The reaction to the death of C S Lewis, on November 22 1963, was far more muted than might have been expected. The assassination of President John F Kennedy had eclipsed all other events, including the death, on the same day, of the writer and essayist Aldous Huxley.
Even though Lewis was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, the media of the time naturally focused on the major event.
Lewis’s brilliant career as Fellow and Tutor at Oxford and the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge included also the writing of more than 30 books, of which The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters were probably the most loved. For Christians, however, Lewis was the great apologist, who set out the doctrines of Christianity and the joy of Christian living in what he himself called a “popular” or “familiar” tone. The series of broadcasts that he made where he described himself as “very ordinary layman of the Church of England” were said to have brought solace and encouragement to many during the anxious years of the Second World War.
Lewis was adamant that it was basic or “mere” Christianity that he was anxious to defend, arguing that he did not have the theological training that would allow him to discriminate between denominations that were in the 1940s and 1950s much more polarised. For example the “delicate” subject of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a highly controversial one which Lewis, with his great sensibility, felt incompetent to undertake.
Clive Staples Lewis was born in November 1898 in Dundela a suburb of Belfast. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis (always known as Jack) tells of his years of atheism. “The trouble about God,” he wrote, “is that he is like a person who never acknowledges your letters and so in time you come to the conclusion either that he does not exist or that you have got his address wrong.”
His conversion to Christianity was a slow one. There were the early mystical experiences such as, on reading Longfellow’s translation of Tegner’s Drapa, his strange awareness of “the great expanses of the northern sky – pale, cold, severe, remote” – that he desired with a “sickening intensity”. He came to realise that he preferred to read the works of Christian writers, particularly George Macdonald, G K Chesterton and the poetry of George Herbert. It was not that he disliked writing by non-Christian authors, but that works written by Christians seemed to affect him more deeply. As a student at Oxford, Jack began to notice that the people that he liked best and those who were the most able and intelligent, tended to be Christians. Still, like St Augustine, he could not bring himself to believe. His philosophical studies at the time, particularly his reading of Hegel, led him to a sense of the Spirit of God and towards meditation. Jack began to feel like “a man of snow at long last beginning to melt”.
In words reminiscent of Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven”, Jack described the “steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet”. Finally, in 1929, in his rooms at Magdalen College, he knelt and prayed, later describing himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”. But, again like Augustine, he found it difficult to accept the doctrine of Christ. A strange remark by a colleague, an avowed atheist, that the “Dying God” story might well have happened, and the claims of G K Chesterton that Christ, if he were not the truth, might well be a fraud or a lunatic, led Jack to the gospels, which his intellect discerned as true. Then there was the influence of J R R Tolkien, who encouraged him to accept the death of Christ, not as a pagan myth but as a true myth given by God.
The final part of Jack’s conversion happened, rather bizarrely, on a trip with friends to Whipsnade Zoo, in which he travelled in the sidecar of his brother Warren’s motorcycle. Jack wrote: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo I did.” Jack particularly enjoyed the zoo and made friends with a brown bear whom he nicknamed Bultitude.
Jack began to attend Church of England services but found them rather noisy and disruptive, and he particularly disliked the hymns. He described his ideal worshipping environment as “good men [sic] praying alone”.
The question has often arisen as to why Jack did not prefer the Catholic Mass, at that time pre-Vatican II, with its solemnity and silences. The Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament would have been especially appealing to his deep-thinking temperament and strong sense of beauty. He was surrounded by Catholics. Tolkien, who was for many years a close friend, was a devout member of the Catholic Church. Alan, later to become Dom Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk, was Jack’s pupil for some years and remained a friend. Even the family GP, “Humphrey” Havard, who became a member of Jack’s circle, was a Catholic convert. Jack also met Mgr Ronald Knox, at that time the Catholic chaplain to Oxford University, with whom he established a good rapport. Jack did go to Confession and admitted to a belief in transubstantiation. But, although he did buy a Catholic Missal and read it, he remained faithful to the Church of England.
Jack was, after all, an Ulsterman with ancestors who were staunch Protestants. His mother’s father, Thomas Hamilton, a vicar in Dundela, had denounced Catholics from the pulpit and Jack’s childhood was replete with anti-Catholic dogma. Warren described the political and social cleavage between the Protestant Unionist and the Roman Catholic Nationalist as being “as deep and rigid as that which separates the Moslem from the Hindu”. Warren himself had never even spoken to a Catholic from the same social class until he entered Sandhurst. Jack’s memories of religious instruction as a child were of attendances during his boarding school years at an Anglo-Catholic church. Although impressed by the dedication of the priests he disliked what appeared to be the copying of “Roman rituals”. Anti-Catholic slogans had sometimes been chalked on the walls of the family home during Jack’s early years in view of the fact that the cook and the housemaid employed by the family were Catholic. One read: “Send the dirty papists back to the Devil where they belong.” Jack’s nurse, Lizzie Endicott, taught him as a young child to stamp in puddles and “kill all the little popes”.
Jack was, of course, far too intelligent and perceptive to have allowed these early incidents to form his later opinions. Nevertheless, he is said to have been annoyed, in 1931, that a “papist” publisher had handled one of his books, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Of course, if Jack had converted to Catholicism, his marriage to Joy Davidman, a divorced woman, would have been unthinkable and it is unlikely that the huge literary output that she inspired in him would ever have been written.
It is perhaps understandable that with his dislike of Protestant fundamentalism, superstition and extremes of emotion, Jack chose to take a middle path, although his aim was always to help the cause of reunion or at least make it clear why we ought to be reunited. For him, the essence of Christianity was exemplified by Thomas à Kempis in his Imitation of Christ, with its emphasis on self discipline, humility and love. In following this, Jack was a true disciple and a strong ambassador for Christianity.
Mary Forster is a writer on theological issues