Archives For Animals

What We Worship

February 1, 2018 — 12 Comments

worshipping squirrel

It’s curious to consider the varieties of deities worshipped throughout history and around the globe. And it is important that we understand the god we choose to follow, as well as the nature of “faith” allows us.

This picture came from a nearby garden. The squirrel effects the pose of a worshipper, but it’s motivated by the nuts the gardener has rested in the Buddha’s lap. It’s not intended to be irreverent, and one assumes that Siddhārtha Gautama would not be offended.

The image is provocative. If you were to put yourself in the squirrel’s place, it would be of no surprise that you would be devoted to the “Provider of Nuts,” especially if you did not make the connection between the gentleman who filled and the statue that actually offers them to you.

Whether we are adherents of one of the so-called monotheistic religions, or pantheists who see the presence of god in all of universal nature, our “religion” directly affects our worldview and life choices.

And then there are the “no religious preferences,” who embrace or reject labels like “agnostic.” Some of them long to believe, but demand proof, where God calls for faith. Others opt for lives of hedonism, gambling that their notion there is no Creator is right. Many of these individuals actively hope that there is no God, and not a few of them have a nagging fear that he may just exist, and call them to account one day for their selfish lives.

C.S. Lewis was in the latter category. Before he became a Christian, Lewis entertained no desire to seek Christ out. “Amiable agnostics,” he wrote, “will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (Surprised by Joy).

About the Nature of Faith

God chooses to call us into a restored relationship with himself through the mechanism of faith. If that word troubles you, think of it as “trust.” Faith is necessary, for an obvious reason. In the New Testament, we read, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

That faith is necessary may sound intimidating. However, the good news is that what God demands, he himself provides . . . even to the most reluctant of converts such as Saul of Tarsus or C.S. Lewis of Oxford.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the nature of faith at great length. He provides a number of helpful images. In the book he clearly distinguishes between faith (trust) and feelings or moods. I enjoy the way that the final sentence of this passage is evocative of the worshipping squirrel which inspired these reflections.

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience.

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway.

That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

Dithering to and fro, indeed.

A Surrealistic Postscript

I had been thinking about writing on this subject ever since I saw the photo, some months ago. I was spurred to compose it now, by a fact that recently appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It speaks for itself.

A Brazilian grandmother believed she was praying to a figurine of Saint Anthony for years, only to discover that it was an action figure of the Elf Lord Elrond from the “Lord of the Rings” films!

peck typing

Is it better to write by hand or via keyboard? There are those who would argue there is a correct answer to that question, and it is not simply a matter of preference.

Our recent discussion about C.S. Lewis’ handwriting caused a recent article on this subject to draw my close attention.

In “Phenomenology of the Hand,” Mark Bauerlein, an editor of First Things, recently addressed the disassociation from one’s words that results from the intervention of the computer.

Despite all the promises made when keyboards were introduced to classrooms, he says, “Students write faster with keyboard and mouse, but would anybody say that student writing has improved in the last three decades?”

That is a subjective determination, but the rhetorical nature of the question assumes what most of us sense—that today’s graduates are not better writers than their predecessors.

The essay makes pleasurable reading, whatever your opinion.

The pen moves more slowly, but that isn’t a drawback. Like other “slow” movements (slow food, slow reading, slow art), slow writing aims for a fuller and tighter relation to the object, a nearness of mind to the language it utters.

The plodding process of “drawing” letters instead of tapping keys and telling a computer to draw them gives words greater intimacy and presence. The hand­written word is closer, and that makes a writer more deliberate with words.

C.S. Lewis’ Typewriter

Narnia’s creator did not type. He wrote all of his books and relied on his brother Warnie to type the final versions. Not that Warnie was a particularly talented typist, relying as he did on only his index fingers (the hunt-and-peck method).

Lewis sincerely appreciated his brother’s assistance converting his “scrawl” into a readable text. In 1953, he began a letter with a witty verb describing the typing process.

This will have to be an inadequate scrawl for my brother, who drives the typewriter, is away and I’ve so much to do that I can hardly write– in the double sense that I’ve hardly time and that my right hand is stiff and tired with compulsory scribbling!

You can read an interesting anecdote related to Lewis’ disinterest in typewriters on the Desiring God website.

They sponsored a Lewis-related conference, and nearly included a scene in a promotional video that could have “discredited” their scholarship. (Desiring God provides free access to the sessions of the superb conference here.)

But one scene nobody saw was Lewis at his typewriter, not because we didn’t accidentally film the scene (and delete it later), but because such a scene never happened. Lewis detested typewriters.

Some writers may be accused of being technophobes, but the truth is many are eager to embrace novel technologies. Referring to his sturdy Remington, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) famously bragged that he “was the first person in the world to apply the typemachine to literature.”

Curiously, he could not recall which manuscript he first completed on the newfangled contraption. He recalled it was Tom Sawyer in 1874, but historians have determined it was actually Life on the Mississippi, eight years later.

The First Things essay would take issue with Twain’s enthusiastic endorsement. In fact, it concludes with a rather harsh judgment.

The virtues of the computer—faster, easier, simpler—are vices when it comes to writing. The pen personalizes the labor of writing, reminding us that we are responsible for what we write.

C.S. Lewis, who advised a novice writer to avoid typewriters because “the noise will destroy your sense of rhythm,” would likely concur.

Dogs, Heaven and Ministry

August 22, 2017 — 4 Comments

divine dog

My pastor’s sermon last Sunday was entitled “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?” I was really looking forward to hearing the message, but I received a request to preach at another church on the other side of the Cascade Mountain range, and I couldn’t be there to learn the answer to the question.

I wanted to hear his sermon for several reasons. First, orthodox Lutherans are not given to faddish subject matter for their sermons, so I was eager to see his approach. Second, this is a question that pastors are asked surprisingly often, so I enjoy hearing others respond to the question, especially when they appeal to the Bible in doing so.

A third reason is because I love dogs. All dogs. Even “bad” ones, who are only aggressive or ill-behaved because the humans they’ve had the misfortune of encountering in this world have done poorly by them.

I’ve had many dogs as members of my family through the years, and they were treasures, even though I took them for granted in my youth.

I’m not going to offer my take on the question posed by the sermon title. I’ve already written about that in the past. The thoughts are developed more fully here.

Nor am I going to discuss the important place of dogs in the life of C.S. Lewis, since I have written about that before, as well.

The Upshot of the Sermon

When we were leaving church the previous Sunday, our pastor was discussing his impending pronouncement on the subject of animal redemption. I laughed and offered a comment that proved a little disconcerting to him.

I told him that not long ago I read a passage in Martin Luther’s writings where he said just that. Luther, the preeminent figure in the Reformation, suggested the possibility that animals just might be resurrected by God. It became obvious that wasn’t where he was going with his homily, and in looking at the Gospel text for the message I realized why.

The fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel includes this grace-filled story about Jesus’ mercy.

And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:22-28).

The Jews of Jesus’ day sometimes referred to Gentiles as “dogs.” In this passage he is not insulting her, but (1) clarifying the priority of his ministry to fulfill the promise to the house of Israel and (2) to invite her to press the issue, just as she does.

The Luther quotations to which I referred were:

“Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”

“The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”

I doubt he incorporated either into his sermon.

Dogs in Ministry

Recently I read an excerpt from an interesting new book entitled The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, A Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul.

It reinforced something that all of us who love dogs already know—they possess a profound ability to sense and minister to our emotional needs.

You can read the excerpt in Christianity Today here, although they have retitled it for the online edition. I prefer the title that appeared in the print edition, “God’s Canine Counselors.” I’ll close here with a brief excerpt from the excerpt.

A child sits down on the floor next to a dog and reads aloud from a book. There is something magical about it. After lying next to Pepper, a slightly overweight border collie, and reading him a book, seven-year-old Jessicah, who has always hated reading, says to the volunteer, “[He] loves when I tell him stories. I think he likes stories about turtles best, and so do I. He’s the coolest dog in the whole world.”

I can vividly imagine what it would be like to be the child in that situation. To read to a dog whose big eyes took me in with simple pleasure, who laid her head on my lap with absolute ease to listen to my voice, would have made for an entirely different experience.

The dog would have exuded patience, unconditional acceptance, and peace. The words I botched terribly [as a child] would have captivated the dog every bit as much as the ones read perfectly. In that one-on-one relationship, the anxiety, self-doubt, and panic I used to feel about not being able to do something would have faded.

Thank you, Lord, for creating dogs.

self-impressed

Most writers are saturated with humility, especially those who actively submit their work and courageously collect rejections. Accepting this lack of reinforcement as an inevitable aspect of the writing life, they reveal a maturity that is literarily unpretentious.

On the other hand, there are some who publicly tout the most modest of accomplishments as great feats. By their own account, you would think it’s merely a matter of time before they’re polishing their Pulitzer or Nobel Prize in Literature.

The following notes on humility are for the benefit of the latter category of authors.

C.S. Lewis was a scholar abundantly acquainted with literary pride. He was also a Christian saint (in that biblical sense wherein it applies to all who place their faith in Jesus). As a disciple of Christ, Lewis recognized pride is toxic.

He wrote much about the subjects of pride and humility. Among his wisdom on the subject, is the observation that we must not allow our circumstances to shape our character in negative ways. In “Williams and the Arthuriad,” he illustrates this by discussing different sorts of roles in a play. His comment about “false modesty” is particularly astute.

What but to thank God for the “excellent absurdity” which enables us, if it so happen, to play great parts without pride and little ones without dejection, rejecting nothing through that false modesty which is only another form of pride, and never, when we occupy for a moment the centre of the stage, forgetting that the play would have gone off just as well without us . . .

Lewis also offers an antidote to pride. One that well suits the title of this column. “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” (Mere Christianity)

A 500 Year Old Prescription

Nearly a half millennia ago, Martin Luther reluctantly allowed his writings to be gathered together into a collection, for which he wrote a preface. It was that introduction I recently encountered.

He elaborates on the proper way to study theology, based on principles in Psalm 119. After reminding readers that we must possess humility to submit ourselves to God’s word, he tacks on a vivid warning. It is quintessential Luther.

These words apply not only to theologians, or even to those addressing “religious” subjects. They should be of interest to all who consider themselves writers.

If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it—if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.

Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.”

That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels.

To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [I Pet. 5:5]; to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.

Thank you, Doctor Luther, for the warning to periodically check my ears. And thank you as well, Doctor Lewis, for your inspirational modeling of humility.

An Important Exception

While humility remains important, in unbalanced doses it can make individuals vulnerable. The story of Puzzle the donkey in The Last Battle illustrates this fact well.

There were very few Talking Beasts or Men or Dwarfs, or people of any sort, in that part of the wood, but Shift had one friend and neighbor who was a donkey called Puzzle.

At least they both said they were friends, but from the way things went on you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend. He did all the work.

When they went together to the river, Shift filled the big skin bottles with water but it was Puzzle who carried them back. When they wanted anything from the towns further down the river it was Puzzle who went down with empty panniers on his back and came back with the panniers full and heavy.

And all the nicest things that Puzzle brought back were eaten by Shift; for as Shift said, “You see, Puzzle, I can’t eat grass and thistles like you, so it’s only fair I should make it up in other ways.”

And Puzzle always said, “Of course, Shift, of course. I see that.” Puzzle never complained, because he knew that Shift was far cleverer than himself and he thought it was very kind of Shift to be friends with him at all.

And if ever Puzzle did try to argue about anything, Shift would always say, “Now, Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.”

And Puzzle always said, “No, Shift. It’s quite true. I’m not clever.” Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said.

Fortunately, Puzzle’s simple humility is ultimately vindicated. Even while he is the instrument of a terrible hoax, his guileless trust in Aslan preserves his innocence. It is a powerful story, worth reading even if you have never touched the Chronicles of Narnia.

In the same way, God watches over his children who are humble. He becomes our champion and delivers us from those who would do us harm. Blessed indeed, are the meek.

Travel Pictures Ltd

Rabbit-Hand-Shadow.jpg

In this increasingly relativistic cauldron we call “the world,” chaos is fueled by the concept that everyone is entitled to determine their own reality.

It all depends on one’s perspective.

“Perception is reality,” is a common sentiment. More clearly said, “an individual’s perception is their personal reality.” In other words, the way that a person thinks things are, is reality as far as they are concerned.

Changing a person’s perception of reality is no easy thing. Nor should it be (in most cases).

People base their thinking on a variety of approaches. Those who are more analytical are terribly frustrated by others who base their views of reality on their emotions, or what they “want” to be true.

Nowhere do I find this more striking then when people who have nary a religious thought in their daily lives gather together for a funeral. At least 66% of what one hears, for example “he’s looking down on us now,” is based on nothing other than wishful thinking or irrational notions.

C.S. Lewis described how reason is the crucial mechanism for understanding. In his book Miracles, he makes the following argument.

All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good.

But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.

Mental Illness and Perception

One particularly fascinating aspect of the perception and reality question comes in the case of some mentally ill individuals. Schizophrenia, for instance, frequently involves delusions or hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality (in the mind of the sufferer).

A well person may find it implausible to accept that a person could genuinely believe impossible things were true. Meanwhile, from the perspective of the deluded, it may make all the sense in the world that they are the only person alive who recognizes how things truly are.

Decades ago I spent several months in a psychiatric ward. (Not as a patient, as a clinical pastoral education student.) I had many conversations with a delightful resident who had been institutionalized because he was utterly convinced that he was one of Jesus’ apostles.

Thanks to the proper medications, he knew that to be illusory, and he was optimistic that he would soon be released to begin his studies to become a mental health worker. One reason for his confidence that he was truly getting better was because his previous hospitalization came when he became certain that he was one of the Old Testament patriarchs.

From his point of view, the increasing chronological proximity between his delusions and reality indicated he was almost well.

Some of these people do become healthy enough to recognize that their perception of reality is askew. These are the few who continue to take their meds so they can function as the majority of us perceive to be “normal.”

Many psychotic individuals, of course, only take their prescriptions under duress and when they are not monitored, cease to take them because they either (1) already feel better, so they obviously don’t need them, or (2) prefer chaos to the side effects such as lethargy.

Truth is Not Based on Perspective

Truth, in the ultimate or alethiological sense, is not relative. It doesn’t shift due to the distortions of individual perception. It remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Now, since what we human beings regard as truth does shift (e.g. shape of the Earth), ultimate truth must come from a source other than mortal minds, transient philosophies or momentary scientific theories.

Christians believe they have found that source in God’s self-revelation, the Judeo Christian Scriptures. In fact, Christians believe that their Savior, Jesus the Messiah, was the embodiment of truth. We believe he was speaking the eternal truth when he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

C.S. Lewis was quite candid about the truthfulness of the scriptural testimony being the necessary cornerstone for faith. In dialogue with atheists and agnostics, he wisely points out that the conversation must address this essential question.

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. . . .

One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important. (“Christian Apologetics”)

In a world that wants to relegate Jesus to the status of some great teacher or prophet, it is vital to say that if he was lying when he said “the Father and I are one,” Christianity should be dismissed altogether.

_____

For those who enjoy challenges:

hand shadows

comfort bunny

Some people flee from those who are depressed. Others feel compelled to do their best to lift their spirits. Did you react the same way as C.S. Lewis to the suffering of others?

Recently I’ve had the privilege of sharing the anguish of several people who see no solution to their personal challenges. In truth, even though I sincerely believe “with God, all things are possible,” it is likely that these particular dilemmas will trouble these people the remainder of their lives.

Some people are “fixers,” or problem-solvers. They want to step in, quickly resolve the difficulty, and return to their normal routine as soon as possible. When faced with an intransigent challenge, they typically get called away by other matters, or they fade into the background.

There is a sort of spectrum when it comes to offering comfort to people. At one end, we have the people who offer insincere clichés like “I’m so sorry.” These remarks are often an automatic response and the only thing the speaker is “sorry” about is having their time “wasted” by the litany of another’s suffering.

Better than these liars, are the pretenders. They actually do feel sorry for the person when they say so. Only, they’re not sorry enough to actually devote another moment’s thought to their pain. They are hypocrites, because if they really understood what the word sorrow means, they would understand that it doesn’t evaporate into the mists six mere heartbeats after it is experienced.

Most people fall further along the spectrum, where we might place sympathy and empathy. Although the words are frequently used interchangeably, this site offers a concise definition of their differences.

In essence, when we are empathetic, we identify more intimately with the sufferer. It seems to me that empathy, often viewed as a sort of super-sympathy, is not necessarily the mark of a better sympathizer. Sometimes it corresponds to our own life experiences. For example, while my mother was still living I could readily sympathize with those who had lost their own. After my mom’s untimely death, I found myself naturally, and sometimes intensely, empathizing with their grief.

Genuine sympathy is a precious commodity. But it must grant higher honor to that form of consolation that puts our emotional concern into actual action. The specific actions are less important than the fact that we have physically placed the needs of the other ahead of our own. They might consist of attending to someone’s responsibilities while they are incapacitated, or simply holding a hand for long hours in a silent bedside vigil. The form matters little; the essence of the gift is everything. It is nothing less than love in action.

Lewis’ Compassionate Heart

Lewis constantly offered consolation to those with whom he corresponded. Our last post included an excellent example of this. What made his brief expressions of concern so powerful was not their eloquence. It was their sincerity. As we read the words we have no doubt that Lewis meant them. What’s more, when he said that he was praying for someone, he truly was.

Lewis also incorporated moving scenes of compassionate empathy in his fiction. Read how Steven Garber described the comfort he has received from the Chronicles of Narnia.

“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last,” Lewis once wrote. Over the years, in the moments when life seems bleakest, when I can only sigh or groan, I have come back again and again to The Magician’s Nephew. . . .

Lewis gives us an image that is profoundly rich and wonderfully tender. We need both. The tears of God are complex. They must be tears of sympathy, even empathy, as Aslan weeps for Digory’s mother and as Jesus weeps with his friends at the death of their brother.

But sometimes they are also tears of anger at the unnaturalness of death, at the distortion of death, at the skewing of human hopes, as Jesus “groaned severely in his spirit” at the death of Lazarus. (Visions of Vocation)

One of the clearest examples of consolation offered by Lewis is found in his provision for Mrs. Moore, the mother of a WWI friend. The story is complex, but it is based upon Lewis keeping a promise—that if one of them died in the trenches, the other would care for that soldier’s parent.

Lesser men would have conveniently forgotten their vow, but Lewis provided for her from 1917 until her death in 1951. Their relation during the early years is uncertain, but there is no doubt that after his conversion to Christianity, it was chaste. Lewis was dutiful, like a true son, in caring for a woman more than twenty-five years his senior, whose own daughter acknowledged was emotionally abusive towards Lewis.

Professor Alice von Hildebrand offers a candid essay on this sensitive subject here. She includes the following quotation from the diary of Lewis’ brother, Warnie, who was a member of the same household.

One of Jack’s friends is supposed to have said, “Cursed be the day that thou fell into the hands of the Moore.” Warren gave vent to his frustration and constant irritation by confiding in his diary. He writes:

“It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s [Jack, the name by which Lewis’ friends addressed him] life is subordinated to hers—financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens . . .”

True Compassion

An essay on this subject could easily grow into a book. To avoid that, I will restrain myself to one final point.

Only a master of language, and an astute student of humanity, recognizes the immense power, and the fragile limitation, of words. Ironically, it is when they are most important—such as in the offering of comfort to someone bereaved—that their shortcomings are most clear.

In the wake of the unbearable loss of his wife, Joy, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed. In this enlightening text, he points out the hollowness of mere words.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

This is something few people recognize before they are the recipients of word-oriented attempts at comfort. That’s why we stumble about saying things that frequently provide precious little true consolation.

Lewis had learned that abstract theological declarations—even those based on certain promises of God—do little to remove the deep sting of death. Far more effective, is sharing the crippling pain of the loss. To offer, as Jesus did to the sisters of Lazarus, one’s own tears.

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, you might want to check out one of my earlier posts on the nature of genuine consolation.

_____

The illustration above comes from a thirteenth century manuscript. I have included it here, because the effort of the rabbit seeking to console the forlorn bird seems quite Narnianesque. It echoes the essence of Lewis’ childhood world of Boxen as well, and I imagine that C.S. Lewis would have enjoyed this marginalia on its own merit.

polyps

These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.

The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?

It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.

I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.

In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.

It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.

I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!

With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?

To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.

The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.

I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.

Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.

Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.

Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.

I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.

That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.

And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.

coralpolyp.jpg