C.S. Lewis & Nuns

One of the great disappointments of Roman Catholic fans of C.S. Lewis is that he never converted to their communion. Lewis did, however, sincerely respect Roman Catholic nuns. In fact, he considered the reverence and joy of the nuns he encountered to be one of the church’s most commendable elements.

In 1947 he wrote to one of his regular correspondents who wondered why he had not forsaken his “low church” loyalties for a more elevated perspective. His response reveals his perception of the virtues of consecrated nuns.

I am particularly pleased to have been of any help as a bridge between the parish and the convent. I’m not especially ‘high’ Church myself but Nuns seem to me the strong argument on that side.

They are in my experience almost invariably so very nice—and so happy: much more so either than the same number of married women picked at random or the same number of monks. I don’t know why this should be so.

One does not have to be Catholic to appreciate people who consecrate their lives to God, willing to make radical sacrifices like living a life of celibacy. Nearly four decades ago, while I was serving a congregation in Citrus Heights, California, I earned a (post-M.Div.) Master of Theology degree. Since I was focused on Patristics, I was enrolled at a Jesuit seminary in the Bay area.

One day during my studies, an Episcopal priest and I were having lunch with a half dozen Roman Catholics, most of whom were religious sisters.* The conversation turned to a celebration by the sisters present that they no longer had to wear habits. The respectful person I am, I remained silent as they discussed their “family” business. Apparently, though, I was softly grinning, because of one them (it may even have been my thesis advisor) asked, “what are you smiling about?”

My response was that it wasn’t my place to offer an opinion, but when they pressed, I said, “well, throughout my life, whenever I’ve seen a nun in her habit, it’s been an encouraging thing, and I think—there goes a life that is consecrated to God.” My companions were shocked and at a loss for words. In retrospect, I believe that C.S. Lewis might have offered a similar comment.

Due to the century during which he lived, and his setting in the British Isles, Lewis encountered nuns far more frequently than I do. In fact, since their “liberation” from the habit, we can’t know precisely how many religious sisters cross our paths. In 1947 he describes to a close friend a trip to see his brother who was hospitalized in Ireland. His colorful description of the town he visited ends with an uplifting remark.

My Brother, thank God, was out of danger when I reached him on Monday morning last but was at the unearthly city of Drogheda where almost every building is a church or a tavern⁑  and what men do but pray and drink or how life is supported in their bodies I can’t conceive. . . . And you hear more wit and humour in one day of London than in a week of Drogheda. My Brother was in the care of the most charming nuns.

Nuns are found in various Christian traditions. In addition to those who take such vows in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches trace the lineage of these female monastics back to the ancient eremites. ⁂ There are also Anglican and Lutheran convents. In fact, one of C.S. Lewis’ close friends was an Anglican nun. Sister Penelope, CSMV (1890-1977), was a member of the Community of St Mary the Virgin. Lewis dedicated his novel, Perelandra, “to some ladies at Wantage,” her convent.

In a 1941 letter to the BBC, Lewis pleads that he is unable to add to his current speaking commitments. These apparently included specific presentations to nuns.  

I’m afraid in view of my other commitments I should be ‘over-talked’ if I accepted the job you kindly suggest for me. I’m talking already to the R.A.F., to the general public, to nuns, to undergraduates, to societies. The gramophone will wear out if I don’t take care! With thanks and much regret.

Lewis’ Three Theses

Mary Willis Shelburne was a widow in Washington, D.C., with whom Lewis corresponded for a number of years. Beginning in 1950, they exchanged more than a hundred letters, which were collected in the volume Letters to an American Lady. Lewis arranged for her to receive financial support from the sales of his books in the United States. This support continued after his own passing. In 1952 Shelburne converted to Roman Catholicism, and proposed that Lewis follow her example. His response was gracious.

It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that tho’ you have taken a way which is not for me. I nevertheless can congratulate you—I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you—but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence! I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Romeward frontier of my own communion.

In a short note written four years later, Lewis thanks her for a picture of herself and a nun. He uses the occasion to voice his sentiment that nuns are happy and pleasant. He then proposes three curious theses, noting that his presumption is subjective and she may disagree with him. Do you agree with his opinions here?

Problem: why are nuns nicer than monks and schoolgirls nicer than schoolboys, when women are not in general nicer than men? But perhaps you deny all three statements! All blessings.

My own experience with the first category are limited, but the monks I’ve met have all been very kind, as have the nuns. I fully agree with his second contention. Girls are much nicer than boys. That seems to me a no-brainer . . . although I assume there are many girls who have been bullied by their peers and would disagree.

As for the final thesis, that neither women nor men are better than each other as a group, I would strongly disagree. While it is only a generalization, of course, I believe men tend far more toward cruelty and greed than do women. On the other end of the spectrum, experience tells me that women are significantly more disposed toward virtues such as nurture, mercy and compassion, than their Y chromosome counterparts.

Obviously, C.S. Lewis proposed this question to his correspondent off the cuff. Given the opportunity to discuss it at greater length, say over a pint at the Eagle and Child, it’s certainly possible he could persuade me that his ideas on this matter are correct. After all, we both share a respect for women who feel called to a religious life.

* The essential difference between nuns and sisters is that the former normally live in monasteries, while the latter takes a more tempered vow and often serves in a non-cloistered setting.

⁑ Although this article focuses on England, it provides details on a sad trend in which church buildings are being converted for use as pubs and bars.

⁂ Eremites are Christian hermits. This was the earliest form of monasticism, with individuals removing themselves from secular society. Communal monasticism developed later.

14 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis & Nuns

  1. I met some delightful Anglican nuns at an interfaith event once, who told me they had been to a Pagan winter solstice ritual and enjoyed it.

    There are also many nuns who really live a compassionate life.

    However, there have been many examples of nuns (and monks) causing enormous harm: the Magdalene Laundries, residential schools in Canada and elsewhere.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Yvonne. You are certainly right in observing the fact that “nuns are people too.” They run the gamut, like all of the rest of us.

      My personal belief (not surprising, in that I am Lutheran) is that vows we make should be kept with integrity. In the case of a voluntary lifestyle (such as monasticism), however, a person should be free to publicly acknowledge that you no longer intend to maintain a certain pledge. Thus, should God lead someone who once embraced celibacy (the lifestyle all unmarried Christians should live) to marry, they would be free to do so. (The church has historically made some provision for this.)

      To do otherwise is to foster an environment where some of the “harm” you describe occurs. This would be particularly true in situations where the vows to a celibate life are made at extremely young ages.

      On the other hand, I personally find it inspiring when widowed Christians (of either gender) honestly embrace a new celibate life, with or without ensuing “vows” related to continuing permanently in that state.

      1. Disagree about the celibacy for all unmarried Christians, but agree that nuns are only human.

        The problem is that they exist within a system that gives them undue amounts of power, where they have perpetrated sone horrendous abuses.

        Residential schools, FYI, were institutions to which Indigenous children were forcibly relocated, and many died of malnutrition, abuse, and other horrors.

      2. I didn’t expect you to agree with the celibacy thing, as you practice a more independent-minded religion. ;)

        Of course only a small percentage of Christians live chaste lives outside of marriage. It’s really “chastity,” and not “celibacy” that I was referring to for Christians. It’s not marriage that they avoid, but intimate sexual relationships outside the sanctity of the marital relationship.

  2. Camouflaged to blend in with the rest of us… maybe that’s the motivation for the change. Frankly, I doubt there are very many places remaining in the world where nuns are what might be considered commonplace. Can’t recall the last time I saw a sister wearing a habit…

  3. One of the tragedies of the Roman Catholic Church is that it does not provide a guaranteed support system for aged nuns. These women who took a vow of poverty and labored their entire lives for the good of others are left to depend on charity in their old age.

    1. I always understood that elderly nuns were cared for by their sisters in the community. Of course, I guess that means those who live independently would need to return to a convent belonging to their particular Order, assuming they exist.

      Your comment has raised a question I had not really considered. I suppose some Orders have had insufficient novitiates to maintain all of their former facilities, making the blessed “burden” of caring for those who have gone before even more challenging.

      I would hope that the Vatican, bishops, priests and lay members of the Roman Catholic communion would step in to ensure everyone who took a vow of poverty is cared for in their time of need. I have to believe that in nearly all cases, they do just that.

  4. dalejamesnelson

    It was good to see a sympathetic comment on [monks and] nuns from a conservative Lutheran clergyman.

    We Lutherans reject the idea of monastic vows as a “second Baptism” chosen so that someone can earn salvation, but we are mistaken in thinking that is all that monasticism can be about.

    It can be about devotion and prayer, and scholarship and service. The service element seems particularly relevant to our present situation. To focus on nuns and sisters:

    Our culture today tends to be devastating to women. It deconstructs womanhood (going so far as to demand legal affirmation that men can be women). It devalues the specifically feminine vocation of motherhood, permitting it, at best, as a sideline. It defaces the image of woman, offering either a hypersexualized image or blurring the difference between man and woman in regards to dress, manners, etc. It celebrates that desecration of woman’s gift of motherhood that is called elective abortion. And so on.

    There are, then, a lot of damaged women, who need more from the Church than an hour a week of pastoral counseling, important as that may be. In some cases a church may be fully able to minister to such women through recognized or ad hoc groups of Christian women, but this too might not be enough for damaged women who need to start over and learn what it is to be a human being and a woman. I don’t know what arrangement could do this better than sheltering with a group of nuns or sisters.

    I wish more Lutherans would read the biography of Seraphim Rose written by Damascene Christensen, particularly those pages dealing with the little Northern Californian skete’s ministry to damaged youngsters. They certainly needed more than just secular counseling — which all too often is itself a carrier of the kinds of infection that damage people.

    The LCMS office of deaconess is a step in this direction. But as society worsens (as I have no doubt it will), we need to recover the benefits of an evangelical monasticism, i.e. one grounded in the Gospel.

    Dale Nelson

    1. You’re absolutely right about monasticism having a variety of motivations and expressions. It is simplistic (and ignorant in the actual sense of that word) to judge them all as a monolithic whole.

      Of particular note would be Orders that formally promote lay—outside the monastery—involvement. The Third Order of Saint Francis would probably be the largest such community.

      Your example of the Lutheran diaconate for women is helpful to note. I imagine that very few people outside of the LCMS are even aware that it exists.

      As you point out, monasteries can provide supportive, healing communities (just as families ought to).

      As for secular counseling, it can be good for what it is. However, when a counselor ignores the spiritual dimension of our humanity, their solutions are inherently flawed. And, when they are grounded in unbiblical worldviews, they can cause more damage than they resolve.

  5. Hi Rob,

    Yes, there is something very special about nuns. They is no-nunsense about their commitment to the Lord.

    In Christ,


    On Thu, Jan 30, 2020 at 11:42 AM Mere Inkling Press wrote:

    > robstroud posted: ” One of the great disappointments of Roman Catholic > fans of C.S. Lewis is that he never converted to their communion. Lewis > did, however, sincerely respect Roman Catholic nuns. In fact, he considered > the reverence and joy of the nuns he encountered to” >

  6. ““well, throughout my life, whenever I’ve seen a nun in her habit, it’s been an encouraging thing, and I think—there goes a life that is consecrated to God.”
    I feel the same – not Catholic, but you have to respect one who is so dedicated and has such strength of conviction to become such a nun. The world and attitudes have changed greatly – a bit of a loss for both society and the women of the church.
    I was fortunate to be befriended while traveling in Spain by a rather old, very short nun from the US “on vacation” in ordinary clothes. Enjoyed her wit and wide base of knowledge for several days. She may have not been in a cloth habit, but honestly she seemed to have an invisible one – and a peaceful, calm aura. A most wonderful encounter.

    1. It’s sad we no longer have the same instant positive regard for the “collar” as we do for the “habit.” I always wear my clerical collar when leading worship, but don’t wear it during regular, weekday duties, because of how commonly it is misperceived. Of course, now that I’m semi-retired, that’s a moot distinction.

      As a military chaplain we had our uniforms for daily wear, and they clearly bore a cross (or other religious insignia, depending on a chaplain’s religion). I still wore my clerical collar while conducting Sunday services.

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