Sunday, 7 September 2014

"...And when I tried to pray I found the line 'dead'" - what to do when disconnected from God (Christians are pagan as well as Christian - therefore we can use pagan remedies)


Dairy of Warnie Lewis (C.S. Lewis's brother) for 4 March 1948.

Whether from cold, temper, depression, or all three, I had a shocking night, and when I tried to pray I found the line 'dead'. 

This poignant comment comes from a day when Warnie returned to an unwelcoming home from hospital; where he had landed after a severe and prolonged alcoholic binge. The cause of the binge he gives as "the wearisome cycle of insomnia-drugs-depression-spirits-illness".

So there are many possible reasons from religious, through psychological and including physical why Warnie had a shocking night that particular night - but his experience of finding 'the line dead' when he tried to pray (and most needed help) is what jumped out at me; because I suppose all Christians have experienced this to a greater or lesser extent.


When the benefits of prayer are most needed, sometimes - and for whatever reason - the 'connection' to God just doesn't seem to work.

What then? Clearly some kind of Plan B is required; and what 'works' (if anything) will depend on the individual.

Anything requiring other people (such as attending liturgy or participating in Mass) is not timely. Reading scripture works for some people, but again may not be possible - indeed, powers of concentration may be too poor.

One neglected possibility may be to dwell upon a very simple (child-like) vision of the nature of existence - that the world around us is alive and that there is a benign personage behind it all.

There may be some such positive and connective vision in the mind - perhaps from memories of childhood or happy times; perhaps from a book or a movie.


The idea is that feeling disconnected, alienated and existentially-alone is the worst thing and prevents any better things; and the remedy cannot be complex or nuanced.

Christians are pagan as well as Christian; pagans first and naturally - with Christian understanding and goals added onto that.

Paganism is what connects us with the world - Christianity is what explains the meaning and purpose of this connection.


This means that there can be (and should be) 'pagan' solutions to Christian problems.

This happens when the basic problem (e.g. disconnection from Life) may be pre-Christian or sub-Christian; and then pagan remedies (such as re-connection) may be necessary, or at least work better than jumping ahead to specifically-Christian solutions.

This is not un-Christian but simple realism. Christianity includes and transcends all the goods of paganism: why not use them when they work?



Swedish reader said...

Got any examples of such pagan methods?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sr - I am mainly thinking of animistic modes of awareness

Jon Behrens said...

The simplest and most direct answer to your final question is because God says not to.

Here's one of those places where the Old Testament comes to the rescue. A close reading of the unfortunate incident of the Golden Calf in Exodus shows that what you suggest is precisely what the Israelites were trying to accomplish.

Moses had gone up the mountain and was there 40 days. Since he was their connection to God, the people panicked and demanded that Aaron provide them with a pagan solution to the loss of their guide. Notice that in Ex 32:5 Aaron specifically says that they will hold a feast to YHVH in front of the calf.

Subsequent events show that God was not pleased with their pagan solution to loss of communication with Him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JB - That was because worship of idols was explicitly forbidden. But that is not the point I was making. If you are determined to misunderstand then I, of course, cannot prevent you from doing so.

Jon Behrens said...

I've annoyed for which I apologize. You asked a serious and important question. My answer was intended to be in the same vein.

If you don't like the Golden Calf example, consider Saul and the Witch at Endor. There Saul explicitly says that none of the authorized methods of communicating with God are getting answers so he consults a necromancer.

My points are two: the first is that God prohibits using pagan methods to connect with him. One might speculate as to why, but the fact remains that He forbids mixing worship of Him with the ways that pagans connect to their gods. The second is that you had, in an earlier post, speculated about the size and purpose of the Old Testament. One way I regard it is as a series of case studies. In that view, many of these questions you ask have already been explored.

Again, sorry to have offended.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JB - Whether I am offended makes no difference; but I deplore your attitude. It is analogous to those who regard the Harry Potter books as evil because they are about magic and 'the Bible says' that magic is prohibited. Yet in reality the Harry Potter books are profoundly Christian (as demonstrated conclusively by John Granger's book - or even on this blog -

Read CS Lewis on paganism - I am merely 'channelling' him in making this point. Christianity is not separable from paganism - Christianity *just is* paganism-plus (that 'plus', of course, ruling-out a fair bit of paganism in the process).

For example, most of the Christian virtues are also pagan - as Lewis describes in Mere Christianity.

Vast harm has been done, and continues to be done, by trying to separate Christianity from paganism - what is left at the end of this process is something maimed and dead.

Furthermore, the Bible cannot be understood unless it is recognized that most good-paganism is simply taken for granted - so not everything needs explicitly to be said, and is not therefore explicitly said.

Leo said...

That the world around us is alive and that there is a benign personage behind it all is a truth seen by both Christians and pagans and often not seen by moderns. As Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

When the line is dead is when one may need to pray most. There are many reasons why the line might have gone dead. Among them is the possibility that we have cut it ourselves by our behavior by omission or commission. In such a state it might be advisable to go back mentally to a moment when one did feel connectedness as you suggest. If one feels tempest tossed, at the very least he should take care to steady the ship as best he can until the storm passes.

Adam G. said...

I don't see this "pagan" method as idolatrous at all. Wholesomeness and beauty and creation are excellent routes to God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam and Leo - I suspect that the usual advice is to pray more - but if the situation is desperate and prayer is 'not working' there are other things that can be done which might be effective.

Ideally, I think we should each have a repertoire of things that seem to 'work for us'. Some of these may be non-Christian or even sub-Christian (like certain types of meditation, or reading something that is not scripture - a particular poem or novel; a piece of music; or watching a particular movie perhaps) - but may get us into a position where normal Christian practice can be resumed.

Leo said...


We all go through dry spots or down times. A particular poem or a particular piece of music may very much be normal Christian practice, as might be a walk in the garden or in the woods. Very normative I would say. And we hope there is always a good friend or patient family member.

As a doctor you may see cases that are out of the normal range, perhaps with a biochemical basis.

I once heard of a case where a man had totally lost his ability to retain short term memories. But music brought him back, but only while it was playing. He was largely non-functional, except he could still direct his old choir.

Music must lie very deep in the brain. Or maybe we are only truly ourselves when we are in tune with the heavenly.