The Iconic and the Apophatic: Charles Williams and the Two Ways

I’m not sure when I first read the novels of Charles Williams. Perhaps in seminary. Perhaps in the early 80s. I do know that my copy of The Place of the Lion, for example, originally cost me $2.95. (Was there really a time when I could slip a dime into the machine and pull out a six-ounce bottle of Coke?)

I recall my initial response to the novels—absolute, dizzying disorientation. I had never read anything like them before. I had been an English lit major in college and had read tons and tons of British and American novels, but Williams’s novels were unlike anything I had encountered before. I am tempted to say that they are a genre unto themselves. They are often described as “supernatural thrillers.” This is accurate as far as it goes, but the novels are also so much more. At their best they might be described as epiphanies of divine mystery, whom Williams refers to as “the Mercy” and “the Omnipotence.” In the world of Charles Williams, the world of spirit indwells the world of the material. At any moment the veil between the two realms may disappear, and we are confronted with the Mystery who can be neither named nor manipulated.

And so I thought I would revisit Charles Williams during my two-week holiday in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Thanks to the recommendation of one of our readers, I chose The Place of the Lion. This was a good choice for me, as I have been reflecting recently on the apophatic experience of God in contrast to the symbolic or iconic experience of God. As Sørina Higgins notes in her blog article “Drunkards or Monks?” Williams sought to maintain a delicate balance between the Way of Negation and the Way of Affirmation. In Williams’s memorable words: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.”

C. S. Lewis describes Williams’s understanding of the two ways to God:

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 The Place of the Lion the affirmative and negative ways are represented by Anthony and Richardson. In the chapter “The Place of Friendship,” Anthony reflects on the two ways:

His friend. The many moments of joy and deep content which their room had held had in them something of the nature of holy innocence. There had been something in them which was imparted, by Love to love, and which had willed to save them now. Much was possible to a man in solitude; perhaps the final transmutations and achievements in the zones on the yonder side of the central Knowledge were possible only to the spirit in solitude. But some things were possible only to a man in companionship, and of these the most important was balance. No mind was so good that it did not need another mind to counter and equal it, and to save it from conceit and blindness and bigotry and folly. Only in such a balance could humility be found, humility which was a lucid speed to welcome lucidity whenever and wherever it presented itself. (p. 187)

In the final chapter Anthony and Richardson have the following exchange:

That strange impulse however, to which in the serious and gay humour that possessed him he had given the name of the necessity, allowed [Anthony] to wander slowly down the station road, till he saw Richardson walking swiftly along to meet him; then he quickened his own steps. They looked at each other curiously.

“And so,” Richardson said at last, “you think that the common things will return?”

“I’m quite certain of it,” Anthony said. “Won’t He have mercy on all that He’s made?”

The other shook his head, and then suddenly smiled. “Well, if you and they like it that way, there’s no more to be said,” he answered. “Myself, I think you’re only wasting time on the images.”

“Well, who made the images?” Anthony asked. “You sound like a medieval monk commenting on marriage. Don’t be so stuck-up over your old way, whatever it is. What actually is it?”

Richardson pointed to the sky. “Do you see the light of that fire?” he asked. “Yes, there. Berringer’s house has been burning all day.”

“I know, I saw it.”

“I’m going out there,” Richardson said and stopped.

“But—I’m not saying you’re wrong—but why?” Anthony asked: “Isn’t fire an image too?”

“That perhaps,” the other answered. “But all this—” he touched his clothes and himself, and his eyes grew dark with a sudden passion of desire—“has to go somehow; and if the fire that will destroy the world is here already, it isn’t I that will keep from it.”

Anthony looked at him a little ruefully. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’d hoped we might have talked more. And—you know best—but you’re quite sure you’re right? I can’t see but what the images have their place. Ex umbris perhaps, but the noon has to drive the shadows away naturally, hasn’t it?”

The other shrugged. “O I know,” he said. “It’s all been argued a hundred times, Jensenist and Jesuit, the monk and the married man, mystic and sacramentalist. But all I know is that I must make for the End when and as soon as I see it. Perhaps that’s why I am alone. But since that’s so—I’d like you, if you will, and if restoration comes, to give this book back to Berringer if he’s alive, and to keep it if he isn’t. What,” he added, “what you call alive.”

Anthony took the little parcel. “I will do it,” he said. “But I only call it alive because the images must communicate, and communication is such a jolly thing. However, I’m keeping you and I mustn’t do that … as we sacramentalists say.”

They shook hands. Then Anthony broke out again. “I do wish you weren’t—No; no, I don’t. Go with God.”

“Go with God,” the other’s more sombre voice answered. They stood for a moment, then they stepped apart, their hands went up in mutual courteous farewell, and they went their separate ways. (pp. 193-194)

One Eastern Christian writer, Aaron Taylor, has rejected Williams’s Way of Affirmation as non-Orthodox and spiritually dangerous. Do you agree?

Just the other day an Orthodox layman (ten years younger than I) shared with me the joys of living with his wife as brother and sister—the monastic way of marriage, he called it. Hmmm. I do not believe I am called to this monastic way. Perhaps I am hopelessly Williamsonian.

This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.

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8 Responses to The Iconic and the Apophatic: Charles Williams and the Two Ways

  1. Jeremiah says:

    So glad to see an Orthodox appreciation of Williams. Was a bit disappointed by Aaron’s analysis (though I love his blog) – of course the two ways depend on each other and the Church has a broader and richer understanding of ascesis that Williams would have been familiar with. But there is clearly a difference between fasting and feasting, between the practical lifestyles of monks and married persons, and between the need to say positive things about God and to place limits around our understanding; all need to be respected by individuals and balanced in the Church and there are two ways to err. (How exactly we should understand the common patristic claim that virginity is ‘superior’ and closer to perfection is vexed; I’m afraid on this point I’m inclined towards Williams view and think that for many thoughtful Orthodox there is a too-rigid understanding of patristic consensus.)

    Anyway, this selection from St Gregory the Theologian’s Dogmatic Poems always reminds me of Williams:

    In thee alone all things dwell.
    With a single impulse all things find their goal in thee.
    Thou art the purpose of every creature.
    Thou art unique.
    Thou art each one and art not any.
    Thou art not a single creature nor art thou the sum of creatures;
    All names are thine; how shall I address thee,
    Who alone cannot be named?…
    Have mercy, O thou, the Beyond All;
    How canst thou be called by any other name?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Jeremiah.

      Regarding the Eastern understanding of the marital state, I personally toward the view expressed by Paul Evdokimov in The Sacrament of Love. I agree with him that exalting the monastic state over the marital state, or vice-versa, is unhelpful. “The Gospel in its totality,” he writes, “is addressed to each person; everyone in his own situation is called to the absolute of the Gospel” (p. 65).

      I have not read much on Williams’s understanding of romantic love and so cannot comment, but I do know that he valued chastity highly. C. S. Lewis wrote the following to his brother about a lecture that he heard delivered by Williams:

      On Monday [Charles Williams] lectured nominally on [Milton’s] Comus but really on Chastity. Simply as criticism it was superb–because here was a man who really started from the same point of view as Milton and really cared with every fiber of his being about ‘the sage and serious doctrine of virginity’ which it would never occur to the ordinary modern critic to take seriously.

      But it was more important still as a sermon. It was a beautiful sight to see a whole room full of modern young men and women sitting in that absolute silence which can NOT be faked, very puzzled, but spell-bound: perhaps with something of the same feeling which a lecture on unchastity might have evoked in their grandparents–the forbidden subject broached at last. He forced them to lap it up and I think many, by the end, liked the taste more than they expected to.

      It was ‘borne in upon me’ that that beautiful carved room [in Oxford] had probably not witnessed anything so important since some of the great medieval or Reformation lectures. I have at last, if only for once, seen a university doing what it was founded to do: teaching Wisdom.

      And thanks for the quote from St Gregory!


  2. Jeremiah says:

    Just came across another quote illustrating the ‘two maxims’ (in a somewhat more paradoxical-sounding manner), from St Dionysius’s Divine Names (VII,3): “God is known both in all objects and outside all objects. God is known both through knowing and through unknowing…He is nothing of what is, and therefore cannot be known through anything that is; and yet he is all in all. He is nothing in anything; and yet he is known by all in all, at the same time as he is not known by anything in anything.”


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great citation. I wonder if Williams was acquainted with the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. There is, if I recall correctly, a reference or two to him in Place of the Lion, and the fictional document quoted in chapter 8, De Angelis by Marcellus Victorinus of Blogna, sounds like it is dependent on him. When Williams speaks of the negative way, is he thinking of Pseudo-Dionysius? Who are the sources for Williams’s understanding of negative theology?


      • Jeremiah says:

        That’s a good question. I wish more were written on him. And that his own writings were easier and cheaper to get a hold of. I have a collection of his essays, some on theology, but it is in storage. He wrote what I’m told is an interesting “history of the Church” called Descent of the Dove, and he was so widely read that I’m sure he’d be at least familiar with Dionysius. There’s a survey article here, which mentions Dionysius in passing as Wiliams’ favorite example of the negative way: (As a side note, if you haven’t read it, The Figure of Beatrice is highly recommended – it’s one of my very favorites.)


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In chapter three of The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (1939), Williams quotes all of chapter five of the Mystical Theology of Dionysius in C.E. Rolt’s 1920 translation.

    Dr. Leslie S.B. MacCoull’s ” ‘A Woman Named Damaris’: Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy in The Place of the Lion”, in The Charles Williams Quarterly, No. 129 (Winter 2008), pp. 10-20 is also relevant, here.

    Dr. MacCoull (p. 12) thinks it “plain that one of Williams’s primary inspirations for his novel […] was his reading of an English translation of the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus”, hypothesizing further “that he read and drew on John Parker’s 1894 translation of the Celestial Hierarchy”, and points to the lion, eagle, and horse in chapter 15 of that work.

    Both Parker’s and Rolt’s translations are conveniently available at the Internet Archive.


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