by S.M. Hutchens
C.S. Lewis and Mother Kirk
For many Catholics C. S. Lewis is an enigma that needs explaining. This is especially true for those who are strongly attracted to his writings, and most particularly those for whom he has been of aid in their own pilgrimages from Protestantism to Rome. How can it be that this man with such deep understanding of Christian life and faith, a master of so many masters, never converted? Why did he who gave so much light to others never himself lay hold of the fullness of the faith? Why in so many matters—the Church, the papacy, the sacraments, the Mother of our Lord, the priesthood, the doctrines of grace, the veneration of the saints, Purgatory, auricular confession, and Creed of which Catholic teaching is the best explication—did the brilliant and perceptive Lewis go so far and understand so much, yet not carry through to the reasonable end? Why was he content to remain an Anglican, in a church that at its best is a poor reflection of the Church of Rome?
This question is the burden of Joseph Pearce's C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church. Pearce's answer, reduced to its essentials, is that Lewis had a blind spot created by a bigoted Ulster Protestant upbringing; despite his exposure to Catholic teaching and the best of Catholics among his friends, he was never able to overcome this prejudice, even on his deathbed. Nor can this spiritual defect be dismissed as a regrettable quirk; it was at the heart of Lewis' life and thought, as fundamental to his being as his goodness and intellectual power. Pearce surmises that at death Lewis was dispatched to the Purgatory in which he had come to believe, there to be worked upon until the sins that made him a Protestant are dealt with and he leaves it a proper Catholic.
Let us begin by admitting that we all assign Christians not of our communion to whatever purgatories we can muster—or at least, this Protestant reviewer will admit it for himself. We have our opinions on where they have gone wrong that can hardly be articulated in a sociable way, apart from what the other will perceive as patronizing and belittling of the kind that Pearce here visits upon Lewis. It is impossible, after all, from a purely Catholic point of view, to see non-Catholic Christianity as anything but systemically flawed and any non-Catholic as what he is apart from sins that blind him to the truth, particularly when it faces him full-on, as it did Lewis, in friends like Tolkien and writers like Dante, Newman, and Chesterton. For those who are interested in a well-researched, well written, and eminently Catholic solution to the riddle of Lewis the Protestant, this book will serve. I put forward here, however, another, non-Catholic, one.
In Pilgrim's Regress, we find the principal character visited in childhood by a beguiling vision of an Island in the West. This is accompanied by a feeling of indescribable joy, which, for fleeting moments, penetrates to the heart, and provides the impetus for his pilgrimage through the world and his eventual conversion to the Christian faith. In finding Mother Kirk, as he calls the Church—the Church, that is, as Protestants understand her—he does not finally lay hold of joy, but understands that he has found in her the way to it, even though in her present state she is plain and unimpressive.
In coming to the Faith, Christians like Lewis experience as essential to Christianity what might be called an eschatological displacement, the belief that while this world reflects the life of God and transmits it sacramentally, the Object of faith and hope is realized only beyond this world, where it must always be firmly kept not only by the tellers of tales, but the custodians of the life and faith of the Church. Lewis states this explicitly in Father Wisdom's discourse in Pilgrim's Regress:
I am old and full of tears, and I see that you also begin to feel the sorrow that is born with us. Abandon hope: do not abandon desire. Feel no wonder that these glimpses of your Island so easily confuse themselves with viler things, and are so easily blasphemed. Above all, never try to keep them, never try to revisit the same place or time wherein the vision was accorded to you. You will pay the penalty of all who would bind down to one place or time within our country that which our country cannot contain. Have you not heard from the Stewards of the sin of idolatry, and how, in their old chronicles, the manna turned to worms if any tried to hoard it? Be not greedy, be not passionate; you will but crush dead on your own breast with hot, rough hands the thing you loved. But if ever you incline to doubt that the thing you long for is something real, remember what your own experience has taught you. Think that it is a feeling, and at once the feeling has no value. Stand sentinel at your own mind, watching for that feeling, and you will find—what shall I say—a flutter in the heart, an image in the head, a sob in the throat: and was that your desire? You know that it was not, and that no feeling whatever will appease you, that feeling, refine it as you will, is but one more spurious claimant—spurious as the gross lusts of which the giant speaks. Let us conclude then that what you desire is no state of yourself at all, but something, for that very reason, Other and Outer. And knowing this you will find tolerable the truth that you cannot attain it. That the thing should be, is so great a good that when you remember "it is" you will forget to be sorry that you can never have it. Nay, anything that you could have would be so much less than this that its fruition would be immeasurably below the mere hunger for this. Wanting is better than having. The glory of any world wherein you can live is in the end appearance: but then, as one of my sons has said, that leaves the world more glorious yet.
Accompanying this conviction, as one might imagine, is deep suspicion of realized eschatology, precluding identification of the True Church (or the heavenly Narnia, or Britain) with any of its present, earthly forms. This conviction is also at the heart of Protestant ecclesiology, which in its purer form does not arise from mere anti-Catholicism, but from a positive vision of the nature of reality and our manner of comprehending it, a vision far older than the Reformation-era confessions on the nature and identity of the Church in which it came forward with such force. Lewis believed this vision of the nature of things is taught by ancient Wisdom itself.
To the Protestant Lewis was, the temptation to regard any ecclesial form, as faithful as it might be to its heavenly archetype, as the One, True, Church that comprehends heaven and earth, presenting itself as offering in the here and now, especially to disappointed seekers after certitude, the kind of supernal finalities the Catholic Church appears to offer her children, is something to be resisted in every one of the many forms it takes within that Church. What we find here, in the darkened glass of our present existence, are reflections—true reflections, but still only reflections—of glory that leads us on toward it, but cannot fully comprehend that glory or its joy in itself.
One cannot make a perfectly loyal church member, a wholly devoted convert, of any Christian who thinks this way, for he will never take his church, whichever church that might be, with the ultimate seriousness the accredited magisteriums (as they must to be what they are) require. He will always look beyond them for something higher and better, of which their communions are at best only worthy reflections. He will always be accused by the partisans of those churches with malignant individualism, and be classed with the truly malignant individualists, for doing it, even when his deepest love and firmest devotion is for the same City Father Abraham saw afar off, for the Kingdom that is not of this world, for the heavenly Jerusalem of which every earthly Jerusalem is only the barest reflection.
This eschatological displacement explains a great deal, I believe, about the life of Lewis' imagination, particularly about his creation of other worlds in which this one is reflected, and which all ultimately relate to the Other World of which all created and procreated (that is, imaginary) worlds are reflections and into which they shall be drawn. It may be worth considering that for Lewis the Church as we find it here and now is one of those other worlds whose life and purpose is to reflect and draw into its higher self, which is, and yet also is not, what we experience here.
Had he done more explicitly theological reflection on the character of the Church, Lewis may not necessarily have denied the form of the Roman Catholic Church as a proper reflection that of the true Church, but he would have resisted with full vigor the Roman claim that it, in its very self as a papal institution, is to be wholly identified with the true Church, bearing all its authority in heaven and on earth. Such reflection would require of the Roman Church a way of defining itself that is historically foreign to its character, a subjunctive understanding, carried not only by condign humility but by the realization that it is not in and of itself the One, True, Church, but in its purest and highest expressions truly reflects it and carries its being and authority—a being and authority which may because of its very nature be expressed and known outside of and even contrary to itself as it knows itself. That, however, is in the end a "Protestant" notion.
The search for joy, the pangs of which Lewis experienced as a boy through what he called "northerness," and apart from which his fiction cannot be understood, is strongly expressed in the Platonism of the Space Trilogy, where temporal creation is a recapitulation of life in the heavenlies, and in the Chronicles of Narnia, where the children are repeatedly told that the cosmology upon which they seek to be enlightened is "all in Plato." It is found in his preliminary account of heaven in The Last Battle, where all the good things of the earth are preserved and amplified infinitely in the heavenly realm.
It is psychologically impossible for those who think this way to give to any earthly church the allegiance the Church of Rome requires of her members, and even more difficult to take her claims to ultimacy seriously. When they are pressed hard, one may reasonably expect the reaction to be the kind of anger and disgust Pearce notes in Lewis, and Catholics and Orthodox may have noticed in other Protestants who may praise what is best in their churches but will not submit to them as what they claim to be. The search for the kind of finality on this earth that seems to energize so many converts was not present in Lewis precisely because he had given it up as part of what is required to be a Christian—"non-Romanness," whether of an eastern or western Rome, was an essential part of his faith, for what Rome offers the convert, he believed, as every Protestant believes, is a pale shadow of (or in the cases of the angry Protestant—Lewis, in the frame of mind in which Pearce sees the most intense Ulster bigotry—a diabolical imitation of) the true End of every pure desire.
The more she puts herself forward as the seat of infallible authority, the more insistent her demands for allegiance, the more she points to her priesthood as the one by which men are saved, the more she claims by powers unique to herself to lay hold on the saints or to trade in the merits of Christ, the more she appropriates of the kingdoms of this world and the glory thereof, the more majestic her dress and bearing, the more lordly her tone, even when expressed in all humility or in the voice of the servant of the servants of Christ (that is, in the lordliest tones of all), the more she insists that she is the arbiter of men's salvation, the more emphatically she asserts that no congregation is valid except as a tributary of herself, the more she equates the actuality of her existence with the Church that is the Bride of Christ and ground and pillar of truth, then the more she looks like an imposter, the more demonic her aspect, the more she appears to be an earthly wraith claiming to be the heavenly reality, the more she looks like a false church, the less she (or Mary magnified within her) looks like our Mother, the more charity one must exercise to love her, and the more one must look within her instead of upon her to find the Church.
Lewis was a very typical Protestant in that he saw an absolute division between the claims of the Roman Church and her reality, the reality belonging only to a Church that is precisely not the Roman (or any other) particular church, and which while it touches upon and runs through this and other churches, is greater than them all. This is why he puts Mother Kirk in shabby dress, because her glory is hidden in her manifestations to us. This is why he was content to remain just what he said he was, a plain Anglican layman, whose church grounded him firmly in mere Christianity, which was for him enough, since it is the best we can do in this world.
That is also why speculations one finds in Pearce and other Catholic writers about what Lewis would do if he found himself living in today's Anglican communion, with its openly heretical bishops and the priestesses he abjured, should not count too heavily upon the possibility that he would feel forced by this state of affairs into re-thinking whether he had made a mistake in remaining Anglican and consider conversion to Rome. His attitude toward conversion would not likely be dominated by hopeless distress over the fact that Anglicanism had changed (one doubts this would surprise him, for he was well aware of the power of sin, and saw the adumbrations of our day in his own) as much as the awareness that Rome has not. It makes the same claims for itself that it has for centuries, and it is these claims that a Christian with his mind would resist no matter how bad Anglicanism became. One could envisage Lewis breaking communion with Canterbury, but not joining communion with Rome. He was, as Thomas Howard accurately notes in his introduction to Pearce's book, a mere Protestant, and ferociously so—not because he thought the Christian Church did not exist in the Roman communion, but because he believed it could not subsist in her, the Church being something Other.
It is precisely the claims of the Roman Church that make her converts into Catholics that make the self-conscious Protestant a non-Roman or even anti-Roman believer. Lewis was well aware that to convert to the Church of Rome he would be required to confess it the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church—and he made it clear in a number of places, particularly in his well-known account of the house with its various rooms in Mere Christianity, that he believed no such thing. Rather, he put every church that believes this of itself into its own room: every church appeared a sect in the sense of "sectioned off" from the others, where it could enjoy its sectarian self-concept in private.
Those who understand this will, I believe, go a long way toward understanding not only Lewis himself, but why the manifest glories and integrities of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches not only do not move Protestants like him toward those churches, but rather are likely to make them—quite unlike the bishops at Whitby or the legates of Prince Vladimir—suspicious and move them away. This is not because their consciences are troubled by suppressed knowledge that they are in revolt against the Truth, but because—and this is putting it in the mildest terms—they will not have Leah for Rachel.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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