Monday, 11 August 2014

C.S. Lewis : A Man For Our Times

Published in Doctrine and Life (November 1998) Dominican press, Dublin
              “An excellent article” (Dr Peter Kreeft, Philosophy Department, Boston College, U.S.A.)

            I first came to know of C.S. Lewis in 1970 when I was a novice in a Franciscan friary at Chilworth, Surrey, a beautiful part of the south of England that inspired Ketelby’s musical piece, ‘In a Monastery Garden’.  It was the novitiate custom then to read from a suitable book during meals and Lewis’ Screwtape Proposes a Toast and The Screwtape Letters were chosen.  We novices chuckled or nodded assent all through these highly enjoyable and stimulating books.  I was amazed that I had not heard of Lewis before, as I came from Belfast where he was born, in 1898.

            Nearly twenty-four years later in 1994, whilst at home in Belfast, on leave from my Zulu mission, I got a message from two American friends who, like me, were great Lewis fans, that they were on a tour of Ireland and hoped that I would show them around Belfast.  I decided now was the time to find out more about Lewis and his Belfast connections from the famous Linenhall Library,

            I was amazed to find that Lewis was born not very far from where my family lived in South Belfast.   With my parents, I visited his birthplace, the house where he grew up, ‘Little Lea’, the inspiration for his famous book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Opposite was ‘Bernagh’, the big house of Arthur Greeves where Lewis wrote The Pilgrim’s Regress in 1932.  Nearby we saw St Mark’s church where Lewis was baptised and where he worshipped as a boy and later had installed a beautiful stained glass window executed by Michael Healey, a noted Dublin artist.  We visited his old school Campbell College, as well as the Crawfordsburn Inn where he often stayed on holiday with his brother Warnie, and where he had his honeymoon after his marriage to the American Joy Davidman.

            Lewis loved this part of the world and often returned for his annual holidays.  It is said that much of the landscape of his mythical Narnia Tales is to be found in the hills above Holywood, near historic Bangor, home of one of the most famous monasteries in Western Europe, founded in 558 A.D.   Perhaps Lewis was inspired by this monastery where their ‘perennial praise of God’ was based on the Temple praise In  Jerusalem, to write his famous Reflections on the Psalms.  Lewis once said that ‘Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of the County Down’.  In his autobiography Surprised by Joy  he writes of the Castlereagh Hills as a metaphor for longing.  But Ireland as a whole he loved intensely whether the Wicklow Hills or Donegal, or the Carlingford/Rostrevor area which he considered as the loveliest spot he had ever seen.

            I was delighted with my discoveries of Lewis’ Belfast past as my brothers and I, as schoolboys, had cycled all round this area.  We had friends at Campbell College and we knew every glen in the Castlereagh Hills.  On returning home after my trip with my parents, I drew up a brochure of the Lewis trail (1) and was now ready for my two American friends.

            I am convinced that a look at Lewis’s  life and work will show why he is an indispensible man for Ireland at the moment.  This arises in two areas – his overcoming of sectarian bigotry, and his refutation of the kind of thinking that is now becoming fashionable as New Age spirituality.  


            Lewis was born in Strandtown, Belfast on 29 November 1898, of good Protestant stock, but in a very bigoted neighbourhood that raged at this mother having two Catholic servants from the South.  Nasty slogans were scrawled on the walls of the home or o n bits of paper shoved into the letter-box.  One read “Send the dirty Papists back to the Devil where they belong’.  This advice was ignored by Lewis’s mother, Flora, who paid her servants a generous wage and treated them well. (2)

            Flora’s father, Thomas Hamilton, was vicar at St Mark’s, where Lewis was baptised.  One of the major themes of his sermons was to portray Catholics as possessed by the devil.   However, Thomas’s wife, Mary Warren, was different.  She came from Anglo-Irish gentry, was a Liberal and a supporter of Home Rule for Ireland.

            This is the environment in which Lewis grew up.  He later admitted (in Surprised by Joy) that on his first coming into the world he had been implicitly warned ‘never to trust a Papist’.  That Lewis was later able to rise above this bigoted beginning and embrace many Catholics as close friends shows the kind of man he was.   Many years later when Lewis and his brother were invited By Fr Gervase Mathew, O.P., to Blackfriars, Oxford, for a meal, Warnie noted the irony of two Protestants from the North dining in a monastery. (3)

            At an early age Lewis was sent to England for his education.  Eventually he gained a triple First at Oxford and was a fellow and tutor at Magdalen College from 1925 to 1954.  In 1954 he became Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge.  As an outstanding popular lecturer he had a great and lasting influence on his pupils.

            For many years he was an atheist.  Freed of all moral restraints he was to become a witty, but blasphemous, sex-obsessed young man. (4)  Later he was converted to a joyous and vigorous form of Christianity, and those early experiences of his life helped him to understand religious apathy and the factors that lead to the rejection of religion.

            He used his brilliant and logical mind as a Christian writer and broadcaster, and was a great conversationalist and a highly perceptive critic.  Among some of his best-selling works were The Problem of Pain, Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, Reflections on the Psalms, and The Four Loves (one of Pope John Paul’s favourite books). (5)  He also wrote some science fiction and many works of literary criticism.  His books for children, called the Narnia stories, are among his most popular works.

            Lewis died on 22 November 1963 at his home in Oxford on the same day as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley.  His works are known to millions of people all over the world and The Times of London said that ‘in his own lifetime he became a legend’.


            With the peace seemingly on track in the North, I would like to look at what Lewis had to say on Christian disunity and reunion.  After his conversion from atheism to Christianity, he began to read widely and talk extensively with other mature Christians like Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  Incidentally, the latter would probably never have been published as Tolkien was a great procrastinator and had to be badgered by Lewis to finish it.

            Although Lewis regarded himself as a Protestant, his spiritual stance was not confined by the controversies of the Reformation, and indeed he had many Catholic tendencies.  For example, he had a great devotion to the Holy Shroud of Turin and believed it genuine.  He believed in Purgatory, and so offered up prayers for the dead.  In Letters to Malcolm, he commented:  ‘Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?  He believed also in praying to the saints. ‘If you can ask for the prayers of the living,’ he reasoned, ‘why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead?’ (6)  As regards the sacraments, he believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Communion wafer:  ‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.’  (Screwtape Proposes a Toast)  He went regularly to the sacrament of confession to an Anglo-Catholic priest,

            Again and again, Lewis acknowledged his indebtedness to the great Catholic apologist, G.K. Chesterton, and placed his book The Everlasting Man second in his list of ten books that greatly influenced him.  Lewis also was very familiar with St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae and used it constantly.

            Lewis enjoyed the friendship of a number of Catholic priests and, surprising for an Ulsterman, even some Jesuits like Fr Peter Milward and Fr Tom Corbishley.  He sided with the Jesuits ‘shutting up’ Teilhard de Chardin, who was lionised by theosophists, the precursors of the New Age movement and Lewis, after his conversion, had no time for theosophy or Gnosticism.

            Lewis’s famous autobiography Surprised by Joy is dedicated to his good friend Fr Bede Griffiths, and his Mere Christianity was submitted to various Church ministers for approval, including a Catholic priest.

            Lewis also struck up a friendship with a Fr Giovanni Calabria – now a blessed – and corresponded with him in Latin for some years.  In a letter of August 10th 1953, Lewis said to Blessed Giovanni:
I am crossing over ... to Ireland: my birthplace and dearest refuge so far as charm of landscape goes, and temperate climate, although most dreadful because of the strife, hatred and often civil war between dissenting faiths,  There indeed both yours and ours ‘know not by what Spirit they are led’.  They take lack of charity for zeal and mutual ignorance for orthodoxy.  I think all the crimes which Christians have perpetrated against each other arise from this, that religion is confused with politics.  For above all other spheres of human life, the Devil claims politics for his own, as almost the citadel of his power. (7)

            In an essay in           Christian Reunion written in 1941, Lewis again alludes to misguided zeal.  ‘The history of the late  medieval pseudo-Crusaders, of the Covenanters, of the Orangemen, should be remembered.’

            Even today this misguided zealotry is not dead in Belfast.  But Lewis believed that the:

time is always ripe for reunion.  Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions towards re-union, if it is only by their prayers. (8)

            So far had Lewis travelled in expanding his vision of Christianity beyond that of his Belfast childhood that he had many Catholic friends (at least five of the famous Inklings group associated with Lewis were Catholics, as was his publisher, Lady Collins).  Lewis’s secretary and trustee of the Lewis estate, Walter Hooper, observed that if Lewis had lived he would have become a Catholic.

            G.K. Chesterton once noted that certain writers bridge the gap between the Catholic and Protestant traditions and commented that such writers as George MacDonald who was to have a great influence on Lewis, might be regarded as ‘morning stars of the Reunion.’ (9)  The same could be said about Lewis himself.  Let’s hope his words and example may help in building bridges to lasting peace.


            Another issue I would like to look at is Lewis and the New Age Movement (NAM) now very noticeable in Ireland – north and south.   This NAM is a syncretistic amalgam of pantheism, the esoteric and the occult, of myth and magic about the secrets of life mixed in with ideas from astrology, astrophysics, pop psychology and crystal power, borrowing from all religions and under obedience to none.  This material is everywhere in America, Western Europe and in Ireland.

            The Irish bishops were so concerned about all this NAM material that they appointed the Irish Theological Commission to produce a response published in 1994 – A New Age of the Spirit?  A Catholic Response to the New Age Phenomenon (published by Veritas).  This excellent document deals with the roots of the NAM showing, in the words of New Agers themselves, that freemasonry and theosophy were important vehicles for the transmission of NAM ideas.

           The bishops’ pastoral mentioned the hostility of theosophy to Judaism and orthodox Christianity.  Nearly every major city in the world has its theosophical society.  Theosophy promotes a one-world government and a one-world religion and at the core of this new world religion is the Luciferic Initiation as seemingly the ‘tyrant’ God of the Old Testament has not been fair to Lucifer who will be rehabilitated.

          Theosophy tried to usher in a new Messiah or Christ in 1929, but the young Indian Krishnamurti, secretly groomed for the job, rejected his status as the next incarnation of the Lord Maitreya (or ‘Christ’).   But theosophy did not give up and in 1982 the second phase of the great ‘Plan’ went into action:  full page advertisements in the world press and the Reader’s Digest informed the earth that the Messiah had now finally arrived and would announce his identity in two months through worldwide radio and TV.  Perhaps like Krishnamurti he changed his mind, or had a sense of humour or got cold feet for he did not show.

            My only fault with this pastoral response is its solemnity.  A little levity is a good palliative to possible paranoia and would help people see the silliness of all this. (see Psalm 2).  Of a recent book about the history of Theosophy, the New Statesman said:

If Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, John Cleese and Barbara Cartland all tripped out on a six-tab of mescaline, then collaborated in a brain-storming jam-session, they could not have come up with a tale like this! (10)

          Now Lewis dabbled in all this stuff from his school days due to the influence of the matron, Miss Cowie, who was ‘floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition’.  It was here he ceased to be a Christian and passed into ‘the cool evening twilight of Higher Thought where there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed’,  The ‘vagueness, the merely speculative character of all this Occultism began to spread ... to the stern truths of the creed.  The whole thing became a matter of speculation.’ (Surprised by Joy)

            When Lewis got to Oxford he found that Theosophy and its offshoot Anthroposophy were popular and that even some of his friends like Owen Barfield and Alan Griffiths (later known as Fr Bede Griffiths, O.S.B.) were fascinated.  In the allegorical story of Lewis’s conversion The Pilgrim’s Regress, there is a swamp called Theosophy and another place called Anthroposophy.

            Lewis, the apologist, taking up cudgels against fellow Irish writer, James Stephens, for what he regarded as an unjust attack on G.K. Chesterton, criticised Stephens’s ‘peculiar mixture of mythology and theosophy – Pan and Aengus, leprechauns and angels, re-incarnation and the sorrows of Deirdre ... the blend of Celtic Twilight and serious occultism.’ (11)  Lewis could have  been describing the New Age Movement in Ireland today.  In Crossing the Threshold of Hope Pope John Paul II has referred to ‘the return of ancient Gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age”.

            Of course, Occultism is not new to Ireland, as in the past we had ‘Hell-fire clubs’, pantheists and spirit mediums, but this was usually among the wealthy, bored Anglo-Irish gentry.  Today, however, in the era of the Celtic Tiger with money splashing around and many people having more leisure time, there seems to be an explosion of the stuff everywhere.  Where there is a spiritual vacuum, then people, like the young C.S. Lewis, look to the NAM to fill the void as it offers a sense of transcendence ‘with nothing to be obeyed and nothing to be believed’ as Lewis put it.

            Lewis’s testimony is valuable in that, having gone through all this himself, he is able to guide others to Christ.  He saw the need for discernment and this is the value of his Screwtape Letters.  We Irish need to be more discerning in these confusing times.  After his conversion Lewis was so well versed in Holy Scripture and the great Christian writers that he could detect the real from the counterfeit a mile away.  Unfortunately many Irish people, Catholics and Protestant alike, are getting confused by the counterfeits.

            In  writing about conversion or the ‘new creation’ Lewis talks eloquently of the importance of Christ and answers New Agers with their stress on finding the ‘real self’ or the ‘higher self’.  In one talk he explained that our real new selves and our own real, higher  personality, will come only when we are searching for Christ.  He believed that one principle runs through all life from top to bottom: ‘Give up yourself and you will find your real self’.  Submit every day to the ‘death of your ambitions and favourite wishes ... submit with every fibre of your being and you’ll find eternal life.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours ... Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage and decay.  But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.’ (12)

            Just two months before he died, Lewis wrote to a close friend.  ‘When you die and if “prison visiting” is allowed, come down and look me up in Purgatory.’ (13)  Because 22 November is the thirty-fifth anniversary of his death and 29 November the centenary of his birth, spare this great Irishman a prayer.

1              Copies of  C.S. Lewis Centenary Trail and C.S.Lewis News are available from James O’Fee,
                11 Raglan Road, Bangor, Co. Down BT20 3TL.
2              This, and other items of family information, are found in George Sayer, Jack,  Hodder & Stoughton, 1988.
3              Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, Harper/Collins, 1996, p.708.
4              Sayer, op.cit. p.78.
5              Ibid. P.390.
6              M.J. Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1979, p.29.
7              Letters: C.S. Lewis – Don Giovanni Calabria, edited by M. Moynihan, Collins, London, 1989, p.554.
8              Hooper, op.cit. p.554.
9              ‘G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald’, in The Chesterton Review,   p.290.
10           In a review of Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the
                Western Guru, Secker & Warburg, 1993.
11           C.S. Lewis, ‘A Defence of Chesterton’, Chesterton Review, p.298.
12.          Sayer, op.cit. p.279f.
13           R. Green and W. Hooper C.S. Lewis, Collins, 1974, p.304.       


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