Looking for a mentor? Your best spiritual mentors are probably already dead.
Living saints make good mentors, but don’t overlook the depth of spiritual direction we’ve already received from brothers and sisters gone on before us. Joining in the “communion of the saints” is a vital way of growing and learning, walking our days in the company of good men and holy women of old.
Over the last number of months, I’ve been walking more closely with C.S. Lewis again. After reading an early biography of Lewis by Hooper and Green in December, I dug into Mere Christianity (on audio from the library), a book that I’ve read a few times in the past. I couldn’t get enough of it, listening three times through, reflecting on his depth of insight and how his view of the Christian life helps me personally and pastorally. As I listened, there were moments of insight regarding situations I was facing, people I have been counseling, priorities I was struggling with. Like any good mentor, he has been able to speak into my life and guide me toward wisdom. After reading The Great Divorce over Christmas, I then pulled a Lewis anthology off my shelf for 2016–The Business of Heaven takes short portions from Lewis’ theological works and sorts them into 365 daily readings. Other writings will round out the year. Lewis has mentored me in the past, and I’m walking with him again this year. More than once I’ve thanked God for his gift of Lewis to me.
There are many other mentors. Some are contemporaries, having passed into glory only recently, like Henri Nouwen, Elizabeth Eliot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Lesslie Newbigin. Reaching further back we can walk with George MacDonald or even Teresa of Avila. For the stouter of heart, we can be mentored by some of the prolific theologians who’ve shaped us as a church, men like Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Wesley. And then we can venture further back yet to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the early church fathers, saints of old who offer a stunning depth of insight crossing time, space and culture in surprising, Spirit-filled ways.
Lewis himself, in his introduction to Athanasius’s work On the Incarnation, extolled the value of old books, arguing that by accessing writers of old (dare I say, dead mentors?) we are able to recognize errors of today.
Here’s how he said it:
“The only palliative [for our contemporary blindness to shared error] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” (C.S Lewis, from the introduction of On the Incarnation.)
We can find live mentors, and we should read contemporary authors. But let’s not forget the riches of the past, the depth of insight waiting to be given, from saints who’ve trod this very soil, faithfully following the same Jesus we follow today.
How have you found Christians from the past helpful in your walk today?
Do you have a favorite dead mentor?