He was a devout Anglican, but proclaimed a message which resonates in deep harmony with Orthodox believers. He was buried following a funeral mass in his home parish, yet laid to rest with an Orthodox cross of flowers adorning his casket. He was friend and advisor to Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy, yet admired Orthodox priests "whose faces, he thought, looked more spiritual than those of most Catholic or Protestant clergy."
His name was Clive Staples Lewis.
The year just ended marked the centennial of the birth of Lewis. This professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities was the grandson of a priest of the Church of Ireland. However, due to the untimely death of his mother, and the unbridled atheistic influences at one of his early boarding schools, Lewis entered his teen years an agnostic. His early university studies did not open his eyes to the truth proclaimed by the Christian Church. Nor did the grim trenches of France during the First World War lead him to an encounter with the risen Saviour.
Eventually the faithful witness of his believing friends persuaded Lewis to seriously consider the Gospel. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of "Lord of the Rings" and member along with Lewis in the "Inklings," played a major role in his conversion. The Inklings were a fellowship of scholars and writers who gathered weekly at an Oxford pub to read works in progress and enjoy one another's company.
Lewis as Apologist
Following his conversion, Lewis became one of Europe's boldest apologists for Christianity. He went to great lengths to avoid casting himself as a theologian, emphasizing that he was simply a lay advocate of foundational Christian doctrine. Thus, to a large degree, he avoided the distractions posed by denominational advocacy and presented a timeless message which is treasured by Christians of virtually all backgrounds.
In his preface to Mere Christianity, he wrote: "ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times."
Lewis elaborated on the subject, acknowledging that "I should have been out of my depth" discussing "high Theology or even . . . ecclesiastical history which ought never to be treated except by real experts." However, Lewis possessed a strong reason for avoiding the subject of differences among Christians. He recognized that "we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. . . . Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son." What wisdom!
Few individuals in history have exhibited the versatility and energy which characterized Lewis. He was a poet, and a professor who wrote scholarly works. He composed concise essays, and delivered speeches and sermons too numerous to count. Lewis wrote children's fantasy tales, and treatises about the difficult questions in life such as why God allows suffering. He authored modern parables such as Pilgrim's Regress, and a science fiction trilogy with profound implications. His innovative "Screwtape Letters", which reveal how a senior tempter might advise a less experienced demon seeking to lead astray a human being, is brilliant and has been emulated by many.
Sometimes overlooked, but one of the treasures of his legacy, is the enormous amount of correspondence which Lewis penned. He was devoted to responding to the hundreds of readers who sought personal contact with the man who had ushered them into Narnia, or been instrumental in their own conversion. Simply put, Lewis was gifted, graced by God with an extraordinary imagination and an unparalleled ability to communicate Truth gently and persuasively.
An Anonymous Orthodox?
The writings of Lewis greatly appeal to Orthodox believers, particularly in the United States. Growing up in Ireland and England, Lewis experienced little personal contact with Orthodox believers. However, the encounters he did have, impressed him. In addition to feeling that Orthodox priests he encountered on his visit to Greece in 1960 appeared "more spiritual" than their Western counterparts, his good friend and biographer George Sayer notes his appreciation of the Orthodox liturgy. "At Rhodes . . . they went to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral for part of the Easter service. Jack was moved by it and by a village wedding ceremony they attended. Thereafter, whenever the subject came up between us, he said that he preferred the Orthodox Liturgy to either Catholic or Protestant liturgies."
One thing which impressed him, described in a passage in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, was the freedom of the Orthodox worship experience. "Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked. . . . And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing." That is because their attention was properly focused, toward God.
There also appears an echo of the Desert Fathers in Lewis' most vulnerable work. “A Grief Observed” was written after the death of his beloved wife, Joy. It was published under a pseudonym, partly because it was too intimate, revealing some of the deepest and most vulnerable anguish ever penned. This brief volume is reminiscent of many of the Psalms, a pilgrimage of faith through the valley of the shadow of death and loss, toward the Promise which sustains.
In a canon of uplifting and profound writings, A Grief Observed just may be the most moving and healing. Sounding like a voice from the desert, his wife "used to quote 'Alone into the Alone.'" She and Lewis knew that each person encounters the Alpha and Omega independently (though we are escorted to that jubilant rendezvous by the Community of Faith). Likewise, each ultimately approaches the throne of the Judge who is also our Advocate, alone. The monastic life provides a preparation for this. On personal retreat each of us can savour a taste of it. This "aloneness" is both intimidating and rewarding.
The most thoughtful study of Lewis' relationship to Orthodoxy was written by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, who also teaches at Oxford. In "C.S. Lewis: an 'anonymous Orthodox'?" he explores this fascinating question. He humbly relates that Lewis has a tendency to "idealize us Orthodox," and affirms that "even though C.S. Lewis' personal contacts with the Orthodox Church were not extensive . . . at the same time his thinking is often profoundly in harmony with the Orthodox standpoint."
Bishop Kallistos describes at length "four significant points of convergence between Lewis and Orthodoxy." Key among them is the fact that this disciple of Christ, who was richly nourished by the sacraments, was "acutely conscious of the hiddenness of God, of the inexhaustible mystery of the Divine." He concludes with the statement that Lewis surely has a "strong claim to be considered an 'anonymous Orthodox.'" Yet, just as Lewis is truly Orthodox, in the most profound sense of the word, he "belongs" to all who name the name of Christ.
A Touchstone for Dialog
One Roman Catholic editor noted that perhaps we can embrace a broad-based Christian unity in the spirit of C.S. Lewis. Several years ago, Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., responded to a paper presented at a conference on Orthodox Ecumenism. Since members of all three traditions present (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant) had made numerous references to Lewis during the event, he casually mentioned that the writings of Lewis might provide a basis for Christian concord.
Although it was an informal comment, it was well received by participants. Father Fessio astutely noted that "I am not alone in thinking he is one of the great Christian apologists of the twentieth century and I think one of the reasons that he can be a source of unity is that he was so deeply grounded in the central mysteries of the Christian Faith."
This sentiment is echoed by Bishop Kallistos, who affirmed "C.S. Lewis articulated a vision of Christian truth which a member of the Orthodox Church can wholeheartedly endorse. His starting-point may be that of a Western Christian, but repeatedly his conclusions are Orthodox, with a large as well as small 'o'."
Such is the witness of this great defender of the Truth. Lewis was an eminent apologist of the Christian Faith whose works God continues to use to convert and encourage the saints. As for the Orthodox cross which was laid upon his casket as it was lowered into the ground-it was woven from flowers by close Orthodox friends who attended his funeral. It was laid upon his earthly remains, a fitting reminder that the sole focus of Lewis' life's work knew no boundaries. He lifted up the cross of Christ alone, so that all people might come through the Son to the Father, inspired and anointed by the Spirit.
(*) Robert C. Stroud is a Lutheran pastor and chaplain from March Air Reserve Base in California. He has a deep love for the common, orthodox roots of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church
C. S. Lewis and Catholicism by Iain Benson
The passage from which the comment that "I leave religious controversy to theologians"is drawn comes from the Preface to the French edition of La Problem de la Souffrance(1950), a Preface which Walter Hooper sets out in Companion, pp. 296 – 297. Because of its importance to the theme of my paper I wish to quote it at length:
I was asked to write a few words of introduction to this book for French readers, who might at first find something ambiguous in my position. Who, one might ask, is this Anglican layman, translated and introduced by Catholics, who, on the frontispiece of The Screwtape Letters, brings together a quotation from Sir Thomas More and one from Martin Luther? Is he unaware of the differences between Christians, or does he consider them unimportant? By no means. As a Christian, I am very much aware that our divisions grieve the Holy Spirit and hold back the work of Christ; as a logician I realize that when two churches affirm opposing positions, these cannot be reconciled.
But because I was an unbeliever for a long time, I perceived something which perhaps those brought up in the Church do not see. Even when I feared and detested Christianity, I was struck by its essential unity, which, in spite of its divisions, it has never lost. I trembled on recognizing the same unmistakable aroma coming from the writings of Dante and Bunyan, Thomas Aquinas and William Law.
Since my conversion, it has seemed my particular task to tell the outside world what all Christians believe. Controversy I leave to others: that is the business of theologians. I think that you and I, the laity, simple soldiers of the Faith, will best serve the cause of reconciliation not so much by contributing to such debates, but by our prayers, and by sharing all that can already be shared of Christian life.
If the unity of charity and intention between us were strong enough, perhaps our doctrinal differences would be resolved sooner; without that spiritual unity, a doctrinal agreement between our religious leaders would be sterile.
In the meantime, it will be apparent that the man who is most faithful in living the Christian life in his own church is spiritually the closest to the faithful believers in other confessions: because the geography of the spiritual world is very different from that of the physical world. In the latter, countries touch each other at their borders, in the former, at their center. It is the lukewarm and indifferent in each country who are furthest from all other countries.
(pp. 296 – 297 emphasis added).
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