither obliterates nor idolises the individual self, but allows what is unique and unrepeatable in each of us to flourish and shine.

Everything co-inheres for Williams, not just the political and social realms, but the whole universe. There is no boundary between the living and the dead and the natural and the super-natural (or 'arch-natural' as Williams called it). We are all interlinked and interconnected. The dead pray for the living as the living pray for the dead, and the natural and arch-natural worlds form one and the same reality.

This is what Williams depicts in his poem Taliessin on the Death of Virgil (from his 1938 collection Taliessin Through Logres), where those who have drawn sustenance from Virgil's poetry down the centuries save him from post-mortem oblivion and guide him towards salvation:

In that hour they came; more and faster, they sped
to their dead master; they sought him to save
from the spectral grave and the endless falling,
who had heard, for their own instruction, the sound of his calling.
There was intervention, suspension, the net of their loves,
all their throng's songs:
Virgil, master and friend,
holy poet, priest, president of priests,
prince long since of all our energies' end,
deign to accept adoration, and what salvation
may reign here by us, deign of goodwill to endure,
in this net of obedient loves, doves of your cote and wings,
Virgil, friend, lover, and lord.

Virgil was fathered of his friends.
He lived in their ends.
He was set on the marble of exchange.

There is a marvellous outpouring of gratitude here for one who gave so much to so many but now lies helpless - a mutuality, reciprocity and relationally which we in the contemporary West would do well to tune into and put into practice. But even if Williams' ideas were successfully transposed to the political and social spheres, it would still (one imagines) take decades to reorientate society from today's dominant materialist paradigm to this generous, all-encompassing vision of the visible and invisible working in tandem for the common good.

The buffered, 'secular self' of post-Enlightenment modernity acts as a brake on human flourishing. In denying the reality of the arch-natural it cuts us off from the Divine and stifles our potential. It serves as a limit rather than a liberation, and for meaningful change to occur, in either the individual or the corporate realms, this reductionist barrier has to be dismantled.

This is where Williams comes into his own as an unveiler of the sacramental nature of reality and the deep pattern of meaning and purpose woven into creation. This quality is embedded in everything he wrote - novels, theology, literary criticism and poetry - but I want to single out in this brief essay the way he portrays the Mass in his poem Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass (the concluding poem of Taliessin Through Logres) and the final chapter of his novel War in Heaven (1930). The Mass is especially important because natural elements (bread and wine) become imbued with arch-natural significance and there is a profoundly Williamsesque intertwining of levels. Taliessin at Lancelot's Mass paints an evocative picture of solidarity between the living and the dead and a renewed sense of purpose and direction after the passing of Arthur. Logres is broken and has sunk into Britain, but that is a minor detail in this great poem of reparation and fraternity, which gathers the whole Arthurian community - living and deceased - in thanksgiving for what has gone before and in anticipation of the restoration, at the appointed hour, of God's holy kingdom. It is a poem which encourages us to see further than the premises of a materialist science allow and to feel ourselves part of a wider community of seen and unseen presences:

In the ritual before the altar Lancelot began to pass;
all the dead lords of the table were drawn from their graves to the Mass;
they stood, inward turned, as shields on a white rushing deck,
Between Nimue of Broceliande and Helayne of Carbonek ...

Then at the altar We sang in Our office the cycle of names
of the great attributed virtues; the festival of flames
fell from new sky to new earth; the light in bands
of bitter glory renewed the imperial lands.

At the end of War in Heaven, the legendary Grail Priest and King, Prester John, celebrates a Mass of the Holy Grail (or Graal, as Williams calls it) in thanks for the rescue of a four year old boy, Adrian, the son of Lionel and Barbara Rackstraw, from black magicians who also aimed to destroy the Grail itself. Those attending the Mass - the Duke of the North Ridings, for instance - become aware of other presences around them:

The Duke leaned forward a little in perplexity; he saw the forms with which he was acquainted, but here and there, only always just to one side or in some corner, he seemed to see other forms. They had vanished in a moment, yet they had been there. He had caught certain of the faces which he knew in the great gallery of the ancestors in the Castle, and other faces more antique and foreign than these, a turbaned head, a helmed and armoured shape, outlandish robes, and the glint of many crowns. They had vanished, and he saw Adrian plunge to his feet and go to the celebrant's side. And clear and awful to his ears their voices floated.

Then comes a moment of radiant luminosity when the veil of perception is lifted, time and space are transcended, and Lionel, Barbara and the Duke are shown a world of three-dimensional grandeur and depth, as in C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle, when, in the final chapter, the protagonists see all the countries in all the worlds, including Narnia and England, jutting out like spurs from the towering mountains of Aslan's country:

He (Prester John) stood. He moved his hands. As if in benediction He moved them, and at once the golden halo that had hung all this while over the Graal dissolved and dilated into spreading colour; and at once life leapt in all those who watched, and filled and flooded and exalted them. "Let us make man," he sang, "in our image, after Our likeness," and all the church of visible and invisible presences answered with a roar: "In the image of God created He him: male and female created He them." All things began again to be. At a great distance Lionel and Barbara and the Duke saw beyond Him, as he lifted up the Graal, the mixing universe of stars, and then one flying planet, and then fields and rooms and a thousand remembered places, and all in light and darkness and peace.

'The privileged place of encounter,' wrote Pope Francis in 2015, 'is the caress of mercy of Jesus Christ on my sins ... It is thanks to the embrace of mercy that one feels like answering and changing, and from which a different life can flow.' This is undoubtedly true, particularly on a personal level, yet I feel we also need a sense of the vast array of spiritual forces lined up on our side - the serried ranks of angels and archangels and the Communion of Saints, who watch over us and encourage us at all times.

There have been novels and films aplenty, over the years, about the demonic influences pressing against us, but little concerning the powers for good who work invisibly for the salvation and transfiguration of individuals and nations. This is precisely the kind of awareness we need at this time - a breaking open of the small, empirical self and a growing consciousness of the all-embracing pattern that holds us, nurtures us and makes us active participants in a meaningful universe.

A happy, fulfilled society should be a partnership between those here now, those gone before us, and those yet to come. But such wide-ranging vision will always feel beyond us if we cannot perceive the spiritual reality that surrounds and enfolds us. 'In my father's house are many mansions,' says Christ in St. John's Gospel. There is no-one better, for where we are now in history, at pointing the way to these mansions than Charles Williams.

I am sure that as time goes on people will feel increasingly trapped and boxed-in by the bureaucratic, technocratic cage of hyper-modernity. I hope and pray that their search for an 'off-ramp' leads them to Charles Williams and that his collapsing of borders between the natural and arch-natural worlds gives them the hope, sustenance and clarity of vision that they need. Williams' finest hour, perhaps, might be just around the corner.

John Fitzgerald blogs at Deep Britain and Ireland


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! That note that "Everything co-inheres for Williams, not just the political and social realms, but the whole universe" also finds its expression in his accent on what he sees as the whole range of 'bear ye one another's burdens', which includes the very practical everyday things like actually carrying a parcel for someone. Thinking of that, Tolstoy's wonderful little story, 'Three Questions', sprang to mind as not unrelated. (A scan of an American edition of the Maudes's translation, What Men Live By, and Other Tales, including it, is in the Internet Archive. I know he had something to do with an OUP edition of Tolstoy in his job there, so he may have enjoyed it himself, in the line of work!)

David Llewellyn Dodds

pdp1134 said...

I am so glad to read this! For years I've wished I could mull over what I've read (and re-read) in Charles Williams' books with someone, and this post helps a lot. Even the comment mentions one of very favorite passages from Descent into Hell about bearing one another's burdens.
I think your essay will help as I undertake my next rereading of his books.
Thanks for posting! It is appreciated!

Michael Sprague

The Contributor said...

Great piece. I can't remember if it was T.S. Elliot or C.S. Lewis or W.H. Auden who said something to the effect of reading Charles Williams and meeting him rendered the same effect. I've been a fan of his for decades now, and some of his least heralded works have been a blessing to me for most of that time. They are a his devotional collections of quotes, The Passion of The Christ (1939) and The New Christian Year (1941). They are full of quotes from the "Saints and doctors of the church" as he put it rather than modern writers. I know of no other modern writer who had such a dialogue with long dead early church fathers, medieval mystics and cutting edge theologians then C.W. When he wrote those, he was quoting liberally from the Paradise of the Fathers, John Donne's sermons, Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. Barth and Kierkegaard were just being translated at the time into English and so many of his other sources gave him a time portal to contrast and speak to the modern condition. I've been reprinting them as a daily blog for 15 years or so at and on facebook at #TheNewChristianYear.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Eliot (in the piece reprinted e.g. as preface in the Eerdmans Descent into Hell - though I have not tried to double-check). I never tire of drawing people's attention to the handy online New Christian Year and Passion of the Christ - where the indexing also lets one browse with an ease the physical books do not allow.

When I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Dame Helen Gardner and asking her about the Inklings and Williams in particular, she had high praise for The New Christian Year, recalling disagreeing with Williams when he seemed too self-deprecating about it - and (unless I misunderstood her) reread it year after year, always finding (effectively new) things to ponder (as I think I may have commented somewhere here before...).

I have certainly enjoyed spending more than one year with it, day by day, after hearing that (and finding a second-hand copy, back in the day).

David Llewellyn Dodds