27 December 2013
An Anglican apologist and a literary giant:
recalling CS Lewis 50 years after his death
While I was visiting Oxford a few weeks ago, I was conscious that this was the academic haven of so many Irish writers, including Louis MacNeice, Oscar Wilde and Seamus Heaney, but also of CS Lewis, who died fifty years ago on 22 November 1963 – the same that John F Kennedy was assassinated.
Seamus Heaney, who died earlier this year on 30 August, was a Fellow of Magdalen College while he was Professor of Poetry in Oxford. Magdalen is also the college of the Dublin-born Oscar Wilde, and of the Belfast-born CS Lewis, who in 1925 was elected a fellow and tutor in English Literature at Magdalen.
The Belfast-born writer, CS Lewis (1893-1963) is known worldwide for his literary criticism, children’s literature, fantasy literature and, essays, as well as his works in theology and as a Christian apologist. His great works include Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves and Surprised by Joy.
Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, was born in Belfast on 29 November 1898, the son of Albert James Lewis (1863-1929), a solicitor from Co Cork, and Flora Augusta (Hamilton) Lewis. He was baptised two months later, on 29 January 1899, in Saint Mark’s Church, the Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish church in Dundela, on the Hollywood Road in East Belfast, by his maternal grandfather, the Revd Thomas Hamilton, who was the first Rector of Dundela.
Saint Mark’s Church was designed by William Butterfield (1814-1900), an internationally-known architect of the Tractarian Movement; his work includes All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, which has the tallest church spire in London, and Keble College. Oxford. The foundation stone was laid in 1876, and the church was consecrated in 1878. Arthur Lewis was a Churchwarden and the first Sunday School superintendent in Saint Mark’s, and presented the silver Holy Communion vessels still used in the parish. Flora Lewis’s family, the Hamiltons, were a well-known clerical family, with successive generations of priests back to the 1720s.
From the age of four, CS Lewis was known to his family as Jack. Flora died when her son was only nine, and this grievous loss stayed with him all his life. In 1905, the family moved to ‘Little Lea’ on the Circular Road, Belfast, and this house provided the location for the wardrobe that plays an important role in The Chronicles of Narnia.
As a young boy, he was sent first to the Wynyard School in Watford, then to Campbell College, Belfast, and on to Malvern College, Worcestershire. He returned to Dundela after the Revd Arthur Barton (1881-1962) became Rector of Saint Mark’s. Barton later became Bishop of Kilmore (1930-1939) and Archbishop of Dublin (1939-1956), and Lewis refers affectionately to him in his autobiography.
Meanwhile, Lewis was awarded a scholarship to University College, Oxford, in 1916. However, in 1917 he volunteered for the British Army, and on his 19th birthday was sent to the trenches in the Somme in France. On 15 April 1918, he was wounded and two of his colleagues were killed by a British shell falling short of its target.
He suffered from depression and home-sickness during his convalescence, and was discharged in December 1918. He soon returned to Oxford, gaining a First in Greek and Latin Literature in 1920, a First in Greats (Classics and Philosophy) in 1922, and a First in English in 1923.
From 1925, Lewis was a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, for almost 30 years. His students included the poet John Betjeman, the critic Kenneth Tynan and the monk Bede Griffiths. Betjeman later became Poet Laureate, but as his tutor Lewis regarded Betjeman as an “idle prig.” For his part, Betjeman found Lewis unfriendly, demanding and uninspired, and described him as “breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking and jolly.”
Betjeman cultivated the common misapprehension that he did not complete his degree because he failed to pass the compulsory examination known as ‘Divinity.’ In Hilary term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time, and had to leave Oxford for the Trinity term to prepare to re-sit. When he returned in October, Lewis told the tutorial board at Magdalen College that he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class. Betjeman finally left Oxford at the end of Michaelmas term 1928 without a degree. His poor performance at Oxford would haunt him for the rest of his life; he was never reconciled with CS Lewis and continued to detest him bitterly.
Return to Christianity
Meanwhile, Lewis had met JRR Tolkien at Oxford for the first time in 1926. They became life-long friends, and both were members of the literary group known as the “Inklings.”
In 1929, at the age of 32, through the influence of Tolkien and other friends, Lewis returned to the Anglicanism of his birth. In his rooms in Magdalen, he had been struggling with questions about faith, and he returned to Christianity in 1929. In Surprised by Joy, he writes:
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
JRR Tolkien was a Roman Catholic with conservative tastes who disliked Vatican II, and so he was surprised when Lewis returned to Anglicanism rather than becoming a Roman Catholic. Lewis became “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England,” and for the rest of his life his faith exercised a lasting influence on his work.
Albert Lewis died in 1929, and three years later in 1932 his sons, CS Lewis and Warren Lewis presented a stained glass window to the church in Dundela in memory of their parents. The writer also presented the parish with a portrait of his grandfather, the first rector of the parish.
Initially, his Anglicanism was markedly evangelical. In a letter to a Church of Ireland priest, Canon Claude Lionel Chavasse, he described the Anglo-Catholics as the “Neo-Angular … set of people who seem to me to be trying to make of Christianity itself one more high-brow, Chelsea, bourgeois-baiting fad.” He singled out the poet TS Eliot as “the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against.”
But Lewis became friends with Charles Williams (1886-1945) who is less well-known today than either Lewis or Tolkien as one of the “Inklings.” Williams was an Anglo-Catholic, and came to know Lewis through his work at the Oxford University Press, which published Lewis’s first important book, The Allegory of Love. In 1939, Williams moved to Oxford, where he became part of the “Inklings,” and Lewis arranged for him to lecture there. Williams once said that Oxford, however nice, was still a parody of London.
The “Inklings” continued to meet in Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s for lunch on Tuesdays at the “Eagle and Child,” a pub on Saint Giles known to students as the “Bird and Baby,” and on Thursdays they met in CS Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College.
In the closing months of World War II, Williams introduced Lewis to TS Eliot in the Mitre Hotel in Oxford. In 1930-1931, Eliot had angered Lewis by taking six months to reject his originating essay of the Personal Heresy, which had been submitted for publication in The Criterion. Now the two were on the brink of becoming friends, although Lewis never cared for Eliot’s poetry.
Final days in Cambridge
Lewis left Oxford in 1954 to become the first Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge and a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. However, he never had the same impact on Cambridge as he had on Oxford.
In 1958, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, appointed both Lewis and Eliot to a commission charged with reviewing the Psalter. In the following years the two met each other regularly during the meetings at Lambeth Palace that resulted in The Revised Psalter (1963). After a conference in Cambridge of the Psalter commission, Lewis and Eliot even had lunch together, with their wives, Helen Joy Davidman and Valerie Fletcher. In their shared Biblical work, the two greatest Anglican literary figures and apologists of the 20th century were reconciled and would become fast friends.
Meanwhile, in 1956, Lewis married the American writer Joy Davidman Gresham. She was 17 years his junior, and died four years later of cancer at the age of 45. After her death, Lewis submitted a pamphlet about his grief to Faber for publication under the pseudonym NW Clerk in 1961. At Faber, Eliot immediately recognised the work of Lewis and published it as A Grief Observed. This booklet stands out as Lewis’s most personal piece of writing.
Lewis died three years after Joy, and in the same year as The Revised Psalter was published. He died on 22 November 1963, a week before his 65th birthday and is buried in the churchyard at Holy Trinity Church in Headington, Oxford.
CS Lewis is commemorated on 22 November in the calendars of the Church of England, the Episcopal Church and other Anglican churches, but not in the calendar of the Church of his birth and baptism, the Church of Ireland.
Lewis as an Anglican theologian
For many of us, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Chronicles of Narnia are so much part of the world of children that as adults we readily forget that CS Lewis was an important theological figure in the 20th century. Among theologians, Lewis is probably better known for his apologetic works, including Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles and The Four Loves.
CS Lewis adopted the term “Mere Christianity” as his own. It was a phrase he borrowed from Richard Baxter (1615-1691). Through the influence of the poetry of George Herbert, Baxter described his faith as “catholic” or “mere” Christianity.
The Four Loves (1960) is a late book, written in his last days at Cambridge. Here he identifies the dour loves as: affection (storge, στοργή), which he calls the humblest love and is unmerited; friendship (philia, φιλία); eros (ἔρως); and caritas (agapē, ἀγάπη).
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, one of the leading Greek Orthodox theologians in the English-speaking world, introduced me to the meaning of love in the writings of CS Lewis in a series of lectures in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in recent years. Metropolitan Kallistos met Lewis when he was an undergraduate at Magdalen, where he took a Double First in Classics as well as reading Theology. But he admits he was too shy to speak to him face-to-face.
Metropolitan Kallistos said the “Inklings” shared a concern to promote a visionary imagination, and in pursuit of this they wrote works of Christian fiction, novels and stories for children, supernatural thrillers and epics. Through these stories, they tried to convey an authentically Christian understanding of our place in God’s creation, evoking joy and wonder.
Metropolitan Kallistos notes that Lewis has little to say about ecclesiology or the theology of the Church, and little to say about the Trinity, lacking the Trinitarian emphasis found in Williams.
Lewis, according to his private secretary Walter Hooper, could have been talking about Eliot and himself when he wrote in Chapter 4 of The Four Loves: “Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).”
For much of his life, Lewis did not like ritual and was not interested in churchmanship. While he attended the chapel in Magdalen College, Oxford, daily, he never attended Choral Evensong there and went to the early Sunday morning service in his local parish church. However, the literary historian Barry Spurr believes Lewis’s later friendship with TS Eliot influenced and reflected Lewis’s journey towards Catholic faith and practice within Anglicanism late in life: “Their friendliness seemed to exemplify Eliot’s theory in ‘Little Gidding’ about the resolution, under grace, of old antipathies.”
Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. He is a frequent contributor to Koinonia.